Interview with Aron Namenwirth of artMovingProjects

Two years ago Caitlin Jones observed in NYFA Current that net artists working in multiple formats were increasingly finding venues to show. Today, the art world is still figuring out how to manage the practicalities of dealer and artist relationships. I spoke with Aron Namenwirth, of artMovingProjects, in an effort to better understand the challenges, and solutions, digital media presents to contemporary galleries with a focus on New Media. - Paddy Johnson

One topic that's come up on Rhizome's blog is the rematerialization of art (the idea, according to Ed Halter, "that innovations such as the flat-screen monitor, the digital print, and the editioned DVD, have helped transform immaterial forms like video and into a new generation of physical, sellable objects"), so I wanted to talk to you about this a little. Is it critical to display new media art in the gallery?

I think new media art, like old media, needs a physical place for critical and social discourse. On the computer screen in the privacy of your home, you can do research, and email other professionals on the merits of a piece, but it's not the same as looking at it in a real space, walking around it, and experiencing it. A lot of new media work requires interaction, and that interaction is mediated by the spectator and the user together.

Tom Moody, OptiDisc, 2007 (Installation at artMovingProjects)

It seems to me that there's a lot to be said for going into a space, and experiencing that work with someone else too. A dialog can occur, that, as you mention, is more spontaneous. Which I think can be important for new media, particularly because the bias of the medium is "cold."

Of course, the beauty of some new media art projects is that you can view it anytime you want online.

Right, which presumably has its pluses and minuses for dealers. I know you have been working on a contract between the artist and gallery. I thought maybe we could discuss some of these details a little, because I imagine they're really important to both artists and dealers.

Sure. The contract I've drawn up is an agreement between the artist and artMovingProjects. It's binding for the life of the working relationship between artist and the gallery, and that's actually how the document starts. The stipulation is for one piece of the artist's oeuvre -- and that's what's so different about it than other gallery contracts. Typically, the contract between the artist and the gallery represents all the artist's work, and ties the artist to the gallery. In this case, the artist is free to work for many different venues simultaneously, which is a real plus.

Well, there are examples of independently working artists in traditional mediums that seem to do okay, but it is very rare.

Yes, and this is very specifically tied to the intellectual content. It stipulates that the artwork will only be sold with permission of the gallery at the agreed piece in perpetuity….With editions, and video, the dealers typically increase the price of the edition as it is sold, and I feel that that's not such a great idea in the short term because it creates undue pressure on the collector. Also, part of the contract stipulates that any deals the artist makes outside the agreement involving others will not be supported by the gallery without authorization in writing. Further, should the artwork be sold without permission in writing this will end the relationship between the artist and the gallery.

So, is this wording standard in gallery contracts? How big an issue is it for galleries that some artists will make deals on the side?

They are all different. I mean, wheeling and dealing is good, it's just if you're going to wheel and deal, you shouldn't cut your gallery out. There has to be some compensation to the space.

Because the gallery is giving you visibility.

Yeah, so if you want to go over to X exhibition space and sell your piece there, that's fine, but you have to give the gallery a percentage because we're the ones who have been promoting the piece and investing in it.

Back to the contract, it then says, "the artist will mutually, and individually, provide proof of backup of artwork every year, providing a contemporary platform if the old platform becomes obsolete in order to insure flexibility of software and guarantee the art work’s performance in the future."

Well, this speaks to the loan form you sent me earlier, which stipulated a back up every two years.

And that was my idea too, and it's proven to be a very good one but it should actually be done every year. And I was thinking that if the work was backed up every year for five years, then the software would walk across enough platforms, hopefully decreasing the likelihood of the retrieval of a screwed-up program. The contract should also say that the piece be able to run cross platforms like Mac and PC. Then I say, "All hardware needed to run the artwork will be supplied by the artist and maintained by the dealer until sold, at which time the hardware becomes the responsibility of the collector, unless someone is making custom hardware (for example, robots)." Then, the artist would write out their plan to maintain it. I, personally, would be probably more reluctant to sell something like that, because the whole thing is making me more and more nervous… I don't want to be stuck giving a collector back his money because the piece doesn't run.

Although, just as a historical point, if a collector buys a painting, then the responsibility is on the collector to store the work properly and deal with it properly. Jeff Koons, for instance, spoke about educating collectors on their responsibilities of conservation in a discussion with Carol Vogel in January.

Right. Well next, in the contract, it says, "Unless stated above, the hardware, screen, projector computer, and player, are not considered part of the art work. These displays are considered framing devices and while the artist may have preferences that should be respected, the artwork is the concept." These are classically things that collectors have chosen for themselves, so it kind of ties into more traditional artwork at that point. Likewise, the certificate of authenticity that we give a buyer isn't so unlike those used for photography and video. It's a letter that gives the collector assurance that the piece has good provenance. I drew this one up with the help of Tom Moody and Paul Slocum.

Then, in the contract I say, "the artist would retain an exhibition copy of the art work, artist proof and first of said edition." So they are given that. And hopefully when the artwork is worth a lot more money they can sell the first of the edition which would be the most valuable…then they can give it to their kids and well…let me go on.

"Any exhibition online or otherwise remains under the control of the artists and dealer, and in no way should be censored as a promotion of the artwork remains tantamount." So, the whole idea is not to censor it, or to restrict its visibility for exhibition purposes -- it's at the discretion of the artist and the dealer, neither can censor the other. So the artist is free to do what the hell they want with it basically, which is totally against the way it used to be. I'm basically saying to the artists, you can show it wherever you want, but it you're going to sell it, then we have to talk about it. It's really important, in terms of keeping track of the editions…The artist wants someone to help them with that, because if two of the same edition number are sold, then you're screwed!

In another section I say, "All profits other than by sale of artwork" - and this has to do with the screenwriters strike and stuff - I wanted to add something about that in the contract, "all profits other than by sale of the artwork will be split 50/50 between artists and the dealer."

Wow, that never occurred to me, but of course that's an issue!

Yeah! It's becoming a bigger and bigger issue - like residuals. Then I write, "This contract is specific to one piece, and has no authority over artwork before or after made by so and so artist. Other versions of this piece, if bearing a resemblance to the intellectual content or property, will be considered the same piece and will result in the above stated consequences." So, basically, if someone wants to make a knock off of the piece…something like…lets say Marcin Ramocki wants to make Torcito II, where he just takes different pictures of people to make a different variation of his playable portraits, and then tries to shop that around, that's invalidating the contract. I'm saying that the work is about the intellectual property invested in the art, so when we're looking at a substitution (and this seems like one of the biggest problems with new media work -- that you could just swap out, or make a simple change, and sell it as a totally different piece), that will invalidate the entire contract. I'm sure that there are all kinds of other things that need to be included but, I think that this very solidly covers all the bases.

Marcin Ramocki, Torcito, 2005

It's a really good thing that you think about all of this stuff, because it wouldn't occur to a lot of us.

Well, it's hard to make any money because these things are happening. So it's deeply personal. When Larry Gagosian says he'd like to represent so and so artist, they're going to go, but at least with this, I can keep what I've invested in it.

I think what really makes [the contract] strong is that it be binding for perpetuity, which isn't that long when you think about it. It's basically the life of my interest in the gallery too. I mean, so much of it has to do with protecting the artwork.

What does an artist do in the event of something happening to the gallery?

If the gallery closes, and the artist is backing up the artwork, he will find another gallery. In terms of potential damage, we build safety checks into managing the work so we can ensure its longevity. The piece is stored in at least in two different places…because that's what happens, you have water damage, or a fire, and you lose your stuff. The collector just has a DVD, which may be enough, or may not, depending on the piece.

These approaches seem to mimic the way Internet professionals deal with work in the first place, right? You have remote servers in order to back up your work.

I think that's fine but not for this kind of artwork. Server-based pieces are a whole other thing. I haven't sold a server-based piece yet, and I don't want to. I don't really want to get involved in that, even though I find projects like that really exciting in terms of the novelty of what can happen socially. However, I don't want to sell it because it's based on these outside browser platforms, and I don't want to guarantee it.

Is there a way to archive the browser functionality, so the piece will function?

Yes, but the thing is, if you want it to run the way it was meant to run, which would be on the Internet in real time, it would always be a simulation.

Well, it seems like you would have to do that…

Yeah, you could do that, but it wouldn't be an online piece. So if you're talking to someone like Jodi, who would, from what I know of them, totally not be into that, because it's so important that it be online. It would be like telling one of the lithographers at the turn of the century, whose work was all about propaganda, that we could show the work if we can only make 100 or 200 copies.

Do you think it's a greater problem to be managing editions in New Media then it is in say photography or is it the same thing?

I think there are a lot of things that are the same about it…but there are resolvable problems that are very unique to New Media. I think with conservation there are all kinds of different issues. Like there's standardized conservation methods for photography, but if a new media piece is damaged, there isn't really any place you can go other than the artist or the backup. [An art professional] told me that at MIT there was a group of people who were going to maintain new media work, but these people don't really know anything about what the artist's intentions were in the artwork. These are students, and what they come up with may not be appropriate for the piece, because they don't know the artist's intentions. It's not like conserving a photograph or painting, where it's much more transparent. So I think the editions will basically work the same way [as traditional media] in terms of sales, you have to keep track of them, but I think the edition should be smaller for New Media work, just because of the whole issue of reproducibility. I think it's wiser to keep the edition smaller, because anyone can download the piece off the internet and watch it, but with the question of ownership, I think it would be advantageous to keep it small…


Because you're going to be maintaining the work…Of course, if the edition is larger then there's a much better chance of maintaining it, because if one is damaged they can just copy it from somewhere else, so there is that advantage of having it not be too small.

So there's more involved in maintaining a smaller edition? It seems to me, that the importance of being really fastidious is far more important in New Media than in traditional media.

Well, I think you have to know a lot of stuff. And, more importantly, you make friends with people who know a lot, because nobody knows everything. Like Paul Slocum knows a lot about writing a certain kind of code, and Paul Hoberman knows a lot about a very different kind of code, and they don't know the same languages…maybe they know one or two points in common, but when you're dealing with New Media art, there's a limit to the number of programs you can know…so as a dealer, you kind of have to have a general knowledge and you have to have a lot of telephone numbers so you can call someone to trouble shoot you.

Well, this is interesting, because that's a very specific skill that dealers across disciplines have to have. Dealers traditionally have always had to maintain a lot of contacts, one to deal with the work itself, but between clients, other dealers, shippers, conservators, collectors etc.

There's kind of a shift, in that there's this DIY element involved with new media, and what's taken out of the equation is space and money. Although the gear costs a lot, a lot of this retro gear, you find on the street. You just find stuff because people throw it away, and that's the stuff the real geeks are using…because it is easier to use, and they've got less to crack… Artists don't have all these menus, and templates with a prescribed look that have to be gotten rid of…So you don't need much space to do really good New Media projects, you don't need to have art movers, and you don't need insurance! The only thing you'd be insuring is the gear, and the gear is crap for the most part. Unless they want to use really high-end gear for some reason and then it's their own problem.

So are you saying the insurance of the work is the artist's responsibility or the method of display falls on the artist?

It's really on a piece by piece basis. Some artists have specific requirements for showing a piece, but sometimes those requirements are more flexible, and this is usually discussed and agreed upon by the artist and the dealer. For the most part, the gear (monitor, headphones, what have you) is merely a framing element and ultimately is what the collector is comfortable living with.

This idea of pristineness costs money, and while presentation remains an issue for New Media galleries, less resources are required to achieve a high end result. For example, you need less time from gallery assistants to paint the walls after each show, vacuum, mop the floors, because the space is frequently dark, so nobody can see the walls. It's a totally new game. You do need to know people who know how to run the stuff, and something about how to install gear.

Well, that does make the business different, because many galleries can rely on one art handler to install a show. From what you're telling me, you can't rely on one person any more.

You really have to have a general understanding of how to wire stuff up so if something becomes unplugged, you know how to…

Plug it back in?

(Laughs) Exactly. So it is radically different from photography, because photography's all about insurance, and production costs, and framing. If you've got a good eye you can get a great picture, but then you need a million bucks to blow it up, and frame it, and huge walls and lights and all that.

Yes, production can be a big issue with photography.

And then moving it…nothing is more dangerous…So, that makes it really different. Maintenance is a really big issue for new media, but storage takes up significantly less space. You can store the most amazing new media collection on a shelf, or a laptop. You can have a studio apartment, and be the most important collector in the world.

I mean do you think you have to really be a different kind of dealer? It seems like you have photo dealers, painting dealers, etc., so it makes sense that artists might also seek out new media specialists as well…

It's just like the film industry. If you know what you're doing, you can take a camera, and your computer, you can make the most significant film of the century. It's the same thing now. You don't need to have a budget. It's the same thing as a new media dealer…you don't have to have a million bucks, or a trust fund to get started.

Yeah, well, you hear that a lot these days - that all you need is your time - but it's not like your time isn't without value. It's really really valuable right? So you just can't underestimate the amount of time you have to put into projects to make them work well, which is a lot.

Well, also there's a big difference between popularity and making some money. People think you're getting critical attention, which automatically translates into sales, but that’s not always the case. I mean, it's great but one doesn't lead to the other necessarily… but…I think with New Media, the vision is much more important than the rest of it.

Paddy Johnson is a freelance writer and editor of art blog Art Fag City.