Interview with Alexeij E.Shulgin

Balancing between Art and Communication, East and West

The Moscow based artist Alexeij Shulgin originally worked in the field of photography. Since he founded the Moscow-WWW-Art-Lab in 94 many international connections opened up and he started collaborations with artists in London, Slovenia, Barcelona and other cities. Conferences like N5M II, Amsterdam, DEAF 96 V2_East, Rotterdam and LEAF97, Liverpool enabled him to deepen these collaborations. A series of interesting collaborative group projects were launched, for example "Internet Gold Medal Award" (Shulgin/Baker), the "Refresh Loop" (Shulgin/Cosic/Broekmann), and CERN, a project where artists create there own focal point for activity (Shulgin/Bunting/Cosic and others).

Logo of Moscow WWW Art Lab

Lately, Shulgin focussed again more on projects of his own, like "Form Art" realised at the C3 centre for art and technology, Budapest, whereby he used properties of the HTML-Form-Tag for creating a "formalistic" aesthetical art site. Although getting increasingly well known and invited to a reasonable number of international festivals Shulgin still keeps living and working in a rather isolated (besides internet connections of course) situation in Moscow. Armin Medosch talked to Alexei Shulgin about his attitudes towards being referred as "East European Artist" and his relationship to internet art.

Alexeij Shulgin, Photo Manu Luksch
We are sitting here at LEAF07 and the topic is east-west relations and art. The first question that comes to my mind is, you as an artist, do you still like to be referred to as a russian artist, East-European artist?
Alexeij Shulgin: Of course not at all. And actually the way I was treated by western art critics as a sort of typical or somehow always as a russian artist maybe was one of the motivations why I started to work with the internet, which is different. I have passed through very stupid situations. My works had no signs of being produced in Moscow and had no relations to some russian or eastern iconography, nevertheless I was treated as somebody coming from the East. I think that the traditional art system needs certain contexts to put artistic work into. In this system artists works does not exist without the context. For Russian artists or East European artists its almost impossible to overcome this approach of western art system, well, general art system, but I am talking about Western art system, because its mostly developed and has its history. And if we look at most successful artists who are coming from Eastern Europe, for example Kabakov, they are always put in this eastern, post-socialist context and I have to admit, some of them are playing with it, they sort of play the role of the guy from the east. Kabakov, who left Russia ten years ago still produces installations with references to his totalitarian past.
At some points this reference as russian artist can help in terms of inclusion, because exhibitions might be set up with "the new east european artists", but in the next moment it can become a means of exclusion.
Alexeij Shulgin: Yeah, of course, it works in both directions, but this inclusion is always like exploitative inclusion, because the context in which your work is placed is very important and its always mistreated.
Do you think that this thinking in "East/West" is in any sense fruitful at all in this given situation or shouldn`t it just be dropped.
Alexeij Shulgin: Well, I would say it can be used tactically. Like for instance it was a chance for me to come to this video festival and to meet people I like and know and I work with through the internet. And itŽs sort of parasitic on the existing system using it for our own purposes, so in this way it is very fruitful. But the whole issue of this dilemma, this division, I think for me itself itŽs not interesting at all.
You are a very "exotic" figure in a double sense, since you are not only an artist from Moscow, you are a net-artist from Moscow, which is a rare species.
Alexeij Shulgin: Yeah, but itŽs again the same attitude of contextualizing it in the same way. Well, I donŽt know, but maybe trying to overcome this I am going to start a project with different projects based on different servers throughout the world; so it will be like a distributed server. And itŽs not just about escaping this cliche, its about escaping any cliche and any identity, because at a certain point, when I have a certain identity, it leads to stagnation.
In the last weeks there was on nettime quite an interesting discussion about or art on the net and you participated in this. Now, as a comment of mine, there was referred to video art and everybody kind of agreed you should not use at all this term video art any more, its a trap its a ghetto. But what was left out was the discussion of the term "media art" which was somehow in effect between the times of video art and net art. Media art is still used and it can have easily the same fate as video art. So I somehow agree with David Garcia on this, that itŽs strategically not so good to emphasize "net art".
Alexeij Shulgin: Yeah, itŽs true, well. I have two things to say. First, when we talk about video art, that this notion is obsolete, but look, what happens here in Liverpool and Manchester, is a big festival of specific video art. It still brings together a lot of money, a lot of people and a lot of attention. And talking about net art in all these discussions people write It much more reminds of a name of a file rather then a new -ism. And I think its very important because this term includes a lot of self irony about the very name. Also when we talk about and art on the net some people say that we should get rid of the very notion of art and that we have to do something that is not related to the art system, etc. I think itŽs not possible at all, especially on the net, because of the hyperlink system. Whatever you do it can be put into art context and can be linked to art institutions, sites related to art.
And if we get rid of that word art, what shall we have then? How shall we identify ourselves and how shall we find contacts and how shall we create a context. So it is a very ambiguous thing. On one hand we donŽt need these names, definitions and isms any more. But on the other hand we have to live in some context. And in this sense I think we cannot get rid so easily of this notion of art. And there is another point that I mentioned before, that is a tactical point. There is an existing infrastructure of art of course and it can be used. It reminds me of internet itself. It uses already existing structures like telephone networks to transmit digital data. So the same with this group of people who work on the net without any certain identity. We use an existing system, which is the art system and try to do domething else in it.
In one of your remarks on nettime you seem to be quite cynical about the future history of; you said soon there will be the first stars of and then some names will be big and they will be included in the art system.
Alexeij Shulgin: Well of course, itŽs going to happen and itŽs happening now. Because you can see there are a few projects included in documenta this year. And another thing is that internet seems to be very democratic and very accessible. So imagine if there are working 50.000 people on the net as artists, who will be looking at that? There must be some system of contextualization, some system of hotlists, even curating...which in a way is again another power structure, but on the other hand we cannot do things without, its a very ambivalent situation.
Internet Gold Medal
Your work especially is also a mixed work, itŽs not just your expression as an artist, itŽs not easy to categorize, you also act in the role of a curator and critique. What makes interesting for you in essence, what can be the criteria for selection, for speaking about it?
Alexeij Shulgin: What is interesting for me and what can be a kind of criteria is the certain balance between artistic approach in a more traditional sense and this new communicative approach, because the internet is a medium for many-to-many communication. And if we go in the direction of pure communication, well it is interesting, but how can we contextualize, how can it be public, how can it be seen? And if we go backwards to this artistic expression thing, well, whats the difference if its on the net or in a gallery? Because it falls right in this art context. ItŽs interesting for me now, because itŽs a tactical thing. Now internet gives the possibility of balancing things. For me itŽs like balancing between art and communication, balancing between East and West. I canŽt deny the fact that I live in Moscow which is the far eastern frontier for contemporary western culture. I mean balancing between different contexts is for me the most exciting because it gives you some temporary freedom. And on the other hand it helps you to be visible, to communicate, to find people and, you know, just go on. Well, in a way itŽs also problematic, because it means having no certain identity, but there can be temporary identities also.
ItŽs maybe a very usual question, but could you give an example of this balance between art and communication?
Alexeij Shulgin: As I said yesterday in my presentation my two favourite artists are heath bunting and, though they are very different. Talking about Heath Bunting: He produces some visible things on the net that are mostly related to the communicative features of the internet. And on the other side the way he is presenting himself as a person is also very interesting and goes together well with what he is doing. He is like a performance artist working on the net. Thats why I would present his work.
Jodi, the way they communicate is very different. They donŽt communicate with people so much, they communicate with the net itself which also has people as an extension of it. All they are doing is a reflexion of processes that go on on the net, and their replies to that, also to technological processes, aesthetical processes and so on. In a way they are very communicative.
There have been some references to Fluxus. What is for me very interesting when looking at this now historic art movements is that their intention was to avoid producing works as static objects, they concentrated, as the name says, on the flux of time, the happening, the creation of an atmosphere, something very non-materialistic. But with all the concentration on that, the result was that the art system and people around them had the fear that all that would be lost, so what was created was a huge body of documentation, archiving, recording. Any piece of paper that was touched by Beuys for instance can be found now in some collection. Might not that happen with some projects as well?
Alexeij Shulgin: Yes, it may happen, but first about fluxus. I think fluxus people gave that impulses themselves, because there is the "flux-box", the portable museum of fluxus works. They did it themselves. Another problem is that they were working on the specific art territory, with galleries and museums. Differently, talking about net art is very much dependent on technology, software, hardware. For example if you take jodi, they have to improve, to rebuild their site after every new version of netscape. What they were doing a year ago is already gone. ItŽs not documented, itŽs digital, itŽs erased.
DonŽt you think that they have a version of this stored on their harddisk ?
Alexeij Shulgin: With attached version of Netscape 1.1 ? (laughs) I think itŽs possible but itŽs not of any use at all. I agree with some opinion I read on this nettime discussion that internet art is more like a performance. If you would look at some early internet art in some future, aesthetically it would be ridiculous, because the net at present has very limited possibilities for self expression, but there is unlimited possibility for communication. But how can you record this communicative element, how can you store it?
That works probably through the witness, through people, through the historisation of art personified in the artist. For example the people who refer so far to is more or less a lose kind of group that you can define; not maybe a fixed group, but isnŽt that very similar to art movements which you had in the beginning of 20th century; can not this identification of a group, the documentation of "legendary early meetings" and so on create a kind of strange historization?
Alexeij Shulgin: In one way probably yes. But on the other hand since the internet is open everybody is welcome and its just the question of sharing similar ideas. And the fact that we all come from different backgrounds makes it different. ItŽs more about similarities of views on a personal level then on some localized cultural situation.
Thanks for this interview.

Thanks for assisting in copy editing to Rachel Baker. (Armin Medosch)