(Image taken August 8th, 21.30h at Do or Dine in Brooklyn. Nat is nibbling on fried Shishito peppers with a pairing of four salts flavored with green tea, seaweed, yuzu, and wasabi. And yes, there is a huge cucumber floating in her pisco sour)
Hello everybody, today I’m with Nat. Can you introduce yourself to our readers?
Hi Filippo. So, I am an independent curator and critic based in Rotterdam, The Netherlands and specialise in media art and in contemporary art from the Middle East. I am particularly interested in the relations between aesthetics, mediation and politics. Just arrived to Brooklyn for a 6-week stay. The idea is that a different time zone will be beneficial for working on my first book - published by The Institute of Network Cultures. Let’s see how that goes. I am also obsessed with all things food: primarily I love to eat! But I also love watch cooking programs, dive into food anthropology, collect cookbooks, and occasionally do food performances with friends, though that’s been a while now.
Fine, I love this kind of long answer because it gives me a lot of material upon for further questions! First of all: how would you define the art scene in The Netherlands and Rotterdam?
Let me do this by ways of expressing my outrage and concern about the draconian budget cuts that have been heaved upon the arts scene. The Netherlands - at least for the past few decades – have had a very generous funding system for arts and culture, as well as some excellent post-graduate facilities like the Rijksakademie, The Ateliers, Jan van Eyck Academie, Piet Zwart Institute and DasArts. This made The Netherlands an attractive place for international artists to flock to. In addition there are world-class contemporary art institutions like for example Witte de With, Van Abbe Museum, BAK Utrecht, Boijmans van Beuning and the Stedelijk in Amsterdam, and a range of smaller initiatives. Now all of this infrastructure is either coming under pressure or being destroyed, because a populist war on culture is being waged. It has nothing to do with the economy, but is purely political. I have to add that the generous funding system has at times been a double-edged sword: yes it was a blessing, but it also made the scene almost solely dependent on government money and other related funding bodies. Once that plug is pulled there are few models in place for alternative funding. The other issue is that culture workers have become too closely intertwined with government policies or other third agendas of funding bodies, with the result that art became functional. Artists fill in where government fails, so they take on the role of social worker, conflict mediator, anthropologist, journalist or diplomat. That’s dangerous because it partly undoes the power of art: the prerogative to be absolutely useless if it so chooses.
That’s indeed a tough situation. What are the possible ways out of this problem in your own opinion?
Well that is the million $ question, right? The problem is that no transition period was granted to the arts & culture sector to develop alternative models of funding, collaboration and organisational structures. In addition, there seems to be little solidarity and appetite for the bigger picture in the Dutch art scene. Yes, the economic situation of many culture workers (mind you, me included) is dire, but the main issue, i.e. the bigger picture, is that a populist political war is being waged on all things intellectual and cultural, and it’s selling like hot buns. This makes me very pessimistic and cynical about the future. How can that happen in the 21st century?! As if nothing has been learned at all. On the whole I would like to see some more anger instead of the widespread subdued apathy.
Would you recommend to a young artist to move in Netherlands?
That’s an impossible question to answer. Depends what the artist wants from the move (critical community, commercial or other success, funding opportunities, residencies, other?), and on what the artist’s personal background is (wealthy, starving, making ends meet). There are probably more dynamic places to go to now, and cheaper.
You said you’re especially interested in media art: when and how did you start to get interested in this field?
That was around the mid-90s. I had just graduated in literature and gender studies, and I was looking for alternative feminist discourses. Then I stumbled on cyberfeminism; it was sexy, hands-on, defiant, creative and full of energy. Here were women artists working with technology, rewriting the history of technology, and making a statement that “big daddy mainframe” is something to be countered. The mid-90s were also a time when a bunch of interesting mailing lists like nettime, syndicate, faces and rhizome appeared. And these were the heydays of net art and big media festivals. This was all before the 2000 dot.com crash, so there was this energetic promise of possibility and of community.
The Web scene changed since 1995. In which direction is media art pointing now?
I would say that if the 90s were about disembodied virtuality and the 2000s signalled a return to the corporeal, then now the power and significance of non-living matter, things and objects are being thrown into the mix; it’s very much about materiality. Then of course there’s all the social media stuff that we cannot ignore, but which I personally find not so interesting.
I see. Do you think that media art is fairly supported by institutions?
Is there such a thing as fair support? The Netherlands are blessed with many pioneering media art institutions and festivals, such as impakt, V2_, STEIM, De Waag, Virtual Platform, Today’s Art festival, Mediamatic, DEAF, MU, Gogbot Festival, STRP Festival. Across Europe there are institutions and festivals that are specifically new media-oriented. What is striking though is the fact that the new media art world and the contemporary art world are still so segregated, with notable exceptions. The twain almost do not meet. The contemporary art world is suspicious of new media because it can come across as technophilic gimmicky fiddling, and vice versa, the new media art world is suspicious of the contemporary art world because of its overwrought reliance on the discursive, and old school media. It’s also a battle between the white cube and the black box. Of course we can find video art everywhere now, but how many biennials have you seen lately incorporating new media art - not many. The Netherlands used to have earmarked funding for all things e-culture, but this is being annulled under the new governmental art’s policy (2013-2016), so many of these institutions will lose quite a chunk of funding. The problem is that new media art is now being tied (wrongly) with the creative industries. This is an excellent example of how this government thinks that “the market” will take care of everything. This is ridiculously short-sighted because it refrains from acknowledging intellectual, creative and cultural capital, and what that yields - in all its very different forms - in the long run.
What about your interest in the Middle East’s contemporary art?
Well, I grew up in a tiny village in Belgium with a Jewish mom and Indonesian dad. I always felt out of place because of my mixed heritage and the provincialism of my surroundings. So as a teenager I was very much interested in the whole Israeli/Palestinian question. Later on I spent quite some time there during the early to mid-90s and was very much interested (and concerned) with the politics of the Israeli occupation. I kept that interest in the politics of the region but did not find a way to integrate it in my curatorial work till much later. More specifically, it never occurred to me that it was a possibility. Then in 2002 during the Ars Electronica festival in Linz, I saw Palestinian filmmaker Azza el-Hassan’s film “News Time”, a personal narrative of the impact of the 2nd intifada on everyday life, but also on the difficulties and possibilities of filmmaking (in content as well as in style) under siege. This film really brought to the fore how the socio-political condition of a place influences, aesthetics, format, content. Moreover, it also begged a scrutiny of the dynamics of representation and perception: how indeed can artists go beyond generic news images or narratives, and what is the role of media and technology within such an endeavour. This work really shook me up on a profound level. The co-relations between politics, media, context and aesthetics, examined in her work became somewhat of an obsession, and I wondered what type of work was produced elsewhere in the region of the Middle East. Our perception in the West – especially after 9/11 – has become subject to monolithic understandings and stereotyping. What counter-tactics do artists use in order to turn the media image, or how can they have media work for them and with them, for the sake of remembrance or accounting narratives of a different kind? The questions I was concerned with were posed before the current hype around Middle Eastern artists as the next hottest thing. So it has been a very interesting ride, with lengthy periods living in Beirut, Cairo and traveling the rest of the region.
Can you define the characteristics of contemporary art of the Middle East?
Oh my, you do like sweeping questions, don’t you? No I cannot define them but I would say that there are probably a few thematic strands to be discerned across the region. The Middle East is very heterogeneous place, and politically volatile, so artists will naturally address these issues in their work. If your daily life in Palestine is determined by the Israeli occupation, then there’s a good chance this will come up in some way or other in your work. If in Lebanon you have lived 15 years of civil war and sectarian tensions are still part of the social fabric, then there’s a good chance that this might come up in your work. It is impossible to generalise, but recurring themes are: memory (individual and collective), loss, identity & representation, the production and construction of history, the thin lines between truth and fiction, the countering of stereotypes (disorientalisation), relations to increasing and rapid urbanisation and globalization or capitalism on steroids across the region (think the sprawling metropolis of Cairo or places like Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha in the Gulf). Of course there are also artists who do not deal with these issues at all; address or combine the figurative or the more “folkloric” in their work. There’s a lot of interesting video, installation and photography going on, as well as some really interesting conceptual art and painting.
You said you spent a few days in places like Beirut and Cairo. What did learn about those experiences? What impressed you most?
Not days - YEARS! I spent most of 2005 throughout 2010 in-between Rotterdam and Beirut, and lived a year in Cairo. I guess art-wise I was most impressed with how against all odds (lack of funding, volatile security, pressures of censorship) artists manage to make excellent and urgent work. I love Beirut, but it also shook me up; I was there in 2006 during the July war and in 2008 when internal fighting broke out. That was a reality check, and in 2006 quite a scary experience. It also makes you much more critical of how political discourses are used in art in Europe; often too easily. It also points out the strength and the limitations of art, and how sometimes art should wait to be powerful and meaningful.
Cairo was a test of endurance for me. It is not an easy city; one that survives rather than lives. However, having that lived experience of Cairo and the continuous struggle of dealing with the city does provide good insight in how artists work there. The last year I spent a lot of time in the Gulf. Here the investment in art and culture is quite ambiguous. Compared with the European situation it is of course fantastic that money is being poured in the arts, but is it genuine, or merely a PR stunt? And what does it mean to erect these huge international museums like the Louvre, Guggenheim, etc in places that unlike Egypt, Lebanon and Palestine have a very thin cultural base? What does it mean to import all the know-how and critical discourses primarily from the West and use it as liberal varnish, while being a conservative absolutist monarchy that smothers any type of opposition against the regime?
Can you tell us anything more about your first book? What is it about?
Right, in a nutshell it’s for the Studies in Network Cultures Series, published by Nai/Institute of Network Cultures, and it wants to give a shot at close reading media art from the Middle East. It is not meant as a geographical survey at all, but rather tries to articulate something I find arresting in a bunch of works I have come across the past years. It also wants to counter - or at least be conscious of - the following: any type of artistic or critical practice in a region as contested and mediated as the Middle East runs the risk that sweeping socio-political interpretations overtake – if not hijack – other narratives. What this publication will try to do then is go back to the artwork, and look very carefully at situated usage and implementation of media, form, aesthetics, and how these elements tell a narrative of their own.
This sounds really interesting. You said you’re in New York City in order to benefit of a different time zone: can I ask you if this is working? Can you tell us anything about your typical day as writer?
Right, the idea is that I wake up, caffeinate, check mail and news, then start writing for a few hours, and then enjoy NY. Being in a different time zone than Europe is just a strategy to delay the immediacy of communication.
Let’s talk a bit about the Institute of Network Cultures. What role do you have in it?
My only role is that they have commissioned me to write a book for them. Apart from that, they do excellent work, and have probably organised the best conferences on subjects of media in the past decade.
You contributed to “New Aesthetic, New Anxieties”, a book about the so-called “new aesthetics”. My site is read by a varied audience and I’m not sure that everyone knows something about this debate. Given that you’ve contributed to an essay on this topic, could you introduce it to those who are not aware of it?
The book New Aesthetic, New Anxietie” is the result of a 5-day book sprint at V2_ from June 17–21, 2012. It is important to mention here that the book is collaborative and co-authored; so while I did work on my own contributions, other authors (David M. Berry, Michel van Dartel, Michael Dieter, Michelle Kasprzak, Rachel O’Reilly and José Luis de Vicente) edited it, filled in gaps and rewrote sections. It is a very interesting way to produce text and generate ideas. The ”New Aesthetic” as an idea is a design concept and netculture phenomenon launched into the world by London designer James Bridle in 2011, first introduced on a blogpost, then collated in a tumblr. Through a collection of images it tries to define, or rather discern characteristics of, what a new aesthetic of the future would look like. In the book we tried in 5 days to make a beginning with unpacking assumptions and wider artistic, social, computational and political ramifications around this notion.
One thing that intrigued me about your book is the title: why ‘new anxieties’?
Well, the moment something is “new” or is dubbed as “new” it disturbs the status quo and that translates in all kinds of questions, fears, resistances, anxieties. In the case of the “new aesthetic” we pondered the “newness” of it, the kneejerk reactions and the reactions of aficionados; you always get two or more camps dealing with their own hang-ups and beliefs. So there is always an anxiety involved when trying to unpack a term or when trying to contextualise it more broadly. We as authors of course also have our own hang-ups, pet subjects and fears, but because this was a horizontal and collaborative writing effort, it manifests itself differently.
I think the fact that this discussion has been founded on a blog and continued on a tumblelog is interesting. How do you think this will change the future of the exhibitions? Will the Internet become a new gigantic gallery? Or will there always be a place to support the physical gallery?
The Internet is, and has been since roughly the mid-90s, a platform for people to show and make work. However, we really have to differentiate between the broad definition of net art and documentation of artwork that is put on the Internet. In its more narrow definition net art is art specifically made for a technologically networked environment; it uses the networked properties and the aesthetic qualities of the net (from early net.art to peeps doing stuff with social media. In this context the platform of the net as an exhibition space makes sense because it is an inherent part of the work; it is the only place where the work can exist properly. But let’s be clear here: a tumblr is not necessarily a curated space, a blog shows documentation of - very often - physical works. In that sense, you cannot “beat the meat”; nothing can replace a physical gallery, a white cube/black cube, public space or any other type of space that allows you to physically experience a work in real life. Often you want to experience the materiality of a piece, its texture, its details, approach it, walk around it, feel its scale and dimensions and how it works with its environment. You don’t get this experience by putting up an image on the web. In the 90s we had similar discussions debating whether the future of exhibitions would be on the Internet - it never happened, and my hunch is it never will.
Do you think that the debate on the new aesthetic may also be discussed by non-experts?
Well everyone can discuss what they want of course. As far as I know - but I could be terribly wrong - the discussion has remained within the sphere of designers, (media) art workers, media/cultural theorists, bloggers, etc. I mean, l don’t see my mom participating in a discussion like this. And if she would, would I listen? Maybe, maybe not. I probably would because it is my mom, but not sure I would listen to someone else’s mom. ;-)
What have you learned from that experience?
Participating in a collectively written book was a truly riveting experience! There is a wonderful sense of motivation, solidarity, collective accomplishment, mixed with a tinge of competition involved in such a process. It is not about ego or holding on to a point, because you write something and then pass it on to someone else to add, improve, edit - ahem or kill - your piece. It takes your writing and thoughts out of their comfort zone and makes it much easier to kill your darlings because you shoulder responsibility with your co-authors. In some ways writing becomes less precious. I really commend Adam Hyde for leading the workshop in the most relaxed and friendly manner, and Michelle Kasprzak for bringing together this motley crew of academics, writers and curators. Usually writing is a very solitary experience, but here it becomes distributed and socialised.
You told me you love food, cooking and eating. I’m Italian and I know this will sounds like a stereotype, but I definitely know what you mean! I’m especially interested in food anthropology too. What are your preferred types of cuisine?
I am a vegetarian/pescetarian, and in general love honest food that uses the highest quality produce. Food needs to be prepared with love and reverence for its ingredients. Last year I was in Sicily on holiday and a Pachino tomato with a drizzle of olive oil is just simply divine. Things can be that simple and delicious. I am not a fan of molecular cooking or all these new-fangled foams and spheres, but you can get me out of bed any time for Mediterranean (especially Italian and Lebanese), Indian, Thai, Korean, Vietnamese and Japanese food. What I love about the social protocols involved in eating is that food provides for the best social interface, and shows you how people really are, interact and what they pay attention to. So whenever I do a project with someone, I prefer to break bread with them first. In any case, I am in New York now and with all its glorious food on offer, I am indeed a very happy camper.
I think your preferences about food are somehow related to your parents’ heritage. Am I wrong?
Well, I surely come from a family where everything was very much about food. My mom is an incredible cook and an avid collector of cookbooks. From a young age you could find me with my nose in a cookbook. I am not sure that my mixed heritage is fully responsible for the shaping of my palate, though I bet you we must have been the only family in the 1970s in that small Belgian village with a rice cooker, litres of olive oil, and pots of chilli paste and soy sauce stocked in the pantry.
Fine, thank you Nat for the long chat! It has been a real pleasure. Is there anything else would you like to say to our readers?
The pleasure was all mine. A final yelp (with a nod to the courageous girls of Pussy Riot and all those who came before them and will come after them) on the urgency of defending critical positions in whatever we do: ¡No pasarán!