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Interview with Wolf Lieser

Wolf Lieser with a work by Manfred Mohr

This is a interview with Wolf Lieser. Wolf Lieser is the Director of the Digital Art Museum [DAM], Gallery [DAM] Berlin and the d.velop digital art award [ddaa].

AfN: Mr. Lieser, are you three directors in one?

Lieser: You could say so, but I would say the Director of the [DAM] Project, which comprises all these three aspects of working with Digital Art and trying to get a better understanding of Digital Art and of developing the market for the artists.

AfN: I always thought the Digital Art Museum is a museum in the sense of a physical space of collecting and exhibiting artefacts. Why is the [DAM] a web archive? Do you want to build up a real museum as well?

Lieser: Primarily it seems very obvious with Digital Art to start as an on-line museum. It is our intention to really qualify the artists which are included. There is an advisory panel of seven experts who are choosing the artists - so we are very selective. In the long term it would definitely be interesting to have a physical space as well, to curate regular exhibitions. Right now we have started again to upgrade the on-line museum in order to develop the archive further towards contemporary art and to really document the early pioneering years in full .

AfN: On your website you promote the key activities. First the web archive, the private gallery and the award. Which role plays each part in your aim to promote Digital Art?

Lieser: The whole activities are mostly financed through the sales of the gallery. So, this has some priority of course. I moved to Berlin in 2003 to start the whole project off, at the beginning I concentrated on the gallery to get it off the ground, to get established and to develop contacts to collectors and institutions. The second step was to launch the d.velop digital art award [ddaa] in cooperation with the d.velop AG in 2005, which corresponds to my idea of an overall view on Digital Art. The intention has always been to give the whole background of the artists, because I realized that most of the people I spoke to - either journalists or curators or young artists - did not have much of an idea about the historic background of Digital Art: many people are not aware that some of these pioneers had started in the 60's, and that Germany played a major role in its early beginnings. Two of the three first exhibitions of Digital Art took place in Germany, so Germany has always played an important role in this context. So we were able to present this award this year now for the third time, thanks to the additional support of Haupt Pharma AG, kommunikation lohnzich and Kunsthalle Bremen.

AfN: So the third thing is the award, founded in 2005. What role does the award play in the whole project? The archive is clear, its goal is to create a wider knowledge about this field, promoted through the Internet. The gallery is a sales point, meeting point and exhibition space, what about the award?

Lieser: When I developed the whole concept end of the 90's and went on-line with [DAM] in 2000, many of these artists, who had worked in this field since the end of the 60's, were never really acknowledged for their pioneering work, for their persistence and for their believe into developing an own position with this kind of media. So I thought it would be good thing to do. There were already awards, there is the Ars Electronica, a big festival for digital culture in Linz that has an award for digital art every year. But it is based on a competition, you get awarded for a specific piece of work, there is no lifetime award. So that was the idea: giving a lifetime award to draw the attention to major pioneers in this field. The winners were each time overwhelmed when they received the award. Many of them had really fought against preconceived ideas, strange attitudes of curators, missing knowledge and this for 30 years! And suddenly someone comes and says "You are great! Here are 20,000 Euro, you'll have a retrospective in a museum" and you could see their emotion, they could not believe it. That showed me as well that we are on the right track with this kind of work. On the other hand, Digital Art is going through changes; it's getting much more established. ARTnews, a big magazine in America, had on the February issue an avatar, a second life figure, created by Eva + Franco Mattes, the internationally renown couple who works with digital media and Net Art, and ARTnews would put it on the cover. And in their article they covered the field of art and avatars in Second Life, the aesthetics of Second Life and artists who work with that, which is already at the fringe of Digital Art. I must say the Americans are in this aspect much more courageous and more advanced than we are here in Germany.

Wolf Lieser and Marek Claassen

AfN: What about your book?

Lieser: The book is a great chance which totally fits in the concept of informing people who are not familiar with this field and to give them an idea of Digital Art, basically to give them an introduction. It is easy to read, contains a lot of pictures and introduces leading artists. At the beginning I had the idea I should cover every major artist but that is not possible, so I selected important artists of different aspects of Digital Art and included them. You can easily read it through, on a trip on a train or on a flight and afterwards you will have an idea of how the development of digital art happened since the 1960s. It will come out next spring in German, English and the publisher is planning to translate it in other languages as well.

AfN: The winner of this year's d.velop digital art award [ddaa] is Norman T. White, who is also called the Godfather of Canada's Electronic Art. His works seem to me more like a machine or robotic art. Why was he chosen?

Lieser: He is carrying an aspect totally contrary to the ones who received the award in previous years, where both, Vera Molnar and Manfred Mohr, worked with plotter-sketches and programming. White is programming computers as well by himself; on top of that he is constructing his own robots which have different kinds of strange behaviors. He is very humoristic in his approach and he is typical for this aspect of Digital Art: robotic interactivity, installations and own programming of robots.

AfN: In an interview with in 2005 you said that you established a platform for Digital Art in 1998. You also said that Digital Art was widely unknown and that there was no market place at that time. What have you achieved so far?

Lieser: There are definitely changes; we are in the process of getting much more recognition for this field in art. There are now institutions like Kunsthalle Bremen, which have a big collection of early computer art with nearly 1.000 pieces. Then the Victoria and Albert Museum in London has started to build up a collection. They have several hundred early computer art sketches, drawings and prints. In the USA it's different, museums like the Whitney Museum of American Art or the Guggenheim Museum, both New York, were part of the first ones to start a collection of contemporary Digital Art. The Europeans on the contrary seem to be much more historically orientated, they cover the history first before they get to the present. So in the USA you find institutions like the ones mentioned above, which cover more the contemporary scene, what is going on right now. It is similar to the Tate Modern, which has commissioned some work. So, there are different strategies.

AfN: How many galleries do you think work in this field? How big do you consider this market? Is there an auction market for Digital Art or is there a primary market? Do you have any kind of estimations of the number of galleries?

Lieser: I probably know all the galleries working in this field. There are these galleries which don't necessarily cover only digital media, art galleries that represent as well one artist who works digital. I would not count them, they work with painters and photographers as well. However, there are galleries which are concentrating on this aspect in art. There are two or three in New York, we are here in Berlin, and there is another one in Brescia, Italy. There is a young gallery in Paris too. They are all interested in this medium. We are not even ten, so the market is really small, but we are there and it is definitely a growing market. If you look at the trends which are strong and established in the mainstream market right now, like photography and painting, and you are a young collector and you look around, you do not want to collect the stuff others have already concentrated on before... They are looking for new directions. And here is a possibility to get involved in a medium, which represents the new generation.

AfN: Is it possible to give me a price range?

Lieser: Much too cheap, I would say. Just to give you an example of what we are talking about, we exhibit Manfred Mohr right now, he is 70 years old and who is considered a big hero by many young artists: this software piece including two screens and a computer is 24,000 euro. Compared to the general market it should be around a 100,000. And then you can buy unique inkjet prints from him for 2,000 or 3,000; early plotter drawings cost 5,000 or 6,000, this is for something from the 70's. And he is a major pioneer. So it is still a reasonable price range, compared to the importance he has. But the prices have gone up; Manfred Mohr's prices have gone up in the last five years for his early period about 500% or 600%.

AfN: The first thing that struck me when I started to follow up on this subject is that nowadays everything is Digital Art. Even painting is Digital Art. The artists digitise the subject, work it out in Photoshop and project it onto the canvas. Where do you set the boundaries? What do you call Digital Art?

Lieser: I have to deal with this aspect every day when a photographer comes into the gallery and says "This photograph is on-line, it is digital" but those works have not much to do with Digital Art. Of course every photographer is using these tools now, but to accomplish a better photograph! What we are interested in, and that's how we define the term Digital Art, is an artist working conceptionally or aesthetically with this medium, meaning not using it to get a better result in another medium. Jeff Koons e.g., he designs his paintings on the computer, but that doesn't make it Digital Art at all. You could say it is a collage. You can see on his paintings the aesthetic influence by working with Photoshop. Because Photoshop is developed by software designers and software programmers, and they of course define the aesthetics of their tools. So, a user of this software depends on this. A real puristic digital artist would never do that.

AfN: In the [DAM] archive I found a link to other sources. For example the website and there I looked at the collection, one of the artists is Mendoza and the piece is called "disco". This work was a pure form of browser animation. In comparison to that I have the feeling that you try to concentrate on collectibles like works printed on paper. Can you see other forms of artistic representations that are marketable and collectable in the digital art context?

Lieser: This is an aspect of the digital I have covered in the book as well, because there are a lot of exciting things going on in the web, all for free, and it is unbelievable to see the fantastic works you find in there! But the interesting thing is that in the Digital Art world everybody knows about these people, who work with the web and in the general art field hardly anybody knows them, they are not so established. On the website everybody can click through it and can experience it for free, but the problem really is really to develop an exchange. I have been thinking about this a lot and I am convinced that things have to develop in a way that you either rent Net Art or Software Art or download the file for a limited period of time, meaning you pay to have it for a year or so. So in between, galleries or curators have to look for possibilities to develop a basis of exchange between the person who experiences this kind of art and the artist who creates it and it is not getting something out of it - financially I mean. Of course, when I started up with the gallery, I showed mostly plotter-sketches and prints. Now I have extended it towards more screen-based work. These are still physical objects, which you can take with you, which might have been web-based in some cases.

AfN: But such a collection is not a hard disc, right? Some artists who are available on the web, you can download their work and everybody can see it, but is it unique what you collect?

Lieser: No, it is not unique. The collector acquires the right to include it on his website. Normally it depends on what agreements he made, often he is not the only one who has this artwork on his website.

AfN: So, collecting Digital Art is more like sponsoring in a way, you give your money for a good thing that can be developed, but you cannot really have something you can take to auction, or getting a hard drive that you can auction at Sotheby's, that is a risk.

Lieser: Yes, this is one aspect of the whole section. But look at Tino Seghal with his performances; he is selling something that is not really collectable. It is the same concept and he is taking it even further because it is not even in the web. He explains his concept to the other person, the idea of his performance, just in words. That's all, what you get. I think having a tangible asset is a really old fashioned idea: look what we have on our laptops, our email, our movies, our music, our pictures...all with us, right there. Why not art as well? Why not download it as well for some time? Why not getting involved in it like we do with music? I think you have to talk to people, give them a new idea and explain it to them, make them understand, if they don't go along, it's fine. But with the new generation, which are now in their 20's or 30's they are naturally drawn to this kind of work because they feel it's part of their daily life. They are more involved in club culture, they know these artists working with visuals, sound and music, all computer based and this is all very connected. So then it is a very small step to have a software piece on your large screen at home; it seems much cooler than hanging an abstract painting on the wall.

AfN: I put together some artists you mentioned on the [DAM] Website and did a ranking based on our ranking system. The first are Manfred Mohr and Vera Molnar. Why?

Lieser: Manfred Mohr and Vera Molnar are two artists who started in 1969, they are early pioneers, and they have established themselves in the market in the line of constructivist art, as they have been in this field for 30 years. Now when this whole field of constructivism was going down on the market, we, the galleries for digital media have brought forward that they are really important in the field of Digital Art, and that has brought them up again in their career. They are the most established ones in the market. But younger artists are catching up!

AfN: It is relatively easy to spot the pioneers in early Digital Art. How do you select digital artists today?

Lieser: I would say on the same basis as every other decent gallery, you look at criteria which are not unique to Digital Art. You look at the unique position, the whole artistic language the artist has developed, the form has to go along with the conceptual approach and if someone does something which others have done before, it is boring. The result these days is a very wide range: sculptures, Robot Art, prints, Net Art, Software Art, interactive installations, it is a really interesting field.

AfN: Dear Mr. Lieser, thank you for the interview.

Interview: Marek Claassen
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