Materiality in Art
“What Does the Medium Make?”

How does a slide projector installation differ from a beamer slide show, even if the same images are shown? How does the decision in favour of a certain technology relate to the artistic work – and can the two even be seen separately? At the “cx – Centrum für interdisziplinäre Studien” in Munich, Kerstin Stakemeier is investigating the meaning of these questions – the catchword here is “New Materialism” – for art scholarship. conducted an interview with her.

Professor Stakemeier, in July 2013 you were invited to a lecture series entitled “Was macht das Medium?” (What Does the Medium Make?) devoted to art in the digital age. Your topic was the materiality of the digital. Actually, art history has always also been a history of technical inventions …

Kerstin Stakemeier; Kerstin Stakemeier; | © Kerstin Stakemeier Yes, and for a very long time now there has been a social historiography of art which endeavours to include production conditions in its deliberations. In that context, however, the assessment of the artist’s manner of proceeding usually ultimately remains an assessment of the artwork. All deliberations end with the question: Is it good art or isn’t it?

The production and reception conditions – everything which takes place before and after, so to speak – are pushed aside; the work emerges from between them and continues to exist in a relatively timeless space.

The Digitale as a Structural Attribute

From the “New Materialism” perspective it is no longer the creative human being that is the focus of the world view; now objects and structures are taking on decisive meaning. What role is played by the digital in art? How does it form art?

Frequently the digital plays a role merely as a production medium. The American artist Trevor Paglen, for example, is presently drawing tremendous attention to himself with his digital photographs of secret surveillance satellites and military facilities. In my view, however, the structure of his oeuvre is classical-modernist. The digitality is merely on the surface.
Trevor Paglen, Picure against picture, installation view, 2012; Trevor Paglen, Picure against picture, installation view, 2012; | © Wilfried Petzi My concern is less with the production medium than with the production paradigm: To what extent is the digital structure in which capitalism reproduces itself – after a fashion – necessarily also adopted within art?

Paper and Presentation

Can you give me an example?

In the area of photography, we could cite the more recent works by Wolfgang Tillmans. In Tillmans’s work, the presentation form, the paper and the various reproduction forms are always foreground aspects. The work changes with the subject – and in my opinion has more to do with digitality than Trevor Paglen’s approach.

 Harald Popp, Untitled, 2013; Harald Popp, Untitled, 2013; | © Harald Popp The working manner of the Hamburg photographer Harald Popp is even more to the point here – based, as it is, on the relationship between digital and analog perception and materiality.

Or the video art of Melanie Gilligan of New York. Her 2008 film crisis in the credit system was shown in galleries and exhibitions, but primarily on YouTube.

What is Gilligan interested in?

The film’s basic structure is a series of episodes; its format corresponds to the constant availability of the internet and the short attention spans devoted to things there. So the manner of production, reception and distribution are all part of the work; it is digital in the sense that it is permeated by these elements – digitality on all levels.

Rather than a representation structure, what becomes visible here are materialization structures.
Melanie Gilligan, Crisis in the Credit System, Episode 1

Archaeological Work in 2-D

The video film Grosse Fatigue by the French artist Camille Henrot, who was awarded the Silver Lion for it at the 2013 Venice Biennale, amounts to a furious gallop through the history of creation. On a constantly visible computer surface, the story unfolds window by window. Can we speak of a materialization structure in this context?

Henrot is an interesting example of how archaeological approaches are gaining new significance within the context of New Materialism. The film is strongly based on things, on a history of objects. A lot of symbols from the realms of archaeology and anthropology pop up, which are then committed to the two-dimensionality of the digital.

In Henrot’s work, the digital presents itself as the two-dimensionalization of all of history in the here and now.

The Authorship of the Objects

Conversely, the digital could also be conceived as something which, in the sense of a “New Materialism”, is even permeated by archaeologies and pasts, which solidify within it in a completely material manner. In other words, an authorship of the objects which also inscribes itself in that of the subjects.

I should add here that “New Materialism”, which was our first theme of the year at the cx at the Akademie der Bildenden Künste in 2012/2013, by no means designates a self-contained school, but rather a very broad theoretical spectrum ranging from Reza Negarestani and Manuel DeLanda to Graham Harman. I wouldn’t go so far as to propagate any of the theories as the “new truth”, but all in all the debates are very productive.

“New Materialism”

Camille Henrot, installation view; Camille Henrot, installation view; | © Südpol-Redaktionsbüro/B. Maus Various currents in politics, philosophy, sociology, archaeology and anthropology can presently be subsumed under the heading “New Materialism” – currents which assign a decisive role to the material world in the development of social structures. In “New Materialism”, historical and contemporary aspects of knowledge generation (Bruno Latour) social practices, communication processes and aesthetic productions are no longer conceived of as being exclusively man-made, but as influenced by the (resistive) materiality of objects and the employment of technology.