Régine Debatty is the powerhouse behind the hugely popular blog we-make-money-not-art.com. We sent each other interview questions after meeting on a freezing cold evening in May in Newcastle, and spending the following morning walking around the east side of town in the drizzle looking at how the city is changing through cultural regeneration – her dressed in yellow, me dressed in red (when we are usually in green and orange respectively). Her interview with me is on her blog, and mine with her is here on CRUMB.
Sarah Cook: What made you want to start wmmna?
Régine Debatty: It started by chance. I had tons of time to kill at the office and met this guy, Max, who had crafted some artistic application for mobile phones that he used in performances. It was totally new to me: "What? You can make art with some tech device?" So I decided to investigate and find out who else was using technology in a creative, unexpected way. Max suggested I archive my research in a blog. You know the rest.
SC: How do you choose what to cover and what not to?
RD: It all depends on what I’m interested in at the moment. It used to be interactive installations, now I’m more into bioart, critical design, and sustainability. It's totally personal, there's no strategy, plan nor willingness to cover extensively a particular topic.
SC: How do you balance the pressure from your readers that you cover their show or project with your own personal interest (what you want to cover)?
RD: I'm a totally selfish person. I care for artists and designers but not enough to write about any project that I wouldn't find exciting enough. So I ignore the pressure, I just have my own way. That doesn't mean that the method is the best nor that I’m perfectly happy with it: I make errors of judgment, I hastily discard projects which are interesting, I agree to post something I don't really like just because the artist seems to be such a kind person, etc.
SC: Is the fact that you do it for free / no monetary reward a kind of filtering criteria (i.e. if you were paid to do this you might have to write about things you didn't care so much for)?
RD: I would never write about something I wouldn't feel comfortable about. Well, I guess I could if I were offered tons of money but it just wouldn't work over a long period of time. I’ve been paid to attend and blog a conference once or twice but the programme was really good so it was a pleasure to do it and it fitted perfectly the spirit of my blog so there was no discrepancy. However receiving money means that I have to write about the whole conference, not just filtering and posting the talks of one or two speakers as I normally would because I’m lazy or in a hurry. I always get better feedback from the readers when I do some extra effort and post as much as possible. But hey, I was wondering the other day whether I am getting too old for that. I used to be a real blog-machine. Now I still attend the talks, write down religiously as much as possible what's being said, go to the hotel room to blog instead of joining the parties, but at the end of the day I manage to post only a tiny fraction of what's been going on.
SC: How do you sustain the blog (and your writing life) financially? Where are the compromises? (For example, do people pay your expenses to come and see a project, and do you like it when they do, or does it imply you write in return?)
RD: There's a bit of advertising, sometimes it works great, sometimes it's just pitiful. So I write for magazines and catalogues in order to be able to pay the rent. I don't like that. I'd rather focus on my own thing. Besides, English is not my mother language so I feel handicapped by my ignorance of the grammar and vocabulary; it's okay on the blog because I feel that readers know me and might be more tolerant. On the other hand, it would be mean to complain. I’m quite flattered when someone asks me to write for them.
Now the travels are covered. Sometimes. If the festival is good, organized by talented people with empty pockets, I don't mind, I pay my plane ticket, give a talk, blog the event. Conflux in New York is such event. There are other festivals or conferences that I feel I have the duty to attend like Ars Electronica. I save a bit of money, go to Ars and enjoy as much as I can. Otherwise I can't afford to travel and get a hotel. Most of the time I’m asked to give a talk so the organizers cover my expense and give me a speaker's fee like they do with any other participant of the event. Sometimes, I’m asked to come and blog a conference or festival, I don't even have to give a talk or workshop but all expenses are covered.
If the event looks interesting and the programme is good, bliss! I’ll go for it. If the programme doesn't rock my boat then I decline the offer.
Very often though, people would contact me and ask, "Why didn't you come and cover my festival in Canada?" Some just assume that I’m a big organization with loads of money and contributors all around the world. But, hello!, it's just me writing from my kitchen table. The blog is not a business, it's a platform I use to share with others what I’m discovering every day.
SC: Because you write about what you want, for your own personal blog (as you described it to me earlier) do you ever get accused of not being critical enough? (I.e. that you rarely write bad reviews of projects because generally you're writing a review in the first place because you liked the project)
RD: Yes, sometimes. I try to stay neutral because I don't want to influence the opinion of readers. I’d rather think that they approach an artwork without any prejudice and if they have any, I don't want to be the one to blame for it. I used to be a reporter, staying neutral was something I was "trained" to be and I never felt that there was anything wrong with that. Besides, I don't think my own opinion is worth that much. I'm not an expert, just an amateur. There are enough vocal amateurs on the web these days so I don't feel like adding my pinch of salt. I do believe that I still have so much to learn before daring to utter any well-argued thoughts. I am also aware that declaring that I’m an amateur is a very comfortable, not to say cowardly, position. The only way I express that I don't like a project these days is by not writing about it. It won't mean that a project is bad, just that I didn't find it exciting and compelling enough.
SC: You’ve done a terrific number of really excellent interviews with artists and new media cultural producers all over the world - and in many of them ask them the same questions I’ve just asked you about sustainability of practice. Do you think there is a financial volunteerism and precarity at the heart of most if not all new media practice?
RD: No. No, because I don't want it to be like that. It shouldn't. But yes, sometimes new media practice is a question of volunteerism and precarity. Not everywhere. I know that the situation in Europe is better than in the US and that within Europe there are huge differences within countries (The Dutch, for example, are better off than Italians.) or regions (Flanders in Belgium is far more generous with new media art than the French-speaking community of the country is).
But then I’m not sure it's just new media art, I guess many people involved in art have to struggle too. New media art might be in a worse situation than any other kind of art because not everyone is ready to give it credibility, thus funding.
Or maybe the problem is us? We just believe in what we do, are passionate about it (I sound like an ad for an insurance company here) and put the need to pay the rent after our own desire to see a project succeed?
SC: You have a few other contributors listed, how does the workload break down between you? Have you ever worked with other freelance writers / reporters for wmmna, and if not, why not?
RD: There's no rule. I write my posts every day and if the others have time to write something once or twice a month that's great. I find it extremely hard to find people who can write for wmmna. And do it as well as Sascha, Alejandro and Konomi do. I love you guys!
SC: How do you see the field of new media art has changed since you started blogging? (In relation to fine art? in relation to design? In relation to technology / computing research projects?)
RD: Now is time to be pretentious. I think that the blog has allowed some works or fields of art and design to get more recognition. Three years ago when I started writing about interactive works, widely read gadget blogs would just laugh at the blog posts. After some time, they stopped laughing and regularly featured some art works in their column. There's still much hi-hi-ha-ha! in their comments but there's some fair amount of respect too. I also get emails from people who write for New Scientist or Wired magazine that thank me for pointing them to artists, designers or other people whose work they would otherwise never have heard (thus written) about.
I can also see that because of the exposure many people now want to be part of the interaction design or new media art crowd just because they see that it's "cool" and would allow them to get their name in gizmodo or boingboing (I looove boingboing, don't get me wrong). I've seen that reflected in some recent and badly curated media art exhibitions: gimmicky, shallow and flashy pieces that entertain everyone. I don't know how much good it does to the discipline; they get more coverage but not always the good kind. Do you see what I mean?
SC: (Given the work I do at CRUMB about how museums and galleries take new media art on board), from your perspective, are the projects you write about, or artists you interview, any closer to being considered a part of the mainstream of visual art and contemporary culture than before, or are they still in a ghetto (self-defined or otherwise)?
RD: I can't really talk about museums. I have discussed this with gallery owners and they have to make a living, don't we all? So some rare pioneers sell screen-based works. Selling a 3D piece is more of a challenge; it's expensive, can look rather unassuming when the plug is off and needs some fixing once in a while. But coming back to screen-based works, there's some light at the end of the tunnel. Several net.artists are now finding a market for their pieces. They've been waiting for 10 years but it seems that things are finally looking brighter for them. There's even a rumour that when one of the New York galleries started framing the computer screen works in nice frames and hung them on the walls, sales got much better.
Now one positive area might be magazines. Most of the time they simply ignore new media art but some of them have started to show some interest for "digital" art, they've even asked me to write columns or report. I repeat: I hate to write long pieces for papers but I also get a big pang of pride when I think that some artists whose work I admire are finally featured on those glossy posh pages. That doesn't mean I don't have to struggle sometimes when the editors tell me "Oh, please can't you just write about something a bit more related to the topic of this magazine this time. You know... art!"
SC: Do you see what you're doing with wmmna as curatorial in any way (filtering or selecting or linking)? I think the introduction to your interview with Vuk Cosic, for example, embodies some of the best things about curatorial practice – being able to select works from a body of practice, describe them in detail but in plain speaking English, and get readers/viewers excited to find out more with the Q&A that follows.
RD: I guess it could be regarded as a kind of curatorial work. I make a selection and exhibit the work in my little art gallery. Olia Lialina said at Transmediale this year that some artists would rather have their work exhibited on websites like rhizome and wmmna than in galleries that no one visits.
I'm not so sure about that but it sounded flattering.
SC: How does your consulting work fit in to your practice - is that curatorial?
RD: I call it consulting to make it short and easy to grasp. The term includes some curatorial work, being part of a jury for commissions, and spending plenty of time discussing ‘online or not’ with students who need advice about their own projects or the best schools to attend. On the other hand, writing on my bio that I "consult" leads to some rather unpleasant emails from people who just "ask my opinion" but in fact hope that I’ll do the job for them. For example, I’m regularly asked to recommend some "cool" art works for exhibitions that other "experts" are paid to curate or set up. But if you're a student and you need some help with deciding which school is best for your interests and expectations or if you're looking for projects that engage with the same topic that you're exploring, I don't mind giving a hand at all.
SC: If you could teach new media art critics one thing, what would it be?
RD: I'm not sure I can teach them anything; I’d rather ask them to give me some of their know-how. I think my only talent is that I’m a good "vulgarisatrice". It is a French word that can be used in a positive or unflattering light; it means that I can make things easier to understand for a bigger number of people. I make media art more pop. By doing so I give it more visibility but as I mentioned earlier there's always the danger of making it look like something just cool and shallow.
SC: You studied the classics (Latin and Greek), which is a nice counterpoint to your work in new media. Who are some writers you admire (whether bloggers or not)?
RD: I read and eat so much art and design that all I want to read at bedtime are crime stories. I like Ian Rankin and Minette Walters particularly.
SC: I’ve often thought I’d like to be you, or at least have at least as cool accessories and hair clips! I really mean that I’d like to do what you do. Would you recommend it? How do you stay inspired?
RD: I recommend it for the feeling it gives me to be the luckiest person on earth (right after Paris Hilton). On the other hand, I find traveling so much tiring and I work a lot.
There's a lot of effort behind the scenes, like reading a lot (new media art essays, art and design magazines), trying to see as many shows as possible, writing articles for mags and catalogues in order to pay the rent, preparing the talks and workshops, etc. None of it is too taxing though, who am I to whine "oh, gosh! I have to see an exhibition!" I love it most of the time, but my boyfriend complains (rightly so) that I don't spend enough time with him and when I do I just talk about work.
What keeps me inspired is that I just follow my interests and they tend to change. I guess it would be better for my blog if I had stuck to (yawn!) interactive installations. Instead, I only write about them once in a while and dedicate more space to other types of works. I also write more about non-techy art. There are two reasons behind this decision. The first one is that new media art had a strange effect on me: it rekindled my interest in art which might be a good thing, as it allows me to keep my distance from the tech fads (not all that interacts and blinks is art) and look at a new media art piece with a more critical and aesthetics-seeking eye. The second reason why I write more about non-tech art is that I feel it would be good if "traditional" art and new media art could mingle more often. It doesn't happen much in festivals and exhibitions so I just make it happen on my blog.
SC: How much harder is it now that you've won 2 Webby awards?
RD: Not harder at all, I just keep on doing my own thing. I'm very happy that they chose me but I don't feel that I deserve the award. I'm not fishing for compliments, I mean it. By the way, should I change anything because I received 2 Webbys?
SC: I don’t think you should change anything; I wondered if the pressure to keep at it, or do more, had increased with the greater popularity of the site. Which leads me to ask at last, what are you thinking about doing next?
RD: That's the problem. I'm spending so much time visiting exhibitions, talking at conferences and trying to write about those that I never take a few days to just sit there and think about where all this could go.
Thanks for your interest, Sarah.