Magdalena Sawon and Tamas Banovich are co-owners and co-directors of Postmasters gallery in New York. They were interviewed by Dominic Smith in autumn 2008. The gallery was established in 1984 and has been involved with presenting new media works since 1996.
Tamas Banovich: My observation of what happened, especially what happened here with artists working with technology and digital media (basically itís a generalisation but this is what I feel), is that people who were into innovation and entrepreneurship overran this whole field. It used to be for years that art was innovative, and then innovation went into the mainstream when people found new uses for existing technology. Right now I have the impression that there are so many smart people, so many innovators and so many entrepreneurial people who have basically run all over this field. They just come up faster, and are more involved and more engaged, and they try to make an enterprise out of doing new things. They are just as creative and cover all the angles that artists used to. Thatís just my general theory.
A couple of years ago I wanted to start a mobile technology festival to bring creativity to more aspects of mobile communicationsóto cross the so-called digital divide. Mobile technology is global and much better than the Internet in a way. But I realised that basically all those ideas are already incredibly well covered by society and by whatís going on already. I was very interested in creating something or finding the people to create something useful, not only for people in the US and a couple of very advanced countries but for all those hundreds of millions of people who are using a mobile platform where there isnít even any electricity. Ö Of course there is always an angle that artists can cover. But I discarded that idea for a festival, because my primary reason was not to get some nice new artwork for the phone. I wanted to get something more meaningful. There is a whole art of mobile recycling. If you go to any developing country they can take mobiles apart, they can fix them, they can do anything with them; itís very efficient and itís amazingly creative. So a big question for me is, what can artists give to this any more?
Dominic Smith: Yes, I really take on board what you are saying about there being too many smart people out there all trying to carve out a niche for themselves. The thing about an open source model is that all source code is freely available so if you produce something you put the code out there. If you are a charismatic person with a good idea you will be able to source people from a crowd and filter their skill levels to decide what stage in the project they work on. I am looking at this process like an Ďopen Madonna factoryí. In the Madonna icon painting factory, if someone was good at drawing hands then they got that job, it was all divided up into sections. In a lot of respects, what I am noticing about big-name artists involved in open source is that they manage to source other intelligent people with very specific skills, so someone will handle the network problems, etc.
Magdalena Sawon: Yes but historically with art, outsourcing and fabrication is not a different issue. At certain levels of conceptual production you have an idea and you donít have the tools. So an artist is not restricted to a particular medium. And we see that much more these days. I have an artist who has never touched a computer but has an idea for a piece that requires high-end technical knowledge and he doesnít have it, so of course that gets farmed out to somebody else. It doesnít make his piece any less interesting or any less meaningful. Right now there is a balance between people who write their own code and are technically very proficient and understand how the car runs, and other people who know that you push the button here and it drives.
TB: I remember when I was first interested in digital art there were a lot of people who had really solid programming skills. Even a couple of weeks ago I was talking to someone who said, ĎIím working with artists because I can programí, and I said, ĎWhat kind of programming do you do?í, and he really was just talking about being able to use high-end tools in a very proficient way. Itís not really programming. Java is a programming language but that is also already a language where you use a software library. So you get people who can use a library but they donít know how to make a library. Thatís also changed. Itís not good or bad; itís just interesting.
But strictly open source? It can work but, in a way, I donít see such a big difference between entrepreneurs and open source because open source has a big social value when it comes to big things, but on the other hand I think for small things I donít see that much of an added value proposition. Looking at the iPhone and all the applicationsówhy shouldnít someone who does these things get 99 cents for their little application because it is useful? And then all these open source people, when they grow up, live out of this, one way or another. Whether itís being an adviser or whatever. So they create their own economy. Itís a great thing that open source is free, but at the same time they have to live off something; they have families, etc. So all these open source people do grow up and do very well (maybe not like Bill Gates) from being exceptional software engineers. So itís an interesting thing, but for me it is not so clear cut.
MS: On a more simple level, art projects are not progressive in a way that someone wants to do this, and then they want to do something else. So itís not really the point that they will do something and then give it to the next person. They are so specific and so individually geared to this or that project.
TB: I was very interested in this whole idea of a different economy for art, and I imagined that someone would do something and then another artist would come along and say, ĎOh, I can do it better.í [laughs] ĎThis is an interesting concept, maybe I will do it!í [laughs] ĎHe just did something and I can improve it until itís a common free contribution to the world.í Unfortunately I really believed ten years ago that somehow, a digital medium could create at least an alternate economic model for art as well. But it didnít happen. All the artists who did digital art figured out how to make it unique and how to commodify it before I or anybody else could make a serious effort to create a different model, because they just figured out much faster that it is maybe not a winning proposition.
DS: One of the arguments for artists using this open source model was put forward by Saul Abraham. To paraphrase him, he said that there are only so many galleries, teaching posts and commissions, etc., but there are so many more artists, and how do those artists get a foot on the ladder and gain access to peer review, gain experience, show their own work and begin to experience collaborative practice as we all do as artists? His argument is for open source as it exposes artists to a value system for their work that they couldnít otherwise gain. So how do you pit that value system against the more traditional system in galleries and among people who have to sell work to survive?
MS: I canít necessarily say that I understand the parallel fully, because I donít think art production and the gallery are exclusively about commerce: there is the good/bad model of the ideal Ďsharingí gallery, versus the horrible idea of the gallery where we sell. It is much more grey and much more complex than that. We certainly donít produce shows specifically to sell. Things do sell, but what people show in galleries is somehow reflective of what is out there, what they see. When you consider how we started working with digital art, this impulse that it is a commodity did not enter into it. Yes, I thought there would be enough curiosity and, like with every medium, at some point markets would develop. It took much longer than we thought, but yes, it developed so yes, there is a commodity, but it is still nowhere close to traditional media. I donít know where and how to apply the idea of open source to this individual production and all these different people doing different things.
TB: If you look back, forget about digital art, just look generally at art and how people started to make art in art schools and to their becoming recognised artists. Itís kind of an extra process, because in the beginning you are sheltered from the commercial system for a period of time. So there is a period of communication and organisation and the self-generation of groups where these people do Ďopen sourceí, and they exchange ideas and show each other work. It does exist; this whole system exists. Then the hypocritical part of it is them saying Ďwe are better because we are not sellingí. Well of course they are not selling because there is no market for it! But the moment there is a market for it, they split in five seconds and turn their backs to that system. It is a natural process in growing up, that disingenuousness is built in. It is so obvious and so predictable, yet each generation pretends they are different. Of course every teenager that grows up thinks they are different and unique and the world doesnít know yet. As we know itís very disappointing. [laughs] People just grow up and make choices, they understand the world, they understand their role in the world. There are ways of going against the system and I always admire that, but thatís a very difficult road so very few people choose that. And they can be just as successful if they are good.
But I donít want to diminish it because open source is an intellectual movement and it started as an intellectual idea, itís not just a technical thing. What I see is that it gets absorbed into this whole system, that open source has a place and open source is in many ways built into the whole picture, and is supported. I am totally sure that in the UK you have a ton of money to support open source, so how is it different from venture capital investing in some artists? Mostly I have discussions with English artists who talk about the government funding they get, saying Ďughh this commercial stuffí. Yet if you ask them how they live and support themselves itís all Arts Council. The government that you hate is giving you a lot of money and luxuriously supports you. So thatís where open source used to be a new phenomenon but itís pretty much now built into the whole system.
MS: It is a much harsher reality here because obviously the government support for the arts does nothing.
TB: Yes, but if you have a good idea itís different. You will always find someone who will invest in it.
MS: Yes, but are you talking about art?
TB: Well we are talking about art specifically, but art, not the artist, is open sourced. You call it art; someone else calls it something else.
DS: Eyebeam has a lot of artists who work with open source software and hardware, but I am getting the idea that how that is funded is similar to what you have just discussed, with venture capital and benefactors keeping it alive. So in a of lot ways large companies sponsor open source because the browsers we use wouldnít run on a lot of the servers we use without Apache, which is an open source piece of software. They appreciate it is in their best interests to support these movements as well.
MS: Yes, there are a variety of motivations but the support comes in from different territories.
TB: It is more efficient for a company to support open source when they are starting research. Itís actually turned out pretty well. You know our crazy idea: we started a company, netomat , which was a very early multimedia browser idea, a very ingenious idea, but it wasnít really presented as a super product that would make money in five minutes. Yet, in eight years people have invested $10 million, and they still invest in it, and still there is no killer application. But they still see the value and the hope. I just want to demonstrate that the whole investment thing is very rational and it pays for many different ideas. Also these people who got fabulously rich from some software applications or art projects, just by luck, they also support lots of crazy projects, like Zero One.
MS: Zero One is an organisation that includes American curators, that produces a big festival (01SJ Biennial) out in San Jose.
TB: Deep down all these festivals are supported by private people, organisations and cities, you know.
DS: There are often artists who will produce work and call the work an open source piece of artwork; they produce something that can be shared and they release it under various licences such as creative commons licences or the GPL licence, which can apply more to the actual code. Have you had any experience of work that has been licensed under those terms?
MS: I donít; it hasnít come into what we show in the gallery. The artist that should perhaps have some interesting insights about it would be Cory Arcangel and that is because he hacks non-open source things and makes them available. Heís one of these artists that take and give. To tell you the truth, from my view of the art scene rather than the technology scene, I donít know of many others.
TB: Many of these art projects are very specific; what they create does not have a wide application.
MS: I think the specificity is not shareable.
TB: As I say, more often than not these ideas are taken over by others. Itís totally academic. With 90 percent of public software, whether itís licensed or not, by the time it comes out something else has come out that is much better. So most software is falling aside and there is very little that carries on with some kind of volume.
DS: Yes, the more artists I am talking to about this, the more successful ones seem to say, ĎLicences? Bah, I just donít do it.í
TB: Exactly. It only makes money if it is applied on a massive scale and then it mostly goes on administration. So it is mostly moot, this issue. In the real world there are companies that do just thatóthey buy up rights in the hope that one of the thousand is actually worth something. Really it doesnít make sense. Even if you talk to a patent lawyer thatís the first thing they say, ĎJust think about if it is worth it, because it costs $30,000Ė40,000 to get a patent and then by the time you get it, itís not worth it at all.í But certainly philosophically itís important and itís important to keep up the discussion, especially the part about keeping extending patent shelf life. Itís basically driven by Mickey Mouse. In the US copyright extension is driven by Disney, and that is very hard to learn. And part of it is educationópeople donít understand the ramifications, especially in the US, with the enterprise mindset thinking it is always a good thing to end license a product, but it is not so beneficial.
MS: Just recently Lawrence Lessig wrote an article about how copyright is incredibly against creativity, and the aspect of criminalisation for the new generation, how it stifles the natural impulses of making and doing things, because copying is criminal. Put in those terrains of legality, where a kid just doing stuff is a criminal, then Ö
TB: There is 20 or 30 years of history of major trends of appropriation and sampling, all that stuffóit became part of the mainstream. Yet you know the whole system is against it and tries to destroy it and unfortunately those people make a lot of money, so they do everything to stifle it.
DS: The ironic thing about Disney is that the Mickey Mouse film ĎSteamboat Willieí is a rip off of Buster Keaton.
TB: Itís not about originality; itís about having the drive, having the patent. How many times is there an obvious rip off of someone who didnít patent and then someone else comes along and patents it?
MS: Well, that goes a lot into commercial advertising, that stuff is taken from the art world. All these patents of database films that Apple or Verizon or whoever just stole from the artist Christian Marclay. This is just one example, but again there is a lot of this kind of thing taking place because in the art world the self-protection paranoia does not exist. Christian Marclay, in fact, was advised to sue them but he didnít, because he had already taken the pictures from old films. The convoluted mess of all these processes and practices is too big to bother about.