Artists under Quarantine: Alex Czetwertynski

Will large events with tons of people still be possible? Or do we need to start working within a new paradigm?

By David Icke Turner

Ask ten people what ‘New Media’ is and you will likely get ten answers. If one of them tells you ‘New Media explores the intersection of art and technology’, kindly walk away. The simple parts we know: artists are constantly adapting new technologies as mediums and the stuff we easily recognize as ‘techy and smart’ is lazily called ‘New Media’. However, the connection between these human developments and their integration into the arts is more than surface deep at its best. Nobody is more versed in theory and application behind this relatively burgeoning medium than Alex Czetwertynski. Alex is himself a ‘digital’ artist and one of the more renowned curators in the landscape of creative technologies. Having curated large scale, multi-artist activations at festivals like Electric Castle and Day for Night, the Belgian born, Sorbonne-educated Czetwertynski has seen this art form grow from small scale tinkering to large scale application. He is well aware of exactly how sharp his teeth are and he makes no qualms about it recently posting “ Strangely, the New Media Arts world is sorely lacking in critical thinking.  I attempt to explore this void and offer some direction on how to fill it.” Naturally, the fundamental sea change that is Covid-19 brings some critical questions to the surface.  We had the luxury of picking Czetwertynski’s mind during this lockdown.

How are you passing the time? Is it tone deaf to assume artists can make this period productive ?

Strangely even though lots of work has dried up, there are plenty of things going on.  One thing I’m noticing is that a lot of people who had plans for physical events (a field I work in a lot) are now thinking about ways of bringing these to some form or the other of “digital presence”.  So there is a lot of research in that direction. There are also projects, personal or commercial, that have taken the forefront for a variety of reasons. I imagined this would be a period to read more books, write, catch up on the movies I want to see, but no luck with any of that.

Is it safe to assume that ‘public art’ will have to redefine itself once the dust settles?

If by public art you mean art that requires an audience, yes.  But I think that Public Art can be seen in many ways, the most classical definition being art made for the widest possible audience, and I think that is not going to go anywhere, it will just have to take different forms.  As I walk through my neighborhood and see all the shuttered storefronts, empty retail spaces etc…I imagine that those could be taken over by artists and offer “free” art for people as they carry on their daily lives. A lot of stuff is free right now, with artists and art institutions trying to stay relevant by engaging with people through the web.  

So the redefinition is in progress. I think the biggest question people are asking themselves is if this is something they really need to invest themselves into, meaning : will things go back to normal?  Will large events with tons of people still be possible? Or do we need to start working within a new paradigm?

New Media has enjoyed a state of global community of sorts with regular collaboration between artists separated by national boundaries . Do you see the discipline becoming more localized and community based ? Is that a good/bad thing?

I don’t think that’s really the case.  People will continue to work globally as much as they are allowed to show globally, and the networks between artists are mostly digital.  People keep up with each other via social media, mailing lists and online publications more than anything. The biggest impact on the community will be the way they show work, if conferences and festivals shut down or change radically.  

There seems to be a theme of ‘repurposing’ with this crisis. Vodka makers and perfume brands are making hand sanitizer. University engineering groups are switching gears to develop low cost ventilators. How does ‘New Media’ repurpose it’s achievements ?

I think that New Media is the field by definition to be looking for interesting new approaches to art.  If art will require a more digital approach to exhibition and connection with audiences, then New Media artists can be part of the pioneers in making this possible.  A deep understanding of technology and it’s inherent possibilities, both technical and conceptual, is what is required to find new approaches to engaging with audiences in meaningful ways.  

With Covid-19 underscoring the ‘unitary body’ of humanity, are artists now coerced to move away from individualism towards more collective work?

I wonder about this a lot.  I think that in some shape or form the idea that we are all autonomous creatures who can thrive in our own bubble and just “be ourselves” is becoming an antiquated concept.  It was already moribund before Covid-19 came around, but now we are faced with a clear need for a new model. Someone operating as if the idea of the “hero artist” who’s every thought should be worth a fortune needs to change practices and move to finance or literature.  I think we are going towards a more amorphous perception of individuality, one that has blurry edges, where “ownership” is less important. We live in a swamp of ideas, whenever you think you find a new one it is already connected to 50 others, and 50 other people are pulling at that same thread.  So how do we make that interesting? Are we willing for our creativity to be less about ourselves? 

The Black Death affected European art for 100 years. Will we do the same or rush to forget ?

Too early to say, but there isn’t any doubt in my mind that there will be a before and after Covid.  Interestingly we were in the middle of a debate about the importance of the state in our daily lives, with the topics such as universal health care and free education becoming more and more accepted and discussed in the public sphere.   Covid has shown us that if we indeed had those things, getting through these crises would be much easier. But the US is not a country that celebrates solidarity, unless there is some kind of common enemy. So seeing how people are coming together around this invisible enemy, I wonder if the effects will last.  Will we continue to acknowledge how important teachers and delivery people are? Or will we just revert to accepting a wild west meritocracy as our modus operandi? Will be interesting to observe.

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