Collective urge to disrupt the system
Ras Alhague has been participating in the /’fu:bar/, contemporary error-themed digital art and theory festival, since 2016. For the last two editions, they contributed as a guest curator choosing their own collection of works for composing the curatorial concept from exhibits selected by Dina Karadžić and Vedran Gligo.
With this author of various artistic personalities, we tackled the questions of curating digital art, the vitality of glitch art, the importance of art theory and the question of online identity.
New /’fu:bar/ exhibition is starting on the 28th of October. At the last year’s online edition that you curated with jonCates and Kaspar Ravel, you had a chance to select the collections among more than 500 works Dina Karadžić and Vedran Gligo accepted, and shape them into your curatorial concept. Did you and in what way modify your approach to this year’s selection and concept?
Last year I decided to create a video presentation showcasing some of the artists associated with the Glitch Artists Collective community who applied to the festival. I would like to focus on a smaller number of artists and perhaps present it in the form of an article if that option is available. The topic of online/digital identities fascinates me and I’m curious to see how it was approached by our participants. I’ve never really presented anything like that in a written form so I’m definitely challenging myself with this, but I do believe this format will allow me to delve deeper into the subject and present my interpretation of their artistic visions in a more organized way.
Since 2015 you have been co-curating the exhibition Glitch Art is Dead. The title is in one way referring to the frustration that is often present when elements of a movement or subculture are taken over by the mainstream. How are you countering that statement and the sentiment with the exhibition concept?
I actually left GAID a few years ago and likely won’t be working on it in the future so my views are only personal and do not represent the event’s agenda today. (That being said, I fully support GAID and the people behind it! I think they’re doing a fantastic job and it was exciting to see it make a comeback with this year’s edition.)
I believe that frustration, distress, and even elements of grief, are a perfectly justified reaction when we see corporations monetize on a niche practice we’ve been engaging in for years. But it would be a mistake to view it as a point of no return or the death of the movement. Our idea for Glitch Art is Dead was to present the exact opposite of that. We wanted to prove that glitch art was very much alive and I think we succeeded.
My personal theory on the lifespan of glitch art is that it will always exist as long as humans have the need to destroy things to send a message. And I don’t see that need dying out any time soon, especially in the current political climate. That need doesn’t necessarily have to exist under the name of glitch art or even manifest itself as an art movement, but I do believe that creativity is a significant factor. The act of innovation by breaking conventions simply isn’t limited to digital art only. Even if glitch art as a movement eventually dies out, it will still be very much alive, as it’s always been as an expression of our collective urge to disrupt the system.
Digital art has a reputation for being more democratic and inclusive but for the same reason more difficult to comprehend and envelope in predetermined structures. Does that make it more or less challenging to curate?
I think it’s only fair to say both digital and physical artworks come with their own unique challenges. With physical pieces (sculptures, installations, prints) you really need to think about the size and the limits of the space you’re presenting them in, how fragile they are, how to set up the lights, etc. In some sense, the same can be said about digital pieces presented on screens, but then it’s a matter of making sure the vessel for the artwork, the display, is properly taken care of. In 2018, during the blue \x80 festival in Paris, we made the decision to utilize screens to showcase still images (along with video works) – basically, anything that wasn’t an installation or a sculpture was displayed on a screen. The idea was that not all digital art is meant to be printed and presenting it in its home environment feels more true to its nature. I think it also sends an important message about how presentation influences people’s perception and interpretation of an art piece. Works utilizing non-digital techniques are still the primary focus of the more notable art institutions. We certainly have been seeing more spaces exclusively dedicated to showcasing digital media, but I think it only proves the point I’m trying to make – that there is still a need to separate the digital from the art world.
We are still seeing a lot of prejudice towards digital art, especially with all the online exhibitions happening throughout the pandemic and, perhaps more importantly, due to the rise of NFTs. NFTs have become an extremely controversial topic and polarized the art world. But regardless of whether or not you’re a fan of online events or crypto art, we are certainly going through a very interesting period for digital media and I’m curious to see where it leads.
Who would you highlight as the most perceptive and insightful theorists and writers of glitch art, and wider, digital art? How does theory influence your artistic and curatorial practice?
I always highlight Rosa Menkman as one of the most influential glitch art theorists. Her work has inspired many artists, including myself, and it’s still relevant and hugely important to the community. I think her study on file formats is a fascinating read for everyone interested in experimenting with digital art.
This might be a bit of a controversial statement for a curator to make, but I have not been reading much of a glitch or digital art theory. This could be the result of my short-lived and questionably pleasant experience at the Academy of Fine Arts, but I truly don’t see theory as an essential part of the art practice. I do value people who engage in it and believe it can be highly beneficial and inspiring. But what mostly influences my artistic work as well as my curatorial practice is the art of other people. The way I see it, every artwork comes with its own theory, not just in its message/interpretation (or lack thereof), but also as a cultural contribution and a unique manifestation of one’s creativity.
You mentioned briefly the Academy of Fine Arts. What do you think is the place of existing art establishments such as academies and museums in the contemporary digital art world?
I think institutions dedicated to studying and cultivating art are highly important and can be beneficial for an artist’s personal development. My experience didn’t go so well, but that doesn’t mean I don’t see any value in them. Having spaces where artists can gather, make connections, share experiences, and talk about their work is generally a good thing and big institutions often provide very lucrative opportunities for people associated with them. From my observations, however, connections play a very important role in this dynamic. It’s also important to remember that as much as the Academy likes to present itself as the center of the art world, it is merely a small part of it. Personally, I’m more interested in seeing the development of independent communities and art projects.
In your practice, you deal with the issues of online identity by generating various artistic personalities on different layers of the internet. How do those identities develop and modify with the change within communication channels and platforms but also in relation to the fluctuations of the socio-political context?
This topic actually relates mostly to my mental health rather than the art I create (although my struggles and experiences are definitely crucial to my work) so I wouldn’t necessarily say these are only artistic personalities. I see them as an integral part of who I am as they have been persistent throughout my entire online experience. As a child of parents who didn’t really see the Internet as much of a threat (and to be honest, as wild as the WWW was back in the day, I did feel way more secure about my online presence), I got to spend quite a lot of time browsing whatever I wanted. Admittedly, a terrible idea for a minor, but thankfully, the thing I enjoyed the most about my online (ad)ventures was the freedom to express my creativity.
The environment I grew up in wasn’t exactly the most supportive of my art in its early stages (not until I started receiving formal art education) and my creative work was often ridiculed rather than encouraged. The Internet, however, especially in its pre-social-media era offered a sense of presumed anonymity that I liked to take advantage of. I loved (and still love to some extent) the feeling of setting up a new account because it had the ability to trick me into thinking that I could finally do whatever I wanted, be whoever I wanted. Naturally, this mostly led to starting tons of unfinished projects as a commitment to the piece would always turn out to be much less exciting than the start. All of this, however, had a huge impact on shaping the human I am today and on the paths I’ve chosen, especially the artistic ones.
Unfortunately, the Internet is different today. Our experience is curated by big corporations and their algorithms on a massive scale. The violation of privacy has become a normalized part of the online experience to the point where it honestly kind of stopped bothering me, at least on a day-to-day basis. That’s not to say that I’m fine with it, it’s just become one of the consequences of existing on the superficial Internet. When it comes to securing one’s privacy, options are definitely limited for an average user, especially on social media platforms. I see using glitch art to obscure one’s identity (either by creating self-portraits with glitch techniques or altering your name by adding a combining diacritical marks a.k.a. “Zalgo”) as a statement rather than an actual attempt at preventing identification. But personally, I love to see it.