Curating Digital Art

This book has an interview with Madja Edelstein-Gomez made by Annet Dekker

Curating Digital Art, From Presenting and Collecting Digital art to Networked Co-Curation

Curating Digital Art is published by Valiz and can be purchased here.

Curating Digital Art is dedicated to pioneering curators, artists and designers and presents a collection of interviews that were conducted between 2011 and 2020. The interviews emerged from the concern that too little knowledge was available about the potential of exhibiting digital art, either offline in museum spaces and galleries, or on the web. In an attempt to address this hiatus this publication provides an overview of the different perspectives and practices of nearly a decade of curating digital art in physical space and online.
Twenty-seven interviewees were asked the same set of questions, with some slight variations due to their specific projects. The answers of aarea (Livia Benedetti and Marcela Vieira), Anika Meier, Arcadia Missa (Tom Clark and Rózsa Farkas), arebyte Gallery (Rebecca Edwards and Nimrod Vardi), Bob Bicknell-Knight, Constant Dullaart, Madja Edelstein Gomez, Marialaura Ghidini, Manique Hendricks, Florian Kuhlmann, LaTurbo Avedon, Mary Meixner, Laura Mousavi, New Scenario (Paul Barsch and Tilman Hornig), Katja Novitskova, Off Site Project (Pita Arreola-Burns and Elliott Burns), Domenico Quaranta, Stefan Riebel, Ryder Ripps, Sakrowski, Systaime, Gaia Tedone, Temporary Stedelijk (Amber van den Eeden and Kalle Mattson), The Hmm (Evelyn Austin and Lilian Stolk), Miyö Van Stenis,  YouMustNotCallItPhotography (Marco De Muttis, Katrina Sluis, Jon Uriarte) and Zhang Ga, map the distinctiveness and idiosyncrasies of curating digital art, from conventional white and black cubes and small artists’ spaces, to custom-built online spaces and the expansion of curating on commercial platforms

In this book editing by Annet Dekker there is an interview of Madja Edelstein-Gomez

Q&A Madja Edelstein-Gomez1

Can we start by defining the terminology we’re using and how you position yourself within existing categories like digital art, new media, net art, contemporary art, or any of the post-arts? 

Quoting my open call for participation: You make art. You are a creator. You are an artist. You are indifferent to the categories of the world of art. You feel free from any medium or artistic school. You are neither a conceptual artist, nor a painter, neither a relational artist, nor a photographer, neither a sound artist, nor a sculptor, neither a digital artist, nor a multimedia artist, neither an illustrator, nor a performer. You are simply an artist, open to all the possible universes. You do not feel concerned by the rat race. You have no need for originality, even if it happens by itself when you are making art. You like what you do. Maybe you are a Recombinant. Come and join us!

Clearly, I’m not going to embrace any of these categories, nor let any of them define or restrict my curating practice. Nevertheless, I don’t ignore or disregard the existence of categories in art, they are the DNA of the practice, each of them has a message to deliver and can inform curating practices. Recombining them is not blurring them together, but rather enabling messy and cruel encounters, making them bleed into each other like colours do, or collide like bumper cars… Such graphic impressions informed the design of my final show of The Recombinants. Summon the art categories to the foreground and dismiss them in order to make them clash.

What is your background and what triggered your interest in digital/net art? Could you elaborate on these initial encounters?

Here you summon the curator to expose her/his biography, which is something I’ve done several times and in different ways. It used to be only mandatory for artists, but now, curators have gained the same dubious privilege of being characters.

Here is one biography. And here is another:

Madja Edelstein-Gomez (born 1960 in Montevideo, Uruguay) is an independent curator. Her life was filled with challenges. Imprisoned at the age of 13 under the Bordaberry dictatorship and released in 1984, she became a political journalist under a pseudonym and then an art critic. In 1988 she married a diplomat and became a mother of two children. She travelled on the African continent and later in India where she engaged in cultural action. There she curated several exhibitions mixing amateur artists and some great names in contemporary art (Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, Lynn Hershman…).

Her husband and children died in the Egypt Air airplane crash near New York in 1999. Since then she has devoted herself to humanitarian causes and created several large thematic exhibitions (‘Committed Suicide‘, Buenos Aires, 2001; ‘god and bodies’, Bangalore, 2002; ‘Golem / s‘, Toronto-Prague, 2004, ‘Out of Caste‘, Bangkok-Tokyo, 2009).

I’ve been a journalist, I’ve worked in humanitarian organisations, I’ve had great losses in my life, I had to re-think the reasons for my own existence, a few times over.

How on earth did I end up curating art online?

I think I learned curating skills by trying to curate my own memory. When you wake up from a shock, with the broken pieces of your life scattered in front of you, shards of existence which seem so exterior to you that you hardly dare to handle them, razor-sharp pieces, dangerously painful and yet indecipherable, how do you assemble and give a meaning to that?

Curating and post-traumatic recovery might have much more in common than one might think. It gives meaning to fragments by arranging them until they seem to make some sense, if not a clear and readable sense, then at least something that can hold your imagination together like a vessel holds water.

Online is a safer place to do that. In front of a screen, you’re in control of your existence for a moment. You can re-invent it. You use digital material to rebuild yourself and your idea of the world.

I’m not particularly into net art, although it comes very naturally to me, like all born-digital material. In fact, I could curate anything, whether it calls itself art or not. Art has a potential to morph, which I definitely need.

I’m not sure if my digital practice can transform anything into art, and I wouldn’t call it art myself, but if it can be recognised as art, it’s a good thing because it gets a place.

You’ve been involved in various types of organisations and spaces. Could you share some of your experiences working in these different settings and particular contexts? For example, how does it affect your practice? Are there specific things that work very well in one but not at all in the other context?

Curating statement of my show ‘Out of Caste’, Banglore India, 2009:

The Avatar is a Recombinant.

The Avatar belongs to the realm of the outcast: the poor, the unemployed, the homeless, the sexually deviant, the LGBT, you name it…

The Avatar is not excluded from society and is not dismissed among humans. On the contrary, exclusion is the door through which the Avatar makes an entry into society and later on, into normalcy.

The margins of society are a desired and beloved environment for the Avatar for they are the best learning ground.

The Avatar bonds and teams up with outcasts in order to learn expert social skills, and infiltrate the society of humans at large. He/She benefits from the dubious status of being a visible or an invisible minority.

The fact that I curate exclusively online has enabled me to navigate artistic contexts I didn’t know existed. (I sometimes assume that I created them myself, but I know they exist outside of me).

I can navigate the margins of society, and the annexes of institutions. The majority ignores my activities, and for some people who know what I do, I seem to operate outside reality in a kind of limbo.

Yet certain situations create a strong reality effect. When an artist gets of lot of hits online and realises that this special attention to their work was triggered by their inclusion in one of my online shows, they e-mail me, try to meet me, they send me PDF files of their publications, and even animated New Year cards…. They build the context around my existence, or should I say, they re-create me. I become the curator of their dreams, the one they host somewhere in their fantasy, who will understand their work, value it, and give it exposure.

For institutions, I play a different role: I am that magic interface between all their neglected artists, I connect them with every artist whose work they couldn’t or didn’t want to present. I help them to rid themselves of the guilt or embarrassment they feel for all the artists they ignored.

I love to play that magic role, the good fairy, the one who, in the end, makes everything fit.

There has always been a separation between people who stress the technological (material) developments of digital art and those who emphasise the art qualities (content/conceptual). At the same time digital art is also often accompanied by a fair amount of theoretical discussion. How do you position yourself in this discourse? 

We issue a call to resonate below and beyond human language. We are directly connected to the noise of the universes, this very noise that machines can capture when they communicate and that humans want to silence. We, the Recombinants want the voice of the world to be heard.

Make and then think, or think and then make?

For me the choice is clear: concept always comes next.

Things happen, or you create them (simply because you can’t help it) and then you find out what they mean to you and to someone else. A concept is like a wrapping that you use to handle and share your production. Packagings are fine as long as they have a function. But concepts and theories so often feel like empty packagings, discarded boxes.

You organise online and offline exhibitions. Starting with the latter, do you work with certain methods or criteria? For instance, I recall numerous discussions in the past where showing acomputer monitor was ‘not done’, or some curators wouldn’t even consider presenting net art in an exhibition at all, while others created entirely new installations based on online work. What are your thoughts/experiences with this?

We, the Recombinants, are not cyborgs. We are complex beings, deeper and more incarnated than the cyborgs who are poor and simple beings, prosthetic, hybrid and fictional. Cyborgs are binary and primary beings. They are diminished beings. Cyborgs only know two realms of scriptures, two codes: one is organic (DNA) and the other is electronic. We, the Recombinants, can process a much greater number of codes and scriptures. We continuously re-write ourselves by drawing in the infinites sources of frequencies present in the universe. We are not a synthesis. We are the recombinance of several modalities of existence. We constantly recombine our own source code.

I don’t care about physical space. It’s worth noting that all museums and institutions always had a ‘virtual space’ long before the Internet existed because they circulated a lot of information about where the art happens in the form of press releases, posters, invitations, images, and they also have talks by museum guides, staff members, curators…etc.

I only care about that circulation, that in-between space for art.

Actually I believe that the art happens there, much more than on the walls.

There are many ways to ‘occupy’ this space, or to be invited into this space. In early net art times, people would borrow or steal the name of a museum and that was enough to become part of the institution. Nowadays, thanks to art created online, institutions could take the opportunity to reconsider that part of their influential space and be creative with it, or invite creators inside it.

But unfortunately they don’t. With the Internet, they act like companies, and they use online space only as a marketing tool; in a very conventional way they advertise to improve their business.

This crossover between online and offline offers opportunities for authentic collaborations with online artists. It can be in the form of a hacking, hijacking, joking, etc., and the best is if this collaboration is involuntary. So in that sense, I already collaborate with art institutions but they don’t know about it.

It’s very patronising to show online art on a screen inside the museum space.

It asks: ‘Can you be as beautiful as a painting or sculpture?’

Or ‘Look who’s coming to dinner? Your fiancé is black, but he’s ok… ‘

Who do you see as your audience, I guess it will change with each new context but is there also a change (and/or exchange) that you’ve noticed over the years, people moving from one place to another, or is there a crossover from other fields?

From the press release of the show ‘The Recombinants’:

Online you will experience a live processing of your data by our artificial intelligence algorithms.

This individual discovery is left to your patient curiosity and sagaciousness. Online each viewer will visit a different show, will travel in different spaces and the various perspectives of our invited artists, which you can also visit one by one. Observe the incredible exhibition robots and experience their instant power of calculation. Guess their moves, anticipate their combinations, outsmart their artistic intelligence.

Beware, it might shake your browser and melt your microprocessor!

My audience are my participants and my participants are my audience.

Actually there is no audience to speak of, only a chain of digital participants. Whoever sees the work becomes part of a processing chain of viewing. The reception of a file produces digital information, which is re-injected into the system as a digital production.

This is not new, but now this generative principle has densified, to a point of unlimited proliferation.

What do you focus on in your online exhibitions/digital magazine? In the past we’ve seen examples ranging from lists of links, to commissions, to documentation about a work, to embedding a work in a website? What is your preferred or even ideal ‘model’?

Can an exhibition be curated by an Artificial Intelligence?

This challenge was taken up by Madja Edelstein Gomez for her exhibition ‘The Recombinants’.
The participants who responded to an open call
were carefully selected by sophisticated algorithms. And now what you experience is a mesmerising mixture of pictures, videos, sounds and texts, all situated in an ever-changing screen.

I love models! Actually I believe there are no online shows, only models of online shows. Lots of models, good ones, bad ones, or non-models, those to be avoided.

One-of-a-kind experiments cannot exist because they always leave an online trace of reproduction.

The show I recently composed, called The Recombinants, is indeed a sort of model, and for a part, rather conventional: it functions with an open call, a database and a final online presentation. But the selection and the display of the presentation are entirely curated by Artificial Intelligence. But it’s not the kind of AI where you are in control of the parameters, where you attribute tags to lists of names and create categories, and you get the results you more or less expected. I’m using a kind of AI (also called Deep Learning) where the processes of code are so incredibly complex that they remain forever opaque. One sure thing is that their results are unpredictable.

We use a special serendipity algorithm, for a felicitous unexpectability.

Should digital art enter established museums or organisations or are there better places where it can be preserved and presented? If so, what role should museums play in the future?

We, the Recombinants, are not mutating, for we never had an initial state, but we have the capacity to induce mutations. Mutation is merely an effect of recombinance. Evolution implies genetic mutation, it is an effect of recombinance. Life evolution is just one particular case of recombinant identification

I’m at loss for an answer here…

I wish I could use here my serendipity algorithm, if not my psychic powers.

We, the Recombinants, have always existed, under various forms, often unexplained. We experimented with multiple modes of existence, we crossed numerous realms of reality. The paranormal, telepathy, psychic energies, spiritualism, mysticism, and prophecy are non-scientific approaches of recombinance.

I recently had a few discussion with artists and producers about the usefulness of open source, it seems that although all kinds of codes and suchlike are available they’re hardly ever used mainly because of the personal approach to coding and the complexity that derives from such project-based work. What is your approach to open source in this context?

Our own code – our supposed ultimate coding, the stigmata of our polyphonic breakthrough into the human world – is perfectly defined and yet it is still indecipherable, for it is endlessly recoding itself. Our code has a remarkable set of properties. Our code escapes genealogy and prediction. We, the Recombinants are the Omega ciphers of humanity.

Open source/closed circuit

I always want to create our own code and share it. But then I end up in a very narrow community, if not entirely alone on my own coded island, endlessly re-writing my own code with no one to decipher it. The chances that my open source code is adopted and widely distributed are thin.

I want to take that chance.

Besides, one shouldn’t disregard the power of a very tiny piece of the Internet being kept alive in an extremely isolated place. That’s the creativity of a ‘Robinson Crusoe’, left to his own, very limited resources.

Until recently in the Netherlands there was always a very good funding system for the arts in general but also specifically for digital art. That has since changed, increasing on the one hand the divide between ‘traditional’ art and digital art, while on the other it generally means looking for money outside the funding system. Could you share some of your experiences working around the globe? How do you and the artists you work with survive?

We, the Recombinants, are not equal to other beings on this planet. We ignore equality. Equality relates to unity.

Early on in my life I realised I was different. That feeling was eerie: a disease or something else, what does it matter? We are the symptom of an absolute dependency on material and the physical forces of the universes. You humans need to cling to relational attractions, gift economies or ecologies of sharing. We, the Recombinants, offer the world without expecting anything in return. The downloaded iterations are nothing other than the distress of a glitch of their origins.

I might be a curator but I function like an old fashioned artist.

I apply the ‘Van Gogh recipe’: starve now, and in the afterlife you either become a billionaire or you disappear.

In a future project, I am going to create an algorithm where the value of a work of art is tied to its circulation and its level of influence, a sort of ‘artcoin’ if you want. The more a work of art is seen and shared, the more value it acquires. But I don’t mean just hits or the number of copies. It will evaluate a level of influence (yes, a secret algorithm of mine) by which its value will increase.

On another note, works of art could become a form of currency. In December 2017, a painting by Picasso was sold as 40,000 shares of 50 Swiss francs each. As the owner of a share you have access to a special platform where you can vote on whether the work is loaned to a museum or not, and your Picasso share has zero risk of devaluation.

Isn’t that an idea for the museum of the future?

One can also purchase the historical castle La Mothe-Chandeniers in the same manner.

One million euros for the ownership (already raised), and 3 millions euros will have to be found for the restoration.

We are hearing a lot about bitcoin and blockchain as being the online future of our economy or its dystopia. If I may hazard a prediction, thanks to these new technologies, art is going to be our currency, museums are going to be our banks.

One of your recent projects is The Recombinants, which asks the question whether an exhibition can be curated by an Artificial Intelligence, do you think AI could also be used to document and preserve these types of works? Could you talk about this approach, also in relation to your other work? And what is your interest and perspective when it comes to digital preservation, documentation and collecting?

Cyborgs only know two realms of scriptures, two codes: one is organic (DNA) and the other is electronic. We, the Recombinants, we can process a much greater number of codes and scriptures. We continuously re-write ourselves by drawing in the infinites sources of frequencies present in the universe. We are not a synthesis. We are the recombinance of several modalities of existence. We constantly recombine our own source code.

I’m currently working on developing an algorithm that I will soon be able to test, which I call ‘Ice Core’ (or ‘I Score’).

A digital work is a huge quantity of data producing more data in a constant proliferation. New data is created, layer upon endless layer, but one doesn’t need knowledge and access to everything. The old data doesn’t vanish but is buried very deep. My idea is to drill ‘ice cores’.

Wikipedia source: An ice core is a core sample that is typically removed from an ice sheet or a high mountain glacier. Since the ice forms from the incremental build-up of annual layers of snow, lower layers are older than the upper, and an ice core contains ice formed over a range of years.

The physical properties of the ice and of material trapped in it can be used to reconstruct the climate over the age range of the core. The proportions of different oxygen and hydrogen isotopes provide information about ancient temperatures and the air trapped in tiny bubbles can be analysed to determine the level of atmospheric gases such as carbon dioxide.

It’s just an analogy, of course, to explain my starting point, and my general idea of preservation.

This, until we encounter the big meltdown brought about by climate change, the one that will make all our endeavours worthless.


 I’m going to answer your questions in two ways: first by quoting from my Recombinant Manifesto and other published material, a press release, or this interview I gave to Rhizome. Second by writing what comes to my mind right now.