[NetBehaviour] RE State of Art - A Conversation with G.H. Hovagimyan

mark cooley flawedart at yahoo.com
Wed Feb 27 02:41:45 CET 2008

Hi James,

Thanks for your response and for taking the time to read the interview. Just to be clear, I am not arguing what can or can not be art. I asked the question because I'm interested in how art often function as promotion for corporations - GH took it in his own direction, which is fine. Pall Thayer had an interesting reaction (on rhizome) to the last paragraph as well. I'll copy it below with my response, but in short I do believe that software can be art, my concern is the lack of understanding among some that coding is a cultural language - that the way in which we build our technologies have a lot to do with how we build our society. As I've stated below the debate about content vs. tools assumes that these things can be separated. The tools themselves are already loaded with content. This debate seems to be a continuation of the old modernist form vs. content debate. What that debate ignored is that there is already a content of form. Maybe what GH was responding to was
 the formalist attitude of some software artists. Perhaps the artists that GH was speaking of were more-or-less techno-formalists - assuming that the form itself (treated as isolated from culture) matters. Maybe it's a perceived disengagement with the world that is the problem - treating code as an escape from the world rather than a way to describe and change it. This has traditionally been the criticism that politically engaged artists have offerd toward the art-for-art's-sake tradition. Only now we could call it art-for-TECH's-sake.
Reply by Pall Thayer    
            February 23, 2008 7:03 am    
                 I have to admit that I haven't taken the time to read this interview thoroughly but I want to make some comments on the content of the "addendum." A while back GH Hovagimyan and I swapped some comments regarding code on my CodeChat prototype (http://pallit.lhi.is/~palli/codechat/codechat.php). Sure, if someone spends all their time talking about code structures etc. without regarding content, then we have to wonder about "artistic intent." Something like this would suggest to me that the person created some software and determined after the fact to call it "art." They are intensely aware of some programming merits but not the artistic merits but since it doesn't fit into some "functional software" category they call it art. Then you have someone who regards only the content of the work suggesting that they set out to create some art and then had it implemented in code. However in that case, why use code? Is that really the best medium for that particular
 piece or was it chosen simply for some "fad" potential? The fact that coded artwork is coded carries with it a variety of possible conceptual implications. Coding structures and choice of coding language can figure therein as well. But mostly what I want to say is that to seriously address a coded work of art, the discussion needs to be balanced between issues regarding the code itself and content. Things like coding structures or principles or efficiency of the code or whatever they call those things, really don't matter. But something like whether or not the resulting code or the tools are "open source" can carry very strong political and social implications. What the code does and how, can matter within the context of the work's content. Claiming to "understand" a coded work of art without any regard at all for the underlying code is superficial at best.
                        Reply to this post          
                            Reply by mark cooley       
               February 23, 2008 7:29 pm    
                 Thank you for your comment Pall. It's interesting that the code / content debate duplicates the old debate about form and content in art. I try not to separate these things but often end up falling into the same modernist trap. I think your last comment concerning the social implications of tools themselves are very important and seems to be the direction socially engaged artists should take (and many already do). As you've said, modes of production matter a whole lot in terms of political economy. Separating the politics of representation from the politics of process or production is sort of like having "buy local" printed on a t-shirt made in China (something I saw not long ago). Thanks again for the comment. It's nice when things like this generate responses.

Hi Mark,

Although I enjoyed reading this conversation and found it very
interesting, I've picked up on the last paragraph, which provokes. It
also relates to what Marc is saying with regards to his return to
net art.

Often artists working in new media believe that you must write your own
code in order to be a digital artist or you must use JAVA or you must
use open source software or .... You get the idea. I remember once
speaking at a panel where there was a net artist who was using perl and
php and Peter Sinclair and I were using Max MSP. The other artist
only about the coding structure. Our piece used custom built software
well but we were interested in the content and the user interactions.
This happens all the time where a person mistakes writing code for art
or insist that digital art is only code. It's a rather boring
discussion about hardware and software.

I know I've been through this before, "programming as art", but feel I
might have come to a few small refinements. Or perhaps just understand
my own confusion a little better - but I'm still confused and still not
convinced that programming can not be art.

>From my experience making both. From writing a piece of software to
generate WAV audio files. MP3's of the generated audio as art. The text
files which the software reads to generate the audio - (a possibility I
explored once) as art via obsfucation via incorporated nonsense.

The development of the program has been dictated by my own usage of it
an Artist. Which in turn developed ideas of what is to be done with

And eventually my mind becomes a melting pot for all this, and the
distinction between the mental activities used for programming and
for art, melt away. // am i sure about this?

I think for me a big part of art is for showing possibilities.
Possibilities in ways of thinking about things.

// Or that's what I enjoy about making, atleast.

In that sense, when you think of all the possibilities some stupid
piece of code could be... The coding structure does give a sense of
wonder. A relatively short list of keywords and operators, and you can
do like whatever man, it's like sculpture  - now - wow!


On 22/2/2008, "mark cooley" <flawedart at yahoo.com> wrote:

>State of Art - A Conversation with G.H. Hovagimyan
>A conversation between G.H. Hovagimyan and Mark Cooley conducted
 through electronic mail - January 2008.
>MC:  Over the years, you've had experiences with various
 that have tried in one way or another to censor your work. I'm
 interested if you could identify and comment on particular sites of
 that exist in and around Art institutions and identify some the taboos
 that tend to generate negative responses from potential censors
 (curators, board members, sponsors, politicians, and other interested
>GH: The most blatant example was a piece called, Tactics for
 in the New Culture. It was a text piece. I was going to put it in the
 windows of 112 Workshop (the first alternative space in New York City
 the US) in 1974. Since 112 depended on grants from NYSCA and National
 Endowment for the Arts I was told I couldn't do the piece because it
 would jeopardize their funding. I did do the piece later for another
 exhibition called the Manifesto Show for COLAB (an artists group I was
 member of). When I first started working on the internet twenty years
 later in 1994 I put the piece up as a hypertext work I have also
 updated it
 from a manifesto to an interactive textual maze
 http://www.thing.net/~gh/artdirect . The piece is not cute. It deals
 with the dark side of the American psyche. It is a meditation on the
 psychological states that would bring one to be an anarchist. It is a
 York Punk Art piece. Punk was a rebellion against the fake hippy
 art that was
> being produced at the time. That type of art is still being
 It gets a lot of funding because it uncontroversial.
>There are of course several ways to censor artists for example the
 simplest is to not include the work in an exhibition or ask the
 artists to
 alter the work to make it more acceptable. This happens to me a lot in
 the US. Several of my artworks in particular my net.art works have
 sexual content. One of my first internet pieces Art Direct/ Sex
 and Politics http://www.thing.net/~gh/artdirect was always raising
 hackles because of the sexual content. It was not included in several
 internet shows because the museums were afraid that children would
 upon the images and they would be liable. In this case both the
 government and the institution censored the work. In France the same
 work was
 featured in a centerfold of Art Press magazine in a special issue on
 techno art.
>People who censor are often corporations flexing their muscle. One
 the pieces in Art Direct ... called BKPC
 http://nujus.net/gh_04/gallery6.html , used Barbie, Ken and G.I. Joe
 dolls. At some point the isp host, *the thing* received a letter from
 Mattel toys demanding that the site be removed for violation of
 I had to get a lawyer and send them a letter saying it was fair use
 and for them to back off. Luckily the people at the thing were not
 intimidated by Mattel so the site stayed up. By the way BKPC is about
 interracial sex so it makes people uncomfortable or it's titillating.
 When I
 showed the physical work in a Christmas showed called Toys/Art/Us , I
 was asked by the curators to make sure that children could not view
 art work. I did this by mounting the works in glassine sleeves on a
 podium that could only be seen by standing adults. I was lucky the
 wanted to show the work and was willing to work through the problem
 with me. In other cases the
> curator would not be that imaginative and simply shy away from
 showing anything that was vaguely controversial.
>Another case of censorship was the Whitney Art Port an online new
 media projects gallery. I did a piece called Cocktail Party that
 synthetic voices in conversations as if they were drunk and at a
 cocktail party. I was asked to remove three sequences because of their
 content. I wanted so much to be included in this project and the
 curator was a friend that I altered the piece, removing the offensive
 The curator was afraid that the corporation would stop funding the
 project if I offended them with my overt content.
>This happens all the time to every artist and it's quite a dilemma.
 you do the work unaltered it often means that you are not ever
 selected again for exhibitions. But then again Michelangelo had to
 paint a fig
 leave on the Sistine Chapel.
>MC: The funding issue is interesting to me and seems to come up in
 many of your experiences. Censorship stories, as rarely as they are
 covered in the news, seem to focus heavily on the ideological
 component of
 censorship and whether public money should be used to fund
 art. I'm interested to hear more about how anxieties regarding funding
 (public or private) influence curatorial decisions inside art
 institutions. I'm interested to hear your thoughts on this sort of
 determined censorship and its effects on art and public discourse
 around art. I'm also interested to know if these funding anxieties
 worsened or changed as art institutions have switched over to the Arts
 management model and have made themselves so dependent on corporate
 sponsorship for programming?
>GH: I did a large billboard piece called Hey Bozo... Use Mass
 http://nujus.net/gh_04/gallery2.html . It was five large billboards
 scattered around New York City to convince people to use mass transit.
 was part of a competition put on every year by the MTA and Creative
 Time. I received an Honorarium of $500 and they produced the
 The piece caused such a stir that it was in the papers for a week
 straight and I was on TV on all the networks. One of the upshots was
 conservatives wanted to know why public money was used to produce an
 artwork that insulted motorists and the other thing that happened was
 Bozo the Clown tried to sue me for trademark infringement because I
 the word Bozo. These are symptoms or indications of a deeper issue
 albeit a populist one. One the one hand you have a media figure (bozo
 clown) who tries to sue anyone who uses the word Bozo. He's got a sort
 of cottage industry. This is the way that corporations deal with
> the avant garde they can't control. On the other hand you have
 media that tries to produce outrage in order to keep the attention of
 the population This is also called delivering eyeballs and is a way to
 sell advertising. As you can see the main tool to attack an artist is
 money. either cut off funding or sue them. This is a way to stop them
 getting their message out whatever that message might be. But there's
 a flip side to this coin. We live in an information environment. There
 really is no way to stop information from coming out. It will be
 presented in a different venue for example the internet or in the case
 art, alternative festivals, galleries etc.. So the idea of censorship
 media specific or venue specific. It becomes a power game that is
 who controls the venue and therefore controls the message. In this
 it's a reflection of the capitalist marketing system and art is a part
 of that system. But I see art as something beyond that system.
>There are essentially two economies for art. One is the market for
 objects this includes galleries, museums, magazines and all the
 services of art fairs etc.. The other is the academic economy, which
 trains artists, curators and all the people interested in art. These
 systems shape what art is seen and what the content and style of the
 is about. Both systems have self perpetuating mechanisms. In the
 it is about the object. If you don't make art that has a physical
 object you can't be in the market. There is a component that has to do
 entertainment and ticket sales in museums. This allows for
 and performance art as well as digital art and screen based art.
 Indeed, the economies of temporary museum spaces are a reflection of
 corporate manager style art.
>The academic system on the other hand allows for artists who don't
 necessarily fit the market to have some financial patronage by
 The problem is that the artist's work and creativity is all about
 getting students to attend the university and their own class. This is
 another form of marketing.
>I believe in a different type of art, an experimental, anarchic art
 that shakes things up and operates outside the existing art economies.
 many instances this has been confused with the idea of an alternative
 life style that is a sort of well of inspiration for entrepreneurs
 looking for new products, ideas and people to sell to. Anarchic art is
 about something different it's about challenging and critiquing the
 existing systems. Why? because I believe that art is about seeing
 clearly and is one of the few areas that has freedom. That form of art
 becomes dangerous because it is uncontrollable. It can't be packaged
 marketed. That is why there is always a move towards censorship of
 art works.
>There is also fake censorship or more precisely using outrage as a
 to manipulate the art market. This is used successfully by people like
 Maurice Saatchi who had a show of his Young British Artists at the
 Brooklyn Museum. This show was also shown in England and there was
 in London as well. The outrage in the US was about Cris Ofili's use of
 elephant dung in a virgin mary painting. A nice piece of art that was
 about his African roots. The outrage in London was about a photograph
 that portrayed a famous criminal child murderer in England. The public
 and the press demanded the works be “censored.” The works themselves
 went up in monetary value because of the outrage. The position is that
 an artist that uses an epatez de bourgeois position in their art. This
 reinforces the patron's sense of being better than the masses. It is
 elitist position. I happen to like the art works but the content of
 the pieces are standard for the art world. The Ofili pie!
 ce is
> multiculturalism and the other work is punk. Both styles were
 presented in the late 1970's and I view these latest pieces as
 stylistically conservative.
>As you can see the notion of censorship is more of an unfulfilled
 demand by an outraged person in the street than any sort of actuality
 it comes to the marketing of objects. Those works that are actually
 censored one never sees or hears about.
>MC: I'm interested in what you call "fake censorship" or the use of
 public and media outrage as a marketing tactic. I'm reminded of an
 article - http://rtmark.com/rockwell.html - by Jackie Stevens
 "Paradise Now: Picturing the Genetic Revolution," a 2000 Exit Art show
 concerning biotechnology. The article points out that, though the show
 included some very hard hitting criticisms of the biotech industry, it
 nevertheless sponsored by biotech companies - companies that would
 much to lose if consumers in the U.S. had the same sorts of concerns
 about biotechnology as some of the artists in the show. The obvious
 question of why would the biotech industry sponsor exhibitions that
 openly critical of the industry's practices is answered with the help
 interviews with the chief biotech investor behind the show. Stevens
 writes, "The reason is simple: art about biotechnology, especially
 with a
 critical edge, serves to reassure viewers that serious concerns are
> being addressed. Even more importantly, biotech-themed art
 conveys the sense that gene manipulation is a "fact on the ground,"
 something that serious artists are considering because it is here to
 stay. Grotesque and perverse visuals only help to acclimate the public
 this new reality." I am also reminded of a transcript I used in a
 once in which a Sara Lee Corporation executive, speaking of the
 corporation's "gifts" of impressionist art to the Art Institute of
 stated, "Sara Lee's art collection has made a statement - a quality
 statement - about our company. Art is all about excellence and vision
 striving for perfection - the same standards that we uphold for our
 portfolio of leading brands. We are quite certain that the ‘brand
 names’ of
 Monet, Renoir and Degas have been a great complement to Sara Lee and
 have become icons of excellence that reflect our approach to doing
 business." It seems that the mythology of fine art or the au!
 ra produced
> around fine art itself (namely, mythologies concerning artists
 prophetic or ahead of their time, that art is about transcendence,
 universals, timelessness and so on) is a very useful context for the
 deployment of marketing schemes. Cases like these I've mentioned could
 make one nostalgic for old school censorship - the kind in which an
 authority comes down on an artist for producing work that is perceived
 being offensive. At least in these scenarios the content is working -
 the work is having an effect. All this raises a couple of questions
 that I'd like to know your thoughts on. Firstly, do you agree with
 Stevens' assessment that the content of an artwork as intended by the
 can be eclipsed (effectively censored) by the curator, sponsors and
 institutional framework surrounding the show and fine art itself, and
 so, should artists be trained (in academia and elsewhere) to be able
 anticipate how their work is being used in a larger context and be
> prepared to engage in content production beyond the frame (so to
 speak)? What are the lessons you have learned over the years in these
>GH: This goes back to Wittgenstein’s Dictum, “the meaning of a word
 its’ meaning,” and “The meaning of a word is its’ use.”
>Look at it another way Steve Kurtz http://www.caedefensefund.org
 creating some bio-art that was also political when he was arrested.
 event caused the USGOV to come down hard claiming he’s a
 The art world has rallied around Steve and is doing what it can to
 stop his persecution. Steve’s artwork was in process and never
 so you can’t say that it was censored and yet the USGOV is trying to
 a terrorist label on him. The context here is fluid between a media
 occurrence, freedom of speech, and forces of unreasonable paranoia.
 and the people around him now have an ongoing performance work that is
 a cause c?l?bre about free speech. In the end it doesn’t matter if
 anyone ever sees the actual work, the censorship and repressive
 of the USGOV is the key factor. When realpolitik comes up against art,
 art always loses. On another level both sides of the Steve Kurtz
 are winning because they are using the ev!
 ent to create meaning
> for their separate actions.
>Back to your initial question which is the context created by the
 venue and the funders. There is always a deal struck between the
 funders/patrons/venues and the artists that show in the venues or
 accept support
 from the patrons. The patrons are seen as progressive and open because
 of their support of the arts. The artists are seen as giving their
 support/approval of the patron and the gallery system by participating
 it. That’s the simple deal. The complex deal has to do with the
 of the artwork. When the church is your patron you do religious
 paintings. When the Dutch merchants are your patrons you do domestic
 When the government is your patron you do heroic art that glorifies
 government and its programs. In America the market has become the
 patron or more correctly corporate marketing capitalism and its’
 technocratic bureaucrats/ managers are the patrons. The content of art
 that reality.
>However, there are many forms of art that operate outside these
 realities. The notion of experimental art is an art that doesn’t
 function in
 established arenas. Maybe we can call this theoretical art because it
 posits an art that can function outside of the normal venues set up
>In terms of censorship it may be more of a case of power and
 If one chooses to work in theoretical art one can expect no support
 from the existing patrons of the arts. This is a very fundamental
 about who controls the meaning of art (content). Who controls the how,
 when and where of art? That is one of the reasons that I choose to
 work with the internet and digital art. The venues are much freer.
 is little or no market action attached to this type of artwork.
 this very interview is an artwork that uses the internet as its
 vehicle. I can state that it is an information/meditation that comes
 from the
 use of the networks. In this case it is an outgrowth of all the other
 communication artists that have come before me such as Fred Forest or,
 Joseph Bueys or Allan Kaprow.
>MC: Earlier, you spoke of an anarchistic art practice that would
 function in opposition to the status quo. I'm assuming that this art
 practice would take on the political economic structure of an
 community. What might this look like? Are there examples of art
 that operate on anarchistic principles like anti-authoritarianism,
 association, nonhierarchical organization, consensus decision making,
 egalitarianism, etc? I'm also interested in your estimation of online
 communities and new media art portals (like Rhizome.org for instance)
 seem to reference some of these concepts in their mission statements
 yet seem to fall short in their editorial structure and policies.
 Perhaps, the concepts that sites like Rhizome imagine - decentralized
 nonhierarchical - and indeed the internet itself seems to offer -
 work in such stark contrast with what the dominant values of the fine
 establishment (and our dominant political economic systems) that
> it becomes impossible to maintain funding, affiliations etc. Do
 think the openness and opportunity for alternative systems and
 that electronic networks offer(ed) is now closing up, or do you see as
 much opportunity now as in the mid-to-late 90's when it comes to
 networked art practice?
>GH: There are many artists groups that are functioning at the
 There is always a struggle and a dynamic where groups are involved.
 Rhizome has set up a sort of blog/news reporting website that has a
 name and a loose community around it. They have a mailist than
 functions somewhat as a place for critical discussion but the
 question is how does one move from discussion to action. The answer
 rhizome is to be techno-centric and highlight emerging artists and
 technologies. They also spend a lot of time fundraising. The original
 of rhizome by Mark Tribe was a simple anarchic mailist. This was also
 happening with nettime and thingist lists. There is one functioning
 that is called [empyre] that comes out of Australia. Empyre was one of
 several list/communities that was featured during the documenta 6 in
 Kassel. I was actually involved in the discourse. My position was that
 wanted to have my thoughts presented at the documenta

>There’s a back and forth flux on the internet that has some onerous
 aspects of fake digital democracy and fake creative freedom. This is
 2.0 where everyone can be creative and be content providers ala blogs
 and youTube etc.. This is the corporate bullshit of Facebook and
 Life. There’s an interesting piece in the Guardian about facebook that
 has be re-published on post.thing.net http://post.thing.net/node/1883
>In any case, I am involved with three very vital digital art groups
 that have online/offline communities. One is called [PAM]
 http://perpetualartmachine.com - this is a video-artists community
 has a physical kiosk presentation mode that is very much about
 non-hierarchical presentation. Another is locus sonus
 http://locusonus.org in
 France - that is an experimental sound art lab. I’ve also organized an
 artists group called Artists Meeting http://artistsmeeting.org that is
 just beginning to pick up steam. Part of what these groups are about
 using the technology to create a media space for group interactions to
 occur. The funding model is pooling resources. I maintain the server
 nujus.net that Artists Meeting and locus Sonus use. The sysadmin is an
 engineering student in Split Croatia who is donating his services.
 Sonus is funded by the French Cultural Ministry as an experimental
 lab. [PAM] got its' start by being included in the SCOPE art fair and
> Meeting is bootstrapping it at the moment.
>What these groups have in common is the notion of doing projects
 together rather than having an individual artists’ voice. I like to
 in both positions, that is, I do individual pieces and I do group
 Two previous projects are accessible on the web right now. One is
 called rantapod http://spaghetti.nujus.net/rantapod and is a series of
 performance/meditations that is downloadable to ipod. The other is
 Art Dirt Redux http://spaghettinujus.net/artDirt , which is a
 podcast/sound art piece. These all challenge the art market in some
 way because
 they exist and are seen by large numbers of net audiences without any
 artworld support whatsoever. So I can say that the internet does still
 function as a good venue for experimental anti-hierarchical art.
>MC: In preparing this conversation for publication I noticed that
 one of your initial emails to me - before we actually started the
 interview - you stated that you'd been censored for not using
 software or hardware in the production or display of your work. I
 this ties in nicely with our discussion concerning corporate funding,
 something that seems more of an issue in new media art then anything
 else (I can't imagine a paint company sponsoring a show and requiring
 artists to only use their brand of paint) Perhaps you have some
 thoughts on this.
>GH: There's a lot of net.art and digital curators who set up
 parameters for new media shows. These often focus on a piece of
 hardware or a type of coding as an organizing principal. This plays
 into or is
 a symptom of the computer/technology scene where there are *platform*
 wars such as internet explorer vs. netscape or mac vs pc. There are
 software wars such as Dreamweaver vs GoLive. These competitions are
 dominating a market. This also happens in digital art where a group of
 artists insist that for example they are the only net.art artists that
 exist and try to corner the market with the willing help of a number
 curators. Often artists working in new media believe that you must
 write your own code in order to be a digital artist or you must use
 or you must use open source software or .... You get the idea. I
 remember once speaking at a panel where there was a net artist who was
 perl and php and Peter Sinclair and I were using Max MSP. The other
> artist talked only about the coding structure. Our piece used
 built software as well but we were interested in the content and the
 user interactions. This happens all the time where a person mistakes
 writing code for art or insist that digital art is only code. It's a
 boring discussion about hardware and software.
>About the artists
>G.H. Hovagimyan http://nujus.net/gh_04/index.html is an
 digital artist working in a variety of forms. He was one of the first
 artists in New York to start working with the Internet in the early
 nineties. His work ranges from hypertext works to digital performance
 and installations. His streamed video talk shows, Art Dirt and
 explore and document the artists of the digital art scene at the time
 circa 1995-2000.
>In 1996 he began collaborating with Peter Sinclair a British artist
 who lives in Marseilles, France. Their collaborative works have been
 shown internationally in Europe and the US. In 1998 their work, A
 for Laptops received a prize in the Computer Music category at Ars
 Electronica in Linz, Austria.
>Recent awards include: 2003 fellowship from Experimental Television
 Center, 2003 TAM Digital Media Commissions, 2002 Artists Fellowship
 Franklin Furnace, 2002 pilot artist in residence program from Eyebeam,
>He lives in New York City but is often in France, which has become
 second home.
>Mark Cooley http://www.flawedart.net is a new genre artist
 in visual rhetoric, forgotten histories and political economy.  His
 work has been exhibited in many international venues - online and off.
 Mark is currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of Art and
 Visual Technology at George Mason University.

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