Carlo Zanni: e-commerce, identity, and the epic of our times

Pau Waelder

An early practitioner of net art, Carlo Zanni is among the first artists to explore the nascent opportunities for the online art market and reflect on how the web would impact on our sense of identity and privacy. With a painter’s vision, he has seen in the development of online platforms and graphical user interfaces a space of visual compositions in which the computer desktop becomes a landscape, and everything in it is a fiction. 

He has also developed new forms of storytelling through web-based projects such as the “data cinema” trilogy: The Possible Ties Between Illness and Success (2006), My Temporary Visiting Position from the Sunset Terrace Bar (2007), and The Fifth Day (2009). In these online films, he combined a pre-defined narrative with data collected in real time from the same users who were watching the film, or from a distant webcam, or from different sources describing the social and political conditions of Egypt. 

Carlo Zanni, The Fifth Day (2009)

Explore Zanni’s data cinema artworks

Embedded in his work as an artist, his research on alternative models to sell digital art has led to pioneering yet unrealized projects such as P€OPLE ¥ROM MAR$ (2012), an online platform dedicated to selling video art and fostering a community of creatives based on shared revenue, or ViBo (2014-2015), a “video book” aimed at facilitating the sale of video art at affordable prices in unlimited series. He collected his experiences with these models in the book Art in the Age of the Cloud (Diorama Editions, 2017).

Niio is proud to present two selections of artworks by Carlo Zanni: Data Cinema Anthology, which brings together the Data Cinema trilogy and an additional artwork, and Save Me for Later, a code-based artwork recently presented at Zanni’s solo exhibition Accept & Decline at OPR Gallery in Milan. In the following interview, the artist discusses the artworks presented in this exhibition, which can be visited until April 28th.

Carlo Zanni, Check Out Paintings, 2022. On view at OPR Gallery, Milan.

In this latest series you have come back to painting as a medium, after a long career focused on web-based art, but you keep exploring the same subjects. Can you take me through the main ideas in the Check-Out Paintings?

This cycle of paintings is part of a long-term investigation of the social and psychological role of eCommerce in our society. It stems from the memories of the eCommerce check-out pages: a final destination we all are funneled to, in every online buying process. The check-out pages of eCommerce sites represent a highly symbolic limbo that precedes the dopamine rush where we all hope to find shelter. A form of addiction, but as shown during the pandemic, also a lifeline. 

“Our identity bounces between the happiness for buying, and the sense of guilt for having bought.”

Buying online is both a sort of pursuit of happiness as we have been taught by our society, both a way to escape reality, procrastinating any possible confrontation with ourselves. Our identity bounces between the happiness for buying, and the sense of guilt for having bought. Between the satisfaction of an increasingly frictionless, user-friendly, fast, and on-time experience; and the anxiety, and also the shame, for what this transient fake happiness often entails on a social, work, and human level for thousands of people: directly (shifts and working conditions, small local businesses), and indirectly (tax evasion of mega-corporations and environmental impact).

Unlike early works such as DTP Icons Paintings (2000), here you do not look for a realistic representation of the interface, but rather create almost abstract compositions, why is that?

True, because here is more about inner feelings than simple representation. It’s not witnessing from the outside but feeling from the inside, then trying to show a glimpse of it, if possible, in the real world.  So the rationalist layout, typical of these pages, fades into memory, it turns into a dreamlike experience, into a psychological post-image, while some details of the transaction, such as measures, prices, and quantities, emerge from the background when one gets closer to the surface of the painting: they bring us back to reality.

The subtle color fields of these paintings make them very difficult to be mediated or “seen” online (e.g. on Instagram, or on a PDF), instead they open up and expand in front of the viewer when experienced for real. While our society continues to demand fast, easily communicable images, these paintings are slow, almost invisible, non-existent images, and they ask for something very precious: our time.

Carlo Zanni, Check Out Paintings, 2022. On view at OPR Gallery, Milan.

How did you achieve this faded effect in the canvases?

The color used in these works is acrylic mixed with water and in some cases acrylic medium. This way tones are soft and they mesh one into the other when seen from a certain distance, vaporizing the memory of the whole picture. I take advantage of the cutting plotter to write numbers and other “technical” details. I cut the letters in vinyl (negative) with a size that allows me to draw inside them with a sharp pencil without touching the vinyl edges. This way the sentences and the lettering look “straight” and “guided” from a distance, and handmade from a closer inspection.

“When you stick your nose onto the canvas, the work transforms from an abstract field into a condensed epic of our times.”

Formally speaking, the style of these paintings was born in response to a period of social isolation due to the pandemic, during which, as a balance, we have tried to mediate all the possible human activities: meetings, purchases, employment, leisure, study, culture… I felt the need to go the other way, working on something that could be only appreciated when seen in person.

If you want to find some roots, these works echo the mature practice of artist Agnes Martin, in the use of pencil and subtle water-based colors, but here all the “modernist” and “minimalist” values of the time are almost gone. So all the pencil details and most of the color fields are only visible when you stick your nose onto the canvas, and the work transforms from an abstract, almost white, field, into a condensed epic of our times touching themes such as anxiety, desire, happiness, fear, gender identity, pandemics, politics, tragedies, wars.

While the paintings look almost abstract, they also contain references to the present, as is frequently found in your web-based artworks, what role do these references play?

The paintings dig into our daily culture and politics, for instance by discreetly showing disclaimers referring to the current Ukraine war. (Since February 2022, many eCommerce added such disclaimers for multiple reasons: from giving updated shipping info to giving their support to the Ukrainians). I see these paintings as a vehicle for meditation, an attempt to temporarily alienate ourselves from this endless moment of upheaval and unrest; while being violently dragged back to reality when we get closer to the surface: they are a way to extract some time from our hectic lives to sense the delicacy and fragility of our body and the transience of happiness while diving into our time.

While they are very different artworks, I would point out to Average Shoveler (2004) as having a similar approach in terms of its meditative aspect and the connection to real life events. In that work, which was commissioned by Rhizome, I created an online video game in which the player controls a man who has to shovel the snow falling on the streets of New York. Each time he does, several images taken from CNN and other news outlets in real time pop up and disappear. Additionally, some non-player characters stop and speak out news headlines. The main character invariably ends up dying of exhaustion, unable to shovel the incessant amount of snow. But the game also includes some secret spaces meant for the player to relax and just observe the scene, distanced from the gameplay. In a way, these paintings also provide that distanced space of observation while having these subtle hooks to reality.

Carlo Zanni, Average Shoveler (2004)

Talking about hooks, you describe some elements in the paintings as “clickbait,” can you elaborate on that?

Yes, the dark dots and solid-colored shapes (lines, rectangles, circles) that appear in some of the paintings are what I call “clickbaits” for one’s eyes. Seen from afar these canvases look pretty white and empty, but these dots stand out and catch your attention. They work similarly to how advertising plays with colors, double meanings, and impressive images to stand out in a visually saturated landscape.

They also remind of the so-called “dark patterns”, which are interface design strategies quite common in e-commerce pages, that are meant to fool the user into doing what the vendor wants them to do, such as sign up for a newsletter, add an extra service, or choose the most expensive option among several choices. In my paintings, the shapes intend to lure you into looking closely at the painting and finding what it is actually about. However, I would say that while clickbait is content that over-promises and under-delivers, in my paintings I under-promise and over-deliver 🙂

Carlo Zanni, Save Me for Later (2022)

Save me for later (2022) is also an intriguing artwork in the sense that it is not what it appears to be, and it connects with a concept you have explored over the years, which is the computer screen as a landscape

“Save me for later” is actually a bot browsing, continuously adding products to the cart that is visible in the right sidebar. When the cart reaches its limit, it automatically moves products to the “saved for later list”, making room for the new freshly added ones. The bot embeds a floating window with the webcam stream framing me while performing. This repetitive and almost hypnotic performance, with apparently no beginning and no end, speaks of the type of procrastination we all carry out while browsing e-commerce sites, looking for products that will bring us happiness and make our lives better.

As with the paintings, the experience of isolation during the pandemic was key to conceiving this artwork, in which the computer screen becomes a landscape, a place of escapism and daydreaming. The performance is consciously slow and cryptic, and as it is playing out in real time, in the real Amazon website, the items that appear reflect our present time just as the subtle writings on the paintings take us back to the world we are living in. For instance, when I first ran the program, the bot frequently picked up COVID-19 self-tests, which at some point were very much in demand and right now are almost forgotten. 

“This repetitive and almost hypnotic performance speaks of the type of procrastination we all carry out while browsing e-commerce sites, looking for products that will bring us happiness and make our lives better”

I see this project also as a vehicle for meditation, an attempt to alienate ourselves momentarily from our daily lives and our anxieties (so the title “Save me for later”). And behind the activity itself, what you see on the screen that is apparently me browsing the Amazon site but is in fact an automated process carried out by a computer program, is an interesting exchange of data. Data collected by the Amazon site about this meaningless routine (constantly adding items to the cart without ever checking out), data displayed by Amazon about the articles on sale, data that is processed by Amazon’s algorithm to display new items related to previously selected products. 

See a two-hour excerpt of Zanni’s endless automated performance on Amazon

Data is for me what gravity probably was for Bas Jan Ader. “The artist’s body as gravity makes itself its master.” These mysterious words were used by Bas Jan Ader to describe his short films Falling I (Los Angeles) and Falling II (Amsterdam) when he showed them in Düsseldorf in 1971. He was playing with gravity, he was becoming gravity, accepting its outcome: failures, fragilities, spiritualism, poetry, meditation, ascension. 

I feel that I use data in a sort of similar way, accepting the fact that most of my works will cease to exist quite soon after their birth. By using data from media outlets such as CNN, tools from Google, data collected from users, and so on, I consciously open my work to a vulnerability as the price to pay for creating a work that is always connected to the present and fed by data that circulates online. Then, an API is changed, a tool is discontinued, and the artwork cannot exist anymore. Sometimes you can fix them, sometimes you just don’t want to do it. 

Other times you start again from scratch as recently I did with Cookie Portrait (2002-2022), a work about online identity and privacy that had to be rewritten when it was launched at OPR Gallery last year, 20 years after it was first created. This work is based on the same cookie technology that is used – for instance – for the internal session management of an eCommerce site and more generally for user profiling and marketing activities. This work reminds us that, in our online existence, we are made of data. The body is thus the sum total of your data, the artwork is a temporary and transient experience of something elusive, like our own existence is.

Tamiko Thiel: when art augments reality

Pau Waelder

Tamiko Thiel is a pioneering visual artist exploring the interplay of place, space, the body and cultural identity in works encompassing an artificial intelligence (AI) supercomputer, objects, installations, digital prints in 2D and 3D, videos, interactive 3d virtual worlds (VR), augmented reality (AR) and artificial intelligence art. In this conversation, that took place on the occasion of the launch of her solo artcast Invisible Nature curated by DAM Projects, she discusses the evolution of technology over the last three decades, her early AR artworks and her commitment to create art that invites reflection.

Your work is characterized by the use of Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality technologies, with pioneering artistic projects. Which technical challenges have you met over the last decades in the creation of these projects?

My first exposure to real time computer graphics was at MIT when I was a graduate student in 1982. At that point,  writing everything from scratch, you had to program for a semester in order to get a cube that would rotate in three dimensions. Coming from an artistic and design background, I felt that this is not really where I want to create art right now, I’ll have to wait. And then about 10 years later, in 1992, Silicon Graphics came out with OpenGL, an open standard that made it possible to do real time interactive computer graphics on PCs. Then in 1994, I started to work with a company called Worlds Incorporated, which was taking this new potential for doing interactive 3D computer graphics on PCs connected to the Internet. At that time I worked with Steven Spielberg on the Starbright World Project, the first 3d online Metaverse for ill children, a virtual world where they could momentarily escape the space of the hospital. This first Metaverse was running on high end PCs, with fast connections provided by various high tech companies, but it was still unaffordable for people at home. The project ran from 1994 to 1997, and at that time the technology was still unstable.

“It takes maybe 10 to 15 or 20 years to get there instead of the five years that all the evangelists predict.”

So you must jump from that to 10 years later, when Second Life came about and this time people had more powerful graphic cards and ADSL connections at home. Second Life was able to create a much more developed virtual world, which seemed like the next phase of the Internet and all the corporations wanted to move there. Then around 2007-2008, probably due to the financial crisis, but also the rise of Facebook, which allowed people to share photographs on a common platform, the excitement around Second Life fizzled. And then if we jump another 15 years more, we find ourselves with still bigger processing power and faster connections. Now it is much easier to create virtual worlds than it was 25 years ago, partly because it is easier to create 3D objects, or you can buy them online, and also because of the advancements in hardware and software.

So, as you can see, big steps come on later than you think. It takes maybe 10 to 15 or 20 years to get there instead of the five years that all the evangelists predict. People talked about virtual reality at that time in the 90s as being a failure, just as they talked about AI being a failure in the 80s and 90s. And what they don’t realize is that technological change takes longer than you’d want it to. So it’s wrong to call it a failure. It’s more like: “Okay, we have to keep on working on this.” And if you wait long enough, 20 years or so, then you’ll get it.

Video by Tamiko Thiel, Rewilding the Smithsonian, 2021.  Created with the ReWildAR AR app (2021, with /p). Commissioned by curator Ashley Molese for the 175th anniversary of the Smithsonian Institution, in the Arts and Industries Building.

Interactive 3D and VR artworks such as Beyond Manzanar and Virtuelle Mauer have a strong narrative component as they explore historic and political issues. What is the role of the user in constructing these narratives?

Basically, what I tend to do is look for key moments that I think can be expressed and experienced and communicated better in virtual reality than in other media. In Beyond Manzanar, for me that was the moment where you’re sitting in a beautiful Paradise Garden, and  you see the mountains covered in snow around you. This is an image from the book Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston: the author tells that when she was an eight-year-old and she was imprisoned in the camp, she would pick a viewpoint where she couldn’t see any guard towers, any barracks, nor barbed wire fence. And she tried not to move for the longest time, because as long as she didn’t move, she could preserve the illusion she was in paradise of her own free will. As soon as she moved, she saw that she was indeed in prison, she fell out of paradise back into prison. And so this moment occurs in Beyond Manzanar, where you enter a garden which is framed by the beautiful mountains. But if you go too deeply into the garden, then boom! – the garden disappears, and you’re back in the prison camp. 

Beyond Manzanar (2000). An interactive virtual reality large projection installation by Tamiko Thiel and Zara Houshmand.

My second piece, The Travels of Mariko Horo, has a much more complicated structure with several heavens imagined by a time traveling 12th century Japanese female artist inventing the West in her imagination. In this work there is this moment when you enter the different churches, which are in fact liminal spaces between the prosaic everyday life and the world of the supernatural. When you cross that threshold, Mariko Horo takes you to heaven or takes you to hell. But it is always by your own free will, you’re always making the decision and making the motions that all of a sudden present you with the consequences of your decisions. 

The Travels of Mariko Horo (2006). An interactive 3D virtual reality installation
By Tamiko Thiel, with original music by Ping Jin.

Finally, in Virtuelle Mauer/ReConstructing the Wall, I introduced some characters that take you in a time travel through the history of the Berlin Wall. But if you cross over the invisible boundaries of the former Death Strip,, then you fall back into the 80s, the wall appears behind you. So in all three pieces, it’s really about letting you feel like you have the freedom to go anywhere you want and do anything you want to do. But then you must face the consequences of these actions, which might take you to Paradise or they might take you to prison. But you always feel like it was your decision to go there, or to examine this, and therefore you’re sort of complicit with whatever happens to you.

Video by Tamiko Thiel, Atmos Sphaerae, 2022. Created with the Atmos Sphaerae VR artwork, 2021.

Creating artworks in Augmented Reality offers the possibility of intervening in institutional art spaces uninvited, as you did at MoMA, the Venice Biennale, or TATE Modern, or within a curated exhibition, as is the case with Unexpected Growth, which was shown at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Can you tell us about the creative process in both cases and your experience with “guerrilla” interventions versus curated exhibitions using the same technology?

Let’s start with We AR in MoMA, an augmented reality project created by Sander Veenhof and Mark Skwarek that took place at the Museum of Modern Art in New York on October 9th, 2010. The iPhone had been around since 2007, as well as other smartphone models, and in the course of 2009 both Mark and Sander had been playing around with the technology and developing AR artworks on mobiles in public spaces. And then they realized they could also geolocate the artworks to have them appear in certain spaces, so they came up with this idea of doing the spectacular intervention at MoMA. I knew Mark from the art circles before we had both shown in the 2009 Boston CyberArts Festival, so he dropped me and many of his artist friends an email saying: “Hey, we’re able to do this now. Send me some content and I’ll put it up and we’ll do a flashmob at MoMA.” They were not asking permission from MoMA. They didn’t know about it, and they couldn’t stop us. At that time, people didn’t realize that location based AR could be used anywhere. But then it turned out that they did find out about it beforehand, because Mark and Sander were doing the intervention as part of a citywide public art festival of psychogeography, so it was publicly announced by the festival all on Twitter. MoMA actually posted a link to the festival and said: “Hey, looks like we’re going to be invaded by AR,” which was very forward thinking and embracing this new development in technology. So, that was incredibly good publicity. It was a really exciting moment, when we realized that there were these possibilities that the new technology was bringing about. I would say this was a path breaking exhibit in the history of media. 

After this intervention at MoMA, the artists who took part in it created the group Manifest.AR. We were thinking about where to do the next incursion, and since I live in Munich, which is a six and a half hour beautiful train ride to Venice, I suggested we go to the Venice Biennale in 2011. It was a group of about eight of us. We created virtual pavilions that were located inside the Giardini and at Piazza San Marco, so that people who didn’t want to spend money to enter the Giardini could also experience the artworks in a public space, because the Giardini, with its walls around it is a classically closed curatorial space. The point was that having your work shown at the MoMA or the Biennale is a sign of achievement, of having been able to enter these closed curatorial spaces, but now with AR interventions that was not true anymore, anybody can place their artwork wherever they want. But then people’s reaction was: “Oh, wow, you’re showing in the Venice Bienniale, you’ve made it!” Then we told them we hadn’t been curated and that we were doing this of our own accord, but people would respond: “Oh, that’s even better.” So we thought we were doing this sort of Duchampian breakdown of all sorts of structures that define prominence in the art world. Duchamp exhibited his famous urinal not to say that an artwork becomes an artwork when an artist says it’s an artwork and places it in an art context, but to state that this whole thing is ridiculous. 

“The point of putting our artworks at the MoMA or the Venice Biennale was that with Augmented Reality anybody can place their artwork wherever they want.”

These interventions gave us a feeling of exhilaration that we could hold our own exhibits anywhere, even though no one in the art world was interested in media art at that moment. And we could also play off site. Because AR is a site-specific medium, you’re always dealing with the site. And that opened up whole new possibilities. Interestingly, shortly after that, George Fifield, the Boston Cyberarts director, arranged our first invitational show at the ICA Boston. This was in April of 2011. The ICA curators didn’t understand how the technology works. They said: “Okay, you can do it on the first floor, but not on the second floor. You can do it in the lobby and outside, but you can’t do it inside of the galleries.” And we had to tell them it doesn’t work that way. The artworks are triggered by a GPS location which has a radius of a mile or so.

As for showing Unexpected Growth at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, it was thanks to Christiane Paul, the adjunct curator of media art at the museum. I have known her for quite a while, I think since about 2002, and she has curated me into many of her shows over the years in different venues, but this was the first time at the Whitney. She had of course done the visionary work of creating Artport, a space for net art supported by the museum, but she still hadn’t placed an AR artwork inside the museum. Then in 2014 she commissioned an AR intervention by Will PappenheimerProxy, 5-WM2A, at the Whitney’s final closing gala for the old Breuer Building. So when she contacted me in 2018 to create an artwork to show at the Whitney, she had already gone through the process of introducing this technology in the museum. She invited me to create an artwork for the terrace, which is 20 by 10 meters in size. Since this was a big show, I needed to make sure that the piece would work properly, so I contacted the people at Layar, the AR app we had used in all our previous interventions, but by then they told me they would shut down their servers, so I had to find a solution. My husband Peter Graf, who is a software developer, told me he could write an app for me. We worked side by side on this project, so I realized he should co-author it with me and he came up with the artist name /p, so now the artwork is in the Whitney collection credited to myself and /p in collaboration. Now the artwork is not officially on view at the museum, but if you download our app and go to the terrace you can still experience it.

Video by Tamiko Thiel, Unexpected Growth (Whitney Museum Walk1), 2018. Created with the Unexpected Growth AR app (2018, with /p), commissioned by and in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art.

There is also the fact that the artworks are invisible, so how did you communicate their existence and solve the technical problems associated with having the proper device, software, and connectivity?

At the Venice Biennale intervention, Sander got in touch with Simona Lodi, director of the Share Festival Turin , and the artist group Les Liens Invisibles, who were together mounting another AR intervention The Invisible Pavilion. We created a common postcard with QR codes to download the app. We also invited people to come to Piazza San Marco and the Giardini on certain days and times and help them experience the artworks. Collaborating with the team from the Share Festival was a huge help, because those of us from outside of Italy had terrible connection issues, and also it was the first Venice Biennale when hordes of people were walking around with their cellphones, overloading the networks. The Vodafone network actually broke down in the Venice area. Gionatan Quintini of Les Liens Invisible loaned me his smartphone to show my work, and this is an example of the kind of collaborative atmosphere that you get in the media art world and that is not that easy to find in the contemporary art world. By connecting our networks with those of Share, we got a lot of publicity for both the interventions in MoMA and in the Venice Biennial, and that put AR in this early time into the media art history books, and therefore into the art canon.

Video by Tamiko Thiel, Sponge Space Trash Takeover (Walk1), 2020. Created with the VR space “Sponge Space Trash Takeover” courtesy of Cyan Planet and xR Hub Bavaria.

The artworks in your latest artcast titled Tamiko Thiel: Invisible Nature all deal with different aspects of our intervention of the natural environment. What has been your experience addressing this subject in terms of the balance between the artistic expression and the message you want to convey? 

Perhaps because I started out as a product designer, with the Connection Machine being what I consider my first artwork, I am always thinking of my audience and how to communicate with them. When I approach political or social issues, such as climate related problems, I know that the really shocking photographs (for instance, a dead bird whose stomach is full of plastic) give you an immediate emotional jolt, and make you realize that this is a serious problem. But I personally cannot look at those images day after day, time and time again. So, balancing my work as an artist with my desire to communicate, sometimes I think that I should be a journalist, so I could write articles that can go into the details in much more depth. But how often do you reread the same article? So I think that what is truly the value of an artist making work about a subject such as these is that the art work can be exhibited time and time again, in different places around the world. And people might see it again, they may be willing to look at it time and time again, but not if it is something horrible and shocking. I’m traumatized enough by what’s happening in the world, so I’d rather create something that is not traumatizing for people, but at the same time it makes you think.

“What is truly the value of an artist making work about a subject such as these is that the art work can be exhibited time and time again, in different places around the world.”

For instance, Unexpected Growth shows a very colorful, bright coral reef on the terrace of the Whitney. And when you look at it more closely, you realize this beautiful coral reef is made out of virtual plastic garbage. So people are confronted with something that is really beautiful, but after a while they realize that they are surrounded by garbage. So my strategy is to seduce people with a strong visual composition that is captivating. And then, when I’ve got their attention, I let them figure out that there is actually something else going on here, if you actually spend the time to look at it.

Video by Tamiko Thiel, Evolution of Fish – Anthropocene Daze #1, 2019. Created with the AR app Evolution of Fish (2019, with /p).

Kinetismus: art that moves at Kunsthalle Praha

Pau Waelder

Kinetismus. View of the exhibition space. Photo: Vojtěch Veškrna, Kunsthalle Praha

Kunsthalle Praha is a new contemporary art space that opened its doors in February at the former Zenger Electrical Substation in the heart of Prague. Founded by the Pudil Family Foundation, it aims to connect the Czech and international art scenes through a varied program of exhibitions and events that take place both in their physical location and on their website, in the form of a “Digital Kunsthalle” that collects video documentation, articles, and digital guides to the exhibitions. The use of the term Kunsthalle identifies this institution with the focus on temporary exhibitions as opposed to hosting a permanent collection, which is nevertheless built through a program of acquisitions and will be presented to the public regularly in thematic exhibitions and in a digital catalogue.

Given Kunsthalle Praha’s foundational aims and the history of its building, it is only fitting that the inaugural exhibition is dedicated to the role that electricity has played in the development of art over the last century and up to the present. Kinetismus: 100 Years of Electricity in Art is an ambitious group show spanning a century of artistic creation through a selection of nearly a hundred artworks that connects the avant-gardes of the 1920s with the pioneers of kinetic and cybernetic art, and today’s digital art. Curated by Peter Weibel, revered theoretician, artist and director of the ZKM in Karlsruhe, alongside Christelle Havranek, chief curator at Kunsthalle Praha, and scientific associate Lívia Nolasco-Rózsás, the exhibition’s curatorial concept is centered around establishing the legacy and relevance of electronic and digital art in contemporary society (an approach for which both Weibel and the ZKM are widely known) as well as cementing its position in the history of modern and contemporary art. In the text he wrote for the exhibition’s catalog, Peter Weibel denounces the lack of attention that digital art has received from the contemporary art world and its institutions:

“Most museums still refuse to include light art, sound art, interactive art, and cinematographic, cybernetic, or computer art as part of their collections or permanent exhibitions. It could be called a betrayal of the masses since such museums are not truly exhibiting the art of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries but rather only paintings and sculptures from these centuries.”

Weibel, 2022, p.36

These strong words express the frustration of more than one generation of artists, scholars, curators, gallerists, collectors, and also art lovers who have seen over and over again how artistic practices linked to scientific disciplines and technological innovations have been sidetracked or utterly ignored in the mainstream contemporary art world, in which even photography and video have struggled to gain recognition as art. While this situation is clearly changing in recent years, there is still work to be done, not only to integrate digital art in the contemporary art scene, but also to understand its nature and history.

Kinetismus both adheres to the sober presentation of historical artifacts that is required of a museum, and the playful experience of visitors in front of a series of artworks based on ongoing processes. 

The NFT boom brought a renewed attention to digital art and consequently its history, although the crazed search for “OGs” has finally lead to the artworks of pioneers being used to attract newcomer collectors and boost sales at auction. It is therefore more necessary than ever to present the history of digital art to the public in all its manifestations and its complex ramifications, not only to bring attention to the names of those trailblazing artists who had been partly or almost totally forgotten, but also to better understand how the artistic practices linked to electronic and digital media came to be. Kinetismus aptly carries out this task in a way that both adheres to the sober presentation of historical artifacts and the information around them that is required of a museum, and the playful experience of visitors in front of a series of artworks based on ongoing processes rather than static objects. 

Woody Vasulka, Light Revisited, 1974-2001. Photo: Lukáš Masner, Kunsthalle Praha

The Four C’s: putting digital back into art

Peter Weibel points out that a singular trait of the exhibition is its aim to highlight the existence, for the past one hundred years, of an art based on electricity (“plugged-in art”) that he describes as “the predominant singular achievement of the twentieth century” (Weibel, 2022, p.36). Interestingly, this all-encompassing denomination overrides the myriad terms used to describe artistic practices based on emerging technologies since the work of the pioneering creators of algorithmic plotter drawings was described as computer art. It also connects these practices with the history of modern art, going back to avant-garde experiments with light, movement, and cinema. In this sense, the curatorial approach finds yet another form of integrating digital art into a long tradition of artistic practices that are already part of the established canon of modern and contemporary art history. 

Since the earliest experiments integrating emerging technologies into artistic projects, artists, theoreticians, and curators have sought to highlight the distinctive features of these art forms while making it clear that they belong to the fine arts, namely by establishing links and comparisons to painting and sculpture. From the seminal texts of artists such as Lászlo Moholy-Nagy in the 1920s, to the essays by theoreticians and curators such as Jack Burnham, Jasia Reichardt, Frank Popper and Herbert W. Franke in the 1960s and 1970s, to name a few, connections have been constantly drawn between art, science, and technology, seeking to expand the notion of what art is and how it relates to a society that is increasingly dependent on the technology it has created and shaped. 

Weibel stresses that the structure of the exhibition according to the “Four Cs” (cinematography, cinétisme, cybernetics, computer art) is what makes this exhibition different than other historical reviews of electronic and digital art

The field of what has been variously termed computer art, cyberart, electronic art, new media art, or digital art has evolved over the last sixty years into an art world of its own, but it has always been conceived by its proponents as part of the wider field of contemporary art. During the last decade, an increasing number of books and art exhibitions in museums and art spaces have underscored the connections between digital art and the history of art in the twentieth century. These approaches have been based on a concept or feature that can be traced in both digital and analogue artworks, such as the use of light, movement, instructions, or the participation of the audience.

For instance, in 2009, art historian Edward Shanken proposed in his book Art and Electronic Media (Shanken, 2009) a history of digital art based on a series of “thematic streams” such as “Motion, Duration, Illumination” or “Charged Environments,” that allowed him to connect the work of avant-garde pioneers such as Moholy-Nagy with that of established artists in the digital and contemporary art worlds such as Rafael Lozano-Hemmer and Olafur Eliasson. Similarly, in 2018, curator Christiane Paul presented alongside Carol Mancusi-Ungaro and Clémence White the group exhibition Programmed: Rules, Codes, and Choreographies in Art, 1965-2018 at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, which drew on the concepts enumerated in the title to bring together works of video art, generative art, and conceptual art spanning more than fifty years. 

teamLab, United, Fragmented, Repeated, and Impermanent World, 2013. Photo: Lukáš Masner, Kunsthalle Praha

Kinetismus similarly establishes thematic connections between kinetic art, cybernetic art, experimental cinema, and digital art (here presented under the term “computer art”), as well as dialogues among the artworks exhibited at the Kunsthalle Praha. Weibel stresses that the structure of the exhibition according to the “Four Cs” (cinematography, cinétisme, cybernetics, computer art) is what makes this exhibition different than other historical reviews of electronic and digital art, as it allows for a rich spectrum of associations, correspondences and interplays between artistic practices that have often been considered as separate approaches to artistic creation.

Certainly, the dependence on electricity to power light sources and motorized elements in kinetic artworks, cameras and projectors in experimental films, and computers in all sorts of digital art is a common factor to all of these art forms. This leads to two main elements that depend on electricity and ultimately connect all of the artworks in the exhibition: artificial light and movement, the latter more widely understood as a permanently ongoing process, as opposed to the static object that is a painting or a (classical) sculpture. To properly map all these connections and describe the artworks in this article would be a futile effort, as the texts written by Weibel, Havranek, and Nolasco-Rózsás for the catalogue already address the “Four Cs” in detail, and additionally a wealth of information about the artworks can be found at the exhibition’s digital guide, freely available online. Instead, I will focus on two differentiating aspects of the exhibition which are particularly relevant to the presentation of “plugged-in art” to the public: the attention to local and national art scenes, and the experience of the visitor.

Refik Anadol, Infinity Room, 2015. Photo: Lukáš Masner, Kunsthalle Praha

The legacy of Zdeněk Pešánek

While the digital art community has often criticized the contemporary art world for sidetracking or ignoring them, the history of digital art has been built mainly around artists and exhibitions from Western Europe, the United Kingdom, and particularly the United States of America. The blind spots in this history, which is still being written, are being addressed by artists, scholars, and curators from different nationalities who are enriching the knowledge about pioneering artists from Latin America, Asia, and other regions of the globe. In this sense, it is important that historical reviews such as the one proposed by Kinetismus pays attention to the contributions of their own pioneers.

The Prague show is structured around the work of Czech artist Zdeněk Pešánek (1896-1965), a painter, sculptor, and architect who was among the first to create light-kinetic works in the 1920s and the first to use neon light tubes in an artistic installation. He built the Spectrophone (1924-30), an instrument composed of a piano that projected moving lights onto a relief, combining music and visual kinetics. This machine would be the basis for his light-kinetic sculpture Edisonka (1926-30) at the Edison Transformer Station at Jeruzalémská street in Prague, which became a fundamental artwork of this period, alongside László Moholy-Nagy’s Light-Space Modulator (1922–30). Later on, he created the series of sculptures One Hundred Years of Electricity (1937) for the façade of the Zenger Transformer Station, which were exhibited that same year at the International Exposition of Arts and Technology in Paris. Most of the sculptures were lost on their return trip, the series never being installed at its intended location. 

The 3D illustration created by Studio Najbrt reinterpreting one of the artist’s sculptures makes Pešánek’s work vibrantly alive and up-to-date, more post-Internet than 1930s avant-garde.

As stressed by Christelle Havranek, Pešánek’s groundbreaking work did not receive the attention it deserved at a time when the rivalry between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany prefigured a global conflict that had already started its dead toll in Spain, as denounced by Picasso’s masterpiece Guernica (1937). Pešánek nevertheless continued his investigations and coined the term “kineticism” in his book Kinetismus from 1941. The repurposing of the Zenger electrical substation as the Kunsthalle Praha naturally led to conceiving an inaugural exhibition around electricity in art in which Pešánek’s work and ideas take a central role. In this respect, Havranek points out that it was not their aim to review the artist’s work (a task already carried out in a retrospective exhibition at the National Gallery of Prague in 1996) but to place it in the larger context of the international art scene, spanning from the early decades of the twentieth century to the present.

Several pieces from One Hundred Years of Electricity (1932-36) and The Spa Fountain (1936-37) are exhibited in the first gallery of the Kunsthalle alongside artworks by his contemporaries Naum Gabo, László Moholy-Nagy, and Marcel Duchamp, as well as kinetic art luminaries such as Julio Le Parc, pioneers of digital art such as Lillian F. Schwartz and Jeffrey Shaw, established names in the contemporary and digital art scenes such as William Kentridge, Olafur Eliasson, and Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau, and young talents such as Anna Ridler. This juxtaposition of artworks from such a wide temporal range reinforces the relevance of Pešánek’s work, considered in its historical framework, but probably more importantly it is the 3D illustration created by Studio Najbrt for the exhibition poster and the catalogue cover reinterpreting one of the artist’s sculptures what makes Pešánek’s work vibrantly alive and up-to-date, more post-Internet than 1930s avant-garde.

In accordance with the general conception of the exhibition, the combination of a serious, properly documented approach to Pešánek’s artworks and their history, and a playful reinterpretation that takes over street billboards and is able to communicate with a wider and younger audience constitutes a sensible decision that should be common to all presentations of the history and the present of digital art.

Kinetismus. View of the exhibtion. Photo: Lukáš Masner, Kunsthalle Praha

Enjoying kinetic and digital art

Not everyone wants to read a long theoretical text before approaching the artworks at an exhibition. Some prefer to simply experience the artworks, and while it is true that one cannot expect to fully understand an artwork without some context or explanation, there is a strong value in this direct, unmediated exposure to the art. In Kinetismus, the exhibition space, particularly in the first gallery, involves an interesting contradiction: the room feels crowded, there are artworks everywhere (almost fifty in a space the size of an average art gallery), emitting noises and projecting light and reflections on each other. The initial impression is somewhat chaotic, but at the same time it reminds of early exhibitions of kinetic and electronic art from the 1960s and 1970s (which, I must say, I have only seen through documentation). The studio that designed the exhibition space, Schroeder Rauch, consciously aimed to create a “multi-perspective and dense exhibition,” in which “the artworks but also the visitors find themselves in an open landscape environment of objects, movements and light. Everything is in communication with everything.” 

Enjoyment is not a bad word when it comes to an art exhibition. With solid theoretical and historical foundations, Kinetismus offers a space for both learning and having fun.

This points to an aspect that is not so often a central consideration in an exhibition: the experience of the visitor. Through its selection of artworks and their placement in the different rooms of the Kunsthalle Praha, the exhibition becomes a cabinet of curiosities and a space of wonder and enjoyment. For some, this might be seen as a shortcoming (“the exhibition is not serious enough”, “the artworks do not have «space to breathe»”), but it is quite the contrary. By combining artworks from very different chronological moments and letting them “contaminate” each other with light and sound, the space that is created becomes less and cathedral and more a bazaar (in the sense of Eric S. Raymond’s influential essay from 2000), in which the visitor can choose what draws their attention and experience each artwork with a sense of surprise, letting the piece develop its process and reacting to it.

Enjoyment is not a bad word when it comes to an art exhibition. With solid theoretical and historical foundations, Kinetismus offers a space for both learning and having fun with a type of art that does not stare down from a high plinth but involves the viewer in its ever-changing process. Enjoyment brings with it a positive experience with the art, sparks interest, and leads to learning and appreciating the artworks in their context.

Art that moves, that stimulates thought and emotions, is remembered and valued. “Plugged-in art,” from kinetic to generative and AI-generated, has the ability to move, in every meaning of the word. It should always be presented in a way that allows it to do so.

Christina Kubisch, Cloud, 2019. Photo: Lukáš Masner, Kunsthalle Praha


Havranek, Christelle (2022). Introduction. In: Weibel, P. and Havranek, C. (eds.) Kinetismus. 100 Years of Electricity in Art. Prague and Berlin: Kunsthalle Praha, Hatje Cantz, 2022.

Shanken, Edward (2009). Art and Electronic Media. London: Phaidon Press.

Weibel, Peter (2022). 100 Years of Electricity in Art. In: Weibel, P. and Havranek, C. (eds.) Kinetismus. 100 Years of Electricity in Art. Prague and Berlin: Kunsthalle Praha, Hatje Cantz, 2022.

What We’re Reading Now: Hotels As Art Museums

Whether on business or vacation, hotel guests are notably receptive to interesting experiences and renewed perspectives. In today’s hospitality industry, art can make the difference in prompting that all-important digital story of the guest experience. Discover what The New York Times, Indiewalls, Architectural Digest, and others have to say on how some properties have begun to push the boundaries of what it means to be a hotel with great art.

The New York Times // An Art Museum in Your Hotel Lobby

Procuring and exhibiting art in all forms has been synonymous with the hotel experience for several decades now, with both luxury and midlevel brands highlighting local artwork and museum-quality pieces rather than predictable poster reprints. Read More

Art Installation Alizarin in the Peninsula Hong Kong’s Lobby. Image by Simon J Nicol.

Artnet News // 8 Amazing Hotels Around the World with Museum Quality Art Collections

In the material world, we live in, there are many new places making headlines, by redefining luxury. There’s no debating the fact that waking up in a gorgeous location, looking at millions of dollars worth of beautiful art is pretty much incomparable. If you’re a fan of luxe travelling, check out a list of eight top hotels around the world that boast great art collections. Read More

A part of the museum space at 21c Louisville Museum Hotel. 
Photo: Courtesy of 21c Museum Hotels.

Architectural Digest // 17 Hotels with Amazing Art Collections

These days, hotels offer travellers much more than a place to rest their heads. There are, for instance, a growing number of establishments collecting museum-grade artworks to hang in their lobbies, restaurants, and suites. Between permanent displays and rotating exhibitions, there’s always something to delight art-loving guests. Read More

Art Hotel Denver

Indiewalls // How Standout Hotel Art Can Make a Difference for Travelers

With the rise of the much discussed, millennial-fueled “experience economy,” this is likely to mean that the destinations they choose will be as informed by typical considerations like budget and bucket lists as “Insta-worthy” moments ripe for filling feeds with FOMO-inspiring imagery.

Where are travellers finding such experiences? Read More

Niio @ Unpainted Art Fair ’16 (Munich, Germany)

Earlier this year, Niio Co-Founder Oren Moshe had an opportunity to visit and participate in UNPAINTED lab 3.0 in Munich, Germany, a unique art fair featuring 40 international digital artist organized by artistic director Annette Doms in collaboration with New York curator Nate Hitchcock,  Co-Founder of East Hampton Shed and former Co-Curator of Rhizome (NY).

Oren had the opportunity to join colleagues Chris Fitzpatrick (Director Kunstverein Munich), Nate Hitchcock (Co-Curator, UNPAINTED, New York), Ioannis Christoforakos (Collector, Athens) & VT ArtSalon (Taiwan) on the stage for a panel discussion about “The Impact of Digital Media on Our Real World.” 

Fair participants included international curators and thought leaders, art collectors, gallerists, and artists, as well as an interdisciplinary team, who understand the challenges of these new art forms. It’s fair to say that all were “united by a love of art, innovation and the changing times”. 

Some personal snaps from the weekend:

Unpainted 5
Susanne Rottenbacher

unpainted laptopsUnpainted 4Unpainted 3Unpainted Museum