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Paulina Kolczynska, Art Historian/Advisor, talks with
Kurt Ralske, Video Artist & Composer

Kurt Ralske is an artist and composer whose video installations and performances are created exclusively with his own custom software. His work has been exhibited internationally at the Guggenheim Bilbao, Museum of Modern Art, Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art. (retnull.com)

Paulina Kolczynska: Kurt, we know you primarily as an artist using new media and as a creator of very beautiful videos utilizing time and space inverted data. What inspired you to create the book "This Is Modern Art"?

Kurt Ralske: I happened to read a book on contemporary art entitled "This Is Modern Art". The author, Matthew Collings, is a British art critic and BBC commentator. His book is very chatty and amusing, but what struck me most about it was how upapologetically opinionated it was. He says things like "everyone knows now that [a certain] style of art is terrible", or other things that have absolutely objective basis at all -- they're just shamelessly subjective pronouncements with nothing to back them up at all.

I'd recently been reading a lot of technical texts, where everything is cooly objective, and every statement must be carefully verifiable. So this kind of wild subjectivity was startling to me. Here's Matthew Collings essentially saying, "My opinions are so good that they deserve to be compiled as the book "'This Is Modern Art'! I thought, "Hang on -- are my opinions really any less valid?" This inspired me to do a "This Is Modern Art" by Kurt Ralske.

I took the occasion to be kind to my most subjective tendencies, which I often feel the need to keep on a short leash.

My book was created by digitally scanning every page of Matthew Collings' book. I wrote a computer program to process and distort the text and images of the scans. I would let the program run overnight, and in the morning, check what it had come up with. I selected the best results, and had the images printed as a book. My book is sort of a re-mix of Matthew Collings book, but the end result and concept are something different and a bit more complicated.

My "This Is Modern Art" is actually 3 books together, as a set: the first, Matthew Collings' book; the second, Kurt Ralske's book; and the third, a blank book entitled "This Is Modern Art", which is waiting for the viewer to fill it in. Ideally, there should be as many different versions of "This Is Modern Art" as there are people interested in art.

PK: Looking back at your body of work and your interests this seems to be a very unusual project due to the fact that the actual artwork is presented in "traditional" medium; it is a work on paper in an art book format. Where can we see your artistic signature in this artwork?

KR: "This Is Modern Art" is a conceptual piece, so in a way, it might not matter what the pages of my book look like. But, of course, I couldn't stop myself from trying to make it look interesting. Most of my work is done by creating some kind of system (usually a computer program) and then feeding the system different materials until something interesting results. My aesthetic control is limited to either tweaking the system or selecting different materials to feed it. This is kind of a Duchamp-style hands-off attitude. But at the same time, it's enough involvement that the results almost always do look distinctively like me. The hands-off approach is sort of a trick I play on myself to free up the process.

The software I used to process the images of Matthew Collings' book was written in the computer language C++. Basically the software wraps the image onto a very complicated 3-dimensional shape, which causes the image to bend, fold, blur, repeat, stretch and shrink. The difficult part was using these distortions, while avoiding any obvious "3D-ness" -- I really didn't want it to look like "computer graphics", instead rather like very quirky graphic design. Most importantly though, I wrote the program to make various decisions itself, so I wouldn't have to be responsible for anything aesthetic, at least until the editing stages.

PK: Are you telling me that in this very case the digital world needed to be expressed by using traditional non digital physical representation?

This is very interesting because in some ways what you have done illustrates exactly one of the aspects of digital arts in a definition created by Austin Museum of Digital Art. AMODA also classifies works that address digital technology as their subject as digital art, even if work is created and displayed via traditional means and of course it includes works that use digital technology as the process (created digitally). It seems that as an artist and software inventor you went full circle in some ways.. How you feel about it, is it surprising to you?

KR: Yes actually it's quite fun to make work that doesn't require a computer to view it, I'm not really used to that. I think computers and digital technologies in general had some sort of "aura of glamour" in the late 1990s. By now, it seems clear that computers are just another fact of life, nothing glamorous at all, and no longer especially interesting in and of themselves. And maybe technology-based art is coming to reflect that.

Additionally there is the problem for digital artists that their work is ephemeral and tied to quickly outdated technologies. Or, the technical requirements for the work may be too high to allow the piece to become a viable art commodity.

So I think a lot of "new media" artists are beginning to explore ways of moving beyond purely digital work. In the past, new media artists used digital technologies to address issues related to technology. It would seem a natural maturing of the form for digital work to be concerned with anything it wants. The fact it was created digitally is only incidental. To digitally create the images for a book, or the design for a building or a sculpture -- to me, that's an interesting use of the tool, because it doesn't award the tool any sort of privileged status. In working this way, it's only the end result that matters.

PK: I am very pleased to have had this opportunity to talk to you and we will have an indepth conversation about it at the Chelsea Art Museum on February 8 in a presentation entitled: "Collecting the New Classics". There is also a video available on The Project Room website at www.TheProjectRroom.org