Interview between Jonas Lund and Tilman Baumgärtel

Interview between Jonas Lund and Tilman Baumgärtel. Published in Springerin issue “20 Jahre – Zukunft” in 2015.

!: Tell me a little bit about your background. How did you get started as an artist?

?: I did a bachelor of photography at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam, and I was very committed to that medium for a while. That program in Amsterdam was very medium-specific, which was very limiting. In my last year during the Rietveld, I started programming websites for clients as a freelancer, which eventually motivated me to move into net art, because this was a medium, that did not have these more than 150 years of history. The tedious thing with photography is that it has this specificity, so it is very difficult to be free. It is hard to leave the history of the medium behind.

I started to get familiar with the net art scene, which pushed me to do a Master at the Piet Zwart Institute in Rotterdam. At this time, I think this was the only Master program with a focus on network-based culture. We talked about how cybernetic theory influenced culture, about Open Source software and things like that, and how this influenced art. Actually, it was pretty heavily focussed on writing. It lead me to create a lot of online work, but eventually it led me back to more traditional art. So I am now in the gallery system rather than in the media art system.

?: What did you learn about net art at that school?

!: I got interested in it before my studies at Piet Zwart, because I got to know Rafael Rozendaal and Constant Dullaart, and I started my own discovery of net art. But because it is so poorly documented and so much has disappeared from the net, so it was not easy. At Piet Zwart, Annet Dekker, the former curator of the Netherlands Institute for Media Art, gave classes on that subject, where she talked a little bit about the history of net art. It definitely changed my perception of things.

After that, this Bachelor in photography felt pointless. Here was something, that was actually going on right now. To study photography might help you in other ways, because you learn how to develop ideas and how to think about aesthetics. But as a contemporary art form, it does not interest me any more. What is the purpose? Ok, it is easy to transport. But harder to sell

?: Can you describe some of the net art pieces that you did?

?: I started with websites that would look at the fabric of the browser. These were stand-alone websites, similar to Rafael Rozendaal´s and Constant Dullaart´s works, where the domain name is the title and the signifier of the work. The first piece I did was “Over and Over Again” (2011,, where the website loads itself over and over. (2011, shares every website I am looking at with my browser. It is like an archive of every URL I looked at in the last four years. That work was about privacy on the internet, long before the NSA scandal.

The series of sharing continued with a Chrome extension called “Self Surfing”, that clones my browser window (2012, You see all my tabs. Which lead to the last, called, which streams what I am doing online. You could see everything I was looking at, my email, my Facebook, everything. That was a commission by the New Museum, and it ran for a year, and then I turned it off. It was true, total transparency, inspired by the Mattes´s piece.

Then I made a shared browser called “We see in every direction” (2012, ), that was synchronised with everybody who was using it. And I did “Paintshop” (2012,, where everybody can draw something collectively online. Anybody can sign it at any given time, and than it becomes their canvas. You can see what everybody drew in an online-gallery, where the works are ranked according to how popular they are. And you can buy them. They come on canvas, and the guy who signed it gets fifty percent of the commission. When I had a residency at Eyebeam, I turned that into “Paint Your Pizza” (2013,, which was the same, except here I used a mass market medium, a pizza, rather than a canvas.

?: Some of your work seems to have this whimsical bent…

!: It was actually kind of silly, but I wanted to produce something for Eyebeam that was entertaining, but at the same time made a point about the mass market for art. The last net piece I did was “Return of Investment” (2012,, which was basically like a Ponzi scheme, where you buy the ad space on the website of the gallery, and if somebody buys it from you, this person pays 15 percent more, so you make a profit. It was basically a satire on how the art world functions, and it went up to 650 Dollars.

?: Which leads us to the main focus of your current work, the art world and how it has been changed by the internet and the methods of quantification and global distribution that the internet allows for. A lot of you recent works is about how certain institutions determine quality standards with statistical methods…

!: The piece that started what I am doing right now was an exhibition that was completely generated by an algorithm. This algorithm told me how to put together 14 different pieces of work, that were subsequently exhibited. It was called “The Fear of Missing Out” and was shown at Showroom MAMA in Rotterdam in September 2013. Prior to that I had compiled a data base of the whole art world, by scraping data from Artfacts and and eFlux and Artsy and all these websites that collect art world information. I had to create my own data base, because there was not a single point, where you could get all this information about artists, curators, institutions, galleries, press – just anything that you can quantify. I was looking for a way to determine what is a good work of art, what is a bad work of art, is there a formula to create art? All these questions were constantly on my mind, because I could not figure out how the art world operated. There was no logical system. It all seemed so arbitrary. So I thought: There must be a way to find a way how to move in this world with the computational logic of big data, so I could be just step ahead of everyone else, because I know who to talk to and where to go.

?: And? Did that work?

!: For me personally, it worked. I mean, all the pieces in the show look like art works, right? They could all pass as pieces of contemporary art in some regard. However, the algorithm only gave me some instructions, like materials and dimensions, and the transformation from the instructions to the piece is still in the hands of the artist. That is where the magic happens. So, here is still this arbitrary aspect to the creation. And it isn´t really for me to say if it worked, it is for the art world to say. But if you look at what happened next, you might think it worked. I got gallery representation and I got to do more exhibitions.

?: One criticism of this type of Big Data aggregation is that they do not create actual knowledge, just heaps of data…

!: Well, if you ask me, if I know more about the art world now – yes! And knowledge is power. If you operate within a system that has no obvious logic to it, then the more you know about it, the better you can operate within this system. When I started to collect all that data, I thought that – if there is not way to determine what is a good work of art or a bad work of art – the work probably does not matter, and your network is much more important.

?: That sounds a bit like all these conspiracy theories about the art world, where some curators and other power brokers pull the strings and decide in shady back room deals, who the next big artist is going to be and what works to speculate on and which ones to flip…

!: Well, it is hard to get the real data. But you can still get some. Artfacts is probably my favourite websites. It is this general artist ranking system, based on exhibitions. They developed their own algorithm to determine this list of top artists out of 30.000 artists, all based on where you show and with who you show…

?: Isn´t that market-driven quantification of art a bit sad, really?

!: No, it is so good, because finally you have a number. And you will know all of these 250 top artists. In that kind of reality, visibility is quality, I guess, and the attention is the currency.

?: But is this something an artist should involve himself with?

!: Well, if one guy does paintings in a forest in Sweden and nobody sees the paintings – is it art? No, of course not, because the art world has not determined that it is art. That happens in a conversation with the audience.

?: Well, what I hear from you sounds more like the only thing that matters is if a certain artist is collected by Stefan Simchowitz or curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist…

!: If there are no other criteria of what is good or bad art, that becomes the matrix on which to judge art and what determines what quality is. I find that fascinating.

?: Artists like Michael Asher or Marcel Broodthaers created art that was meant as a critique of the way the art world operates. Does this type of artistic “Institutional Critique” influence your work?

!: Yes, totally. But in all my work, there has been this meta commentary on the art system. It is about how I can put myself back into this system, and then you can have a critical look on this system. All my network art was also about that: the network is kind of the materiality of all the works. Even when I was doing photography, I was doing photography on photography. For me, it was the only way to justify what I was doing, because you have to think about what you are doing. Now my work is in the gallery-art-world-system, so the work should be about that.

?: So what you are doing is not so different from what Facebook is doing. Or what the NSA is doing. You gather all this information, and then draw your conclusions and devise your strategies in accordance with the conclusions that you draw from these heaps of data.

!: (laughs) Well, I haven´t really thought about it that way. But, yes, we are all workers for Facebook and Google. We are providing them with our data. But I think, the NSA and Facebook have a more malicious intent than me. I just want to figure out how the art world works for myself, and I don´t share it with anyone, unlike Facebook. Facebook is much more manipulative than me.

?: In your recent piece “Studio Practice”, you have created 300 pages of instructions for other artist to create works for you. “Manipulative” is probably not the correct word for that, but this runs counter to the traditional idea of an artist that creates in a introspective, self-absorbed process…

!: If I was that kind of artist, that would be great, wouldn´t? Then I wouldn´t struggle so much with my ideas, but rather just go out and do it. But the book that I created for “Studio Practise” is not so much a set of instructions, but more like a mood board. It does not say: “Do this, do that”, but it is more about what work you should look to get inspired, before you create a piece. There are all these tips in it, like what canvas size is the highest-performing in the auctions right now. All the auction results are public, so why not look at them to see what works? This all comes back to Baldessari´s “Tips for artists who want to sell” from 1968.

I had five assistants, who were known to the public only as “Assistant 1, 2, 3, 4, 5”, because they wanted to remain anonymous – even though they were on the live-stream from the exhibition space, while they were working. They all had Bachelors or MFAs. Most of them were painters, because the focus in the piece was process-based abstraction paintings. The assistants were paid by the hour – 10 Euros, that´s more than the minimum wage in the Netherlands. We had an employment agreement, that outlined all their rights and obligations. If a piece was signed and sold, they received a five percent commission. I had to be strict that they would get paid properly, I did not want to exploit them…

!: 10 Euros per hour is a proper payment for an artist?

!: I think it was okay. I should probably pay them more, if they are performing. But it was an expensive project for the gallery. It is not their work, they work for some else – me.

The “Studio Practise” was about being an entrepreneur, the mastermind behind the works. It is partly inspired by Olafur Eliasson, whose assistants all work on their own projects and develop ideas. And after three or four weeks, they have a meeting, where they present their work, and Eliasson goes: “No, that is not an Eliasson piece. Try again!”

?: That sounds like something Google or Youtube would do – deprive others of the fruits of their creative labor…

!: Jeff Koons has 150 assistants, who work for him, including many painters, who only create a couple of paintings every year. But nobody cares that he did not produce them, it is always “his” painting. If I reveal how this system works, maybe a little bit of the magic disappears.

?: Painters like Rembrand had their workshops with their assistants too, but they had to imitate the master´s style. They were only allowed to draw backgrounds or the horse. In your case the creative role of the assistants was much broader…

!: That´s true. Maybe I could have given them more help. But I am very happy about the way it turned out. It all comes back to he idea, that there is no way of knowing what works and what doesn´t in the art world. It worked because all the parts of the ecosystem operated independently, and everything is thought of. Nothing was left to chance. All these things had to fit together, so the whole would function. I wanted to create this microcosms for myself, where I had five assistants proposing pieces for that could become my work, if I chose so. Or if the advisory board would agree.

?: What was this advisory board, and how did it operate?

!: There were 14 different people: curators, collectors, writers, art advisers, artists. Most notably, the collector XXX XXX was on the board, and XXXX, the super star auctioneer, and Florian Cramer. So you had a whole range from very market-oriented people to very theory-oriented people. They observed the production process online via the Studio Practice website. Two of them, who lived in Amsterdam, passed by, but most of the selection process happened online via a website.

?: I guess many people might argue that art is not democratic, that there cannot be “management by committee”, when it comes to creativity…

!: I know. In the end, around 100 works were produced, and they could not agree on a single one.

?: Five out of 100?

!: I have high standards, you know. Most of the works weren´t that good, according to my standards. On the first day, we put a three by four meter canvass on the floor as a drop-cloth, so the floor would not get stained. On the day of before exhibition, that canvas was stretched on four two by 2,5 meter stretcher bars. These were signed because I thought it was a nice summary of “Studio practise” that the only work that is void of artistic intention becomes the work that stays.

?: So, four of the art works that were created were essentially just pieces of the cloth that was there to protect the floor?

!: Yes. But they are quite pretty, the purest examples of process-based abstraction. The last piece was the result of a process that one of the assistants had been working for the last six weeks, and that piece was the last one he had done. So after trying out the same idea over and over again, that piece was also signed. I was disregarding all the advise of the advisory board, because they did not appreciate any of these pieces.

?: So in the end, the advisory board had no say in the creation of the art works.

?: No. I like the idea that you create a lot of work and a collector following it online is going: “Oh, I want to have that piece.” But I can say: “You cannot have it, because it is not going to be a piece.”

?: Did that happen?

?: Yes. I take great pleasure in being in some weird, privileged position that allows me to mess with the market dynamics and the supply and demand.

?: To return to the subject of this advisory board for a moment. Even if you ignored their advise eventually, it sounds a bit like the people who make money out of art are starting to run the show and tell artists what to do…

!: Well, aren´t they always doing that?

?: Well, maybe after the fact, after an art work is finished. But previously they were not involved in the process of creation…

!: I think that this might possibly be shifting though. But even if they get involved only after the art has been created, it is a bit like the survival of the fittest. If you create work that performs well on the market, you will create more work, based on the collectors who have invested in your career. It is like this perpetuating feedback loop. If you produce something and so many people invest in it, it will automatically be good, otherwise all the investment will be gone. That might seem pretty opportunistic, because you give away the influence to the people who might buy the work. That was the reason why it was important that there weren´t only collectors and art advisors on the board, but also artists and critics, who can evaluate art works. In the end, it comes down to aesthetics.

?: All this seems to involve a good amount of cynicism. It seems to be this “Fuck You” gesture towards the traditional ways of how the value and the quality of art gets appraised…

!: I get accused of cynicism a lot, and there might be some cynicism to what I do, too. But if it was only cynical, it would be so uninteresting, because then it would only talk about its own cynicism, and I would only point out how stupid this whole art system is. But my cynicism is countered by the fact that the way I execute these projects is 100 percent serious. When I do these things, I really believe in them as works of art. Otherwise I don´t think it would work. There has to be this notion that I am doing this to understand something about the art world. And I also find it interesting that all these pieces are net art, because it does not work without the web component.

?: Would you say that the works are the result of some sort of “net thinking”? That they have been influenced by the fact that they were conceived with the help of the internet?

!: For me, net art was always about this idea, that you can create systems that are greater than their individual elements, and see what happens with them. “Studio practise” is just like that, because it connects different parts to a bigger whole. My recent work (action? series? Piece?) “Flip City” is also very much like this. I created a series of forty pieces that all have elements borrowed from the works of other emerging (digital?) artists that are all abstract. All of these pieces have a GPS tracking device installed, so I can see what happens to them after they are sold. So in case a collector flips a work quickly for a profit, I can observe it.

Again, it is about that process: You create a system, than you activate the system, and than you see what happens. That was very similar to the web-based works that I did: You create the circumstances, and than you press the “Start”-button, and see where it goes. That is also how Facebook started: You create the infrastructure, and than you wait and see what people do with it.

?: Well, it seems you are spying on your collectors, the same way that Google of Facebook are spying on their users. But so far, not many of them appear to have been sold. According to the website of the project most of them are all still in California, where your gallery is.

!: No, there is only one work left from that series, all the others have been sold. But it seems they have been shipped to underground storages where there is no GPS signal. I did not think it would be that bad, I thought we should at least have a signal when they travel.

?: If that is really the case, than it seems like these collectors do not buy art to decorate their walls with it or to show off, but as an investment that they kept in the most safe environment.

!: Yes, I should have thought about that more that this might happen. But the works themselves still exist as pictures online, so I don´t feel sad that they are not visible in the real world. And I think at one point they will resurface, and that will be quite interesting to see. That is when the circle of the project will close. The whole work is like this great feedback loop: I go to these sources and scrap all this information on art, than I create based on that information, then I feed that art back into the art system.

?: That´s one way to look at it. Or one could say that this is like an application that says: “I want to be part of that art-flipping system.”

!: Most artists are unhappy when their work gets flipped. I like to be part of this system, because than I can manipulate it. You twist the knobs, and you have this control system. And if you get there, your career will go forward, because you have a lot of backing.

?: And than you would be a career artist…

!: All artists want to be career artists. I know that this sounds very opportunistic, but that is fine with me. It´s fun. For me, it´s like a game. So the question is how do you play that game? Do you play it by their rules? Or do you use their system for your own ends?

?: Is it profitable to play this game?

!: If you start selling paintings, it can be highly profitable. Most artists do not want to talk about this. But the auction results are public…

?: So the purpose of doing art for you is to create art that can be sold successfully?

!: No. It is about understanding the logic of the process. I was making work for the art system before I made work online, when I was a photographer. So it is like coming back for me. It depends on what system or network I want to talk about. The idea determines the output. And if you want to talk about ways of producing art, it can´t only be online. It has to exist in a physical form. So it was a natural progression for me.

At one point I had a bit of an issue to create works of art that can be displayed, because I thought that there had to be a specific reason to go back into the gallery and to create something for the white-cube-environment. To produce work based on that data base algorithm was a good reason to return to the gallery world. It made sense. If I would have just continued to create work for the gallery, it would have felt more opportunistic to latch on to that post-internet, object-based scene.

?: Are you ever worried that the art world will get upset with you – there is this guy, that reduces our most hallow activities to algorithms and software functions?

!: No. I think, if there is anything the art world loves, it is institutional critique of themselves, because it makes them more special. Everyone in the art world thinks these things once in a while…

?: …but you actually do them.

!: The fairest ones (???) did so much good work in the respect – what is the art medium, what is the art world? All of Hans Haacke´s work is all about that. In a lot of tech art, there is too much specificity, and I would like to move away from that. Sometimes the art works look like an illustration of your idea rather than an art work. You loose a bit of the magic.

?: You have successfully bridged the gap between the media art scene and the gallery art world. Does it help to be part of the media art world to find interest with gallerists and collectors?

!: No. But one should not be strategic all the time. The media art world is not a career move for the “real” art world. Being in Transmediale probably puts me into a worse position in that art world. But it is fun to be here. I was at Art Basel Miami last year, and here it the complete opposite. Here everybody is friends. It seems like you establish yourself in the art world proper through art works proper, then you can do whatever you like. Then they don´t have any issue with technology-based works. But if you come from a technological point of view, it leaves very little for the imagination.

?: Do you consider yourself a Post-Internet Artist?

!: I don´t think so much about it. I do the things that I do, and I use the tools I have at my disposal. I think it is less relevant these days to think: I´m a net artist, I´m a conceptual artist, I´m a sculptor.

I never identified with the concept of Post Internet Art, because I personally still work very much online. So if you say that you are a Post Internet Artist, does mean that you are moving away from the Internet? Most of what I do is still in between the online world and the gallery world.

?: But wouldn´t that be a simple definition of Post Internet art? To bring back material or ideas from the internet back into physical reality and turn them into installations?

!: If you consider Post-Internet-Art, as Marisa Olson defines it, to be art that is informed by the existence of the internet, then everybody is a Post Internet artist. I think in a couple of years it will be easier to see what stays, because history filters the winners and the losers out. Right now it seems like it is this buzzword that has been slapped by curators on a bunch of artists.

?: Are we going to see a return to pure web projects from you, or are you going to focus on work that has a physical component to it?

!: The net art scene has faded out a bit, or maybe I am not in touch with it as much as I used to be. Of course, as long as there is the internet, it will not go away. People will always put stuff online and make medium-specific work. I think the combination of both is very interesting.

Tilman Baumgärtel