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An interview with Matthew Gansallo

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Interviewer: > Beryl Graham
Interviewee: > Matthew Gansallo

Sarah Cook: How did the Tate web commissions come about? What was (or whose was) the initiative?

Matthew Gansallo: It was a good initiative. They had just finished the new website for the Tate - the redesign, the rehaul - and Sandy Nairne, being director of National Programs, said he wanted me to commission artists to make works for it.

SC: And what position did you have at the Tate?

MG: I started at the Tate as a senior management research fellow - a position which covered exhibitions, publishing, management, etc. That had its up and downs, and just as I was about to go on to do more writing, Sandy asked me to take the Tate forward into the wild plains of new media.

SC: Why did Sandy pinpoint you to curate the projects, what qualifications did you have in the field?

MG: I had experience of new media to the point of research and reading, and on the architectural side of things, so it was within my remit. I studied fine art in the mid 80s and studied architecture, and worked extensively in those fields. I had a remit of collaborative processes of artists and architects, and I had written on this ... and through that there was a lot of talk of the new media explosion.

I started at the Tate in 1998, when Tate Modern was about to be fitted out. In my position I could cover all grounds - development as well as curatorial; I could go around and do all sorts of things. Sandy thought I had enough experience and transferable skills in putting two disciplines together to come out with something interesting, something coherent.

SC: Can you clarify which two disciplines you mean?

MG: New media art and the museums - the visual arts. Are they bumpy bedfellows? Do they rub against each other? Can new media fit in the museum or can the museum fit in new media? Those are the questions I asked. That was my approach.

SC: Can you describe your working process, where your research led you - where you began?

MG: Just before this time last year [December 1999] I was in the United States researching dot.coms, the business side of it, how people are buying things online, to see the workings of it. I was mostly in New York, talking to the people at Sothebys. And at the same time I had to give some papers on architecture and museums in North Carolina and Detroit.

As for the angle I took, it's as follows. The new media perspective, or form of work, that has been going on critically for the last four years, we could view as anti-museum. And museums the size of the Tate and others, only want to engage with it as far as it is an adjunct, but not within the core of the history of art, or only as far as it is a new tool that so-called real 'artists' want to deal with. I knew I was dealing with two different canons - one of the museum, and one of new media.

In the case of new media there is a communication rhetoric and theory that isn't confined in a space; the phenomenon of the Internet is in its audience, the millions of people. Where does the art begin and where does it end? And how does it need the museum? And what are the differences between the three strands: webdesign, web art, and art on the web?

SC: What did you look at in order to separate out those three strands and determine the relationship between the web and the museum?

MG: When I had decided that those questions were my starting point, the core of my research was to go to the ZKM.

SC: Oh no!

MG: Yes, so I went to see that, what a mess.

SC: Did you go by yourself or take other Tate curators with you?

MG: I got a couple of other curators initially who were working with me on this to come. And because it's the Tate, Sandy had said, not in so many words, 'don't mess this up for us Matthew. We don't want a mess, we want something we can contain; we shouldn't be overly ambitious just because we want to be seen at the forefront or just because we're about to open the second largest museum of modern art in the world.'

So there was a lot of pressure on me. So I was never going to have grand ideas about Level 4 Tate Modern [the temporary exhibition space] and was to think instead about what we can contain on the web. There wasn't any space, but we thought we'd keep away from asking an artist to do some work in a space.

SC: What about Julian Stallabrass's exhibition for the Art Now space in Tate Britain; that was already on the books, did you talk to him about it?

MG: Julian was interested - we exchanged e-mails, and because he was doing that in the Art Now space we could concentrate online only.

SC: So then what?

MG: I began to get interested in the two canons, and asked myself: what is the mediator? What is the middle ground where there is an explosion or a meeting? Taking it into the remit of the Internet itself, the museum only exists as a site within its website.

SC: Let's go back a minute. If you were interested in web art and working only online, why did you go to ZKM - where the net_condition show was about putting net art into the galleries and is widely considered to have been not only a bit of a failure, but also a show that was very late in the game in recognising Internet-based art practice?

MG: Good question (laughter). What made me very sure about wanting to put it online was after seeing net_condition. We spoke to Peter Weibel, and I looked at it and I was more determined to have it more strictly online and not in a gallery space. It was good to go, and we read Alexei Shulgin's work created in response about museums, which was great. And at the time - with Tate Modern about to open - I had to think carefully about the space and ask myself, is it wise [to put this work in it]?

After coming back I met with Sandy and said I was very much convinced it should be online. I had the conviction to commission new work, and to work with the forum of the web. I totally disliked, or rather, I don't think it works - putting money into a room filled with computers, like an office, in a gallery - it doesn't make sense. If you're going to do something in a gallery the architecture has to be part of that. Or, like Julian is going to do, have something inside that connects with the outside. It has to be installed in a particular way to create discourse.

SC: So how did you choose the artists?

MG: I gathered a few advisors: [independent curators] Matthew Fuller and Lisa Haskel, etc. And while I was aware that this was at a time when one should look around and explore a bit more, I also thought that too many cooks might just spoil the broth, so I concentrated on what I want to do - identifying the middle ground. I spoke a lot with Lisa and Matthew about their ideas. And with Tom Bets - a brilliant young man on the Tate staff - he's web editor, now working with webcasting curator, Honor Harger. Lisa drew up a list of artists we could approach, who started by using new media and whose works had been informed by the Internet when they began to practice.

SC: Who was on the list?

MG: irational, Jodi, Graham from Mongrel. I asked if they were available and if I could go speak to them.

SC: And how did you choose Simon Patterson?

MG: While I was doing this I thought it was incredibly important to see how these canons could complement each other, and then it became important to find someone who we can call a traditional artist who makes work that we can readily identify as fine art - paintings, sculptures, representation. [I had a list I had] taken on from the Abracadabra show - Emma Kay, Simon Patterson, Angus Fairhurst. I was considering these artists because their works are not virgins to the Internet - it may reference it in practice - but they've never actually been commissioned to do work on the net.

SC: There is a theory floating around that pairing Simon Patterson and Mongrel was a way of making net art easier to understand for the public. Would it not have been more risky and 'at the forefront' to just commission Internet-based artists? Was asking Simon Patterson - an already relatively well-known artist, and one in the Tate's collection - a way to hold the hand of your existent traditional audience and bring them online?

MG: It wasn't an intention to make net art easier to understand, it was to engage the audience, into looking at how this work could be a tool for artists to use, and to look at this definition of digital artists, what does it really mean? Is this a tool artists can engage with, and say 'I'm happy putting my works within the museum, and other times I'm happy to do work on the web which can inform my work'? It wasn't to pick someone well-known, but an artist who had been working for a few years, who had some profile, who had work that lent itself to a canon, work that has an innuendo of use of technological systems, an enforced rhetoric. Simon is speaking of our informed code of information (for example, his work, The Great Bear (1992) based on the London tube map). Other artists that we spoke to said they weren't interested, because they were against the computer, etc. And I was pleased when Simon said 'okay, I've never done it before and if I can channel my creativity, then great.'

It was important for me to create that dichotomy, and I think it works both ways, in the sense that Harwood@Mongrel has taken his work and what he's done before and put it inside an institution. Whereas Simon has brought his way of thinking to the Internet and the Tate web, and the idea was to get the audience to look at the Internet.

My intentions were in trying to create some sort of balance, not create some sort of safety net, with having an artist who is famous and one who is not so. That wasn't it. Because Mongrel is incredibly well known (mostly on the net, in Amsterdam, in Australia, the Pompidou has collected their work), they are at the forefront of pushing the boundaries - the differences between web design and web art. The Tate never, at any point, called me and said 'you have to play it safe, you have to find an artist we've shown before.' This pairing was my initiative.

SC: I suppose the other part of my question is how new media art is perceived within the Tate.

MG: I am interested; I am looking at new media not as something cut off, but as a progression forward, not an adjunct. What I thought as I was doing my research is that I had found a lot of institutions who didn't take media art seriously - this new technofrenzy, video game playing stuff. They say 'this is nothing that we can include within in the canons of art,' and this attitude is something I totally disagree with. This is something that artists can use to 1) reach audience, 2) make interesting new work, and 3) we'll see museums change their buildings as a result.

SC: So where else did you look to as models of the type of curating, or net practice you wanted to be a part of?

MG: We looked at Iniva, the Walker Art Center's Gallery9, Olia Lialina's Art Teleportacia gallery, Natalie Bookchin's site, and talked to Josephine Berry [editor of London-based Mute magazine]. I looked at all that and thought it was interesting and it formed part of my thinking. I approached the artists and said 'its up to you to come up with the idea; the virtual space is open for you to do something with. You create work that you think is appropriate for what we are doing.'

SC: Let's talk about Harwood@Mongrel's piece, because it got a lot of press. What's the story?

MG: With Bankside (Tate Modern) being a converted power station, Mongrel were also aware that the Millbank building (Tate Britain) was a former prison. They went around the Tate Britain with a digital camera and wanted to look at parts of the building and the collection and, through the net, reveal what was there before. As his ideas developed he came up with the idea of hacking.

We got a lot of responses back: 'who did it?' and 'how scary!', and 'is this a site for knowledge?' and 'what is it?' and 'anyone can put this typically Tate shock tactics crap [up]!' And we got responses that were 'gosh this is interesting,' and 'I'm glad they've done this,' and 'it's good the Tate is large enough to say what you want.'

SC: And the responses to Simon's work which didn't get as much press?

MG: Simon's work got great responses from highly stressed business men saying they loved relaxing to the colour, the sound, and the coded histories, etc.

SC: And, most interesting to me, what was the response from the Tate itself? As I think I've said, we want the Crumb site to be useful for other first time new media curators - and your experience in a big institution like the Tate is very interesting.

MG: The departments to watch out for are the typical core departments. This was an issue; they had to rewrite their approach ...

SC: Which departments?

MG: The departments of marketing, of information, press and publicity, and department of development.

SC: Can we talk about each?

MG: Yes. 1) Marketing: They were rightly concerned about their audiences coming into the Tate web and being taken by Mongrel and that they were either going to lose what they call 'the hitters' - potential audiences who are the bones and content of the Tate web. They were worried about losing audiences because of the in-your-face nature of the work. We had extensive meetings with them (which I will detail in the book I am writing about this experience). I was constantly liaising between marketing and the artist. The marketing department manages the Tate's website, because of their interest in the audiences. They were good, constructive conversations and meetings. People [the press] wanted to play it up that we were doing things that were getting departments angry, but it's not the case. It was because it was the first time. The best thing we could do was sit down and talk it through with them, and not create a storm in a teacup, and through that learn something.

SC: Which was? What did the marketing department learn?

MG: That artists making work for the website have the same rights, as Anish Kapoor or Mona Hatoum or any other artist who would be invited to make work in a space.

Next, 2) Press and Publicity: We did a lot of work with them in the end. There was a press release and a good write up from them - of my intention and the why and how I curated it - and that went out. But, as is usually the case, the press first had to know (and agree) that we were working in the same vein as inviting an artist to make a work for a space, or having an exhibition of William Blake works, or that it was like the Art Now space. They had to begin to view it like that. Initially they weren't sure how to view the press and publicity of this type of work. They asked 'as the Tate, this is the way we write press releases for certain types of exhibitions, we've not done it before so do we do it in the same vein?' I insisted that they view Mongrel and Patterson as artists invited by Tate on the merit of their work, not as lab rats.

Getting the details clear was important - it should be said on the flyers that it is virtual, but they have created works of art for the Tate web, using the technology of the Internet - so that had to be written within the program. People didn't know how to do it, how to develop a new language.

SC: I'm anxious to hear how the curatorial department reacted. Were they threatened because they hadn't been the ones to curate or commission the works? Did they embrace it and defend what you had done?

MG: 3) The curatorial departments - with all fairness to them - were incredibly busy with Tate Modern. Two collections curators worked closely with me and did initial research with me on this - finding out how these works could find themselves within the galleries and in the museum's space. A lot of the curators thought about this being in a physical space, it took a while to convince some curators that it was strictly online so it was not encroaching on their space. And we told them 'we want to look at how this affects what you do, and what you write, and within art history, the cultural assumptions, and patterns of people viewing art,' etc.

SC: Can you speak to the press coverage which stated that the curators asked Mongrel to tone down the piece, claiming they didn't realize it was going to be so controversial? Was there a chance the work was going to be called off?

MG: I was the only one who was crucial in terms of it going ahead. They knew about it, knew the artist's intentions, and they said 'if it doesn't go well you're in deep soup and if it goes well you'll get some wine.' There was a strong knowledge about what was going on and who was doing what, and they had a good understanding of it. Some of the curators knew Mongrel's early work. They said 'good luck.' Although they were supportive initially, at the end of the day it was 'let's see how well you do it Matthew,' and I can say that I was the only curator working fulltime on it.

I emailed the younger curators working on it a lot, and the two collections curators looked around with me initially. But with it being the first time, I had a lot of curators asking 'what does this have to do with visual art, what does this have to do with what we're doing?' I was clear that it's not just something as an adjunct, its something we have to begin to take seriously ... They're getting there. Some curators didn't want anything to do with it, but most knew the score.

I was the conduit of five or six departments and had to tell them what we were doing ... Sandy and I had to step around. The highest point was when we showed it to the director, Nick Serota, before the works went live; he already had an inkling of it (because we had been emailing him) and he went through it and said 'good, excellent.'

SC: So, what next?

MG: It was a learning period for all of us, including myself. We will begin to see some form of confusion and suspicion between new media and museums, but with good communication it will dispel into the background, and with big exhibitions it will be within the same form, the same sentence when we speak about art on the net.

In architectural terms - as for what the new media visual arts might mean to the museum - the architecture is destined to change (I witnessed that in Japan, more recently in September). It's going to be incredibly expensive. I have ideas on how to design parts of the museum, as to how they can be the conduit between the virtual and real.

SC: Let's make that our next conversation.



  media art
  fine art


  Matthew Gansallo
  Sarah Cook
  Natalie Bookchin
  Julian Stallabrass
  Peter Weibel