Together with Jonathon Carroll, Steve Fletcher is a co-founder of the Carroll/Fletcher gallery in London, one of the main referencing points of the contemporary art which emphasises the use of new technologies and committed to enquiries political and social topics.
Carroll/Fletcher gallery hosted artists like: UBERMORGEN, Evan Roth, Manfred Mohr, Constant Dullaart, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Eva and Franco Mattes, and many others, proposing group shows organised by invited curators, film screenings, live performances and artist talks. This gallery is one of the most active players in the market related to Media Art, and it offers a very interesting perspective towards the touching points between Media Art and contemporary art. Steve Fletcher has been one of the invited speakers to the Media Art and Art Market symposium, held at the Lentos museum of Linz the last October.
His contribution intended to clarify some specific misunderstandings about art and its surrounding system, acknowledging the points of view proposed by Media Art. Inspired by the essay “Thirteen Confusions” by Amos Vogel and its reinterpretation by Dan Fox, Fletcher stressed out the existence of certain issues and preconceptions that limit the Media Art field and its recognition from the general art system as well as the art market. In his intervention during the symposium, Fletcher draws the attention to certain circumstances which might influence the production and acknowledgement of artistic quality. The warnings that he expressed show a fundamental view that incorporates the major concerns of contemporary art in the acceptance of certain directions of Media Art.
Alessio Chierico: In your contribution to the “Media Art and the Art Market” symposium, you proposed an update of the “Thirteen Confusions” by Amos Vogel and its reinterpretation by Dan Fox, from the perspective of Media Art. Among all of the “confusions”, which ones do you find most relevant?
Steve Fletcher: I think they are all relevant! They split into two broad categories. The first are those that are important for all types of art. For example, the first one – Don’t Confuse Cost and Price – deals with the relationship between production costs, retail price and cultural value. This is something that applies equally to all works of art. The same could be said for the second one – Don’t Confuse Propagandists with Critics. Then there are confusions which are more specifically linked to the nature of works that use new technologies for their production, distribution and consumption, as well as for their reproduction, redistribution and re-consumption. For example, Don’t Confuse a Copy with an Original and Don’t Confuse a Painting with a Performance. These get to the heart of the question as to how new technologies have impacted upon the way we look at works of Media Art.
So, “don’t confuse the painting and the performance” is firstly important because, as these new forms are beginning to emerge, I think that one of the problems we face is that people are still dealing with them, within the old structure, with old concepts. Therefore, in certain cases is very easy to say: “this work of art is like a painting”, although in reality it is not. It’s not a painting, but it is similar to a performance, and once you understand it as a performance, you have to consider different conditions for its distribution, reception, collection, etc. Secondly, “don’t confuse the copy with the original” is important, because that deals with the notions of authorship and uniqueness, and it also has the question as to the role of the collector embedded in it.
I think is very important that with the emergence of new technologies the idea of the static work of art as a physical object is changing. We often believe that a work of art is merely some sort of object. However, it is also associated with a bundle of rights: the right to exhibit it, the right to reproduce it, the right to copy it. Along with that, it also includes a bundle of responsibilities: that of having to look after the work, for instance. Therefore, we need to reconsider the notion of the collector, as well as that of the artist. This area hasn’t been fully addressed yet. I think that the collector is also a curator and a custodian. What I mean is, we need to work toward a general standard for sales contracts of artworks that takes these new notions into consideration, so that we all agree on what rights and responsibilities ownership entails.
It is also necessary to ascertain that if you buy a work of art, you have the duty, the responsibility of maintaining it, and if you don’t fulfil that obligation, you might lose your ownership. This is a difficult issue, there is a lot to discuss, to debate, but I think we need to deal with it. The common notion of the artwork obviously comes from unique, stable objects like paintings. Nowadays, when you buy a painting, you do not incur any responsibility to maintain it. If we are convinced of the cultural value of a work, as well as of its financial value, then it might be necessary to rethink the terms of the ownership contract.
Alessio Chierico: One of the slides you presented stated: “Media Art is Art as well as Contemporary Art”. Do you think that this is something that still has to be clarified?
Steve Fletcher: I think it’s something we need to continue to keep in mind, to remain vigilant about, to ensure that it is neither relegated to a niche activity nor distorted with the intention of making it conform to the mainstream. From an art-historical point of view, is it legitimate to ask whether it is possible to identify categories of works which we might choose to classify as Media Art? Yes, it certainly is, but I do think that even after that point has been accepted, it’s important to structure the discussion in such a manner that media art it isn’t regarded as a niche which is only of interest to specialists.
If that is done, adding that rubric can simulate new forms of discussion. Media Art has not yet been fully absorbed into mainstream art, and doesn’t yet constitute an important part of collections, so we still have a lot of work to do, to establish the artistic and cultural importance of that sector. Those who deeply care about these works and believe in their cultural value need to continue to invest a great deal of effort toward breaking down the prejudices that I think still exist, particularly within the mainstream art world. Besides, there is the second point related to regarding media artists as a social group. I think that there still is a danger that the group of people involved in Media Art might conduct a closed discourse that is not accessible to outsiders.
The danger is that all of us might just continue to be a small, self-contained group, because we believe in the value of our work. I think it is important for us to be open minded; we shouldn’t become a group of friends prone to “Groupthinking” which doesn’t develop a detailed critical theory. This leads to the final confusion which is: Don’t confuse good with bad. We have to be willing to say that some of these works are bad, and some of them are good. These are the two aspects of the fact that “Media Art is art”. It’s about maintaining the focus on ensuring that we find a way to properly integrate this form of art into the larger world of contemporary art, and that we develop a rigorous critical theory.
Alessio Chierico: In the Carroll/Fletcher gallery, you are promoting contemporary art that focuses mainly on new technologies and their social impact. What is, in your opinion, the relationship between contemporary art and technology? Is there a real separation between contemporary art and Media Art?
Steve Fletcher: New technologies and their socio-political impact aren’t our sole focuses. The current show in the gallery is related to the problems in the Middle East and the plight of the Palestinian people, and it is about creating a space which enables people to imagine a different future and work toward its realization. It’s a very political multimedia installation. Even though it involves a five-channel video presentation, I wouldn’t say that it was considering the impact of new technologies when I installed it. I wouldn’t even say that it really makes any special use of new technologies.
I think that the reason for the focus on new technologies is twofold: firstly, from a production, distribution and consumption point of view, they have had a considerable impact on the art world, and secondly, they have significant socio-political impacts. Thus, our focus is not driven by a desire to champion new technologies, but rather by a general desire to show interesting, relevant works, works which deal with what it means to be alive today. It just happens that many of the most interesting artists are utilizing these technologies. This reflects a long-term trend in the practice of art; works are increasingly becoming multi-media, trans-media or inter-media.
If you look at the ubiquity of technologies today, I think that this trend is going to continue, because it reflects the way people are growing up. Forty or fifty years ago, if you wanted to be an artist you didn’t have the same choices. I remember my visit to the studio of a young artist a few years ago. He was making screen-based works driven by software. While he was showing me all those .mov files, he kept on talking about the materiality of the software environment and of the images created in it. He said he was interested in exploring that materiality, the formal properties of the code and the image environment. If I had visited this guy thirty years ago, he would have been a painter.
Alessio Chierico: In our times, which are the most important social aspects which Media Art should reflect?
Steve Fletcher: It is up to the artists to determine what to care about; is not up to me to tell them what should regard as important. Perhaps we can, however, select artists to work with who deal with issues that we consider important; for example, what it means to be alive today, and how new technologies are affecting the way we live our lives. A lot of the artists we work with are profoundly questioning the edge of the nature of neo-liberal capitalism and related issues involving our colonial legacy, globalisation, etc. At the same time, they are thinking about alternatives and ways of resisting.
However, it is up to the artists to determine what they feel is important, and to follow their passions. Our obligation as gallerists is to support our artists and to provide them with a constructive, supportive environment. We have to let them feel that they can push the boundaries, experiment, say controversial things, try new things. Obviously, we choose artists that are interested in the things we are interested in, but that doesn’t mean we always agree! On a slight tangent, I do think that these new technologies have implications for the structure of the art market and the art world. I think that is really important. We need to develop a critical theory for Media Art and Contemporary Art, and that is what the symposium was about.
Alessio Chierico: Do you think that the implications of new technologies for the structure of the art market can be the subject of an art practice?
Steve Fletcher: Yes, but I’m not convinced that that is the most interesting or important topic we could be focusing on right now. A lot of the art that has been produced in the last twenty, thirty years could be classified as institutional critique. That comprises those works that reflects on what it means to be an artist, or what art is and what it can achieve. This category has come to include considerations of the nature of the image and of image production and distribution, etc. I think that whilst these matters are intriguing for insiders, the politics of the image and the construction of truth are far more interesting topics. Furthermore, I think that a lot of work that is being done today merely involves rehashing, rethinking things which have being done previously. I don’t find that particularly interesting. Personally, I’m more interested in the art that is looking at things outside of the art world.
Alessio Chierico: What the Media Art market is looking for? Do you think that there are some specific approaches that are more attractive for collectors?
Steve Fletcher: I think is important that artists create works that interest and excite them. As soon as people make work for the market rather than for themselves, their art starts to suffer, and their work loses its authenticity, its integrity. I think our job as gallerists is to work with the collectors, to help them appreciate what it is important about the artist’s output and understand the challenges (as well as pleasures) of collecting Media Art. Equally, it’s the obligation of the gallerists to work with artists to ensure that their work is attractively, robustly packaged but the packaging should not have a major influence on the form and content of the work.
If the artist starts to make works just because he thinks they will sell, I think what he produces will become uninteresting, unimportant. There are different kinds of collectors, and work that is more readily describable within the existing categories is most successful in finding a collector. However, I’m reluctant to spend too much time discussing which categories are more and which are less successful with the collectors, because I think that it is not appropriate to encourage artists to make work for specific types of collectors. What is important is that artists have the support and the conditions that enable them to produce the work they want to make. Some of them may not fit into the framework of a commercial gallery, but then we should think about the funding structures that enable works to be realized.
This goes back to the whole idea of a mixed economy, and the artist‘s understanding of where his/her works fits into it. That will help them make informed decisions about their lives – about how they should be structured and what role art should play within that structure. Do they need to have a job teaching in the university, writing software, designing websites, working in post-production, in photography, or wherever? I think it’s really important that those issues be discussed. We need to consider the art market in a broad way, and thereby to include the collectors, but also the funding bodies, the commissioners.
These commissioners might be festivals, they might be centres like the Art Council in the U.K. or the Welcome Trust might be one of them, and that’s all part of the market. I think that there is a danger of placing too much emphasis on the commercial gallery sector, because if we frame our discussion incorrectly, it might seem that we are saying that everybody should operate in that area. The framing of the art market, of the art world, is done by the people that produce, fund, and distribute artistic works. The crucial consideration is: “what is the work I want to make?” That’s the first question that has to be asked. The second one is: “what does it take to realize the creation of that work within the given environment?” That involves the practicality of the production of a particular art object.
Alessio Chierico: How do you envision the future development of the market for Media Art?
Steve Fletcher: There is a short answer: at Carroll / Fletcher we believe that the art that is being considered under the heading Media Art has a significant cultural value. We are convinced, that this value will come to be recognized, and that Media Art is therefore is destined to have ever increasing importance within the mainstream art world. If we are talking about the art market in the narrow sense, that is: by merely considering the work that is bought and sold through the commercial sector, I also think that this sector will continue to grow.
There are technical issues that still have to be dealt with – the form of the sales contract, issues of longevity, obsolescence and maintenance, the notion of the collector, the notion of the author, the quality of screens etc. Whilst these do constitute very real, pressing problems, all of them are solvable. That’s why one of the confusions was: “don’t confuse a lack of information with an unsolvable problem”. In general, a lack of information, of expertise or of theory is something that can be dealt with. Therefore, our task is to work hard to educate people and work with all the stakeholders to create common standards. Furthermore, it is crucial for us to rigorously champion what we believe to be good. We have to make judgements about what is good and what is bad, and then proceed to support the good artworks.
Alessio Chierico: What suggestion would you give to a media artist who wants to enter the art and sell works there?
Steve Fletcher: A very simple one: make the work you want to make and don’t compromise – don’t make work merely because you think it is the type of work that sells well or that ‘people’ might want, because it is fashionable. People working in commercial galleries sector are actively looking for interesting work and artists with potential. Gallerists go to festivals, art fairs, and graduate shows, they have a network of contacts, etc. (and so do curators). Thus, I think that the best thing young artists can do is to make work that they believe in, then make sure that people see it – they should have a good website, put on exhibitions, market them (send out invitations etc.), submit to open calls, etc. And before an artist approaches a gallery he/she should be familiar with its programme and have a clear idea of how he/she might fit into it.