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March 8, 2023

Can Digital and Physical Art Live Together?

Manique Hendricks, Achraf Touloub, and Harm van den Dorpel give their answers to Habib William Kherbek
Credit: Installation view of “Context Switch” with works by Achraf Touloub and Harm van den Dorpel. Courtesy Galerie Noah Klink
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Can Digital and Physical Art Live Together?

Achraf Touloub and Harm van den Dorpel both work in very different media but share a number of concerns, particularly regarding the centrality of time, complexity, and iteration to their works. Touloub is best known for his intricate compositions on paper and canvas that destabilize the viewer’s perspective. While van den Dorpel was the first artist to sell an NFT, Event Listeners (2015), to a museum collection. His recent project Mutant Garden Seeder (2021) uses Cartesian Genetic Programming to create iterative compositions that proliferate from mutations of the fittest source “parent” images. 

A recent exhibition, “Context Switch,” at Galerie Noah Klink set up a dialogue between the artists that addressed the pressing question of how to display works in digital and analog media together. As a curator, Manique Hendricks has spent her career examining new forms of media and the evolution of digital production and space. In the following conversation, Hendricks, Touloub, and van den Dorpel discuss the implications of the Noah Klink show for the art of display after the NFT.

Installation view of “Context Switch” with works by Achraf Touloub and Harm van den Dorpel. Courtesy Galerie Noah Klink

Habib William Kherbek: Achraf and Harm, in what ways are your works defined by emergent elements?

Achraf Touloub: There are two aspects to emergence. The first relates to the practice itself, which is always shifting. I’ve always sought to follow the evolution of technology over time. The first show I did with Galeria Plan B in Berlin was called “Latent,” as in something that’s already there but growing slowly more apparent. This is evident at the level of the artworks themselves — there are things that you cannot perceive directly, so your relation to them grows with time and with yourself. In this way, I’ve tried to build in another kind of interaction. 

You cannot “read” the work. You need to breathe it, to live it, to feel it melt into you.

I always try to maintain a link with primordial time, buried deep at the level of human desire and achievement. Harm’s project, Mutant Garden Seeder (2021), also evolves with time. In my works, and in Harm’s program and code, we shift from the narrative of the subject to a form of unconscious knowledge.

Achraf Touloub, 1999, 2022. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Noah Klink

Harm van den Dorpel: Both Achraf and I have rules that we set for ourselves, executed manually or by software. A form of complexity emerges from that which cannot be reduced, a bit like hashing. This idea is relatively unusual in art production — to embrace complexity instead of finding some kind of essence. I like to think of the process as a form of decompression, building in redundancy to the system through recursion to produce an expanded image. 

I use a rudimentary form of AI that some people regard as endangering art. But I am not remotely afraid of AI art, or being replaced. The idea that the artist is now redundant makes for a good headline but AI is really a new tool. It also has no intention. I have this vain idea that I can make something new, but I don’t think AI shares that sentiment. 

If an AI were really intelligent, it would say: “fuck you all! I’m not going to do this image prompt to image, I’m going to do something fun!” But that is never going to happen, which is exactly why human art is radical. 
Installation view of “Context Switch” with works by Harm van den Dorpel and Achraf Touloub. Courtesy Galerie Noah Klink

HWK: Manique, you’ve worked with AI and digital or dematerialized art in a number of contexts. Does that sentiment resonate with your experience? 

Manique Hendricks: I used to work at LIMA, the media art institute in Amsterdam, where questions often circulated around preservation. But there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. One has to treat each work on its own terms, according to its own context and the story you want to tell. 

In the context of online or digital art, in order to present such works in a non-alienated fashion one has to provide an authentic and original context. I love what Harm said about embracing complexity, which applies to exhibiting as well as preserving and distributing this kind of work. The challenges I’ve encountered in the past have often been caused by museums or institutions that are not built to embrace complexity and to preserve works for future generations in the way that these works are.

Museum people often view photography with the same set of fears about reproduction, about the lack of scarcity or originality of objects, and about not having a single owner.
Harm van den Dorpel, Typographic Trace, 2022. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Noah Klink

HWK: The question of how to commodify digital art in a way that the art market understands is a long-standing one, with the NFT entering the discussion as a kind of solution. The dialogue between the icon (image) and the token has recurred throughout art history. How do you all perceive the current situation? 

AT: After you’ve looked deeply at an artwork, you will not be the same person that you were beforehand. But humans find a lot of ways to define art, including in financial terms. To characterize an artwork and a token as the same entity on the blockchain is totally crazy, but it’s the dream of some people — a capitalist fantasy to make a coin into an artwork

HVDD: With the rise of Contemporary Art Daily, Post-Internet, and Instagram in the 2000s, images of paintings and the documentation of exhibitions grew to dominate the presence of the artwork itself, while at the same time standing for it. So the groundwork for NFTs as an acceptable solution had already been laid. In preparation for the exhibition at Galerie Noah Klink, I built a dedicated page on my website that stands as a work in its own right. While I don’t have visitor numbers from Noah’s gallery, I imagine that many more people have seen the exhibition on social media than have seen it in person.

I refuse the hierarchy that elevates a bricks-and-mortar show over a post on Instagram.

Nevertheless, it’s important for me to see the work in space, not least because I had never been able to see Achraf’s work up close before. I don’t know if the artwork is the material object in space or if it’s the digital representation, or if the token holds the work’s unique essence. Maybe that’s the whole reason I’m doing this, to find out. 

Installation view of “Context Switch” with works by Achraf Touloub and Harm van den Dorpel, Courtesy Galerie Noah Klink

MH: I often feel a bit weirded out when people say: “this was in real life, not on Instagram,” but Instagram is as much a part of my real life as anything else. I think this has to do with cultural location. What I really enjoy about digital art, media arts, and online art is that they challenge notions of authorship and ownership that the art market relies on, while putting stuff in a space that redeems it as art. I feel that a lot of the works produced or exhibited online have the same potential to challenge these age-old notions. 

I remember writing a paper at university on André Malraux and his concept of the imaginary museum that came to life through reproduction. The circulation of images online has the same potential, but it’s hard to present born digital works in physical space, because the work wasn’t made to exist there. I remember seeing a Jon Rafman video at the Stedelijk Museum where you could sit in a closet on your own with a screen in front of you. This provided the same intimacy that one has at home browsing works online. 

I once made an exhibition based on works disseminated through Tumblr but it wouldn’t work owing to the sheer pace of online viewing. It just wouldn’t translate into physical space. 
Achraf Touloub, the Arrivals III, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Noah Klink

HWK: As Web3 advances, one major concern for me is that its space is “pre-enclosed” — that it has to be subject to data capture and financial capitalization in order to exist. Every aspect of metaverse activity will be and must be monetized. As art spaces expand into Web3 spaces, how will this alter art’s capacity to escape market logics? 

AT: With recent developments in AI, perhaps the point where someone signs a painting is over, which changes what it means to be an artist into something more like a feeling. I hope that art will become more like a tool that runs in front of technology. I often think to myself: “what if everything visible today is turned into data?” You would still need to deal with the occult dimensions and difficult, hidden territories. Perhaps poetry or human experience deals with this in other ways. 

MH: I look at the future from a more historical perspective and when I envision what Web3 will be, I think about what happened when Web2 really blasted off. This included platforms but also works that criticized the space they made use of. I think that really catapulted the whole Post-Internet movement. We now know it’s capitalized territory, so I think this time we might be less naive about things.

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Harm van den Dorpel is a Dutch artist based in Berlin who is dedicated to discovering emergent aesthetics by composing software and language, often borrowing from the disparate fields of genetics and blockchain. He has exhibited internationally at ZKM Karlsruhe; MoMa PS1, New York; The New Museum, New York; Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam; and the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Seoul. In 2015, he co-founded left gallery with Paloma Rodríguez Carrington.

Manique Hendricks works as a curator of contemporary art at Frans Hals Museum. She studied art history at the University of Amsterdam, followed by a master’s degree in Heritage Studies: Museum Curator. As a freelance curator, writer, and researcher she specializes in contemporary (media) art, as well as visual, and digital culture. In her practice, Manique touches upon themes of identity, representation, the body, camp, and club culture. She has previously worked at Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, LIMA, and Kunstfort bij Vijfhuizen. Her writings have been published by Stedelijk Studies, NXS WORLD, Mister Motley, Institute of Network Cultures, TUBELIGHT, and The Hmm. Manique also acts as an advisor to the Mondriaan Fund and is part of the board of Nieuwe Vide and Jong VNK. 

Achraf Touloub is an artist born in Morocco who lives and works in Paris. His works have been shown extensively across Europe and Asia including at Palais de Tokyo, Paris (2020); the Centre Pompidou, Paris (2017); and the Venice Biennale (2017). He has held solo exhibitions at Villa Medici, Rome; Baronian, Brussels; and Galerie Plan B, Berlin.

Habib William Kherbek is the writer of several works of fiction, including Ecology of Secrets (2013), ULTRALIFE (2016), New Adventures (2020), Best Practices (2021), and Twenty Terrifying Tales from Our Technofeudal Tomorrow (2021). Kherbek’s art journalism has appeared in numerous publications, and his collected art writings were collected in Entropia (Volume I & II) (2022).