We Were the Sex Pistols

Vuk Ćosić interviewed by Ariel Baron-Robbins

Friday, Sep. 16th, 9:00 AM

I went to the Jon Rafman show yesterday (in Berlin) and I mentioned I would be speaking with you….

Ah, yeah, I never met him but I am a fan of his brains. His work is down right spectacular. He’s cool. So you owe me an introduction sometime.

Thank you talking to me about these questions. It seems like no one wants to talk about NFT’s anymore. They are tired of it, you know.

Yeah, well there has always been a type of ostracizing with all things digital. Really what happened with NFT’s was it was a little bit of a test. A lot of money was moved around which got people excited. So after 30 years of silence some auction houses came in and were trying to figure out who were these collectors and who were these audiences. Well, money makes the world go around.

So this started when I bought a video piece, from Thomas Erben gallery and I asked if in addition to the physical certificate of authenticity, I could have an NFT made like a receipt if possible. The artist made me one which was fantastic. Then this question of a shift in the authenticity standards for galleries came to my mind.

I would like to talk about what galleries should be doing now post-NFT.

I would suggest that we turn the sequence of your questions upside down. The real question is #5 so let us start from that.

My status is in being a weird cult survivor from the 90’s. I have a role to play, a position to fulfill. It is the one of the sage on the mountain, like a Jimi Hendrix who failed to overdose. So I talk to younger artists entering the field and give them wise advice and so on. So here goes:

So how does this whole field of NFT art look to a young person who is full of passion….in a moment when some big important career decisions are supposed to made? So you are like, whatever age, 15, 35, whatever, but you are just beginning. What is the world you are born into and how do you see that world? How do the facts relate to your basic motivation to come out with some artistic output, some creative gesture or act as Duchamp would say.

I’m not noticing that something very liberating is going on. I’m noticing that it is becoming more and more stressful. This is from the position of a guy who was standing at that gate 30 years ago.

The rhetoric is similar, of empowerment, of being able to do things that you couldn’t do before, of working in a new way, of encountering creative people, collaborating in a new fashion across borders, time, and everything else. Except back then money was not involved. The promise of a career was not involved. These two things are new: career and money.

If I may compare, what Elinor Ostrum used to call “Communities of Practice.” You know, if I can compare the community of practice from the mid-90’s to one now, if I could hypothetically compare the inner dialogues in the group we had back then and the ones I’m noticing now, I notice a difference that is not giving me a fantastically optimistic feeling about humanity.

What about galleries in all of this? Do you have a gallery? How are dealing with them?

I work randomly with a couple, one in New York called Postmasters since the 1990’s. I had a brief affair with a gallery in New York called Bryce Wolkowitz if you know that space. I believe he just closed, moved to VR. He surprised me one time selling a bunch of my pieces at an opening, saved my year, it was fantastic. I work with a place in Berlin called Digital Art Museum, yeah, Wolfgang Lieser. He did sell some of my stuff. He put me into collaboration with Karl Lagerfeld once which was very cool. (Laughing) I have a secret work with a dead German fashion guy that I can’t show (because I signed a contract). That’s really nice, I like that.

Contracts didn’t seem to stop you with Documenta X….I mean….

The piece that defined me for the people.

But I need to answer the question, about the galleries, because it is the fundamental question, number 5.

In the very beginning online art was done by a bunch of people who perceived themselves, at least I did, as refugees from the art world. We were disappointed and angry, either a priori or after some experience. Not all of us were just babies. I was 25 or more. Our ethos was somewhere around an artist run center. We perceived our art, and its accessibility, very similar to street artists. So there was this sincere, even naive, morality around what it is.

It was intended to be all about access…

It was intended to not be about building individual careers…

It was definitely not intended to be in the same sentence as money.

But this is also why I insist on giving this period, historically, the label of “heroic period”. Such movements can not really persist for a long time, especially after certain interests show up. I like to compare our generation with punk music or Dada art because I think these two are the most useful comparisons because they became rather influential. Only the next wave of these movements actually enters the larger world.

So we have this thing called Post-Internet art in the mid 2000’s. For me, this was, well, I met some very fine key protagonists and they had brilliant minds and were beautiful people. But I have to say an ugly sentence.

We were the Sex Pistols, they were Duran Duran.

That’s a heck of a quote.

Sorry, but all of the central things for us were not anywhere near the focus of these new artists. They had picked up our achievements, our poetics, our approaches and used them in novel, unexpected and very fine ways. I loved some of the work, but it lacked the critique, you know, the social critique and the institutional critique. It made it all milk.

That’s is like the second generation and now you have the third generation which is like a generation of accountants.

So the third generation is NFT?

Yeah, what people like to call web3 as well.

Do you think that it’s the technology making it milk? I mean the technology was developed by Kevin McCoy (and Anil Dash) at a Rhizome thing. It seems legitimate. Do you think that NFTs are just not being used by people correctly? Do you think inscribing the work of art with it’s owner’s name on the blockchain does not benefit artists or are just against the ethos?

Against the ethos. I spoke about this to Kevin over the years. I’ve known about him for 25 years or so. I spoke to Rafael Rozeendal about this and a simply wonderful dutch artist, Constance Dullaart. These artists were looking into how to solve the problem of ownership.

Anil Dash and Kevin create this NFT. This was during a typical challenge during this time. You meet the challenge, you make the art piece and that’s it.

The purpose of that invention was not to create a new world. It was more like a proof of concept, how they believed it should be done. Similar to the way all of us were trying to solve the problem of displaying net.art in a gallery.

On one hand, it is not up to us to solve that problem, it is the problem of the gallery and the museum and the whole apparatus of art history. It became our challenge though, so we have been playing with all kinds of approaches.

In the same fashion, it’s like “the gallerist has a problem selling my little online file, come I will help you and show you how.”

It was used by other people. It was used by the crypto community who needed a sweet sounding use-case.

How do you think the gallery should sell work that is digital? What’s a better idea?

There are two layers to this, one is technical and the second is accessible. I find the accessible more interesting. Online published work is like graffiti. It’s like what galleries do with Banksy, they go around with hammers and chisels and steal them and sell them to some guy who puts them on his yacht. That’s more or less my first association to sales of online art.

Yes, it would be beautiful to have a model. Personally,I like how they do it with land art. Robert Smithson does his spiral somewhere, you go to a gallery and you don’t see the land art, you see the documentation about the land art and we are perfectly fine with that. Another example, Marina (Abramovic), you go to her performance in the 70’s as an impressionable child, fantastic, you see her lying down and people running around her, blah blah blah. That original performance, that piece, is not alive anymore. It is being represented with some documentation. That documentation has market value.

I perceive sales of online accessible net.art like land art or performance art.

So do you think we should not use the blockchain at all? Like the blockchain belongs to the crypto people?

Blockchain is a very sweet idea. It’s like the idea of democracy. Gandhi said democracy would be really fine but it’s a point on the horizon. It’s a sense of direction. It’s not something that we can discuss as if it existed.

The way that blockchain has been used by actual humans? The one’s I see robbing it of its potential? It’s not easy to fall in love with it. That is what I see. What needs to be understood is what is the actual reality of NFTs. It isn’t disruptive in the name of the vast global community. It is only disruptive in the name of a new set of owners and gatekeepers. Like in this beautiful two hour long video, The Line Goes Up, that explains that the fight to take the 1%’s off the map is being fought by the 5%’s.

This is such a quandary because I want galleries to put on exhibitions of digital art. It’s just that to do it and still just give the physical document with the signatures…should it still be that way? Because collectors are important.

I’m not saying no, I’m not saying no, I quit saying no sometime in 98’ when I washed the spray paint off my hands and started entering indoor spaces.

Yeah, we need and I believe it is only fair, for this type of influential artistic practice (net.art) to become part of art history and also the art market. Actually this is a funky fact but we entered the art market, the gallery world, via art history. We became canonized before we got sold.

Many times it happens the opposite way where some galleries who have a good telescope/radar find the genius artists, start selling them and then they becomes part of the canon via biennials or other stuff. For us it was the other way around.

There was a Banksy documentary called Exit Through the Gift Shop. A great ironic humorous title that I like very much. The entire NFT scene is being proposed to young artists (the most important component of this entire ecosystem, without them we have nothing) as an artistic community that enters through the wallet.

I find something wrong in that proposition. There are very few collectors for NFTs that are not simple speculators or owners of NFT exchanges. They are the bulk of the traffic right?

I know a number of collectors with genuine appreciation of digital work. They tell me about why they love JODI and other artists. I note sincerity.

So it is not all just random speculation. Of course there is an altruistic component. Why would a museum invite me over, wine and dine me for days, to give me money for a piece that has been online for 10 years already and is going to be online forever. Where is their ownership?

Ownership should not be understood as a monopoly but as participation. It is a way they (museum, collector) can have a conversation with you, can have a relationship with you. They have this certificate or contract to prove it and artists are happy too. This is a relationship. If ownership is like the marbles in the British museum, we’re going to fight over it. How would Picasso feel about having thousands of his paintings locked away in these freeports?

How do you think galleries that have supported the digital art community should pay their rent and expenses? How should they generate income?

It’s not an easy one to crack, for sure, like I said, I’m this piss and vinegar punk guy.

For me, the friends of ours who start a label and start selling records are friends still. They need money and down the road they are going to encounter the problem of paying rent for bigger offices and more people. Then they are going to sign Duran Duran.

I think there is always going to be a supply of artists who have less problems conforming. The problem is we (90’s net artists) have already been canonized with this attitude. We are like the Velvet Underground. Who of the Velvet Underground made money for whom? Everyone who bought a record made the band. This is where I’m living. This is the little world that I am inhabiting.

For the galleries, I believe they can create novel ways of getting intriguing collectors to be more than just owners of art objects.

Like, “Hey guys, so far you’ve been buying objects like in a jewelry shop and I love you for that. Now let me explain to you that you’re not only going to own objects but also enter relationships with those makers.” I’m aware this proposal is maybe too hippie.

Do you think that it’s just an impulse that artists have to resist the current system?

Yes! It’s not just hostility and anti-capitalist ideology sentiment. I’ve seen you wearing the ASCII t-shirt* right? Those works were one of the two or three main motivations for me to declare the death of net.art in that conference. This hacker folklore! These stupid green letters on black so ugly only a mother could love them.

Art has to be child of passion. It has to be in this miasma of passion.

Then I heard that my ASCII art informed The Matrix. The film came out and it was the kiss of death. I declared the end of my ASCII phase.

It’s like commodification is not…

It’s not viewed upon kindly by every artist!

Yet we have galleries full of works that are physically unsellable. You cannot own 8 performances by Marina Abramovic. Yet there are tons of collections with her work. What is in those collections? Traces of a relationship with that artist. Why not deal with digital art similar to any time-based art?

Exactly! Because if you are not dealing with it like then you are a speculator. You are in the back of your mind thinking, wait a second, this might be important for me to own because that ownership is going to manifest into more money for me in the future. It’s like a litmus test for collectors.

The question is not how to own and how to sell, the question is WHY to own and why to sell. The question of owning NFT’s is not that serious. When I’m having dialogues with young artists I keep repeating this cliche: I do 3 types of art, I do art for artists, I do art for exhibitions, and I do art for collectors.

The primary motivation is for me to be creative while I’m working, without any thinking of sell-ability. Afterwards it is not a problem for me to put it in a gallery and sell it.

I like pop-music as a source of metaphors. There are collectors of early punk paraphernalia and intense worshippers of early Pop Art. Early Warhols were badly unsell-able. His most poisonous works are in people’s collections.

I think that an artist’s career choices are legitimate and help the economy. Artists will attempt to pay the bills but the other side should also somehow adapt.

I’m glad that I didn’t die at 27. That I didn’t live the punk lifestyle. I am looking back on my life and I am proud of my choices. I am now talking to you, I am talking to galleries and exhibiting in museums. These are places of consequence. The first thing I do with any book about digital art is I check the index and if it mentions me, I buy it.

I think artists need to have a healthy ego otherwise you would quit.

Inside digital art there is a core, an edge, where people live a dream of street art, of online art. This way of working is still very sexy to younger people.

It’s a question of fundamental motive.

9/16/22, Ariel Baron-Robbins, Outreach Coordinator for The MUD Foundation, recorded and transcribed, published 10/4/22

*for an ASCII Vuk Ćosić t-shirt, donate $35 to the MUD Foundation.



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