The WE Brings Performative Aspects Into The Arts

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At the time of this interview Peter Weibel had never heard of OUBEY or the MINDKISS Project. Yet it is perhaps precisely such unawareness which makes this interview so especially poignant. It was more a premonition than a direct expectation that something extremely interesting would come to the fore when OUBEYs thoughts and views encountered those of Weibel for the very first time. And that is precisely what did happen.


What is your understanding of WE and how has it changed since the rise of the Internet?


I would say that WE is an expression of a community which means a set or an association of individuals. how individuals get together to form a group, to form a community, to form a collective has various natural or social reasons.

One natural reason would be groups, communities separated into women and men. What is still around are the biologically different doors: toilets for women, toilets for men. So we still have this natural bounce how to make the collective. Another reason is social – language, for instance. People make rules for German, English, etc. Another one is ethnic reasons – you are part of an ethnic population. Or political reasons like you are a part of India or Germany. Or religious reasons – you are Protestant, Catholic or Muslim. So we have two categories: natural categories and social, cultural and political categories. To keep it simple, we can say that we have a natural category of WE and a social category of WE.

Only now with the Internet we have something new. We have a technological foundation of WE. It’s no longer important which language you speak, how old you are or what kind of sex you have. With the Internet we have a free floating identity. It’s the first time we have a WE based on a technological foundation. And this partly erases the biological differences like sex, gender and age, and also partially erases the social, political and religious differences. Truly the Internet is a new step in the evolution of WE, because it goes beyond natural and social foundations. For example, when we sit all together in the plane for several hours we are a group. And it’s not important what kind of religion you have or what kind of language you speak, because we all have to follow the rules of a technological program on how to stay in the air. As a pilot it doesn’t matter what language you speak or where you come from, because you must follow universal technological laws. So the WE that we have today based on the Internet is closer than ever before to the ideal of universal mankind. The Internet is the greatest set of WE and it includes many subsets. The subsets of people of different races or languages all participate in the Internet. So the highest level and the greatest community of WE is now the Internet.

What kind of impact has this new understanding of WE on your understanding of art?

PETER WEIBEL: We have to learn that the Internet has brought about a new shift. Prior to this, everything in art was about production. The individual produced a work of art, meaning a painting or a sculpture. It took a great deal of time, maybe years, to create that piece of art. Sometimes it was done in groups when there were collectives of painters like there were in the Renaissance. But everything was centered obsessively on the idea of the technology of production: how to make a painting, how to make a sculpture. Even today we still have these categories – like “the making of a film”. So for several thousand years art was a technology of production. And then came something new – with media like newspapers, then film and television and now it’s the Internet, the culminating point. We have a new technology of distribution. The book was the beginning of distribution. Look at the word “manuscript”: “script” means “writing”, “manu” means “by hand”, so it’s a paper written by hand. When you produce a novel as a manuscript, this is production. But the monks and nuns in the monasteries could copy the handwriting so you could rewrite the hand of somebody else in your own hand. And with Gutenberg came the beginning of the technology of distribution fuelled by the “invention of mobile letters”. That’s how it started. We had prints, hand-outs and thousands of books, then hundreds of thousands of news- papers and finally we had television and radio which millions of people could listen to and see at the same time.

And now we have everything together: we have the Internet which is a newspaper, radio and television, all rolled into one. We can write to each other, we can hear music, we can see images. The Internet is the culmination of the logic and technology of distribution. Only media art is still living in the past, it’s still to a great extent obsessed with the logic of production. So at the moment what we have is a separation. On the one hand in a museum you can show products and on the other hand you can distribute them via the Internet. The logic of distribution, technological distribution is not dominant in art at the moment. It is dominant in news and communication centers, but not in art. We are now using the Internet to add the technology of distribution to the logic of production. Artists should learn to make something for the technology of distribution. Here at ZKM we are the only museum in the world which tries to do this – for example we invite people to make iPod and iPad applications. We work with artists to make artworks for iPhones, for smartphones and for iPads, for mobile computers. What we want to do is say “OK, after the invention of mobile letters, now every individual is a mobile transmitter or disseminator”. Not everybody is an artist because to be an artist is in the logic of production. Joseph Beuys said in 1970, “Everybody is an artist” but that means still producing. Now we say “No no, everybody is a transmitter, a disseminator. Everyone can distribute something”. This is much more radical. Our aim is to make the technology of distribution available so everybody can become a transmitter to disseminate a message.

Are artists embracing these new technologies? And what about the art circus?

PETER WEIBEL: The old classical artist is defending his monopoly. Around 1840 came the advent of photography. Up to then there was only one class of experts who could make images and that was the painters. The painters had a monopoly: if you wanted an image of a landscape or a portrait, you had to go to the expert, and say, “Please make the image”. But suddenly with photography, everybody could make an image. Therefore for 100 years painters claimed that photography is not an art. They said that a photographic portrait has no soul and is not the same as a painted portrait. So what we‘ve seen for the past 100-150 years is painting defending its monopoly. And the price of a painting is still much higher than the price of a photograph. And the monopoly is still being defended. Then came the next thing – images starting to move like cinema etc. And cinema and video still don’t enjoy the same kind of acceptance as works of art that sculpture and painting do. So it’s a defense of a monopoly. Many artists are really reactionary and do not accept the new technology. The collectors, the market, the system of art says “We want to have culture, we want a painting, one single product, only one product, one painting, one sculpture, with one signature from one single artist”. So at the moment we are experiencing a rearguard action, a massive, nearly military rearguard action in defense of the monopoly on who can produce art. And in the midst of this war ZKM tries to say “No, the new technology must be made available to make a different kind of art.”

So are these new technologies expanding art?

PETER WEIBEL: Exactly, it’s what you could call the expansion of the concept of art. It’s expansion in a number of different ways. Not just an expansion in terms of the materials used as happened in the 20th century or an expansion of methods: suddenly people could use material that had not been available before. People could make paintings just by painting tools. You could take any material and make sculpture or installations out of it using different methods. And then came the next step: the most daily types of activity like walking and sitting could become art. Marina Abramovic is sitting in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, just sitting, and people are looking at her. So art expands to include daily activities.

But now comes the next important step: we have to expand not only in terms of materials, activity and methods. The two most important expansions ahead of us are first an expansion of access – that means not only the artist is making and contributing to art, but also the spectator. So the viewer or spectator becomes an equally creative part of the production of artworks. This is the most important expansion. And the other one is to expand not only into everyday life, like pop arts did, but to expand into science. So we are on the threshold of a kind of rebirth of art, of the type which happened in the Renaissance. The Renaissance was this art movement that said “Now we go back to the Greeks.”

And today we have a kind of second Renaissance, a second enlightenment. We say we have to bring art closer to technology which means bringing it closer to science. Art must become once more something like science.

These are the two most important expansions – into science and into the audience.

What do you mean exactly by “art must become closer to science”?

PETER WEIBEL: I mean that artists must learn not only to make a painting of the human anatomy, what a man looks like, with his muscles and limbs. The artist must learn that the person also consists of neurons and molecules. So we have to learn how we can make works with molecules, how we can make works with neurons and so on. We don’t need to look at flesh and bones anymore. I would say looking at flesh and bones is still interesting but if we want to do this, well, we have fashion magazines. So art should separate from this kind of what I call “anatomical beauty”. Art must look for the beauty in molecules and neurons, to build a level of science.

A level of science?

PETER WEIBEL: As was done in the 60s, only that was prohibited. In the 60s we had what was called “psychedelic art”. This was an attempt to investigate what happens to my DNA when I take drugs. They were uncontrolled experiments which were very productive: making wonderful music, wonderful psychedelic fashion, wonderful psychedelic painting. It was a kind of reprogramming of our sensory life. Suddenly we had many different colors, we had different forms, different music – minimal music, pop music is one effect of this psychedelic programming which in fact was the first expression of “molecular aesthetics”, because people took drugs and drugs address the molecules. Unfortunately it was not understood. Therefore it was forbidden, so people were uncontrolled in their experiments and many people died. But one thing is clear: these kinds of color, of fashion and music would not have happened without these molecular explorations and experiments.

How does the Internet change the WE?

PETER WEIBEL: I would say that just as we knew communities in the past that were based on natural and social rules, we are now experiencing what I would call “uncommon communities”. What we have now – which marks out the difference to the “common” communities – is a new performative aspect. “Performative aspect” means the following: in 1962, a book was published by the philosopher of language J. L. Austin. It was language philosophy, ordinary language philosophy, and the title of the book was How to Do Things With Words . That means if you are a registrar you say to two people, “Now you are married”. It’s just words and yet the people behave physically like they’re married. A judge says, “Now you’re sentenced to prison.” It’s just words. And yet you get sent to prison. This is the power of words combined with institutions; this is what we call “performativity”. You say something and it becomes fact. And normally – and this is another point – this is also a monopoly; once more it’s like art because it’s a certain class of people who have this monopoly. As a priest, for instance, you have the “institution of the Church” behind you to lend weight to your words. If you’re a judge you have the power of institutions behind you to lend your words weight. And then you have politicians, the class of politicians who say ”We are the rulers. We say ‘lower taxes, raise taxes’ and so on.

And now there are these new uncommon communities. There is this new WE which comes with the Internet. People are addressing this power monopoly and fighting it. And this is also the reason behind what we call the Arab Spring. In Europe – with its consumer society and entertainment industry – the people are very apathetic, very passive. They get what they want; they can buy what they want; they can watch television. Then you have Stuttgart, where many people came out to protest against the new railway station. So what you see now is that the people who are part of this uncommon community, the so-called “Internet revolution”, like the people in the Arab Spring, like the Spanish protestors, are nothing more than people on the Internet who say, “We will not allow you anymore to hold your monopoly of performativity”. The government says “We want a new railway station”; the government says “We want this and that”. But the people are saying for the first time, with the help of the Internet, “No, we don’t want it. We want to participate in the decision making”.

Now the point is that up to present we have had a so-called “representative democracy” where every five years the people can elect the party which represents them. We have believed that this or that party will represent us. Only now we discover that these parties do not represent us anymore. So the people say “We want to represent ourselves”. This is what we call a shift from representative democracy to performative democracy. The people become like the judges, priests, or politicians. They say “This is what we want and this is what we want you to do.” Normally it’s the politicians who say, “We have to do it”. But now the people are saying, “No, no, we want you who represent us to do what we want”. This happened in Stuttgart, it happened in North Africa. So the uncommon communities based on the Internet are bringing about a change of democracy by enriching it with more performativity from the public, the people.

So you would consider the Occupy movement as art?

PETER WEIBEL: Exactly. It’s very ably supported. And it’s very interesting to see that Joi Ito, who is now the director of the MIT Media Lab represents this very important shift. What we are seeing is precisely the shift from a logic of production to a logic of distribution. The way he did this was extremely clever. And I’m very enthusiastic about it. I’ve known him since the 90s, I was one of the first to invite him to Ars Electronica in Linz. And it is very clear that MIT says: “No, we don’t want to take an architect or an artist, we want to take somebody who knows the Internet.” So it’s very clear that the expertise must lie in distribution technology. This links in with what I said before – that art is much too centered on production. It would be correct and very good to say “Occupy-it-art”. Because art has become in a certain sense very reactionary, highly conservative.

So the ME becomes much more important in this concept. ME as an individual has to take responsibility, right?

PETER WEIBEL: Ulrike, this is precisely the question. This is the heart of the matter. We have to learn freedom, which we can now acquire more than ever before because we now have the freedom of performativity. But freedom demands an ethic of responsibility and a responsibility for shouldering the consequences. When I decide for or against Stuttgart 21, or for or against this or that government in North Africa, it is me who is responsible for the consequences.

And it is very difficult to predict what these consequences might be. The question whether you are right or wrong is a question that it will take one hundred years to settle. To look at history, we could say with Walter Lippmann that the nation with the longest experience of the problems and paradoxes of democracy is unfortunately America. Even if America at the moment in my opinion is not a democracy, it still has the longest experience of democracy. Back in the 1920s philosophers like John Dewey and publicists like Walter Lippmann discovered that when we have democracy, we need a public, we need voters who are competent, who are responsible, who know something. They said that if a democracy is to exist we need the kind of citizens who can only be created by democracy. So there we have one paradox: a democracy can only exist when we have people who are educated, competent and can share responsibility. But this kind of citizens is not being produced by our education systems anymore.

These philosophers wrote two books. Walter Lippmann wrote a book called The Phantom Public in which he argued that democracy could only function if we had what he called “omnicompetent citizens”. So our ideal of the voter is a citizen who is omnicompetent, who knows everything. But today we know that it is difficult to know things. That was 1925. In 1926 came a book by John Dewey, a response to Lippmann, called The Public and its Problems. One thing is very sure: only if we have a well educated public can we have democracy. Otherwise people can be manipulated as you can see sometimes in Afghanistan. Where there is no educated population, people become victims of propaganda, and that is a problem. What we have to do is to decide what you do. We have enlightenment – we have to give the best opportunities to everybody to be educated and to know something. Look at the German word “Mitteilung” for instance. It means generally “information” or “message” but in fact if you break it down it means sharing something with someone. The German word for information implicitly carries with it the idea of sharing.

And sharing means I’m sharing my ideas, my knowledge, my skills and abilities, my possessions with other people.

Sharing means dissemination. So information only works if it’s communicated. Only shared knowledge is stored knowledge, you could say. But I can lose information. That’s why in technology we always make a back-up copy or a mirror system where I store something and you store something. Earlier on communication was oral communication that didn’t involve writing instruments. Like with the shamen, the priests, there was always someone there who remembered it. I have always shared what I know, mainly with a student who in turn has passed on what I shared with him or her to other students. That’s a way of storing and securing knowledge. Only shared knowledge, knowledge that you share, is good knowledge, safe knowledge. And now we are learning – and this is the problem that the people will have to learn to deal with – that only shared power is good power. This is the crux of the matter in what is happening now. Sharing of information leads to sharing of the monopoly of power. You have your skills and abilities and I have mine. And we can no longer say “I am the only one who is authorized to do this or that thing.” No, I have to share my monopoly of power. That’s the idea. A new level of sharing is being reached – sharing with one another.

So what are you doing as the director of ZKM to build this greater WE?

PETER WEIBEL: We are publishing our books with The MIT Press, fortunately, and we are publishing books like the one we made in collaboration with a great number of philosophers and sociologists called Making Things Public. Atmospheres of Democracy. You see, before I quoted Austen’s How to Do Things with Words and our book is about making things public; “res publica” means “public things”, “public affairs”. We stage art exhibitions together with social scientists and Internet scientists to encourage debate, to open up public awareness of the issues involved. In February 1999 we opened the first big exhibition on the Internet. Called Net-Condition, it explored what kinds of conditions are needed on the Net for it to become an instrument that can change society. So what we try and do is to make exhibitions and books – very often in conjunction with The MIT Press – that help to shape or change the world for a democratic future.

Interview by Ulrike Reinhard


Born in 1944 in Odessa, USSR, PETER WEIBEL is an artist, curator and theoretician. His work spans a wide range of categories from conceptual art, performance, and experimental film to video art and computer art.

Informed by his study of semiotics and linguistics including authors such as Austin, Jakobson, Peirce and Wittgenstein, in 1965 Peter Weibel started to develop an artistic language which led him from experimental literature to performance. In his performance art he explored not only the media of language and the body but also film, video, audiotape and interactive electronic environments, embarking on a critical analysis of the roles they play in the construction of reality.

In his lectures and articles Peter Weibel deals with contemporary art, media history and theory, film, video art and philosophy. As a theoretician and curator, he advocates a form of art and art history that embraces the history of technology and the history of science. As a university professor and director of institutions like the Ars Electronica Linz, the Institute for New Media in Frankfurt and the ZKM | Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe, his conferences, exhibitions and publications have exerted a marked influence on the computer art scene in Europe.

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