BAW JOURNAL: You recently started to work at KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin as Curator Digital Sphere. How does curating in the digital sphere look like? And how does it differ from working in a more ›conventional‹ exhibition space?
NADIM JULIEN SAMMAN: The digital sphere does not stand alone. It encompasses life in analog or ›real‹ space. Think of how a particular apartment rental app has changed the fabric of cities. Or else, how the spread of targeted advertising through social media has destabilized democratic politics in the West. This is to say, plotting the networked coordinates of this ›sphere‹ is a prerequisite for social and cultural orientation (as opposed to hysteria). We’re all inside this thing—but how? Critical perspectives are urgently needed. The art institution, being committed to the power of images in civic life, needs to be a forum for contesting representations. In addition, curatorial work with this digital sphere should contribute to its reform. Curating the digital sphere means conceiving (contemporary) cultural enterprise as always already within digital spatial mediation.
It seems the semantics of the internet are changing once again—first we had ›sites‹, then ›streams‹, and now ›rooms‹. What to make of these shifts? How does an ›online viewing room‹ differ from a conventional ›website‹? And, do you think online exhibitions will eventually put an end to ›traditional‹ exhibitions?
Digital analogues of physical artworks (or architecture) may be useful for the market. But they are not necessarily interesting. In the end, there is still a screen between the viewer and the original piece. An online viewing room for Monet’s ›Water Lilies‹ feels, to me, like a waste of CO2 emissions. Separate to this, digital artworks do exist, and can be encountered directly on the web. These can certainly challenge our expectations about digital experience, and there is work to be done here. But they also need to be worth it (beyond mere technical novelty).
The more interesting new ›rooms‹ are spaces for communication or performance in mixed reality—where real and virtual worlds come together in hybrid environments/visualizations, and where live chat is possible.
Moving forward, with respect to online versus offline exhibitions, it is not a question of either/or. How could it be? The trajectory is towards convergence—layered propositions. We should think of the contemporary exhibition ›hang‹ as installed across a broad spectrum of (media) spaces. The exhibited ›what‹ doesn’t need to be proprietary to a particular device or layer. The primary site of an exhibition may be many places at once. This need not imply a gadget arms-race—effective use of tools and clear-eyed authorship will do.
During Berlin Art Week, you curate a symposium called ›EC(CENTRI)CITY‹. What is it about?
Since 2011 the Architecture Section of the Akademie der Künste has convened major exhibitions that have dealt with tendencies of the contemporary European city. I was invited to bring artists into dialogue with this year’s exhibition ›urbainable—stadthaltig‹. My contribution will include a panel discussion, a number of podcasts, and a screening program. The general concept concerns how new architecture forms minds. The guiding question is »Who is under construction (in the 21st Century City), and what plans need redrawing?«. Since then, COVID-19 has significantly upended our urban experience. The program has pivoted somewhat to take this into account, e.g. through the inclusion of new artworks. Additionally, a leitmotif of isolation has also emerged.
»COVID-19 was the triumph of the screen typology—as physical barrier, social mediator, bio-security screening, etc.«
Two of the key terms for the exhibition are ›density‹ and ›network‹. And how has the recent COVID-19 pandemic affected our idea of density as a key factor of urbanity? What, do you think, will be the consequences?
Networks facilitate movement and distribution. COVID-19 is a perfect example. Quite simply, we would not have this pandemic without our global transport system. The virus did not just find an evolutionary niche in human biology, but in our mesh of built infrastructures. One thing we have learned from this crisis is that ›sheltering in place‹ is the privilege of letting proletarian net-workers (like food delivery drivers, and Amazon employees) do the moving for you. It is hard to say how this will shake out, in terms of city planning, just yet. But we can already say that COVID-19 was the triumph of the screen typology—as physical barrier, social mediator, bio-security screening, etc. Looking forward, we can expect a greater density of screens, of varying opacities, in our urban environment.
What role can art play in re-inventing the European city?
The private sector has been annexing public space in an increasingly aggressive manner. Since last year, Berlin footpaths are littered with e-scooters and bicycles (all of them with very short functional lifespans). This is just one obvious example of the tendency. In addition to re-present what is happening, art needs to play a concrete role in defending the commons. But I would go further than this: Art should annex some private space in order to turn it over to the public. I am not dreaming about ›pop-up‹ events, but occupation and re-programming in the proper sense.