Interview with Mark Tribe, Founder, Rhizome
The following oral history transcript is the result of a tape-recorded interview with Mark Tribe on April 29, 2010. The interview took place in New York, NY and was conducted by Laurel Ptak. This interview was funded by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).
Mark Tribe and Laurel Ptak have reviewed the transcript and have made corrections and emendations. The reader should bear in mind that he or she is reading a transcript of spoken, rather than written, prose.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.
LAUREL PTAK: This is Laurel Ptak, doing an interview with Mark Tribe in New York City. Mark, I was hoping we could focus our conversation on the founding of Rhizome back in 1996. But before we get there, can you set the scene for us? What were the events and experiences that led up to this for you?
MARK TRIBE: In 1995 and early ’96, I was living in Berlin, making relational art projects. I don’t think we would’ve called it that back then; I thought of them as art events. I was also making some net art, and working by day as a web designer, at a place called Pixelpark. And I was hanging out in clubs a lot. There was a lot of overlap between the club scene, particularly where the music was Techno and what was then called Jungle, which now I guess is called Drum and Bass, and the new media art scene or the digital art scene. I was meeting a lot of other artists who were really excited about the changes that were happening with the internet, and about intersections between contemporary art and emerging technologies, particularly digital and networking technologies.
I had a couple of really formative experiences that year. One was piling into a van with a bunch of other artists and driving overnight down to Linz Austria, from Berlin, for Ars Electronica. That’s really where I realized that there was this big shift going on in the world of electronic art or digital art, computer art. A lot of new people were coming in, from lots of different backgrounds. It was becoming, in a way, less specialized or ghettoized. The barriers to entry were falling for a lot of artists, which had to do in part with a kind of tipping point in information technology in terms of the accessibility, capability, and ubiquity of personal computers.
TRIBE: Then the internet and the web started to go mainstream, and suddenly we were waking up to the possibility that we could all be connected in a different way. The term disintermediation was on a lot of people’s lips at that point, coming out of the business world. Venture capitalists investing in companies like Netscape, talking about how the internet would disintermediate economies, how it would cut out the middleman. And for artists, that meant being able to access audiences without having to go through gallerists, dealers, curators and magazines.
TRIBE: We could create our own art world that was more egalitarian, more open, perhaps more of a meritocracy. And as a young artist who was really just starting to find his way in the big art world, that had a lot of appeal.
PTAK: I can imagine.
TRIBE: Because I was on the outside of a lot of those barriers.
I also went to the Dutch Electronic Art Festival in Rotterdam that year. That was very influential for me. There was a panel on net art with a lot of talk about audiences. One of the artists on the panel was Jane Prophet, who had a really interesting project called TechnoSphere, which was an artificial life system. People on the internet would create these artificial life forms that would compete for survival in a virtual environment. It was a sophisticated academic research project. But what all the different projects that were being presented on that panel had in common were these active communities of users that were contributing stuff and participating. I just thought: Wow, there is a community of people here at this conference—and at Ars Electronica—who would be interested in participating in an online platform that focused on their interests. It struck me that there was tremendous potential to create an online forum for the kind of conversation that was happening there, that would be more inclusive, so that people who didn’t have the time or the money to go to Linz and Rotterdam could participate and so the conversation could continue throughout the year. I felt it was important that we begin to develop an aesthetic and theoretical vocabulary to discuss and to understand these emergent forms of media art. So I thought of it initially as an online platform for discussion, but also for presentation, so people could show each other one another’s work. I thought about it as a place for the exchange of ideas and information. I conceived of it as an email list and a website that would be a front end interface to an edited archive of the email discussion. We didn’t call them tags back then, but the texts would be tagged or key worded so you could search the archive more effectively. I thought of it as Artforum meets AltaVista (AltaVista was one of the first web search engines), as a kind of bottom-up alternative to the top-down hierarchies of the art world.
PTAK: Were you creating this for artists? How did you see other kinds of cultural producers? Was it something you were imaging that curators and other people would be looking at, as well?
TRIBE: I thought of it for artists, curators, critics, and other people that were interested—academics, students. But I saw it as something that was not about commercial art or design so much, and not about all kinds of art, but really focused on the intersection between art and emerging technologies. Rhizome became associated with net art, but I always thought of it as more broadly connected with new media art, which I defined as art that uses emerging media technologies and is somehow engaged with their cultural significance. So I was always trying to draw a boundary in my mind around what was on the bus and what was off the bus—what kinds of art fell under the rubric of new media art, and what didn’t.
I should also note that my initial conception of Rhizome was influenced by conversations I was having with Pit Schultz who started Nettime with Geert Lovink. He and I were talking about an email list with— He called it a black hole. [they laugh] . Stuff from the email list would go into this black hole, but then you could pull it out again through this website.
I launched the email list in Berlin, then I decided to move to New York because I felt I would encounter fewer barriers there.
PTAK: Is this ’96 now?
TRIBE: Yes, in April ’96 I moved to New York. And it was really the beginning of the dot com bubble. There were these weekly events organized by—What was it called? It’s a trade association that no longer exists. NYNMA, the New York New Media Association, and they had these events called Cyber Suds. [Ptak laughs] And I remember they had the first one at the Roxy, this club on the West Side. And then they had one at 55 Broad, which was the first office building in New York marketed as a wired building for new media startups. There I met this real estate guy who offered me free office space in the Garment District if I would identify startup companies for him and tell him where their offices were. And that was actually right around the corner from my studio where we are now. It was on 38th and Eighth.
TRIBE: While I was still in Berlin, I had made a website where you could subscribe to the email list, and had registered the domain name. I worked with an amazing designer in Frankfurt, Markus Weisbeck, on the logo and the web design. Markus now has company called Surface. He does a lot of art books. Incredible designer.
So I had this website. I had written what in my own mind was something like a business plan. I had an MFA, not an MBA, so I was really winging it. I spoke with a friend, Brian Goldberg, who had cofounded both a for-profit web design company, Avalanche, and a non-profit film distribution company, Drift, about whether it should be a for profit or a non-profit. And I spoke with a few other people, and almost everyone said it should be for profit.
PTAK: Is that because there was so much money going into web development?
TRIBE: Yes. And there was this idea that if it could work as a non-profit, it could work just as well as a for-profit. I didn’t really understand the differences, though. I started pitching it to investors as a kind of online magazine for new media artists. And there were a lot of online magazines starting up at that time. Some of them are still around. Many of them raised money, mostly from angel investors, of which there were more in New York than venture capital investors. But it became a juggling act of building this community and email discussion and this website with this database, and trying to raise money and learn how to be a cultural entrepreneur…
PTAK: Yes, all at the same moment.
TRIBE: …and how to manage people and write business plans. I mean, I didn’t know what a P&L was, I didn’t know what an IPO was. In any case, it started out as Rhizome.com, not Rhizome.org. And we were talking to some investment bankers, and they had the idea that our business model was kind of like a stock photo library—building a database of content. So we started an online stock media library for web developers called StockObjects, with illustrations, animation, Java applets, interactive Shockwave little things, even VRML models. And that’s what we raised most of the money for.
PTAK: Oh, interesting.
TRIBE: Rhizome was sort of like a sister company. Same corporation, but Rhizome was to build the community, and then the members would be the suppliers and also the customers. We built a library of 10,000 objects. We raised a total of about $3 million…
TRIBE: …by the spring of 2000. At one point, Stock Objects had fourteen employees. But we were really early to market. And before it became profitable, the bubble burst. And Stock Objects folded in the Spring of 2000, because we were spending money way faster than we were earning it. And all of a sudden when the bubble burst, we couldn’t raise any more money. We had this deal in the works, and it fell through. Kind of a classic story of hubris and folly. Luckily, in 1998, I was starting to sense that the investors and the other people involved in the business were recognizing that there wasn’t a lot of synergy between Rhizome and StockObjects; that these net artists weren’t really making the kind of commercial art that we needed for the library. And I was afraid that they would either shut Rhizome down or turn it into something else, like an online magazine for designers, commercial artists. I wasn’t interested in that, so I spun it off as a non-profit. Rhizome actually went into kind of a hibernation for that first summer. The summer of ’98. I was still working at StockObjects, and Rachel Greene and Alex Galloway ran it out of a little loft at Postmasters Gallery. [laughs] We had zero money, and we just never mentioned that we were in hibernation. But eventually we came back out of hibernation; I left StockObjects to became the director, and I started writing grants. I really got lucky with the first three grants. I got grants from the Rockefeller Foundation, the NEA, and the Daniel Langlois Foundation totaling $175,009. I also won this thing called the Absolut Angel Award. Absolut, the Swedish vodka company, was giving away $50,000 for an entrepreneur with a creative idea. I had to pitch Rhizome at a public event, before judges, and won that. So all of a sudden we had a lot of money, and we hired a development director from the Guggenheim.
PTAK: Who was that?
TRIBE: Mary Beth Smalley. And then we hired Jennifer Crowe, who had just finished the Bard CCS program…
PTAK: I didn’t realize that connection.
TRIBE: …to run the ArtBase, which we were just starting up. And we were finally able to pay Alex Galloway, who was running the web site and adding new features, and to pay Rachel as an editor. Then it was sort of the second phase.
PTAK: Can you explain a little bit about what ArtBase was and how it worked? Because it seems that’s become a core part of what Rhizome still is today.
TRIBE: Right. So we had been archiving texts from the email list since 1996. But there was a lot of art being made that wasn’t archived anywhere. And there was no market for net art per se, so no one was collecting it, and because libraries and other institutions weren’t really interested in it yet, there was no infrastructure for preserving it. Galleries serve, at some level, as archives for the artists they represent, as do museums. The only gallery showing net art back then was Postmasters. There were several other nonprofits—The Thing, Plexus, Turbulence, Ada’web, artnetweb—but most of them have since disappeared. And we were like, Well, we’re in a really good position to start archiving this stuff. We started out just sort of talking over the idea with artists like Jodi and Entropy8Zuper (Auriea Harvey and Michael Samyn), and some of them were pretty leery about the idea of actually giving us copies of their work.
PTAK: How come?
TRIBE: Well, one reason was that Rhizome was American. Another reason was that it had been a for profit. And I think also a lot of these works were server-based and complicated. What would it mean to have two copies in two places? Other artists were like, Who cares about preservation? That’s not the point. That’s missing the point, it’s like putting an animal in a cage.
PTAK: Where did you fall on that side of things? Did you really feel that preservation was something important?
TRIBE: I felt like artists’ interests are not always in line with the interests of historians and curators and people in the future. I think certainly, artists should have the right to determine the future of their work or lack thereof; but I thought they should have a choice. There should be a safe place where they can put their stuff for long term storage and access. And we wanted to just keep track of the existence of works, even if we couldn’t get copies. So we had two categories of— we called them objects. In database lingo, object-oriented databases contain objects. So they were non-physical objects. There were cloned objects, where we would get a copy of the original work. The original would stay where it was on the internet, and we would store a copy. And someday, you know, if the original was gone, we could show the copy.
TRIBE: And then there were ones where we didn’t get a copy. Those were called linked objects, and we just had the title, the artist, the year it was made, the URL, a description, stuff like that. So we had cloned objects, where we had a copy of the work, and linked objects, where all we had was metadata. And we had to come up with a whole taxonomy. What do you put in those fields? Basically, Alex and Jennifer and I just made them up. We didn’t really make that much reference to other standards out there.
PTAK: I understand that you had to invent these things; but, how do you even go about that? I mean, if there are no existing models.
TRIBE: Well, there were existing models; I just didn’t go and look at them. We could’ve looked at how the Getty does things or the libraries or other museums do things. I had some experience with that already, because we had had some structured metadata for the text objects, which I just made up myself. And also for StockObjects, I had done the whole taxonomy. One thing about my brain is I’m a taxonomic thinker. [Ptak laughs] You know, I really like to break things into categories and subcategories. To the extent where I go crazy with my to-do list. [Ptak laughs] I used to filter my email into folders and subfolders and sub-subfolders. I got off on that kind of stuff. So we launched the ArtBase and were confronted with lots of complications and difficulties. Cloning objects was hard. I mean, we knew it would be hard, but it was complicated. And the licenses, there was a lot of push back from the community, which was just very skeptical and critical. Justifiably. You know, Do we trust this? What happens if Rhizome changes hands someday? Will they still have rights to our work? But we eventually worked it out, and the ArtBase became our second major program, along with the discussions. We had also been doing some events. We’d done events in various places around the world, mostly in New York, but also in London and San Francisco, often partnering with other organizations, like The Kitchen. And commonly, it was a kind of typical show and tell. Artists would come and show their work and talk about it. We had one with The Kitchen that ran for a while. It was a monthly event called Digital Happy Hour. It happened from five to seven PM and we’d serve drinks and artists would talk about their work, and the audience would sit at café tables. The idea was to make it less formal.
PTAK: Who were attending these events? And another question is, how did an institution like The Kitchen become interested in what you were doing, or in attracting the audience that you could bring to their institution?
TRIBE: Well, who was the audience for these events? It was primarily artists. And then people that work at arts organizations, curators and others. Probably some people who write about this stuff. I don’t think there were really any collectors at that point. Maybe a few gallerists, people like Magda Sawon from Postmasters Gallery. A couple of others were showing new media art at the time. Who was the gallerist who showed John Simon and Leo Villareal?
PTAK: I’m not sure.
TRIBE: Sandra Gering. Which is now Gering and López. She was a real pioneer. But Postmasters was the first, I believe. They had this show called Can You Dig It? (pronounced digit) in 1996.
And why would The Kitchen want to partner with us? I think because they recognized that this stuff was important. There was a lot of buzz around it, but a lot of people didn’t understand it. So partnering was a good way to bring in some outside expertise and audience. Christina Yang, who’s now doing education at the Guggenheim, was at The Kitchen then. She was great to work with.
New programs came and went. We had a splash pages program for a while, where artists made these splash pages that you would see before you entered the Rhizome site. For a while, we actually had an ephemera archive. Being an arts organization, people sent us stuff—posters and fliers. And I just decided, Well, we’ve got to keep this stuff. So I took a cardboard box. And I knew if I just threw stuff in the box it would come out in chronological order. [Ptak laughs] The oldest stuff would be on the bottom. And then at one point, this wonderful German student, Simon Schiessl, emailed me and asked me if he could intern for Rhizome for the summer, for free. I gave him that project. He scanned the ephemera and built a FileMaker Pro database that since has disappeared. What other programs? Eventually, we started a commissioning program. Giving artists money to make projects.
PTAK: How did the idea for that come about?
TRIBE: I don’t know. I guess lots of organizations do it. And there’s grant funding available for it.
PTAK: And how did it work? How would you decide? Could artists apply to it?
TRIBE: Yes, it was always open application, never by invitation. The whole idea behind Rhizome was always— nothing was invitational. We did this event series at this really cool club in this no-mans-land I liked to call Mumbo, Manhattan Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass, across the river from Dumbo, on the edge of Chinatown. The club was in a former garage and it was called Fun. They had tons of wall space and all these projectors. It was like a media fishbowl. The events were called Open Mouse, as in open mic but digital. Artists and DJs could just sign up for hour-long slots on our web site and show their work head-to-head. And it really opened it up. Because previously the events had been invitational, and I just always liked openness.
One real challenge for Rhizome—I mean, constantly—was money. There were these pendulum swings from being flush with grant money to being on the verge of missing payroll, almost every year, it seemed. So I would make these desperate email appeals to the community. We did community fundraising campaigns every fall, sending people these emails asking for money, asking for money. People gave five, twenty-five, fifty bucks online. We had members all over the world, of course, and many of them weren’t familiar with the kind of NPR-style fundraising campaigns we have here in America.
There was a huge hullabaloo at one point. The board decided—I didn’t really like the idea—to charge for membership. And there was a big revolt in our membership. We had 20,000 nominal members, people who had given us their email address. I don’t know how many of them were really active, but at the end of the membership conversion, we had less than 2,000. There was tremendous blowback from the community. Then, gradually, we opened it up more and more.
In addition to the smaller membership contributions, we also got larger gifts from wealthy individuals, mostly in New York. Occasionally we had a little bit of corporate sponsorship, mostly for events. Never did advertising. Well, a little bit of advertising; it was mostly arts organizations putting little text ads in Rhizome Digest, which was one of our email publications. There’s a whole long history of the evolution of the different email publications. Originally, there was just one list, and then there was Rawand Digest. And then for a while, there was Rare, which was in between. [they laugh]
PTAK: Explain the differences.
TRIBE: Raw was unfiltered and unmoderated. There were a couple times when we moderated it briefly, because people were getting really abusive. Then there was Rhizome Digest, a weekly email. Initially, I think we tried to limit it to 1,000 or 1,500 words. I edited it myself for a while. And it had sections. At one point, we had regional editors in different parts of the world.
PTAK: Oh, really?
TRIBE: So for example we had Lev Manovich was Southern California. And then Rare was a moderated version of Raw. And then we started Net Art News, which was—I think it was three days a week—It was really a precursor to the blog. These short pithy posts written by Reena Jana, a freelance journalist who wrote about net art for Wired and other magazines. It was around 150 words, an image, and a link. That became really popular really fast. You know, it was a manageable amount of content for people, who were starting to drown in the deluge of content coming from the net.
PTAK: One thing I would love to hear more about is the name Rhizome, which comes from the Deleuze and Guattari usage. They’re talking about it in part based on the botanical rhizome, which is an underground stem that connects plants in living networks. But they use it to describe multiplicities and horizontal and non-hierarchical exit and entry points and trans-species connections. I was wondering about where the name came from for you, how you decided. And then also how the ideas relating to this kind of platform and community were developing, sort of related to that.
TRIBE: Well, I had the idea for Rhizome when I was sitting in my studio. It was really cold. It was a coal-heated studio, and I had to wipe the coal soot off my keyboard every morning. I was checking for domains to see what was available.
PTAK: Is this back in Berlin?
TRIBE: This is back in Berlin, in ’95. I think I registered in ’95, maybe early ’96. It was the dead of winter. I had a few books in my studio, one of which was A Thousand Plateaus. And I thought, Oh, I should look in the index. And the pages fell open to rhizome, and my eye went right to it.
PTAK: Really? [laughs]
TRIBE: And I thought, That’s perfect. Because it means a lot of things in Deleuze and Guattari, but I took it as a metaphor for non-hierarchical distributed networks. And actually, if you looked online at the time, some people were even referring to the internet as a global rhizome. And I like the connotations. I thought it was a great name. And it was available. So I registered it. [they laugh] And that was it. And you know, I think there are actually other organizations that are more rhizomatic.
PTAK: You think so?
TRIBE: I think Nettime was more rhizomatic.
PTAK: How so?
TRIBE: Less centralized. There were multiple servers. There’s an event called Upgrade that was started here in New York by Yael Kanarek. And people all over the world have started Upgrades. Basically it’s like a mushroom, they just pop up wherever somebody wants to do one. That’s much more truly rhizomatic. Although I don’t know how much interaction there is between and among them. Rhizome was grassroots, more than it was truly rhizomatic. It was bottom-up.
PTAK: That’s interesting, yes.
TRIBE: But it wasn’t really distributed. It was centralized. So it’s a bit of a misnomer.
PTAK: Looking back at it, seeing how it’s evolved, and having the benefit of seeing how all these kinds of technologies have become used in a more mass cultural sense now, are there things that you wish you did differently? I mean, are there things that you think could’ve made it into a different or better kind of organization, in a way?
TRIBE: [pause] I don’t know. It’s so successful now. I’m so impressed with the quality of the writing and the work that I see on the site and all the programs that Lauren and the others are doing. The current director is Lauren Cornell. The way they’re revamping the ArtBase right now—Had I done it differently, they wouldn’t be doing what they’re doing now. So I can’t say, looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing. [Ptak laughs] It seems like it’s turning out pretty well.
PTAK: Do you still keep an eye on things? Are you involved in any way?
TRIBE: I’m on the board of directors. But I had always wanted to step away from Rhizome, even from the day I started it.
PTAK: Why is that?
TRIBE: I’m an artist, you know? [chuckles] And I have this strong entrepreneurial impulse, but I saw it as a hiatus. I initially thought it would take maybe three years. It took seven. But I got Craig Kanarick, who was one of the cofounders of Razorfish, which was this big New York web development firm. They said they did digital change management, but they were really web designers. He took over as chairman of the board. And then when we did the New Museum affiliation, I resumed the chair position for a while. But then about a year and a half ago, Peter Rojas, the entrepreneur who started in engadget and a few other blogs, took over as chair. So now I’m just a regular board member, although I probably talk to Lauren more than the other board members. I’m fairly actively involved, but not really on a day-to-day basis.
PTAK: Were you responsible for the New Museum? How did that come about?
TRIBE: Yes. In one of Rhizome’s many nadirs—[chuckles] you know, dark moments—I started to explore different opportunities for becoming an organization in residence, I thought maybe at a university or a museum. And the New Museum was around the corner, literally. In fact, our front door was a block down from their back door, we were on Mercer Street. And I had organized a couple of shows at the New Museum, in their Media Lounge, working with Anne Ellegood. We did a show from the ArtBase. We did, I think, three or four shows there. And so we had this working relationship. Lisa Phillips and I got together for coffee a couple times. I remember once—I think it was in 2001, some time after September 11th, when things were just looking really bleak. There was still the stench in SoHo you couldn’t see the smoke, but you could smell it. And she talked about how the New Museum was eventually going to move, and how she envisioned having organizations in residence.
And then it was in late 2002 or early 2003—that we started talking about it again. David Ross, who had been the director of the Whitney Museum when Lisa Phillips was a curator there, and was our first outside board member—he brought it up and had a conversation with Lisa Phillips, in which they agreed to do it. Then I worked out the deal with Lisa Roumell, who was their new associate director. And we were all lawyered up, there was a lot of concern on the part of the New Museum trustees about unforeseen liabilities.
PTAK: How come?
TRIBE: Hard to say. But you know, turns out there weren’t any. [they laugh] They were scared that somebody would sue the deep pocket, I guess, for intellectual property infringement or who knows what. If some artist did a project that had Mickey Mouse in it, and Disney goes and sues, and suddenly the New Museum’s on the hook.
PTAK: Right, right.
TRIBE: But basically, I took a seat on their board, Lisa and few other of their board members took seats on our board, and we moved in. And there was another period of hibernation, as Rhizome was basically out of money and I really wanted to step away. And I did. I got a job at Columbia University. And Rachel Greene took over as a kind of interim executive director for about a year, or year and a half. And then we hired Lauren, who had been running Ocularis before that. And it’s just been gangbusters ever since.
PTAK: [laughs] One thing that I’m wondering about are the sorts of collaborations that came out of Rhizome. We’ve talked a little bit about some of the institutional collaborations, but I’m thinking more of how the community interacted with one another, how artists collaborated. And also, if you think the conditions of network culture have changed or affected the nature of collaboration?
TRIBE: Oh, that’s interesting. [pause] One thing that might help lead into that subject is recognizing that these online platforms, these online communities—which is a problematic term—that they were performative spaces. They were discursive spaces, in which people interacted and performed discursively.
TRIBE: A great example of that is Meiko and Ryu. Spelled M-E-I-K-O and R-Y-U. They were fictional characters. They had a website, they made Techno music. And they posted to Rhizome, and a few other lists, in this kind of Asianesque pidgin English. It was very funny. Possibly Orientalist. But they were very harsh critics and they just made fun of people. I remember at one point, they really pissed off G.H. Hovagimyan. I think I know who they were. I think they were an artist who posted on Rhizome a lot. But I’m not sure. He could’ve just been taking credit. But I thought of them as a work of performance art. Somebody basically developing and inhabiting a discursive avatar and using it to interact with other people.
I’m sure lots of people met and started collaborating via platforms like Rhizome, and then would use platforms like Rhizome to connect with their audience. There would be this whole life cycle, where Rhizome and other similar communities—The Thing and others—provided a context in which ideas and relationships were formed. People would make the work, reach the audience through it, and then it would be discussed and critiqued there. And reviewed. So it became kind of like a parallel art world for a while, that since has been more absorbed by the mainstream.
PTAK: One thing that’s really interesting about that, that I would imagine felt quite novel at the time, is the temporality of how things can happen online— because most people, at that point, were probably more familiar with seeing art in traditional exhibition venues, right? It takes so much time to develop that, things are planned so many years in advance, et cetera, et cetera. And then you are developing this platform where artists can basically post something and get a kind of instantaneous feedback or reaction. I’m wondering if you can talk about that?
TRIBE: I thought of it in terms of metabolism. I became friends with Roger Malina, who is the publisher of the Leonardo journal. It’s an art and technology journal published by MIT Press—the oldest in the field. And it works as a peer reviewed academic scholarly journal. So it has a very slow metabolism. And the things that get written there—I was just asked to review a piece—they tend to be very dry. They’re written kind of like scientific papers, with an abstract, different sections and illustrations. Stuff would get written about years after it was shown. Whereas on Rhizome, it could be a matter of hours.
PTAK: Did that affect artistic practice, do you think?
TRIBE: I think so, it really did. It was like an explosion, between ’96 and 2000. Just amazing creativity. A real sense of people working in relation to one another. When I think about what constitutes an art movement, I think it is precisely that: people consciously working in relation to one another, with a set of common concerns, using one of several names to describe what they do—net art was one of them, new media art was another; net art, with or without a dot; those things were all debated—and a set of institutions that facilitated that. It was the only art movement of the era, I would argue.
TRIBE: I think so. Well, basically, I think art movements ceased in the 1970s.
PTAK: How come?
TRIBE: There were these sort of micro-movements in the eighties, like Neo-Geo, Neo-Expressionism, Simulationism, whatever you want to call it—the work of people like Peter Halley—appropriation art. But they weren’t really movements in the way that Pop art, say was a movement, or Minimalism.
PTAK: Totally. I interpret that as having a lot to do with how strong the market became as a force in art. I think of things like Neo-Geo being more like an invention for a gallerist to be able to sell something, for instance.
TRIBE: Yeah. That’s probably true.
PTAK: I mean, that’s just my opinion.
TRIBE: It may well be. It was certainly very different from the early twentieth century avant-gardes or the late nineteenth century movements. But another reason I think could simply be attributed to part of postmodernism. The collapse of meta-narratives.
TRIBE: A kind of pluralism. But then in the nineties, there weren’t even really any micro-movements. It was totally pluralistic. I think that’s largely the case today, as well. But there was this exception. It was new media art. I think the new media art movement was broader than the net art movement. The net art movement was a subset of it. It was broader, because there’s lots of artists who were not working with the internet per se, but were part of this movement that had to do with using media technologies, in particular. I think the arc of the new media art movement maps to the arc of the net art movement, because I think the net was a major driving force. And the dot-com bubble also maps to it.
PTAK: That’s interesting.
TRIBE: So basically, it begins around ’94 and dissolves, gets assimilated, somewhere between, let’s say, 2001 and 2002. And now, of course, there’s way more new media art being made than ever; it’s just not part of the movement, because there is no longer a movement.
PTAK: How do you define that, then?
TRIBE: Well, it’s easier to see where it begins than when it ends. It kind of fizzles, you know? But basically, I think, artists start showing more and more in integrated mainstream contexts. A lot of institutions disappeared when the bubble burst, a lot of the small arts organizations. And a lot of the artists moved on to doing other kinds of things. Now there are new generations.
PTAK: In your own practice, you started more in this kind of mode, this kind of new media production. But then I think of how the things you’re doing now maybe seem to refer back to that, but have spun off in other directions.
TRIBE: To some extent, I’ve gone full circle. I really got interested in new media and started researching and making new media stuff in 1993, when I was in grad school at UCSD. That year, I set out to read all the cyber punk novels.
PTAK: Was that something that was kind of happening inside that curriculum, that place? Or were you…
TRIBE: Not so much. I was reading them on my own.
PTAK: …really bringing that to your art education, would you say?
TRIBE: But I took a seminar on virtual reality, led by Geoffrey Batchen. That was in the fall of 2003. And then in the spring of 2004, I worked with a bunch of grad students, a couple of undergrads, and Sheldon Brown, a professor there, on a virtual reality project, which was really complicated and ambitious. It turned me off to big budget, high tech new media art. I made the website for that—that was my first website…
TRIBE: …in the summer of ’94. Online catalog. It was so cool. Find a website, copy and paste the html, and just, you know, tweak it. I loved it. I really connected with the medium in a way that I hadn’t with other new media forms. But prior to that, I was doing happenings and performances and video, so I’ve kind of come full circle, back to that. But much more informed by and engaging with online communities and networks and social media and stuff like that.
PTAK: How would you say that Rhizome and your involvement there have influenced your artistic practice, if at all?
TRIBE: Well, I think it was a really important life experience for me; it’s influenced me in all kinds of ways. I also think of it as part of my artistic practice. I started thinking of it and talking about it as a social sculpture, in my last year there.
PTAK: That’s interesting.
TRIBE: I was even in a show at—Southern Exposure or New Langton Arts in San Francisco—in which I explicitly said that. And a bunch of people pushed back. They were like, I’m not part of your artwork. And my point wasn’t that it was my artwork, but I saw it as a social sculpture that I had helped catalyze, was involved in, played a role in, but that was probably more important to my own practice than almost anyone else’s. The idea of trying to create something utopian. And creating a social space as sculptural material.
PTAK: An interesting way to think of it.
TRIBE: But I did get kind of burned out on the new media thing. I mean, for the better part of a decade I was very invested in new media and fighting for it, advocating for it and was almost uninterested in other stuff. I’d be disappointed with artists when they weren’t doing it. [Ptak laughs] I had a little bit of myopia. Tunnel vision.
PTAK: Is that because other people weren’t accepting it? I mean, maybe you kind of had to be myopic, in a way.
TRIBE: Partly. Partly, it was my personality. I was championing something. I saw us as underdogs.
PTAK: And what exactly were you fighting for? Were you fighting for a medium? Were you fighting for a community? What’s the nature of the battle, I guess?
TRIBE: In broad terms, it was for flattening the hierarchies. But I did feel, perhaps problematically, that technology was playing a very important role in social and political and economic transformations that were really significant and that I was really interested in. And it seemed to me that working with those technologies was— not the only way, but certainly an important way to engage with those transformations. To reflect on them, to try to intervene in them. If you were sticking in your studio and making paintings and not paying attention to what was going on, I thought, Well, that’s not what I’m interested in right now.
PTAK: This idea of flattening the hierarchies and this being a utopian project—I’m curious about that. And I’m curious if you think that digital technologies and the internet as a medium still carry those sorts of possibilities. Because certainly, our ideas about them culturally, mass culturally, I would say, have really changed and shifted through time.
TRIBE: There was an article in the New York Times; I think it was yesterday. A freshman at a college posted something on Facebook suggesting that high school students walk out, protesting budget cuts.
PTAK: I saw this.
TRIBE: Thousands of students all over New Jersey walked out yesterday. Or the day before. So to some extent, it still has that kind of potential to catalyze social change. Certainly, Twitter and other platforms played an important role in the Iran revolution last summer, that was so disappointing in the end. But nonetheless. Uprising squashed is better than no uprising, in some ways. That said, the utopian potential, it has been recuperated, assimilated and co-opted by existing power structures that are finding new expressions.
PTAK: Totally. Is that hard for you to watch?
TRIBE: Yes, no, I don’t know. I mean, it’s happening slowly. [they laugh] I’ve had a long time to adjust. I’m thinking about Google.
PTAK: It’s interesting. I remember the first time I searched for something in Google—how amazing this felt as a form. It felt like it was something that was really speaking to me, of the moment. Like it was really transforming how I could understand and participate in the world. And then I notice over time, how I’ve come to feel just the opposite. I mean, I really mistrust things that start out in this way that you’re talking about, as espousing this challenge to hierarchy or existing power structures, and then get, so absorbed inside it. I also think about this a lot in relationship to art. I wonder if you feel, in some ways, that new media art has a sort of parallel relationship with the art world? I mean, not that it’s become corporate, but it’s definitely become something that’s more absorbed into mainstream museum and gallery practice.
TRIBE: To some extent, but less so, I think. New media art never became a hot commodity, really.
PTAK: Was there a moment where you thought maybe that— or other people thought maybe it would?
TRIBE: There were people that were optimistic. I was never optimistic about that.
PTAK: Really? Why not?
TRIBE: [pause] Doesn’t look good on your wall. [Ptak laughs] Or even if it does, you have to turn it on, you know?
PTAK: Another thing that I would be really curious to hear you speak about is open source culture. How did your interest in that develop?
TRIBE: I think that’s actually one of the most positive and important outcomes of the internet. Hard to imagine the flowering of open source culture, the way it’s unfolded, without it. Certainly, something like Linux couldn’t have happened without the internet.
PTAK: How did you come to be interested in it or be aware of it? How did it play into what was happening in the new media art landscape?
TRIBE: I’m not sure. It was in the air. I first taught the course Open Source Culture in 2003 at Columbia. That was maybe a year after the Joy War had unfolded on Rhizome. Do you know about Joy War?
PTAK: No, tell me about that.
TRIBE: Oh, this is a great anecdote. Also a really good example of the collaboration we were talking about before. So Joy Garnett, a New York artist and a painter, who’s also done some new media, internet-based projects and has a great blog and email list, was very active on Rhizome. She made a painting that was based on a photograph by the photojournalist Susan Meiselas, who was represented by Magnum, which is very conservative, in terms of intellectual property. They exist to protect the IP of their photographers. The way Joy worked was she would copy images off the internet, put them on her computer, not keep track of where she found them or who made them originally, and just grab from them. And the gallery that was going to show the paintings put an image of the painting on their website. Somebody that knew both of them saw it, asked Joy about it, then told Susan. Susan talked to her lawyer. Her lawyer sent Joy an email or a letter, like a kind of cease and desist. A scary letter. Joy was scared and confused, and sent an email to the Rhizome list saying, “What should I do?” So what the Rhizome community did when they saw Joy’s email was go to the gallery website, grab the image, and put it up on their own websites. And they didn’t just put it up as is; many of them started to remix it. And then they would post back to the list with links to their remix. [Ptak laughs] So there were static images, there were animations, all kinds of stuff. This was a couple years after this earlier phenomenon called Toy War, in which etoy was sued by this dot-com called eToys. And they started this toy war against eToys. And so this was the Joy War. It’s a much longer story, but it ends well. So that had me thinking about open source culture. And I was thinking about courses I might teach and I thought, appropriation, open source; there’s something there.
PTAK: How did the students in 2003 react to this?
TRIBE: That was an amazing group of students. I had students from history, two students from the law school, graduate students from theater, music, the education school. This incredibly eclectic group. And they were all so excited. It was one of those classes where you just kind of hold onto the reins.
PTAK: And how did Rhizome as an organization try and take seriously ideas about open source culture?
TRIBE: At my instigation, we replaced all of our user agreements with ones that incorporated Creative Commons. Fred Benenson, who was a student in my class, actually, he was this undergrad in philosophy at NYU at the time, but he somehow, online, found out about the class, called me up. There was no official way to let him take it, so he was just an un-official auditor. And he’s now on the Rhizome board and works for Creative Commons. He’s the one who did the conversion.
And I don’t know what other ways. It’s just, I think, the openness, the spirit of sharing. I think the three main elements of open source culture are appropriation, collaboration, and sharing. All those things happen on Rhizome all the time.
PTAK: One of the interesting things about this whole story, for me, is how in some ways, especially in the American context, it seems like you were really shaping something that didn’t exist. A discourse, a community, a vocabulary. I’m kind of curious about that process and what that process feels like in the moment when you’re doing it. Do you just do all this intuitively, or—?
TRIBE: Well, I wasn’t the only one. Rhizome was a somewhat different flavor of a kind of a dish that was appearing in lots of different places—to stretch a metaphor. You know, there was The Thing, there was Nettime, there was Turbulence and all these other organizations that were supporting new media art, art and technology, in one way or another. Rhizome happens to have lasted. But it wasn’t so unique. But yes, I guess it felt to me like being part of an avant-garde. I mean, it was definitely cultural and political at the same time.
PTAK: Say more about the political aspect of it.
TRIBE: Well, I would just repeat what I was saying earlier, about the role of media technologies in these big socioeconomic, cultural and political transformations that have been taking place—globalization, surveillance, things like that—over the last half century. It goes back further, but it’s been intensifying. I just felt there was a lot at stake for artistic practices, and also for institutional practices around art.
PTAK: You mentioned globalization, and one thing that seems interesting to me about Rhizome is that because it was something that people participated in online, in this quite immaterial, dispersed form, it seems like you were an institution that could really, at an early moment, have quite a global community. And I wonder what that was like, if that seemed like something new and interesting at the time.
TRIBE: It seemed important and exciting, and was something that we kept track of. We had a list of countries that subscribers came from. It seemed like a positive thing. At one point, before the New Museum affiliation, we were talking about creating Rhizome nodes in Mexico City and other parts of the world, to basically do different language versions. Realizing that the fact that Rhizome was located in New York really did give it a very particular perspective on the art world, even if people were posting from Germany or South Korea. But the problematic sides of globalization weren’t so apparent to me. There certainly is something lost, as well. The fact that— Rhizome at this point, has— I don’t want to say a cultural dominance, but it’s become kind of an important institution in the field. And if you’re making new media art in, say, South Korea, there is something unfortunate about the fact that you need to get your work seen on a website that’s run out of New York and that’s affiliated with a New York art museum. There’s a kind of cultural imperialism there.
PTAK: Yes. When did that start to strike you?
TRIBE: Since I left. [laughs] That and also a kind of homogenization that takes place.
PTAK: Explain that. What do you mean?
TRIBE: Well, I mean early on, for example, we would edit posts sometimes, if we were going to put them in Digest. And I always said, “Don’t edit out people’s voice. If they write English poorly, but it’s because they’re German, don’t change it.” You know, we would edit somebody who was a native English speaker more heavily. It’s the melting pot idea, that when people interact in multicultural spaces, unless they’re able to segregate, they tend to homogenize. I don’t know that for sure, it’s just my intuition. And there may be problems with that argument, or things I’m missing. But there’s complicated politics around it. And I don’t think it’s something that we’ve really given that much thought to. We being the people that run Rhizome.
PTAK: Touching back on this idea of the New York art world, I’m curious to hear what kinds of institutions and curriculums were paying attention to what you were doing early on in New York? And how this thing that you were doing as an online platform started to morph into different venues that happened in the real world.
PTAK: He’s the first person who ever showed me Rhizome, actually.
TRIBE: Oh, really?
TRIBE: Oh. Where was that?
PTAK: I worked in the publications department at the Guggenheim.
TRIBE: Oh, I see. Okay. Certainly, David Ross, who was at the Whitney at the time.
PTAK: It seems like through the course of running this institution, you had to fashion yourself as a kind of curator, in a lot of ways, I would imagine. Was that something you thought consciously about? Was that something that you were interested in? Did running this platform start to demand that of you?
TRIBE: I didn’t think of Rhizome, of my work at Rhizome, as a curatorial practice until later. But when I started getting opportunities to organize exhibitions in museums and galleries, I thought of that as curating. In my last few years at Rhizome, I was getting opportunities to curate, and not getting opportunities to exhibit my work. And now finally that’s flipping, or has flipped. But only later did I start to realize that things like Open Mouse were curatorial projects. Coming up with this process for selection that was open, was certainly a curatorial move. And thinking about how the work was juxtaposed in the space of the club and stuff like that.
PTAK: I’m also curious about some of the early struggles to really think about how these largely ephemeral or immaterial kinds of projects could then be shown in physical space. I know a lot of discourse has sort of evolved about that since, but I’m wondering if you could talk about some of your first struggles with trying to figure that out.
TRIBE: I mean, to put the problem simply, it’s how do you show something in a gallery that wasn’t meant to be seen in a gallery. It’s not entirely dissimilar from showing so-called material culture in museums. You know, things like the African masks, which are decontextualized and recontextualized. So when the Whitney Biennial included net art for the first time, in the late nineties, there was a room with a desk in the corner, with a computer on it, a bunch of benches in the middle of the room, and a projector. So you were either passively watching or performatively interacting. The works were more created for a kind of intimate one-on-one engagement with the art.
TRIBE: My first solution to that was in this show I did at Moving Image Gallery, called Net Ephemera, in which I invited twenty-five New York net artists to give me something on paper, eight and a half by eleven or smaller, that was related to their work process. An ephemera. Ephemeron, I guess is the singular. And I exhibited them in a row in archival plastic pockets, in this very minimal way. Then there was a take-away list of the ephemera, and links. And there was also a website, so you could go see the work on your own time. In your own space at home or at work or wherever. Other attempts were less successful. But increasingly, net-based work was made to be shown in galleries, like John Klima’s work, for example, which would be installations that had net connectivity.
PTAK: Because the artists themselves were starting to recognize the value of that, would you say?
TRIBE: Yes. Or Young-Hae Chang made a series of their pieces for Samsung internet refrigerators that had displays on the doors.
PTAK: [laughs] What are the projects that you remember most fondly from those earliest days?
PTAK: … yes—artworks that really stand out in your memory?
TRIBE: Robbin Murphy did a piece called Osiris, which was this really simple animation that I think just used HTML. I think it was only HTML. It was a grid of squares, maybe nine or twelve. Maybe nine squares. And the colors of the squares and the color of the background would change sort of slowly. And it was beautiful. It just used HTML to define colors. There were no GIFs in it, for example. I think. Super simple. I think that was one of our splash pages, maybe. I’m not sure.
Heath Bunting’s work, for sure. Kings Cross Phone-in was one of his pieces, where he used, I think, email lists or websites to get people to all call public phones in the Kings Cross tube station at the same time, so all these phones started ringing. [Ptak laughs] It became like a sound piece.
Another seminal work that I remember was The Body of Michael Daines.
PTAK: What was that?
TRIBE: He was a Canadian high school student. I think he was seventeen years old. He took a snapshot of his torso just wearing a t-shirt, and put it up for sale as the body of Michael Daines—his name was Michael Daines—on eBay, in the sculpture category. Fine art sculpture. And eBay cancelled his auction. But he had a screen shot up on his website for a while. I just thought it was really a brilliant work.
PTAK: How come?
TRIBE: I thought about it in connection with the work of artists like Sam Hsieh or Chris Burden or Marina Abramovic, who worked with their bodies as material. And just conceptually, there’s something very extreme about selling your body. It was then sort of reprised, in a way, by Keith and Mendi Obadike, who did Blackness For Sale, where Keith Obadike sold his blackness on eBay. But as a sculpture or a conceptual artwork, that Michael Daines piece blew my mind. That it was also done by a Canadian high school student who was fully aware of what he was doing, was really indicative to me of how low the barrier of entry had fallen. That he could make a work that became super important. I mean, it’s not maybe talked about now so much, but for a while it was talked about a lot.
PTAK: Any other artworks?
TRIBE: The works I write about in my book.
PTAK: Let’s talk about the book. That was published, I think, a decade after you had founded Rhizome, right? In 2006?
TRIBE: I guess so, yes.
PTAK: And that was a book that you worked on with Reena Jana. One of the interesting things that you kind of frame in that book is that you talk about new media art as a movement, as opposed to a medium.
PTAK: I was really curious about that. When did you start seeing it that way? Was that something that occurred to you from the beginning? Or was that a kind of looking back over time?
TRIBE: I don’t think I formulated it in those terms, probably, until some time in the late nineties or maybe even later. Maybe when the movement was ending.
PTAK: Let’s think about that. There’s a huge difference between conceiving of something as a movement and a medium. It seems to me that a medium really ties something to an idea of how it’s made, or it’s particularities.
TRIBE: Well, I certainly never thought of it as a single medium. Like, Christiane Paul, in her book Digital Art, repeatedly refers to the digital medium, which I think is a fatal flaw. It’s a heterogeneous collection of media that are connected, to some extent, by the technology; but more, I think, by a kind of orientation towards technology.
PTAK: When I think of what art institutions, by and large, try and do with work, is they try and build these containers, right? They try and build these limits. What I imagine the task of a curator to be is, unfortunately, I think, largely about distinguishing one thing from another or making these very kind of sharp lines between things. So it’s interesting to me to think of Rhizome as an institution that aspired in a way, to not limiting things in those ways, or not building those tight containers.
TRIBE: At the same time, we did try to understand the limits—I always imagined it as a diagram in which there was a circle. Inside the circle was new media art; outside the circle was everything else. But there was a gray zone around the edges. Some things were firmly in it; other things were outside of it; but there was a lot of stuff in this gray margin. So it’s hard to draw that line. It’s just all these judgment calls that have a lot to do with where the artist wants to be. For me, it was more conceptual, probably, than formal or technological. And also social or relational. I felt like what counted as new media art was always changing, that it was a receding horizon. That certain kinds of practices no longer count as media art—like making single-channel video. I mean, that was new media art at one point. Nam June Paik. If you think about new media as a genre, not as a movement, then Nam June Paik was a new media artist.
TRIBE: I always thought of it more as a genre than as a movement. I think it was really when I started teaching courses on new media art that I started to realize I needed to think about it in both ways; as something historically specific, and then as something that’s trans-historical. Just as you could talk about a work made today as being Surrealist.
PTAK: Can you explain some of the most contested terms at the time? We’ve talked about new media, net art. But where were the terminologies or the vocabularies for these things coming from? Who wanted to position themselves how, and why? What was the landscape around all that?
TRIBE: Well, one contested term, or contested concept was— the California ideology. It was coined by Richard Barbrook, in maybe ’97.
PTAK: Who’s that?
TRIBE: A British— I don’t know if he’s an artist or a writer only. But he wrote a lot, and well. The term was taken up by a lot of people on the Nettime list and the various European communities, as critiquing the kind of techno-libertarianism that was epitomized by Wired magazine, but that was also seen in a lot of new media art. What else was contested? [pause] Nothing’s coming to mind.
PTAK: What about controversial kinds of postings on the Rhizome email exchange?
TRIBE: Oh, there were so many.
PTAK: Yeah. [laughs]
TRIBE: I mean, way too many to—
PTAK: Do you think that has to do with it being such an emergent medium, and people fighting to figure out what it is, in a way? So that raises a lot of—
TRIBE: It also has to do with the fact that it was this open forum email list. Because there’s a kind of quasi-anonymity, they’re notorious for breeding flame wars. We didn’t censor them. You had a whole bunch of people that were reading it and posting to it all day long. That doesn’t happen so much with contemporary— It might actually, I don’t know. I don’t know if there are online communities around art where there’s that kind of collective conversation. I mean, there’s more of a distributed conversation through blogs and things like that.
TRIBE: It was very intense, in that regard. Because people were very motivated, a lot of very smart people from different backgrounds.
PTAK: Another thing I was curious about is manifesto culture around new media art. You were talking about it as this very pioneering movement, this kind of avant-garde in the nineties. How did it take up the manifesto, or how did some people use the manifesto?
TRIBE: Well, I think of VNS Matrix Cyberfeminist Manifesto as the prime example of that.
PTAK: Can you say more about what that was?
TRIBE: It was a short document. It was called the Cyberfeminist Manifesto. It was written in a kind of aspirational poetic—well, confrontational poetic tone. [Ptak laughs] It’s interesting to think about it in relation to Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto, I think. But cyberfeminism was one of those contested ideas. Certain people, including, Cornelia Sollfrank, were really trying to articulate what cyberfeminism might mean. Sadie Plant, people like that. I think some of the theorists they would maybe connect with would be Donna Haraway and Rosanne Stone. Allucquère Rosanne Stone, Sandy Stone, transgendered theorist.
PTAK: I guess that’s another question. How gender played out inside this movement. Was it something that was equally balanced? Who were the people who were contributing to Rhizome?
TRIBE: I think it was like 60/40 male, is my sense. I don’t remember the exact stats. And I think it was probably fairly constant. I think men did more of the talking. As usual. Also a lot of awareness about race and class, as well. Not a lot of race and class boundaries within societies, but across— between and among societies. It’s very different to be posting from Sarai than from Ars Electronica.
PTAK: As an institution did you think about wanting to strike a certain kind of balance or equality, with regard to things like race and class and gender? I mean, how did you think about the platform responding to those things?
TRIBE: Well, to the extent that it was open, there wasn’t a lot that one could do, except for encourage people in the background. But we did think about race and gender. Class is a little bit hard sometimes. But in things like commissions we probably practiced some informal affirmative action, I guess. That’s the wrong way to put it. But I was striving for as much diversity and balance as we could. There was one really interesting situation. It was the first or second cycle of our commissions, when we gave a commission to an artist who came from India, although she was British. She was living in India. And she was accused by a bunch of Indian artists of exploiting them. It was this huge shit storm. It was really complicated. I don’t remember all the details, but I got an Indian phone card so I could have these long conversations with her and with all these other artists from India, who were really upset about the kind of neo-colonial dynamic that was going on in—accusations that she was stealing their work and stuff like that. There was also some romantic drama in it [Ptak laughs]. So it was really complicated. But this white British woman going to India, collaborating with Indian artists, submitting a proposal, and their deciding they didn’t want to work with her. Very complicated. Broken hearts. [they laugh]
PTAK: So you were really an active facilitator. It’s interesting, buying the phone card and being on the phone with these people—that’s a part of it that I didn’t imagine, you know? I imagined it to be a much more of a digital remove, in a way.
TRIBE: For the most part. But there were also lots of face-to-face interactions in New York. And we traveled a lot. So you know…
PTAK: Did you?
TRIBE: …we went to the ZKM to show StarryNight; went to DEAF and Ars Electronica. All over the US, participating in conferences and festivals and exhibitions and symposia. And so there was a lot of face-to-face interaction, as well. Lots of times when I would be frustrated with a kind of art and technology old guard.
PTAK: Say more about that.
TRIBE: …on panels at places like SIGGRAPH. I don’t remember what the exact issues were, but I definitely felt like I was part of a different generation—it wasn’t defined so much by age as affinity—different stakes and different aspirations.
PTAK: What were the stakes for you, or for what you thought of as your generation?
PTAK: [laughs] Did you do it?
TRIBE: No. [they laugh]
PTAK: Did you come close?
TRIBE: I don’t know. I am, at this point, a little bit ambivalent about the extent to which Rhizome has become institutionalized and is affiliated with a museum that is becoming less unconventional than it once was. I certainly have some complex feelings around the current exhibition at the New Museum, Skin Fruit, which is an exhibition of work from the collection of a New Museum trustee, curated by an artist in the collection—both the real issues involved and also the appearance. Rhizome still has a lot of openness, but it also has become, to some extent, a power nexus. It’s getting further and further from its indie roots. Which also reflects, I think, the trajectory of the field.
PTAK: I wonder if it could be different. Of course, if you look back historically, it seems like any time there’s a new technology we always start out with the utopia; and we always kind of arrive at the dystopia, over time, which is interesting. I don’t know if we’re quite at dystopia yet, but— [laughs]
TRIBE: No, there’s still a lot of cool stuff going on.
PTAK: So do you still seek out and try to look at this kind of work?
TRIBE: Not in particular.
TRIBE: I mean, it’s hard to avoid. Not that I try to avoid it. [Ptak laughs] But I sought out the Tino Sehgal show at the Guggenheim. Which has absolutely nothing to do with new media. In my teaching, I encounter a lot of new media work, both stuff that I bring to the table and work that the students show. They’re really interested in it. More so, probably, in fact, than they were, say, five or six years ago.
PTAK: Yes. I’ve noticed that, too. I mean, as someone who moved to New York at the end of the dot-com boom and everyone who graduated from college at that moment was forced into a job, almost, where you had to learn these things. I remember looking at Rhizome, in particular, back then. And I was really fascinated, but I didn’t feel like I knew enough to maybe understand the work, in a way.
TRIBE: It was a little hermetic?
PTAK: Yes. The learning curve seemed huge to me. And then I remember looking back at Rhizome again, maybe about five years ago, and it just looked normal all of a sudden. It just was something I totally could understand—this dialog, this discourse. It didn’t feel removed, or that it was that kind of hermetic thing anymore.
TRIBE: Right. It’s another digital divide—not the one based on race and class and social status, but based more on a kind of intellectual terrain and conceptual aesthetic terrain.
PTAK: I’m thinking about your students now and their new media work. Do you see a kind of difference? I mean, looking back, you can see how things shift and change a lot over time?
TRIBE: When I first taught my new media art class at Columbia, my students were absolutely clueless. And now they’re way more clued in than I am—my students at Brown. I had a first-year student last year, or the year before, I guess, who came to Brown as an accomplished Machinima maker. Machinima being animated films or videos that you make within video games, instead of doing computer generated imagery. Things like that, lots of programming skills, lots of knowledge.
PTAK: I’m curious about the age spectrum of people interested in or participating in Rhizome. Was that something that you were even conscious of?
TRIBE: One of the very first works of net art— the first work of net art to be acquired by a museum, I believe, was by Douglas Davis, who was a peer of Nam June Paik’s. And it was called The World’s First Collaborative Sentence. David Ross bought it for the Whitney in ’95. And he was already pretty advanced in age at that point.
PTAK: Was there a lot of intergenerational dialog happening, would you say? Do you think that that was something that Rhizome as a platform facilitated?
TRIBE: I never really thought of that. But another example would be John Perry Barlow. He was at the Next 5 Minutes conference in 1995, in Amsterdam, along with a bunch of twenty-year-old hackers. I’m not sure if that’s something atypical in the art world, though.
PTAK: I’m not sure, either. How about hacking culture? How did that coincide with new media art practice? Were there interesting things going on—how does one draw the line between—
TRIBE: Hacking. Okay, there’s another contested term. Or at least it was a term that was used kind of aggressively by artists and others, kind of expansively. Originally, the term referred to people who were basically really good programmers, who had an ethic of sharing and efficiency or success of technology; basically, good technology, elegant technology was an absolute imperative. And any impediments to that could be circumvented. So that’s how it became associated with people who would break into networks and systems. In popular culture, hackers are computer bandits. But then people like Cornelia Sollfrank started adopting the term to refer to a kind of cultural practice that I think now is associated a lot with free culture and open source culture, where you reach a level of virtuosic engagement with the technology, and use it in a way to liberate technologies and the people that use them. It’s an ideology of liberation.
PTAK: I’m interested in, generally looking back, the ways in which, you could say Rhizome has affected things like your artistic career, your curatorial work, your teaching.
TRIBE: I’m not sure if you could think about it as affecting, because it’s— [pause] I mean, they’re all interrelated.
PTAK: Yes. There’s no way to separate.
TRIBE: Yes. But one topic that we might want to touch on is preservation. And technological obsolescence.
It was something that the ArtBase sought to address and had to deal with. It was a fact that most new media art is made with technologies that are very unstable and are constantly changing. Whereas an oil painting, you can put it in the closet and take it out a hundred years later and you can still see it, whereas a work that was made using Shockwave might not play in today’s browsers.
PTAK: That must’ve felt quite novel at the time, right?
PTAK: I mean, were the very first wave of artists working with these tools surprised when they became outmoded? Or was that something that was kind of built into it?
TRIBE: I don’t think they were thinking about it much. But you know, we started to think about it when we built the ArtBase and Jon Ippolito at the Guggenheim was thinking about it. People at other institutions that had dealt with obsolescent technologies like, The Kitchen, with all their videotapes, were very aware of this, and we started to communicate with one another and form consortia. But I thought of four different approaches to obsolescence. Kind of like obsolescence countermeasures. The first was documentation. And that is as simple as taking a screen capture or describing something. So it’s a representation of the work, not the work itself. Which I think is really important to do. The second is migration, where you take something that was written in, say, one version of HTML and you update the code to the current standard, so it still works. And that’s something that can happen in a sort of rolling manner.
PTAK: Is that an act of translation, in a way?
TRIBE: In a way. It can be, especially if the environment changes around it. If things work differently. You might’ve had something that had a blink, and the blink may work differently. At some point migration sometimes ceases to be an option. So then you have emulation. Emulation is where you use software to emulate hardware, usually. Sometimes to emulate software. Take a videogame that was made to run on an old Nintendo, you can basically run a software emulator that makes the software think that it’s running on an old Nintendo processor. So you could emulate OS X sometime fifty years from now. Then you need to have access to all the other software that the work needs, and you have to know what those softwares are. So there’s all this information that needs to be gathered. And finally there was recreation, where you remake the work from scratch using new technologies.Then there are ethical issues to be considered. Like an artist might not want their work to be migrated, might not want their work to be emulated. And you need to find out, What are the most important aspects of the work? So we developed this questionnaire, the ArtBase questionnaire, that foresaw all those different measures and asked, Do we have your permission to show this work as documentation? If we are going to run it in the emulator, what’s most important? How it moves? How it sounds? Or is, the concept the most important thing and we can completely change the technology?
PTAK: Do you feel that your background as an artist made you particularly sensitive or able to look out for artists’ interests, in terms of new media, early on?
TRIBE: I’m sure, yes.
PTAK: Does this questionnaire still exist? Is it still something that’s in use?
TRIBE: I don’t know. The ArtBase is in the process of the major overhaul. I don’t know what they’re using now. I’m sure they have some kind of equivalent. I’m sure it’s evolved a lot. I know the taxonomy’s evolved a lot. It’s now become standardized, and it’s being adopted by the Getty. Which is really interesting. It’s becoming part of their larger system for metadata. Which is awesome. I think in a way, what’s happening with the ArtBase right now may turn out to be one of the largest impacts that Rhizome has on the field.
PTAK: Say more about that. How come?
TRIBE: Well, this ArtBase, which has now over 2500 works in it—
TRIBE: So there’s the scale of it. But the fact that Rhizome has been involved in forming the metadata standards and now those standards are being adopted by institutions in a position of authority means that essentially, all that material will be come accessible outside of Rhizome. Sort of federated out, in a way, to other databases, searches. Also, I think that when other organizations archive, they will be using that standard. So it’s, to me, a big impact on the legacy of the field, I guess.
PTAK: I’m curious how that kind of conversation around caring for these objects over time started or evolved? Was that something that you were actively initiating?
PTAK: Were institutions thinking about this as they were starting to acquire works? Where did that dialog start?
TRIBE: It started in the late nineties, right around the time we started the ArtBase, or shortly thereafter. It just was on the minds of the institutions that had to deal with it. There were a few very forward-thinking people, like Jon Ippolito, who were actively networking and interconnecting. Rick Rinehart at the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive. I think Franklin Furnace was very involved. And there were meetings, there were grants written together, things like that.
PTAK: Were things like Conceptual art practices a kind of model that you could look to?
TRIBE: Very much so. When I was thinking about documentation as an option, I certainly was thinking about Conceptual art as a model. It’s always a question of compromise. So you’ve got to get comfortable with compromise.
PTAK: Are a lot of institutions now showing this older net art?
TRIBE: I don’t think so.
TRIBE: That’s up to you.
PTAK: Alright! [they laugh] I’ll take that on, gladly.
TRIBE: Rhizome is.
TRIBE: I mean, they have these member-curated and guest-curated exhibitions that mine the ArtBase. And my students, when they do curatorial projects, a lot of them use the ArtBase to find work.
PTAK: Well, I’m coming to the end of my questions. Is there anything else that you wanted to say or comment on in closing?
TRIBE: [pause] Well, you asked me a couple times about Rhizome’s influence on my practice and artistic work. Although I can’t really separate them because they influenced each other. To some extent, I think Rhizome’s part of it. They are different. A lot of things I did running Rhizome didn’t feel like art making at all. Like, you know, budgets. [they laugh] But I deal with budgets now, too. I’m interested in the history of artists who do other kinds of cultural production, like Surrealists who started magazines or artists who curate. You know, a bunch of artists started Magnum, for example. That’s interesting to me. You know, an artist started the New Museum. I think Marcia Tucker was an artist. Well, anyway, lots of artists start arts organizations. And recently, there’s been this term circulating called social entrepreneurship. People like—What’s his name, who won the Nobel Prize? The guy who came up with the idea of micro loans. Anyway, these are social entrepreneurs. People come up with social businesses, some innovative way of dealing with a humanitarian problem. I would advocate for the adoption of the term cultural entrepreneur. I think it’s really important.
PTAK: So define that. What do you think a cultural entrepreneur is?
TRIBE: Somebody who starts and builds organizations or institutions or big projects whose mission is to support, promote, enhance, foster cultural life. Particularly art. It’s not about making money or solving some kind of utilitarian problem. So that was very important to me. I did learn a lot that was helpful for me; for example, with the Port Huron Project. Knowing how to build relationships with organizations and partner and how to raise money and manage people, organize things. And how to give the whole thing online presence.
PTAK: What you’re saying here is also making me think about—in the last several years, a rise in more socially engaged art practices, generally speaking. Which is interesting to me. I’m still figuring out why that is or where that comes from.
TRIBE: I wonder. I mean, it’s hard to know if it’s just we start looking for it, and then we see it everywhere.
PTAK: Right. Yes.
TRIBE: Is it statistically becoming more prevalent or getting more prominent in the art world? Or is it just part of these cycles. Like when Hans Haacke was doing his thing, did it seem like that, too? What about the eighties? What about the AIDS crisis? Who knows how cyclical it is or how constant it is. But I know what you mean, because I’ve been paying attention to it more, too.
PTAK: To me it seems a little bit like artistic practice, cultural practice, and even social practice—We don’t feel the need to draw such strict lines between them, maybe.
TRIBE: Yes. Similarly, the line between art making and curating.
TRIBE: Actually, I’m teaching a class this semester called Curating Contemporary Art. And the topic this past week was curating artists, by which I meant artists who do curatorial things. We read stuff by Fred Wilson and Rirkrit Tiravanija. I decided to change the name of the class to The Art of Curating. So basically, instead of wrangling with the distinction between the two, just use the distinction as a starting point. To say, Let’s work in this gray area.
PTAK: Is there a reverse, too? Curators acting more as artists?
TRIBE: I’m sure. I mean, I’m sure you’ve heard people say that curators are the new artists.
PTAK: What do you think about this? I’m not sure what I think.
TRIBE: Well, it connects with the emergence and efflorescence of the independent curator. Which I guess begins with Harald Szeemann. Now the independent curator’s become almost like the independent film, right? A bit more institutionalized. But you know, if you’re an independent curator doing projects that you conceive and stage, and often times have a strong vision, where the art work becomes almost something that you’re appropriating, if the curatorial model is very un-traditional, yes, that seems a lot like art making. I think the way I curated that show Net Ephemera, saying give me something smaller than eight and a half by eleven, then I put them all in a line, very Minimalist. I mean, it was very over-determined by own aesthetics and concept. So really, I mean, it wasn’t an exhibition of artwork per se.
PTAK: Right. All along the way, were you thinking of yourself as an artist who curates, more than a curator per se?
TRIBE: Yes. I think in my bio, I now call myself an artist and occasional curator. I’m trying to keep it as occasional as possible. [they laugh]
PTAK: I envy you [laugh]. Great. Well, thank you so much, Mark.
TRIBE: My pleasure.