Interview with 2017 Arts Writing Award in Digital Art Recipient, Rudolf Frieling

Grants & Awards

Digital & Electronic Art

Rudolf Frieling received the $40,000 award ($30,000 unrestricted, merit-based award + $10,000 project grant) for an established arts writer in the U.S. who has made significant contributions to writing about digital art. Rudolf Frieling is Curator of Media Arts at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). Important publications include Media Art Action (1997), Media Art Interaction (2000) and Media Art Net (2004/2005), all with Dieter Daniels. At SFMOMA he published The Art of Participation: 1950 to Now (2008) and most recently Bruce Conner: It’s All True (2016) with Gary Garrels.

THOMA FOUNDATION: When and why did you begin writing about digital art, and why has it been important for you to contribute to scholarship in the field?

RUDOLF FRIELING: Around the time I joined the Center for Art and Media (ZKM) in Karlsruhe, Germany, I became acutely aware of the impossibility of addressing the emergence of digital art only via its unique properties or media specificity and rather wanted to contribute to an understanding that would enhance a broader history of contemporary art in and with media both analogue and digital, both time-based and processual or algorithmic.

THOMA FOUNDATION: Who are some of your influences (thinkers, writers, artists, educators, etc.)?

RUDOLF: I initially majored in English literature before writing in the context of art and media, and despite the fact that I changed sides and have obviously been influenced by my readings and collaborations since then, I find myself time and again realizing that the largest and lasting influence continues to be James Joyce. A second important historical foundation for my thinking has been Walter Benjamin’s writings, particularly his open-ended, unfinished encyclopedic volume “Passagenwerk” [The Arcades Project]. Benjamin, not unlike Joyce, embraced the associative and the cross-over between categories and narratives – obviously characteristics we often apply to contemporary art today.

THOMA FOUNDATION: What kinds of programs would you like to see supported in the field?

RUDOLF: I’m interested in furthering an understanding of contemporary art in analogue and digital media that emphasizes a critical and deeper (art) historical analysis. It’s essential to go beyond the divide between the common celebration of an artist’s work in a monographic exhibition catalogue and the strictly academic exercise concerned with positioning an author in and responding to a field of academic discourses which has happened a lot over the last two decades. We have seen a sharp rise in theoretical thinking and master narratives over the last decades but we need writers who take on an in-depth analysis of individual authors and works from a variety of angles and possibly disciplines. In order to support that kind of feedback, we would benefit greatly from different publications that document and reflect more fully, comprehensively, and critically the complexities of works and a multitude of narratives. In general, I value any writing that attempts to go beyond the limits of a given field, most importantly beyond the confines of a jargon in order to communicate ideas and concepts clearly without neglecting the poetics of writing at the same time.

THOMA FOUNDATION: Briefly describe your current writing projects and/or those you anticipate beginning or completing in the next year?

RUDOLF: I’m currently working on an online publication for the upcoming SFMOMA exhibition Soundtracks. We will hopefully learn a lot about ways to document individual works as well as an exhibition experience. On another note, I was extremely intrigued by the selection committee’s verdict of “visual writing” and will give this more thought in the near future. I am confident that a future line of investigation will generate in one way or another a review of the constraints of publishing.

THOMA FOUNDATION: How do you anticipate this award will impact your career and work?

RUDOLF: It is one of the most rewarding experiences to be honored for work that not only has a currency in the moment it is written but is indeed valued over time. In that sense, I’m extremely grateful for this recognition but I’m not a prophet. So I’ll only be able to answer this question in a few years.

THOMA FOUNDATION: What would assist you in moving your current projects and/or ideas forward?

RUDOLF: Frustrated by the academic disregard of visual pleasure, I’m interested in finding more and better ways of linking textual, critical, and visual information within the digital realm. We need a commitment to publishing that is of its time but in critical distance to the fast pace of social media. A convening of like-minded colleagues, writers, artists, publishers brainstorming on future perspectives of art publishing would be enormously helpful.

Read more about the 2017 Arts Writing Awards recipients.