04.11.2009 - 27.11.2009 | Miltos Manetas
On Moses, Marcel and Miltos.
by Jan Åman
Only a week remained before the Venice Biennale was due to open. And with it the Internet Pavilion, for which Miltos Manetas and myself were jointly responsible.
I had just arrived in Venice. I had had time to meet Chiara, our local hostess, and her friends. I had visited S.A.L.E., where Marco had offered us his beautiful old salt warehouse. I had been out with Nik, Helga and Daniel from AIDS-3D. I’d been out drinking wine with Jan Håfström and Lotta Melin.
But I hadn’t really done anything. I spent my days mostly wandering around by myself. Which admittedly is one of the things Venice is best for.
But the reason I was there – Miltos – was nowhere to be found. He didn’t answer my calls. He didn’t respond to emails. It wasn’t like him. Miltos is always wired up, always online. Always reachable. But now, when we were to meet in Venice to finalise a project which was essential for both of us, he seemed to have vanished from the face of the earth.
Without Miltos, there wasn’t much I could do. Not of what I had intended to do, anyway. The Internet pavilion was the result of a dialogue between the two of us. Miltos is not an artist who needs – or can even abide – a curator. And I’m not sure I’ve ever understood what curators are meant to do either. But I knew Miltos needed someone to ping-pong ideas with. So did I.
On paper I was the curator of the Internet pavilion at the Venice Biennale. But in reality, or in my view at least, the Internet pavilion was an artwork by Miltos Manetas. I doubt if he would ever accept that description himself – but it was the logical continuation of everything he has done since the end of the 1990s.
Without really being able to put it into words, I have always been stimulated by spending time with Miltos. He annoys most people. And he trips himself up. If he hadn’t had his vanity to carry along with his intuition, his road might have been easier – but not necessarily.
Miltos sees – and sees through – contexts, and makes demands both on himself and on the system in which he operates. He is incapable of doing anything only for himself. He is incapable of doing what others are doing or what has already been done. He is incapable of adjusting to any market or system. Which is the same thing as not making things easy for yourself.
That’s why Miltos needed Venice, just as Gustave Courbet needed the World Fair in Paris 1855. Venice confers status because it is a symbol of that which is accepted, of that which ‘the system’ has to offer.
Miltos was far from being the first artist to use the internet. On the contrary, there was a whole cadre of artists who launched so-called internet works at an early stage. Which created a sub-genre in the art world – technologically clever, but hardly art.
Miltos has never been interested in either technology or new forms of communication. But he has been interested in new patterns of behaviour. Or not even that – his interest in the internet is an interest in what it symbolises, or what it has symbolised. A symbol of something new – or something he could use as leverage against the structure he wants to mess with: the art world. A world which has consisted of and still consists of the selling of objects, pretty much as it did in Courbet’s day.
Miltos and I have been exchanging ideas about this for many years. We’ve managed to carry out a number of projects together. But we have planned even more. The most important of these had so far been stuck at the idea stage. But then the Venice Biennale turned up as an opportunity.
And that’s where we were now. A few blocks from the Accademia.
Or rather, where I was. Alone.
Miltos and I had been in contact almost on a daily basis over the past few months. We had spoken on the phone, but more than anything we‘d got used to sitting and talking for hours via Skype.
It struck me that he might have hinted at something to do with his disappearance during our latest phone conversation. Just before hanging up he had mentioned, cryptically, that he might be undertaking ‘a secret journey’ before the opening of the Biennale. He hadn’t specified the destination. But we had quite a lot of work left to do. Not least Miltos. So I assumed that he had retreated to some farmhouse somewhere in Italy to work in peace and quiet.
Three days passed. And no Miltos.
When at last he stood there he was pretty exhausted. He’d lost weight. His cheeks were pale and drawn despite the tan. He didn’t say much about where he’d been or what he’d experienced. Instead he sat in the dark at S.A.L.E. with his computer, working hard and drinking Coca-Cola. He was fastidious about keeping regular mealtimes.
It wasn’t until the following afternoon that it emerged that he really had been on ‘a secret journey’. It was as if he wasn’t sure whether he dared tell me. Maybe he was afraid I’d think he was mad. At least that’s what I thought when at last I heard what he’d done.
We were sitting in a small café not far from S.A.L.E. Miltos ordered me coffee and Coca-Cola for himself. Then he began to speak, slowly. He said that he’d been to Egypt. He’d made his way down through the villages south of Israel. He’d spoken to nomads and conversed with priests. And finally he’d made his way to Mount Sinai. And there he had spent a few warm days and cold nights.
As a final preparation for the Internet pavilion in Venice, Miltos Manetas had quite simply followed in Moses’ footsteps. No wonder he was reluctant to tell me about it. No wonder he was afraid I might think he was mad.
Miltos really had climbed Mount Sinai. He had walked up the mountain. He had climbed it despite his fragile legs (he has a disease which makes his skeleton very brittle). Just as Moses had once climbed Mount Sinai to meet God and from his hand receive the stone tablets with the ten commandments, Miltos had now climbed it too. While Moses climbed, the people of Israel waited in their tents at the foot of the mountain. When Miltos made his way up the mountain, the ground below had been quiet and empty of people. His people were perhaps in Venice.
As Miltos described his journey, things got increasingly lively around us. It was as if the Venice Biennale actually got started as we sat there. People literally dropped in on us at the café: artists, journalists, curators. People we knew or who recognised us. They sat down and began to talk to us about what we were doing or about their own doings during the Biennale. They bought us wine. The conversations continued – conversations that became increasingly intense and increasingly devoid of meaning. Conversations that turned into dinners and parties. And soon enough openings and press conferences. Since the pirates were there, interest focused on them. Which was precisely our calculation. Everything went according to plan.
But we never had a chance to finish the conversation about Moses and Sinai. And it was never restarted again, either. As a result I have never really talked to Miltos about what happened on Mount Sinai. Or about what was going through his head when he undertook the journey. And we have not spoken a great deal since Venice.
When we started out, Miltos didn’t do what most other artists would have done. He didn’t set about making any new works. He wasn’t bothered with any works at all. Or even with contacting those it would have been interesting to include in a digital pavilion.
Neither did he speak to any sponsors. We decided to forget about all the things you usually build an exhibition with. Miltos, instead, headed for California. He was gone for a couple of weeks in order to meet with, as he described it, some of the pioneers of the internet.
That kicked off a journey, which is equivalent to a story. That’s why I knew that the pavilion – the physical space at S.A.L.E. which had been added at a late stage and was mostly a meeting point for the pirates, but also the virtual pavilion on the net – wasn’t the point of our adventure. Instead the story was. And it fitted this logic perfectly that Miltos should conclude by travelling to the mountain on which Moses received the laws for a new community.
I could never let go of that image of Miltos on Mount Sinai. What was he actually doing there? What did Moses have to do with the internet? And why go on this journey immediately before the opening of the first Internet pavilion at the Venice Biennale?
On the one hand it was obvious that he was poking fun at his own pretensions. But on the other it was equally obvious that he was serious. Moses and Venice. Internet and art. The ten commandments and the flow of the internet. The Doge of Venice and François Pinault. Gustave Courbet and the Venice Biennale 2009. Different quantities. In a way that could only bear Miltos Manetas’ signature, they’d been tied together.
The Internet pavilion was created for the Venice Biennale, but it was far from being a commission. Miltos Manetas had paid for our presence there out of his own pocket, just as Courbet had for his presence at the 1855 World Fair. I too had paid for my work and travel out of my own pocket. We hadn’t received a cent from sponsors or public purses. But we had received the Venice Biennale’s official approval – thanks to Daniel Birnbaum.
In order to fire up the discussion we started a dialogue early on with the people around the Pirate Bay. I have known Palle Torsson and Tobias Bernstrup for years, and I knew they were leading figures in Piratbyrån. They in turn contacted Rasmus Fleischer and Kristin Eketoft.
At this time – not quite six months ago – the Pirate Bay was an incredibly strong brand. The mere rumour of their presence in Venice reportedly got Rome (for which read Berlusconi) to phone and ask what was going on. It provoked a much-needed discussion in Venice, and the pirates’ attitude – collective, mischievous, outward-looking – was also much needed in Venice. We dragged in a virus that spread through the reception rooms and palazzi. A virus that released balloons at all the art parties, so that in the end the whole art world was dancing the pirate dance.
The pirates thereby also served as a form of distraction. They diverted attention from our digital pavilion. Which was exactly what we wanted. We could step back – and ponder what everything was really about.
And thus I return to Sinai. And the question remains, what was Miltos Manetas doing on Mount Sinai?
The image of God’s hands reaching down through the clouds to the lone Moses on top of Mount Sinai is etched in the minds of most of us since childhood. Few symbols – even in the symbol-laden Bible – are as powerful. Moses was given a slice of eternity. God’s words were hardly meant as a temporary solution. And when Moses descended from the mountain and showed the stone tablets to the people there were no suggestions for alterations. The commandments were carved in stone.
That puts things in perspective.
The eternal truth in relation to art and the internet.
The internet, after all, is supposed to be anything but the lonely prophet’s encounter with God. The internet is the myth of the borderless and limitless. But also the myth of the new, waiting for its laws to be formulated. We don’t yet know how it will be. But we do know that large numbers of the world’s population suddenly spend much of their time in front of computer screens. That’s where we meet. Not in church. Not in museums. Not in the square or the shopping mall.
The internet makes it possible for everything digital to be copied, and therefore to be processed and altered. That’s why Miltos Manetas’ view is that we are all of us – at least all of us who have computers – pirates. It’s not about stealing. In a digitalised world we no longer act the way we used to. There are no blank sheets of paper. We are working from previously existing material. We borrow, adapt and append.
The ten commandments are the very opposite of this: no-one would even think of altering or adapting the word of God.
And here, I think, is the crux of the matter.
Miltos Manetas is sometimes regarded as a painter. But he’s no ordinary painter. He’s a painter in the same way that Andy Warhol was, beginning by distancing himself from painting as a form of expression. (But with time Manetas – just like Warhol – has developed a sensitivity for the technique itself, something he prefers not to talk about.) In theory, Manetas paints for the same two reasons Warhol did: it gives easy repute in the art salons and it provides the means for continuing the real quest.
But Manetas doesn’t paint the same things Warhol did. He doesn’t do portraits of famous people, as was possible to do in Warhol’s time. Manetas doesn’t paint any Marilyns or Mick Jaggers. He doesn’t accept commissions from famous people. Neither does he paint road accidents from newspaper cuttings. Today we are beyond media and fame.
Miltos Manetas paints that which distinguishes our time from all other times. He paints cables and computers. He paints GPS screens and games consoles. He paints the things that serve as a membrane between a physical reality and a virtual one. And he does so as if to show the way to his real quest: the sensibility that exists on the other side. The sensibility which lies beyond painting, beyond art – and which has come about through something very much of our era: the internet.
In this, Manetas is really more like Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp didn’t understand repetition. He couldn’t bear the thought of doing the same thing over again. Neither did Duchamp understand art as a means of support. For him, the need for money was a sure route to mediocrity, which was why he could claim that “what we call the Louvre, the Prado, the National Gallery are collection points for mediocrity”.
Duchamp sought the esoteric in art. He sought a conversation that dealt with neither utility nor money. And at the same time he couldn’t resist the opportunity of teasing those who didn’t see the problem. It was his view that the conversation had disappeared from art already with the impressionists, when people started investing in styles, “buying art like they buy spaghetti”.
What Duchamp showed was that a mass-produced object could produce more originality than all paintings taken together. The originality didn’t reside in the fact that the person who had created the work had actually daubed the paint on the canvas, but in the fact that it contained an original thought. The thought was more important than the execution. Art had become industrial. Duchamp brought it back to Moses.
Today, we’ve gone from objects via spaces to ever bigger contexts, simply because that’s the way the world has gone. We’re global and we’re digital. We don’t have just one statement to relate to – we have millions. We have different systems of statements. Object has become structure.
But the art world remains, and it is a world based on old objects. Sure, there are artists who poke fun at the system, but that’s usually in order to get a smile and acceptance from the very same system. Few have done it as emphatically as Miltos Manetas, precisely because he’s dealing with the really big loops: the internet, pirates, Moses, Courbet, art after art.
Back in 2000, Miltos Manetas flipped open a laptop at the Gagosian Gallery in New York and, before a crowded room, let the computer express the word for the new art: ‘NEEN’. He claimed that the new technology was actually a new way of being, a new sensibility. People didn’t understand. Was this guy nuts? But a couple of those whom Milton anointed stars have become the Braque and Picasso of internet art. And Miltos’ own investigation goes on. This time in Venice.
On our last night in Venice we went to the Palazzo Grazzi. Late at night. L’Uomo Vogue was throwing a party. ‘Everybody’ was there. Miltos and I stood on the third floor talking to Angela Maria Piga and Paolo Colombo, always nice and charming. There were some boring paintings by Richard Prince in a room next door. We talked about Venice. About the biennale. About art. And about time. Other people joined in.
After a while I left the group. I slipped out into the night. Into a city that was absolutely quiet. No movement. It had rained in the heat, and the alleys shone like silver in the night. I put my telephone up and took some snap-shots. The streets, the sky and the houses merged together on the little screen. It made me think of Joseph Brodsky. He once described the sensation in Venice of the sky and the ground coalescing. And from Brodsky my thoughts went to my conversation with Miltos in the café, when he started talking about Mount Sinai and Moses. And that he had to undertake that ‘secret journey’ before coming to Venice.
When Miltos had first called me to talk about the biennal he couldn’t stop mentioning Courbet. During the process he added other figures. He undertook a journey to end up with Moses.
And there I was. In a city where Walt Disney somehow stands face to face with Giovanni Bellini. I got to the top of the Rialto. Canale Grande was a perfect mirror. I suddenly smiled at the realisation: what Miltos had done was simply to show a slice of history. Exhibitions might be history. Art as well. But the tasks are still the same. Miltos painted the big picture.