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In Interview: Alexei Shulgin

Alexei Shulgin from media art production company Electroboutique answers some questions about the new pop up exhibition at the Museum.

Alexei image Alexei Shulgin, artist from media art production company Electroboutique responds to Head of Science Museum Arts Projects, Hannah Redler’s questions about his exhibition at the Museum, ‘Electroboutique Pop up’.

Electroboutique pop-up at the Science Museum consists of art objects, ‘products’ as you call them, slogans and texts. On the surface this seems like a move away from the area for which are particularly known, as a pioneer of net art. Can you say something about the shift in the focus of your practice, from bits and bytes and online environments to ‘(art) marketable products’, perhaps starting with a brief outline of what net art is (or was)?

Well net art was an avant-garde movement in the 90’s; that came to life after the emergence of the internet. I think net art was an ultimate modernism, an art practice that existed without institutional borders and was addressed to everyone (who had a computer and internet). I believe many of the net artists’ inventions were later used in construction of “web 2.0” which marries social networking and online shopping.

I think net art had served its role in the development of online capitalism and has become marginal around 2002-03. In the virtual world dominated by heavily controlled social/ commercial sites such as Facebook and eBay very little space is left for artistic exploration. That was one reason for me to search for the new. Another one was that by that time I was looking for new economical conditions of art production and making “commercial”, art-market ready art appeared to be the best option. Especially considering the almost non-existent support of art by the state in Russia where I was living by then. I was lucky to meet Aristarkh Cernyshev then and we decided to make a project together, Super-I real Virtuality Goggles. It went really well and we decided to go on with a collaboration, formed Electroboutique, rented a studio together and started developing our unique style on the intersection of pop art, design and interactive electronics, something that has not existed yet in the market.

What is the significance for you of this exhibition being in a Science Museum rather than an art gallery? How do you think the museum context and its very wide general audience might change the way the works will be experienced or received?

Yes, the Science Museum is great for us! Firstly, as I have already said before, the Science Museum shows at its best an unbreakable connection between history of capitalism, science, engineering, and design. With the Science Museum art programme we get all ingredients: we consider art an important institute of a capitalist society, one of its driving forces. This unity of art and capitalism is one of the focuses of our artistic exploration, which is why the Science Museum context works so well for us. And of course, being real modernists, we want to bring our art to the masses, to ordinary people, and not just to the snobbish art crowd. And where on earth we can find more diverse audience than in the Science Museum. We believe our works affect people on different levels. The first, entertaining one is addressed to all; but if you like to reflect a bit on the state of the world today – we offer this option too!

Can you say something more about your appropriation of the language of corporate social responsibility in the work, or why it became important subject matter for you? It’s not immediately the most obvious bedfellow for works which play so expertly with the outputs and aesthetics of mass media. But when one starts to think about the corporate world as a major driving force within new media and communication spaces, lots of questions start to arise. Is this in any way related to the political drivers that originally led you to practice as a net artist?

Perhaps. You know, you start being an artist because you feel the world around you is unbearable, you don’t see how you can participate in this circus. Then, you discover that art world is not any better, and you start looking for new frontiers. In the 90’s the internet was such a frontier; then after few years it has become a part of a banal and rude reality. I think it’s a kind of evil loop: you look for a new “temporary autonomous zone” to quote Hakim Bey, and you start exploring it and then, after a while and thanks to your efforts  it becomes eaten up by progressing capitalism.

When working on our electronic gadgets/art objects we have discovered that our production is quite similar to that of a “real” electronics company: same kind of chipboards, plastic, cameras. We work with contractors, we hire engineers and workers, we use a chinese labour force. We work on the market, we try to be innovative and offer new exciting products… Another world, our art production looks exactly like any other creative capitalist production. That’s why we decided to go further and use the current corporate marketing strategies such as declaring social responsibility and sustainability. And it all is true – we do care about world around us and we do try to make it better!

Your position also fluctuates quite irreverently between being sharply anticapitalist and a full-on creative entrepreneur luxuriating in the benefits of capitalism. In the text that goes along with your work ‘Commercial Protest’ you even promote this contradiction with the words “We protest against this state of affairs with this piece and set a fair price on it!” Tell us more!

Oh yes. Being anti-capitalist is a luxury, it’s a privilege of a first world citizen. You don’t see any “Occupy …” movements outside the Golden Billion countries. By sharpening the contradiction you are mentioning we want to emphasize the situation where critique of capitalism is in fact an essential part of the capitalist itself.

How do you think your takes on corporate marketing speak actually critique rather than reiterate the ideologies you’re commenting on?

We think we do both. By our creative critique we point out the weak points of capitalism and offer patches for them. We believe that contemporary art, along with science, is an avant-garde institute of a capitalist society. And one of its most important missions is developing new aesthetics and communications techniques for future use in product design, advertising and politics. Look globally – what is called ‘contemporary art’ flourishes in the societies with innovative capitalism, and is rather marginal and derivative in the others.

Many of the works in the exhibition either respond to, reflect or re-version viewers in real-time. How do the works create individualised experience for each audience member and how is it that these are a reflection of the audience themselves?

Well the initial reason for us to start making works like that was our desire to please the viewers, everybody just loves to appear in an art work. Such a ‘populist’ approach was our deliberate choice when we were starting. Also, placing an audience in an artwork makes communication between the two much easier. Today, media personalities and celebrities appearing on screen are very popular and attractive social figures, so we are playing with people’s desire to be one of them too. And yes, by including a viewer into our artworks we make their experience unique, and they appreciate it by loving (and buying) our works. And finally, it’s a practical trick, by pleasing our audience we manage to keep their attention for longer than average three seconds and communicate our critical messages while entertaining.