The following post is a part of the Conversation Project, an ongoing series of interviews examining connections between art, culture and technology.
Back in the 1990’s before most of us had personal computers, Mark Tribe was learning to code and thinking about digital art platforms. Fast forward 20 years and he is known as one of the earliest champions of digital art, with solo exhibitions around the world, and a history of supporting art that enriches and thinks critically about digital culture. We sat down to discuss the dawn of internet culture, inspiration, and his most recent work, an exploration of the relationship between landscape and technology.
BW: How did you start making art?
MT: It all started when I was studying in Paris during my junior year in college. There was this one room at the Louvre, the one with a giant painting by Eugène Delacroix called “The Death of Sardanapalus”, that completely blew my mind. Then I went to the Pompidou Center and saw a piece by the French New Realist Bertrand Lavier. It was a just small refrigerator placed on top of a safe. How could both those enormous, virtuosic history paintings and a sculpture made by stacking two ordinary, store-bought objects be art? I was intrigued. I switched my major to visual art and took courses in drawing, painting, photography, printmaking, art history, media theory and philosophy. I also took an acting class and learned something really valuable: I can’t act! Years later, when I was a college professor, I would tell my students that the most important thing you can learn in college is what you’re really good at, and what you really love, and where those two things overlap.
I got interested in the Internet and new media when I was in grad school, getting an MFA in visual art. In 1993, I was trying to figure out a way to make art online when I stumbled upon the first web browser, Mosaic, on an old-school BBS. I downloaded it, fired it up, and there was a postage-stamp-sized animation of Al Gore welcoming me to the World Wide Web. Suddenly, cyberspace had a graphical user interface, and I quickly discovered how easy it was to view the source code of a web page, copy it, make a few changes, upload it to a server, and… voilà! I had made a web page, and anyone, anywhere in the world could see it. I felt like I had discovered the future of art.
After grad school, I moved to Berlin, got a job as an “HTMLer” at a design firm called Pixelpark, and stayed up late making what would later be known as net art. I went to an electronic art festival in Rotterdam, and realized that I wasn’t alone: there were artists all over the world who, like me, had discovered that the web wasn’t just a place for publishing information; it was also an art medium. It occurred to me that someone had to create an online space where we could share our work and develop a critical discourse around what was quickly becoming an art movement. So, in 1996, I founded Rhizome.
BW: What was your initial vision for Rhizome?
MT: I thought of Rhizome as a platform for the global new media art community. Before then communities were always geographically determined, and I was very aware that was starting to change.
BW: How did you think about your practice in conjunction with Rhizome at the time?
MT: I was primarily focused on Rhizome. People encouraged me to treat Rhizome like an artwork, a social sculpture, because they knew I was an artist. It didn’t feel like that at first, but I started to see it that way after a few years.
Panel, “Together In Electric Dreams”, during Rhizome’s Open Score conference at the New Museum. Speakers left to right include Nora Khan, moderator and writer; Ian Cheng, artist; Sondra Perry, artist; Katherine Cross, writer; and Patricia Reed, writer.
BW: How are you balancing artistic practice while chairing an MFA program?
MT: Luckily, I had a big exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery towards the end of my first year at SVA that forced me to strike a good balance right from the start. I spent at least two days a week at my studio. Juggling art and life to sustain a practice is something that comes up again and again in Sharon Louden’s book.
BW: How did you begin to formulate the ideas in your current studio practice?
MT: I was working on a project called “Posse Comitatus” that involved filming militia training exercises out in the woods of Upstate New York, and started to think about the role that landscape, and the idea of going back to nature, played in their paramilitary fantasies. I went back to the training ground when nobody was there and just let the camera roll.
BW: Could you talk more about the “New Nature” series, its meaning for you, and the process?
MT: I think this may be the most important work I’ve done in my life. I’m making 24-hour-long landscape pictures using a digital cinema camera to capture a day in the life of a wild place. They are shown on large 4K screens, hung on the wall like a painting. You can see the leaves flutter, hear the sounds of birds and insects and maybe the wind, but there’s no camera movement, no voiceover, no editing. They’re like realtime photographs, in a way. I’m interested in preserving an experience nature for the future. We are living at a time of rapid environmental change. Our species is transforming the planet: we’re warming the atmosphere, melting the ice caps, and causing the sixth mass extinction. With some luck, our descendents might be able to go to a museum and see what wilderness looked like in the early 21st century.
Mark Tribe is an interdisciplinary artist living and working in New York City. His recent work explores the relationship between landscape and technology. In 1996, he founded Rhizome, an organization that supports the creation, presentation, preservation, and critique of art that engages digital culture. Mark has had solo exhibitions at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.; Momenta Art in New York; Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions; the Queen Victoria Museum in Launceston, Australia; and DiverseWorks in Houston. He is currently Chair of the MFA Fine Arts Department at School of Visual Arts in New York City.