Bettina Steinbrügge has a real passion for the arts: “With every project I learn something new and am confronted with questions that I had not thought about before.” She has been the director of the Kunstverein in Hamburg since 2014 and publishes regularly on contemporary art, with a specific interest in the moving image. Steinbrügge works as a professor of art history at the Hochschule für Bildende Künste (HfbK) in Hamburg and held a number of curatorial positions before. Just recently the exhibition “Proof of Stake” has opened, initiated by the Kunstverein and the artist Simon Denny, that reflects on questions of ownership and power in technology.
You have been living in Hamburg for quite some time, a city that is deeply rooted in the history of the Hanse. What does the concept of the Hanse mean to you today?
The Hanse was a guild that fostered the relationship between all the northern cities. To this day it defines Hamburg’s identity as a city of merchants, ships and advertising. It's a city that is very proud of its history of trading, because it didn’t have a prosperous culture or religion, and the university was founded very late. We are at an interesting point in history, not only in Hamburg, but also worldwide: we have to define anew what knowledge means, how we value the exchange of ideas and goods, and the very meaning of the city in the digital age.
I still think we cannot do without the physical experience of art, but you can easily mediate art to a broader audience online.
So, what could be the new contemporary Hanse?
For me, that’s a more general question of how we want to live together. We are in the last phase of neoliberalism, or at the end phase of post-capitalism. That means we need to reflect on how to define ourselves as a community. The way we have lived in capitalism over the past 40 years is just not working anymore.
Real estate law states that with the ownership of a building, the respective owner also owns the space above it: Air rights extend into the sky to the "navigable space", which in principle is public, but in practice is reserved for those who have the means to navigate it. Agnieszka Kurant’s work "Air Space" consists of a meteorite floating in an electromagnetic field. Like financial speculation, it is held aloft by invisible technological and institutional forces.
We are currently experiencing another transformation in how we trade with the rise of blockchain technologies.
It could entirely change the capitalist system since blockchain technology is all about bringing people together in a consensus-oriented society. The interesting thing about Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) is that artists earn money with every sale. That’s quite normal in the music industry and literature, but not so in visual arts. So NFTs enable different ways of thinking about society. And although every NFT-artwork has one owner, the artwork is open for everyone else. Everyone can look at the digital data and at the work. In a way, you don't have a collector who guards their private collection or hides their works in storage or a duty-free warehouse.
How is the art industry going to deal with this shift?
It’s all about the question: who owns the art and how is it presented? With NFTs you have an open-source artwork with one owner, however the artwork itself is open to everyone. It opens a completely new way of looking at communities, especially at sharing communities. For many people it’s still quite a recent phenomenon, but it all started way earlier. It opens up a new way of thinking about politics and the economy that will change societies on a larger scale.
We have to define anew what knowledge means, how we value the exchange of ideas and goods, and the very meaning of the city in the digital age.
There have been several disruptions in art history before that moved away from the notion of the original, for instance photography, video art or so called Post-Internet art. What is the difference with digital art?
The art world and specifically the art market is still based on physical objects. It has been struggling with video art and photography for a very long time. As a video artist you still don’t make a lot of money. When I first heard about NFTs, I didn't take it very seriously, until I realized that there's a whole new economy entering the art world. We are moving away from objects: objects provide stability, objects are something we surround ourselves with, that we feel comforted by. When everything becomes more fluid, when you can't touch things anymore, this has a tremendous effect on society. Just think of currencies and how Germans still view credit cards with suspicion, in contrast with Scandinavian countries.
So, it's not just another tech bubble?
No, I don’t think so.
"Clickmine" is a blockchain-based game. With each click a user mines a virtual plot of land; simultaneously, a hyperinflationary ERC-20 token is minted. By encasing the game in a terrarium, Sarah Friend reminds us that the whole crypto ecosystem is nested in a much larger one. The terrarium alludes to how blockchain systems as mechanisms of abstraction can be seen as tools of isolation, presenting, and manipulating assets as if they are separate from the context within which they operate.
Will digital art disrupt the logic of the art market only or will it also disrupt the way art is exhibited?
That’s a good question. The art world has been struggling for many years now. Museums became tourist spots beginning in the 80’s. The pandemic changed this equation, museums must now become more local. In the end, there will probably be more hybrid institutions, museums will need far more technical equipment, be prepared to deal with AR and VR and to offer immersive experiences.
Can digital art just represent social structures or does it also change social structures?
It can do both. Artists can, for example, help industries develop new ways of coding or understanding the social system. The artist Sarah Friend, to name just one example, is both a coder and a programmer. She is an artist and also works in the tech industry. There are many different examples of artists whose experimental way of working can help industries to become more innovative and to develop new products.
Blockchain technology is all about bringing people together in a consensus-oriented society.
Digital art apparently wastes a lot of energy. How can it nevertheless make credible claims of contributing to a more sustainable future?
The art world cannot make any claims toward a sustainable future. During the last years, it was very important that the art world became more globalized, that it addressed new communities and adopted a wider perspective. The downside is that art institutions now spend tons of money and energy on transportation. I still think we cannot do without the physical experience of art, but you can easily mediate art to a broader audience online. I am sure that we will develop more new formats that invite people and artists from all over the world to meet online.
China’s Belt and Road initiative has been hailed as the new Silk Road. But few maps of its routes have been released to the public. In response, Paul Kolling strapped a GPS to a train departing on one of these – from Zhenzhou to Hamburg – and gathered satellite imagery of the entire journey. His work reveals one possible reason for China’s reticence in naming specific routes: the presence of Uyghur work camps. By mapping the blurred outlines of Belt and Road, "Westbound 190621 (1.968-3936)" hints at the ways technological systems can be used to expose as well as to control.
You mentioned the artist Sarah Friend. Her work “ClickMine,” currently on view at the Kunstverein, relates to environmental topics. Tell me about this piece.
It’s a blockchain based game. With each click the player or user of the game mines a virtual plot of land. And the more land you mine, the more the currency rises in value. During the exhibition, the grass in the terrarium becomes brown, so the more land you mine, the more land you use and turn into something else. Sarah Friend shows us what capitalist markets are doing. The capitalist system is all about market growth while simultaneously it destroys many things.
Speaking of creating a more sustainable – and more democratic – future: how does the work of Paul Kolling fit into this context?
He made this piece for a different exhibition on the development of the Chinese belt and road initiative, a new road for trade called “The New Silk Road”. Kolling created a map of this road by attaching a GPS unit to the train between Hamburg and Chenzhou. Then, the satellite data was placed on film strips. When you take a closer look at these film strips, you discover prison camps housing Uyghurs. So he exposes a problematic political situation in China that’s always hidden, one that reveals the Uyghurs’ exclusion and dissemination.
I really hope that “The New Hanse” will open up the discussion again, that it will fight the polarization of society and show us that there’s a lot to gain instead of talking about losses all the time.
So, how can blockchain technology change the capitalist system?
Let’s stay with the example of Paul Kolling: he is a member of the art collective terraO. They developed several pioneering projects that explore how blockchain can be a forceful tool to combat platform capitalism. Platform capitalism refers to the power that is distributed among a few large tech companies like Amazon, Google, eBay and so on. Blockchains re-distribute the power among several people, striving towards a consensus-based society rather than centralized power.
The programme “The New Hanse” aims to transform Hamburg into a greener city, one driven by the desires of its citizens. From a personal perspective, what do you hope for?
I hope for a good life. I hope that we learn to live more sustainably. At the moment, society is extremely polarized: on the one hand, a lot of people want to lead a more sustainable life. On the other hand, many people are afraid of change. That’s very human, but we also know that we must change our behavior so that this planet survives. Ultimately, we need to find a consensus in society. And I really hope that “The New Hanse” will open up the discussion again, that it will fight the polarization of society and show us that there’s a lot to gain instead of talking about losses all the time.
An engraved silver arm band and a decorated deerskin dress are displayed in a glass vitrine. Both were given to the artist Krista Belle Stewart by ‘Indianers’, a German subculture that dresses up as ‘Indigenous People’ at large outdoor gatherings, roleplaying as ‘pre-moderns’. Notwithstanding all the obvious problems with this practice, Stewart – herself Canadian Indigenous – befriended several Indianers over the years she spent with them. As new global commercial infrastructures like blockchain emerge, and new ways of collecting and owning are forged, Stewart reminds us that their older connection persists, albeit in a new form.
Can art reduce this fear of change?
Yes, it can. The only problem is that art is still an elitist endeavor. The demographics of museum visitors haven’t really changed since the 80’s. Therefore, we need to change the rules of the art system and our understanding of good and bad art. At the Kunstverein, we try to address many different social groups in Hamburg. But it's difficult. Even the exhibition “Proof of Stake” we are currently showing is quite elitist, many people won’t be able to follow it. However, NFTs will definitely challenge our safety net, our notion of art, of how it’s funded and what it’s worth.
Can art serve as a blueprint for societal debate?
Yes, the art world has to participate in these societal debates. I work in the arts, because every new project challenges me to learn and confronts me with new questions that I haven’t thought about before. However, there will always be people who are afraid of art, because they long for clear structures and narrow definitions of the world that surrounds them.
Can you please complete the sentence for me? For me, this is personal because …
… because I deeply believe that we can make society better, but we have to be courageous.
Agnieszka Kurant, Air Rights, 2021, Courtesy Agnieszka Kurant
Paul Kolling, One Present and Four Missing (Westbound 190621 (1.968-3936)), 2021, Courtesy Paul Kolling
Sarah Friend, Clickmine, 2017, Courtesy of the artist
Krista Belle Stewart, The Gift, 2019, Courtesy Krista Belle Stewart
Krista Belle Stewart, Give’r Indianer, 2019, Courtesy Krista Belle Stewart
Krista Belle Stewart, Nine ∞, Single channel HD video, stereo, colour, 6’57” Edition of 5, 2021, Courtesy Krista Belle Stewart