September 2002 issue. Vol. 7 N. 9

Jewish New Media, a place with no room (but none is needed for we are already here)?
A Conversation with Pier Marton – by Yevgeniy Fiks

My mother tells the joke of a rabbi who was so caught up in Judaism, he did not know what a Volkswagen was, but he did know very well what a brocha/bracha (Hebrew for blessing) was. Another rabbi (very reform? this is a joke after all) did know what a Volkswagen was, but did not know much about a brocha/bracha.

Yevgeniy Fiks: I first learned about your work when I stumbled upon the New Jewish Media Artists’ web site a couple of years ago. It came to me as a revelation. How did this project come about?

Pier Marton: It was originally about bouncing ideas/projects off of one another. We also wanted to create more visibility, instead of being submerged individually as just another “ethnic artist” within the art community. In addition, it was a response to a world that seemed to involve multiculturalism – generally without Jews- only when it felt ashamed of being so monocultural.

YF: In your work you deal with issues of ethnicity and spirituality, and yet, you are a new media artist who utilizes digital technology and video. Do you see this as a conflict? In other words, do you find it difficult to speak about Jewish issues having only the tools of global technology to express yourself? Does ethnic new media art in your opinion require ethnic tools, for instance ethnic software? If so, what would ethnic software look like?

PM: “Only the tools of global technology”? I would be quite honored to have such a global reach – although working in video, I am glad to be using the omnipresent idiom of TV. But I think you mean using some Jewish software, something that could reflect the culture more directly. I think Photoshop might become as global as a hammer, and there is nothing there to offend me. Some Hungarians have made Archicad, let African programmers rise! Yes, if I could program and had my own private software I could maybe dream of details beyond the given menus.
Yet could one say something of amazing value with the common “low tech” clay?
First and foremost, the medium is a vehicle and the messenger has to have something to say. On the other hand, if we don’t get lost with it, yes technology, as Alan Watts used to say, can help us realize that the potential we are seeking has always been within our reach, i.e. the phone call that verifies that the person you are thinking of is actually thinking of you, that the most interactive environment we are building is already present amongst our daily interactions with each other.
It is not on that level though that I see my own struggle. I see it on the level of eroding and slippery meanings: finding ways to say things that do not get co-opted by the various ideologies (market place/institutions/nations/fads) in place.
Doing “something Jewish” has to do with dealing with the issues involved in being Jewish, not necessarily in using Hebrew/Jewish lettering/imagery. And of course being Jewish has to be both about an openness to the world and a specificity.
But I could go on about what is Jewish… often what we generally think of seems tribal, reductive. The direction I would like to propose would be to say that being Jewish would be about being utterly human, through the guidance of Judaism.
Nothing is more important than being human, a mensch.

YF: So tools render themselves meaningless. But what about attribution? I have always been puzzled by the mainstream notion of who is a Jewish artist and who is not: “Jewish artists” vs “artists who are Jewish”. Take Marc Chagall for example. In different contexts he is being referred to as Jewish, French, or Russian.
Whom can we consider a Jewish artist? Is it enough for an artist to say, “I am a Jewish artist ” to be considered such?

PM: I was awaiting that question. From where I stand, if you are willing to consider/represent yourself as Jewish in the world, then you are Jewish (an exception could be when the person is just posturing). On the other hand, I don’t believe that everything a Jew does becomes Jewish art. The themes have to address something related to a Jewish existence. Of course we have a most “secular branch of Judaism”, those non-observant of the Holidays whatsoever and non-identified. I consider their lives too to carry the Jewish experience. Thus I could see a show of that type of artwork being presented in a Jewish museum.
Yet one has to respect someone’s desire not to be represented as Jewish. My pointing to Michael Kaufman (Dziga Vertov), Sami Rosenstein (Tristan Tzara), Emmanuel Radnitsky (Man Ray) does not make them anymore Jewish artists then they wanted, but it does reveal their Jewish roots – and allows me to wonder how much one needs to assimilate to make it in the larger world. Similarly the graphic artist El Lissitszky, and the filmmaker Edgar Ulmer, two who started within a Jewish context when there was an outlet for Jewish/Yiddish work, ended up branching out to other themes, possibly the only way to have an impact on a larger scale. Now we are more like tourists, visiting the (dead) relatives, part of the hyphenated-American artists – a place with no room, if it isn’t in the head/heart, and the new media which requires only digital storage space.

YF: A great many new media theorists strongly believe that no national or ethnic schools or movements – like New York Abstract Expressionism or French Impressionism – can exist in new media art. Do you agree with those voices? Does ethnic identity become irrelevant in the digital domain?

PM: I am not sure if one can speak of any national/ethnic art movement per se. Constructivism, surrealism, impressionism, expressionism had artists in various countries. While proximity did create echoes within particular countries, there was always a clear zeitgeist, and of course people did travel. It represents often a nationalistic P.R. coup to present a particular “national” art movement as the most representative.
Most artists are against borders of any kind, and overall anti-patriotic – unless the state has created a museum for them. With new media, whichever country has access to technology and creates the distribution and catalogues will be the winner as to which movements/countries are commemorated in the future.
To your other question I would say that ethnic identity is not any more or less relevant in the digital domain than in “real life”. If it becomes integrated into daily activities, its ultimate goal being complete transparency, then we will ask ourselves the same questions we have always asked: what is life, what are we doing with it, and how do we improve our relationships to each other?

YF: Do you find the new media art world more open to artists who work with issues of ethnicity and spirituality or it follows footsteps of the mainstream art world?

PM: Again, new media is not any more open or closed to ethnic/spiritual issues than the art world, or the world at large. But presently the institutions that until now have validated the work by having it within its walls are being challenged by an unlimited number of venues, and so the centrality of the voices of authority is diffused. There is a new and necessary struggle in our current search for guidelines. What is being lost without museums and curators, we gain in thinking for ourselves.
I hope that my answers are helpful even if I don’t put new media on a pedestal. Yes I read Wired magazine, but it reeks of something I am against, as much as I fall for it periodically, what I call “novophilia”, a name I made up to describe the love of the new and involving some bleeding/loss of vital strength like hemophilia.
I see new media like video as a chance to work with the (media) currency in use, the tools that are generally utilized to mask reality and prevent consciousness.
But my hope is to turn those tools into some gentle booby trap for political/personal/spiritual enlightenment – one single goal?.