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Origins of Virtualism: An Interview with Frank Popper Conducted by Joseph Nechvatal


This is the entire unedited interview that appeared in the Spring 2004 issue of the CAA Art Journal pp. 62 — 77 (images by Josph Scheer, Matthias Groebel, Michael Rees and Victoria Vesna).

The interview was begun June 17th, 2003 Paris and concluded July 28th, 2003 Paris.

Joseph Nechvatal: Frank, you are, without doubt, a scarcity. Anyone who looks at the historical record of the juncture of art and technology finds you nearly unaccompanied when it comes to documenting this historical record between the years of the late-1960’s up to the early 1990s. Basically there is you, Jack Burnham's book Beyond Modern Sculpture (1968), and Gene Youngblood’s reference work Expanded Cinema (1970). Specifically, your books Origins and Development of Kinetic Art (1968), Art, Action and Participation (1975) and Art of the Electronic Age (1993) are indispensable research tools in helping us figure out how art got to where it is today - in your terms virtualized. This astonishes me in that technological-informational change is consistently cited as the splintering element which instigated mainstream modernism mutating into what has been called, for lack of a better term, postmodernism. Can you tell me why you first committed your attention as an art historian to this subject of art and technology when most historical and curatorial minds were focused elsewhere?

Frank Popper: One of the main reasons for my interest early on in the art and technology relationship was that during my studies of movement and light in art I was struck by the technical components in this art. Contrary to most, if not all, specialists in the field who put the stress on purely plastic issues and in the first place on the constructivist tradition, I was convinced that the technical and technological elements played a decisive part in this art.

One almost paradoxical experience was my encounter with the kinetic artist and author of the book Constructivism, George Rickey, and my discovery of the most subtle technical movements in his mobile sculptures. But what seemed to me still more decisive for my option towards the art and technology problematic was the encounter in the early 1950s with artists like Nicholas Schöffer and Frank Malina whose works were based on some first hand or second hand scientific knowledge and who effectively or symbolically employed contemporary technological elements that gave their works a prospective cultural meaning.

The same sentiment prevailed in me when I encountered similar artistic endeavors from the 1950s onwards in the works of Piotr Kowalski, Roy Ascott and many others which confirmed me in the aesthetic option I had taken, particularly when I discovered that this option was not antinomic (contradictory) to another aspect of the creative works of the time, i.e. spectator participation.


Interview continues...