Moscow’s MediaArtLab: interview with Olga Shishko

The first stage of a mini-tour around the world of media labs takes us east. We interviewed Olga Shishko, the curator and artistic director of Moscow’s MediaArtLab about the activities of this structure mainly dedicated to image and, more generally, about the future of digital art in Russia.

A graduate of Lomonosov Moscow State University, Olga Shishko took an interest in the Russian artistic avant-garde. When new media appeared, at the end of the 1990s, she naturally considered the interconnections and links between this new form of art and traditional culture. As Olga Shishko points out, there is a striking similarity between avant-garde and new media discourse. Artists are often visionaries, and new technology made avant-garde dreams possible.

Open Innovations Expo from MediaArtLab 

The MediaArtLab was created in 1997 as an integral part of the Soros Center for Contemporary Art (SCCA) before becoming, two years later, an independent structure aiming to bridge the gap between different cultural fields and evolving information technology. This is the first institution to have explored media arts in Russia through organising interdisciplinary events and educational programmes.

MediaArtLab proposes innovative projects linked to new technology and digital culture. It is also a community network of video artists and directors of alternative films. New media is the current format for the cultural avant-garde, and MediaArtLab’s purpose is also to build up audiovisual archives of this culture, to present its different stages and trends, to work on the educational models that emerge with these techniques, to show the artistic potential of the new technology and lastly to offer everyone access to digital creations.

Exposition "Disturbances in the state of things." 

Educational programmes have been conducted throughout Russia, as well as many gatherings in partner events. Thus, for example, over the last 3 years, MediaArtLab has produced over 30 projects on Moscow, involving over 50 Russian and foreign artists and experts, in collaboration with several partnerships and Russian cultural institutions (MEA Manege, Moscow MOMA, Garage Center for Contemporary Art, Ekaterina Cultural Foundation, etc.). 

Amongst the main events driven by MediaArtLab, there is Pro@Contra, an international symposium around new media, and the Open School Manege/MediaArtLab that enables, in spite of the economic situation in Russia, the educational component to be developed. This structure was founded 2 years ago and is intended to promote young talent in the field of video art, and to provide an opportunity to present work in big artistic events worldwide and to the most influential curators.

However, MediaArtLab’s cornerstone remains the Media Forum. 16 years ago, the Media Forum was originally initiated in the framework of the International Moscow Film Festival, as an event devoted to experimental cinema and video art. From one edition to the next, it has expanded and become a fully-fledged event in itself. Thanks to Media Forum, the public has had the opportunity to discover video, interactive cinema and sound performance works by directors and artists like Peter Greenaway, Zbigniew Rybczynski, Omer Fast, Ryoichi Kurokawa, Ryoji Ikeda and JODI…

The 2015 edition of Media Forum, "Walk with a troubadour", has long-term interests. Screenings, workshops and exhibitions will continue until 2016 in several venues in Moscow. The works shown at the Media Forum last June concentrated on sound and created a sort of on-screen orchestra. Artists evolving at the borders of cinema, video art and music created the pieces. A troubadour is a musician, a poet as well as a performer. New media troubadours juggling polyphony, improvisation and experimentation, multiplying images and sound per stratum, invite the spectator to question man’s inner harmony, the way to find one’s own path in the chaos of the current world…

Peter Greenaway, Saskia Boddeke. The Golden Age of Russian Avant-garde

The objective of MediaArtLab is also to bring Russian and foreign artists face to face to create a dialogue, to promote digital art in Russia. In this sense, there is growing collaboration with many international organisations and partner festivals such as the V2 InstituteWRO Art Center, Haus für Elektronische Künste Basel, ZKM, Ars Electronica, Transmediale, EMAF, PIKSEL and Japan Media Arts Festival…and the support of foundations and international cultural centres – the Goethe Institute, Austrian Cultural Forum, British Council, the Dutch Embassy in Moscow, Prokhorov Foundation… - without whom, as recalled by Olga Shishko, the activities of MediaArtLab would simply not exist.

Contemporary art developed very fast in Russia. Of course, the majority of this process took place in Moscow. Over the last decade many galleries have turned towards digital art and opened up to international projects. Public interest was not far behind. However, the Russian art milieu has not integrated the international scene. Only a few artists like Alexei Shulgin, Sergei Shutov, Victor Alimpiev and the duo Provmyza have gained recognition, but it isn’t sufficient. It is far too common for new media to be ignored and, indeed, it has not yet found its place in the art world.

GREAT EXPECTATIONS - exhibition from MediaArtLab

One of the big problems slowing down the development of digital art in Russia is funding of course. The state does not meet its financial obligations towards culture. The European model of foundations and donations has not yet been fully exploited here. Lastly, there are similarities with the American model where art is inextricably linked to private capital. This model can also function perfectly, but in Russia this dynamic is slowed down because there are no legal foundations, serious analysis of the current situation of art, or real interest in making such investments.

Furthermore, Olga Shishko maintains a benevolent and optimistic outlook regarding new media. Like a historian, she puts it into perspective and gives her own definition of it: contemporary art and digital art are two postmodernism trends that, as the theorist Peter Weibel highlights, is an artistic reaction to the post-industrial era; a reaction driven by computers and the information revolution. Digital art has been created through the bases and aesthetical principles of contemporary art but by being more modern, that is by using the most innovative tools and materials.

Artistic interest in technology is through an absolutely novel, non-artistic, but specialised approach to engineering. These activities that are part of the field of science and techniques, the fact of working with the latest technology has led artists to domains that were previously far-removed from art: robotics, genetics and nanotechnology. In other words, media art is contemporary art’s technology project: what is most innovative and experimental in contemporary art is focused in digital art. But by concentrating on the latest technology, digital art is, indeed, broader than contemporary art.

Laurent Diouf



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