Member Spotlight: René G. Cepeda, Header/Footer Gallery Curator
Interview by Constanza Salazar, Communications Committee
Biography: René G. Cepeda is a Mexican multidisciplinary designer/artist/art historian specializing in new media art. His studies include Information Design and software development, museum studies and art history master’s degrees in the UK. and a Ph.D. that combines design and curatorial practice to help curators engage with interactive new media art and create exhibitions that retain the meaning and interaction of such works. As a curator, he combines his artistic background including 5 years as an artist’s apprentice to create immersive and interactive exhibitions that combine formal curatorial practice with creativity in the design and implementation of spaces and objects to create exhibitions that can both entertain and educate audiences.
- The Header/Footer New Media Caucus virtual gallery space has presented different shows including Fucking Failure curated by Farhad Bahram, Flesh Spaces curated by me, and most recently Afro[Futurisms] curated by Adia Sykes. This virtual exhibition space has, since its very beginning been a collaborative effort, and sought to bring together and celebrate diverse voices from a variety of artists across the world, budding artists as well as established artists, and by curating on themes that are pertinent to our present socio-political time but that also think about the future. As the official new curator for Header/Footer Gallery, and without giving too much away, what projects do you have in mind and what is your vision for Header/Footer?
I am really looking forward to continuing the path that was walked before me by all other curators. My intention is to give voices to artists old and new regardless of experience and from all backgrounds. I also intend to continue the tradition of guest curators and step aside and allow them to approach subjects and themes I may not be qualified to cover but that I am interested in. Finally, it is my intention to use the Header/Footer gallery as a way to jumpstart young artists’ careers by providing them with a space where their exhibitions are treated with the same respect as those of more established artists. I plan to achieve this by avoiding the term student as much as possible.
- You come to us as a Museologician from Mexico where you have also been teaching museum and exhibition design, particularly, digital media curation. Where did your interest in new media art and curation come from?
My interest in new media art comes probably from my love of video games. As soon as I was asked to think about what I wanted to do for a living I knew it was making video games. Unfortunately, I got some bad advice and I ended up in software development and I hated it. That let me drop out of that and switch majors to design. I finished my Bachelor’s as an information designer and ended up working for a marketing firm. I became disillusioned with that and decided to do a Master’s in something else and by pure chance, I ended up opening a brochure for UEA’s museology program. I was admitted and while there I became interested in the possibilities of using video game technologies as a way to improve museums’ engagement with other audiences. After that, I went back to Mexico and failed to find employment and I decided to go back. I decided then I wanted to work in art museums and bring my prior research to art museums. This is where I discovered new media art and how video games were part of it. And from there I realised how vast and interesting the entire field was and I never looked back. In the end, I think all my prior experiences as a marketer, as a designer, a photographer and a museologist all came together and gave me a toolset that allows me to not only understand new media and its technologies but the challenges it faces at the museum and art world level. This of course led to my Ph.D. and where I am now.
- In your blog post called, “Self Othering In the Art World,” you critique the labels the art world forces onto artists and curators especially when these become ways to “categorize art.” You point out the problems of this in exhibition displays and designs, especially when deciding where to put (relegate) “ethnic” or “primitive” art. What is your experience with Othering personally and within an institution and how can we move past it to create ethical exhibition practices and respect and empower artists as well?
Okay so this will be a multi-part answer: As much as I am Mexican, I have had a very diverse education, spending time in places all over the world including Virginia, Baltimore and California in the US, Bayern in Germany and Norwich, Liverpool and Glasgow in the UK. As it is probably very obvious this is a very westernised education, this alongside the fact I am very Mediterranean looking creates this interesting dichotomy in me. On the one hand, unless I openly declare myself as Mexican, I am granted whiteness at the same time that whiteness can be taken away at any moment should the issue of my nationality and perceived ethnicity come through. This has made me very aware of how race and other “otherness” is handled in the west but it also allows me to see how people who are considered other engage with labels either by exploiting them, embracing them or being subsumed into them without noticing. In a way, I believe we have to avoid using labels especially when we do not want or need to speak on such alternities. For example, labelling myself as a Mexican artist or curator predisposes others to expect certain types of artwork, and themes from my practice. As a curator, I am not interested in art from an ethnic framework and I would rather curate new media art that goes beyond techno fetishisms (both of the fatalist and optimist kind). However, that does not mean I do not want to engage with artists of diverse orientations, cultures, religions, etc. As a community, I think the best thing we can do is to avoid categorizing artists by their ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, or any other label and instead allow them to tell us what their work is about and what labels (if any they want). At the same time, we have to be careful that those self-assigned labels have validity. To use me as an example, I would be dishonest if I was to label myself as Nahua or native regardless of the fact that as a Mexican, it is almost guaranteed I am at least to some degree native. Regardless of whatever my racial background is I am not qualified to speak for the native populations of Mexico nor their culture. Unfortunately, I have seen this very issue in many Mexican artists, particularly urban, mixed-race artists who have never had contact with indigenous culture and who label themselves as descendants of the Nahua or some other group and create works on such identities.
- In 1976 Brian O’Doherty wrote many essays on the concept of the “white cube” that later culminated in Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space (1976) arguing that it elevated modernist artworks to a sacred realm, devoid of context, and as suspended in time. Today new media art continues to be exhibited inside this “white cube.” What are some difficulties new media art faces inside this continued paradigm and ideology?
Ironically I think some new media art can and does benefit from the white cube. Obviously, things like what Nancy Baker Cahill is doing with geofenced AR works would be done a total disservice by translating them to the sterility of the white cube. However, as new media art is often turned into showpieces for temporal exhibitions and residencies, the formality and “prestige” (and I use this term loosely) it lends to artworks, serves as a way to legitimise the art form. Of course, the white cube need not be completely white. One of my favourite exhibitions of new media is ironically not an art exhibition but a design-focused one: Play, Design, Disrupt by Marie Foulston and Kristian Volsing both fantastic curators that really understood the peculiarities of videogames and achieved a balance between the black cube (the projector friendly brother of the white cube) and the video game arcade. Another interesting exhibition that I believe achieved this balance was FACT’s The Future World of Work. Obviously, the decontextualization inherent in the white cube may be an issue in some cases but as a general concept, I am not opposed to it, at the same time I will always fight to make the white cube a more fun inclusive space for all.
- You wrote “Rescuing new media art from technological obsolescence” (2019) and most recently the comprehensive Manual for the Display of Interactive New Media Art (2020) where you address various issues surrounding exhibition design for new media art. One thing that stood out to me was that you insightfully point out the problem of the acceleration of technological progress that demands that the curator, designers, and the institution keep up with this new field especially when thinking about preserving new media artworks. I am reminded of the difficulties in restoration and preservation of Nam June Paik’s video works that use“obsolete” technology, for example, but also CD-ROM art, net.art, and video games. In the manual, you undertake the task of thinking through the curation, exhibition design, and the preservation (ie. documentation, storage) of interactive new media art forms. What are the steps for ensuring a thoughtful new media art exhibition but also in thinking about preserving a work’s “memory”?
First and foremost, collaboration and honest communication with the artists (if possible) are paramount. New media art finds itself in an interesting position where curation, display and conservation are so incredibly intertwined that it is impossible to talk about one without talking about the others. As curators, we have an obligation to find ways for the works to survive beyond the current exhibition. One of the ways we can do this is to document every challenge faced in the process, from issues finding hardware, to how we approached the work philosophically. Another one is to guide artists into thinking about how they wish their work to continue living. Jon Ippolito who actually helped me workshop a better more new media-friendly labelling system has laid out a series of ways new media can be preserved. These include storage (the worst possible option but unfortunately the most common), emulation, migration and reinterpretation. Obviously, each method has its pros and cons and that requires curators to understand two things: the technical aspects of each method and the fact that new media art does not occur at the artifact level, nor at the computational level but at the intersection between algorithm, human and artistic intentions. That is to say, the code is not the artwork but the language the human uses to materialise the algorithm. Nor are they the artifacts used. That means the work is not the computer, the keyboard or the mouse. It is not the custom cabinet or any other device and all the aforementioned aspects can and should be modified, changed or altered to allow the work to continue to exist. All this with the obvious caveat that the artist has to be ok with it.
As for exhibiting, it is necessary for curators to experience and understand each work in its entirety. Watching videos and photographs is often not enough. It is also valuable to have members of IT and installation involved in the curation process from day one as they may be more literate on specific media used by artists than curators may be. In the end, curation serves the artworks, not the other way around.
- In another article “Reconciling Art History and Video Games” (2015), you join one side of the argument that video games should be considered art, especially given that they contain the same themes and formal qualities as other “recognized” art forms. But as you mention, it is its quality as an interactive medium that has led some critics to dismiss video games entirely. The same argument against interactive art as lacking “authorship” has been challenged throughout art history with Marcel Duchamp’s works, Robotic Art, VR Art, Generative Art, performance, Telematic Art, and even with Roy Ascott’s earlier theoretical framework for interactive art. What is it about video games as art that still irks some people in the art world and video game world respectively? Is it that it is tied to the AAA games industry?
I absolutely believe it has to do with the stereotype of video games being mind candy, something that is a for-profit industry and the indisputably toxic community that has grown around some of the most popular games. My best analogy to counter these preconceptions is to point out how the existence of the Transformers franchise does nothing to negate the artistic value of Un Chien Andalou. I follow this by showcasing the work of artists such as Porpentine, Pippin Barr and Paolo Perdicini. That is not to say AAA games can not be artistic. For example, Elden Ring is a work of art in so many ways, from its art direction to its storytelling to its game mechanics that reinforce the themes of perseverance, rebirth and suffering through its brutal difficulty. This last aspect, shared by its predecessors, Demon Souls, Dark Souls 1 through 3 and Bloodborne is so crucial I have written about it before in “The Artistry of Frustration” (2021).
René G. Cepeda’s website: https://ragc.wordpress.com/
Game Arts Curator’s Kit: https://gameartsinternational.network/gameartscuratorskit/doku.php/start