© picture alliance/dpa, Fotograf: Uli Deck 

Knowledge Sharing!

ZKM - Expanding the original tasks of museums.

An interview by Diana Fehr / September, 2021

Prof. Peter Weibel studied literature, medicine, logic, philosophy, and film in Paris and Vienna. He became a central figure in European media art on account of his various activities as artist, media theorist, curator, and as a nomad between art and science. Since 1999, Peter Weibel is Chairman and CEO of the ZKM | Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe, and since 2017 director of the Peter Weibel Research Institute for Digital Cultures at the University of Applied Arts Vienna.


Museo: The ZKM not only holds the top position among German museums, but also ranks among the world’s most important art institutions, right after the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Venice Biennale and the Centre Pompidou in Paris. What is it that Karlsruhe can do, that MIT, MoMa, and others cannot?


Weibel: Most Museums follow the mainstream which is dictated by the market. The focus of the market is on paintings, but the art of the 20th century is characterized by the expansions of arts. Object art, photography, film, video, computer and action art, Fluxus, happening performance, sound art, light art, etc. And this is why most museums should change the name from museum of modern art to museum of modern painting, because they do not show examples of sonic art, light art, etc.

© ZKM | Zentrum für Kunst und Medien Karlsruhe, Fotograf: Felix Grünschloß

ZKM is the only museum that systematically presents all movements of art in the 20th century, from sound art to sculpture, in voluminous scientific catalogues. These catalogues are published in English and become referential works for all art historical courses from Chile to China. Therefore, ZKM is mentioned a lot online.


Another advantage and singularity is the scientific status of ZKM. It is the only European museum with such scientific standards that its books and catalogues are published at the best U.S. universities, like MIT Press, Minnesota University Press. A further quality of ZKM is that it looks beyond the horizon of art. Together with experts, we publish standard works about democracy, global activism, globalization, climate crisis and many other issues, including molecular aesthetics, algorithmic revolution, open codes. ZKM also looks back in history and makes exhibitions about Arabian renaissance between 1200 – 1800 CE or about pioneering figures like Ramon Llull. ZKM studies deep time of technology and art, and opens new horizons beyond art into science, society and politics.


ZKM avoids the mainstream and discovers new territories, movements, personalities in art and science, most of the time many years ahead of public opinion. Therefore, New York Times wrote 2019 correctly at the occasion of the ZKM jubilee: “Celebrating 30 years ahead of the curve in art. Since 1989 ZKM has predicted some of the biggest trends in art.”


ZKM is not only directed and linked internationally, but also wants to be rooted in the local area. The ZKM is therefore a performative museum with participatory and interactive approaches to include as much as possible the visitor. Visitors at ZKM should not be tourists, but participants. Therefore, we give them ample space for knowledge acquisition, investigation, exploration and explanation. When a visitor tells me: Why did I not know this before I visited the ZKM? My answer is: This is why ZKM exists, to learn something that you can only experience in ZKM.


Our contemporary society is very complex, constructed by technology, science, and politics. ZKM is looking through the prisma of contemporary art, which is not the art market, into this complex society.

© ZKM | Zentrum für Kunst und Medien Karlsruhe, Fotograf: Uli Deck 

Museo: The idea of founding an institution that unites artistic concepts with future-oriented technologies was already established in 1984 by the city of Karlsruhe Department of Arts and Culture. How is this idea transformed into ZKM’s current vision und future exhibitions?


Weibel: Future is not what you predict. Future is something what you create. By looking back and analyzing carefully what has happened, you can shape logically the next step. In the 19th century, the industrial revolution invented the motion machines from trains to cars, a wheel-based technology of motion. In the 20th century, this wheel-based technology was transferred to projectors and cameras to create the illusion of motion, inventing moving pictures, cinematography, and movement media. By inventing color and sound film the motion media came very close to a simulation of life, but at the end of the 20th century magnetic, electro magnetic and electronic devices became the technical carrier medium for acoustic and visual information. The information was stored virtually, the content of an image became a set of variables that could be changed in real time. Physical interaction between viewer and image became possible. Therefore, image systems could demonstrate life like behavior (viability). For the end of 2021, I prepare an exhibition about this development: The arrival of bio media in 21st century.

After motion machines and moving images we will experience artworks with life like behavior. For 2022, an exhibition called Renaissance 2.0 is being prepared to show that today artists and scientists share a common pool of tools, and that art and science came closer again. The problem of painting is that it represents the world only within the horizon of natural perception, but science begins where natural perception ends. Science has developed many instruments to see hitherto invisible things. Now art (especially media art) is also using tools to operate beyond the horizon of natural perception and therefore, art and science converge.


Museo: ZKM is a place that expands on the original tasks of museums. It complements its program with symposia and other formats of theoretical discourse between philosophy, science, art, politics and business. What exactly are you trying to achieve in doing that?


Weibel: ZKM is a museum that has a collection. The task of a museum is to take care that artworks do not vanish. To protect and preserve artworks is a reason for a collection. The ZKM is the unique Noah‘s ark for media works and is the only museum that has all video systems that ever existed and, therefore, can restore all video works.


But a museum has not only a contract with the past or dead generation of artists, it has also a contract with living artists to present their works by exhibitions. In addition to these museological functions, ZKM is a research center and has laboratories to develop with guest artists new tools and generate new artworks. These artworks travel around the globe and are shown at festivals and in other museums. Therefore, we are called a „Center“.


Part of the research is the exchange with other experts. Therefore, we organize symposia and other formats of theoretical discourse to expand and distribute knowledge. ZKM is not confined to the knowledge of art. ZKM includes the knowledge of science, philosophy etc. which influences artists. ZKM does not accept the capitalist division of labor, the separation in theory and practice. ZKM knows that every new practice produces a new theory – and every new theory produces a new practice. Practice without theory and theory without practice do not exist.

Museo: One of the ZKM’s fundamental missions is to recognize and follow contemporary movements in art and society. What are the specific effects of medialization and digitalization on society that you have examined over this time period?


Weibel: Civilization until now was built on two-dimensional notation like notes and words on paper, and images on canvas and screen. Objects could be turned into words and images, but images and words could not be turned back to objects. The relationship with words and objects, between images and objects, were irreversible. Today words, images and sound are transformed into data, and data can be rendered as words, images and sound. The relation between images, sounds, words and data is reversible, and with 3D printing you can turn data even into objects, rendering the relation between data and objects is reversible.

© ZKM | Zentrum für Kunst und Medien Karlsruhe, Fotograf: Uli Deck 

Therefore, we are approaching the first time in the history of civilization a three dimensional notation. The curtain between the world of objects (Descartes‘ res extensa) and the subjective world (res cogitans) is torn. We live among speaking things, intelligent machines. We realize that our body is just an interface that defines how we interact with our environment. By changing this interface through technology, we are changing the world. Humanity steps out from natural evolution and creates its own exo-evolution.


Museo: In July the ZKM reopened its popular gaming platform ZKM_gameplay: the next level to visitors. Under the heading Eco Games, video games are presented that focus on ecological issues. Saving the world with these kind of games, is that possible?



Weibel: “Der Mensch spielt nur, wo er in voller Bedeutung des Wortes Mensch ist, und er ist nur da ganz Mensch, wo er spielt.” (Friedrich Schiller, 1795) – “Man only plays when in the full meaning of the word he is a man, and he is only completely a man when he plays.”


Museo: Another example for ZKM activities is “Critical Zones”. The Science and Politics of Landing on Earth is the edited volume emerging from the ZKM‘s exhibition of almost the same name, “Critical Zones: Observatories for Earth Politics“. In this book, which is edited by you and Bruno Latour, artists and writers portray the disorientation of a world facing climate change. What kind of questions are triggered by these interdisciplinary art-science exhibitions and reflections, and how can they reach a broader public?


Weibel: This exhibition is part of a series of Gedanken-Ausstellungen which I curated with Bruno Latour the last 20 years: »Iconoclash« in 2002, »Making Things Public« in 2005 and »Reset Modernity!« in 2016.

In physics we use since 100 years the expression “Gedanken Experiment” (thought experiment). We transferred this concept into the sphere of exhibitions to use an exhibition as an experiment precisely to reach a broader public. Through the Corona pandemic and other global effects, through the climate crisis and other issues of the anthropocene we have learned how endangered human life on earth is, we have learned that planet earth has become a patient.


ZKM raises questions about life, the origin of life and sustainability of life, and about politics that protect or destroy life. ZKM is, therefore, developing a biophilic program to make the audience aware that in billions of galaxies with billions of stars there is only one little star around which in the last 15 billions of years life has appeared. What a singular event.

© ZKM | Zentrum für Kunst und Medien Karlsruhe, Fotograf: Fidelis Fuchs

Museo: Do you think that museums need to take on a different role in the future? Are they able to become agents of change and take on responsibilities in the face of societal challenges?


Weibel: Museums must take a different role in the future, because the future is characterized by existential risks. When museums continue to be slaves or knights of the art market, they and the arts will lose social relevance. Museums and art should not want to be servants for tourism and mass entertainment, but should contribute something to save the oceans, the bio-diversity, to realize a society of social justice without racism, xenophobia etc. Museums must change and expand the agenda.

I think the public is ready for such a change, but the biggest opposition for this change are the mass media like newspapers, television, radio, because the people who work there are not equipped and not ready for a change. I think politics could become partner in this change if the mass media would stop to only write and report about the art market and about the paintings of past centuries. Unfortunately, mass media are extremely reactionary and suppress new directions in art and cultural institutions, as in general they suppress reality.


Museo: What are you aiming to achieve in the future for the institution?


Weibel: We have to rethink the hierarchy of knowledge. We have to emancipate in a noetic turn the role of tools, of engineers, craft people etc. We have a culture industry for composers, visualists, but we are surrounded by masses of products created by anonymous engineers, designers, laborers and entrepreneurs.


We are not aware of the columns on which the civilization is built. Most people are using tools, they do not understand and barely know how they function. Most people live in an environment supported by devices, which they do not understand, cannot control and cannot repair. Most people are victims and slaves of a technological civilization governed by new technocratic elite, new high priests who profit from the ignorance of the masses and therefore became billionaires in a decade.


After my departure in March 2023, ZKM could be a model for future assemblies of knowledge. I don’t think that a cultural institution can defend democracy as we know it and as we want it. But I think a cultural institution can and should defend logic thinking and knowledge.


Museo: Thank you very much for this interview and your insights into ZKM.

Images: picture alliance/dpa, Fotograf: Uli Deck (Header); ZKM | Zentrum für Kunst und Medien Karlsruhe, Fotografen: Felix Grünschloß (1), Uli Deck (2,3), Fidelis Fuchs (4)

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