Wade Wallerstein

Curator Interview

May 8, 2020
Wade Wallerstein is an anthropologist from the San Francisco Bay Area. His research centers around communication in virtual spaces and the relationship between digital visual culture and contemporary art. Wade is the founder and Director of Silicon Valet, a virtual parking lot for expanded internet art where he runs an exhibition platform and digital artist residency program. He is also co-Director of TRANSFER Gallery in Los Angeles, which is an exhibition space devoted to simulation and other computational art forms. Wade is a member of the UCL Multimedia Anthropology Laboratory, Clusterduck Research Network, and also serves as Technology & Events Curator at the Consulate of Canada in San Francisco.

Hello Wade, we're so excited to have you on De:Formal! Can you start with telling us a bit about yourself and curatorial practice?

Hi De:Formal! My name is Wade and I’m a curator and digital anthropologist. I trained in understanding online communication, particularly digital visual communication. I’m really interested in the ways that digital and networked technologies have affected modern modes of image-making and circulation. Specifically, I’m fascinated by digital art experiences and the way that our devices can be used to create phenomenological art experiences. I love to work with artists who are active on social media, and find ways to use algorithmic environments to display and disseminate art.

How did you get into curation? Who are the curators today you look up to or find inspiring?

My curation evolved out of my research practice. I was researching digital artists and curatorial platforms, and had all of these ideas and inspirations floating around in my head. I started putting together exhibitions almost as a way of organizing my colossal digital research files that I developed, and to put some of things I was learning about virtual phenomenology to the test.

My biggest inspiration when I first started out was Paul Soulellis, who teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design. He curated a series for Rhizome.org called “The Download.” Each exhibition was contained in a ZIP Folder that could be downloaded to the users desktop. I thought that was so cool, the idea that my computer could become an art gallery. I could contain the files using my device, and some “magic” would happen in the interaction between the circuits and the data file and my display interface to create these deeply meaningful moments — right on my desktop.

I’m inspired by a lot of current curatorial work happening today. My collaborator at TRANSFER, Kelani Nichole, being high up on that list. I have a deep admiration for her work, which is deeply rigorous & rooted in an activist/feminist practice, and started working with her because we were both thinking about the same things and had a super synergistic workflow. I also closely collaborate with Elliott Burns & Pita Arreola at Off Site Project (another virtual gallery space), who are absolutely brilliant in the way that they conceive of how an online exhibition should work and what it should feel like.

Ben Sang over at Final Hot Desert in Utah is doing some pretty amazing work. Doreen Ríos at Antimateria, Bob Bicknell-Knight at isthisit?, Tom Milnes at Digital Artist Residency, Luis Nava and Paty Silly at Janet.40, Zaiba Jabbar at Hervisions, Nico Lillo at YPuccko, Ian Bruner at Rhizome Parking Garage, Julia Greenway, and the folks over at Virtual Dream Center are all also doing some really cutting edge work that is very inspiring to me.

#PACKYOURSTUFF by Clusterduck curated by Wade Wallerstein (Screenshot)
ZIP file exhibitions for Off Site Project

Can you please tell us about your new project Well Now WTF?

At the beginning of quarantine, I was approached by Faith Holland and Lorna Mills to put together an online exhibition. We felt that during this period, which has been called a “net art revival” by a number of art magazines, we needed to create a response from the net art community. This idea of a revival implies that net art hasn’t always been happening—which it has. But now, suddenly, net artists are finding themselves center stage in their own native playgrounds. We wanted to reclaim this, and showcase both the history of net art through artists who have pioneered the form, as well as new and younger artists who are carrying forth the legacy of net art towards the future. At the same time, we didn’t want to philosophize or indoctrinate the audience with any sort of grand “answer” or bold “response” to the crisis. Instead, all of the work represents gut feelings and immediate reactions of the artists included. The show is meant to evoke raw feeling, rather than invite deep contemplation. As we all figure out what the fuck to do now, the show is more of an exploration of how a community can collectively grapple with crisis.

We have collected the works of over 130 artists at this point. All of the works in the show are either gifs or video. These works are separated into rooms, which we loosely grouped together based on the way that the works made us feel. We wanted to mainly work with gifs, because we felt like gifs are the ultimate form of visual communication. Gifs speak in a language that anyone, anywhere can understand. And, in the end, we were right! The show has gone totally global, and have been able to connect with folks all over the world. Well Now WTF? has been reviewed in a number of languages, and reached audiences of all kinds all over the world. It’s really exciting to see folks who are new to the net art world check out our show and be inspired by the work it contains.

Something else that was really important to us was the idea of building a virtual community. During isolation, we wanted to create a space where folks could gather and come together, and not feel so alone. There is a chat room embedded into every room of the exhibition, so anyone viewing the show can chat with others in real time while they’re viewing it. We’re also running an extensive program of online events, each oriented towards different kinds of audiences. These events are casual, and all live streamed to Twitch where the audience can engage with us directly and have a higher level of participation in the program.

We hope that folks have been able to use Well Now WTF? to find comfort, or maybe make a new friend, in this incredibly trying time.

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Do you make art outside of your curatorial practice? If so, what is your work like? What are they about?

No, I am most certainly not an artist, haha! But I do spend a lot of time doing research in virtual worlds. I play games and try to explore as many virtual environments as possible because I see simulation as a tool via which we can expand our present reality and create new ones. I think it’s important for me to continue exploring always, because it helps remind me that our physical reality is not the one mode by which we might function as beings on this earth. I don’t see virtual reality as being any less real or important than physical reality.

Can you tell us about Silicon Valet and the Lot Residency? How did it come about and what is your vision for it in the future?

I created Silicon Valet for a couple of reasons.

First of all, I was stuck in Silicon Valley up in Northern California away from all of my art friends in other parts of the world. I wanted to create a hub, some sort of centralizing platform where we could all connect. As a researcher into digital curation and online artist cultures, I was aware of a lot of things happening globally that were interrelated but not interconnected. I saw patterns emerging from artists and curators who had no knowledge of each other, and felt like our global community needed some sort of central space to help organize and make linkages.

Second, I realized that if art wasn’t being posted on Instagram, I had no knowledge of it. That’s kind of a terrible thing to say, but it was true for me. I wasn’t taking the time to browse through magazines or read blogs or join a million Facebook groups. I was waiting for my feed to deliver the art to me. When I conducted research into online curators in 2018, a number of my participants stressed to me how important installation images were to them as they lived far away from urban hubs and access to art. I started thinking about how important installation shots were. Stuck in Silicon Valley, I found these images to be my gateway to the art world, too. Despite a seemingly popular anti-installation image / post-internet art vibe that floated around for a few years, it has become clear that installation images are a constitutive element to any art exhibition and indeed any art work. I wanted to create a platform that treated these images as such, and use them as a tool to build connections and create an easily accessible archive.

Finally, Ceci Moss’s book “Expanded Internet Art,” really changed the game for me. She talks all about  the expanded internet art work and what that means. Her book redefines digital / net art for our current moment — here I’ll quote her directly: “The adjective ‘expanded’ in front of ‘internet art’ calls attention to this open-ended approach and an acceptance that the artwork is not inert and closed but evolving within its networked situation, constantly negotiating the different supports that enable its movement. An expanded artwork reproduces, travels, and accelerates across different spaces and forms, always reconstitute itself—circulating, assembling, and dispersing.”

This was an idea that I had always had, a notion I had felt in my heart, that I just didn’t have the language to express. Reading this, I began to understand installation images in a new way and felt that I could use Silicon Valet as a vehicle by which to work with expanded internet art and promote the movement expanded internet artworks.

I've started to run a residency program, where I host artists and try to provide them tools for working in algorithmic environments. We talk about their work, and create plans for the best ways to circulate it online. What sorts of images and modes of posting create the most engagement? How do you turn a video or a sculpture into something that can work in a feed-based display environment? Artists create work in other software environments, and then have to transpose them to social media. Social media platforms are super constricting, and I hope through this program to provide artists with a toolkit to get the algorithms working for them instead of against them. Whether or not Instagram can ever be an adequate exhibition space, nobody knows. Perhaps it can't. But Silicon Valet is going to try damn well hard anyway!

In the future, Silicon Valet is going to even bigger and better. We'll be on every platform, available on every device and every screen. We just opened a Tik Tok gallery recently. The sky's the limit ;)

Silicon Valet Instagram screen shot | Artwork by Stacie Ant

You have been working with digital artists, and hosting on virtual spaces. What is digital art to you? What does it mean to you to host exhibitions online? What are your thoughts on visual arts in the age of internet and social media?

Ha! Digital art is anything that you can show on a computer. I don’t like to apply labels or categorize anything too rigidly, but I think Ceci Moss’s expanded internet art is a great way to think about this kind of work.

Hosting exhibitions online is just like hosting exhibitions offline. It’s a different modality, a different materiality, and it creates a different relationship of the user/viewer to the art object (in this case, experienced as a  performance between the file and the display apparatus of the user). But, I think that there’s something about holding an artwork in your hand on your own device that imbues a certain sense of intimacy. I’ve had some of the most emotionally powerful experiences navigating through online shows, all by myself, in my bedroom. The one that recently really got me was YPuccko’s “Proxy Saliva from a Ranked Souvenir.” Online exhibitions are special to me for this reason, and where I feel most comfortable working.

For certain kinds of art, digital display is the only way. Work should be shown as natively as possible, at least work using digital technologies and the internet anyway. As the tools of digital creation become more accessible, bandwidth increases globally, I want to the net become more egalitarian and open to all. I want to see more unskilled users coming online and using the free software on their computers or phones to make art. I want to create spaces that are inclusive of those folks, because (as an optimist) I see digital technologies and the net as being great equalizers. Online exhibitions mean freedom to me — the freedom to do whatever the hell outside of any authoritarian control system.

That said, that’s not really how things are working at present. Institutions and elite groups still control most of the financial flows in the art world. You can create an online exhibition, but you’re still subject to internet protocols and the controls of your domain host. It’s also proven extremely difficult for digital artists and curators to make money from online exhibiting. As a community, we need to come up with some new models to make this work for everyone.

Where do you find inspiration? How do you come up with the theme of each exhibition?

I find inspiration everywhere, from everything I see online. I spend a lot of time in virtual spaces, and I consider all of this time personal research into the phenomenology of the virtual. I'm fascinated by influencers, because they are the individuals in our society that somehow and by whatever black magic, have cracked the algorithms and are able, to an extent that platforms allow, to manipulate the flows of information. I’m a ravenous content consumer, and can spend hours lurking strangers online. I’m fascinated by these network flows, and try to study what makes certain communities tick. For instance, why is the world obsessed with Lovely Peaches? Why does she have millions of followers spread across her accounts? These Internet oddities and flash phenomena are what keep me up late at night on Google.

The exhibitions that I curate come out of urges that I feel deep inside. As I’ve been explaining, the emotionally affective qualities of the virtual are what fascinate me the most. Virtual world phenomenology — what an online environment feels like and how it shapes you — are what I’m always trying to get to the core of. When I was obsessed with ZIP file exhibitions, I couldn’t quite put my finger on how it made me feel to have a whole show right there in my browser. I wondered why this form was so impactful to me, and tried to imagine other ways of exhibiting these kinds of shows outside of a file folder on a desktop. My first ever online show was called “The Finder,” and in it I asked participants to share their desktop spaces so that we could all have a little window into each others’ intimate virtual space. The resulting show was ultimately born out of that initial question: “What DOES it mean to turn your desktop into an art gallery?”

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What is your process like? Can you walk us through one of your exhibitions from getting inspiration, looking for artists, to completion?

I think I covered this a bit in the previous question, but I can use another example of a different show to help drive the point home. As I said, there’s usually an anthropologically-oriented research question that’s born out of some phenomenon that I can’t quite put my finger on that I have experienced through being embedded in networked culture.

Earlier this year I was talking with the folks at Off Site Project about contemporary visual culture, and how we can never be sure what’s “real” i.e. physical and actually exists in the world, and what’s not, i.e. what has been rendered by software or is otherwise digitally altered in some way. On what I promise was a more interesting intellectual thread than “woah this is a trippy render,” we were really trying to consider how digital imaging technologies contributed to notions of “post-truth” or “hyperreality,” and what this means more broadly for culture overall. We hypothesized that artists can create their own realities through computer image editing and simulation.

So, we took these research interests and started digging through our archives — thinking of all of the artists that we knew who using computer imaging to create work alters reality in some way. The goal was to use the work that we collected to come to some sort of conclusion about what ‘beauty’ means in an imaging culture where nearly everything is fabricated by software. In our Wrong Biennale Pavilion, we presented this work in the exhibition Too Beautiful To Be Real. In the show, we collaged all of the work together so that it became difficult to separate individual artworks from one another, and nearly impossible to tell which images were photographic captures of a physical reality and which images were totally computer generated. The idea was to imbue a specific feeling of confusion, through the tools of digital collage at our disposal, to emphasize the intentions that we wanted to display.

Even if shows like this don’t have any answers, I hope that these visual investigations along anthropological inquiries at least provide some sort of research record that documents a particular moment in visual cultural time.

How do you title your projects and exhibitions?

I am, quite literally, the worst exhibition namer on the planet. Seriously, ask anyone. The only good ones I come up with are genuinely shower thoughts. Let my mind go blank and the names just come to me, haha!

What do you look for in artists you work with?

I think energy and vibe are important. There are very famous and well-known artists that I would never want to work with because I don’t think we’d get along. I always tend to work best with artists who have rigorous research practices. There needs to be meat to what’s being created, some sort of tension that needs to be teased out. I’m not interested in shiny renders or purely abstract expression without something more analytical going on in the background. At the same time, I think that research as practice leads to more open-minded thinking, and more humble discourse. Every day is a learning experience, and I like to work with artists who are as hungry to learn more as I am.

I end up forming pretty strong friendships with the artists that I work with, because we are usually both driven by mutual curiosity and a strong eagerness to work together to create and make new discoveries. I love my digital art BFFs we do some pretty amazing work together.

Have you seen/heard/read anything interesting lately that you would like to share?

I’ll say it again — read Ceci Moss’s “Expanded Internet Art”! It’s major. I’m also pretty obsessed with Virtual Dream Center’s downloadable video-game based gallery. They did an awesome collaboration with Precog Magazine recently that I was super impressed by. Oh! And I just got a copy of O Fluxo Platform's 'Flatland Reader.' Domenico Quaranta and Loney Abrams wrote essays on digital art spaces and simulation that I vibed with a lot in relation to the recent work I've been doing with TRANSFER Gallery and Silicon Valet.

Do you have any bad habits? How do they affect your daily life?

I stay up way too late! I also totally over commit, yet remain a super forgetful person. I’m pretty productive, but I can definitely lag behind due to having too much on my plate, or let super important stuff totally slip my mind. Sometimes I have my head stuck in the clouds. If you’re reading this and I haven’t responded to your e-mail yet, I’m sorry!

Is there anything else you world like to share with us? Any fun facts our readers can learn about you?

Like most other folks in the art world, I have a day job :). By night I direct TRANSFER and run Silicon Valet, but by day I’m a Technology & Events Curator for the Consulate of Canada in San Francisco! I work with the Consul General on building programming for his technology diplomacy initiatives. Think this work, and this perspective sort of in the middle of both governments and tech companies, colors a lot of my curatorial outputs.

For more of Wade: siliconvalet.org |  @silicon.valet