Curators Who Will Have Impact – An Interview with Mark Coeckelbergh

By Etienne Verbist - Monday, March 6, 2017
Curators Who Will Have Impact – An Interview with Mark Coeckelbergh

"I’m a philosopher thinking about new technologies, what they mean for our lives and how they may change society. In my work I connect with artists and curators, since I think artistic research can help to bring in different forms of knowledge and experience to discuss these questions. I'm a professor at the University of Vienna, but I also connect to many people outside academia, in the worlds of technology and art." - Mark Coeckelbergh

Curators  who will have Impact – an interview with Mark Coeckelbergh

Etienne Verbist on behalf of ARTDEPENDENCE MAGAZINE: Who are you and WHY do you do what you do? 

Mark Coeckelbergh : I’m a philosopher thinking about new technologies, what they mean for our lives and how they may change society. In my work I connect with artists and curators, since I think artistic research can help to bring in different forms of knowledge and experience to discuss these questions. I'm a professor at the University of Vienna, but I also connect to many people outside academia, in the worlds of technology and art.

AD:  What’s your goal?

MCK: I want to better understand how how technologies change human experience and existence, and how they could change society for the better

AD:  What is your dream project?

MCK: I’d love to help building a more permanent platform and (infra) structure at an international level that brings philosophers, scientists, and artists together to think, experiment with, and explore new technologies and media that could transform human experience and change the world. And write a new book that significantly contributes to that project :)

AD: What themes do you pursue?

MCK: I’m currently especially interested in the theme of automation. For example I've written a book Money Machines about new financial technologies. What does happen if we let algorithms and robots do tasks usually done by humans? What does it mean for the humans, for our practices, for society? I’m also interested in human enhancement (see my book Human Being & Risk) since it raises the question how we are coupled with technologies. I also think about how humans relate to non-humans. I want to understand how we think about the moral status of non-humans, for example, or about nature. I’ve argued for a non-romantic relation to the environment, and for a relational and patient moral epistemology which does not nail down and strip non-humans but keeps an openness and an uncertainty in which their otherness can appear. (see for instance my book Growing Moral Relations and my recent keynote in Lisbon). Recently I’m thinking more about art and technology. I’m just back from a workshop on art and technology in Italy where I argued that there is a poetics in innovation, a kind of knowledge making that is similar to art.

In this book I argue that even if we might become more posthuman in the future, we will always remain vulnerable, but then in new, different ways.

AD: Why do you do what you do? What motivates you?

MCK: I care about the future and about humans.

AD: What role does the artist have in society?

MCK: Artists often feel and perceive better than many other people if there is something going on, you know, that there is something changing in the world. And they also actively contribute to that change by disrupting established ways of thinking and practice, and by showing and exploring new future possibilities most people have never considered. Artists can also remind us of the important role material objects and technologie play in human lives (the 8 new technologies): our smartphones, but also all kinds of simple objects like pens and cloths and technologies that are part of the infrastructure we don’t even think about, for example the wires and the houses / living machines we inhabit.

AD:  What's your favourite art work?

MCK: That’s a really difficult question, I have very broad interests. De Bruyckere I like, for instance, or the work of Angelo Vermeulen. Just to name two Belgian artists. But currently I’m also looking at DIY type of art work. For example I just visited Roböxotica, from Günter Friesinger (portrait below), Art festival with machines making drinks and other stuff.

And I’m going to performances. Here are some artworks I like: I’m very interested in movement, moving bodies, moving people, clashes, entanglements:

This dance work is what inspired my interest in dance with robots (Thomas Freundlich, choreographer and dancer, Human Interface, see also It’s a dance of two people with industrial robots. I’m interested in how humans respond to these robots, what they experience, and whether we can consider what the robots do as “dance”. (See also my paper on machines and creativity.) I know the artist, studied the footage etc. Look also what’s going on between the humans. It’s really human/human/machine.

And this is “CPR Practice”, which I saw in Vienna (Austrian premiere) by Geumhyung Jeong , South Korean choreographer and performance artist. It’s also about interactions between machines and the human body, and with all kinds of objects actually, not only  the machine. CPR is used to reanimate people. The doll is used for training, normally. It simulates breathing and then the breathing stops. The artist is naked. She goes to the doll and tries to reanimate. Again and again. But fails. Who is moving? Who or what is alive, who or what is death? We have to keep moving. Borders are crossed Keep breathing!

Here is an impresion of the sound, and the beginning and end, but not most of the performance. when she is busy with the dummy and the objects.

Here’s another work of her:

Then there’s contemporary dance, without robots, but I like the intensity, the clashes, and the earthly character of it. It’s Wim Vandekeybus, with Ultima Vez: look at this:

for example this film Blush, I like especially the scene in the forest where there is so much dynamics and struggle and competition, humans clashing, bodies clashing: ATTRACTION -


and this dance, which I’ve recently seen: it’s called In Spite of Wishing and Wanting, 

This is beautiful, isn’t it? It’s like a paiting, compare with De Aardappeleters of Vincent van Gogh, but that’s more static:

The Potato Eaters, Nuenen, April 1885. Oil on canvas, current location The Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Or this older one, better: Judith Beheading Holofernes from Artemisia Gentileschi:

Do you see the struggle, the dynamism, and the contrasts?

But I look at all kinds of art, for example Berlinde de Bruyckerse, Angelo Vermeulen, who is interested in space ship design now but I especially like his work BIOMODD and other work where plants and computers connect, again dead and life, material and organic, hybridity:

Biomodd installation. Courtesy and © Angelo Vermeulen

And then this: Patrick tresset, drawing robot.

After meeting him I wrote an article on machines and creativity: is this drawing? Is this creative? What do we mean by those words?

And this is highliy interesting for my purposes, since it asks questions about empathizing with machines. It’s work by the Belgian artist Kris Verdonck who I met at iMal in Brussels. This is from him (A Two Dogs Company): a grinding wheel that seeems to be in trouble, in distress and it does not succeed, it fails, it “dies”. Same for a robot trying to stand up but fails again and again or an engine that is driven to death.

Another great project in this kind of area is La Cour Des Miracles from Bill Vorn and Lous-Philip Demers: look at this picture: 

This is an art work very relevant in the context of thinking about robotics. La Cour des Miracles creates a space with machines in it that all seem to be in pain, groan, they beg like the people in histrorical Paris who pretended to have “maladies” in order to get money. Now, do we empathize with these animats, even if we know that they are “mere machines”? I’m interested in how we perceive all this, in this creation of appearances, in the trickery, in the creation of illusion. Because that’s what a roboticist does: he’s a kind of magicial (goochelaar) who creates illusions, appearances.

Artists show us now questions we will soon have to deal with, if not already, when technologies become even more magic and even more alive than we can now imagine.

AD: What memorable responses have you had to your projects?

MCK: Recently I’ve been elected president of the international Society for Philosophy of Technology, that's a great honour for me. But the best response for me is if people have really good questions after a talk or if someone has read something I wrote or seen something I've been involved in and then wants to collaborate with me. It¹s the interaction that counts, whether on social media or elsewhere. Otherwise it's just about dead words and dead objects.

AD: What do you dislike about the art world?

MCK: I hate it that it looks increasingly like any other world, and maybe that was always already the case. Basically, I don't like the funding applications, the politics (in the bad sense of the word), the power games, the ego's - maybe that's the worst thing. I had the same disappointment about academia: very similar.

AD: What role does art funding have?

MCK: Art funding can be good, it can stimulate work in areas that do not currently get enough attention. It can also support many artists who would otherwise be in financial trouble. But it should not make everything so competitive that artists only "produce" for the funding market. That they are only businesses. It should not pre-define too much what artists should do.

AD: What research do you do?

MCK: I already said something about the themes of my research. I read philosophers such as Wittgenstein and Heidegger, and my writing and the discussions I have with people is actually research. Apart from talks and discussion, I especially like writing books, since it's a bigger project and it's less constrained compared to a journal article, there is more room to explore, to think.

But I also look beyond academia to technology and art, for instance discussions about Bitcoin and blockchain technology, or I go to robotics labs and discuss their research. I'm also involved in a technical project, a European project that develops robots for therapy for children with autism spectrum disorder. It's called DREAM. Parents of these children are often desperate to find a therapy, there is no so much success with therapies in this area.

And as said I also collaborate with artists. I look a lot art art and work together with artists and curators. For instance, I contribute to the manifesto of the Biennale 2017 here in Vienna with people of MAK and I co-organize a post-digital art festival, VERMÖGEN, which will take place in Vienna in Autumn 2017. I've also co-organized a workshop in England on theatre and performance in relation to artificial intelligence etc. Currently I'm really interested in performance, not only as a form of art but also as a broader concept that plays a role in our daily lives and that says something about what it is to be human.

AD: What would you have done differently?

MCK: Earlier in my career I should haven spent more time on things I think are important, rather than meet expectations of others. It's so important to go for what your heart is in. But even now this is difficult in the environments I work in, the institutions of academia should support research and creativity for instance but they often do exactly the opposite. There is so much paper work, unnecessary meetings, management stuff, a lot of noise, things that divert from what is important: educating people and doing research.

AD: What is the role of the people, the crowd, in your project? How can they participate?

MCK: They can have at least two kinds of roles: one is that they are first readers and audience, on social media or in talks for instance, and then in the best case they become discussion partners. Another kind of role is that they can participate in art and technology projects I'm involved in. For example not only look at material objects and words, but also contribute with stuff. For example they can respond to what's going on in a workshop or in a performance, that would be my idea for the VERMÖGEN festival for example. Participation could also involve supporting the project by financial means, I didn't try that yet but it would be worth trying.

AD: How do you use the crowd, how do you interact and handle feedback? 

MCK: I see philosophy as a matter of discussion. For example, I published a piece in The Guardian and more recently in Der Standard (Austrian national newspaper) and people could respond to that online, and then I answered. That's how it should be. Text should be a tool for discussion, not a monument for dead words. Of course sometimes you get negative feedback, that's something you have to accept. But I always try to take criticism seriously, even if it looks unfruitful at first sight I try to see what the person's real concern is, maybe when I reflect on it the comment points in an interesting direction. I also always try to answer, in the first place. It's important to keep the interaction going. Absence of interaction is the end of life, including the life of philosophy and the life of art. YOU HAVE TO KEEP MOVING, KEEP TRYING, also when you fail. And it’s always interaction with organic and artefacts, hybridity, I also think a lot about cyborgs.

For example my new book that will be out with MIT press:

It’s called NEW ROMANTIC CYBORGS, I think about the end of the machine,  that’s how I call it, the future of the machine is also its end. WE WILL NO LONGER RECOGNIZE MACHINES AS MACHINES

And we are imprisoned in romantic thinking. We keep dreaming, as romantic cyborgs and as we interact with, and partly merge with, machines.

AD: How do you create the interaction?

MCK: On-line platforms (social media Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, LinkedIn), classic media such as newspapers and TV, like publishing an article in a newspapers and then get comments), workshops (academic but also literally), or the platform of an art and technology festival are ways to organize this. But maybe with new technologies we can find other ways to do it. I'm happy to learn from what others do.

AD: On which segment is your activity or platform based?

MCK:  Partly sharing economy, since I try to share my work in an open way, and also online communities, which I use for discussion with colleagues and to reach out to people I would otherwise perhaps not reach. And there is also co-creation, papers but also organising events, writing manifesto's etc. Travel is of course also a great way of doing research and of reaching my goals, it's all about discussion and about exploring new ways by sharing. Food also, eating practices not understood as consumption but as a social activity  in which also new knowledge can emerge. I don't understand how people can do philosophy without travel, without sitting together with others and eat etc. For my work, I like to integrate works and life. This is also how the ancient philosophers have done it, of course.

AD: What Social  Media do you use?

MCK: Vimeo, Youtube, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram.

AD: On which segment is your activity or platform based on the segmentation of the crowd economy? 

#1 Crowd Currencies

#2 Peer-to-Peer Lending / Commerce

#3 Equity-Based Crowdfunding

#4 Non-Equity Based Crowdfunding

#5 Sharing Economy

#6 Co-Creation

#7 Social Business

#8 Crowd Causes

#9 Crowd Tasks and Creativity

#10 Online Communities

#11 Mass Collaboration

#12 Open Innovation

#13 Crowd Intelligence

#14 Civic Engagement

Image on top: Prof Mark Coeckelbergh, Department of Philosophy, Centre for Computing and Social Responsibility

Etienne Verbist is an authority in the field of crowd sourcing, disruptive business modelling and disruptive art. After a well filled career with companies such as GE, Etienne was an early adopter of crowd sourcing. Etienne is manager Europe and Africa for Crowd Sourcing Week, a board advisor to a broad range of companies on innovation and new technology, curator of the Disruptive Art Museum – the smallest museum in the world – and columnist for ArtDependence Magazine.

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Anna Melnykova, "Palace of Labor (palats praci), architector I. Pretro, 1916", shot with analog Canon camera, 35 mm Fuji film in March 2022.

Anna Melnykova, "Palace of Labor (palats praci), architector I. Pretro, 1916", shot with analog Canon camera, 35 mm Fuji film in March 2022.


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