For this series Art Insiders interviewed 5 Berlin-based women that work on the intersection of art and digital technology.
Find out what these frontrunners have to say about Berlin's art and tech scenes, the current status of the art world, and in what ways digital technology is affecting it.
Leah Stuhltrager is the founder of THE WYE, which produces high-profile, interactive art & tech installations and programming. Stuhltrager has pioneered the intersection of art and tech for over 20 years, working on various large-scale projects together with international festivals, organizations and companies.
“My vision for THE WYE is to create a hybrid of the industries I’m in – it’s not art and it’s not tech: it’s neither and it’s both.”
Could you tell me a bit about yourself in your background and about THE WYE?
I grew up in Philadelphia and lived in New York from around the age of 15. I had a gallery in Williamsburg Brooklyn for 13 years, where instead of selling ‘sellable’ art, I focused on selling art that I believed in. My interest for art and tech developed early on, back in the early 2000s, and much of the art in my gallery was early hardware- and software-based art, and early VR and AI art. 2006 brought a drastic market change to the US, and instead of waiting it out, I started thinking about my next steps, after which I decided to come to Berlin.
I got my first space here on Alexanderplatz, then moved to a 2500 square foot space on Skalitzer Strasse which I renovated entirely and ended up staying at for 4 years. Next, I went to an even bigger space of 20,000 square foot, after which I decided that the projects I wanted to do were bigger than a space could contain, so instead of managing a space I shifted my focus to working on large projects worldwide. We now work with a variety of clients around the world with THE WYE, from festivals and events, to corporates, institutions, and start-ups, and our work relates to art and tech in many different ways.
What are some significant projects you have recently realized with THE WYE?
I’m especially proud of some of the bigger projects we’ve done, like the Great Eastern Wall in London, which was a huge block-long artwork in the area of Shoreditch. This neighborhood used to be home to a thriving art scene, but this started to change when the tech community moved into the area. For this project we put together an art/tech piece taking the best of both worlds in order show not just the parallels between the two, but also to show how coexisting can lead to new conversations, new creations and new ways of thinking.
The piece was based on the chaos theory by Ryan Wolfe, and was called ‘Branching Systems’ (Butterfly Hurricane). Wolfe took dried leaves to make faux butterfly wings, and attached buzzers from old cell phones to the leaves so the buzzing would create a flapping motion like that of a butterfly. He then created a hardware and software to program the ‘butterflies’ both individually and as a swarm or branching system. The work was made to be interactive and would react to each person passing by the wall, giving out a pulse to the entire swarm, and each time rewriting the algorithm. This continuously created new pieces with different movements throughout the year the work was set up. We went viral across Instagram with this piece, and the work generated so much discussion between different communities, from tech, artists, political- and even animal activist groups, who thought the butterflies were real. That’s what’s really inspiring to me, to stimulate dialogue and conversation.
"we put together an art/tech piece taking the best of both worlds to show not just the parallels between the two, but also to show how coexisting can lead to new conversations, new creations and new ways of thinking"
What is your vision with THE WYE?
I started off with one foot in community and one foot in business, and my vision is to continue this very precarious balance. With THE WYE, I want to work that balance into projects in ways will benefit both the art community and shape what the future of art can be. I love what I do and I can make money with it, and at the same time I can create opportunities and give back to people that really deserve it.
The way I envision art right now, is that there aren’t as many borders between being an artist, using creative technology, and the world of software, hardware, VR and AI technology for example. The lines are being blurred more and more, and these digital innovations lead to new ways of viewing art, music, video, film, or even to rethinking industries like banking, insurance and education. My vision for THE WYE is to create a hybrid of various aspects of the industries I’m in – it’s not art and it’s not tech: it’s neither and it’s both.
With various industries and categories blurring, do you feel the traditional art world, with its institutions and systems in place, is becoming obsolete?
I think we will always need something tangible like the traditional, brick-and-mortar models, because we need tangible experiences. But we need something functional first, because as far as the current gallery or institutional system, we really need to update this for it to reflect our society today. This change is not merely done by what many museums call ‘digitalization and innovation’, where a quick-fix Instagram account or Facebook check-in is implemented. This ‘innovation’ is conceptually not even a Band-Aid. I have worked with many prestigious institutions worldwide, and I’m constantly surprised by irrelevant examples of gimmicky, outdated technology-bullshit popping up everywhere. The problem with the current system is that the people making these decisions are so far removed from reality, and there’s this big lag between them and what’s going on in the rest of the world.
I get really exited about artists or artist collectives like Ryan Wolfe, teamLab, or Random International - these are all examples of people that fight all the way upstream for something they believe in. They are changing the game and that's inspiring. Eventually, institutions will be forced to adapt to remain relevant.
"You have to be aware to understand where in the world and where in history your work is being placed."
Many of the artist you named test the boundaries of what art is – is the definition of ‘art’ changing?
These artists transcend the boundaries of art and tech, but of other disciplines as well, where they merge together fashion, music, film, technology and performance. With these disciplines merging, you have to be very aware of new developments in each of these industries. Today, you cannot be in film and not knowing what’s happening in VR or in fashion. Take Iris van Herpen for example, who is essentially a fashion designer, but who works with refined 3D printing technology and has this outstanding vision of a fine artist. You have to know what technologies are currently available, but that doesn’t mean you have to use them all. You have to be aware to understand where in the world and where in history your work is being placed.
What do you think of Berlin as a fertile ground for developments in the fields of art and tech?
Berlin is still in this unique phase where it's cheap. This affordability is a huge asset which attracts all these people on the fringes with interesting views, ideas and perspectives, and that don't look at value in the same way people in big financial capitals as London or New York do. Another thing is that Berlin is relatively small, which allows this creative community and other industries to interact and mix. Everyone knows everyone, and it reminds me of Williamsburg Brooklyn in the heyday. Artists can look at each other’s work without the shark-y, business atmosphere.
But when people say that Berlin is ‘great for art and tech’, or that Berlin is ‘poor and sexy’ or whatever, those people are indulging in Berlin’s reputation but don’t actually produce anything exciting. I think Berlin is easily 10 years behind in general, and much of what’s happening in Berlin just isn’t relevant. I often compare it to the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes: sometimes I have to pinch myself about what people make themselves believe. Some of what I see is so outdated, and many aren’t even self-aware enough to realize it. It’s been interesting to watch Berlin’s placement in the international art scene, with the fairs leaving and collectors leaving. You have all these artist studios here, but you cannot sell your work here. But this affordability and underground atmosphere is fleeting, the creatives are leaving and Berlin is commodifying and gentrifying quickly. Berlin is changing, but isn’t doing much to create a sustainable structure for future creative generations.