Visual Art 10-2-2002

Steve Dietz

In pursuit of broader ideas of "performance," Ann Klefstad spoke with Steve Dietz, the curator of new media at the Walker Art Center, about his life and works.

In pursuit of broader ideas of “performance,” the current theme of the site, I spoke with Steve Dietz, the curator of new media at the Walker Art Center, about his life and works. Dietz is well known throughout the net world as the curator of Gallery 9,
the Walker’s renowned new media online venue. He’s also one of the originators of He spoke with me about the path he took to reach his current position.

Ann Klefstad: Where did you grow up?

Steve Dietz: In Minneapolis . . . Hopkins.

AK: Was Hopkins a suburb then, or rural?

SD: It was a suburb.

AK: What were the kinds of things you liked to do as a kid?

SD: I liked to read. Read and play sports. I went to school in England at the wrong time–fifth grade–and I played rugby, cricket . . . . When I came home I couldn’t do them.
But I did high school sports.

AK: How do you see your childhood influencing your work now?

SD: I think curiosity is the one of the most important things one can try to maintain in one’s life. One of the things about the Web is it allows one to focus in on curiosity in a
dynamic way.

AK: What did you like to look at when you were a kid?

SD: Words . . . . I was a big reader, I had no special visual orientation; not much TV, even.

AK: What did you read?

SD: Everything.

AK: Tell me about your first experience with computers.

SD: Well, I took a Basic class in fourth grade, but I never followed up on that path. It wasn’t until working with CD-ROMs, multimedia, the Web, that computer technology was
interesting to me.

AK: How did you find out about those things?

SD: In about 1993, I was the head of publications for the National Museum of American Art in Washington. I went to the American Booksellers Association conference (the ABA) and I saw a demonstration of a kids’ CD-ROM title, and I was completely bowled over. I went back to the museum and started one of the first new media departments at a U.S. museum.

AK: How did you become publication head at the museum?

SD: I had been in New York working for Aperture, the fine art photography publisher, when I applied for the post of head of publications at the National Museum.

AK: It’s interesting that you came to the Web out of print media, out of words.

SD: Well, my degree was in photography, I did a degree in photography at San Francisco State University. I was always more interested in the interstices and combinations of words and images, so in that sense the Web was a natural extension of my passions.

AK: Can you describe the experience of creating early Web sites?

SD: For me, it was a lot like seeing the photographic image appear
in the fixer in the darkroom. Always a magical moment. Slapping a few
angle brackets around some text strings and seeing them appear as graphical
pages that linked all over the world was another kind of magic.

AK: You were working with just your staff at the museum? How did you learn to do Web programming? Were you self-taught?

SD: Yes. As with many, “View source” was my mentor.

AK: Formidable!

SD: You’d find tutorials on the Web and stuff, but mostly you’d just look at the code underneath. With the Web, you could see how people made pages. It was intentionally
designed so that you could click “view source” and examine the code, learn how it was made.

AK: I think this is something many people don’t know about the Web–that you can see the code and discover how effects are created, and basically teach yourself to make similar
things. . . . When did you come to the Walker?

SD: My family and I decided to move back to Minnesota. I was consulting here then, the Walker had a grant that had a line in it about technology, I was working with them on that, and eventually we decided to form a new media department.

AK: So it wasn’t the Walker you moved back for, you moved back because it was home?

SD: Yes. Like salmon.

AK: Your work in new media / the Web has been very influential. I knew of it long before I was ever associated with mnartists, and I’m not even very involved with Web
developments. What do you see as your most important contribution to the field?

SD: I’ve been fortunate to have worked in an institution committed to contemporary art, which has allowed me to explore the field, and which has in turn put a voice at the table,
so to speak, for network-based art in a major institutional setting. I hope our example has enabled some others to also support contemporary art on the net.

AK: For people who want to pursue a similar course, is there some training that is good? What would you recommend for people who would like to make a life like yours?

SD: I think, thankfully, it’s not a professionalized profession at this time. Curiosity continues to be a pretty good route. Most people who I know involved in new media have
fallen into it because they don’t fit anywhere else. But it’s always a dangerous standard, using one’s friends as examples–

AK: What do you see as the most interesting direction in digital art right now? There are lots of branches it’s taken. What’s most interesting to you at the moment?

SD: Partly because we’re building a new building [at the Walker], I’m interested in work that engages the physical interface, that doesn’t assume that the box from IBM or Apple
is the necessary physical interface to the work. I like to say that until humans have the ability to jack in directly to the Net, we must rely on physical interfaces to access digital content. Yet, it is not hard to imagine that an anthropologist of the future examining
20th-century artifacts and interfaces of the digital age would have to postulate a being with at least 20 digits, if not several hands; myopic vision; no hearing except for extremely loud sounds; no sense of smell or touch; perhaps a large cranium, but only vestigial lower limbs and a very large bottom. Many artists are interested now in the physical
interface as a critical component of their work.

AK: How does relate to the other Web projects you work on?

SD: One of the significant things about the network is the two-way
nature of the communication it makes possible. What’s been important to me
about mnartists is its self-organizing potential . . .

AK: Ideally– like the Web has been . . .

SD: That organizations like Walker and McKnight can help in the process, but that mnartists creates itself by the interaction of its participants…

You can visit the Walker Art Center’s Gallery 9 by clicking on this link: