July 12, 2019

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When you think of GIFs, you probably think of them as funny jokes to send to friends, not art. Along with other Internet-based media, they don’t immediately strike us as things you would experience in a museum, namely because they aren’t objects in the same way a physical painting or sculpture is. When you enter an art space, you probably also don’t expect to interact with a videogame or virtual reality. With her experimental gallery TRANSFER, Kelani Nichole turns those preconceptions on their head.  

She independently founded the gallery in Brooklyn in 2013 to support artists making computer-based artworks, which has since relocated from Brooklyn, New York to Los Angeles, California. If you’re in Los Angeles, make sure to catch her current show, “Liminal Territory,” open through August 10, 2019. 

According to Nichole, today’s artists live, work and exhibit on the Internet, so we spoke to her to find out all about art that comes to you through a computer, how she decides whether a videogame belongs in a gallery, and the challenges of disrupting the status quo.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Twofivesix: Why did you start TRANSFER?

Kelani Nichole: I work in tech. I’ve been a user experience researcher and product strategist for 15 years now. I came into the art world with a technology background and an understanding of open-source culture and software development and found this group of artists who were working in this very experimental, subversive way with software. So, I started curating shows when I was back in Philadelphia and that’s where I started my career and developed this specialty in Internet art. There weren’t a whole lot of people doing it at the time I moved to New York and started looking for spaces. I found the space on Craigslist. It was kind of a miracle space.

Over the years, I’ve come to develop some pretty strong critical opinions on the art world and how it works. I’ve been trying to put forward some new ideas for what it might mean to support artists and work with artists. From the beginning, TRANSFER has really always been about supporting these technology-based practices which have a whole bunch of needs, requiring a level of performance and care that an object-based practice doesn’t.

Twofivesix: Could you walk me through some of those needs?

Nichole: Like any kind of VR- or software-based artwork, you constantly need to update it. Hardware is pretty much dead on arrival. There’s going to be another iteration. So, a studio now is maintaining their artwork as they go. A lot of these artists work within the screen but then they have to think about how your work extends beyond the screen into the shared social space of the gallery. 

So, how do you get from like a video on Vimeo into an impressive installation space and a context for discussing what it means to invest and support that kind of thing, which everyone can have online for free already? So, my relationship with my artists is much more like a patron. And the reason I’ve been successful is that I have financial autonomy thanks to my career. So I’ve also been working full-time for clients for the whole seven years. 

Rick Silva. Still from “Western Fronts: Bears Ears” by Rick Silva, with sound design by Kuedo + Holy Other (2018). Image courtesy of TRANSFER.

Twofivesix: If I bought a print, the transaction and acquiring of it is pretty straightforward, but if you’re a digital art collector, how does that work? 

Nichole: You essentially get a file, totally depending on the artist and if they make that precious or not. For a very cool software piece called Render Garden by Rick Silva, we have these custom engraved, solid-state drives from Austria. So, the uncompressed work goes on that drive and that’s your archival copy. Then you get a secondary USB, which is an exhibition copy. You’re meant to plug that into displays or send that around. Most importantly, you get a certificate signed by the artist, which is the note of authenticity. 

This is how the art world has been functioning with conceptual artworks for a long time. What’s important about owning a work is the relationship with the artist, your role shaping the cultural legacy of your generation because what’s collected is what survives and you’re the steward who’s caring for that work and hearing those ideas into the future. And that’s what’s always been most important in collecting.

Twofivesix: You feature games made by artists in your shows, so I’m curious how you decide what types of games should be shown in the gallery versus stuff that’s sold at Best Buy? 

Nichole: It’s something I’m still learning to articulate around, but I think that the difference is that sure, there are emotions around narrative and games—you’re meant to feel a connection. But you’re also coming from a game state perspective, right? It has these mechanics of moving through an experience that has points—an end-state or a goal you’re supposed to reaching. 

And a lot of these artist games are not about that. They’re about meandering and exploration. A lot of these women [artists] come from a place where they have been in games, trying to break games and find ways around games. So, not to say that like commercial games don’t have emotions, but I think these games take space, time, contemplation, and openness in a different way. 

Angela Washko. “The Game: The Game” at the Museum of the Moving Image (2018).

Twofivesix: When you’re presenting work like this, how do you ensure that it can be accessible to people with all kinds of gaming literacies?

Nichole: The answer is I don’t know yet, because I am still starting to show these kinds of works and want to do a big show that explores that. But I would say that even if you go to a museum and see some bizarro conceptual artwork, can everyone approach that? I think that is part of what’s important about art—people coming to a work and it challenging them. 

Like Angela Washko‘s The Game: The Game, which is about pickup artists and was at the Museum of The Moving Image. Kids would walk up to that and get into it, and they understand in a way that an older generation can’t. But that’s the beauty of putting it out there in the art context to challenge people to try and understand it a little bit more. But it’s also just awkward to play games in a gallery, so that’s the part that I’m thinking about differently.

Twofivesix: What are some of the criticisms or challenges that you’ve faced?

Nichole: This idea of scarcity is one of the real challenges. The art world is all about exclusivity and scarcity. And so when a new generation who cares about openness and transparency comes into contact with that kind of Old World mentality, there’s an inherent conflict there. 

Actually, the reason that I started the TRANSFER gallery was in response to this article with the criticism that artists are just making work with technology but not about technology. And I knew that was wrong, and I knew the writer was missing it and just looking at it in the context of the art world. 

But I think in general too, there’s a real challenge with simulation aesthetics because they resemble commercial creative or commercial art. And there’s this real gray area between what is creative technology and what is art.  I think it’s a difference between ‘Ooh, cool, look what happens if you wave your arm.’ Technology as just sort of smoke and mirrors and sheer sensational experiences, not thoughtful ones. I think that a critical art practice is about pushing back on those kinds of empty, literal gestures and putting forward new possibilities instead.

Rick Silva. "Render Garden" Realtime 3D video (2014).

Twofivesix: How will this dynamic toward art shift toward the digital and online?

Nichole: It will take a new generation of people will invest financially in works that everyone else can also download and see online for free. That generation of patrons will really shift the way that the art world thinks and functions. 

I have this vision of the future where we’re not at an art auction raising our paddle for the scarcest painting in the world. But instead, we’re seeing that the artworks that really are the highest value are the ones that have been downloaded, shared, or experienced the most or by the most people. So, a complete inversion in values. 

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