“I Don’t Believe In Online Galleries”

“I don’t believe in online galleries,” artist Wolfgang Staehle confidently tells me. According to him, unless an online gallery focuses on online art or new media that specifically engages with online culture, then the whole thing appears somewhat absurd. Who could blame him, right? For paintings and sculptures, for example, their materiality is an important component of their meaning, power and presence—a presence neutralized by the pixel.

Staehle ought to know; he is himself a pioneer when it comes to art on the Internet. As early as 1991, he had already developed The Thing, a rudimentary form of a Bulletin Board System that provided “a flexible and supportive venue for developing, presenting and distributing innovative forms of on-line activism, media art and cultural criticism concerned with exploring the possibilities of electronic networks.” So, you see, when I heard that Staehle was In Berlin, I had to go and ask him a thing or two about the online gallery business.

That Thing, That Thing, That Thiiiing

To my surprise, Staehle had long been involved in the online sale of art through The Thing. It was in 1999 that this online network of artists and activists executed their first benefit auction. Things have changed as the technology has developed and The Thing has branched into various other projects. From these, one stands out: auctionthing. Keeping the tradition of The Thing’s early benefit auction, auctionthing has become its evolved platform for bidding and selling art—think of e-bay, but for art. For this venture, Staehle has partnered with Marc Fiedler’s advertising agency in Berlin. I met up with both of them at Epicentroart, Fielder’s own private showroom, to get some feedback for our ongoing series of “The Rise of the Online Galleries.”

In conversation with Wolfgang Staehle (L) and Marc Fiedler. Photo: Chris Phillips

“I don’t believe people buy things they’re not familiar with,” was Fiedler’s response when asked about the difficulty of people might have in buying a painting based on a pixelated image. To ensure the quality of the artworks that are featured on auctionthing's pages, the sellers are carefully vetted. Usually, a seller is selected via invitation only—however, if a candidate has a strong a enough proposal (a.k.a. artwork), they’re allowed to join in on the fun.

When questioned if their age has ever been a challenge when it came to understanding an online culture heavily populated with internet-savvy users and netizens, Fiedler’s reply was simple and to the point: “We are not twenty-five year old nerds,” he playfully states, “But we know how the market works.” Indeed, it is this experience that has proven to be a key for the success of auctionthing. For collectors who may be “technologically challenged,” auctionthing has been made into an extremely user-friendly. What’s more, a significant number of the proceeds is intended for the continued support of independent media and art projects—artistic support is something that has been a long tradition of The Thing.

The Future Of Things

Wolfgang tells me that, in the future, auctionthing may begin to experiment with their sales; displaying work based on a theme. When faced with the question of how auctionthing will differentiate itself from an online gallery, he didn't want to give me too much information on the matter—not wanting to reveal too much about his unique approach, I assume. Knowing his contempt for the concept of the online gallery, one can trust this will be a unique and exciting venture. If we can learn anything from ventures like auctionthing, is that the online art market is experiencing a boom and now is the time jump on this bid before it's going, going, gone!

Article by Jovanny Varela-Ferreyra