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Interview mit der „Königin der Blogger", Régine Debatty

Über Régine Debatty

Als Begründerin des höchst einflussreichen Blogs we-make-money-not-art.com wird Regine Debatty mit Spitznamen „Königin der Blogger" genannt. Sie schreibt mit Leidenschaftlich über die Schnittstellen zwischen Kunst, Design und Technologie, außerdem kuratiert sie Kunstausstellungen und spricht auf Konferenzen und Festivals über die Art wie Künstler, Hacker und Interaktionsdesigner Technologie einsetzen – oder missbrauchen. Sie spricht mit LabforCulture darüber, wie sie die Themen in ihrem Blog wählt, über ihr ökonomisches Modell (oder das Fehlen von einem!) – und dass ihr Blog sich so sehr als Teil von ihr anfühlt, wie ein Arm oder eine Lunge...

Über we-make-money-not-art

"Ich würde sagen, dass we-make-money-not-art (wmmna) ein Blog ist, der Ausdruck einer beeindruckenden international verstreuten Community ist, Teil der so genannten „kreativen Klasse", die über Kunst, Design und Technologie spricht – und dabei nie einen ethischen oder gelegentlich auch explizit politischen Ansatz vergisst." (Alessandro Ludovico, Interview mit Régine Debatty, The Mag.net reader 3)

Das folgende Interview von Annette Wolfsberger mit Marta Peirano & José Luis de Vicente fand am 17. Juli 2009 über Skype-Chat statt. Es ist nur auf Englisch einsehbar.

AW: When and why did you start blogging?

RD: In March 2004. By chance. I was bored at work. Really bored. I worked in an office in Italy and I was paid to do absolutely nothing. All I had to do was pretend I was working. In November 2003, I met a new media artist. He was doing art performances with mobile phones. To me, at the time, mobile phones were merely a tool to work. An annoying tool I hated and nothing more. I found the work of that artist so interesting I started to scan the web to find more information about this mix of art and technology. At first, I was printing everything I could find online. My office table quickly became a huge mess with big files full of paper and stickers that attempted to put some order in the sea of information I was accumulating.

At some point, a friend (actually it’s the artist I mentioned above, his name is Max and he’s my wonderful boyfriend) told me I should archive everything on a blog. I was a bit reluctant at first but after a few days, I became totally passionate about it. Blogging was just something I was doing for myself, I never thought people would find the blog and read it. But they did. Another blogger told me one day that I should put some advertising on the blog and see what happens. I also had some savings at the bank so I decided to quit my job and see how long I could survive with just the blog and a bit of advertising. It was really hard in the beginning. I was so poor but I loved blogging. Five years later, I’m still there and my situation is very different from what it was then but i'm still enjoying it.

Have there been any specific phases that wmmna has gone through since its beginning, e.g. what was the turning point for you to be able to become a professional blogger (that is to say, to be able to live from your blogging)?

I can’t really think of any turning point. One day I discovered blogging and I was sucked into it.

How would you describe your editorial policy?

It’s very simple. I just do what I want. I don’t respond very well to any kind of constraint or obligation. I guess this might explain in part the success of my blog. It’s clear by now that people can send me their books and I’ll be grateful but I won’t review the book if I don’t find it particularly exciting. They can invite me to exhibitions but if I don’t find anything meaningful in the show, I won’t discuss it on the blog. It’s all very subjective, un-planned and un-tamed. I don’t pretend to write extensively nor exclusively about any topic. At times I will write a lot about architecture, at others I’ll cover mostly activist projects or video art from China. It depends on where I happen to be at the time, or the mood I’m in. I plan to dedicate one week of my blogging activities next month (or the one after) to the terrible conditions Palestinians are currently facing, just because it’s an issue I care about.

I could also add that some names pop up more often than others. I blatantly favour organizations or art centers such as MediaLab Prado in Madrid, CCCS in Firenze or LABoral in Gijon. My blog also follows with some regularity the work of curator Domenico Quaranta or of biotech artist Adam Zaretsky. It’s not because they are nicer to me than others (but I must admit that they are awfully nice) nor because they ask me anything. I just happen to admire the passion and talent they bring to their work, no matter the difficulties they might encounter. It’s incredibly inspiring and gratifying to work in the same sphere as such people.

‘Queen of Bloggers’: You are one of the few and only European bloggers who can live off their blogging without being part of an institution, which is still quite rare in Europe – especially for culture bloggers. In how far has the blogging scene changed since you started, and do you see it professionalizing or monetizing further?

I sometimes wonder why people call me ‘Queen of bloggers’. It’s both very flattering but also embarrassing. Maybe it’s because of my name? I’m quite sure bloggers would not love to be ruled by me.

More seriously, I think that blogging could be further professionalized. It might take more time than I hope, though. Almost every day I’m reminded that bloggers, even if some of them do a job at least as reliable and thorough as some newspapers and even if they have a wider audience, do not necessarily benefit from the same recognition and privileges as journalists.

Alessandro from Neural in an interview described his blog as ‘a magic portal for opportunities’. In your professional and business model, what is the relationship between your on- and offline activities?

They are intimately linked. People tend to contact me because they’ve heard of my blog and certainly not because I’m the most competent or smartest. There are so many people brighter than me out there but they don’t benefit from the opportunity-magnet that a fairly popular blog is.

How would you describe your economic model?

Well, this is the third question that hints at the way I make money and I must say that talking money has always made me uncomfortable. Now I do realize that the very title of my blog might have you assume the opposite. Anyway.... there’s this thing about bloggers: one never finds it odd to ask them how much they earn but one would not ask the same question to a journalist, an opera singer or independent curator, for example, it would be seen as indelicate. I wonder if it’s a sign that blogging is not yet regarded as a serious activity.

I don’t have an economical model and if I did, it certainly is one I would not recommend to anyone: I’ve never looked for advertisers. I even have advertising spaces that I give for free to cultural organizations just because I like them or find their activities worth a little help, I’m always super late at sending invoices, etc.

I do a series of things with the sole aim of making money (i write for magazines, for example) but blogging has never been one of them. Earning money with the blog is a wonderful privilege but it is not my motor.

When asking cultural operators in Europe for culture blog recommendations, Adam Somlai-Fischer (The Kitchen Budapest) rated your blog far higher in influence, immediacy and accuracy than the print magazine Wired. Also the pixel/print conference recently discussed these relationships. How would you describe the relationship between traditional print-media like these and online journalism?

That is a tough and complex question but because you’ve mentioned two people I like a lot, Alessandro and Adam, I’ll try and elaborate a bit.

I see paper and pixel as two very compatible media. They might seem different, they certainly have different rhythms and different rules but I can’t write off either of them from my life. I could say that I spend way more time with online magazines than with paper ones. But that statement applies to certain areas of my life better than to others. For example, one of my passions is beauty products. I’ve completely stopped buying women’s magazines because I find the information about cosmetics on blogs and forums far more reliable. I know some bloggers are happily copying and pasting PR blurbs but I don’t read this kind of blog. I follow the ones who talk with sincerity about the products they review. Man, I’d love to swap places with them. They’d be sent books about media art and I’d receive tons of beauty creams and mascaras. They’d go to ars electronica and I’ll be having anti-cellulite massages in a spa. On the other hand, I always pack architecture and art magazines (in particular the wonderful Volume) with me when I take the plane. I like the image spreads, taking notes in the margins, and I also enjoy the fact that most of what they write about (and the very way they write) doesn’t often has an equivalent online.

More generally speaking, I can’t live without the online edition of The Guardian (http://www.guardian.co.uk/). They do an excellent job at making screen-reading utterly enjoyable. It’s not just a question of applying a fancy design or adding sexy photo galleries like other newspaper do. Italian newspaper La Repubblica, which I otherwise like a lot, has an embarrassing idea of what the online edition of a magazine can be: articles are not very often updated, information is generally scanty and there are some vulgar galleries of women in bikinis that multiply page views but not really the credibility of the online edition. The Guardian, on the other hand, has poured an incredible amount of intelligence and energy on its website. Some of its journalists are writing opinionated and reliable blogs, the web architecture is clear and efficient, they make a smart use of videos and readers’ contributions.

But the area I follow most closely is obviously art journalism, critique and blogging. I see loads of connections and mingling here. Journalists starting a blog, sometimes at the invitation of the newspaper or magazine they work with. And bloggers asked to contribute to posh art magazines. One of the most priceless lessons that blogs have taught me is that being personal and laid-back doesn’t have to be a heresy. Actually, when some editor asks me to write a column for a magazine, a chapter for a book, or a text for a catalog, that’s always what they request: the intimate, spontaneous and personal voice they hear on my blog. What they ask for is the point of view of the blogger, who also happens to be an expert in the field. At least that’s what they seem to believe.

I understood from the Elastico-clan that you have guest-blogged for them in the past, and I remember guest bloggers on wmmna too, at least a while ago: how important is collaborative (writing) practice for you?

Not important.

I love Elastico, Jose-Luis, Marta and Antonio, so it was an honour to write a couple of posts for them.

Now about the collaborators to my blog. Konomi is back in Japan and doesn’t have as much free time as he used to when he was in the USA. I miss him. Sascha Pohflepp used to write on the blog but he’s finishing his studies at the Royal College of Art and he doesn’t even seem to find time to eat, poor thing. Sascha is the worst thing that can happen to a blogger who looks for contributors. The worst! He’s so smart, has such impeccable taste and great personality that I don’t think anyone could ever replace him. I’m usually annoying to work with because I know what I want for the blog, or so I seem to think. Sascha sometimes came up with ideas for posts which I didn’t find exciting but I knew it would be silly to say ‘no’ to his ideas. He might have different tastes from me sometimes but he still has great taste and a way to write that makes the dullest topic sound fascinating.

So I wish more people could contribute to the blog, especially because I tend to write excruciatingly slowly, but as long as no scientist has found a way to clone Sascha, I’ll just keep on blogging as a lonesome cowboy.

How much do you know about your readers? Do you engage in an active dialogue with your readership (via comments, Twitter, Facebook or other tools)?

Well, I wish they’d engage in a more active dialogue but I also know that I’m not really encouraging them to.

I don’t Twitter and my Facebook page is private. I mostly post videos of Demis Roussos on my Facebook wall (here’s my favourite one). I wish my blog had a Facebook page but I got totally disheartened when I realized someone had been faster than me. There’s some awful wmmna page on Facebook, and the person responsible for it would not answer my messages. Reminds me that I should do something about it instead of sitting there complaining to you.

I nevertheless feel that I have a very close relationship with my readers because I meet many of them in festivals, conferences and other events. People would then come up to me to introduce themselves. That’s how I know them. I love them. It sounds a cliché but I do. Also many students write me to ask for some help in researching a project and I’m always happy to give a hand. Note to any journalist reading these lines: I won’t help you, ok? Seriously you can’t imagine the number of journalists who contact bloggers and ask them to do some research for them. I had very bad experiences in the past: journalists copy/pasting what I had written to them and never giving credit, not even sending me an email to thank me. I’m not looking for exposure, but a ‘thank you’ because I’ve spent a couple of hours doing your job would be nice. Not all journalists are like that, thank god, but ’'m not taking any more risks.

In how far are you influenced by your readership’s responses?

Very little. Every reader has a different idea of what my blog should be, everyone expects something different and it would be impossible for me to make everyone happy. What I could do, however, is look at my stats and see which stories are the most read and commented and act accordingly. That’s precisely what I did a few years ago and I was extremely disappointed to see that the posts that meant the most to me were far from being the most successful. Instead, I noticed that the most popular stories were about robots, sex and all of that together when possible.

Two or three years ago, I started writing about biotech art and the response from some readers was spectacularly negative. Because my blog had been associated with digital art and interaction design so far, artists, designers and other readers would come up to me at festivals and tell me: "Would you please stop writing about biotech art? It’s gross and it has nothing to do with the blog." That’s the moment I realized that the blog, that space I had always regarded as a private space, a place where I would share with my readers (or not) what interested me, had become something public in the eyes of many readers. I fight against that. It would make me miserable to write to please as many people as possible. It would probably drive me mad too.

From the past to the future: Has wmmna reached its perfect state for you already, or how do you see it develop further?

I’m never happy with whatever I do so I would never believe that my blog has reached a perfect state. Far from it.

No clue about the future. I wish I had smart strategies and cunning plans to share with the world but nope, just living by the day.

And thinking beyond that, have you ever considered what will happen to your blog if you ever decide to reduce or retire from blogging – will it become a repository, would you hand it over?

The blog is so much part of myself, it would be like handing over an arm or a lung.

And finally, are there any other (culture) blogs or online media that you would recommend?

  • The blog I’ll take on a desert island is Edgar Gonzalez. It’s in Spanish but I’ve never really seen its equivalent anywhere. It’s mostly an architecture blog but it also touches upon art, interactive design, and other forms of culture. It’s witty and written by someone who has a great personality and it shows.
  • It’s closely followed by Subtopia, a field guide to military urbanism.
  • Page 28, it’s in French and about literature but it’s written by my best friend, who appreciates Demis Roussos almost as much as I do. So here, Maddy, I often wish you were near me.
  • There is La Petite Claudine. Once again, a blog in Spanish. That girl, Marta from Elastico, has impeccable taste, one of the wittiest minds I’ve ever met and writes with talent about technology, art, sex or whatever takes her fancy.
  • Curating.info is my favourite culture blog in English. The title says it all, it’s a fantastic resource written by someone who knows what she’s talking about.
  • Neural of course, the feed of the website is great because you get Alessandro Ludovico's del.icio.us links.
  • Verve Photo. The New Breed of Documentary Photographers. Just go there and you’ll be an instant convert.
  • I love rebel:art. It’s in German but it’s one of the best resources I have found that relays the art+activist scene.
  • The Groundswell Blog does similarly fantastic work but is based in the US. It also has a more design-y perspective.
  • There’s the Resist project I’m involved in. It’s a multi-disciplinary project about new ways to tackle economical apartheid. I’m currently running the art section of the blog. In a pretty laid-back way so far, but in the second phase we’ll be commissioning artists’ works that offer everyday people new ways to resist and engage with a number of social issues.
  • …and last but not least there’s WNMNA these guys are wonderful. Sometimes they would translate my posts and sometimes they write their own (which cover more closely the Chinese new media art scene). Unlike me they have unlimited resources of energy (my laziness is legendary) and organize their own events, workshops and artists’ talks to spread the new media art love in China.

Thanks a lot for your interest, Annette!