Artist, educator, and curator Peter Weibel, who led Germany’s ZKM Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe for more than two decades, died March 1 in Karlsruhe at the age of seventy-eight following a brief illness. The news was confirmed by ZKM. Weibel was an early and impassioned supporter of media art, and worked tirelessly to advance and sustain its now widely recognized lofty position in the art world. “Normally, media art is seen in the history of art as a medium of images, as a medium of representation to depict the world,” he told the Korea Times last month. “But I have a different position: I say the media are extensions of all sensory organs, artificial sensory organs. And with these organs, we don’t only receive the world, we also produce the world.”
Weibel was born in Odesa, in what was then the Soviet Union and is now Ukraine, on March 5, 1944. With his mother, he fled as a child first to Poland and eventually to Austria, where they lived in a US camp for displaced persons before gaining their footing. Weibel departed for Paris to study cinematography before moving to Viennna at the age of twenty. He first studied medicine and then logic there before turning to a conceptual art practice informed by the study of language and semiotics. By the mid-1960s, he had fallen in with the Viennese Actionists, who staged transgressive and often shocking actions that rejected traditional object-based, commercial practices and presaged contemporary performance art. He participated in a number of actions around this time, perhaps most famously allowing himself to be led on a leash on all fours through Vienna by his then partner, the artist VALIE EXPORT, in a performance examining gender roles. Concurrently, Weibel was working on what he and his compatriots termed “expanded cinema,” creating videos and installations. His investigation of television as a mass medium was embodied by his 1972 action tv und vt works, which was broadcast on Austrian national public television that year. Works of the 1980s and 1990s encompassed computer-aided video processing and interactive computer-based installations, both groundbreaking in their time.
Weibel’s careers as educator and curator developed alongside his practice and in parallel to one another. From the mid-1970s, he taught at institutions including the University of Applied Arts, Vienna; the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, Halifax; and the University of Kassel. In 1984 he took up the roles of associate professor for video and digital arts at the Center for Media Study at the State University of New York, Buffalo; and professor of visual media at Vienna’s University of Applied Arts. In 1989, he was tapped to create the Institute for New Media at the Städelschule, Frankfurt, which he led until 1994. Weibel frequently held overlapping curatorial posts. Among these were that of curatorial adviser for Ars Electronica, in Linz, Austria; having agreed to take on the role in 1989, he was made artistic director in 1992 and remained in the job until 1995. Between 1993 and 1999, he served as chief curator of Graz, Austria’s Neue Galerie am Landesmuseum Joanneum; during this same span, he curated the Austrian pavilion for the Venice Biennale. In 1999, he assumed the role of chair and CEO of ZKM; under his leadership, the institution became one of the most important media museums in the world. In recent months, Weibel had been planning his exit from ZKM, after which he meant to return to Vienna. Briton Alistair Hudson, the former director of the University of Manchester’s Whitworth Art Gallery, will succeed him at the museum beginning April 1. A major exhibition of Weibel’s work, “Respectively, Peter Weibel: Art as an Act of Cognition” is on view at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea, in Seoul, through May 23.