Peter Weibel, Influential Media Art Theorist and Artist, Dies at 78 –

Peter Weibel, an artist, curator, and theorist who worked tirelessly to raise awareness for and historicize media art at a time when few others looked at it seriously, died on March 1 at 78.

The ZKM Center for Art and Media, the museum in Karlsruhe, Germany, that Weibel directed starting in 1999, announced his passing on Thursday, saying that he died of a short, serious illness.

In its statement, the museum wrote that Weibel “left his mark on the art world with his visionary power, extensive knowledge and courage.”

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An older bald white man and a white woman with black hair and glasses stand by a bannister, in front of several drawings and prints on the wall.

Long before NFTs entered the permanent collection galleries of the world’s most well-attended museums, Weibel advocated for art made using video, digital technology, the internet, and computers as some of the key documents of our time. His programming for the ZKM reflected this emphasis, with shows that sought to provide a theoretical grounding for art that mystified many traditionally minded viewers.

Using the ambitious language he often did to describe his projects, he once told the New York Times, “We want to be the Prado of media art. When you go to the Prado in Madrid, you find all these paintings that are 500 years old. This is what I want to have achieved: That people can look at media art in 300, 200, 500 years, like they look at paintings now.”

He further explained that the ZKM had Gerhard Richter paintings in its collection—it just chose not to show them often.

Among Weibel’s most famous shows was 1999’s “Net_Condition,” curated with Walter van der Cruijsen, which has been considered by some to be the first blockbuster exhibition dedicated to net art that was held within the walls of a museum. There had been attempts to undertake similar efforts—Documenta X in 1997 famously introduced net art to one of Europe’s most famous biennial-style shows—but none had been quite so vast as this one, which featured works by JODI, Alexei Shulgin, and Markus Hemmer set within the gallery.

Weibel told the Times that the show prophesied a decade that “will be centered on Net-based installations that are a bridge between local, physical space and virtual space.”

Not everyone was as enthralled by the show as Weibel. “By delivering this avant garde to the halls of the museum, the hype is born and buried the same time,” Stephen Heidenrich wrote in Frieze.

Even if some seemed confused by Weibel’s programming, others were attracted to its heady ideas. The philosopher Bruno Latour and the curator Hans Ulrich Obrist were among those who worked with Weibel on “Iconoclash: Beyond the Image Wars in Science, Religion and Art,” a well-regarded 2002 show that sought to “display, in a systematic confrontation, three great clashes about representation—about its necessity, sanctity, and power—in the domains of science, art, and religion,” per its description.

These days, Weibel’s work at the ZKM has come to seem particularly present. In 2014, Weibel organized a retrospective for Lynn Hershman Leeson, whose works about gender, identity, and digital technology had at various points not been considered art. The show triggered a new interest in her art. Eight years later, she won a special award at the Venice Biennale.

Peter Weibel was born in 1944 in Odesa, Ukraine. He spent part of his childhood in Austria and later went to school in Paris, where he studied cinematography.

In 2022, when Russia invaded Ukraine, he would come to reflect on his Ukrainian heritage—sometimes in unexpected ways. With Alice Schwarzer, he published an open letter to German Chancellor Olaf Scholler, urging him not to send any weaponry to Ukraine, fearing that doing so would only create more bloodshed. Der Standard reported that the letter “polarized” Germany.

After his time in Paris, Weibel would head to Vienna, where he initially set out to study medicine. Then he pivoted, turning to mathematics.

In the mid-’60s, Weibel began using film to experiment with the possibilities of language and semiotics. Doing so would bring him into the fold of an emergent avant-garde in Vienna that included the Actionists, who were known for performances involving simulated carnage that were meant to evoke humanity’s basest desires.

Valie-Export, the feminist performance artist whose work made use of provocative strategies, became Weibel’s partner. She even enlisted him in some of her performances, including 1968’s Tap and Touch Cinema, in which people on the street were invited to reach into Valie-Export’s “theater” affixed to her body and handle her breasts.

A mechanical arm drawing on a sheet of paper as a person looks on.

Peter Weibel’s piece manifest (2008/17) in the 2017–18 exhibition “Open Codes” at the ZKM.

Photo Uli Deck/picture alliance via Getty Images

Weibel’s art in the following decades would come to look quite different. Many of his artworks enlist digital technologies that reform how we see ourselves and the world around us. Chants of the Pluriverse (1986–88) features an array of digital effects spread across 11 screens that are intended to conjure a new technological universe. YOU:R:CODE (2017) lets viewers see their reflections in a mirror; their images are then transformed into data displayed on a group of screens.

Both of these works are now on view in a Weibel retrospective that opened at Seoul’s National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea last month.

Weibel also worked as an educator. With Kasper König, he formed a media art center at the Städelschule, a famed art school in Frankfurt. He recalled facing some adversity, once recalling, “I was told by painters: ‘You’re the one who’s bringing the mechanical spirit into art.’ I could only retort: ‘If you’re so opposed to the mechanical spirit, then you should also remove the piano from the Städel.’” Weibel also taught at the University of Applied Art in Vienna, the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, and the State University of New York in Buffalo.

His teaching has fostered generations of digital artists, among them Refik Anadol, who now has an installation in the lobby of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. “I was very lucky to work with one of the major minds from Europe,” he told Interesting Engineering.

Weibel made the case for the continued relevancy of media art right up until the very end.

In February, he told the Korea Times, “Normally, media art is seen in the history of art as a medium of images, as a medium of representation to depict the world. 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.”

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