Five Questions with Tanya Toft Ag

The Danish Curator On Nordic Art in the Digital Age

How do technology and globalization affect artists, their creative processes, and, ultimately, their works? This complex question is the centrepiece of Digital Dynamics in Nordic Contemporary Art (Intellect, 2019) — a new book edited by Danish curator and scholar, Tanya Toft Ag — and soon to hit bookshelves in New York City.

Using the Nordic cultural context as focal point, Ag stresses that how we acknowledge the influence of societal digital dynamics on art is relevant to how we view, review and archive the contemporary relevance of art.

Ahead of her book launch at New York’s Scandinavia House, where Ag will also open the Nordic Impressions exhibit, Denmark In New York caught up with the author and curator to talk about her work and reflections on the topic.

Denmark In New York: Your book Digital Dynamics in Nordic Contemporary Art examines digital influences on Nordic and global contemporary art. Why is this an important field of study?

Tanya Toft Ag: Art has a special place in our human cultural world, but this is a place that changes. Many books have covered how digital forms and behaviors of art have emerged with digital technology. This book examines how contemporary art is contingent with digital culture, meaning how network culture, interactivity (and inactivity), our increasing presence in immersive experience, collision of real and virtual worlds, politics of technology and human behavior etc. influence art because these dynamics influence artists’ life worlds.

Olafur Eliasson is among the Danish artists featured at the Nordic Impressions exhibit at Scandinavia House. The exhibit will be opened by the Digital Dynamics book launch.

The book fleshes out some of these digital dynamic changes in society and how they affect and change what artists make, how they make it, and why. This changes art’s role in Nordic societies, and in the world at large. It is important to study this to keep up with art that might look and behave differently today than it did previously so that we can adjust how we write its histories (in a horizontal landscape), value its qualities, support it, critique it, and build curricula for learning about contemporary art.

DNY: The book is based on 78 interviews with different artists. Why did you choose this method and what perspectives does this afford on the topic?

There are plenty of interesting books that take an analytical or theoretical approach to examining digital art, where a researcher or curator maps an overview and draws the big picture. Art history is rarely written from the perspective of the artist. This book takes a point of departure in artists’ own perspectives in response to questions on how they see technology and digital culture changing their practices, the Nordic art context(s), and contemporary art at large. They share very personal experiences and honest reflections on that. Then, based on artists’ perspectives, the analytical and art historical views of curators and scholars have contributed their chapters.

With this book I am interested in deeper changes in contemporary art, which begin with artists’ practices. Rather than ‘what we have’ I am interested in the deeper dynamics that give us a hint of where art is moving.

DNY: In the book, you chose the Nordic Region as your point of departure. What makes this context particularly special and interesting?

Although international and influenced by the world as we see in universal, global themes in art from the Nordic region, artists who derive from or practice their art within the Nordic context(s) share a sociopolitical reality that differs from most other regions in the world. The Nordic countries share a common political history shaped by strong social democratic governments and a ‘Nordic model’, which contextualizes a sense of collective upbringing, values of solidarity and equality, and general stability. This ties in with policies of prioritizing public funding for art where, since the mid-1960s, Nordic cultural funds made available under the Nordic Council of Ministers have supported and encouraged Nordic co-operation and collaboration in the domain of arts and culture. This is a very special context for art even if intertwined with a global world.

Poul Gernes’ work at the Nordic Impressions exhibit at Scandinavia House in New York.
The Nordic countries share a common political history shaped by strong social democratic governments and a ‘Nordic model’, which contextualizes a sense of collective upbringing, values of solidarity and equality, and general stability.

With the digital we see, however, — as the book reveals — how orientations are changing, from a sense of ‘collectivity of the state’ to a sense of ‘connectivity with the world’; where artists practice from a both real and perceived sense of capability to act in the larger world and perhaps affect it. We see how firmly established concepts in artistic discourse are changing, such as ‘representation’ and conceptions of nature and our relations to it. I believe that we are witnessing radical changes in contemporary art which involve changes in deep-anchored trajectories in the Nordic contexts.

DNY: How can New York function as a platform for the launch of this book?

New York City has hosted the practices of many Nordic artists in the more experimental alley of art and technology not to mention Billy Klüver (E.A.T.) and Steina Vasulka (The Kitchen) in the 1960s but also many artists since. This is the city where I curated the video art exhibition Nordic Outbreak in 2013 together with Nina Colosi, presented by the Streaming Museum, which was the point of departure for this book. By choosing New York City for the inaugural book launch, I want to stress the book’s relevance also beyond the Nordic region and hopefully to enter an international canon of contemporary art history.

Danish artist Tal R will be featured at the Nordic Impressions exhibit.

DNY: What reflections and influences do you hope to generate with this book?

The book offers an approach to contemporary art as evolving in a horizontal way, meaning as a domain of interdisciplinary methodologies and influences. I believe that art, especially contemporary art that engages technology and is produced within digital culture, cannot be studied without simultaneously studying its contexts. With this book I hope to push a common modern approach to art as somehow isolated in a white cube to rather seeing the art as contingent with our contemporaneity and lives within it. I would like for us (the public, art foundations, critics and policy makers) to appreciate experimentation as much as reference, to acknowledge that art might find forms and ways of expression that we are not familiar with (in which we might find new criteria for art’s quality and value), and to be open-minded when it comes to anticipating what art might ‘be’ in the future, where it might be found, and what it might ‘do’.


Johanne Guttman Andersen is the Culture Intern at Denmark In New York.