BY Ben Livne Weitzman in Opinion | 07 MAR 23

Remembering Peter Weibel (1944–2023)

Looking back on the pioneering artist, curator and media theorist’s life and career

BY Ben Livne Weitzman in Opinion | 07 MAR 23

One strange day in Vienna in 1973, Peter Weibel, the famously argumentative artist, curator, educator and media theorist, stunned his audience with an unexpected act of silence. For several hours Weibel did not utter a single word, a feat that may come as a surprise to those familiar with his reputation for rapid-fire speech and ceaseless mental acrobatics. With this performance piece, Raum der Sprache (Space of Language, 1973), Weibel sought to expose the limitations of language by immersing his tongue in cement, an act of such commitment that the artist suffered permanent damage to his tongue while being chiselled free from the prison in which he had chosen to confine himself. This unusual display of stillness was in fact far from silent; rather, it was a dynamic provocation that spoke volumes.

Peter Weibel. Courtesy: © ZKM | Zentrum für Kunst und Medien Karlsruhe; photograph: Christof Hierholzer

Last week, after a brief struggle with a severe illness, Weibel passed away aged 78, just a month before his planned retirement as chairman of ZKM Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, the institution he helmed for 24 years. Weibel's ever curious and relentless energy transformed the ZKM into arguably the most significant centre of its kind globally, earning him a reputation as a key figure in the field of media art. His approach to art making and curating was radical in its rejection of convention. Always in flux, Weibel was a living, breathing embodiment of a thought-experiment in motion.

Born 1944 in Soviet Odesa (present-day Ukraine) to a Wehrmacht officer and a German-Russian mother, Weibel spent his formative years at a displaced persons camp in Austria, later moving between foster homes and boarding schools. ‘The vehicle for my insurrections against a repressive society was my art,’ he told CLOT Magazine in 2021, crediting his rebellious nature to this rough upbringing. In one of these institutions, the young boy’s love of books was frowned upon, and he was severely punished whenever he was caught reading smuggled books at night by the window. 'I wanted to understand the world,’ he said in the same interview, ‘I wanted to know.’ By the time of his passing, he owned more than 120,000 books.

Peter Weibel, Sozialmatrix (Social Matrix), 1971, performance documentation

Weibel's insatiable appetite for learning drove him to study medicine and mathematics in Vienna and literature in Paris. These studies laid the groundwork for an enduring fascination with the intersection of art, science and technology. In 1964, the same year that Marshall McLuhan published his groundbreaking book Understanding Media, Weibel began creating art himself. Never aligning with dominant tendencies, Weibel's works stood out in their unconventional aesthetics and anti-establishment spirit. From expanded cinema to viennese actionism (a term he coined), Weibel ceaselessly explored the relationships between the body and the physical and sociopolitical environment.

In the 1990s, Weibel turned towards curation. Holding numerous positions at once, he often proclaimed that art ‘knows no weekends’. Most notably, he was an advisor and then director of Ars Electronica in Linz and chief curator at the Neue Galerie Graz, before being appointed chairman and CEO of ZKM in 1999. Yet, even as he became part of the establishment, he remained constantly critical, seeking to reimagine and expand the boundaries of the institutions at which he worked. Above all, he worked incessantly to promote media art and bring it from the fringes into the mainstream. Artist Lynn Hershman-Leeson remembers Weibel's generous and unwavering support. ‘When he realized that most of my work,’ she told me via email, ‘particularly the media work, had never been exhibited and were deemed "not art" he immediately arranged a retrospective exhibition.’ The ZKM exhibition ‘Civic Radar’ (2014), together with the book of the same name published two years later, established Hershman-Leeson as a pioneer in media art since the 1960s, finally earning her recognition at the age of 74.

Lynn Hershman-Leeson and Peter Weibel at the press conference for ‘Civic Radar’, 2014, ZKM Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe

Always emphasizing the democratization and distribution of knowledge – from on- and off-line lectures, to countless books and publications, and the numerous teaching positions he held since the mid-1970s in Vienna, Halifax, Kassel, Buffalo and Frankfurt – Weibel never ceased creating settings that allowed for art, whether his own or that of others, to be made, seen and discussed. He also had a knack for bringing together artists and thinkers from various fields. Together with the late philosopher Bruno Latour, one of his long-term creative partners, Weibel created three highly regarded interdisciplinary exhibitions at the ZKM designed as thought experiments. ‘Iconoclash’ (2002) problematized the role of images and frames of representation, ‘Making Things Public’ (2005) explored the concept of object-oriented democracy and their final collaboration ‘CriticalZones’ (2020), mapped new modes of environmental coexistence.

Peter Weibel, Media May Rewind Reality, 1970/2023, installation view. Courtesy: © Peter Weibel and Galerie Anita Beckers; Photograph: © GRAYSC

Following news of Weibel’s passing last week, his 1970 piece Media May Rewind Reality was installed in the grand, metropolis-like entrance hall of the ZKM. A video of a lighted candle plays in reverse, gradually growing as time passes, while a physical candle sitting on the television monitor slowly dwindles. The work, which also won Weibel the BEEP Collection prize at ARCO Madrid just weeks ago, is a poignant farewell to a polymath who many thought to be immortal. While we can’t turn back time, media art permits us to replay it. Weibels flame will keep burning bright within the video loop’s eternal return.

Ben Livne Weitzman is a curator and writer based in Frankfurt am Main, Germany.