[iDC] Curating New Media Art

Trebor Scholz trebor at thing.net
Tue Apr 11 12:38:10 EDT 2006

 In Liverpool two weeks ago, a conference revolved around media art
curating. With its eleven speakers Art-Place-Technology was a small,
focused event that took place in the classic wooden auditorium with tall
windows at John Moores University, just one block away from Condoleeza
Rice's temporary residence. The tumult of the protesters caused by the
visit of the US Secretary of State made up the background sound to some
of the event. 


Amanda McDonald Crowley started the event refusing to be categorized as
a curator. "I'm making situations!" she said. Amanda investigated the
role of collaboration in curatorial practice asking if it merely
constitutes compromise. Like in the arts at large also in new media,
some curators strive to be artists. A deep voice out of the auditorium
added the work of Hans Ulrich Obrist as example of this type of
curatorial approach in which artists merely become invisible, creative
laborers who support the vision of a conceptual director. Amanda also
raised the question if workers in the culture industry with its
corporate, institutionalized funding dynamics now become new media
apparatchiks. Amanda reported that Eyebeam has moved to a focus on media
art production workshops and educational programs rather in opposition
to being a collecting museum. 


Charlie Gere linked Derrida's idea of hospitality to the varying degrees
with which new media art, and net art in particular, is welcomed into
traditional art institutions. Will the guest ever become a permanent
resident? Charlie asserted that net art lives parasitically and
certainly marginalized in these art contexts. It eats off its resources
without contributing to the host's well being. He argued that the longer
net art lives in this type of existence in the gallery, the more it will
blend into this environment. He referred to similarities to early video
art. Charlie emphatically demanded rules for the authoritative
evaluation of media art. What would a set of criteria for quality of a
media art project look like? The discussion that followed pondered where
is this desire for straight rules originates? Why do we need to have
clear guidelines for what is good or bad? Is life unbearable in the face
of the ambivalence and pluralistic sea of voices and opinions? Or, as
some conference participants questioned, is this drive for the ten rules
of good media art based on the desire for authoritative curatorial or
interpretive power over institutional inclusion and exclusion?      


Throughout the discussion the marginal role of media art curators in
museums was bemoaned. The Whitney Museum of American barely gives a desk
to their adjunct media art curator. Equivalent jobs at the Tate in
London with its amazing online archive of talks and discussions are also
rather peripheral in their position within the institution. 

Simon Worthington of MetaMute.org posed that "participation is the core
theme of restructuring a cultural organization." The Metamute crew was
inspired by the Open Source Software for constituency relationship
management (CRM) used by Howard Dean in his election campaign. Simon
talked about ways in which Metamute steers toward web2print-on-demand
(web2pod). Here one can print just a few copies of a book at reasonable
prices. The issue of participation in metamute raised a few questions.
Why would writers upload their texts to metamute without getting paid,
for example? What about the hierarchy of exchange that is created in
which contributors to Metamute, uploading to their site, significantly
boost the cultural capital of those who run the site without gaining
much themselves.   


Inke Arns questioned the strategic usefulness of the term new media art.
Just by calling it media art and by fore-grounding technical minutiae of
art projects potential visitors to her institution may stay home.
Perhaps, she argued, simply talking of art or defining artwork according
to the way they behave would be more productive. Inke reflected on the
growing discontent with the notion of media art. Media art cannot be
defined merely in technical terms she said. She called for an
open-minded approach to a field of practice that is largely invisible in
arts institutions. At the same time Inke reinforced the importance to
insist on much of new media work as art. Stephen Kovats proposed an
interdisciplinary approach that goes beyond traditional curatorial
practice. For Stephen, the unstable, procedural properties of today's
media call for a stealth rather than a fixed attitude. As an example he
showed Moholy Nagy 1926 project ŒLicht - Raum Modulator¹ and asserted
the complete misunderstanding of the work demonstrated by its display in
museums. Curators frequently mistake the apparatus that creates the work
with the piece itself. Steven asserted that Nagy's artwork is not the
artistic tool itself and that putting this on display comes close to
understanding a programmer's algorithms printed out on paper as the
functioning software itself.


Sarah Cook introduced the work of Crumb and facilitated discussion
groups, which she focused on themes that were overlooked or
under-examined during the event. liverpool3.jpgShe also introduced
useful quotes on the topic of collaboration such as Simon Pope's
"collaboration and open source cultures can be very competitive: don¹t
try to bankrupt the person you are giving the gift to" Sarah's workshop
crystallized several questions. Charlie, for instance, pushed for a
clear standard of quality in new media that could be applied across the
board at least as a discussion starter. He bemoaned the postmodern
everything goes plurality of approaches. However, this question of
quality or even classifications in art and non-art raised eyebrows.
Another topical orientation was that of utopian associations that are
immediately associated with digital artwork and social networks and
cooperative structures in particular. Right away references to 1968


In my presentation I proposed an online repository for experiences with
collaborative and cooperative processes such as event organziation, the
production of art projects, collaborative writing, and more.

download presentation <http://molodiez.org/ts_liverpool0406.pdf>
People work together forever but where is the inventory of what they
learned? I also proposed a manual for collaboration in the form of a
list that can serve as guideline for working together. Surely,
collaboration is not something we do after having had coffee in the
morning, it is a sticky, muddy affair. But nevertheless, an ABC's of
Collaboration and an examination of the properties of collaboration is
important. As the term of collaboration is polluted fo many, I suggested
a differentiation in cooperation and collaboration and within that
trajectory I argued for free cooperation as suggested by Christoph
Spehr. I talked about the tragedy of the social new media event machine
pointing to problems like the reign of affect over content, a common
lack of topical focus and diversity of speakers. Additional problems
include the simultaneity of sessions at events that drives speakers into
the competition over audiences. I continued to present a typology of
event formats also formulating a critique of paperism and panelism. I
called for a theory of the social event machine. Such theory would also
address event economies. In the face of wide-spread resource scarcity I
proposed the term of extreme sharing networks and delineated their
potential: a politics of inspiration. The issue of the virtualization of
conferences (Broeckman) led me to questions of participation online and
off. This is often overlooked when cultural workers open room online
(i.e. mailinglists, participatory artworks, etc). What motivates people
to participate in an online environment? At the conference some people
suggested that online, compared to physical exhibitions, there is no
such thing as an audience. In the WWW everybody is supposed to be a
participant. But the potential user/producer is at least occasionally
just a viewer. There are many who enjoy their double life as authors and
lurkers and again others are -and will remain- exclusively viewers. The
discussion about curating media art led to exchanges about the role of
cultural web-based repositories and the role of the curated website. Who
ever visits them beyond a small number of experts? Do people go to these
archives to experience art? In relation to the role of the curator I
pointed out that there is an emerging phenomenon that I called the
cultural context provider. Two characteristics shape the ccp. 1)
Cultural workers produce contexts into which others input their content.
2) Artists curate, write, and produce artworks. Christiane Paul also
addressed this issue. Today, cultural workers often define themselves
strategically depending on funding contexts. Some of it may even relate
to life style choices. Today, you may get a grant for being a curator,
tomorrow your nearby institution may be willing to pay for a technician,
or an artist, or theorist. Cultural identity becomes strategic.
Evident throughout the discussions was a fairly narrow focus on several
pioneering individuals who curated shows in the field. The clear and
present danger is that of a further ghettoization of media art in which
friends and friends of friends visualize their networks of friends in
exhibitions and catalogues. Perhaps the unstable, floating character of
the field causes a desperate hierarchization in which two or three
trustworthy individuals become masters of expertise in an ocean of
perceived untested maybes or wannabes. The establishment of a canon is
at stake (as problematic as that is). Curators try to be the ones who
bring out particular artists. There is nothing wrong with that but in
new media it causes a narrow focus of many curators who attach
themselves to two or three artists who are "tested and true" and may
become part of a canon. And they want to be the ones who emerge with
them. The pressure is on if there are only two or three jobs worldwide
for major media art curators. For video it took about forty years to
become a bit more center stage in the museum. But possibly the
underlying assumption is wrong in the first place. Perhaps emergent
digital aesthetics need new venues outside of the establishments of the
art world. The dance club. The community center. Much of the discussion
at the conference was focused on curating media art in the blue ship
gallery or museum. Perhaps this is where the problem starts. What about
alternative, new venues, not to talk of autonomous spaces or
initiatives? Is the struggle over new media art just a fight for
recognition in the blue ship art establishment? For all one knows the
battle should rather focus on getting new media art out of the white
cube and into other cultural spheres.  

It is vitally important not to get stuck in small circle discussions
that entirely focus on curating media art. I am also always amazed how
even in new media circles with all their distributed research,
discussions are still predominantly referential to national discourses.
It sometimes feels like the global networks still spin only special
interest nests, "cyberarchipelagos". While an expertise in this area is
important it is equally pertinent to keep an open mind and include
discourses and people who do not directly relate, who are not part of
the circulus of a small network. Art-Place-Technology conference was
spearheaded by the curators Iliyana Nedkova and Chris Byrne who took
that into consideration when they focused the event on
interdisciplinarity. They facilitated this event with the a large cadre
of supporters at John Moores while at the same time raising their small
child that was present during some of the presentations. The
cross-disciplinary approach of Chris and Iliyana was reflected, for
example, in the invitation of people who are not in fact new media art
curators but rather come to the topics from an odd topical angle.

At night, after a few unavoidable pints at the pub and a performance at
Liverpool's new media center FACT, going back to my hotel room through
the empty, wet streets of Liverpool, a well-dressed, middle-aged man
walks in front of me.  Over his shoulder he carries a large black and
white anarchy flag. The next conference on media art (curating) could
look closer at bringing media art into alternative, non-institutional
contexts, out of the white box of the museum.


On the backover of Oliver Grau's book "Virtual Art" Friedrich Kittler
writers that "The highly ambitious task of locating the latest image
technologis within a wider art-historical context has now been
accomplished." This authoritative German spirit is exactly not what the
discussion about new media art and curating needs. This discourse should
remain an open discussion to which many voices add their wide range of
perspectives and international positions. The discourse around new media
does not need a cult following of a handful of leaders. It needs a wide
spectrum of voices adding to that scary creature emerging out of the
sea. We don't yet know what it will look like.

-Trebor Scholz 

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