August 19, 2004

ISEA 2004: Curating and Preserving New Media Art

by Noah Wardrip-Fruin · , 9:26 am

Well, the GTxA crew has certainly been enjoying ISEA. Personally, I’d say this is one of the most ambitious and interesting gatherings I’ve ever attended. But it hasn’t been terribly easy to blog — until now, in Helsinki. Now I’m writing notes about a panel on “Curating and Preserving New Media Art.”

Steve Dietz. Two core principles for curating new media art. (1) Like curating any art, but different. (2) The most interesting potential is how it might change the practice of curating.

It might seem like the U.S. is regressing — but sampling from elsewhere might make one think that things are flourishing. Beyond this, there seems to be too much emphasis on technoformalism. Why is this, after so many years? Artists and curators seem to feel desperation (to use too strong a word) in the face of the indifference of institutions and the public. Yet token inclusion in “real art shows” isn’t much of a goal. He argues for “art after new media.” Examples include: variable media, locative media, and the broad category of interactive media (digital and not). It’s not that exhibitions of new media art should not exist, nor that mainstream art institutions should be given a pass. “New media art is dead. Long live new media art.” (Steve: I know this is elliptical. Maybe fill us in more in the comments?)

Beryl Graham. Looking at “interactivity” — but aware that it was hyped to near=meaninglessness in the 1990s. She’s looked particularly at SF MOMA’s 010101. It was curated across departments (photography, sculpture, etc). Nearly everyone associated with it now gone from the institution. Talks about the difficulties the guards she interviewed had explaining to people what was interactive, what was meant to be watched, what was meant to be touched. And then problems like a piece meant to be climbed upon but wasn’t durable enough. Shows a set of screens that confused visitors — all together, but one is showing the exhibition website, one is showing information related to the show meant to be seen in the gallery, and one showing one of the included artworks. Now a more recent work: Learning to Love You More. A shell in which people can participate meaningfully, and that successfully entices them to do so. But then the open shell has things selected from it to put together a relatively traditional presentation of material for the gallery. Then on to Rafel Lozano Hemmer, Rirkrit Tirvananija, talking about what happens when work moves into the gallery. How do you, as a museum, record and make meaningful the interaction that’s at the heart of a social piece (for your archives, for your catalog)? The framework of Cornock and Edmonds (1977) who created a taxonomy for interactive art. Is the most interactive position possible for computer-based art to occupy? Things from the “serious games” show. And finally Janet Cardiff.

Sarah Cook. “Overcoming the distance: displaying data-based and location-driven new media art.” She’s working on an exhibition with Steve of work of these sorts. Talks about 1:1 (how do you map the web?). Two tactics: (1) take it outside, (2) use a recognizable format. PDPal is an example — you can do something specific to where you are, and can use personal markers to map in a subjective way (recognizable format is Palm Pilot). Another example includes a piece that involves an outdoor billboard (outside, familiar format). More tactics: (3) leave it online,(4) let people find it there. Examples: Urban Letterboxing (a rural books-and-stamps experience translated into urban space) and BorderXing. Tactics: (5) connect to other media outlets, (6) for instance, broadcast it. Examples: Conventional Wisdom 2004, Monument, TV Swansong. The recurring dilemma: white cube, black box, something else?

Caitlin Jones. Now the main Guggenheim person for the Variable Media Network. Many of the challenges in curating and preserving new media art are shared with many other areas of contemporary art. A latex sculpture (Hesse), a light installation (Flavin). They articulated a number of behaviors for talking about artwork: installed, performed, interactive, reproduced (lossy), duplicated (not lossy), encoded (computer code or score), networked (any type of network), contained (added after work with other curators focused on variable painting and sculpture). Developed questionnaire, to help set limits and find strategies for future presentation/preservation. Strategies: storage, migrate, emulate, and reinterpret. So, for example, interviewing Flavin he’s been clear that his work is not about the specific fixtures, but about the quality of the light. But a lot of his work used a red-toned type no longer available (because of cancer-causing problems). And though the artist says new fixtures are okay, the art market pays much more for original fixtures. Hesse’s estate says the work is the work (it’s the decayed latex, unexhibitable). Those who knew her say it should be remade with new material. The Guggenheim did a case study this year, using Weinbren and Friedman’s The Erl King (Z80 computer, etc). Interviews with the artist made it clear that the work isn’t about hardware, but about the interactive cinema experience. (Suddenly, we have a mic! Much easier to hear.) The code, written by the artist, was one of the core things to preserve. So they decided to test their emulation strategy. They hired someone to create emulation/interpretation for the Z80, the laserdisk players, etc. Moved it all on to one computer, trying to keep it all functioning the same way. And the new technology changed things. The new version functioned much much faster (e.g., time between when user touches the screen and the system reacts). Rather than underclocking overall, they decided (why??) to go into the artist’s code and put in wait statements. Anyway, by the end they were able to create a version about which the artist was ecstatic. In the final exhibition they had more artists and showed the original and emulated versions side-by-side, and had a symposium. But things like physically modded hardware might be seen by the artist as essential to preserve. Conclusions: this work has to be pursued on a case-by-case basis. What might be good for one artwork won’t work for another.

V2 just came out with a great study of the process of documenting media art.

This room is packed to the gills. People lining the walls. Clearly, these issues are deeply important to the ISEA community.

Questions and discussion. Graham says there’s been little discussion of curatorial issues at ISEA in the past. First questioner says that preserving new media art is like preserving a species. How do we preserve salmon? Smoke them? Eat them? Catch them? He thinks we should pollute the environment less, so that salmon can keep growing. No one on the panel has a response, but Christiane Paul (in the audience) tells of three students in different places around the world in the last year who all showed her their new piece — which was Jeffery Shaw’s Golden Calf, which they had never heard of. Is having a new version of Shaw’s work over and over what he means?

The conversation moves on. Someone points out that the cabinet for the emulated Erl King is very different from the original one. It doesn’t create the same personal space. Jones says they worked very closely with the artist, and the work has been presented many different ways around the world over the years.

Next question: is there any way to preserve social context, network context? What about net.art from back when people used things like search engines differently? Jones says, maybe in these cases we can only document, rather than preserve. And social context always changes around a work. That said, we should do more to preserve social context.

Next question: Any comments on time base in these contexts? TV Swansong was pretty problematic — mapping the idea of live TV onto the web. Cook says it was deliberate play with the idea of “convergence.” Deitz suggests that part of this comes from looking at it from a visual arts perspective. What about a performing arts perspective instead? From that kind of perspective a three-day run wouldn’t be unusual (a point we also deal with, a bit, in Acid-Free Bits, of course).

One Response to “ISEA 2004: Curating and Preserving New Media Art”


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