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Christiane Paul

Curator of Whitney Museum


New media art has inspired dreams about our technological future, among them the dream of reconfigured of museums and art institutions. New media art seems to call for a "ubiquitous museum" or "museum without walls," a parallel, distributed, living information space that is open to artistic interference—a space for exchange, collaborative creation, and presentation that is transparent and flexible

There is no doubt that traditional art institutions must transform themselves if they want to accommodate new media art. A museum wanting to integrate new media art must "interface the digital," a process requiring the development of presentation formats and exchanges, between institutions, curators, artists, artworks, and audiences. Many curators and other practitioners in new media seek to "teleport" the art out of its ghetto and introduce it to a larger public.

Taxonomies of New Media Art

Each of the distinguishing characteristics of the digital medium—all of them do not necessarily surface in a work and they occur in varying combinations—seems to pose its own set of challenges. New media works are time-based and dynamic, interactive and participatory, customizable and variable. Time-based projects that require an extended viewing period are not necessarily medium-specific, applying to video works and performances as well as new media works. Performances have long been an exception, not the rule, in the mostly object-based art world. After approximately three decades, video seems to have established a safe place in the art world, but the museums’ relationship to performance, sound art, or "non-material" art forms remains problematic. While an artwork that needs to be experienced over an extended time poses a challenge per se, the time-based nature of new media art is far more problematic than that of film or video, which ultimately still presents itself as a linear finished "product." New media art, however, is potentially dynamic and non-linear: even if a project is not interactive, the viewer may look at a visualization driven by real-time data flow from the Internet that will never repeat itself or a database-driven project that continuously reconfigures itself over time. A viewer who spends only a minute or two with a video in a gallery space does not have an optimal experience, though that viewer at least glimpses and gets a brief impression of the project. Spending the same time with a new media project often reveals much less: the viewer might see only one configuration of an essentially nonlinear project. The context and logic of a particular sequence remains unclear. Every art project is embedded in a context, but viewers of new media works depend on contextual information: about the data (in the broadest sense) being shown, where it is coming from, and the logic by which it is configured.

Gary Hill Between Cinema and a Hard Place 1991 © Gary Hill; photograph Tate

Gary Hill Between Cinema and a Hard Place 1991 © Gary Hill; photograph Tate

Potentially interactive and participatory, new media art allows forms of navigating, assembling, or contributing to the art work that go beyond the interactive, mental event of experiencing it. Suddenly the common plea of the museum not to touch the art no longer applies, but large segments of the audience still hesitate to engage physically with the artwork in a gallery space. Moreover, most new media art requires familiarity with interfaces and navigation paradigms. Even though computers seem to have become more or less ubiquitous, one can not presume that every member of an audience will be an expert.

New media art requires platforms of exchange—between artwork and audience or the public space of a gallery and the public space of a network, for example. Practical challenges include the need for continuous maintenance and a flexible and technologically equipped exhibition environment, which museum buildings (traditionally based on the "white cube" model) cannot always provide as well as conceptual issues and a continuing need to organize educational programs for audiences to make them more familiar with this still emerging art form.

New Media in the Gallery: From Installation to "Mobile" Art

Presenting new media art in the museum or gallery space always recontextualizes it and often reconfigures it. Installations of digital art already create a distinct presence in physical space and sometimes need to be installed according to specified measurements (of height, width, lighting, etc.) The variability and modularity inherent to the medium, however, often mean that a work can be reconfigured for a space and shown in very different ways. Variability enables a fluent transition between the different manifestations a "virtual object" can take: the same work might be presented, for example, as an installation or projection, or in a kiosk. Ultimately, the physical environment should be defined by what an artwork requires. It is important to establish a connection between the physical and virtual space.

Digital technologies make us reconsider our traditional notions of space and architecture, and many efforts are currently being made to translate the characteristics of virtual spaces and information architecture into physical space. In an art exhibition, the connections established between virtual and physical space, which ultimately affect the aesthetics of the work, should be decided collaboratively by the curator and artist(s).

Traditional presentation museum spaces create presentation models that are not particularly appropriate for new media art. The white cube creates a "sacred" space and a blank slate for contemplating objects. Most new media art is inherently performative and contextual—networked and connected to the "outside"—and often feels decontextualized in a white space. The black box, the preferred space for film / video projections and installations does not necessarily provide better conditions. Unless new media works depend on specific lighting conditions—because they incorporate light sensors or create an immersive space—they do not require darkness. Pieces can be shown just as well in a lighted gallery space, though that may require extremely strong projectors, which are too expensive for many institutions. Developments in exhibition technology—holographic screens, laser-readable glass plates, and so forth— have broadened the options for presenting new media art, and these presentation mechanisms become more affordable in the near future.[]

            Allocating a separate space for new media art with computers and screens, a practice often criticized, can be explained by technical requirements (a dark space for projections; the availability or lack of network connections, etc.). The major disadvantage of this presentation model is that new media art, when not experienced in the context of works in other media, becomes marginalized from the "(hi)story of art" unfolding in the other galleries. At the same time, the separate setup invites to spend more time with an artwork than the average museum visitor is willing to invest. While the "ghetto" of the new media area is commonly considered the epitome of the uneasy relationship of institutions with new media at this time, some curators have pointed to its "political" advantages. If museums have designated (sometimes sponsored) spaces for new media art, they are also obliged to offer continuous programming for these galleries, guaranteeing the art form a regular exposure.

An issue in both installations and net art is whether a piece was created for multiple participants or a single user. Multi-user projects work better in public space whereas watching someone else navigate a work may be frustrating (like giving someone control over a TV's remote control and watching them surf channels). Some people, however, who would have been hesitant to take over the input device—mouse, joystick, keyboard, or something else—to explore a work can be engaged as they watch others people and learn to use the interface.


Installation: Data Dynamics

In 2001, I curated an exhibition titled Data Dynamics for the Whitney Museum of American Art, which consisted of five projects of net art (and networked art), all shown as installations or projections. The Data Dynamics projects provided visual models for representing a continuously changing flow of data. Each of the works focused on different dynamics of data in mapping language, stories, memories, or traffic in physical and virtual spaces. The decision to show these projects as installations was driven not by a wish to make it "easier" for the visitor, but by the explicit comment of all the works on notions of (physical) space.

             The artworks in this exhibition took different approaches to linking physical and virtual space. DissemiNET (by Sawad Brooks and Beth Stryker), for example, had been conceived as both a web site and a physical interface of telematic instruments (two interactive tables) that are supposed to connect the public space of the Web and the public space of the museum. The project consists of a database of people's stories about their experiences with homelessness and dispersal and uses Internet technologies to give a visual form to the deposits and retrievals through which people experience memory. While one of the telematic tables "collected" and filtered of the stories in the database, the other ones allowed people to "recollect" and shuffle images and text from the database by moving their hands over light sensors. Most people knew the project only as a web site and had never seen it the way it was conceived.

Follow Through

Wattenberg's and Walczak's Apartment, inspired by the concept of the Memory Palace / Theater, consists of a 2-D component, where viewers type in words and texts, creating a two-dimensional floor plan of rooms, similar to a blueprint. The architecture is based on analyzing the semantics of the viewers' words and reorganizing them to reflect the themes they express. This structure is then translated into navigable three-dimensional dwellings composed of images that appear as a projection on the wall. The images are the results of Internet searches run for the words typed in by the viewer. Projecting the 3-D interface onto the museum wall established the connection to the memory palace (mentally inscribing words onto a wall) as an original source of inspiration. The projection / installation also gave visitors an opportunity to experience the 2-D / 3-D simultaneously, which is not possible at the web site.

Adrianne Wortzel's Camouflage Town was explicitly focused on establishing a connection between physical and virtual space in the context of identity. Its main character was a robot that "lived" in the museum space and could be controlled locally and over the Internet—a creature that was both "here" and "there."

             The selection of works introduced various possibilities of data flow models, for example, mapping the data flow on the Internet (netomat™); mapping a database of stories (DissemiNET); mapping language and thought (Apartment); mapping movements in physical / virtual space (Point to Point and Camouflage Town).


Mark Napier_net.flag, 2002_Interactive networked code

Mobile Media: Follow Through

The form of new media art that is both most alien to the museum context and best exemplifies the idea of the museum without walls is mobile or locative media art—art that has been created for networked devices such as cell phones and Palm Pilots; or incorporates "wearables," such as clothing or accessories equipped with sensors or microprocessors; or makes use of the Global Positioning System (GPS) and wireless networks to deliver content specific to a location. All these forms of "ubiquitous computing" transcend the physical boundaries and walls of the museum. In the case of mobile devices that the audience brings to a museum (such as cell phones or Palm Pilots), the institution becomes an access point or node in the network—for example by setting up a beaming station. To communicate the concept of these projects, it can make sense to establish a larger network for the artwork by collaborating with other organizations that could serve as additional nodes.

Jennifer Crowe's and Scott Paterson's performative mobile media project Follow Through (2005), for example, was created specifically for the Whitney Museum of American Art's Fifth Floor Permanent Collection galleries to reflect on behavioral conventions in a museum environment. The project was inspired by the discrepancy the artists found between the art on view in the galleries and the rather passive and languid body language of museum visitors looking at that art. The artists spent weeks in the galleries studying visitors' behaviors and responses to the art before developing the project. To experience the work, visitors used portable media players to access the existing audio tour for the fifth floor galleries and, in addition to the audio for a specific work, would receive visual instructions to engage in a set of small exercises designed to bring well-established behavioral codes of museum attendance into relief. The exercises consisted of small actions that visitors of the galleries would casually 'perform' on any given visit (such as assuming a certain pose in front of a work or making a specific gesture) and drew attention to common body language in the museum setting. At times an exercise performed by a participant in the project would mirror the action of other gallery visitors who were not using the media players, resulting in a partly choreographed and partly unconscious pattern of movement.

Decisions about presenting of a new media work within a gallery have to be made case by case. There are no methods for installing the different new media that automatically ensure a successful presentation. The modularity of the digital medium definitely offers an advantage in configuring a work for physical space. It also means that an installation becomes just one possible version of a piece—a version that might never be reinstalled elsewhere. Because new media art is more process-oriented than object-oriented, it is important to convey the underlying concept of this process to the audience.


Preservation Initiatives

The process of collecting and archiving new media art should entail the responsibility of maintaining it, which may be one of the biggest challenges the art form poses. New media art is often referred to as ephemeral and unstable—labels that are only partly accurate. Any time-based art piece, such as a performance, is essentially ephemeral and often continues to exist only in its documentation. Digital technologies allow for enhanced possibilities of recording and the process of a time-based digital artwork can potentially be recorded as an archive. One could argue that bits and bytes are in fact more stable than paint, film, or video-tapes. As long as one has the instructions to compile the code—for example as a print-out on paper—the work itself is never completely lost. What makes digital art unstable are the rapid changes and developments in hardware and software, from changes in operating systems to increasing screen resolution and upgrades of Web browsers. Hardware deteriorates and replacement parts are not infinitely available.

            New media art requires new models and criteria for documenting and preserving process, context, and instability. These initiatives must develop a vocabulary for catalogue records; standards that allow to exchange the metadata gathered for catalogue records by institutions; and tools (such as database systems) for the cataloguing of unstable and process-oriented art.

Eija-Liisa Ahtila, Anne, Akie & God, 1998, © Eija-Liisa Ahtila

           Both in Europe and the United States, numerous preservation initiatives are setting out standards for preserving media works. Among them is the Variable Media Network, a consortium project that was founded by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science, and Technology, and has included the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, Cleveland Performance Art Festival and Archive, the Walker Art Center, Franklin Furnace Archive, Rhizome.org, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. The Variable Media Network brought forth a series of working groups, such as Archiving the Avant-Garde and the Forging the Future initiative. European preservation initiatives include INCCA, the International Network for the Preservation of Contemporary Art; Media Matters, created in 2003 by a consortium of curators, conservators, registrars and media technical managers from New Art Trust, MoMA, SFMOMA and Tate; and the V2 organization's Unstable Media project.

            The initiative Forging the Future: New Tools for Variable Media Preservation—based upon the preservation standards and strategies developed in previous years by its members as part of the Variable Media Network (VMN) and Archiving the Avant-Garde working groups—is focused on building tools written to those standards and designed to help organizations choose among those strategies. Forging the Future proposes a consortium of museums and cultural heritage organizations dedicated to exploring, developing, and sharing new vocabularies and tools for cultural preservation.



 Preservation Strategies

As a framework for investigating and documenting strategies for preserving ephemeral works, the variable media approach strives to define medium-independent behaviors of artwork and to identify artist-approved strategies for preservation with the help of several tools, among them the Variable Media Questionnaire (VMQ). What distinguishes the variable media paradigm from other preservation concepts is the focus on the behaviors and creator of a work rather than its material. The initiative defined several medium-independent behaviors—installed | performed | reproduced | duplicable | interactive | encoded | contained | networked—and four main approaches to preservation:


  • storage (collecting software and hardware as it continues to be developed)
  • emulation ("recreating" software, hardware and operating systems through emulators—programs that simulate the original environment and its conditions)
  • migration (upgrading the work to the next version of hardware / software)
  • reinterpretation ("restaging" a work in a contemporary context and environment)

 Tools: The Variable Media Questionnaire

As part of the Forging the Future initiative, the Whitney Museum has been testing the latest version of the VMQ by conducting interviews with several artists whose work is in the Museum's collection, among them Cory Arcangel (Super Mario Clouds, 2002-03).

             The Whitney's case studies are testing the VMQ with regard to its categories of behaviors and their applicability in view of necessary modifications of works over time. The questionnaire is not a sociological survey, but an instrument for determining creators' intent as to how their work should be (if at all) re-created in the future. Compared to previous versions, the third generation of the VMQ uses a component-based structure for artworks: interviewers can pick from a list of components, choose the ones applicable to the artwork, and associate them with it (each component in turn comes with a set of questions). The main components are:


  • material (such as Media Display, Computer Hardware, Live Material, Interchangeable Inert Natural or Manufactured Material, Locative Sensors, Robot, Mechanism, Reproducible Inert Manufactured Material)
  • source (Interchangeable or Reproduceable Video Source, Generic Software, Custom Software, Reproduceable Video Source, Key Concept)
  • environment (External Physical or Virtual Reference, Gallery)

·         interaction (Participant, Performer, Viewer)


There is no silver bullet approach to the preservation of new media art and the preferable strategy for preservation would ideally be defined in collaboration with the artist. Any of the above methods can be ideal or problematic depending on the specifics of a work. For example, storing hardware may be impractical but can be the only solution if a work is based on a hardware modification; migration or recreation at worst can make a work look dated, since the artist might have chosen to create an entirely different project if the latest technology had been available to him / her the time of the project’s creation.

The challenges of documenting and preserving new media art poignantly illustrate that the "immaterial" nature of new media art is best described as links between materialities—the connections between hardware and software components and processes initiated by humans and machines that form an immaterial system of their own. The success of preservation strategies will depend largely on standardization, which requires a continuous dialogue between all the organizations and institutions involved in these initiatives.



by Christiane Paul_Curator of Whitney Museum


Posted by EYEBALL_Media Arts Webzine

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