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MARCH 1997

by Robbin Murphy


The recent decision by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to consider including Web sites in their Architecture and Design collection and the donation of a Web project to the Whitney Museum of American Art raises a number of questions about the nature of online art and its place in our cultural institutions. Art museums and centers are charged with the job of collecting and preserving not only art objects but the context in which they can be understood. How then do we extract an online work from it's networked and therefore changing environment without dramatically changing its context?

A few months ago I wrote that I was in the process of organizing an exhibition of digital art online called "PORT: Navigating Digital Culture" at The MIT List Visual Arts Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts. At the time I admitted that certain questions routinely asked when putting together an art exhibit, questions like "is it art?" or "what does this object mean?" would probably only be answered by the exhibition itself.

Now that my co-organizer, Remo Campopiano, and I are at the midway point in the exhibition it has become obvious that there aren't only the answers that might be found, but new questions as well. The first and so far most difficult question we came up against was how to describe as a descrete art object a work that is distributed over a network and perceivable in a number of forms and configurations? If the big question used to be "is it art?" the quandry online could be "when or where is it?".

A visitor to the List Center gallery is presented with what many might consider the ideal configuration of each project. Four large screens are suspended from the ceiling to form an square-shaped immersive social space. State-of-the-art nVIEW LCD projectors provide clear, enlarged views of what is being received by computer terminals with high-bandwith Internet connections below the screens. The space is dark and all four walls of the gallery are covered with a protruding layer of didactic information about the exhibition. Artists were encouraged to work toward this configuration as an end-point when submitting their proposals and those that seemed to be most engaged in work with an understanding of a time-based online medium were selected even if the projects themselves weren't fully developed.

The result has been encouraging both in terms of the gallery experience for the visitor and the experimentation being done by the artists. By narrowing the criteria for exhibiting to projects that were time-based and scheduled for two hour slots once a week the temporal and performative aspects of the Internet are more evident than its, here, secondary role as a storage and retrieval system. That is why Web sites were considered only as part of larger performative projects or if they were interactive and required visitors to agree to gather online at a specific time in order to create an interactive social environment.

Some of the projects are accessible at any time online but only become part of the PORT exhibition during their designated time slot. A few are performed then archived so that the performance creates its own documentation (not unlike recordings or videos). Many, however, exist as perceivable art works only at their time of performance then cease to exist, except as screenshots, text captures and other records, until their next time slot rolls around.

The differences between these methods of working are important but not always evident to the gallery visitor. Many assume they are watching videos or CD-ROMs being projected and it isn't until they are told that everything is being pulled through the Internet from remote locations that PORT becomes a totally new kind of gallery experience. It's a sign of the growing acceptance of being online that so many visitors are able to adjust their own aesthetic criteria to account for the mediation of distance and network taking place.

Of course some visitors never do "get it" and others, especially if they're young, take the Internet for granted. That brings up the second question we encountered: "How do you create context for what people are seeing and hearing without becoming overly didactic and distracting from the work itself?" Because of the complexity inherent in the use of multiple technologies it was essential that a "tech" person be in the gallery at all times. I was that person for the first week and a half and soon learned that I was also the docent explaining the work to visitors, the crew taking remote direction from the artists, a guard protecting the equipment as well as the registrar in charge of documentation all rolled into one human interface.

It's a tough job and one I gladly handed over to Remo and local volunteers when I came back to New York. We like to think computers reduce the need for human labor (and may eventually replace humans altogether) but the experience taught me, at least in the environment of PORT, the human brain may be better equiped to handle some tasks than even the most powerful computer. Had PORT been better organized and planned perhaps a computer program could have taken my place, but the fact is that PORT couldn't have been organized with the degree of detail and logic needed by current programs and would have been a completely different exhibition, one displaying technology, if we had tried.

Museum curators will be glad to hear I've come to this conclusion. One of the most common responses by curators when told about the marvels of databases and automation in museums is "Why would we want to put ourselves out of a job? That's what we do!" On one level the museum is a storage and retrieval system for cultural information and the curator is a program running it. At the same time the museum is also one node in a large cultural network running a multitude of platforms where one node may see another's program as a destructive virus. The advantage of a networked environment is that borders can be solid and porous at the same time, allowing free transmittal of information but keeping conflicts at bay. Curators who have spent a lifetime developing expertise rarely appreciate being told that a relational database can do it as well and without the bias that inevidibly creeps in when a human is making decisions about cultural value. One of the most important aspects of the Internet is that instead of restricting opinions it multiplies them, echoing the Supreme Court Justice who said the solution to hate speech is more speech.

That brings me to the third important question when work is online: "Who's in charge?"

At home in New York I have been accessing the PORT projects from my own computer and have been able to view some of them from their "point of origin" in the physical space where the creators are performing. That means I've had the unique opportunity to access PORT from three different stages and I think the answer to the question of who's in charge (or who is the author) is, to different degrees depending on the project, no one and any one.

In a cultural institution it's taken for granted that the curator, or someone in a similar position, is responsible for what you see or hear. At the List Center we originally rejected the title prefering to think of ourselves as facilitators, organizers or producers instead. Curatorship connotes a relationship and responsibility for the objects in your care that requires those objects to be finished and completed facts. Since we expected the projects to emerge and evolve in the environment of the exhibition that wasn't the position we wanted to be seen in by either the artists or the visitors. But habits die hard and we've been called the curators of PORT anyway by those who want to know not only who's in charge but who's responsible.

In reality the responsibility is shared with the project creators and that involves a great deal of trust on the part of both parties. There is also the matter of the influence of the Internet itself. Fluctuations in delivery of video are a given online. What may originate as a lingering pan shot may be received as jagged pixelated jumps or as a blank window. If responsibility is shared it is control that is sometimes lost or even beside the point.

Artists are expected to want control of their work even if that means choosing to give up control. It is to the credit of the contributors that they are willing to negotiate that point in this exhibition (though in some cases it may be ignorance as to the delivery capabilities online). Some strive to regain control but find, in the end, that in order to do so they would relinquish the benefits of being online. Others use the fluctuation and chance as material to work with.

The biggest chance is, I think, in creating work that can be accessed, and interacted with, by those viewing from their own computers on the Internet itself. How the project looks on individual computers -- with varying capabilities and means of access -- is to a great extent up to the viewer. They may chose to access only part of the project and, if allowed, contribute to the project. My own attempts at participatory viewing have been consistantly rewarding, partly because I'm aware of the of the intent of the creators (to an extent others online aren't) but also because, by being given the ability to participate in the composition, the ideas of the creators sometimes become even more apparent.

PORT: Navigating Digital Culture
MIT List Visual Arts Center
January 25 through March 29, 1997

Next month: reports on the PORT projects.

PORT logo





MIT List




January 25


March 29


gallery VRML

The List

Center gallery

in VRML by

Marek Walczak

gallery VRML


view of

The List

Center gallery

in VRML by

Marek Walczak




a project

for PORT





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