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What are museums doing to collect, store and show internet art?

Ossian Ward investigates European and US perspectives and the issues of conservation and ownership

There is a new type of curator on the block. Although the title “New Media Curator” has been around since video art first entered museum collections in the late 70s, it now means something very different.

“People keep sending me video tapes,” says Christiane Paul, the Whitney Museum’s adjunct curator of new media, whose job it is to commission, curate, display and conserve on-line artists’ projects. Ms Paul, a keen analyst of net art through her on- and off-line publication, Intelligent Agent, says that the art form is so new that there are no written criteria or guidelines for her job. A work of net art cannot be judged on provenance, age or reputation as would a painting, rather on whether it is good or bad art.

According to Ms Paul, Europeans are far ahead of Americans in the field of internet art, due to art and technology gatherings such as the Digital and Electronic Arts Festival (DEAF) in Rotterdam (http://deaf.v2.nl), Transmediale in Germany (www.transmediale.de), Viper in Switzerland (www.viper.ch), and Austria’s Ars Electronica (www.aec.at).

However, apart from a few European museums such as the Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie (ZKM) in Karlsruhe, Germany, which held the first major exhibition of net art, “Net_Condition” in 1999, London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts and Tate Britain, which has begun to commission online works of art (www.tate.org.uk/britain/ exhibitions/artnwnet.html), it is the US museums that are feverishly hiring net-art curators and holding mega-exhibitions dedicated to electronic art.

A leap of faith

The Whitney was the first museum to buy a work of web art in 1994, Douglas Davis’s “The world’s first collaborative sentence”, but the first museum actively to commission a digital work of art was New York’s Dia Center for the Arts, which in 1995 engaged artist Tony Oursler, the performer Constance de Jong and the composer Stephen Vitiello to create “Fantastic Prayers”, initiated in the same year that the museum’s own website (www.diacenter.org) went on-line.

Lynne Cooke, the Dia’s head curator, argues that traditional, visual artists should be encouraged to work with the internet even if they have no experience of using the technology. She has, as a result, worked with artists better known for video or installation works such as Susan Hiller, Francis Alÿs and Marijke van Warmerdam.

On the other hand, Christiane Paul from the Whitney believes that the most challenging or interesting works on the web are by artists (mainly unknown) who write their own code and can push the limits of browser technology by using the computer’s own language.

Ms Cooke also disagrees with Ms Paul on how and where to show the art. The Dia Center has no galleries or computer screens dedicated to net art, and as result, has encouraged the audiences to view the projects at home. “It is like reading a novel—you don’t need a public space to view a work of art on the net”, says Ms Cooke. Across town, the Whitney’s current exhibition of digital art “BitStreams” (until 10 June) has a net art component called “Data Dynamics”, which can be seen both online at www.whitney.org and in the museum's Ehrenkranz and Hurst Galleries. Ms Paul, who has curated “Data Dynamics”, realises the irony of putting web art onto screens in the museum, when part of its original intention was to subvert traditions of displaying, making and experiencing art. At the same time she thinks that, if it is a valid work of art, it deserves to be seen and recontextualised in the museum environment.

Other museums outside New York are also at the forefront of net art in the US. Aaron Betsky, the outgoing director of architecture, design and digital arts at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA), recently fuelled the debate on displaying digital art by archiving artists’ work onto CDs, rather than conserving their original format. “Part of what a museum does is to take things out of context, whether it’s a Greek vase or a medieval altarpiece. The same holds for web art; the museum must show it to its best possible advantage, while respecting the artist’s intention and preserving the work. It is always a matter of balancing the artist’s intention and the museum context”.

Benjamin Weil, a key figure in the short history of art on the internet, is Dr Betsky’s successor at SFMoMA and has curated the current exhibition “010101: Art in technological times” (see p. 37). Unlike Dr Betsky, he does not come from a museum background. Dr Weil was the co-founder of the legendary web art exhibition space known as äda’web (named after Lord Byron’s daughter, the 19th-century scientist Lady “Ada” Augusta Lovelace), which hosted original, on-line art projects from 1994 to 1998. Äda’web could not maintain its independent and self-funding status and was eventually given away by its host, America Online (AOL), because it lacked commercial potential.

The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis acquired äda’web thus becoming the first museum with a significant collection of internet art at www.adaweb.walkerart.org. Steve Dietz, director of New Media Initiatives at the Walker used äda’web to start a Digital Arts Study Collection (DACS), a museological device for storing and collecting works of net art. Steve Dietz’s current project is a touring exhibition based on communications networks called “Telematic Connections: the virtual embrace”, with a large online exhibition at http://telematic.walkerart.org

Back on the East Coast, the Guggenheim, the New Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York all have extensive on-line strategies. A virtual Guggenheim Museum is under construction, promising the first 3-D museum environment for exhibiting art(www.guggenheim.org); MoMA’s latest in its annual series of web commissions is a work by Tony Oursler called “TimeStream” (www.moma.org/timestream), while the New MoCA is the only New York museum to have a dedicated space for new media exhibitions and events, the Media Z Lounge (www.newmuseum.org). Smaller institutions such as the San José Museum of Art and the Wexner Center for Arts are also embracing internet art.

How to store it?

The commitment of these museums to new media has prompted debates on the issues of collecting and conserving digital media, even though there is currently little commercial support for the creation and production of net art. Without a real market for collecting on-line projects, some seminal works have changed hands for as little as $100 but also an indication of the economic uncertainty net artists face.

As the works can exist or function on any compatible PC anywhere in the world, the question of ownership is also unclear. The most logical way to “own” a work of net art is to host the website on a server or homepage.

Obsolesence is the other crippling factor for some early works which were made using only the most basic internet capabilities. For example, Alexei Shulgin’s 1997 “Form Art” competition website (http://remote.aec.at/form/competition) contains art designed for use with Netscape 3.0 browsers, but only three years later plug-in programmes such as Flash, Shockwave and Quick Time are the standard tools needed to download merely to see many of today’s cutting-edge works.

Christiane Paul outlines three possible options for “conserving” internet works of art.

First is to collect the hardware and software that the work was produced for, for example, so a 1996 work would run on a computer with an internet connection and software packages of the same era. However, conserving computers as though they were museum pieces does not make much sense considering the other technological solutions available. One involves updating an old work to make it compatible with current browser technology, but this can mean re-writing some of the source code—effectively destroying it as a document of its time.

The other technique is to “emulate” an old browser using a custom-built application which mimics the old versions of Netscape or Internet Explorer, reinforcing the purists’ view that works by pioneers, such as www.jodi.org, should be viewed in their original format and as they were intended.

In the same way that big websites often subsume, syndicate or steal their smaller, more innovative competitors, so the museums will eventually get their hands on these radical net artists and their URLs. It is easy for museums to dress up old media in a new package, but to engage in net art is to embrace the innovations of technology, the interfaces, browser alternatives and viewer interaction. Many institutions are only now tackling the idea that the museum can be part of the complex information system that is the world-wide-web and the educational possibilities of net art projects have not as yet been explored.

Museums struggle to keep up with their web-savvy audiences and, are consequently, not keen to talk about future plans or applications for the web, perhaps because they cannot predict what is going to happen, or because they cannot admit that they might one day be made redundant by the cyber-museum.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'net.art@museums'