Museum as Digital Institution

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<ul><li><p>7/29/2019 Museum as Digital Institution</p><p> 1/13</p><p>AAANZ Conference 2004: Present Pasts - Present Futures</p><p>Digital and new technologies, and art and art writing stream.</p><p>Can the museum become a digital institution?</p><p>George Petelin</p><p> all configurations that have previously existed on this earth must yet meet,</p><p>attract, repulse, kiss, and corrupt each other again....</p><p>Heinrich Heine (quoted in the introduction to Friedrich Nietzsches The Gay</p><p>Science)</p><p>I wish to examine and compare two significant phases in the history of image</p><p>making that have occurred in my time: the interternational avant-garde that</p><p>emerged during the mid 20th century and the phenomenon of that</p><p>began towards the end of that century. This comparison will be in terms of</p><p>both the discursive links that generate their rationale and their relation to the</p><p>institution of the museum.</p><p>The mid 20th century Avantgarde can be characterised as having performed a</p><p>series of critiques of the premises that had underpinned Modernist art</p><p>practice. All of these were imbricated with the issue of arts autonomy, from</p><p>society, or from Life as it is often expressed, and internally, among the</p><p>different historical genres and media that formed the traditions of Western art</p><p>practice. I will briefly establish what these were, and then return to them in</p><p>relation to</p><p>The avant-gardes critiques, for the purpose of this paper, will be reduced to</p><p>just five: critique of the Subject, critique of the Object, critique of the Body,</p><p>critique of the Concept, and critique of the Museum.</p><p>The avant-gardes critique of the Subject can be located in Pop Arts</p><p>eradication of Abstract Expressionisms painterly signifiers of subjectivity for</p><p>example by Lichtenstein, and in the austere rebellion, against the spiritual</p><p>claims of artists such as Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, by Frank Stella,</p><p>Carl Andre, and Richard Serra. This critique results in an increasing</p><p>emphasis on the materiality of art. What you see becomes not just what you</p></li><li><p>7/29/2019 Museum as Digital Institution</p><p> 2/13</p><p>see but also what you can touch; what occupies three dimensions; what has</p><p>weight ; what even threatens you with its presence. Thus, Donald Judd</p><p>becomes the focus of debates concerning the illegitimacy of relief on the</p><p>grounds that it offends the autonomy, in the terms established by Clement</p><p>Greenberg, of both sculpture and painting.</p><p>This debate about Greenbergian autonomy, while it deflects the more</p><p>important consequence of this artthat of its challenging but always</p><p>ambivalent position regarding the autonomy of art from lifeI will argue</p><p>remains a defining characteristic of digital non-art (that later becomes</p><p>recognised as art) but also, I will argue that this practice, like the mid 20 th</p><p>century avant-garde, despite its materialist concerns, continues to engage</p><p>with the dialectic of the sublime.</p><p>Ironically, the objecthood of Minimalisms works that logically evolved out of</p><p>Greenbergian anti-illusionist principles, as Fried1 observed, results in a</p><p>theatricalitymakes one aware of the context and of the viewers presence.</p><p>This has both the effect of shattering the apparent self-sufficiency or</p><p>autonomy of the object and re-invoking the sublimebut now as a material</p><p>rather than as a spiritual experience. The Andre bricks can be tripped over,</p><p>the Serra wall could crash on its spectators, and Serras act of splashing</p><p>molten lead could certainly inflict mortal damage. The transience of human</p><p>existence in the face of infinity becomes immanent rather than merely</p><p>contemplated.</p><p>A second irony emerges out of the uniformity and anonymity of objects</p><p>employed non-representationally. As Robert Morris and Dan Flavin (and,</p><p>indeed, also Carl Andre) discovered, the object as module has no necessity</p><p>to be unique. However, it, or its replacements, can undergo countless</p><p>reconfigurations in the production of new, relocated or totally unprecedented,</p><p>works. This inherent implication of objecthood leads directly to the notion that</p><p>the Object may be redundant, and that the remaining art consists in</p><p>something immaterialalbeit now conceptual rather than spiritual. This, of</p><p>course, fused with late Vietnam War anti-commodity sentiments and</p><p>Duchampian notions of the non-retinal to give us various forms of post-</p><p>object art.</p></li><li><p>7/29/2019 Museum as Digital Institution</p><p> 3/13</p><p>The materialists rediscovery of a sublime, together with an organic view of</p><p>objects from within their ranks by artists such as Eva Hesse and Louise</p><p>Bourgeois, also allows the Body, particularly within various forms of</p><p>performance and event art, to be understood as the last stake when spirit and</p><p>object are no longer considered of consequence. An exploration of either the</p><p>limits of the body, or its genderisation, thus forms the focus of much</p><p>performance art. At the same time, performance and installation both tend</p><p>towards an independence from the Museum and hence integration with Life</p><p>a complete reversal of Kantian autonomy. The embracing of chance as a</p><p>principle that is out of the control of the institution within many avant-garde</p><p>practices is emblematic of this. In more recent times, art based on post-</p><p>humanist notions addresses the obsolescence of the body. What invariably</p><p>replaces the body in this discourse is technologyexplicitly, as in Stelarcs</p><p>work, or implicitly as in the anonymous, dispersed, and frequently automated</p><p>authorship of Mark Hansen even argues that, uniquely, digital art</p><p>results in a dissolution not just of the author but of the viewer2.</p><p>But the heritage of todays technological art would not be complete without a</p><p>critique of Concept that, again dialectically, emerged out of conceptual art</p><p>itself. The attempts to engage with concepts directly, soon led to the</p><p>realisation that concepts are embedded in language, be it verbal or visual.</p><p>Concepts thus evaporate in the face of a material presenceculture.</p><p>Postmodernism as a historical art style with its self-conscious manipulation of</p><p>appropriated signifiers is a direct heir to this tradition, but net art with its</p><p>inherent dependence on computer languages is even more so. So again</p><p>there is an ambivalent consciousness of both the ethereal nature of</p><p>information and its dependence on material hardware and the conventions of</p><p>software.</p><p>While performance, installation, and some forms of conceptual art were all</p><p>initially intent on making the museum redundant, we now know that the</p><p>museum proved remarkably resilient. Art may have merged with life at its</p><p>edgesin instances such as Fluxus and the Situationistsbut it always crept</p><p>back to its institutional haven. The reason this occurred was that the museum</p><p>made itself indispensable to the economy of arts distribution, reception, and</p><p>exchange, each of which in turn underwrote arts production. Also, the</p></li><li><p>7/29/2019 Museum as Digital Institution</p><p> 4/13</p><p>museum acquired a flexibility that enabled it to absorb and commodify</p><p>critiques of itself. This flexibility is precisely due to the autonomy from real</p><p>life concerns in the Kantian tradition that the museum embodies and that</p><p>radical art had tried to escape.</p><p>However, as we know, that autonomy is regularly strained through what</p><p>Decter3 called the strategy of Critical Complicity and Complicit Criticality</p><p>between the museum and artiststogether with the dependence of the</p><p>museum on public funding. Attempts at government censorship, public</p><p>outrage, and media ridicule have in the main become replaced by a form of</p><p>bribery in terms of grants and funding priorities. The museum has adapted to</p><p>each avant-garde, but together with its governing constituency also sets rules</p><p>by which this adaptation takes place.</p><p>In another sense, the museum is a discursive framework that we carry around</p><p>with us, by means of which we identify both art and anti-art. Its existence</p><p>precedes our engagement with art and sets the parameters according to</p><p>which we apprehend it. The only things that escape these parameters are</p><p>things that are not considered art at all. The producers of non-art, as</p><p>opposed to anti-art, however, are still free to adopt some of the traditions of</p><p>art that circulate in our society. Thus you can idolise Duchamp and Fluxus for</p><p>their philosophies of life while working in business, science, or technology</p><p>and have no expectation that your work has anything to do with galleries. As</p><p>a participant in the 1998 Walker Art Centre and Rhizome sponsored listserv</p><p>on Brian Molineaux observes Modernism is obviously more than an</p><p>art movement, having seeped into the very fabric of society.</p><p>David Ross ex-director of SFMOMA observes:</p><p>There are probably many people working within this space who don't necessarily</p><p>consider themselves artists because they don't want to l imit themselves and their</p><p>activity by a set of prejudices and pre-definitions of artistic practice.4</p><p>The producers of what has come to be called were, at least initially,</p><p>like this. Their work contrasted with what many museum web sites promoted.</p><p>Director ofCultureNet DenmarkPia Vigh recalls that while museums started</p><p>to catch on to the Internet as an art medium in the last years of the nineties</p><p>and began to collect, commission and exhibit net-based artworks, most artists</p></li><li><p>7/29/2019 Museum as Digital Institution</p><p> 5/13</p><p>who interest them actually made their names outside the gallery-museum</p><p>matrix5.</p><p>And although Museums have begun the absorption process of net non-art,</p><p>they still mainly mediate physical art digitally or at best supplement physicalart with web-friendly products commissioned from established artists. In an</p><p>article titled Hacking Culture, presented at a Museums &amp; the Web</p><p>Conference Vigh still laments, in 2002, that the popular understanding of</p><p>new media identifies it with the use of a computer for circulation and</p><p>exhibition, rather than production 6. This is not merely a misunderstanding,</p><p>however, because, as I will argue, there is an intrinsic interpenetration of</p><p>production and distribution, as well as of exchange and critical discourse,</p><p>crucial to understanding the significance of</p><p>The generally acknowledged father of net art, Slovenian Vuk Cosic, worked</p><p>as political activist and cultural manager, and studied archaeology, when in</p><p>1995 he made a website for a little festival he was associated with just to</p><p>see how it works7. (In some interviews he admits to have dabbled in collage</p><p>and land art before becoming a net artist, but he is essentially trained in</p><p>archaeology and still talks of completing his PhD in that discipline). In 1996, a</p><p>year later, he created Net art per se8, a site that outlined a manifesto for</p><p> and involved a conference that invited a substantial core of the</p><p>personnel who have since become the leading lights of this genre. As Cosic</p><p>remembers:</p><p>That was pretty surprising for a lot of people. And I was very surprised that these guys at</p><p>this conference appreciated my work. And that's the beauty of all of this that developed</p><p>out of this conference. It's like me and Heath Bunting and Alexej Shulgin and Olia Lialina</p><p>and Jodi (a collaboration between European artists Joan Heemskerk and Dirk Paesmans)</p><p>had studios next to each other, where we could look at what the others were doing9.</p><p>This conference was entirely self-generated and resulted in an amazingly</p><p>fruitful professional relationship across national borders. Cosic frequently</p><p>compares his relation to his colleagues with that of Picasso and Braque and</p><p>that of the Italian and Russian Futurists. It usually goes like this, says Cosik:</p><p>Jodi do something new - and they are crazy, they are maniacs, they create</p><p>something new every other day - and they send the URL to me, and ask: What do</p></li><li><p>7/29/2019 Museum as Digital Institution</p><p> 6/13</p><p>you think about this? And there are collaborations over the net, too, and group</p><p>projects. We steal a lot from each other, in the sense that we take some parts of</p><p>codes, we admire each others tricks. Jodi are very interesting in their exploration of</p><p>technology, but Heath is magnificent in his social awareness and his glorious</p><p>egotism, or Alexej with his Russian temperament. Cyber-Majakowski, someone once</p><p>called him10.</p><p>This relationship is quite different from the jealously guarded creativity of</p><p>mainstream art, as Vigh observes:</p><p>Since net artists are not sufficiently economically supported through the</p><p>consumption of their work, net artists are not that concerned with copyright. The</p><p>basis for netart is an economy ofexchange. Pecuniary economy has been</p><p>introduced during the last two years but still exchange remains the most important.</p><p>This exchange is interlinked with the free software communitynet artists tend to</p><p>use free software and net artists that develop software tend to share this with the</p><p>netart community. Often source code is distributed in extensive friendship/colleague</p><p>networks or even publicly for download. Software developed by the free software</p><p>community is often protected by anti commercial licenses, for example by the</p><p>common GNU, General Public Use license. Net artists dealing with this exchange</p><p>are concerned about copyright only in the sense that the work stays free/part of the</p><p>exchange11</p><p>.</p><p>Although mostly committed to romantic notions of freedom, net.artists, like</p><p>other hacker communities, began by selective involvement and exchange.</p><p>Their websites were often distinguished by addresses such as</p><p> or, that an</p><p>ordinary citizen would not come upon except by the most remote accident.</p><p>What is it, apart from their romantic role-play that characterises net.artists as</p><p>a latter-day avant-garde? They are patently heirs to conceptualism in that</p><p>their products are ephemeral and based on reconfiguration of often modular</p><p>components. And like advanced conceptualism their work is materialist in its</p><p>denial of subjectivity and embrace of cultural meaning specific to their</p><p>community. And although it treats the body as largely redundant, I will argue</p><p>that it continues to evoke the sublime. But, most important of all, it continues</p><p>to engage with Greenbergian notions of autonomy. What distinguishes it from</p></li><li><p>7/29/2019 Museum as Digital Institution</p><p> 7/13</p><p>other forms of web art is its concern for the intrinsic nature of its own medium</p><p>rather than the mediation of something extrinsic to it.</p><p>To recall Clement Greenbergs dictum:</p><p>the essence of modernism liesin the use of the characteristic methods of adiscipline to criticise the discipline itself.The task of self criticism became to</p><p>eliminate from the effects of each art any and every effect that might conceivably be</p><p>borrowed from or by the medium of any other art12.</p><p>How is distinguished from other phenomena on the web is best</p><p>illustrated by the site which requires some</p><p>programming savvy to be understood at all. When you first enter it, all you</p><p>see is rows of strokes and numbers and dismiss it as simply meaningless, buta programmer curious to investigate wha...</p></li></ul>