Museum as Digital Institution

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    AAANZ Conference 2004: Present Pasts - Present Futures

    Digital and new technologies, and art and art writing stream.

    Can the museum become a digital institution?

    George Petelin

    all configurations that have previously existed on this earth must yet meet,

    attract, repulse, kiss, and corrupt each other again....

    Heinrich Heine (quoted in the introduction to Friedrich Nietzsches The Gay


    I wish to examine and compare two significant phases in the history of image

    making that have occurred in my time: the interternational avant-garde that

    emerged during the mid 20th century and the phenomenon of that

    began towards the end of that century. This comparison will be in terms of

    both the discursive links that generate their rationale and their relation to the

    institution of the museum.

    The mid 20th century Avantgarde can be characterised as having performed a

    series of critiques of the premises that had underpinned Modernist art

    practice. All of these were imbricated with the issue of arts autonomy, from

    society, or from Life as it is often expressed, and internally, among the

    different historical genres and media that formed the traditions of Western art

    practice. I will briefly establish what these were, and then return to them in

    relation to

    The avant-gardes critiques, for the purpose of this paper, will be reduced to

    just five: critique of the Subject, critique of the Object, critique of the Body,

    critique of the Concept, and critique of the Museum.

    The avant-gardes critique of the Subject can be located in Pop Arts

    eradication of Abstract Expressionisms painterly signifiers of subjectivity for

    example by Lichtenstein, and in the austere rebellion, against the spiritual

    claims of artists such as Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, by Frank Stella,

    Carl Andre, and Richard Serra. This critique results in an increasing

    emphasis on the materiality of art. What you see becomes not just what you

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    see but also what you can touch; what occupies three dimensions; what has

    weight ; what even threatens you with its presence. Thus, Donald Judd

    becomes the focus of debates concerning the illegitimacy of relief on the

    grounds that it offends the autonomy, in the terms established by Clement

    Greenberg, of both sculpture and painting.

    This debate about Greenbergian autonomy, while it deflects the more

    important consequence of this artthat of its challenging but always

    ambivalent position regarding the autonomy of art from lifeI will argue

    remains a defining characteristic of digital non-art (that later becomes

    recognised as art) but also, I will argue that this practice, like the mid 20 th

    century avant-garde, despite its materialist concerns, continues to engage

    with the dialectic of the sublime.

    Ironically, the objecthood of Minimalisms works that logically evolved out of

    Greenbergian anti-illusionist principles, as Fried1 observed, results in a

    theatricalitymakes one aware of the context and of the viewers presence.

    This has both the effect of shattering the apparent self-sufficiency or

    autonomy of the object and re-invoking the sublimebut now as a material

    rather than as a spiritual experience. The Andre bricks can be tripped over,

    the Serra wall could crash on its spectators, and Serras act of splashing

    molten lead could certainly inflict mortal damage. The transience of human

    existence in the face of infinity becomes immanent rather than merely


    A second irony emerges out of the uniformity and anonymity of objects

    employed non-representationally. As Robert Morris and Dan Flavin (and,

    indeed, also Carl Andre) discovered, the object as module has no necessity

    to be unique. However, it, or its replacements, can undergo countless

    reconfigurations in the production of new, relocated or totally unprecedented,

    works. This inherent implication of objecthood leads directly to the notion that

    the Object may be redundant, and that the remaining art consists in

    something immaterialalbeit now conceptual rather than spiritual. This, of

    course, fused with late Vietnam War anti-commodity sentiments and

    Duchampian notions of the non-retinal to give us various forms of post-

    object art.

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    The materialists rediscovery of a sublime, together with an organic view of

    objects from within their ranks by artists such as Eva Hesse and Louise

    Bourgeois, also allows the Body, particularly within various forms of

    performance and event art, to be understood as the last stake when spirit and

    object are no longer considered of consequence. An exploration of either the

    limits of the body, or its genderisation, thus forms the focus of much

    performance art. At the same time, performance and installation both tend

    towards an independence from the Museum and hence integration with Life

    a complete reversal of Kantian autonomy. The embracing of chance as a

    principle that is out of the control of the institution within many avant-garde

    practices is emblematic of this. In more recent times, art based on post-

    humanist notions addresses the obsolescence of the body. What invariably

    replaces the body in this discourse is technologyexplicitly, as in Stelarcs

    work, or implicitly as in the anonymous, dispersed, and frequently automated

    authorship of Mark Hansen even argues that, uniquely, digital art

    results in a dissolution not just of the author but of the viewer2.

    But the heritage of todays technological art would not be complete without a

    critique of Concept that, again dialectically, emerged out of conceptual art

    itself. The attempts to engage with concepts directly, soon led to the

    realisation that concepts are embedded in language, be it verbal or visual.

    Concepts thus evaporate in the face of a material presenceculture.

    Postmodernism as a historical art style with its self-conscious manipulation of

    appropriated signifiers is a direct heir to this tradition, but net art with its

    inherent dependence on computer languages is even more so. So again

    there is an ambivalent consciousness of both the ethereal nature of

    information and its dependence on material hardware and the conventions of


    While performance, installation, and some forms of conceptual art were all

    initially intent on making the museum redundant, we now know that the

    museum proved remarkably resilient. Art may have merged with life at its

    edgesin instances such as Fluxus and the Situationistsbut it always crept

    back to its institutional haven. The reason this occurred was that the museum

    made itself indispensable to the economy of arts distribution, reception, and

    exchange, each of which in turn underwrote arts production. Also, the

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    museum acquired a flexibility that enabled it to absorb and commodify

    critiques of itself. This flexibility is precisely due to the autonomy from real

    life concerns in the Kantian tradition that the museum embodies and that

    radical art had tried to escape.

    However, as we know, that autonomy is regularly strained through what

    Decter3 called the strategy of Critical Complicity and Complicit Criticality

    between the museum and artiststogether with the dependence of the

    museum on public funding. Attempts at government censorship, public

    outrage, and media ridicule have in the main become replaced by a form of

    bribery in terms of grants and funding priorities. The museum has adapted to

    each avant-garde, but together with its governing constituency also sets rules

    by which this adaptation takes place.

    In another sense, the museum is a discursive framework that we carry around

    with us, by means of which we identify both art and anti-art. Its existence

    precedes our engagement with art and sets the parameters according to

    which we apprehend it. The only things that escape these parameters are

    things that are not considered art at all. The producers of non-art, as

    opposed to anti-art, however, are still free to adopt some of the traditions of

    art that circulate in our society. Thus you can idolise Duchamp and Fluxus for

    their philosophies of life while working in business, science, or technology

    and have no expectation that your work has anything to do with galleries. As

    a participant in the 1998 Walker Art Centre and Rhizome sponsored listserv

    on Brian Molineaux observes Modernism is obviously more than an

    art movement, having seeped into the very fabric of society.

    David Ross ex-director of SFMOMA observes:

    There are probably many people working within this space who don't necessarily

    consider themselves artists because they don't want to l imit themselves and their

    activity by a set of prejudices and pre-definitions of artistic practice.4

    The producers of what has come to be called were, at least initially,

    like this. Their work contrasted with what many museum web sites promoted.

    Director ofCultureNet DenmarkPia Vigh recalls that while museums started

    to catch on to the Internet as an art medium in the last years of the nineties

    and began to collect, commission and exhibit net-based artworks, most artists

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    who interest them actually made their names outside the gallery-museum


    And although Museums have begun the absorption process of net non-art,

    they still mainly mediate physical art digitally or at best supplement physicalart with web-friendly products commissioned from established artists. In an

    article titled Hacking Culture, presented at a Museums & the Web

    Conference Vigh still laments, in 2002, that the popular understanding of

    new media identifies it with the use of a computer for circulation and

    exhibition, rather than production 6. This is not merely a misunderstanding,

    however, because, as I will argue, there is an intrinsic interpenetration of

    production and distribution, as well as of exchange and critical discourse,

    crucial to understanding the significance of

    The generally acknowledged father of net art, Slovenian Vuk Cosic, worked

    as political activist and cultural manager, and studied archaeology, when in

    1995 he made a website for a little festival he was associated with just to

    see how it works7. (In some interviews he admits to have dabbled in collage

    and land art before becoming a net artist, but he is essentially trained in

    archaeology and still talks of completing his PhD in that discipline). In 1996, a

    year later, he created Net art per se8, a site that outlined a manifesto for and involved a conference that invited a substantial core of the

    personnel who have since become the leading lights of this genre. As Cosic


    That was pretty surprising for a lot of people. And I was very surprised that these guys at

    this conference appreciated my work. And that's the beauty of all of this that developed

    out of this conference. It's like me and Heath Bunting and Alexej Shulgin and Olia Lialina

    and Jodi (a collaboration between European artists Joan Heemskerk and Dirk Paesmans)

    had studios next to each other, where we could look at what the others were doing9.

    This conference was entirely self-generated and resulted in an amazingly

    fruitful professional relationship across national borders. Cosic frequently

    compares his relation to his colleagues with that of Picasso and Braque and

    that of the Italian and Russian Futurists. It usually goes like this, says Cosik:

    Jodi do something new - and they are crazy, they are maniacs, they create

    something new every other day - and they send the URL to me, and ask: What do

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    you think about this? And there are collaborations over the net, too, and group

    projects. We steal a lot from each other, in the sense that we take some parts of

    codes, we admire each others tricks. Jodi are very interesting in their exploration of

    technology, but Heath is magnificent in his social awareness and his glorious

    egotism, or Alexej with his Russian temperament. Cyber-Majakowski, someone once

    called him10.

    This relationship is quite different from the jealously guarded creativity of

    mainstream art, as Vigh observes:

    Since net artists are not sufficiently economically supported through the

    consumption of their work, net artists are not that concerned with copyright. The

    basis for netart is an economy ofexchange. Pecuniary economy has been

    introduced during the last two years but still exchange remains the most important.

    This exchange is interlinked with the free software communitynet artists tend to

    use free software and net artists that develop software tend to share this with the

    netart community. Often source code is distributed in extensive friendship/colleague

    networks or even publicly for download. Software developed by the free software

    community is often protected by anti commercial licenses, for example by the

    common GNU, General Public Use license. Net artists dealing with this exchange

    are concerned about copyright only in the sense that the work stays free/part of the



    Although mostly committed to romantic notions of freedom, net.artists, like

    other hacker communities, began by selective involvement and exchange.

    Their websites were often distinguished by addresses such as or, that an

    ordinary citizen would not come upon except by the most remote accident.

    What is it, apart from their romantic role-play that characterises net.artists as

    a latter-day avant-garde? They are patently heirs to conceptualism in that

    their products are ephemeral and based on reconfiguration of often modular

    components. And like advanced conceptualism their work is materialist in its

    denial of subjectivity and embrace of cultural meaning specific to their

    community. And although it treats the body as largely redundant, I will argue

    that it continues to evoke the sublime. But, most important of all, it continues

    to engage with Greenbergian notions of autonomy. What distinguishes it from
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    other forms of web art is its concern for the intrinsic nature of its own medium

    rather than the mediation of something extrinsic to it.

    To recall Clement Greenbergs dictum:

    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

    eliminate from the effects of each art any and every effect that might conceivably be

    borrowed from or by the medium of any other art12.

    How is distinguished from other phenomena on the web is best

    illustrated by the site which requires some

    programming savvy to be understood at all. When you first enter it, all you

    see is rows of strokes and numbers and dismiss it as simply meaningless, buta programmer curious to investigate wha...