Art & Culture

More on Online Museums

Adobe Museum of Digital Media

Rhizome recently published a piece I wrote entitled “Moving the Museum Online“. The piece was a critique of the Adobe Museum of Digital Media, and also served as a platform to discuss the concept of online museums, and highlight a few examples that I thought were particularly noteworthy, including the Virtual Museums of Canada, the Museum of Online Museums, the MINI Museum, and Google’s recent Art Project.

In both the comments section on the piece and through Twitter comments and emails, people have kindly been pointing out other examples of online museums that are of interest. Here are three that stood out:

Guggenheim Virtual Museum (vintage: 2001): “The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum has commissioned the New York firm Asymptote Architects to design and implement a new Guggenheim Museum in cyberspace. This is the first phase of a three-year initiative to construct an entirely new museum facility. The structure will be an ongoing work in process, with new sections added as older sections are renovated. The project will consist of navigable three-dimensional spatial entities accessible on the Internet as well as real-time interactive components installed at the various Guggenheim locations.

As envisioned by Asymptote and the Guggenheim, the Guggenheim Virtual Museum will emerge from the fusion of information space, art, commerce, and architecture to become the first important virtual building of the 21st century.”

muSIEum (vintage: unknown, pre-2009): This online reconfiguration of four Viennese museums “…displaying gender, criticizing the conventional hegemonial ordering of things”, and “bringing out the different storylines that could (have) been told with the same objects from a standpoint counter-acting the cultural hegemony of the patriarchal view”. An intervention that is needed not just in Vienna, I’d wager. In German only.

MIX-m (vintage: 2001 – 2003): “MIX-m stands for MIXed-museum. It is a contemporary art museum that exists both in physical and digital spaces, in localized and networked environments. MIX-m plays with the dimensions of its architecture: a mix between a real museum space (here, the Bâtiment d’Art Contemporain in Geneva) (1:1), a digital space based on the dimensions of its host (1:x) and a model of this game-like environment (1:50). MIX-m has the ability to re-locate itself into this existing exhibition environment, transforming, mixing and extending it into new territories. It offers therefore a variable environment to create art installations. These works, commissioned by MIX-m, can now define and modulate their presence inside an extended space spectrum: physical-digital, real-simulated, localized-networked.”

Read Moving the Museum Online on Rhizome, and join the discussion there or send me a Tweet (@mkasprzak) with your own suggestions of other virtual museum projects that exemplify either the lack in current physical museums (as muSIEum does), an additionality (as with the Guggenheim), or a hybrid space (MIX-m).

…also this came in from @eefski on Twitter: Oneindig Noord-Holland.

Art & Culture

A Blast From the Past

My Skin and The Du Cane and Boehm Family Group. After Gawen Hamilton 1734-2000, by Graham Harwood

As I was cleaning out my books and magazines over the holidays, I came across an old issue of Tate magazine from Winter 2000. “William Blake”, the cover exclaims, resonating somehow with a recent column at the Guardian that argues that William Blake was the quintessential British artist, and perhaps the greatest British artist of all time. “Getting Drunk with Gillian Wearing” was another line of text that caught my eye, and then I noticed “The net value of virtual art”, and decided I had to stop sorting and cleaning and open up the magazine.

The article, entitled “Art dot com”, written by Paul Quinn, takes up a healthy six pages, and starts out at the Whitney Biennial. Quinn comments on the presence of “the internet” at the Biennial, “that most private of public spaces” (well, this was years before Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg declared privacy was so, well, 2000). He observes a teenager navigating the websites on view at the Biennial with “yawning dexterity” and repeats the oft-repeated tale that the teenager exclaimed “”Can we, like, go? We can do this at home”” after a few minutes of weaving through the sites on offer.

Quinn observes that “sometimes the technology cuts the gallery out of the equation”, a statement that might seem quaint today, ten years later. After describing works such as Mark Amerika’s Grammatron and Darcey Steinke’s blindspot and their reliance upon tried and true narrative, he moves on to one of my favourite new media works, John F. Simon Jr’s Every Icon, a masterwork that I believe has stood the test of time and that Quinn felt leaves viewers “contemplating the infinite”. He notes in his conclusion that it’s “hardly surprising, then, that much existing internet art becomes a commentary on existing genres – narrative, painting, minimalism – and that, as so often with innovation, the novelty is in the combination or recontextualising.” Noting that some while some will find “losses” others will find the notion of technological intervention in art a “democratising, demystifying” force, the article takes a halfway-house stance common at the time, as the jury was simply out on what impact the internet and the world wide web would eventually have.

In one of the many “best of” lists that circulated as 2009 dissolved into 2010, the Telegraph listed the opening of Tate Modern in 2000 as one of the “top 100 defining cultural moments of the decade“. Today Tate Modern is viewed, by nearly every metric, as an outstanding success, with a massive presence and significance. Tate Modern itself was a significant part of Graham Harwood’s Uncomfortable Proximity, another masterwork of early internet art that was mentioned in Quinn’s article, and that Michael Alstad and I curated into one of our early online exhibitions, Pixel Plunder©.

Uncomfortable Proximity provided alternative websites to Tate’s own, remixing and subverting artworks in the collection (as seen in the image above) and providing new texts, uncovering elements in Tate’s history that, as Quinn put it, Tate would “erase from its official PR”. The text written by Harwood on his version of the Tate Modern site states:

“Tate Modern is Britain’s new national museum of modern art. As class compositions change, each new economic force takes over the mantle of British taste. Each succeeding social elite must have its art, its brand around which secret codes and systems of value can be exchanged. This is usually in the form of what is to be tolerated and what is not, what’s in and what’s out, who’s in and who’s out. New money needs to be part of history. With money you can buy your way into art history. With even more money you can shape the future of that history.”

Ten years later the novelty that Quinn found in internet art has long worn off, and this quote from Graham Harwood underscores that even then, some weren’t at all distracted from the real forces that will always shape the world at large, including the art world – namely, money. Matthew Fuller wrote an essay we commissioned for the Pixel Plunder© online exhibition and stated: “Is talent important in net art? This group of works gives us the answer. Let us remember that the name Talent was that of an ancient coin. What is a coin but a condensed power to take something out. The possibility to move a thing, an action, a power, from one state into another, to magnify, to set in motion, to store up or to kill. To set something aside, to make it separate.” As I look forward to the next ten years of technological innovation coupled with the production of culture, I will continue to bear in mind that though root agendas continue to be developed elsewhere and dictate the terms, and did so even in the crucible of the “democratising, demystifying” force of ten years ago, there is always room to develop something unexpected, beautiful, surprising, and even effective.

Art & Culture

Islands in the Stream

Once when I was about ten years old, I was poring over a brochure for travel to Greece that ended up in my family’s home. I was very interested in examining the details of each island advertised in the brochure, and the various reasons for going there. I remember being especially intrigued by one island (the name of which I forget) which had sounded distinctly industrial and un-touristy, but the indefatigable travel agents that had authored the brochure wrote that it could be of interest to “island buffs”. My ten year old brain marvelled at this: island buffs! I wanted to be an island buff and go to this mysterious island that had only one line of text devoted to it, where the other islands had whole paragraphs extolling the virtues of its beaches and resorts.

Having this “island buff” latent within me as a much older person, I read with some interest about the demise of an island in Second Life, the virtual community created by Linden Labs. I’ve long been a Second Life skeptic, unsure I’d become quite bored enough with First Life to bother with a Second. At the zenith of Second Life buzz, it seemed like everyone was crafting an avatar or buying an island (except me). After the hype, it’s interesting to see where things end up, and so I found this highly entertaining missive from Scott Shamp, Director of the New Media Institute at the University of Georgia, quite fascinating:

UGA purchased the NMI Island in 2007. We wanted to explore the potential of virtual worlds. Over a thousand avatars (virtual versions of people) representing students and people from all over the (real) world teleported in to visit. We hosted a virtual tailgate Fridays before gamedays where alum could meet students – the firework shows were spectacular. […] And I taught class on the island. In my 21+ years on the faculty, that had to be the weirdest teaching experience. Try focusing on your lecture when students spontaneously fly away. […]

But on Wednesday, 9/10, our experiment ends. You see LindenLabs, the company that runs SecondLife, is a for profit company. It costs $1700 a year for us to own our island – and that is with a 50% educational discount. Yes, I have one of the bravest deans ever. Dean Clark actually signed a purchase order for “One Island.” We discovered that you can sole source an island, but a continent will have to go out on bids.

Everybody is feeling the economic pinch these days and UGA is no different. With looming budget cuts threatening crucial services, an island is a luxury we just can’t afford. We didn’t renew so Linden Labs is pulling the plug on the NMI island.

And here is one of the most unfortunate aspects of virtual worlds. Unlike a web page that we can download and store on local hard drives, everything that we built only works in SecondLife. So we can’t save it. Frankly, that sucks. So everything from the 300 foot virtual Arch, to the flashing dance floor with a giant aquarium, to the incredibly realistic football field, to the beautifully executed virtual GA 400 will be erased.

Though Scott puts a brave face on it, this is actually quite sad. An institution of learning developed an online research project and because of some typical corporate short-sightedness on the part of Linden Labs, the University will walk away with nothing. No momentos, no souvenirs. No “I bought an island in Second Life and all I got was this lousy t-shirt” t-shirts. Professor Shamp and his students will have little other than a few screenshots to remember their Second Life experiment by, and this reminded me of another, richly-rendered island community that was envisioned not in Second Life, but on paper:

Urville, imagined as an island metropolis for 12 million inhabitants, begun when Tréhin was only five years old, is a triumphant example of a city made up almost from nothing. Tréhin’s own guidebook to the city includes hundreds of perspectival pencil drawings; these depict, in often astonishing detail, recognizable buildings and building types that have been combined to form a cityscape that itself exceeds recognition.

With imaginary spaces like the Square des Mille Astres, the Gare d’Italie, and the Place des Tégartines, Urville’s visual appearance could perhaps be described as a kind of Belgian Venice, crossbred with Chicago, as master-planned by Baron Hausmann for an upstart hotelier in Las Vegas. In other words, the city is derivative; it is a collection of landmarks. One can make out the Sears Tower, the Rialto Bridge, the Grande Arche de La Défense, and what could easily pass for New York’s World Trade Center towers—among many other sites on the global tourist circuit—but what Urville lacks is a human face.

The problem of a “human face”, both offline and online, remains the most difficult to solve. With a click of a mouse, the hard work of many students is erased from Second Life, leaving only the American Apparel outlet and whoever else is rich enough to maintain a virtual presence in the proprietary world of Second Life. Despite dozens of sketches, the author of an imaginary island community quotes the greats and yet cannot capture what makes urban living great. The island buff in me, meanwhile, remains more inspired by real micro-nations and micro-states, and a long-lost Greek island from a tourist catalogue. (Image: A typical Second Life island.)