ARTS ONLINE; O.K., It’s Art. But Do You View It at Home or in Public?
ARTS ONLINE; O.K., It’s Art. But Do You View It at Home or in Public?
By Matthew Mirapaul
Published: March 19, 2001
A defining characteristic of online art is that it can be seen anywhere by anyone with an Internet-connected computer. But even though cyberspace is a vast, all-access gallery, the artworks that are ”hung” there are usually experienced by a lone viewer sitting in front of a single monitor.
Now that museums are commissioning Internet-based art projects, they are confronting a digital dilemma: how to present virtual, small-screen art in a real-world, public space. One solution is to recreate the one-on-one environment with a bank of computers, but this risks turning the museum into an expensively decorated cybercafe. An alternative is to project a virtual artwork on a wall, and while one visitor points and clicks, others can view the interactions. This is rather like watching your spouse change television channels with the remote control.
The Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art have exhibitions opening this month in which online art will occupy a prominent place, and artists and curators are again asking if there are better ways to show online works in a museum. Or if they should be shown there at all
One concern is that transplanting an online work into a museum gallery violates how it was meant to be perceived. David A. Ross, director of the San Francisco museum, said: ”For a lot of artists working online, what they care about is not being in the art museum but being in that intimate, shared personal space of the computer screen. It’s very different from the social space of sitting in a chair in a public venue, with other people looking at you reading a computer screen.”
But Maxwell L. Anderson, the Whitney’s director, insisted that museums had a responsibility to show online artwork. ”For a public which has yet to grasp the full potential of digital media, the social space of the museum is the best place for a reasoned dialogue about our collective creativity,” he said.
The problem is more complex than deciding where to pound the nail for the painting. And clearly no one solution applies to every work. Mark Napier, a New York artist with online works in both exhibitions, said: ”I’m uncomfortable showing a work of Net art in a museum unless it has been conceived to be shown in that space or been modified to take the physical space into account. I can’t think of a right way to do that. Each artwork has to be considered as a separate case.”
The two museums are taking divergent approaches with their Internet projects. The five online works in the Whitney’s ”Data Dynamics,” which opens on Thursday, have been designed as gallery installations; somewhat different versions of them can also be seen on the Web (www.whitney.org). (Another high-tech show, ”BitStreams,” opens on Thursday at the museum, too.)
”010101: Art in Technological Times,” which opened on March 3 at the San Francisco Modern, contains five online works, but they are not being shown in the museum’s galleries. After months of debate, curators elected to limit the works to the Web (www.sfmoma.org).
Curators at both institutions said aesthetic considerations as well as practical factors played a role in their reasoning.
For instance, the works in ”Data Dynamics” are visual representations of live, continuously changing data. Christiane Paul, the exhibition’s curator, said it made sense to display them as gallery installations because visual representations of data such as maps were commonplace in the real world.
Ms. Paul said she would not use a gallery, for example, to show an online work that relies on viewer input, in part because it was less interesting for others to witness.
But creating online and in-gallery versions of the same work raises a question as to whether the online manifestation is somehow diminished when the piece exists simultaneously in the physical world.
Maciej Wisniewski, a New York artist, thinks not. He developed a theaterlike installation for his ”Netomat,” an alternative Web browser that retrieves text and images and sets them floating across the screen and, at the Whitney, around the walls. He said, ”To me, it is the dynamic and unpredictable nature of the content that defines its essential Net-ness, not the environment in which it is being displayed.”
Adrianne Wortzel, a New York artist, disagreed. For ”Camouflage Town” she built Kiru, a four-foot-tall robot that will roam the Whitney’s first floor. Online viewers anywhere can control the robot’s behavior and speech while Webcams transmit its movements back over the Internet. ”For me the right version is the online one,” Ms. Wortzel said. ”Remotely manipulating the robot to walk and talk is thrilling.”
Some of the online works at the San Francisco Modern are thrilling but cannot be seen at the museum. Instead, visitors are directed to look at them on their own computers.
Mr. Ross explained that he was concerned about publicly exhibiting works that, unlike those at the Whitney, were created to deliver a one-on-one experience. He said, ”The issue is, at what point do you rewrite the artist’s intention to deal with the institution’s obligation as an educational forum?”
For a time it appeared that Mr. Ross’s stance would not prevail. After Benjamin Weil, the San Francisco museum’s media-arts curator, returned from an electronic-art festival where digital works were shown on terminals, he was determined to give visitors to the museum the same opportunity, even if conditions were less than ideal. ”The museum is not only a space where you come to look at art, but it is also a time slot,” Mr. Weil said.
The five works were put on the museum’s Web site on Jan. 1, but as the March gallery opening neared, reality set in among the exhibition’s curators. Worried that tech-savvy visitors at the Modern would leave the museum’s site to surf the Web or check their e-mail, the curatorial team opted to remove the computer keyboards, so visitors would remain close to virtual home. But that also meant that some of the works could not be fully experienced, and the gallery plan was abandoned. ”Better not have them there at all than have them there in denuded fashion,” Mr. Ross said.
Museums must contend with practical matters as well. High traffic can take its toll on equipment, and there are countless other ways that things can go awry. Mr. Ross said, ”The seamy underside of technologically based exhibitions is that it’s awfully hard to keep everything going.”
And some artists maintain that online work does not belong in a museum at all. Working on the Internet has allowed them to escape the art world’s conventions, and they say that to exhibit their efforts in a museum or on its Web site would kill the spirit of their art.
But Martin Wattenberg, a New York artist who has a work in the ”Data Dynamics” exhibition, said the ambience of a venerable cultural institution could also enhance how a work is perceived: ”In the dark, powerful space of the museum, people can see computers for what they truly are: not productivity tools, but magic wands.”