PRINT March 2001


“EAVESDROPPING ON ONLINE DISCUSSIONS ABOUT digital and Net art, I always have a panic-attack feeling that the air has been sucked out of the room. Let's face it, a lot of this stuff is deeply sucky.” Strong words from self-styled tech maven Mark Dery, but the provocation mirrors a common enough skepticism when it comes to the marriage of art and digital technologies. As Saul Anton, Artforum's new website editor and the moderator of this roundtable, pointedly observes, such reserve is “inversely proportional to the exuberant embrace of all things digital in our culture at large.”

Still, the ongoing revolution in digital technology and communications has hardly passed the arts by. Video, film, music, and photography—even painting and sculpture—have gone digital to varying degrees; indeed, a transformation on the order of that occasioned by the epochal advent of photography may well be taking place under our noses: When a click of a mouse can transform a photo on a PC in Düsseldorf into a sound piece in Seoul, those notions of authenticity and medium specificity made rickety in the age of mechanical reproduction seem wholly antique. But is it art? This question held photography captive for the better part of a century (even as that technology remade the era—and its art—in its own image); given the deep inroads the digital is making in the arts today, perhaps we'd do better simply to ask “What might these new technologies lead us to imagine?”

And that, it seems, is the question posed by two sprawling museum surveys opening this month, one on each coast: The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art presents “010101: Art in Technological Times” (March 3–July 8; its online, Net-art avatar— launched on January 1, 2001, hence the exhibition's title), while the Whitney Museum of American Art mounts “BitStreams” (March 22–June 10), both of which explore media crossover as artists increasingly exploit digital technologies in their work. “Data Dynamics,” a concurrent show at the Whitney, is devoted solely to Net art. The three exhibitions together feature work by some 100 artists whose reliance on the digital runs the gamut—from Kevin Appel, whose paintings are based on computer-generated drawings that might just as well have been drafted by hand, to John Maeda, who writes his own programming code in realizing his elegant Web-based designs.

“BitStreams” and “010101”—and the relaunching of Artforum's fully reconceived and redesigned website to follow in early April—provide the occasion for this symposium. We invited curators Lawrence Rinder, Debra Singer, and Christiane Paul (who organized “Data Dynamics”), of the Whitney, and Aaron Betsky, Benjamin Weil, and John S. Weber, of SF MoMA, to participate in a three-day marathon discussion in a discreet corner of cyberspace. The directors of the two institutions, David A. Ross and Maxwell L. Anderson, both dropped in on the conversation. To pressure the proceedings, Anton called on two outside voices in the field and asked them to join the fray: Mark Dery, author of Cyberculture at the End of the Century (Grove, 1996), and Peter Lunenfeld, whose latest title is Snap to Grid: A User's Guide to Digital Arts, Media, and Cultures (MIT, 2000). What follows are analog selections from the freewheeling (and nonlinear) digital conversation that ensued—and that will continue on next month, inaugurating our new series of online symposia. —Eds.

SAUL ANTON: In mounting “Bit Streams” and “010101” the Whitney and SF MoMA seem officially sanctioning digital media as a distinct form of art. What ideas guided the planning of these shows?

LAWRENCE RINDER: I began working on “BitStreams” primarily because I saw a tremendous revolution taking place in art today. So many artists are using digital media that I wanted to see how it affected their work. I also wanted to understand how these technologies are opening up new expressive possibilities and blurring the boundaries between previously distinct media. I tried to maintain a dual criterion: The works had to have been developed with some form of digital technology, but they also had to actively reflect on some aspect of the emerging digital reality.

AARON BETSKY: “010101” isn't an exhibition about digital media. It's an attempt to look at how changing computer and communication technologies are altering the world we inhabit, both real and virtual, and to see how artists are responding to these new landscapes. Some artists like the ability technology gives them to acquire more imagery and data, while others like being able to create fluid forms or images that exist only digitally; some are interested in systems theory, and still others are trying to figure out how to represent the new reality.

DAVID A. ROSS: We thought the time was right to explore the idea of the work of art in technological times. From the beginning SF MoMA's curatorial team was quite clear that the dictum of the show would be—to paraphrase Nam June Paik—not cybernetic art, but art for cybernetic times. That may sound a bit simple, but the idea that the present situation of art (and all social relations for that matter) is conditioned by technology seemed a reasonable way to focus a survey.

PETER LUNENFELD: “010101” incorporates a wide variety of architecture and design; “BitStreams” features an unexpected concentration of sound pieces. Does this diversity reflect digital media's seemingly endless capacity to swallow previously discrete media and homogenize them as code? Also, how did you map out your display strategies to ensure that the Net arts, industrial and architectural design, and aural installations would be granted status equal to more “museum friendly” media like painting, sculpture, and photography?

RINDER: One of the most intriguing things about digital media is the way it homogenizes—to use Peter's word—media such as sculpture, photography, and even sound by reducing all information to some binary expression. Several artists are beginning to tap into this phenomenon on a metaphorical level. In terms of display strategy, the audio pieces are being presented in an installation designed by LOT/EK, the architecture firm noted for creating spaces conducive to the enjoyment of mass media and media arts, which will help make a visual and conceptual bridge to the works of visual art included in the exhibition.

ROSS: Early on, the idea arose that what was online and what would occupy gallery space should be considered together from a curatorial perspective but allowed to exist in the kinds of spaces specific to the art itself rather than be forced into museum galleries or online for the sake of some putative common ground. The museum as a presenting and a convening institution expanded years ago, so we viewed our decision to use both kinds of exhibition space as appropriate but not at all new.

JOHN S. WEBER: The instability of anything digital is the curious thing here. Despite its supposedly perfect “reproducibility,” most digital art comes with any number of elements that are obsolete as soon as they leave the studio. Operating systems, display hardware, software programs—much of this is far more fleeting than the most light-sensitive watercolor. The rapid pace of technological change, product cycles, and forced obsolescence is a product of industry and the economics that underwrite it (literally and philosophically). There have been times when I wondered if nonprofit institutions and artists can really afford to be involved in this situation. But I don't see any way out.

MAXWELL L. ANDERSON: Audiences are accustomed to entering a museum and encountering an installation that cannot be experienced in a similar way elsewhere. We are plunging into uncertain territory once portable devices become sophisticated enough to emulate digital experiences anywhere. Once three-dimensional projection, voice-recognition, and other innovations permeate the consumer marketplace, they ratchet up the expectations of artists and audiences alike. The challenge for museums is to prove that people in physical spaces still have a lot of artistic variety to experience in the digital era.

WEBER: I suspect, though, that a lot of digital work will end up being known primarily through reputation, plus a few screen shots or installation shots. Digital works will be easily distributable as “original” experiences for a few years, then they will vanish as their codes and display hardware are replaced. One can talk of “emulation” as a solution, but then we are dealing with the issue of reproductions of a new kind.

ANTON: There seems to be a consensus that digital technology implies a mutation in art practice.

CHRISTIANE PAUL: Digital art suggests a paradigm shift in which the artworks cease to embody “artistic truth” and become “conditions of possibility,” that is, fluid interactions between manifestations of information. There are online works that bear at least some similarities to traditional art objects because they provide some sense of closure. They have images that move when we make them move, but they're not completely open to interaction. Other works, however, are completely open to contributions from the audience. In these, the artwork has been transformed into a structure in process that relies on a constant flux of information and engages the viewer/collaborator the way a performance might. In interactive art, audiences collaborate in the process of remapping the textual, visual, kinetic, and aural components of the work; rather than being the creator of a work, the artist becomes a mediating agent.

RINDER: It's precisely because of the homogenization of information that even the simplest digitally produced work challenges conventional views of art. Information is almost infinitely malleable, and with the development of new technologies such as rapid prototyping, it is fantastically versatile on the level of physical expression. This is what Christiane means when she talks about the paradigm shift from artistic “truth” to “conditions of possibility.” When a sculpture and a photograph can both derive directly from the same CAD file, we're on to something new. Will we someday have, not departments of sculpture and photography, but departments of Flash and Form-Z? We decided to focus “BitStreams” explicitly on digital media precisely to draw our audience's attention to such questions.

BENJAMIN WEIL: I recall discussing the notion of plurimedia with Larry [Rinder] last fall. Plurimedia happens when artistic praxis can no longer be bound to traditional definitions of art as the mastery of a craft. Hence, the presence of artists like Karin Sander and Roxy Paine in “010101.” Both have deliberately removed themselves from the process of artmaking to function more as conceptualizers. We also addressed this in another way by presenting design, architecture, and artists who work outside the traditional art world. Groups such as Droog Design and Décosterd & Rahm have maintained a relation between their commercial production and artwork.

MARK DERY: I can't resist whacking a cluster bomb straight down the fairway: Too much digital or “” suffers from an anemia that comes from a steady diet of neo-conceptualism and raw, uncut theory. Too often, dgital art preaches to the converted, addressing itself to the theoretical and formal microtrends du jour in the art world, or—in unwitting tribute to the age of microniche marketing—to digital art itself. Eyeballing such art and eavesdropping on discussions about it on Nettime, the Thing, Rhizome, and elsewhere, I always have the panic-attack feeling that all the air has been sucked out of the room. Let's face it, a lot of this stuff is deeply sucky. The tendency seems, in part, to be a hangover from '70s Conceptualism and Fluxus, especially the notion—dearly beloved by Cooverian celebrants of hypertext—that people want art to be a consensual act, collaboratively created by the artist and the spectator. Unfortunately, it simply isn't born out in actual fact. Interactive works are a burden and a bore because they demand too much and afford too little.

WEBER: This situation, in which the artist's role is thrown into a state of increased ambiguity and complexity, can be seen as a logical outgrowth of Conceptual art from the '60s—and Sol LeWitt's directions and wall drawings offer an intriguing parallel to an artwork that is based in “codes” and executed by someone other than the artist, say, a programmer. It is intriguing to me that art which relies heavily on tech might be exacerbating a situation in which the artist becomes more like an architect or composer than an artisan. This way of working requires that viewers approach the art and artist with somewhat different expectations.

LUNENFELD: Mark, your comments certainly apply to the early efflorescence of cybercommentary, but it's not 1993 anymore. I wrote Snap to Grid in part to critique the science-fictional discourses that grew up with the emergence of hypertext, virtual reality, and interactive art. The reason I'm looking forward to seeing how “010101” and “BitStreams” is precisely to put them to the test that you call for: Will these shows hold up against other aesthetic experiences that matter?

RINDER: Indeed, Peter's book set a terrific example by placing digital practices smack-dab in the middle of contemporary art discourse. The standards that he sets are ones that I would be happy to see “BitStreams” held to.

ANTON: Perhaps it's worth asking at this point what kinds of interactivity are evidenced in these exhibitions?

RINDER: “BitStreams” includes works that run the gamut from paintings, prints, and drawings to pieces such as Lew Baldwin's Internet-linked installation,, 2001, in which the museum's visitors find themselves affecting the graphic and audio elements through their movements up and down the museum's stairs. The show also includes John Klima's ecosystm, 2000, in which visitors to the exhibition can navigate a real-time online environment representing global currency fluctuations and local weather patterns with a joystick and avatar. In between are works — such as Jim Campbell's LED pieces, which reveal themselves as the viewer shifts position around the work, and Diana Thater's video installation, in which gels on the lights and window cast the viewer in an all-encompassing glow.

DERY: What's ailing most digital art is what's made the notion of the avant-garde moribund—namely, the head-whipping acceleration of our culture, which has left even bleeding-edge hohos groping for a clue. I'm not the first , to point this out, of course. Ballard, for one, doubts that art can keep pace with a culture screaming toward the vanishing point of pure simulation, machine speed, and posthuman subjectivity. What can Saul Bellow and John Updike do that J. Walter Thompson, the world's largest advertising agency and its greatest producer of fictions, can't do better? he wants to know.

I find it instructive that many of the most thoughtprovoking “artists” featured in “010101” are, in fact, designers or architects. Clearly, graphic design, product design, and architecture—even advertising—have a lock on the zeitgeist. If digital art isn't going to end up buried in the sedimentary record of dead media and obsolete movements, it needs to turn its focus outward, away from art-centric theorizing and purely formal concerns, toward the lightning-rod events and issues of the day: class war, race war, the culture wars, the runaway acceleration of everyday life, the atomization of the self, the demolition of gender, the disappearance of nature, to name a few. In other words, digital art needs to start taking itself seriously, as an art form, and stop behaving like the R&D wing of the culture industry.

LUNENFELD: An investment adviser who only recommended Internet stocks of companies his firm had taken public defended himself recently by claiming that “what once was conflict of interest now is synergy.” I'd like to jump off from this millennial oxymoron to the way we've been talking about information. Both shows feature artists who use digital media to create works that code multivalent levels of information about themselves, their component parts, and their contexts. These artists then play off the conflicts and synergies between visible interfaces, dynamic databases, and networked interactivities. When the resulting works enter the museum, however, another level of information can be added to these unfinished systems, a level I'd call digital didacticism. I'm concerned about the unquestioned enthusiasm for virtual tour leaders, embedded walk throughs, and the everexpanding domain of explicatory media directly linked to the artwork or its immediate environment. You don't have to be completely committed to the hermeneutics of suspicion to wince when the recorded voice or virtualized presence of the artist is given such prominence in the museum-going experience. Whatever happened to the critique of intentionality? Isn't there a problem when the convening authority of the museum builds itself into an inescapable institutional voice, coded into the artworks themselves?

BETSKY: Museums should still have a “convening authority.” Sometimes real life and real time is a better medium. Which is why I think it is also worth noting that both the Whitney and we felt it was important to make an exhibition that actually happens in a physical gallery. I do think there is a certain focus that comes from removing people from the outside world and having them look at something with some time and space around it. I will also continue to argue that the museum as refuge and place of contemplation is extremely important. This also means that we need to look to artists to understand how their work can function in such a context, rather than simply worry about how the museum can “repurpose” itself to accommodate forms of expression that might not work in a museum. Some things, like websites, might not belong in the physical museum, though they can live in digital extensions of such an institution.

WEBER: Like the Whitney, SF momA is not doing audio tours and so on for “010101.” I, too, am quite suspicious of the overdetermining, all-knowing institutional voice. But I tend to be suspicious of people who clamor for fewer educational resources in museums. Inevitably they already possess a great many internal educational resources. Art professionals (curators, critics, and academics) complain the loudest. Let's think about that while mulling over how much authority we really think we can convene at any given point in history. But no one reads or listens to everything museums offer, and we don't expect them to. People are remarkably good at picking and choosing what to pay attention to and what to walk past.

ANDERSON: A while back in this conversation, I hazarded some enthusiasm about the pedagogical opportunities presented by new tools—and I hope you don't think I'm running away with that enthusiasm, John. There are different tools for different purposes, and I see no single solution when it conies to inviting the uninitiated visitor into the magical creative realm that we are all fortunate enough to live in. But as museums we exist for the uninitiated as well as those steeped in creative practices. And we should “convene” as many people as care to learn.

DERY: Max, I'm not sure I share your conviction that “convening authorities” arc digital art's last, best hope. I thought the cultural dynamics of the digital age—decentralizing, destratifying, and demassifying—were supposed to take a wrecking ball to,magisterial institutions like the museum.

LUNENFELD: I'm sure that shows as sprawling as these two will include works that address the cultural politics of their production. But I don't necessarily think that a reflexivity about modes of production is the ultimate answer to creating art that speaks to our culture. I am leery of calling for a particular approach or politics to deal with the complexities of speaking to, much less for, the contemporary. I tend to think that each of us—artist, curator, critic, audience member—should prove motion by walking.

DERY: If “visual models for the mapping of data flow had become one of the important narratives” that evolved in Net art, as Christiane observes, I would ask what the epistemic, technodeterministic, or social logic is behind this cultural development. Why have artists suddenly felt the need, and had the means, to appropriate the tools and techniques of computer simulation of dynamic systems, nonlinear processes, whatever? The unaddressed question of the cultural politics of such art—who's making it? who can afford to make it? why are they making it? who's consuming it? who's valorizing it critically and thereby inflating its market value ?—speaks volumes.

PAUL: The logic behind this cultural development is rather obvious to me. Over the last five decades, information and communication management have driven the technological developments we are witnessing now. The need for “datamining” (although the term didn't exist at the time) in a participatory system was the origin of Vannevar Bush's Memex, Douglas Engelbart's model of direct interaction, as well as Ted Nelson's Xanadu, and led to the first manifestation of the World Wide Web in the Internet browser and server Tim Berners-Lee created in 1990. There is no sudden need to do this type of thing. It took five decades to find ways of translating these concepts, which I would describe as “mapping of data flow.” Artists are not only appropriating the tools today, they're very much creating them. These are the artists who are writing their own code. What we're witnessing today is the development of another “technology”—and painting, photography, and video can be considered technologies as well. What made Seurat pick up a brush and mix color in the viewers' eye (a technique that's an obvious ancestor to the RGB palette that constitutes the colors we see on our computer screens)? Why did Paik experiment with video? And who valorized that art, thereby “inflating” its market value and making it part of our cultural history? It certainly is interesting to ask these questions and explore the cultural politics behind them in comparison to older media, but none of the questions are “new.”

DERY: I wasn't asking about the cultural logic behind the military-industrial, technoscientific, or private-sector development of data-mapping technologies. I was asking why artists have chosen to repurpose them in the service of art, at this historical moment. Is this work technodeterministically inspired by the availability of the tools, or does the mapping of data flow offer potent metaphors for our chaos culture?

ANTON: If one of the defining aspects of this type of work is transience, does this make it especially hard to place it into the repository of cultural memory, i.e., the museum, and thus capture it in a historical context that would define its values, monetarily or culturally? Does plurimedia move too fast to ever become a stable basis for cultural dialogue?

PAUL: Certainly it is challenging to place “plurimedia” into the repository of culture, but I think it can be done and there are precedents. Performance art and many film installations created similar challenges. As Larry pointed out, the aspect of transience is counterbalanced by the stability of bits and bytes. Even time-based digital work can be documented in many forms, and I believe that historical context can be preserved. I know that Benjamin Weil promotes and pursues the documentation of the creative process in various forms, which I think is an important effort, and the museum can certainly play a crucial role in this context.

ANDERSON: In the popular imagination, the digital means little more than how much you can cram onto the smallest possible gizmo and how much money you can make from doing so. Our shows are a stealthy effort to make the public look up from their Palm Pilots. Museums, with their threatening “convening authority,” are far from perfect for this purpose, but they represent the best hope that your heartfelt convictions can have an audience larger than those of us who have been participating in late-night rants since ASCII ruled the roost.

But in the meantime it's all too easy for us to get caught up in our own Lilliputian struggles over which orthodoxies will or should prevail—such as which artists act from a creative impulse disconnected from corporate conspiracies, or which artists take up arms against those conspiracies in their work, or which artists embrace a perceived obligation of any kind. Artists owe us nothing. They are not in these exhibitions in order to buttress our hunches and sensibilities. They are there because our curators are singling out imaginative sparks in a primeval moment of information technology. It will be several years before we climb out of the silicon/tar pits. In the short term, the impact of these exhibitions will be multivalent: street cred for art that's not collectible, press frenzies over the newest and latest, corporate bottom-feeding over how to benefit from alignment with young visionaries, and so on. But the key objective has to remain the provision of a platform for new forms of expression, unburdened to the extent possible by our biases.

PAUL: My parting comments regarding “convening authority”: The dynamics of the digital age and the Internet certainly are decentralizing and many artists are using the medium in order to circumvent the traditional art market. Since there is no economic model for this medium yet, the “market” aspect seems to be easy to avoid at this point. My hope, however, would be that Net art doesn't flow only over, under, and around but also through the institution. The flexibility of the medium (given that there is “access”) allows this art to exist in multiple contexts, and I think it should exist in public spaces from the shopping mall to the museum, which, in this case, is just another (and I would say important) form of contextualization. When it comes to documenting and preserving this surprisingly ephemeral art, museums are among the few institutions with an explicit mission to do something about it.