When the internet officially appeared in the early 1990s, it inspired a variety of dreams about the future of artistic and curatorial practices, including a radical reconfiguration of traditional models and spaces for access to art. This change, however, did not materialize so deeply, in the view of Christiane Paul, curator of New Media at the Whitney Museum of American Art, but it manifested itself in different ways. Since 2001, she has been in charge of artport – the museum’s portal that was created specifically for the commissioning of net art and where more than 100 works of the genre have passed. Since 2015, she participated in the decision to assimilate all projects created for the page to the Whitney collection.
Now, at a time when all art institutions are forced to formulate an online program, Paul claims not to be seeing the creation of new platforms for net art, but believes in the continuity of the progress that has been following slowly in the last decades, with solid practices of preservation, new collectors and a market that is paying more and more attention to new media. “Although the schedule of the commissions did not change during the pandemic in the artport, the works received much more media attention,” she tells seLecT.
Looking back, what came true from the dream of changes that involved artistic and curatorial practices with the emergence of the internet?
As is usually the case, the original dream of radical changes brought about by net art did not quite come true as envisioned, but it certainly has manifested in a variety of ways. The Web has become a major player in representing and accessing art — through the websites of cultural organizations, galleries, art fairs, and auction houses, to name just a few of the stakeholders — and social media have created yet another space for accessing art through YouTube channels, Twitter tours, Instagram live presentations etc. The art world has become much more sophisticated in thinking about the relationship between online and offline spaces and the way the physical gallery and online exhibition environments complement each other. Net art, the only art form created to be experienced in online spaces, has gone through waves of evolution and now is both more integrated into the mainstream art world and still holding a unique position outside of it. It also has started intersecting with the physical world, leading to the creation of artworks that would not be possible without the network but take physical form and are commonly described as post-Internet art. Curatorial practice itself also has changed. Curators today increasingly understand themselves as mediators between platforms of exchange, be they the gallery or online space. Covid-19 has shifted the ‘power relationship’ between online and physical space, pushing the Web environment to the foreground as the only access point. The fact that most arts and cultural organizations were forced to do online programming only has also led to a more in-depth exploration of how to best make different art forms accessible online.
In the book A Companion to Digital Art, Edward A. Shanken argues that rarely does the mainstream art world converge with the new media art world. Do you believe that the Covid-19 pandemic can change this scenario?
Not necessarily. It is a fact that the ‘mainstream’ and new media art worlds have existed side by side for decades and that the festivals and organizations focused on digital art were the ones who have been writing the history of new media art and supported its evolution. Particularly in the past decade this has slowly changed and we have seen mainstream institutions — from the Grand Palais and Pompidou in Paris to the Whitechapel Gallery in London, MOMA and the Whitney Museum in New York or the de Young Museum in San Francisco — featuring exhibitions focused on artists and robots, AI, programmed arts, and the history of new media art. I think right now would be a good moment for the two camps, mainstream and new media, to evaluate what intersections and collaborations between their organizations make sense, but I don’t see that the Covid-19 environment provides new platforms for doing so; institutions seem to have been mostly focused on representing their respective works.
In these first months of the pandemic, did you notice any changes? How do you evaluate the large number of virtual projects that emerged?
I have not seen any increased exchanges or collaborations between the mainstream and digital art world during the first months of the pandemic. I think one also needs to make careful distinctions between the “virtual projects” that have been released in recent weeks. The majority of the institutional projects that emerged during the pandemic has consisted of representations of already installed exhibitions and scheduled programming or collection holdings on websites, YouTube, Vimeo and Instagram live. Exhibitions now have an expanded online presence, talks with artists and tours take place on Instagram, screenings are done online, and museums showcase selections from their collection with commentary or personal stories on Instagram. Very few of these online ‘exhibitions’ choose to produce 3D walkthroughs of galleries, and most projects were not created specifically for the online environment. One of the very few exceptions was We=Link: Ten Easy Pieces by the Chronus Art Center in Shanghai, which chose to replace a canceled physical exhibition with ad hoc commissions of net art that were then co-hosted in collaboration with a variety of institutions. I have been commissioning online art for the Whitney Museum’s artport website since 2001 and, while the schedule of the commissions did not change during the pandemic, they received much more media attention.
Although art institutions use digital technologies in their infrastructure, they still emphasize on exhibiting in a traditional and presential form. In Brazil, we have seen that many virtual exhibitions were just traditional art shown in virtual media. Why is there a reluctance in investing in digital-born art?
I think the Brazilian art world’s focus on online exhibitions that showcase traditional art forms is by no means an exception. The reluctance to digital-born art has a long and very complex history starting in the 1960s. I believe that one of the biggest challenges this art form poses is an understanding of its visual and conceptual language and aesthetics, as well as its context. Audiences often perceive it as geeky, obtuse, and cold, lacking a “human touch”. As people are increasingly exposed to technology this seems to slowly change. Aesthetics aside, digital art can be difficult to present and institutions often lacked the infrastructure to do so. Preservation and collection, as well as the fact that the art form was underrepresented on the market were other factors. I believe we have seen a lot of progress in the latter areas over the past two decades. Thanks to many initiatives there now are solid best practices for preservation in place, models for collecting have evolved, the art market pays more attention and serious collectors specializing in this medium have emerged.
Do you believe that the migration of conventional artworks into the virtual media is something that should be explored?
It depends on what exactly you mean by that. Providing online representation of traditional artworks and thereby giving visitors, researchers, and educators at least some form of access to them certainly seems beneficial. However, I don’t believe that ‘translating’ and migrating traditional artworks into an online format is a desirable goal in and of itself since the success of this transformation is completely dependent on the artwork’s concept. Some pieces might lend themselves to an online extension and activation, particularly if they have a performative component. Other works could be conceptually destroyed in that migration. Artworks are tied to their materiality, whether that’s virtual, paint or bronze, and there is a conceptual reason why they communicate best in and through certain material forms.
In relation to market insertion, what is the difference between digital art and others art forms that also explore immateriality and, even then, were able to be assimilated into the market, such as performances – whose documents, photos and residual objects ended up incorporated to museums?
It indeed traditionally has been more challenging to establish models for the collection of more performative art, but I would not compare the ephemerality of performance art to the “immaterial”; aspects of net art, which does not by nature need to be collected as documentation of the actual work. We now have more solid models for collecting net art. Hosting a work on one’s server and owning its domain name certainly constitutes ownership
even if the public can access the work at any given time. Rafaël Rozendaal’s Art Website Sales Contract and the fact that he gave each of his works a unique domain name that could be transferred to a collector certainly was influential in that respect. Prices for web-based works have gone up, and I see more collectors becoming interested in that area.
Can the difficulty of inserting net art (even now that the virtual exhibitions are growing) be justified due to the lack of interest of the market?
The fact that digital art for the longest time was not on the radar of the art market certainly played a major role in the difficulties surrounding the art form’s integration into the art world at large. However, the situation seems to be slowly changing. Some digital artists are represented by more blue-chip galleries with a presence at art fairs; there are established galleries — such as Bitforms, Postmasters, and Transfer in the US or Upstream in the Netherlands and Galerie Charlot in Paris — that have consistently or even exclusively represented digital art; major fairs such as Frieze or Expo Chicago have organized panels on collecting digital art; and the collector base is growing.
Regarding your experience with artport, how do you see the evolution of net art during all these years? And what position did net art achieve in the museum?
Artport was founded in 2001 and the environment for net art has tremendously changed from the Web 1.0 of the 90s to the social media landscape of Web 2.0 in the 2000s. While the net art of the 90s engaged with serious issues, its exploration of online identity, data frameworks, participation and collaborative production was more playful and mischievous. Artists may always be conceptually ahead of the curve but in the 90s they also were technologically ahead, inventing tools that would later become integrated into commercial products. As the Web became increasingly corporatized and platforms for exchanging content became commercially driven, the tone and aesthetics of net art changed in the engagement with this environment. The position that artport and the more than 100 projects commissioned for it hold also radically changed over time. Artport now has its own solid curatorial budget (rather than being supported by outside sponsors), and in 2015 the decision was made to bring artport and the projects created for it on an ongoing basis into the Whitney Museum’s collection as an entity of its own, the artport collection.
What was the importance of this action?
I think the integration of artport into the Whitney Museum’s collection was of tremendous importance. It made the statement that net art is collectible and also gave the artists the status of a ‘collection artist’, which comes with a life-time membership. Net art ceased to be the stepchild that wasn’t quite part of the family. The challenges of bringing the artport works into the collection were mostly philosophical. Artport projects have always been commissioned under a non-exclusive license, allowing artists to retain copyright and show the work. We decided to play it both ways and maintain that status while still bringing the work into the collection, so they have a very unique status.
What were the difficulties found in the institution to preserve these artworks, once they are linked to technologies that are constantly becoming obsolete?
Due to the ever faster cycles of technological obsolescence, the preservation of net art, and digital art per se, definitely is challenging. But initiatives addressing the preservation of digital art have been underway for more than a decade, and museums have created consortia focused on digital conservation and organized workshops and conferences. By now the field has established best practices and digital conservation is a profession that is much in demand. The Whitney formed a digital art conservation committee that looks specifically at artport works and has been in discussion with organizations such as Rhizome to discuss strategies. As part of the Whitney’s larger Media Preservation Initiative (MPI), we have been consistently working on the preservation of artport projects and have started to collaborate with classes at NYU that are devoted to analyzing and conserving these projects.
Were the Whitney Museum’s projects altered in any way because of the pandemic?
To the best of my knowledge, no projects per se have been changed, but their representation certainly has. The artport commissions for this year had already been planned, but the works received a lot more attention than usual by the media. The upcoming commission in artport’s Sunrise/Sunset series, Looted by American Artist, is more explicitly related to recent events. The artist had been selected months ago, but the project was shaped by the protests against racial injustice. While the Whitney Museum’s galleries closed in March, the already installed exhibitions are now highlighted online and additional sections for experiencing the collection or participating in newly developed educational programs were created.
In A Companion to the digital art, you wrote that Japan and South America have a rich history of artistic experimentation with technological art forms that cannot be comprehensively addressed in the book. How do you see Brazil in this context?
Brazil is one of the South American countries that have a very rich history of light art, as well as kinetic and participatory art that can be understood as a predecessor to the different types of optical and moving image environments and mathematical abstractions that are explored in new media art. Abraham Palatnik, who recently died of the Coronavirus, and Lygia Clark have created some pioneering works in this area. There also are many Brazilian new media artists that have been internationally recognized for their contributions to the field, among them Eduardo Kac, Giselle Beiguelman, Diana Domingues, Raquel Kogan, and Bruno Moreschi, and the File Festival has a decade-long history of chronicling developments in media art. More recently there also have been very interesting experiments with online art presentation by young curators such as Livia Benedetti and Marcela Vieira who are organizing aarea.co, which is a platform exploring the intersections between the Web and physical space in sometimes performative ways that unfold in a limited time frame.
It became commonplace in Brazil to state that the institutions and galleries arrived late in the digital world. What could be done to catch up?
I think one of the most important steps in moving institutions and galleries into the digital world is to look at the history of digital practice in the country and consult the practitioners in the field — artists, curators, festival organizers — who have gathered enormous expertise in working with the medium. It is also crucial for museums to make a commitment to presenting digital art more frequently, as well as collecting and preserving it. This inclusion would also make a contribution to boosting the status of the art form and thereby enable galleries to create more of a market for the works.
What can we expect for the future of net art?
Over the past decade net art increasingly evolved into ‘networked art’, for example by branching out onto mobile devices and becoming available as an app that might work in conjunction with an installation or other offline components etc. I hope that the attention that net art is receiving during this pandemic will renew interest in the medium and inspire sustainable models for its institutional support. I also believe that we will see more sophisticated intersections between physical and online spaces, along the lines of what some of the projects on aarea.co have been exploring.