Re:Interview #017:
Art, New Media and the Curatorial | Sarah Cook

Monica Studer and Christoph Van Den Berg, Package Holiday (2005),

The book Rethinking Curating: Art after New Media was published in March 2010 by MIT Press and immediately became a standard work about current developments in the field of curating new media art. It explores the characteristics distinctive to new media art, including its immateriality and its questioning of time and space, and relates them to such contemporary art forms as video art, conceptual art, socially engaged art, and performance art. The authors Sarah Cook and Beryl Graham, both of whom have extensive experience as curators, offer numerous examples of artworks and exhibitions to illustrate how the roles of curators and audiences can be redefined in light of new media art’s characteristics. They discuss modes of curating, from the familiar default mode of the museum, through parallels with publishing, broadcasting, festivals, and labs, to more recent hybrid ways of working online and off, including collaboration and social networking. Rethinking Curating offers curators a route through the hype around platforms and autonomous zones by following the lead of current artists’ practice. Sarah Cook, a research fellow and cofounder of CRUMB, has curated exhibitions of new media art internationally. In the following interview she explains her understanding of curating new media art and the now arising term of the ‘curatorial’:

Your book Rethinking Curating: Art after New Media (1) questions—on a certain level—the opposition of new media art and contemporary art. Why do you think these two forms of art are comparable?

I think we take it as assumed that there has been an opposition between them, partially because new media art has put itself in opposition to contemporary art by redefining what art is and by existing outside the structures of contemporary art. We question that opposition in that we try to suggest that it doesn’t need to be there, and that any resistance to new media art from the side of contemporary art is often based on false assumptions. For instance some curators, uncertain of new media art because they don’t know technically how it works, think that if the work is interactive it’s going to be problematic for audiences at the galleries.

The second part of your question, when you say ‘comparable’, I think what we, at CRUMB (2), try to do is to indicate how new media art is just a part of contemporary art and shares some of the same characteristics, or behaviours, of things that are widely understood to form part of the contemporary art world. And then we show how it’s a little bit different. I think maybe this is a problem in the book, we possibly should not have used that antagonistic language of difference. But at the time of its writing, five years ago, it was a way of indicating that there are other considerations that curators have to have when looking at new media art.

Why was it a problem to mention the difference in the book?

Because I think that curators are tired of continually defining why new media art is different. They’re just tired of being in a ghetto. Also it’s not helping the field, it’s not helping the mainstream contemporary art world pay more attention to media art.

At the time when new media art really started to become something that museums were interested in they were just assuming it was like a three screen video projection, or it used surveillance/cctv, or it involved mapping and that made it New Media. So people within the field of new media said ‘stop emphasizing the differences and start emphasizing the similarities.’ Actually I think there’s also a subjective level on which you can approach this question. Curators are individual people with taste and you can see within particular institutions how curatorial taste shapes the programme. Just because there are so few dedicated media art curators within museums, those that are [within museums] are curating quite particular shows and they might be only emphazising one aspect of new media art practice. If that’s the only art to get seen in a museum then the whole world assumes that that is all there is to new media art. I think this is problematic. But this is the nature of the contemporary art world and museum practice. If every museum had a curator who is responsible for media art then there wouldn’t be this much of a division because we would know a lot more about the plurality of forms that exist within the field rather than just the tech-y stuff or just the data visualization stuff or just the mapping stuff or just the surveillance stuff.

Why do you think curators don’t look more into whatever is new media art? They have, for instance, to deal with certain very specific aspects of art and the common art world because it’s their job. Why wouldn’t they do the same with new media art?

I’d like to think they’re starting to, but to answer your question, I suspect there is more than one reason. On the one hand it comes down to practicality. They have to pick some theme or some angle on a work because they only get the chance to do one show every five years in their museum. On the other hand I think that when you’re encountering a field you know nothing about then you immediately start with the question: “What’s different about it?“ and for new media art the answer often is, „Oh, it’s how it’s made.“ And then you’re focussing on the technology and that leads you down a certain path. That necessity narrows your research for you. When I interviewed Larry Rinder (3) about the the Bitstreams show he curated at the Whitney (1) he wanted to indicate that he had given audiences all possible angles on this field and that every contemporary artist was potentially a new media artist. But when I actually walked around the show I felt like there was one work made using Flash and one work made using computer architectural modeling and one work made using cinema cut-ups and so on. It seemed you had one work of every single technology. There were classics, great pieces, but as a result it was a show led by technology. Mr. Rinder felt like he had done his responsibility to the field. It was a very quick show to curate, he didn’t have a lot of time to do the research and so he went to all the galleries and asked them “Which of your artists are using technology?” And that’s what came back. That is how he made that selection. It’s a long time ago now, about ten years, but museums haven’t taken on consistently tracking how the art is changing in that same way because the technology is changing. It means every time a curator says “I want to learn about what new media art is” someone’s going to tell them “Well, it’s this technology now” and that is going to lead them down that path. That’s my suspicion.

What do you think is happening outside museums now? Is there some more integration of new media art into the common arts field or is it the same as it was, for instance, ten years ago?

I suspect there is more integration but I think that artists who are really working with technology are still redefining art. So they’ll always be “in emergence” as they were back then. They always will try to change the boundaries of what we think Art is and challenge the institutions that show it. For instance, I spent a year at Eyebeam in the labs. Artists there are writing software and are making prototypes of objects that might be design or might be activist tools. So in all those cases you might say: “Is it art or not?” And that separates it further from the world of contemporary art, but in fact it expands the definition of Art.

So it’s more or less about Art and not New Media Art?

I think that’s why we called the book “Art after New Media”. Because we wanted to point to this moment when the technology becomes, to a certain degree, ubiquitous. There will always be artists working with technology that isn’t commonplace, and there will always be people working in that landscape that is beyond what we think of as the landscape of art.

If we talk about how to compare or how to differentiate between new media and the traditional arts field we always take the traditional arts field as a kind of common place, as the status quo. Do you think that new media has somehow influenced media like, for example, painting? Do you think that there is an influence on what is happening in the traditional arts field which comes from new media, from the Internet, from the exchange on the Internet?

Probably from new media in terms of the technologies and the social use of the technology. Probably not from new media art and what we are considering the artistic output of that.

So more from new media culture?

Yes. I think you see that librarians are not what they used to be, archivists are not what they used to be and storefront designers are not what they used to be. That’s all because the way they work has changed, because of the technologies they have access to. The same can be said for curators or museums. Whether the type of art that is produced in the contemporary arts field changes as well… maybe. But then there is this whole other raft of factors about the economy of the art world, what state art publications are in, how much money there is for the galleries. All of those things are going to have actually as much effect as a change in the technology. I think maybe the design/art line is blurrier than it used to be.

So it had more influence on the design area you mean?

I think you see artists who work with new media technologies are more comfortable with the design world than they used to be. They might be better understood there than in the contemporary art world.

Why should new media art be integrated in the art and not in the design sector?

I think it would be a shame if new media art just became part of any other art world. Actually we want lots of different kinds of art worlds and lots of different kinds of art in them! Some projects coming out of the labs at Eyebeam fit much better in design, some in activism, some fit much better in software programming and some like to be in the art world. My conversations with artists at Eyebeam was about where do they want to be and what contexts do they want their works to be seen in. Some of them absolutely want their work to be seen in the design world, but not all of them do. I think that is the benefit of places like Eyebeam or The Banff Center, which for many years supported artists through its New Media Institute. There aren’t very many places in the world where artists can go to escape either the commercial art world or the commercial design world or the commercial software and technology industries to actually make something new and then figure out where to go after that. There need to be more places like that.

In new media arts there are certain structures that don’t exist in the common arts field, like the labs or the festivals. But especially the labs are more and more disappearing it seems, compared to the situation around 2000. Is it just me thinking that or is it really happening? Are these structures transfoming into something else or is it still the way it used to be?

I think the labs that were there in the early 2000s were really hardware based. That was about having the technology that artists didn’t have access to. We certainly saw that the Banff Center in 1991 started the “Art and Virtual Environments programme”. They had a computer that was capable of doing VR and a programmer, John Harrison, who was there to help artists like Toni Dove and Michael Naimark to make VR works. But at a certain point such a technology no longer is exclusive, or the technology falls out of date and there is no new budget in order to upgrade it, or there is no budget to pay a technician to maintain it. And actually what artists want is to be in a studio situation where they can be in conversation with other artists. All artists want that irrespective of their medium. Or they want to be left alone in their studio to retreat and just get on with their work. So places that were technology-based labs had to figure out whether or not they would become discourse environments, residency environments or residency with retreat environments. You can see that happening at The Banff Centre, and you see it a little bit at Eyebeam. Eyebeam at one point had a quite high-end video editing suite. So artist like Isaac Julien would go to Eyebeam and an artist like Geraldine Juarez would be paid to work on Isaac’s films but  Geraldine would also make her own work on the side. That was the model of production that existed then – art of it paid revenue for the commercial art world, part of it to support artists. But at a certain point they didn’t need that anymore. Video artists were happy to go to a TV broadcast suite and pay hours for professional video editing by someone who works in that field (nevermind having an artist do that for you). So the labs became much more about a discourse environment. I think that has merged. Maybe visual arts/mainstream contemporary arts residency models have learned that from the labs or vice versa, I don’t know.

It seems there is a lot of discourse going on about curating right now. But this discourse often comes from online-journalism, from blogging and re-blogging and stuff like this. It seems since last year everybody starts to talk about curating. How do you see this situation?

I keep a feed of every time anybody tweets the word curating on Twitter and it just makes me laugh… people curate their shoe collection, they curate what they’re gonna wear today, they curate the cake they’re gonna eat at lunch time… I curated my hot lemonade with apfelstrudel here in Vienna… it’s ridiculous. The word itself has lost some meaning, as it’s been adopted to describe essentially an editing or filtering activity. We can blame bloggers for that if you want or we can blame journalists for that. I think when I first encountered reblogging as a concept I thought it was brilliant. And I still love Eyebeam’s reblog, because I love that somebody takes it over and for two weeks you look at what they look at.

And they look at good stuff…

They look at good stuff and they get good feeds. Somebody decides on the feeds and so it’s actually properly crowdsourced, from the crowd that you want to be hanging out with. I think that is a value in thinking about curating as taste-making. Online tools, tools of blogging, make it easy for anybody to do that. Anne-Marie Schleiner’s idea about “feeding the filters” (4) from 2003 is still the right idea. If you’re feeding a blog then you’re going to filter things in a particular way. If you’re feeding a gallery space you’re filtering in a different way. The role you’re going to take on, that role is going to change. Look at the VVORK blog: All it is, is a caption. A caption and maybe it has a link in it. Artist name, title, date, link. That’s it. Whereas going to a museum there would also be the medium it is made in and everything else. So it is an ongong discussion and the word “curating” has become seriously overused. Maybe curators will fight for it back, but perhaps they have done a pretty bad job in defending the word for a long time. When you think of curators that put their name in big letters on the poster and they don’t even mention the artists’ names then they deserve the word taken away from them, popularized and given to everybody. I’m not going to say “No you haven’t curated your outfit today”, but I know it doesn’t mean the same thing as when I curated a show.

Lars Bang Larsen and Soren Andreasen claim that the question of what a curator is “doesn’t make sense, because the curator is not something; the curator does something.”(5)  What do you think the curator does?

One thing that you will start to notice in the next year -if you haven’t already- is that curators are now talking about “the curatorial”. It is not “studies in curating” but “studies in the curatorial”. Books are called “the curatorial” because they’re trying to take on that word to emphasize practice. “I’m concerned with the curatorial” rather than “concerned with curating”as a verb. I think that is really interesting because its not even “curatorship”. Curatorship seems to be something we have been using as a word for caretaking versus “the curatorial” which seems to be practice.
As a curator you do everything. From selecting, taste-making and gate-keeping to sweeping the floor, painting the wall, writing the exhibition press release, calling up the journalists and so on. I mean you do all of those thing entirely dependent upon the context you are doing it for. No matter if you are doing it for a book, for a blog or for a physical space. I make the canapés sometimes, so I consider that a part of it.

Thinking of translation as a metaphor for curating, do you see yourself somehow as a translator? A translator between the different worlds of art, between real space and virtual space and between media?

From being in conferences in other countries and having things simultaneously translated for me and talking to those translators I’m very aware that they are very neutral in the way in which they translate. In curating you’re absolutely putting your own political and social ideas in there. I wonder if we need to introduce a political idea to translating, maybe make it more like advocacy or brokering. A broker is an economic translator, an advocate might be a political translator, a lobbyist or something like that. So that would be my only hesitancy at using the analogy of a translator for the work of curating… I think absolutely yes, it’s a task of translation but there is something else. I just always say that curators are individuals and they have things they like and things they don’t like. And if that’s not apparent in their show then it’s probably not a good show. Why am I going to see it when anybody could have done it?

But I would say that translating is a kind of neutral activity in general? Or should it at least be a kind of neutral activity?

My experiences of conference-based simultaneous translation—saying one person’s words in another language—is neutral. But I know that, for instance, when a writer brings out a new translation of Homer’s Iliad people get very excited in case they find more nuance. Whether they’re looking for that nuance within Homer’s Iliad or whether they’re looking for a new nuance that the translator introduces. But maybe in the field of literature it is slightly different than in other fields. I don’t think there’s one way of looking at it.

Thank you very much for the interview!

(1) Beryl Graham and Sarah Cook, Rethinking Curating: Art After New Media, The MIT Press, Cambridge and London, 2010.
(2) Curatorial Resource for Upstart Media Bliss (CRUMB) is a resource for research and practice related to curating New Media Art, (January 08, 2011).
(3) Sarah Cook and Larry Rinder, An interview with Larry Rinder, (January 08, 2011).
(4) Anne-Marie Schleiner, Fluidities and Oppositions among Curators, Filter Feeders, and Future Artists, (January 08, 2011).
(5) Andreasen, Soren Andreasen and Lars Bang Larsen, The Middleman: Beginning to Think About Mediation, in: Paul O’Neill (ed.), Curating Subjects, De Appel Centre for Contemporary Art, Amsterdam, 2007, pp. 20-30.

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