Beryl Graham Brown Bag - 'Curating After New Media Art'

Brown Bag – Professor Beryl Graham, University of Sunderland
‘Curating After New Media Art: Museums and Audiences’

Professor Graham came to us today from the north-east of England to speak about New Media Art, how it is curated, how it is displayed and visitor interaction with it. She is clearly passionate about her topic and gave a lively and engaging presentation on the subject.

Graham, as co-founder of CRUMB or Curatorial Research for Upstart Media Bliss, which has to be one of the best acronyms I’ve ever come across. It is a resource dedicated to curators of new media art, to assist them in communication and research and bring the community together. Co-founders Graham and Cook have also published Rethinking Curating in 2010 and Graham is the editor on a new book to be released next year about New Media Art in Museums. In a topic still considered new, Graham seems to be at the front of the line. Her PhD thesis in 1997 dealt with audience relationships with interactive media artwork and her research has expanded from there Available here.

What’s more, Graham has been involved in art work style games over the last 20 years, of the interactive style and curated the Serious Games exhibit at Newcastle and London in 1996/97, a show not about new technology, but rather ‘a show about interaction’. There seems to be a clear and definitive flow to her work over recent decades and it is nice to see so much work being done on a subject matter (new media art) that many people still shy away from.

Graham’s Brown Bag was focused primarily on the interactivity of new media art. She identified three behaviours that have directly affected the contemporary art world: connectivity (or ‘things connected to other things’), computability (or ‘how things react to each other’) and lastly, interactivity. She acknowledged that there is a group of new media art that is both connective and computable, citing Laborers of Love as an example, the 2009 website that offer customized pornography made with images supplied by paid artists.

The lecture focus on interactivity was a good one, at least from my standpoint, since my own thesis deals with interactivity in the history museum environment (vs. art galleries). There are many similarities that can be drawn and the intention is much the same: to encourage movement and communication amongst visitors within a gallery space. This was a radical idea in the 1960/70s, pioneered by Rirkrit Tiravanija, who was a foremost artist at the time in convincing the public that fine art wasn’t just to be viewed, it should be enjoyed and engaged with directly. New media deals specifically with the concept of ‘participatory’, which is what Rirkrit hoped to achieve in his art pieces that involved the visitor directly.

From here, Graham moved on to the discussion of interactivity within new media art, citing a number of exhibition examples that used new media within the galleries. Here is presented a problem: can new media be used in a new media art installation without being part of the art? It is an integral problem facing curators of new media art today, as to how to draw in new media interactivity to their exhibitions effectively and understandably for the public.

Interactivity has also taken the turn towards interest in audience behaviour to the art, where some artists seek to shock or frustrated viewers. Does this become solely the purpose of the art piece for the sake of the artist, or part of the visitor study of audience behaviours? Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in 1992 included works created out of candy where the intention was for the visitor to take a piece; the pile ever replenished. Nowhere, however, was this stated. It is ingrained in the art gallery visitor not to touch the display, even if they want a piece of liquorice!

Robert Morris’ Bodyspacemotionthings in 1971 was also shown as example of interaction in galleries by hands on art display. It was Tate’s first fully interactive exhibition at the time and closed after just four days, due to over enthusiasm of the audience. It opened again a short time later, but as a hands-off exhibit, making, as Graham said, it ‘rather boring’. It has since been recreated at Tate in 2009 for a brief stint, as closely as the curators could manage. This is a good example of how life art curators are used to dealing with the public doing things in public spaces and being involved in the art, where sculptor curators are very ‘hands-off’.

Lastly, Graham spoke about audience participation specifically, citing the newer idea of documentation by the audience (versus the curator) and specifically crowd source documentation where the audience collaborates through photography and video taken while in the gallery and then posted online. The exhibit becomes documented, not by the museum staff, but by the visitors, scattered across the WWW.

But what is participation? Ele Carpenter in her research identified the Ladder of Participation, best used for citizenship participation in politics, but useful even for art. There are levels that range from the bottom: manipulation into participating to the top: citizen control of participation. A better museum model may be Paul Baran’s networked models of 1964 which describe the Internet from a centralized centre beaming out to audience to a distributed model where everyone and everything is interlinked (the modern Internet). Graham argued that art is either centralised (with the artist at the centre) or decentralized, half way between centralised and distributed, where art is participation in small linked centralized groups. Jeanne van Heeswijk in 2004’s ‘Work, Typologies & Capacities’ attempted to recreate such a model using wire and potatoes, which if nothing else certain made for an interesting display!

Participation (and documentation) bring up the idea of the audience as curators themselves. Such an idea would probably send most curators running for the hills, but there is a certain usefulness in getting the public to help. The site ‘Runme’ allows visitors and artists to create a keywords database for software art, which is not something that curators themselves are doing.

An opposite example from audience curation happened with the Guggenheim YouTube project where curators selected public videos (from anything available on YouTube) and displayed it in the gallery. Interestingly, most of the videos chosen were video art, as if the ingrained idea of artwork and display in gallery space was still adhered to by the curators. To an extent, the Internet becomes video art itself, not just the separate YouTube videos.

During the Q&A Ross Parry brought up the interesting point of whether, in the UK, SPECTRUM standards work for new media art. Ultimately, we concluded that they really don’t at all! However, forms of self-documentation (such as the Runme example above) are filling in the gaps where SPECTRUM just doesn’t work, but it is the public doing so. Perhaps it is time that curators acknowledge that new media art is just as important as any other art form and should be treated in the same way.


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