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 Handling Digital Art  

 

 Gary Svensson  

 


One could certainly argue that the role of a curator of contemporary art is increasingly shifting towards that of a filter feeder, since cultural production in general has become more 'networked' through current technologies and changed public art viewing practices. However, the politics of selection and the role played by art institutions undergo more substantial changes in the online curatorial process, which takes place in the non-locality of a distributed network.(1)


One of the basic theoretical perspectives of communication is the concept that the discursive room influences – or perhaps even co-creates – the meaning itself in the communication process. The symbols one interacts with here are not necessarily limited to sounds and gestures; they can also be artifacts, which unlike the majority of ordinary words in spoken language also may own a primary iconicity. That is to say the inter-play between expression and content seems to be evident.

At the beginning of the 20th century artist Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968) demonstrated the communicative importance of the room by exhibiting objects for everyday use in an art gallery, making visitors, both the ordinary audience and the art critics, look at them as art. Today Duchamp's 'objet trouvé' (found object) is a constitutive part of the Western cultural heritage. The objects, i.e., artifacts, can communicate attitude as well as meaning, interest, and character. The objects - things, pictures or "art" if you like - get their meaning through social interaction, where different agents agree about their content as well as their extent.

Recently in Sweden we saw a contemporary example of how the concept is revisited by the audience and the critics in the stir caused by the artist Anna Odell (born 1973) with her exam work at Konstfack (University College of Arts, Crafts and Design in Stockholm), Unknown, woman 2009-349701 (2009). Contrary to Duchamp, Anna Odell moved art outside; instead of exhibiting 'ready-mades' in a gallery, Odell exhibited herself in a vulnerable and mediated situation. Had Odell chosen to call it journalism, her venture might not have aroused such strong feelings. It would very likely have become part of a different discourse, with other rules and other agents, perhaps to some extent comparable to Hans-Günter Wallraff's exposures of various social conditions.

One might be able to draw some conclusions from the above; the choice of arena still seems to be important for the emergence of meaning. What creates meaning in the examples mentioned is not only what is being said and how something is expressed but also where the words are spoken.

Of course it can be difficult to maintain that all meaning is constructed in the receiving of social context; most people would say that the artist himself/herself is to some extent responsible. Therefore we often speak of the two references of the artwork: the artist on the one hand, and artists and society(2) on the other where networks between different participants interact. American sociologist Howard Becker (born 1928) introduced Arthur Coleman Dantos' (born 1924) concept 'artworld' to a larger public, when he interpreted the relationship between different participants in the art arena.(3)

The significance of these conventions naturally does not apply only to the analogue world; this should generally also apply to communities on the Internet and certainly to the sphere of digital art. The context – the scene - that creators of digital media utilize is likely to influence the very appreciation of the creative work. The question of what may be counted as art will, of course, not be investigated here; I will, however, try to examine different views held by some contemporary people involved.

The digital scene has brought about a change in many people's relation to social phenomena as well as to artifacts. This can be compared to the long-established institutional concept of art, where many parties are involved in building conventions about what art encompasses: the artist, the public, the institutions etc. If new areas are introduced they must be investigated and acknowledged by the participants.(4) Thereby the world of art will be regarded as part of interactive events and processes of society – closely related to the theoretical perspective which in sociology is termed 'symbolic interactionism.'(5)

In this connection it is important to discuss the role of media in identity creation – not least when it comes to artistic manifestations in new media. In her dissertation Den medierande konsten:scenen, samtalet, samhället (The mediating Art – Scene, Debate, Society), Anna Orrghen discusses a discursive tension field between art, media and society where art is mediated through a representative.(6)  But media also imply a stage in their own right. This makes it intricate to examine manifestations of art based exclusively on material premises. I have earlier, in other contexts, tried to analyze the difficulties in drawing up similar borders in connection with video art, computer art, and new media. The radio, television and film media changed our view of artistic artifacts long before the Internet had its breakthrough.(7)

We also have another distinct example of this in the nowadays almost forgotten practice, which is indeed outside the digital platform but still has many similarities: 'Artists' books.' The artists' books are not books about artists, nor are they illustrated books but an alternative space where the artist no longer is dependent on art galleries and other institutions. It can manifest itself in different ways; it could allude to book as a concept, and assume to mould characteristics or act as a medium for image and text. The concept was launched in the USA in the 1960's. Artists' books nowadays also include work that makes use of the so-called New Media, e.g. work created for CD or DVD.(8)

When the Internet became a natural part of the media landscape, there was no longer need for specialist competence in a particular field in order to reach an audience with one's work. It became possible to find inexpensive and efficient channels for one's messages with fairly simple methods. Conditions for creative work changed while professionally created material, as well as creations by laymen, were shared, revised and treated by several creators in interaction and co-operation with each other. Thus the Internet became a discursive arena with a partly new framework, fewer or no "gatekeepers" and less need of special means.

Internet facilitates for the art world to obtain a great variety of interpretations and creativity. Besides, there were other advantages to digital production; the picture could move inside and outside the frames in endless orbits where imagination was the only limit. Unlike many other earlier media, e.g. within video art, the dimension of time – regarding linear observation – was now dissolved. Just as in other discourses, members of the art world use elaborate concepts in their professional practice, building up competence and ability of discernment. Language functions for coding, perception and articulation when it comes to organizing impressions and obtaining knowledge of the world.(9)

It is quite probable that there are variations in the appreciation practices among creators of digital media, not only between laymen and professionals but also among participants with different backgrounds and traditions. In order to investigate this I made a number of interviews between 2008 and 2010 with established participants in the Swedish art scene.(10) The issue I started with was whether there existed different appreciation practices, for example regarding the selection of works of arts and the appreciation of quality. Is the appreciation depending on traditions that curators carry with them or does it rather depend on the room where the art is exhibited? In the background there is also the issue of the professional competence of tomorrow's curators, which has been discussed by Christiane Paul and Anne-Marie Schleiner, among others.(11)


Most web sites contain hyperlinks to other sites, distributed throughout the site or in a "favorites" section. Each of these favorite links sections serves as a kind of gallery, remapping other web sites as its own contents. Every web site owner is thus a curator and a cultural critic, creating chains of meaning through association, comparison and juxtaposition, parts or whole of which can in turn serve as fodder for another web site's "gallery." Site maintainers become operational filter feeders, feeding of other filter feeders' sites and filtering others' sites. Links are contextualized, interpreted and "filtered" through criticism and comments about them, and also by placement in the topology of a site. The deeper a link is buried, the harder it may be to find, the closer to the surface and the frontpage, the more prominent it becomes, as any web designer can attest to. I am what I link to and what I am shifts over time as I link to different sites. … In the process, I invest my identity in my collection – I become how I filter.(12)



***

(The following summaries are from the interviews conducted during 2008 and 2009.  All the facts here refer to the time of the interviews.)


Sachiko Hayashi was born and raised in Tokyo. After a year at at a boarding-school in USA, she continued her further studies in Tokyo where she received a BA in International and Cultural Studies before moving to Sweden. Having received a Master's degree in Digital Media in England, she also completed two-year post-graduate studies in Computer Arts at the Royal Institute of Art (Kungliga Konsthögskolan) in Stockholm. Today she works as an artist as well as editor for the net journal Hz Journal. The journal is published by Fylkingen, a society for artists, composers, musicians and dancers, founded in 1933. The journal is a development of the earlier Fylkingen Bulletin, in which the performers themselves wrote articles about their work and activities. Hz is published twice a year(13) and addresses relevant areas for the actors of music, new media, sound art, etc.  From 2003 it also includes Hz Net Gallery with Hayashi as its curator; it introduces international internet artworks.(14)

Sachiko Hayashi underlines that the Internet is not explored in the same way as presentations in the physical world which, through its long history, has developed more hierarchical systems. Artists using the Internet as a public exhibition room theoretically have the same technical opportunities to reach as wide audience as the respected institutions like MOMA.

When Sachiko Hayashi selects works for Hz Net Gallery, she uses open calls on international forums. Then she first studies the submissions without looking at any CVs the artists may have attached. Her criteria are that the work should be created specifically for the Internet and that it should contain some degree of interaction as opposed to fixed media. The selection has recently been broadened to also include creative use of blogs.


hzg#1

The first issue (2003) of Hz Net Gallery, introducing four netart by linking to the works/sites of "Self-less" by Wolf Kahlen, "A is for Apple" by David Clark, "Soundscraper" by Stanza, and "www.nowar.nogame.org" by Jimpunk. 


Earlier absence of articles dealing with net art implied, according to Hayashi, that it could be difficult to judge submissions. As is the case with New Media, artists often come from vastly diverse practices and do not always speak the same language. It is not always the case that artists in the field have had an art education. For example, working with a coming issue of Hz Net Gallery she once received many contributions from poets whose works it was difficult for her to evaluate since she herself comes from another tradition.

Hayashi recalls how international communities, such as Rhizome founded in 1996, became important centres for net art through debates and exchange of information as well as archiving.  These forums, with their email discussion lists, have also been active in defining different movements within the genre.

According to Hayashi, art which only exists in digital form has not been taken seriously. Some net artists thus may have felt forced to exhibit in the more traditional sense; i.e., in the physical world. One of the reasons for this may have been the lack of critics and reviewers within new media - and particularly so regarding Internet based art.  Even if one can nowadays find art critique in the field, it would still not be in Dagens Nyheter (Swedish daily) or in Art in America. This was an important factor to consider in relation to the development of Hz Journal, as she thinks it vital for creative artists to have channels of communication open amongst themselves: "So that we ourselves can understand what we are doing."(15)


allthenews

A snapshot (part, made on 18 July, 2015) of "I Want to See All of the News from Today" by Martin John Callanan, presented in Hz Net Gallery 2007.


* * *


Electrohype in Malmö, Sweden, was founded in 1999, initially in order to organize an exhibition and workshop. Since 2000, it has organised biennial exhibitions with "computer based art" in the physical setting. Lars Gustav Midbøe at the organization describes his work method as some sort of "mail-order-curating"; that is to say that much of what they select is appreciated through documentation of the work instead of appreciation of the work itself.  The method is based on practical considerations. Midbøe finds it difficult to insist that artists build up their installation before they know if the work will be accepted or not.  In the preliminary sorting earlier experiences are taken into consideration as is economy. When there are only a handful of works left, external people are asked about their opinions and finally Electrohype's board makes its decision. 

Midbøe describes the selection procedure of having to rely on documentation as "frightening" – it is a complicated documentation, and at the same time it is difficult to know if the work functions in its context. However, he also says he has become better over the years in finding a strategy to the problem, e.g. by involving a third person for his/her opinion of the presentation. The method, though it works well, remains to be time-consuming; if they receive 300 proposals, it takes weeks to pick out the works for an exhibition.

In appreciating a work of art they look at function, originality, and quality. Lars Gustav Midbøe thinks that quality often lies somewhere between technical brilliance and artistic brilliance – an artwork can be a fascinating installation but lack a fundamental idea. Or one finds a great artistic idea but the technical presentation is not up to standard. Midbøe compares it with how the material exclusiveness of video art often overshadowed the content as late as in the 1980's. (16)


electrohype2004

Electrohype 2004. Photo: Electrohype


Anna Kindvall, who runs the organization Electrohype together with Lars Gustav Midbøe (17), is an artist with her background in photography and copper plate printing before enrolling herself in education in Interactive Multimedia in the Netherlands. Her primary field today is photography and electronic art. Kindvall talks about the procedure before the exhibitions, how they send out a call using their own mailing lists and then get about 150 - 300 applications back. Half of these artists will then be selected; in addition to artists whom they know about or who they have been recommended, there are also artists previously unknown to them. During three weeks Kindvall and Midbøe then go through all applications, with the result that before each exhibition they get a good overview of what is happening on the scene. One important part of the job in finding a suitable selection is that the works should represent what Anna Kindvall and Lars Gustav Midbøe classify as "computer-based art".


…our definition of [computer based art] is "nonlinear art", that is, art which cannot be transferred to linear media such as video or paper …but stays /remains in the computer. It is the computer that manages things. It may be a light installation, it may be a moving sculpture, it may be a flash slideshow…There is an ongoing process while the spectator watches the work.(18)



electrohype2008

"LV Aero Torrents" (2007) by Voldemars Johansons at Electrohype 2008. Photo: Electrohype


The variations in the appreciation practices regarding the handling of digital art become particularly distinct in the examples above, as one activity takes place in a more traditional exhibition venue while the other activity is Internet-based.


INTERVIEWS
(conducted in Swedish, video-filmed)

Sachiko Hayashi 2008-12-15

Leif Eriksson 2009-05-25

Anna Kindvall 2009-10-06

Lars Gustav Midbøe: 2009-10-06


NOTES

(1) ^ Christiane Paul (2005), "Flexible Contexts, Democratic Filtering and Domputer-Aided Curating: Models for Online Curatorial Practice." Online: http://www.anti-thesis.net/texts/DB/DB03/Paul.pdf

(2) ^ Here in the sense of structure, place and time _ Gesellschaft as well as Gemeinschaft.

(3) ^ Howard Becker (1982), Art Worlds, Berkeley: University of California Press.

(4) ^ Ibid. p. 34, p. 131, p. 156, p. 310.

(5) ^ The term was coined /launched/ by Herbert Blumer in the 1930s.

(6) ^ Anna Orrghen (2007) Den medierande konsten – Scenen, samtalet, samhälle. (The mediating Art – Scene, Debate, Society). Gidlunds, Stockholm.

(7) ^ See e.g. Gary Svensson (2008) "Det digitala fältet – produktionsvillkor i förändring" (The digital field – production conditions under change). Included in Eriksson, Y. (ed.),  Visuella markörer: bild, tradition, förnyelse (Visual markers: image, tradition, renewal).  Carlssons förlag, Stockholm.

(8) ^ This is built on an interview with artist Leif Eriksson, who in 1978 founded SAAB – The Swedish Archive of Artists Books – and the publishing firm Wedgepress & Cheese.

(9) ^ Charles Goodwin, (1994) "Professional Vision," American Anthropologist 96(3): 606-633.

(10) ^ Interview conducted were: Sachiko Hayashi 2008-12-15, Leif Eriksson 2009-05-25, Anna Kindvall 2009-10-06, Lars Gustav Midbøe: 2009-10-06.

(11) ^ See e.g. Christian Paul, op.cit.

(12) ^ Anne-Marie Schleiner (2003) p 3.

(13) ^ Hz Journal is now published once a year.

(14) ^ Hz Net Gallery existed as part of Hz Journal between 2003 and 2009.

(15) ^ Interview with Sachiko Hayashi 2008-12-15

(16) ^ Interview with Lars Gustav Midbøe 2009-10-06.

(17) ^ Kindvall was with the Electrohype organisation until 2011.

(18) ^ Interview with Anna Kindvall 2009-10-06.


REFERENCES

Online Articles

Berwick, C., (2002) "Net gains" ARTnews, vol. 101, no. 11
http://artnews.com/issues/article.asp?art_id=1226

Dietz, S., (2003). "Interfacing the digital." Museums and the Web03 Papers
http://www.archimuse.com/mw2003/papers/dietz/dietz.html

Edmonds E., Bilda Z., & Muller L., (2009) "Artist, evaluator and curator: three viewpoints on interactive art, evaluation and audience experience", Digital Creativity, 20: 3, 141-151
http://pdfserve.informaworld.com/353329__913288331.pdf

Muller, L., & E., Edmonds, "Living Laboratories: Making and Curating Interactive Art," Electronic Art and Animation Catalog
http://www.siggraph.org/artdesign/gallery/S06/paper2.pdf

Paul, C., (2005) "Flexible contexts, democratic filtering and computer-aided curating: models for online curatorial practice"
http://www.anti-thesis.net/texts/DB/DB03/Paul.pdf

Schleiner, A-M., (2003) "Fluidities and Oppositions among Curators, Filter Feeders, and Future Artists" Intelligent Agent magazine Vol. 3 No. 1
http://www.intelligentagent.com/archive/Vol3_No1_curation_schleiner.htm

Verschooren, K.A., (2007) ".art. Situating Internet Art in the Traditional Institution for Contemporary Art,"  Master of science in comparative media studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
http://cms.mit.edu/research/theses/KarenVerschooren2007.pdf


Printed References

Becker, H., (1982) Art Worlds Berkeley : University of California Press

Cook, S. (2006). "Context-specific curating on the web (CSCW?)." Included in Corby, T. (ed.) Network Art: Practices and Positions (Innovations in Art and Design). New York: Routledge.

Graham, B; Cook, S, Curating (2002) "New media: net and not net," Art Monthly; (261) pp.44-5

Hedstrom, M., Perricci, A., (2008). It's only temporary, (Im)permanence:cultures in/out of time (26-40). Pittsburgh (PA, USA): Center for the Arts in Society, Carnegie Mellon University

Orrghen, A (2007) Den medierande konsten – Scenen, samtalet, samhället Gidlunds, Stockholm

Paul C., (ed.), (2008) New media in the white cube and beyond. Curatorial models for digital arts. University of California Press

Svensson, G., (2008) "Det digitala fältet – produktionsvillkor i förändring". Included in Visuella markörer: bild, tradition, förnyelse. Eriksson, Y (ed.), Carlssons förlag, Stockholm




This study has been made possible through the research project Appreciation Practices Among Digital Creatives at Södertörn University College (Södertörns högskola), Department of Communication, Technology and Design.



Gary Svensson is a researcher, theorist and educator.  With a Ph.D dissertation Digital Pinoneers (Carlsson, 2000), he has previously conducted research in Information Design at Mälardalen University, Sweden, with a special focus on the visual.  Deputy Head at Tema, Linköpings University, Sweden, 2002 and 2003. Since 2004 lecturer and 2015 assistant professor at the Department of Art History and Visual Communication. At present he works as Director of Studies at the Department of Culture and Communication at Linköping University and teaches Art History, Visual Culture, and Graphic Design and Communication. He is also a member of the Arts Council's working group on pictorial works and series as well as the board of the Art History Society.


 

 

 

 

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