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<eyebeam><blast> The Museum of the Future: A Contradiction in Terms?

In the context of Olu Oguibe's post defending art museums, Hans-Ulrich's
reinventing them, and Jordan's questioning their necessity, I'd like to
add my two cents by way of answering Victoria Vesna, who wrote on 3/16
"I was delighted to read Jon Ippolito's passing remark early in the
discussion that 'Minimalist, Conceptual, and Performance Art offer more
useful models for online art than artforms that may appear closer
genealogically, such as film, video installation, or kinetic
sculpture'....I was hoping that Ippolito would elaborate more on how
these models may prove useful to online artists. Specifically I wish he
would elaborate on how we may learn from the problems of marketability
of conceptual art in the traditional art world?"

The aspect of the market I know best (since most of my art work is hard
to buy or sell) is the museum. I work at one of them, so I'll be out of
a job if it becomes obsolete. This gives me an incentive to convince my
fellow curators at the Guggenheim to push their notion of the museum
beyond the idea of collecting fetishized objects. Fortunately, dealing
with the legacy of the 1960s and 70s, as represented in the Guggenheim's
Panza collection, has forced us to confront many of the same challenges
that are involved in collecting digital work.

Dan Flavin's fluorescent light installations are a good example. Flavin
deliberately chose only the eight or so standard colors of fluorescent
tubing readily available. When the Guggenheim and Dia Center for the
Arts mounted a retrospective of his work a few years ago, we discovered
that one of those colors, the deep cherry red, had been discontinued due
to the workers' exposure to a toxic pigment coating the interior of the
tube. So the collectors of Flavin's work have had to buy up all the
cherry red bulbs they could find to store them for use in future shows.
What an irony that works based on the seemingly infinite
reproduceability of industrial fabrication are now stored in the
Guggenheim's warehouse like so many Kandinskys and Picassos!

We digital aesthetes snicker at the naivete of artists from the 1960s
like Flavin, but meanwhile we commit the same mistake in a decade where
technical obsolescence occurs much faster than the thirty years it took
Flavin's fluorescent tubes to go out of date. The Web did not exist in
its present form five years ago; what is the chance that it will exist
five years from now?  Regardless of what replaces the Web--3D
projections, a VR interface, smart walls--there is no guarantee that we
will be able to view projects currently designed for the Web in that new
medium. This is not an academic question for museums that are
considering acquiring Web projects into their collections. Storing Web
sites on CD-ROMs is a pretty unsatisfying alternative, since it reduces
a netcast original to a fixed object--not to mention that it merely
postpones the problem (how long will CD-ROMs be with us?).

Of course, some curators will argue that Web sites and other online
projects are inherently ephemeral and cannot be collected, and some
digital artists may agree. The problem with this policy, however, is
that it encourages museums to fetishize the more conventional objects
that the market has already approved, while letting the most radical
work "slip through the cracks" of art history. That in itself might not
make museums obsolete, but it would make them awfully boring.

How, then, can we avoid repeating the mistakes of Flavin's generation?
By learning from the generation of artists who immediately followed.
Minimalist artists like Flavin allowed their work to be destroyed and
recreated over and over, as long as it was in the same medium. Certain
artists from the subsequent movements we know as Conceptual, Process, or
Performance art, however, conceived of what I call *variable media*.
Exactly what aspect of the work was "variable" depended on the piece: it
could be a relatively straightforward aspect like size and shape (in the
case of Sol LeWitt's expandable wall drawings) or it could be the very
content of the piece (as in Robert Barry's contribution to the PROSPECTA
69 exhibition, which consisted of "the ideas people had when reading his
interview in the catalogue").

To be sure, LeWitt and Barry may have been thinking more about
stretching the definition of art than about safeguarding their work for
the future. But the strategies they invented offer digital artists and
their collectors an alternative to packing away a cathode ray tube and
Pentium PC in a climate-controlled crate. I've been discussing this
alternative, which I call the Variable Media Initiative, with my fellow
curators at the Guggenheim. The idea is to:

1. Recognize when a potential acquisition has a variable medium. In some
cases, such as the LeWitt and Barry pieces mentioned earlier, the
variability of the medium is intrinsic to the artist's intent. In other
cases, as in most fluorescent sculptures or Web pages, it is
unintentional and stems from the fact that the conditions in which the
piece was originally created will someday no longer be available.

2. Contact the artist to determine if the piece has an "expiration
date." Robert Rauschenberg, for example, considers his performances from
the 1960s to be ephemeral works that cannot be recreated. Robert Morris,
on the other hand, has restaged his performances from the same period in
subsequent decades--with, of course, a different cast, props, etc.

3. Interview the artist and any others involved in the original
production of the piece to gather as much information as possible about
the degree of flexibility inherent in the definition of the work. Can
the work exist in two different locations at once? A Felix
Gonzalez-Torres can; a Donald Judd can't. Can the work be freely
distributed without permission? The answer is yes for copylefted
software or Lawrence Weiner's piece in Collection Public Freehold, no
for most other copyrighted material. Can the work be recreated at a
variety of scales? Bill Viola specifies the projected image of his video
installation _City of Man_ down to the centimeter. John Simon,
meanwhile, considers his java applet _Every Icon_ appropriate for a
15-inch monitor, a thirty-foot videowall, or even a handheld Palm Pilot.

4. Acquire any documentation or objects, including scores, notes, props,
photos, and moving images, that would be helpful to future recreators of
the piece. The Whitney Museum owns a video of Barry Le Va making one of
his felt scatter pieces, to help them recreate the installation if the
artist is unavailable.

5. Make this documentation available to anyone interested in restaging
the work. The museum would then give its imprimatur to any performance
or recreation of a work which it felt was consistent with the artist's
original intent. Note that this vests the museum with an authority it
never previously possessed: the capacity to declare a restaging
authentic or not. However, it also burdens the museum with the
responsibility to make information about the piece freely available--and
perhaps to participate in the process of translating the work into a new
medium and context if the old one is unavailable.

What is the incentive for us artists to hand over decisions about the
future of our work to a prim bunch of curators who've never wielded a
paintbrush or written a java applet? Very simply, to ensure that other
people will be able to see your work in some form long after you are
pushing up daisies. Many artists will not want to give up that measure
of control, and will choose to let their works die with them--and that's
fine. Nevertheless, as outlandish as the idea may seem to traditional
collecting practices, the Variable Media Initiative offers an
alternative for those whose conception of their work goes beyond its
manifestation in a particular form. And it helps us imagine the museum
as an incubator for living, changing artworks--rather than a mausoleum
for dead ones.


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