November 18th I participated in New Style Curators, a panel discussion about online curation at The New Museum, the goal of which was to discern what online curating means. Between me, online media consultant Rex Sorgatz, Rhizome‘s Ceci Moss, and panel organizer and moderator Joanne McNeil of the Tomorrow Museum, I’m not sure anyone came to any conclusions, but from my biased point of view, the conversation was fruitful nonetheless.
As I discussed at the museum, my own experience as a fine art blogger as it relates to curation isn’t that uncommon. My efforts with both the blog and various curation projects have always been about managing the relationship between online exchange and the presentation of physical objects. This can be seen in various projects ranging from curating New Media focused exhibitions like the upcoming youtube show PlayList at Postmasters this December (created in collaboration with Steven Stern) and The Future of Online Advertising, a show for Steve Lambert’s firefox plug-in that replaces ads with art. Each have physical components even though they were conceived and managed online. I also produced The Sound of Art, a limited edition object –a vinyl record – filled with the sounds of art installations, videos and performances and made with funds raised on the internet, and more traditional exhibitions such as Haute Romantics for Verge Gallery in Sacramento, whereby the only role of the net was marketing.
This is a little more self promotion than I like to offer in a post like this, but I mention each project because I think it offers a pretty broad spectrum of the role online tools can have in fine art specific endeavors. I also like to think of work as more interesting for its subject matter than the degree of on and off-line curation that occurs, so I didn’t go to any great lengths to discuss the work past making the point that curation is almost always more successful when an actual object is involved. Even online panty curators should eventually meet an ass.
Since all of the panelists began as bloggers, once the introductions such as the one above finished, some work was done to establish the evolution of the profession. As I mentioned at the panel, people like me — those who blogged as a means of sparking their own career in publishing — are few and far between. There’s neither to sparse numbers of those participating online, nor the success narrative to propel it. Furthering this point, Sorgatz explained the common creation story of a mid-2000 online celebrity. “It was a right of passage, particularly in early New York history,” he told us all, “To have an anonymous blog that got outed, and then the New York Times wrote about you, and then you got a job at Gawker Media”. Panel moderator Joanne McNeil picked up the opposite end of this story, “At that time there blogs made just for your friends to look at” she explained, pointing out that only five years ago, there were bloggers who became very upset if their traffic spiked over their regular 20 visitors a day. The days where anyone thinks any area of the web is private now seem like a distant memory.
Now, at this point readers may wonder what any of this has to do with curation, and to be fair I wondered that myself at the time. It’s worth noting though that where-ever curation occurs, it doesn’t have much currency without a name attached to the project and an audience to support it. In this sense bloggers have moved closer to the traditional role of curator (performative aspects of online curation not withstanding). Also, in both the museum world and online communities foot and website traffic greatly effect influence and perceived importance. I didn’t mention it at the panel, but Catherine The Great style curation as a method of nation building finds commonality in online curation at least as it pertains to identity (though arguably collecting and commissioning, is not the same). Just as Hollywood movies are a unique expression of American culture, tumblr users too, reflect this fabric. As it happens, the links users share, also become a means of class identification. I’d guess this is a driving force behind a lot of online activity, even if few would express it so explicitly.
A known reality of the web discussed by both myself and Sorgatz, comes in the form of uneven conservation of text and image files, a professional responsibility that stands in stark contrast to the concerns of those in the museum world. For example, I might describe myself as an online curator, but when Twitter deletes half my archives, I’m not surprised. And I learn not to care that much, because for the most part, scarcity is not an issue online. In contrast, art almost by definition is a limited resource.
Conservation aside, the real issue that needs address according to McNeil, is that of relevancy. Twitter is a mass of retweets, tumblr an archive of the same photos and articles. Interestingly, the problems in the art world are strikingly similar. Museums are plagued with mediocre work made hundreds of times over by the same artists for the same collectors. How many reproductions of that Wade Guyton U do I have to see? When will museums stop displaying one of seemingly endless copies of that awful Auguste Rodin sculpture The Thinker? Clearly there’s not enough scarcity when you need it in the art world.
Perhaps because limited supply is the governing financial model of the art world, the profession is a little more laissez-faire about solving the issue of repetition than its counterpart. Representing the online world, Rex Sorgatz told New Museum attendees he thought a new, yet to be released tool called Percolate would be wildly popular once announced — a service that emails RSS users the top read stories in their feed. He also said personalized filters were “probably the future of curation”. I’ve been hearing that for years, but I also believe it.
I didn’t think of the similarity then, but since the job description of a museum curator is to similarly recognize patterns, it shouldn’t be too surprising that the term took off online. Of course, the issue of curatorial scholarship and expertise might pose a dilemma to what is essentially selective crowd sourcing, though I’d guess that the intelligence of 20 hand-picked people in the right reader could be easily be more powerful than a small museum staff.
Speaking to the matter of filters, Sorgatz brought the panel back to its beginning, by tracking the changes in blogging software as means of explaining where he thinks online curation is heading. “They're not just interfaces for writing [any more], they're interfaces for [simultaneous] reading and writing” he told audiences. “So what does it mean to have these interfaces where you're reading and writing at the same time? I think that that's where curation [online] is going to go. I don't know what that interface looks like, but I think that there's some future idea there that mixes filtering — something that gives me stuff, stuff that only matters to me — but then allows me an easy way to put my things back into it.”
I believe Sorgatz is right, but he’s talking about the development of online software that allows users to communicate faster not curation. The biggest misnomer about art’s impact, is that it was ever supposed to be instantly understood. Viewer response time however, is typically given a little more grace.
To watch the talk click here.