Book Review: Speculative Scenarios, or what will happen to digital art in the (near) future

by Corinna Kirsch on September 11, 2013 · 0 comments Reviews

“Speculative Scenarios.” Published by Baltan Labs in Eindhoven, edited by Independent Curator Annet Dekker.

“Curating digital artworks in physical spaces and online exhibitions is becoming more widespread, but such exhibitions mostly take place outside the world of traditional art.” This present-day dilemma posed by Independent Curator Annet Dekker forms the basis of Speculative Scenarios, or what will happen to digital art in the (near) future, a new publication that gathers responses on how to tackle digital art’s conflicted relationship to museums and more traditional, offline exhibition sites. The point is: Digital art is being shown, but museums aren’t playing a large enough role in its collection, exhibition, or conservation.

The publication began as an extension of “Collecting and Presenting Born-Digital Art” a two-day long conference organized by Baltan Laboratories and the Van Abbemuseum held in The Netherlands, in Eindhoven. The goals of that conference, Dekker states, were to suggest improvements, integrate the digital and non-digital art worlds, and propose models for “museums of the future.” The conference resulted in some cut-and-dry initiatives, including a proposal for a jointly-organized exhibition on digital art. After two days, the problem of what to do with museums’ lack of commitment to digital art still remained.

That’s where the publication comes in, to continue a discussion of the issues raised at the conference. It’s a quick, enjoyable read, and a great primer for anyone interested in complaints common to digital art about the rest of the art world. (It’s also free on ISSU.) Unfortunately, many of the publication’s respondents—there’s dozens of them, and they include Christiane Paul, Edward Shanken, and Olga Goriunova—tend to dance around how to deal with digital art in the near future. That’s unfortunate, given the pressing need for this discussion right now, when museums still refuse to collect digital work due to technical conservation issues.

The publication begins with an interview between Christiane Paul and Annet Dekker; Paul sees museums as a poor fit for digital art. She would know, given years of experience as curator of new media at the Whitney. In one particularly insightful anecdote, Paul brings up how the collaborative aspect of new media is cumbersome for museums; during one exhibition at the Whitney, she tried to credit the dozens of names of those involved in the production of an unnamed online team-based artwork– from the web developers to the artists– but the museum shot down her request, saying, “we just don’t have that much space on a museum label to list them all.”

That’s just one out of several examples Paul gives that shows what happens when new media’s collaborative practices go against the “‘single star’ system of the contemporary art world.” Paul goes on to contend that museum culture cannot support new media as it is now, and adds that “[t]he structure and organization of museums will need to change if they want to accommodate this art.” Paul doesn’t propose any way to dig ourselves out of this mess, possibly because at present there are none.

Roy Ascott’s “La Plissure du Texte,” 1983 [detail

Edward Shanken’s “$34.2 Million Question” similarly admonishes the contemporary art world’s continued love for a “single star” system, though in a far more speculative vein. His essay begins with a discussion initiated on his Facebook page in May 2013. Shanken posted the question: “What would the world be like if a work of net.art sold at auction for $34.2 million?” (For those of us involved with digital art online, this type of question about how the ethical and monetary value of art would change if digital art were at the fore, pops up from time to time.) As a prime example, he brings up Roy Ascott’s “La Plissure du Texte” (1983), a collaborative work involving dozens of collaborators in eleven cities, who created an online “planetary fairytale.”

The comments resulting from Shanken’s thread get at the point that it would be impossible for this type of work to succeed in the current market. “And all that money would [need to] be distributed, like the artwork,” wrote OCAD faculty member Caroline Seck Langill. It’s probably impossible for collaborative works to succeed in the auction or art market, but museums still remain a possibility.

Speculative Scenarios isn’t all interviews and personal recollections. Sarah Cook’s “We’re Not Hobbyists or Dabblers Anymore,” a short work of fiction, describes a future where public interest in new media art has become all about new-fangled tech and gadgets: “It ignored the work’s content and didn’t address the question of art history … Yet, it seemed to be the only kind of funding you could get these days. Private collectors—mostly bankers and tech-barons—had commissioned and scooped up most of the interesting new art, like her friend Lawrence, and his astonishing live-date sun visualization zeppelin.” Astonishing—ha. This dystopic future sets up a moral common to the best sci-fi, where our commonplace realities (corporate investment in art, Bloomberg-style funding for innovation, Creators Project-style praise for a work’s techiness) have become more extreme. This world would be a horrible place to live in, as an artist or anyone else who cares about art’s value past the here-and-now. It’s a warning, and a scary one at that since it so closely mirrors our own situation.

So many of these essays describe the future as a faraway place, rather than the place where we’ll soon dwell. In the “Museum Refresh” chapter, curator Christiane Berndes describes a particularly distant future scenario. She imagines a world where “[s]ince the collapse of the financial system and the development of an entirely new idea of ownership, the museum is not the only institution that takes care of conservation. Digital artworks are part of the public domain and shared with several networks.”

What Berndes brings up sounds ideal, but we can’t all wait for capitalism to come crashing down. By no means is that the “near future” Dekker seeks to address. We’re nowhere close to a utopia where all cultural data can be preserved, and we need to figure out what to do in the meantime.

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