Documentary in the Age of Digital Reproduction (6/7)

6. Curation

Barbara London
Curator, Museum of Modern Art, New York
*Adapted from an article previously published in Leonardo

Documentary Box (DB): Since 1997, you’ve traveled to China, Russia and Japan in search of digital art, and have kept “real-time” logs of your trips on the internet. Could you tell us about the motivation behind these projects, and about their results?

Barbara London (BL): A chance encounter with Shu Lea Cheang at the American Film Institute’s 1989 Video Festival seeded these digital projects. She showed me several videos by artists from China whose work was as innovative as her spiky hairdo. I wondered about the future of these Chinese artists as they emerged from isolation and digested contemporary art trends.

Finally in September of 1997 I had the opportunity to indulge my curiosity. I headed off to China accompanied by a colleague totting a backpack stuffed with a computer, camera, tape recorder, and cables. I hoped to document my curatorial visits by posting them on the web. At the time the internet in China was unmapped territory, and contacts in Beijing doubted I’d be able to transmit data to New York.

China I discovered had plenty of computers, though tracking down a decent connection to the internet was arduous. In most cities I managed nearly every night to e-mail data to New York, where a design crew assembled and posted what in effect was a diary of my research. (www.moma.org/onlineprojects/stirfry)

For InterNyet, the project in 1998 that took me to Russia and Ukraine, I was better prepared. I had a top-of-the-line computer capable of video capture, a digital DV camcorder, a DAT tape recorder, and a digital still camera. InterNyet (www.moma.org/onlineprojects/internyet) includes many videos and movie clips, with all the taping and editing handled by my associate and me, now dubbed “Studio London.”

In December 1999, I completed a new project, dot.jp (www.moma.org/dot.jp) in Japan, where I conducted my first Asian research twenty some years ago.

DB: How have advances in digital technology, particularly the
internet, affected your work as a curator?

BL: When I began my curatorial work in the 70s, the vitality of video attracted me. It was fresh and unfettered. Today the new kid on the block is digital art, and I’m fortunate to be working once again on the cutting edge.

The internet is international; art is international; and MoMA is international. Via the web, the Museum provides mainstream access to artists in remote regions and I would like to broaden this channel. Moreover, artists everywhere can follow contemporary trends on the web. Truly, here is a vehicle for art to become an equal opportunity endeavor.

As I initially conceived my trip to China, I intended to continue what I had been doing for many years: foraging in foreign countries for emerging artists, visiting studios, gathering documentation, and slotting the information in file folders. As the artists mature I include their works in shows.

On this excursion I wanted to make public my research. Instead of squirreling away the information in file folders, my findings would be available on the internet for curators and anyone else interested in the contemporary art of China.

Moreover, I thought demystifying the curatorial process would be refreshing. A casual visitor to Stirfry gets a chance to travel with a curator on a research quest. I think it’s salutary to let people look in on the gestation phase of a museum exhibition.

DB: The internet is often hailed as a medium “without walls,” independent of traditional divisions of genre and space. What innovations and challenges does the internet pose for the concept of an “art museum?”

BL: The internet presents museums with novel dilemmas. Olia Ljalina’s Web Gallery (www.webgallery.com) is wonderfully archaic; she has hung art pieces (links) on a web page as if the works were for sale on the wall of a gallery. Ljalina claims that her site is the first traditional art gallery on the internet.

Seems simple, you pay your money and you get a Web Gallery work. When I returned to New York and considered buying one of the pieces, I discovered a purchase would not be straightforward.

What exactly would the Museum receive by purchasing a work in the “Web Gallery”? Right now the Museum has use of the works without paying a fee. InterNyet provides a link to the “Web Gallery”, and the art there can be browsed. (I can legally quote the URL, but presenting a photo of the site in a magazine requires Olia Ljalina’s permission.)

At the server end of the URL, Olia Ljalina frets over permitting the Museum to exhibit a work, under whatever terms a purchase may be consummated. Internet artists repudiate the common practice of art dealings whereby artists forego all rights to the work they sell. Clearly, the boilerplate for internet acquisitions is still in rough draft shape.

The digital art now being done and posted to the web may endure. Here for the first time, an art medium can be documented fully, as it unfolds from pioneering efforts to prospective maturation. Impatiently I spur the future to happen faster.