Christiane Paul is Adjunct Curator of New Media Arts at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. She was interviewed by Sarah Cook, at the museum, during her exhibition Data Dynamics, on March 28, 2001.
Sarah Cook: How did you become involved in media art and in new media curating?
Christiane Paul: My original background is in American literature. I did a lot of work on poststructuralism, and when hypertext began to catch on in the late 80s, early 90s, it seemed to literalise many of the theories of poststructuralism, so I started working with hypertext software, Storyspace in particular. I published a hypertext on T.S. Eliot's Wasteland - a guide to the poem. Hypertext was my entry point into new media and when the Internet came about, I was already deeply immersed in the background theory of this practice. I founded a magazine on new media arts called Intelligent Agent in 1995 and have been chronicling this type of art for a number of years.
SC: And your beginnings as a curator? Was it a turn from an interest in hyperspace on the academic side and from publishing to organising exhibitions in hyperspace?
CP: I don't think it is such a big step. Putting together an issue of a magazine - in terms of selecting the art and contextualising it - is very much like curating a show or creating a website. Just the physical component of the installation is missing. I never felt it was a big step and I had been consulting people for quite some time - mostly curators at institutions who wanted to get into this field but didn't have any idea of where to start.
SC: Can you tell me more about that, how you became involved as a consultant and what kinds of questions were asked of you?
CP: People often contacted me and wanted me to tell them which net artists were working in which area, for example performance, narrative or activism. Or they already had a theme for an exhibition and wanted to know if there was any net art that would fit in or touch upon the same issue. I've been doing that for quite some time.
SC: Both in Europe and in the States?
CP: In the States only.
SC: How do you feel about how net art has found its way into the institution? Has it been primarily artist-driven or has it been curators going out and searching it out?
CP: That is very hard for me to say and I would tend to say that it is more artist-driven. First of all, I think there is less of a problem with the whole idea of the so-called "institutionalisation" of the art when it comes to this medium - net art seems to resist it. In the first place, museums have to accommodate the art form and this process will bring about interesting changes for them. And I think that net art is still underrepresented in the museum world rather than having been institutionalised. There are still only a few museums that are really committed to this art - commissioning it, exhibiting it - and of course net art has existed for quite some time. There is an online art world with critics and curators, and there have been quite a few shows online. I believe that although many artists create the art to circumvent the traditional museum system, it also has a place in the museum. Net art is ubiquitous, it has been created to be seen by anybody, anywhere in the world at any time, and I would like to see it in multiple contexts, the museum being one of them. It would be equally strange if it would be left out of the museum when you can access it in a shopping mall or in a cyber cafe.
SC: But there is an issue about the context of the museum and the interface if you will, or modes of presentation. There are museums that have left it out of their galleries but had works on their websites, and museums that have put what is on the web into their galleries.
CP: All of which has absolutely nothing to do with the museum, I think, but has a lot to do with physical space and the challenges of presenting this type of art in physical space. I believe there is no one rule or model of doing it. I would always decide on a case by case basis. There are works where I would say, leave them alone, put up a kiosk or a computer with a monitor and let people interact with them one on one. I don't believe that projection is necessarily the best solution because it can end up creating an experience similar to watching TV - one person having the remote control and 50 people watching in the background - that could really hurt the piece. All of the net art pieces in Data Dynamics are shown as projection-installations but mainly because all of them make sense in physical space or already have that component. DissemiNET, for example, has had it from the beginning - as a networked piece with telematic instruments as an interface. Netomat is a piece that really rewrites browser conventions, and it begs to get out of the browser window.
SC: That work in particular has gone through a number of mutations. When it was first shown at Postmasters Gallery it was as software…
CP: Yes. There is a very, very powerful engine behind it, and you can do anything ranging from creating animated webs - such as the Data Dynamics website, which was created in Netomat - to using it as a type of search engine you dialogue with, in this case from two stations. The way it is shown in San Francisco, as part of Telematic Connections, you interact with it by phone. Netomat has all of these capabilities and they manifest themselves in the way you show it. But in general, I think it tries to present the web as an infinite data scape, data space. Seeing Netomat in a browser window on your computer isn't necessarily the best way of experiencing it.
SC: To get back to the question of the museum's role in exhibiting this work, I think you're right that a lot of it has been artist-driven and few museums are committed to showing it. The Whitney has been an interesting case study because of the Biennial last year and now this conglomeration of events happening with BitStreams and Data Dynamics and the sound portion of the exhibition. Can you say a little bit about how the three different elements came together? When I spoke with Larry Rinder yesterday he mentioned having invited Deborah Singer to curate the sound part but Data Dynamics really being a separate show.
CP: It was conceived as a separate show and was originally supposed to open in the fall of last year. But due to space issues that never happened, and then we also thought it would be very interesting and good if the shows would connect, because BitStreams takes a much much broader look at art in the digital age. It is not necessarily about using digital technology as a medium but also about using it as a tool. So ideally the shows should complement each other. And of course, if you look at art in the digital age or the influence digital technologies have had on art, you have to consider sound and what is going on in that field.
SC: Do you worry that the two shows are confused as one and that therefore the question of context is weakened?
CP: I know they are constantly being confused, but at least there are brochures, there is information material available. Hopefully, people will read the wall text and realise that Data Dynamics just focuses on a very specific aspect of or narrative within net art, as opposed to taking a general look at the medium.
SC: So you had a longer time line in putting together the show; BitStreams happened in about 6 months...
SC: You were speaking earlier as we were getting our coffee about the things technically within the institution which you didn't find out until you'd already got rolling with the exhibition, for instance, the decision to use wireless and the wires having been in temporary walls which had been removed. How did you negotiate the space itself?
CP: Well, at this point in time it is still problematic to install these shows in physical space because most museums aren't necessarily prepared for it. I think one of the few museums which is very well equipped is Kiasma in Finland - they have everything in place. But of course it is an issue for every museum. You need the connections. Most importantly, you need personnel. In the beginning, the IT staff had to take care of the installations if there was something wrong, and we later on hired someone for tech support. There should be staff who can watch these works on a continuous basis. Of course it really hurts the pieces if they are down and things don't run smoothly, but I'm sure it will take some time before you have the departments and technology in place. I also feel it is not worth waiting for years until you can finally say, "Okay, now we can start showing the art!"
SC: So your show has pushed boundaries within the institution itself towards thinking about what it would be to have one of these pieces permanently installed?
CP: Well I hope so. I hope people are thinking about it. And I think yes, every show of this kind pushes boundaries and makes it clearer what is required.
SC: In light of these problems over getting the equipment and maintaining it, can you say something about the sponsorship of Data Dynamics?
CP: The wireless connections were donated by Cableworx, and Data Dynamics in general was sponsored by France Telecom - they're very interested in this type of technology, and are pretty artist-focused in terms of their own R&D. They met all the artists and were discussing collaborations. It was ideal. The show also received funding from the Rockefeller Foundation.
SC: Do you see this happening on a global scale, that companies are getting involved in this way? Or is it particularly American?
CP: I would hope that this scenario turns into a kind of sponsorship that gets more interesting, on all levels. In the past, sponsorship was mostly about PR, it didn't necessarily mean that art or the company had anything to offer to each other, but I think that has radically changed. There are many companies that have terrific technology in their R&D labs; there are many artists that would be interested in using that technology for their concepts and ideas. Ideally I would like to see more of an exchange or collaboration there. And I don't think that it should be a case of getting artists to beta-test technology. That isn't a good idea and something I am not interested in.
SC: I've been asking curators how they document these shows because I know having worked at museums that there are traditional ways of doing exhibition documentation - you hire a photographer who shoots some slides, and then they go into a box in the archive. With new media shows each one sets a precedent for presentation of this work, for interaction in a particular space. How have you approached that?
CP: Well it is of course much more difficult to document it. But I believe there have been lots of precedents - film projections, performances - they present at least similar challenges. And of course, all the works will continue to exist in their web version and have existed like that for a couple of years, at least some of them. Then you have all the traditional means of video documentation and photography, and I also very much believe in keeping a record of the process. Marek Walczak, who co-created The Apartment, is an architect and he did numerous sketches of various ways of installing the work in the gallery. And I have my own maps of the gallery in different versions, both the way we originally mapped out the installations and what they evolved into; because it is a process and things constantly change. And all these things, from ephemera to photos to all the exchanges with the artists in terms of negotiating how to put the elements in place are worth keeping and documenting.
SC: I wanted to ask you about Artport on the Whitney's website. How long has that been up and how it has been received and what was the impetus for creating it?
CP: It has been up just for a month and it is for now only a modest backbone. We created it because we felt that there should be a website dedicated to net art and digital art, in particular, as there is no section on the Whitney site that documents this type of art. And then we also needed a space to archive information about Data Dynamics. So right now Artport is just a very modest site with a resource section and archive. Artists are creating splash pages on a monthly basis with embedded links to their current and previous work, so that is one way of documenting their projects. And the next step will be to develop it more into a real communication platform. Martin Wattenberg who created The Apartment is doing the first commissioned work for the site, a map and "Idealine" of net art, and I am also talking to other artists about turning Artport into a real portal with a bulletin board and places for exchange. Ideally the functionality should be handled automatically by the interface, giving people the opportunity to search for information under various criteria from various perspectives and discuss the art.
SC: What is interesting is that you've archived on Artport previous net art exhibitions, previous collections and I wonder how that falls within the remit of the Whitney to be the museum of American Art and the international nature of net art.
CP: That was one of the first discussions I had with Max Anderson, the Whitney's director - how do we combine the Whitney's focus on American art with the global aspects of net art. The Whitney's definition of American artists is "artists living and working in the US." If you look at the last Whitney Biennial, there were a lot of artists from all over the world included but all of them are living and working in the US. I posed the question, "what if an artist has a server in the US, doesn't that mean they are working in the US because their work resides here?" It made sense to Max but other curators tend to disagree. I think everyone working on the web is really creating for a global audience. There are projects out there that are "national" in their focus, but in terms of content, not distribution. When you are creating this type of work, you know that once you upload it, it will be available to the rest of the world. And if you are dealing with conditions in one particular country or society, you know that the statement you are making is going to be presented in a global context. That's why we have the term "netizens" - people on the net subscribe to its superstructure and don't necessarily define themselves in terms of nationalities as such.
SC: Yes, the marriage of irational.org and the Bureau of Inverse Technology demonstrates what you have to do in order to live and work in one country even though it may be irrelevant in your practice. I'm curious also about the fact that Artport archives other exhibitions that are available on other museum websites.
CP: They aren't archived on the Whitney's end, Artport just provides a link to them.
SC: I think this is something which might become increasingly confusing in regards to traditional museums and their authorship over past exhibitions. One remembers that a particular exhibition was at a particular museum, especially in the case of groundbreaking shows. For instance, Thelma Golden's Black Male show was here at the Whitney. With the web those boundaries are becoming blurred as well because museums aren't as able to take authorship of these online exhibitions.
SC: Do you feel pressures as a curator within an institution of authorship in that sense?
CP: Not really, I must admit. I don't know if I am just ignoring them but I don't think so. In terms of Artport's mission, what the site is meant to be - and what users really need - is a portal to art on the net since we are dealing with a medium that essentially is a communication network allowing for hyperlinked context. I wouldn't go to other institutions' websites if they only archived their own shows, I would rather go to Rhizome where I have a real portal to everything that is going on, including exhibitions at all the museums. That structure is much more helpful when it comes to providing a resource. People will still realise that they are travelling to different institutions by following a link. The sites are opening in a different window, they have a different url, so I think only a few people would be confused about where the exhibition actually took place. When it comes to online exhibitions only it doesn't even matter that much anymore, they didn't have a physical component in the first place.
SC: I think it is curious because it is something that museums have traditionally clung to and people have understood museums as purveyors of a certain type of direction and they have gained their reputations on this. I'm looking to see how this might challenge museums to open themselves up to a kind of sharing which they haven't before.
CP: The Whitney is very open to this form of collaboration and sharing. So it has been no problem and it has been encouraged.
SC: I have a standard list of questions I ask curators about their working methods. Where do you go to see work, do you subscribe to lists, what do you read? I ask these basic questions about production in part because there are so many curators in small regional galleries who have been advised by a director that they need to get into new media, perhaps in thinking that by doing a new media show they'll get sponsorship for their gallery. There are curators stepping out for the first time, and as you've said you've been a consultant in this field. Are there sites you go to all the time or particular festivals?
CP: First of all I've been involved in this field for almost a decade and through the new media magazine I published I established a really broad network of contacts worldwide. I know many of the artists out there and they are constantly contacting me and sending me updates about their work and information about projects they are involved in. When it comes to net art exhibitions, they are always accessible online, even if they have a physical component. I am subscribed to many lists - such as Rhizome , Nettime, Faces - although it is hard to keep track of everything and read all of them. But this is my standard reading. I also find festivals very interesting, but I seldom encounter work there that I haven't heard about before. Festivals are most helpful in terms of networking - meeting the people I've known only virtually is always interesting. There are of course more festivals in Europe, from Ars Electronica and DEAF to EMAF, Transmediale and VIPER.
SC: A last question is what you see as the future of new media curating. In your opinion, are there differences in approaches to the media from those trained in a curatorial/museum studies field rather than those coming from an art practice background? Are there differences in curating between those working independently and those working in institutions?
CP: Perhaps this will change in the future but right now these categories don't really seem to apply. People who are working with new media come from very different backgrounds because way back when we studied and went to school, this type of art didn't exist. It was called multimedia and it was still something very different. There were no programmes, you couldn't get an MA or PhD in new media arts or curatorial studies, which is possible now. I find it very interesting that people who come from very different backgrounds have established one worldwide community. Some of the people I have known for a long time or I have been working with here in New York are now at museums, Benjamin Weil for example who founded ada’web and is now at SFMOMA. Six years ago, a handful of New York new media organizations founded the Foundation for Digital Culture. Intelligent Agent was part of that group, which included Rhizome , The Thing, Fakeshop (at that point, they were still called Floating Point Unit), and many artists. I still feel very much embedded in that community, this is where I am coming from. I am not approaching this field from the outside, through a museum, without any previous contact with the art or the community. But I don't know if that will necessarily be the case when it comes to the future of new media curating.