Larry Rinder is Curator of Contemporary Art at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. He was interviewed by Sarah Cook, at the museum, during his exhibition BitStreams, on March 27, 2001.
Sarah Cook: Iím curious about the impetus to curate BitStreams and how you brought new media production into the art institution.
Larry Rinder: Well I had begun to be interested in digital technology and digital media when I was researching for the 2000 biennial. I was one of the 6 curators working on that biennial and I was assigned to research net art and to see what was being done and to make recommendations to the group. That was back in 1999 and prior to that I had not really very much knowledge at all of what was going on with digital technology. In looking into the Internet I found that there was very substantial work being done specifically for the net and that expanded my imagination as to the possibilities of what was being done using digital technology in other media.
So I started to work on an exhibition for CCAC where I was at that time (the California College of Arts and Crafts Ė I ran something called the CCAC Institute, a kunsthalle-like space, in Oakland and San Francisco). I put together there a show called Scanner. Like BitStreams it looked at a broad range of practices, all of which involved digital technology at some point or another. At about halfway into organising Scanner I was hired to come to the Whitney and they said "weíve got a floor available a year from now, what do you want to put in it?" Usually a museum show of this scale takes at least two years. So I started in mid-May really working on this exhibition concertedly, and taking some of the research I had done for Scanner and taking it further, extending the investigation and looking more deeply into some of the issues. My initial impetus for this show was to look specifically at how digital technology was enabling artists to take control of the means of production and distribution with a kind of quasi-anarchist modality. It even had a title, it was called "Digital DIY". But for various reasons it just seemed that there was a lot of work out there that I got very excited about during my research that didnít fit the DIY mould. You asked about the challenges of an institution to present work that is digitally inflected ó it is precisely often at the point of the DIY ethos that institutions run into trouble. They run up against the DIY ethos which has to do with not having institutions. So it would be a compelling challenge and worthwhile to actually try to present to the public because it is a phenomenon out there in the culture. But I thought there was another story that could be told and perhaps one with less worries in the short amount of time I had to put it together.
And so I developed a kind of a dual criteria which was that the works ideally should be made with or expressed through digital media and that thematically they reflect in some way or another, either very directly or abstractly, on the conditions of life in the digital age. So both the form and the content were somehow commensurately expressive of digital experience. I asked Debra Singer, the associate curator here, to work with me to select the sound component, which she did do, which comprises half of the exhibition. Then it was just a matter of looking at lots and lots of work and making some difficult decisions. Of course in doing an exhibition like this youíre constrained not just by pure ideals and ideas but also by budget and by space and by all sorts of things. And it probably goes without saying but Iíll say it anyway, we are the Whitney Museum of American Art and so the show is American art. The show is also only art, there is no design, unlike say 010101 at SFMoMA which incorporates design. This show is based specifically on art.
SC: As you say it is an American show, however Iím curious about how new media art is being produced and exhibited in different countries as well. The show doesnít have any big VR installations, say something along the lines of the work of Char Davies (a Canadian). It is a very manageable museum show with lots of work that hangs on the wall. My question is both about the relationship between BitStreams and the show that Christiane Paul curated, Data Dynamics, which presents more installation-based new media art, but also the position of the institution in terms of addressing that kind of work on a large scale.
LR: I looked at every kind of artwork. Everywhere I looked at everything. I selected finally the works that I thought were the strongest works of art and also met with these other contingencies I mentioned ó having to do with money, time, and space. There were a number of projects that I wanted to do that maybe would have veered more in the direction of immersive environments. But for various reasons they couldnít be done. I had nothing against that kind of work in principle, but given the situation it couldnít happen. And in regards to Christianeís show, at the same time that I was interested in doing BitStreams she was interested in doing a more concentrated focus on a particular dimension of net art. This is not just a net art show but a very focussed slice of net art. So we all thought that was a very good complement and contrast. We had BitStreams which takes a very catholic viewĖsculpture, painting, drawing, prints, photographyĖand then another show which looks very closely at a narrow spectrum of one slice of digital practice.
SC: Do you think that the public sees those two shows as the same or separate?
LR: Some see them as the same and some see them as separate and we donít particularly care. They are two shows in the sense that they were developed with different rational and have different explanatory materials, but does everyone who comes to the museum realise they are different things? Probably not. Do we care? No.
SC: I ask because it would seem that the reason for putting this work into an institution is to try to create a context for it or a lineage for it and Christianeís show, as you say, is a very specific part of net art and yet the larger context of net-based art practice isnít there to be seen. The viewer has to bring that knowledge to it or be pointed to it. And in the case of BitStreams the new-technology-as-medium art context is not evident either. As you were saying before, youíve got artists who are using digital technology not artists whose practices are necessarily based on interactivity or other aspects of the Internet or new media. So itís an interesting curatorial decision in my view to place these two shows together.
LR: Itís important to keep in mind that the Whitney presented ten net art works in the 2000 Biennial, so one year ago the Whitney was the place where people could see that context, and weíve still got all of those pieces on the Whitney.org site.
SC: How do you feel a year later about the presentation issues of those net art pieces? Do you feel the institution has learned new ideas about presenting this type of work in the gallery space?
LR: I feel very good about it. We gave people every option that existed at that time, and I think it still is every option. I donít think any new options have been invented in the last year. People could either log onto the dedicated terminal in the museum and have a one-on-one experience of the work, or they could participate in the projection room, either watch someone else scroll through or do so themselves and see the work projected on a large scale, or they could log on at home. All three modes were available to people. We also had one Internet-based performance installation piece. I donít know of any other modes of presentation. So I think it was good that we covered all bases actually. Different presentation formats may have worked better for some works than for others. I gather that some visitors were frustrated at times, particularly in the projection room, that the equipment didnít always seem to be working. It may have been working and they didnít think it was working. I mean, who knows what may have happened. It could have been just unfamiliarity with the equipment. So in general I feel good about it. I think that more and more artists are thinking of the net as one dimension of an art work that has other dimensions that are physical or site specific, like Lew Baldwinís piece in the stairwell. Many artists are getting away from thinking of the net as a simply monitor-based practice.
SC: Do you think artists are doing that because of the opportunity to show in institutions or museums?
LR: I have no idea what their secret motivations are.
SC: Well, Iím not sure itís about guessing their secret motivations; Benjamin Weil has said he thought that 010101 might be a solely web-based show and that artists were suggesting to him ways to make the works installation based.
LR: I suspect, and my gut feeling would be, that it comes from an aim to make the work more visceral and to bring it back to the human environment. Iím sure it depends on the artist. Every artist has a different motivation.
SC: I have an agenda of asking curators within institutions how they feel about this "institutionalisation" of practices which, as youíve said, arose out of a DIY/anti-institutional ethos.
LR: There are as many painters and draftsman and sculptors who are against the institution as there are net artists. I donít think that there is anything about net art that makes it anti-institutional. Politics are politics.
SC: So, in your opinion, why are institutions scrambling to show it? Is it just a question of contextualization and recognition of artistic practice?
LR: Itís art, and museums show art. This museum does not show the work of people who do not want to be shown here. We are not kidnapping artists and forcing them to have exhibitions. Everyone that we show is very excited, presumably, to be shown here because they donít have extra-institutional politics. There is nothing inherent in the medium that makes it unfriendly or unworkable within the museum context.
SC: How do you go about your research? Do you go to festivals and if so, which ones? Do you subscribe to e-mail lists?
LR: As you can see in the show the vast majority of works are actually things. So a lot of the research was in galleries, museums, artist studios ó very similar research to the kind of research I would do for any contemporary art exhibition.
SC: But arenít very few commercial galleries showing new media work?
LR: No. You can go into just about any gallery in Chelsea and ask if any of their artists are working with digital technology and just about every one of them will have at least one artist whose work at some level is involved with digital technology. It has become absolutely pervasive and omnipresent. It is everywhere. It is a question of teasing out the works in which it is not just the manner in which they are using the technology (for instance, to rearrange the colours or something like that) but where there is really a deeper reflection on how digital technology has transformed our lives or a reflection on how it has transformed art ó where it is both the subject and the technique of the work. I did go down some pathways which I otherwise would not have done. I went to ZKM, went to a digital show up in Dortmund Germany, a festival. I spent some time at the media lab at MIT. So I was connecting with certain sectors of cultural practice that I had been relatively unfamiliar with previously. I do not subscribe to listservs. I want to spend most of my time looking at art ó what little time I have! ó and then making up my own mind about what it all means. I donít spend a great deal of time reading art magazines or other peopleís opinions, because I donít have a lot of time. To do a show like this in 6 months I just have to look at work.
SC: Do you find you have enough time to reflect on how new media art has changed your work as a curator or changed the way you think about your role as a curator? Has it altered how you think about your interaction with a work of art?
LR: Well, I have a very open ended notion of art, so I wouldnít say Iíve had a radical change of approach or mentality about it. There are precedents for interactivity and for mutability. Neither of those qualities is unique to digital practice, and so Iíve been involved with works in the past that had those qualities. So digital practice or net art are just another site in the arena. I do think that on some level the changes that are truly profound are those changes that are happening in society and to some degree artists reflect those changes, creating a new kind of work, kinds of works, kinds of subject matter, whether they are working in digital technology or not. We are surrounded by these changes. As you know one of the things BitStreams is trying to address is what is the tone of life now, the texture of it? So thatís something that is affecting not just my professional practice but my daily life.
SC: There have been subtle shifts in the role of a curator ó from archiving and conserving, to being able to put a work in a space and then a label next to it. Now you can build the label into the piece, you can change the interface and thereby change the work of art. These are questions that curators in museums have to address a lot more stringently than curators working outside of the institution.
LR: Yes. I do think that from what I know of Jon Ippolitoís idea of Variable Media, this is a useful way of thinking about these things. It doesnít just apply to digital practice, it applies to video and film and any of these things. It seems like a practical and reasonable way to approach this problem or these set of problems. Iím happy that I work in an institution that is large enough that I donít have to worry about these sorts of things on a daily basis. We have a conservator and a registrar and God willing, they are worrying about them on a daily or weekly basis. They are the ones who are going to have to change the way they think about preservation. As far as presentation is concerned, just based on one example, 010101 in SFMoMA they had flat screen labels and I didnít think that worked well. It confused things. In BitStreams we decided to have printed labels that are discrete so you donít confuse them with the art object and they maintain a relatively pristine frame for the works to do what they have to do in.
SC: Can I ask you a question about Intel?
SC: Previous Whitney exhibitions have been sponsored by Intel and there has also been a relationship with artmuseum.net to give these exhibitions strong online components and in some cases the technology within the show was all from Intel. In this case you have a lot of works on screens and they are not all provided by one company. Were there conversations with Intel about sponsoring this show or did this happen differently?
LR: Iím not directly involved with sponsorship issues ó youíd have to talk to development people about that.
SC: Well, Iím interested in how a curator navigates the restraints imposed by both technology and sponsors in creating a show Ö
LR: We donít do that here. There are technical restraints of course. But we don't accept restraints based on sponsorship.
SC: Fine. I was struck, that's all, when I saw the American Century exhibition here by the number of screens.
LR: I have no idea. I didnít work here then. If some company had wanted to donate all the equipment, it would all be from that company. And that would have been great advertising for them, and I hope for the next exhibition they do! But no one did that this time around and so we bought whatever we needed.
SC: And did the artists supply their own Ö
LR: In some cases.
SC: This is a very difficult problem for curators in small and regional art galleries in terms of how to get the equipment and how much the artist will provide.
LR: This institution draws very clear lines between donors and trustees in its programme. Itís very important. How can you have art history, let alone art appreciation if youíre not sure what youíre seeing is what the artist intended?
SC: That is what is becoming increasingly blurry with technology! If the artist doesnít want their website projected but the institution has a model of exhibition making that dictates Ö
LR: Then we donít show it. Weíre very careful with every one of these pieces. We consulted with the artist every step of the way down to the last detail. For instance on a DVD there is a little light that shows that the player is on. If we wanted to cover up that light weíd ask the artist. Everything! The art is the art; you canít mess with it. Itís all youíve got!
SC: Yes, but some of this art has mutated a great deal, and undergoes changes based on interaction by audience members. Even Majecís piece Netomat ó when it was first shown at Postmasters it was shown as software and now here heís decided to do a two-corner projection Ö
LR: Thatís fine. And in terms of how you deal with these things once the artist is, God forbid dead, or wonít talk to you anymore, thatís when youíve got to get into this variable media thing and get the artist to sit down and write out a list of parameters, that donít have to do with particular hardwares. They have to do with questions like "is this only a projection piece or is it only a monitor piece?" They have to explain basic fundamental things within which the institutions have to have the ability to interpret as equipment changes.
SC: And are you having these meetings with artists and making these notes and documenting these installations?
LR: We will, as soon as we have a minute. Itís actually supposed to happen as soon as we acquire a work. And I think it does on a cursory level. For new media works there needs to be more. We need to sit down with them and say "no really, the equipment will change and youíve gotta tell us 100 years from now what are the boundaries."
SC: Itís the same with documenting the installations as well. Traditionally a museum brings in a photographer and he or she shoots slides of the exhibition. Do you video document the show, how the works change when people interact with them? Do you have the images scanned so they can be available online?
LR: Weíre not doing it now, as far as Iím aware of.
SC: So what happens next? In terms of the Whitney Biennial will there be net art again?
LR: Christiane Paul is going to be curating the net art component of the biennial. She is directly responsible for everything that is online. Works that are both online and have a physical presence is something that we will develop jointly. But she is going to take a major role in defining how net art is presented in the biennial. As I was saying digital practice is so pervasive. It is everywhere in the art world so Iím sure it will be present in the biennial. I donít think people will come away from this biennial saying this is the digital biennial. My interests are wide ranging. Iím interested in quilts and ceramics and everything else.