Benjamin Weil is Curator of Media Arts at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. He was interviewed by Beryl Graham, at the museum, April 2002, as part of a larger research report on the exhibition 010101.
Beryl Graham: My first question is about 'categories'. Your post title at SFMOMA is 'Curator of Media Arts'. Does that category work for you, and do you personally think of different categories within media arts?
Benjamin Weil: When I came here two and a half years ago, people were saying to me 'what is media arts' and I said 'I don't know, but let's say I'm the curator of everything that you can plug in'. Now, I would say I'm a curator of everything that has to be mediated through technology. It's work that functions in such a way that it needs to be restaged and mediated through technology. In other words, the work may be more like performance, even though it may end up being a film installation like Video Quartet upstairs [Christian Marclay]. But there is this idea that the artistic process is once removed, as it is being mediated by the video projector, the computer screen, the loudspeaker, and so on.
I think that it is specifically the freedom to work with 'all that which is mediated', that makes this job appealing to me, because I think we are in a world where everything gets produced by the same machine. That's pushing it for the sake of the discussion, but it is quite fascinating to me to think that within the last three years or so, there is so much homogeneity (in terms of production strategies) between the kind of machines that artists are using to make their work, and between the kind of software they're using to make their work. But there is an extraordinary multiplicity that comes out of a base which is pretty much the same. Think about the fact that a web site is produced by the very same machine that produces Video Quartet , and that produces extraordinary sound performances by the likes of Ryoji Ikeda.
Multidisciplinarity is really something that was invented in the modern age, and particularly in the context of a museum of modern art, a curatorial strategy has to make that kind of sense. If you really think about it, it is something that stemmed out of the Soviet utopia as best echoed by Russian ballets, Constructivist art and all the scene that unfolded in the Soviet Union in the 1920's. To a certain extent, also, the Futurist scene in Italy. Then of course the Bauhaus where you have the coming together of various disciplines are not stopping being specific, yet are much less constrained.
BG: So how about within your area? Do you find yourself thinking differently about Net art? For example, in 010101, there was a fair amount of cross over between other curatorial departments who might be dealing with video installation, but Net art remained very much a specialist area?
BW: I think it's primarily an issue of knowledge. I don't think that my fellow curators were feeling that comfortable with trying to establish criteria for understanding what kind of (net based) work should be included in the exhibition. We still are toying with the kind of criteria that we wanted to use in order to understand what we're looking at, and to start establishing some kind of judgement about it. So I think that they first thought that we could sort of work on all this together and I could show them things and they can tell me what they think is good and what they think is bad. Then it gradually became more obvious that there was a time issue, and there was also something about the fact that yes, I was comfortable with all those things because I had worked with this long enough and could start instinctively saying what I was interested in and what I was not interested in. So that's basically how it happened - more organically than as a result of a really consciously thought-out process that says 'well, this is something that is reserved to the experts so let's let them do it.'
At the end of the day, you know as well as I do that there isn't such a thing as expertise when it comes to "net.art" because this is too new to have any form of expertise. Anyone who claims to be an expert in my opinion is a charlatan. I would think that five years from now, things will probably be different.
BG: You would pretty much put Net art in the same category of homogenized tools that you were talking about? Would you have a separate category for Net art?
BW: No, and that's why I didn't like the word 'net.art' in the first place. Yes, it's art that exists on the network and it is art that thrives on the network and it is art that uses the network and has this specificity in a way. But you don't call cinema 'screen based art' and you don't really think about it as screen based art. You don't call painting 'gallery based art'. So okay, there is one very, very interesting difference maybe when we refer to Net art, which is that it is produced on the very same machine that it is meant to be experienced on. This is interesting, because in a way the mediation operates at a very different level. For instance, again, think about Video Quartet : It was made on a Macintosh. However, it was never meant to be seen on a Macintosh: rather, it is to be installed as a multi-channel projection, with 4 DVD players synchronized on to four projectors. Maybe it is going to be seen on a screen in the future but it was never be meant to be experienced in that same intimate environment in which it was created.
Something that continues to fascinate me, even though it is no longer as evident as it used to be, is that the quite extraordinary thing about browser-based Net art as we know it so far, is that anyone can actually see how it is built, which is a very interesting kind of idea. The source code is still available. Mind you, as someone who could read HTML five years ago, sometimes for the sake of finding out if I can still keep abreast with what's going on, I open this source code now and I realize I'm just completely lost. It becomes completely obscure to me.
People say that the problem with technology is that people keep on being fascinated by technology and they forget about the purpose of what they're doing. This is not necessarily true. There is an enormous amount of really interesting work that's being produced. There is bad stuff, as well, but there is also some produced with paintbrushes and paint tubes. We didn't wait for technology to have bad art!
BG: Again, about Net art in particular - you're in the fairly unusual position of having come into an institution which had an existing 'collection' of Net art, that Aaron Betsky started. Do you plan to change the direction of that?
BW: I have already. In fact, e.space is going to be re-launched in June with a completely different kind of curatorial direction. However, it is not going to be my space and my curatorial prerogative as much as it is going to be a curatorial direction which both my colleague in Architecture and Design [Joseph Rosa] and myself have decided to embrace; each from our own standpoint and each with our own rhythm. Which, I believe, is closer to trying to acknowledge what the particularities of this kind of cultural production are.
Calling it a 'collection' is already something that in my mind doesn't function with regards to the particularity of this media, which is so unstable that 'collecting' does not mean much. At best it means archiving or documenting something that happened. I believe that archiving web sites is basically documenting something that is gone, because the moment you decide to archive it, that means basically it's not live anymore and if it is not live it's not the same. However, Steve Dietz with his Digital Arts Study Collection is doing the opposite. He's not worried about decay but he is also very concerned about the work still being live. The Jenny Holzer project on äda'web still works; I think that the moment it stops working, one should start questioning whether it should stay online or not, but that has not even happened yet. It sounds silly, it's only seven years old after all, but seven years is a lot of time on the net.
I think that the curatorial direction that I would like to give to this is very much informed by this experience. Here we are with an art form that in spirit is probably closer to performance. It does not really have any form of income model attached to it that can be readily available for artists to support themselves. So what you have is people who are actually supporting themselves with other activities and including this either as a hobby or as a research or as whatever you want to call it. So for me what is really important is to think about how to support that kind of research, and commissioning as being the only solution that we have right at this point. In other words, providing the infrastructure; giving money to artists to produce their work and possibly extending this to being able to put them in touch with people who can help them with technical problems that they can't necessarily solve on their own. Then hosting the project and trying to maintain it, with the obvious caveat that we cannot guarantee that the work's formal integrity will be maintained forever. But with the other caveat that we do not claim ownership of this work, we merely claim the right to display it for as long as we can. That arrangement is non-exclusive which means artists can take their work somewhere else and show it in another context if they would like to preserve it in a way they think is more appropriate.
The other thing that I think is important when you engage in a commissioning process, is that you hopefully establish an ongoing relationship with the artist. This means it's possible for us to revisit an agreement that was made two years ago - I'll take the example of Eden.Garden.1.0 for instance, when the plug-in that Michael and Auriea used for their project didn't work anymore, as the license expired. We had to pay for a new license for the Pulse 3D plug-in and all of a sudden we realized the work had to be rescripted. We had a very interesting discussion about maintenance, and related costs and responsibilities. Michael and Auriea said to me, 'well shouldn't we get paid for this?' And I could only reply: 'it's a very good question, I have no idea, maybe you should get paid for this. Maybe we should have a maintenance contract with you for the next ten years and every year you'd be obligated to upgrade your project so that it continues to function' That would be one approach to the issue of decay. These dialogs are about trying to understand how we are going to work with these things. What are the parameters that enable us to make a decision that is not an artistic decision but purely a maintenance decision? All these questions are really hard to answer so I think that to create a tighter relationship with the artist is a really interesting prospect.
Then, I think, what the museum can also offer (which maybe other systems that would support this kind of work don't) is an educational context and a historical context. Granted, the work is not necessarily presented in the galleries, but it seems to me that there will be more and more hybrids where net-based media is something that will permeate the architectural structure of the museum, not just the theoretical structure. You can see that in the Whitney Biennial right now.
BG: So, the 010101 tactic of having Net art online and not in the museum is going to continue?
BW: It's interesting; I was always under the assumption that computer screen-based art should be experienced on the computer screen in an intimate sort of situation of your home, your office or wherever you have access to a computer or maybe in a cyber café but not in a museum. The more I've been thinking about it, the more I realize that it will eventually permeate that structure - the reason being that going to a museum and looking at art is also about a 'time slot'. I became acutely aware of that when I was walking with a colleague at Ars Electronica two years ago and he said to me 'I don't understand this whole Internet gallery here [Electro Lobby], I think it makes no sense'. I said to him, 'what if we were to sit down and look at all this work now'. He said to me, 'I would never do that. I would go home and I would look at it from home'. I said, 'would you?' He said '…no, I wouldn't'.
Let's face it, we don't, although it is all readily available online - just go to aec.at and it's all there, and yet you don't do it. The 'Electro Lobby' is something that makes sense. So if the Electro Lobby makes sense… okay, it is a festival, it's a very different kind of context. But given the fact that the museum is willing to commit itself to showing Net art, should it not start thinking about the way it is shown? There is a venue for looking at Net art in the galleries. I mean maybe it is not the galleries per se, maybe it is using the gallery as a space that is not necessarily delineating it as a gallery, but more as a venue. It's more like some kind of a salon experiment.
It's something that needs to be addressed one way or the other. Is it a room where you walk in and it is all dark and there are all these screens next to each other and it's like looking like a cyber café? Or, on the contrary, is it something that is like a station in the middle of the gallery where there are paintings around you, and you are looking at something with the context of the paintings. I don't know, I really think that we need to articulate that and I think that gradually it is something again that is going to be the result of a dialog with the artist. Some of them will keep on saying no, and some of them will think this is an interesting idea. […]
The Net_condition exhibition in that sense was like - I keep on calling it a 'necessary disaster' and I think that I still would advocate that it was a necessary disaster because it was really important to see how far can we go in this really absurd way of looking at things? I will never forget the whole idea of using mouse pads as wall labels, it was such a wonderful thing. It was really pushing it to the point of the absurd - how far can you go? And yet, you've got examples of very successful transpositions like the Netomat
presentation at the Art Institute [Walter and McBean Galleries]. It was the telephone as an interface - completely removing the keyboard and trying to address the idea of the network as being something that doesn't necessarily need to be conveyed through the screen and the keyboard.
BG: To go back to your 'performance model' of showing artwork. In that case, is the curator's role more that of a producer?
BW: Producer is an interesting word. In fact, it's funny because it's not something that I coined at all. At first it made me very uneasy and then I completely assumed that responsibility. When Christian Marclay released Video Quartet , I realized that in the credit line he called me an "executive producer". When I questioned that, he disagreed, and said: 'well, you found the money, you found the people who helped resolve all the technical problems. You followed the production of the piece; you negotiated a contract with my gallery. You found the right people to stage it in the museum. This is what an executive producer does, in another world.'
In the course of my two and half years in this museum, I found myself doing fundraising, doing production coordination, doing scheduling. Doing things that I don't think is very close to what curatorial practice may have been even ten years ago and it is clear that it is going to shift to that point much more so.
BG: Thinking about the physical space of a museum, on the fourth floor here you've got two medium-sized non-natural-light adjoining rooms which Media Arts has been using consistently. You've done these 'Double Features' with an artwork/artist in each room, which seems to have been successful in getting the press to have a critical position about the differences between media arts. Was that just suggested by the space itself, or was that a chosen tactic to work with the binary combination?
BW: These were the two galleries that have been assigned to the Media Arts department from pretty much the beginning. At every single institution that I have worked at, there is always the issue of territoriality. It's an exhausting battle to carry out, particularly with a set of art forms that are not easily recognized both inside and outside as established art forms, so it made sense to work with those galleries, and focus on a program that would function in that space.
This state of things enables me to really work in a certain way and not in another. I'm not going to try and create a space of scholarly expression in a space that is too small to really contain a large exhibition. So, yes, in a way it has conditioned the way I'm approaching this, and I've started thinking of it from the standpoint of a much more experimental environment. So rather than saying 'I would like to curate large monographic exhibitions that will take place on the whole fourth floor of the museum' (which doesn't mean that I exclude that forever), it means that the core of my interest is a 'project' approach to things.
What I end up doing is not only using these two spaces but also using the web and the theater. I try to create a dialog between those three spaces which may not necessarily have happened yet but which hopefully will happen in the future. People start recognizing that there is an ongoing program that manifests itself in various different venues but is informed by this same kind of spirit even though it is manifested according to the needs of the art being shown. For instance, it is really important to me that the Listening Room project that happens every September is now thought by everyone here as something that happens both in the theater and online and possibly as a CD that's being distributed by the bookstore. That's really important to me because I think that shows that this notion is being understood by not only myself, but also by the people I work with all around the museum.