Jean Gagnon has been Director of Programs at the Daniel Langlois Foundation since February 1998
Sarah Cook Introduction:
It looks like we have a good hour now. So this afternoon, to end off the day, we have two speakers who have had all kinds of institutional affiliations and have worked in gallery spaces. I would like to say welcome to Jean Gagnon - if I could ask him to come and speak. You will probably be surprised by this, but I think it's great - there's no technology in this presentation whatsoever. Just interesting things to listen to and talk about.
Interesting? We will see! First I would like to thank Sarah and Nina for organising this and inviting me. You see it's the first time that I have accepted to talk under such a theme - curating new media. Since I left the National Gallery of Canada four years ago, I've been asked many times and because I was busy with other things like organising the Eisenstein's drawings exhibition and establishing the Daniel Langlois Foundation's programmes and its Centre for Research and Documentation (CR+D) in Montreal - I basically didn't have too much time, and I have never had a big urge myself to theorise my own practice. So it's the first time really that I've tried to draw on my experience as a curator - mostly with the National Gallery of Canada from 1991 to 1998.
The first thing I would like to do is to say a few words about the label 'New Media'. Although it is not the place and time to discuss the terminology per say, my take on this label is that these media are new today, but will soon become old already. Therefore I think we should rather say 'digital media', which may be online or offline media - it doesn't matter - and I think that would be more precise. I could make an article or an argument that would link the present field of what seems to be included under the new media label with the history of kinetic art, film by artists, video art, as well as some of the historical avant-garde of the first part of the twentieth-century. I have to stress that there may be more than one approach to the classification - one that would place these practices involving technologies in relation to former attitudes and art strategies of the past, and another approach that would take into account the different technologies per say, with ideas that come from the hard sciences. Probably we would end up with a more dialectical history and a better understanding of the relative newness of what we are talking about today. But as I just said, this is not really the topic today, so before I came I did some reading; I went to the CRUMB Website and started to read, with much interest, the interview that Sarah Cook did with Peter Weibel, and I would like to start with a quote from this interview. For those who don't know who Peter Weibel is, he is the director of the Zentrum fur Kunst und Medien Technologies (ZKM) in Karlsruhe, Germany, and before that he was the director of the Ars Electronica Festival in Linz, Austria. In the interview Weibel explains what the four principles of curating new media art are - according to him -
'To understand the technology as a tool; that means that the curator can know even more than the artist can. He can study theory and then can commission a work. This would be the next step - the curator as producer or impresario, as in the field of cinema. A cinema producer says, 'I have an idea but I need a scriptwriter and I need a director and I need an actor'. So a curator can say, 'according to my knowledge, according to my expertise, I think we have to develop something new.' Then we can look around and see who the people are who could do this. The curator then is not someone who takes care of an existing work, but a producer commissioning a new work. This is the most interesting aspect of curatorial work.'
I chose this particular [quote] because it suits me well. I came to the National Gallery of Canada not as someone trained in art history, but with a background in film and video production and film studies. So in a way I sometimes felt odd amongst my former colleagues - curators at the National Gallery - because I didn't share the same sort of background that they all pretty much had, that of art history. My background on the other hand, provided me with an acquaintance with communication technologies and it meant that I had a certain understanding of technologies. But I disagree with Weibel. Very rarely does the curator know more about technologies than the artist - I consider that artists are the true specialists of whatever medium they explore or work with. So this goes also for technologies and again, some artists are very good with the core of the technology, and others are not, so it's not a general rule but as a principle I consider that artists know more than me - or more importantly that the work I decide to show eventually will say more than my intention is when I decide to present the work.
So the curator finds artists with good ideas or good work. I agree, though, with Weibel when he says, 'the most interesting part of the curator's job is to commission a work'. At least for me it was. It was a natural thing, experienced as I was as a producer. But the reason that I did those productions was not because I had great ideas that we needed something new - which I find in Weibel's quote fairly presumptuous - but because of what I knew of the economics of production in media arts. I knew that a major art institution has a role in the production of new works, given the fact that such an institution has a lot of resources - financial, technical and human - and on top of that being the National Gallery of Canada and Canada as a country having certain fictions - national fictions under the flags of Innis, Grant, McLuhan - fictions about or rooted in certain ideas of communication technologies, therefore making it fruitful to defend a certain idea of art, technology, and national identity. So in a way I thought that the role of the Gallery was also to participate in the development of artists' works using those communication technologies. Amongst the projects I did that were commissions - or form of commissions - I could mention: The World Tea Party by Daniel Dion, Su Schnee and Bryan Mulvihill; ...From the Transit Bar by Vera Frenkel; Charged Hearts by Catherine Richards; Red Dice by Bill Seaman. In fact ...From The Transit Bar wasn't commissioned as such but basically, after its creation at Documenta 9 in Kassel, Germany, we reconstructed the piece (a bar) for being shown in Canada, in Toronto, in Ottawa and then the Bar went around on a tour of Europe again. The job was basically the same - it was a production type of approach.
Each of these cases was different and came about differently. Obviously internally I was doing those things by tricking a bit with the exhibition budget because there was no budget for commissioning works. There was never officially a programme of commissions. So I was, according to certain circumstances, playing with my exhibition budget at the time in order to be able to commission or to produce these works. So it was rather according to circumstances or opportunities that I could see some exhibition projects as leading to the possibility of commissions.
A few words now about Charged Hearts by Catherine Richards and Red Dice by Bill Seaman that were the two that I, strictly speaking, commissioned. Charged Hearts came about in part because Catherine was already a Fellow at the Gallery and we had numerous discussions about her projects or research. I became very interested in the issues she was raising relative to embodiment and ubiquitous technologies and things like that. And at the same time here in Ottawa, there was a big hype around new tech and there were meetings involving The National Gallery, the Canada Council, National Art Centre and a certain number of what is called here, the high-tech industry, and Catherine was involved in those discussions as well. Now the high-tech industry wanted cultural organisations to provide them with content. But at some point nobody was moving or doing anything, just talking. So one day I said to Catherine, 'Let's go ahead with the project'. So we decided to go ahead and I filled in a request for money with a private foundation - an American private foundation, AT&T - and eventually we got fifty-thousand US dollars and after that, because the National Gallery was also looking for increasing revenues from other sources, it was very difficult for the Gallery to back off. There was no other money coming in for the project so the Gallery filled in the rest of the budget and that was how we came to the point where the piece was financed.
In response to Marilyn Burgess's question this morning to Catherine Richards concerning boundaries or limitations, I must say that in an art gallery like the National Gallery of Canada, a fairly traditional collecting institution where you're dealing with objects - the finished objects - drawings, paintings, sculptures and so on, the difficulties with this project was that it was highly process-orientated. Catherine was working with scientists, with teams of engineers and they were doing all sorts of tests of which I didn't know much, because I didn't really care what they were doing. The question for me, as I had teams at the Gallery preparing to install a piece not yet done, the question was what is the piece to be built, what does it look like; one day I said to Catherine, 'Look Catherine, by this date you will have to give me a drawing that shows me what the piece is'. So it was, for that type of art/science process-oriented work to happen in a museum environment, the difficulty or limitation was that constraints of time, space and budget required things to unfold swiftly up until the exhibition opening date. That doesn't mean that we shouldn't do those types of projects once in a while, but one has to be conscious that it comes with a few institutional constraints. For Catherine the difficulty, I guess, was to derive from a research process a final and finished set up, that was really a prototype of a system. In the end we presented Charged Hearts.
In the case of Bill Seaman, I had met Bill at the Multimediale in Karlsruhe in, I guess, 1995. I saw one of his former pieces The Exquisite Mechanism of Shivers - and when I saw that piece I immediately thought of Stephane Mallarme's poem 'Un Coup de Des' [A Throw of the Dice]. So I turned to Bill and said, 'Do you know Mallarme's poem?' It's a poem from the nineteenth century - one of the first in the French language that got rid of the usual sonnet form and the words are spread out on the pages - it's a very complex poem. He said, 'yes, Mallarme is a great influence in my research' - because he was doing research on what he calls 'recombinant poetics'. So I said to him, 'Well what about doing an adaptation of the poem as an interactive installation in both French and English?' And that's just how we did it. Compared to Catherine Richards' project, that of Bill was more strictly a production with phases like, shooting, editing, programming and so on. The only thing in terms of the Gallery was that the artist was asking quite a bit of money as a production and exhibition fee, which we felt was reasonable but could not afford within the exhibition budget. The way out was that I said to Bill: 'Okay, we will pay half of what you're asking now and in the contract we will have a clause by which, pending the approval of the acquisition committee, the National Gallery could buy the piece at a pre-set price (the second half)'. And that's how we could eventually satisfy the artist in terms of his request for a production fee, while the gallery was providing the artist with other facilities and equipments such as a betacam camera and tape for shooting in the Ottawa and Montreal areas. The piece has now been acquired by the National Gallery of Canada and is part of its collections.
I will give you one more example. It's not a commission but it's an example of trying to present big, costly technologically heavy works in the National Gallery. When I left the Gallery I was already negotiating with Char Davies for the launch, the world premiere, of her piece Ephemere. This work, at the time was working on a big Silicon Graphics computer, an Onyx-2 - something that costs something like half a million dollars to buy; and is very costly to rent. Obviously at the time Char Davies was still with Softimage, so a lot of that [relationship] facilitated the [presentation]. But I knew one thing, that the National Gallery was negotiating with Silicon Graphics for the Cybermuse project and [through] that, I think, [I was able], in a way, to convince the Gallery of the interest of presenting the piece, because they could then show Silicon Graphics their 'up-to-date-ness' with technology. So I like to think!
Now a bit more about curating in a museum context. As you probably know, in French we have two words for curator - one is commissaire d'expositions [exhibitions commissioner] and the other one is conservateur - someone who is taking care of a collection. So that's the other aspect that is very important to stress. As the curator of new media art I was responsible for the media arts collection and in part, I was concerned with some works in the contemporary art collections - mostly installation works and technologically-based art works.
So when I arrived at the National Gallery the media arts collection was already fairly developed, including about one hundred and fifty films by artists that go from Marcel Duchamp's films to films by Michael Snow and Jack Chambers and all these other artists, 'experimental' filmmakers, and about six hundred video titles. When I left the video collection was augmented to about fourteen hundred titles, thanks to the gift of the Art Metropole Collection, one of the first distributor of video art in Canada. The tradition when I first arrived had been mostly to do videotape shows. Each time a curator would gather videotapes together in programmes, these tapes were purchased for the collection. Basically, this was the tradition. So I somewhat broke this trend when I arrived right at the end of 1991. I thought that the most interesting and advanced practices were those dealing with installation and interactive media. So over the years - I stayed there eight years - I did buy films and videotapes for a couple of shows, but my main emphasis was on video installations and interactive installations. So I proceeded by acquiring a few installations - some historically important video installations such as Muntadas' The Board Room, and some interactive works such as Lynn Hershman's A Room of One's Own or Luc Courschene's interactive portrait Portrait One. These later works were opening new territories for the collection and were a challenge in terms of long-term preservation. Not that technological works were not in the collection already - to the contrary there were plenty of those - but I guess for the first time a curator was internally raising issues of preservation practices in relation to electronic and digital media art works. Among those issues two are of prime importance: the nature of the rights and material acquired; and the documentation accompanying an acquisition.
I must say that I was de facto media arts conservator, which means that I had to care for the restoration of some of the works in the collection. We did restore some video tapes - multi-channel video tapes by Noel Harding dating back to the early 1970's, a Michael Snow film, and three Norman White electronic sculptures from the early 1970's as well. So I had developed some ad hoc policies and good working relationships with the multimedia department, as well as with the contemporary art conservator. In terms of the policies that I started to implement, and here I am not talking about official policies (aside: there were many reasons why I left the Gallery, but one reason was that I could never get the Gallery to actually look really at its own policies and develop new policies, and the reason why they didn't was basically because this would have cost money. I know for a fact because the Gallery was cutting back, so it was pretty difficult to convince the Gallery that these new approaches for preservation were timely.) So in terms of the policies that I started to implement, was one basic thing that may seem fairly simple, but which is of prime importance: to document the work in all its technical and, if necessary, aesthetic aspects at the moment of acquisition. I was also very keen on negotiating with artists so that they give the National Gallery all the original elements and masters, etc. For instance, Luc Courschene, as part of the acquisition gave the Gallery not only the Mac SE computer on which the piece runs, and the video disc on which the video sequences are stored, but also the one-inch video master from which the videodisc was done, and a printed version of the programme. Mind you, in this particular case it was a programme in Hypercard, so we're not talking Cobol or I don't know what complicated computer language. The Hypercard print out would allow the Gallery to eventually re-do or re-constitute the piece if necessary, because of course the Mac SE will eventually stop working.
The case of the three electronic sculptures by Norman White is quite indicative of a number of factors with regards to the curators' functions in relation to their acquisitions. These three works were purchased around 1972-1974 from the Electric Gallery in Toronto - a gallery that ceased existing soon after. The works themselves are all from 1970-1972 - if my memory is good - and they show early examples of electronic works with integrated circuits and custom-made electronic circuitry. So after the purchase they were shown and then they went back into the vaults up to 1993, when I brought them out. Obviously when we plugged them in, they didn't work. In the curatorial files I found nothing on the technical aspects of the piece. This shows you that most curators had very little concerns for these aspects of technological works. They are not trying to care for these and they were mostly concerned with the works relevance to the collection, to the current practices and the placement of the work in certain narratives of art history. But fortunately, in this particular case, Norman White was (and is) still alive, so he came to Ottawa and worked with the restoration department and repaired the pieces and installed them. But before he left the gallery he left technical drawings of the circuitry that are now in the curatorial files. Basically this time, we documented the piece as an after thought.
So I tried, whenever possible, to care for these documentation aspects at the moment of acquisition and by requesting the proper material to restore the piece if necessary.
So for me, in a way, the definition of what it means to curate new or old media art would go like this: it is to document the present; to prepare the future so that we can have a past. This heightened awareness of this temporality exist since the advent of video art, as you know, video being a very fast decaying material, the material base is very fragile and there's a very fast obsolescence of machines, just like it is with computer technologies today. Mind you, even if it's digital, there is always a material base somewhere - so the material base won't last forever and the machine won't work forever. Therefore the 'digital solution' imposes other constraints as well, like periodic migration of data or constantly evolving emulation systems.
Peter Weibel again, at the end of his interview with Sarah Cook, was wishing to re-stage important events in media history. 'It's only if someone has kept a score of them, then they can be re-staged. Therefore documenting is of great importance in what preserving new media art is about.' And on that ground I would add that the same applies to the cases of a lot of so-called conceptual art or performance based works. That is why the Daniel Langlois Foundation's Research and Documentation Centre was created in the first place. As some of you may already know, we've started this centre based in Montreal, and through that centre we acquire archives. And among the archives we have acquired so far there is the Steina and Woody Vasulka archives and we've posted it on our website, the first research that has come out of the archive, and it's just the beginning. We also have a collection of documents from Experiments In Art and Technology, which is an organisation that was founded in 1966 by Robert Rauschenberg the painter and artist, and Billy Kluver who was an engineer; we have the archive of an event that happened in 1966 in New York, called 9 Evenings of Theatre and Engineering. With this event Kluver and Rauschenberg were trying to match artists with engineers in order to produce new works. So we decided to create a centre because of the lack of resources devoted to this task of documenting the history of practices, the works and the technologies of the new and old media arts. Beyond this general aim of the centre, one of our research focus is also the preservation and conservation of digital artworks or works with digital components. It is why the Foundation has initiated a research partnership with the Guggenheim Museum in New York called The Variable Media Network, and our participation in this project will be specifically concerned with the elaboration of a conceptual framework and implementation of an emulation test case with an actual work.
I will explain a bit about what 'emulation' is. Amongst the strategies that exist for the preservation of digital works or digital documents, there is one which is called migration - it means that at every generation of machines you have to migrate the data so that it can be read and accessed by the next generation of machines and software. So as a strategy it eventually ends up being very, very costly and the bigger the collection is, the more tremendous the job is. So the other strategy which we favour in this particular research is emulation. Emulation basically is to take the original software code and to have it run on present day computer systems by simulating the original or past computer environment. So let's say that you have a work that runs on the old Mac SE computer and you are now working with a G4, you basically emulate the operating system of the Mac SE. So that quickly explains what emulation is - but this can be technologically very complex. There is a lot of engineering problems to face with that strategy. But there are also a lot of legal problems because when you're emulating systems you often have to emulate proprietary software - unless people have been working on open-source software, but it's not always the case. A lot of things work with off-the-shelf software, so there are potentially lots of problems with legal rights and intellectual property, and trademarks, and so on.
So our project with the Guggenheim Museum is to work conceptually in order to establish criteria to chose a work. The work we have finally chosen for our test case is The Erl King (1982-1985) by Grahame Weinbren. In terms of emulation there's a lot of research being done but it's done through big national archives, but they deal with government documents or databases. In the case of artworks, things are again a little more complicated or different since there are also issues pertaining to the artist's requirements with regards to equipment, look and other aesthetic considerations. There are different scenarios possible. So we have to do this research because there is very little being done in the museum milieu concerning the issue of long-term preservation of digital works or works with digital components.
Another thing that is raised by the Norman White sculptures concerns the relationship between the museum curators and the art dealers - therefore the relation with the art market. The fact is that I was surprised to find these works in the collection in the first place. And I always wondered why no other works of the artist had entered the collection after those three. There may be multiple reasons. But the fact is that after the Electric Gallery disappeared, no one was representing the artist. Here I would be tempted to say in French, 'sans gallery, point de salut'. Of course there are other places like Interaccess and Studio XX for instance, many other places for artists to operate from. But the fact is also that there's a lack of presence in a certain circuit of commercial galleries and the art market - that may also explain why these works are not entering collections at a very fast pace, at least in Canada.
Without a gallery the artist seems to be nothing. That is probably too harsh or too short as a conclusion, but this corresponds to what I've noticed over the years, looking at the practice of contemporary art curators in terms of collecting.
Another interesting quote from Weibel - still from the same interview:
'It is true that people, meaning curators, chose to rely on the judgement of other people and on an accumulation of judgement following the curatorial mainstream. In media work at the moment we don't have this consolidated social structure'.
I think that there is such a structure - actually I disagree with Weibel, I think there is what he calls a 'social structure' in the media arts - it's all the festivals; the ZKM is part of it, Ars Electronica, many institutions are part of it as well as many individuals. It may not be mainstream but it exists. It is true that most of the major museums don't necessarily care too much for media work. What he refers to is partly the effect of currents in contemporary art, many of which are market-driven, and they determine a lot of the curator's choices. In fact, if we talk of museum's exhibitions and acquisitions programmes, one sees that with few exceptions, by following a few biennials and a few galleries and a few art magazines, one can be a very good contemporary art curator.
So being a media art curator in the context of a major collecting institution, I was somewhat outside of it all, and even sometimes outside the canon of art history, almost exclusively dealing with works outside of the commercial art market. I want to stress something here: I'm not suggesting that all art institutions should strive to buy a piece of media art or something like that. My only point is that when you're in a position to purchase these works, then you have to give them a price. So by not being in the market, it becomes quite interesting to work out the market value of the work. In fact one of the funny thing sometimes was to look at how artists themselves would value their own work, in terms of price. It gives you situations where you ask the artist for the price of his or her work and he or she quotes something like two hundred thousand dollars, but you know that it cannot be valued at such a price and that the gallery would not pay such a price. So it's very interesting that relation to market value when you are a media art curator.
The same happened when the gallery was donated the Muntadas' The Board Room. We had to establish the value of the work - it was interesting to see how this value was questioned and I had to somewhat argue for the appropriateness of that value.
So collecting is also preserving, and I'm not sure that museums and cinematheques and other heritage organisations are really in the best position at the moment for doing this long-term preservation work with regards to digital media. In fact, for all media as well, like video, audio (in the case of sound installations). They basically haven't coped with preserving video and audio art, so how will they cope with digital media arts? I think part of the solution lies in how we train curators in schools, so that in the long run there would be sufficient awareness of these preservation issues, that they would be raised so that museums take action.
Sarah, is there more time? No? Sorry. Thanks!
Ottawa Art Gallery Symposium - CRUMB and Critical Media Curating New Media Art: Production, Distribution, Consumption.
Edited by Sarah Cook.