Simon Faithfull, Mobile Research Station no. 1, 2009; intervention in Skulpturenpark Berlin Zentrum; courtesy the artist

The behaviors of new media: towards a post-hype hostipitality aesthetics?

Beryl Graham & Sarah Cook

CRUMB, the online resource for curators, has been wrangling with the joyous affordances of new media art for over ten years. Having just published three books about curating the stuff,1 it seems like a good time to stop and reflect, somewhere between the glacial evolution of academic publication and the evanescence of daily tweeting.

As explored in our co-authored volume, Rethinking Curating: Art After New Media, there are some peculiar timescales relative to “the art formerly known as new media.” Rather than a smooth development curve of critical knowledge of new media art, there has been a “hype cycle”—a hump of inflated expectations, followed by a trough of disillusionment. We like to think that we are now on a more modest slope of enlightenment towards a plateau of acceptance. Whilst some new technologies may remain stuck in the trough (holographic art, anyone?) there are more interesting arguments as to where any new “art form” might be on the hype cycle. Our approach has been to discuss new media in terms of the artwork’s “behaviors”—how and why they do what they do rather than just what they are made with (their digital or technological media)—in order to aid a critical development beyond the hype cycle. In this, we have been led, of course, by the artists.

In Rethinking Curating we include examples of artworks whose “behaviors” are both like and different from other works of contemporary art in the way they approach the time, space and participatory aspects of the presentation of art. The range of works considered include everything from gallery installations, to site-specific public art, to social software. We drew on works we ourselves had seen or curated, and which seemed to us to demonstrate a witty understanding of contemporary systems—projects like Angie Waller’s Myfrienemies.com (2007),2 which constructs an online social network based on intimate experience of social systems such as Facebook or online dating. Her range of potential frienemies are described by stereotypically negative traits, from the Know-It-All-Experts whose emails come with footnotes to the Cheaters likely to do well in reality TV, and these profiles are used to match you with others who share your “frienenemies” (or also pretend to like the same people you do) should you decide to enter the system. As Angie Waller writes, the more frienemies you have, the more friends you will make.

In the spirit of updating the book with some new examples of more recent artworks, we thought we’d outline here some of the key things we’re thinking about now…

1. Participation structures and “Relational Aesthetics.”

Recently there has been some debate in the contemporary art world about participatory art, with Nicolas Bourriaud’s “Relational Aesthetics” criticized by Claire Bishop for a lack of space for conflict in participatory art systems. This has caused some wry amusement to those who have worked in socially engaged art for many years, and those in new media art who are well over the hump of the hype-cycle concerning “interaction” and have established a critical vocabulary for exactly what might relate to who, and in what way (Rethinking Curating defines the important differences between interaction, participation and collaboration).3

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer,4 who represented Mexico in the Venice Biennale in 2007, was using the term “Relational Architecture” some time before the recent debate, and it still forms a useful phrase for accurately describing the nature of “planning” participation—artists, like architects, might cunningly design a shell within which certain behaviors might be encouraged but not controlled. Indeed, his work often displays a complex tension between the behavior or action of the group and the individual. In Pulse Room (2006) a light bulb starts to pulse to the user’s heartbeat when she holds two sensors: each small personal spectacle of electric energy slides gently into a bank of many light bulbs, which forces someone else’s heartbeat to shuffle off the end of the grid. Are we tracing only our own heartbeat here, or are we responsible for other people?

The tension for art critics between new media artworks that are characterized as either fluffy social fun or military/industrial control, and between feel-good participation or full-on conflict, omits the subtle complexities of the social systems ranging between these extremes. For all the discussion of the artist as gracious host, there is also Jacques Derrida’s useful notion of “hostipitality,” where hostility is barely concealed beneath surface-level hospitality. The exhibition Hostipitality: Receiving Strangers (2010) 5 at Muzeum Sztuki in Poland uses the term in relation to the treatment of immigrants, but it can also be applied to various arts institutions that, carried away on the hype around relational aesthetics, can be seen as uncomfortably hosting participatory art systems where the audience has to be restrained from relating too much.6

A growing body of curatorial experience of the critical detail of participatory art systems is one of the reasons for hoping that we may have reached the plateau of critical acceptance. Rudolf Frieling, curator of Media Arts at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, described in a CRUMB interview how curating the exhibition The Art of Participation (2008–09) built on previous exhibitions including 010101: Art in Technological Times (2001) and changed many fundamental administrative systems in the museum.7 Tom Marioni’s The Act of Drinking Beer with Friends is the Highest Form of Art (1970–ongoing), for example, challenged the regulations on alcohol in the gallery, and restrictions on photography were lifted after the curator discovered, via video clips on YouTube, how audiences were behaving in the galleries.

2. The art object and distributed authorship.

As artists continue to be enticed—for financial reasons, as much as anything—to use open source software and, for philanthropic or cultural reasons, to distribute their work into the intellectual commons using copyleft licenses, old debates about authorship and property raise their head again. Artist Michael Mandiberg, in a recent CRUMB interview, commented that he began making open source work without realizing it, or at least without having the vocabulary for it:

I did this project called AfterSherrieLevine.com. Sherrie Levine photographed Walker Evans’ work and called it her own work. The funny thing is, it was a form of commons enclosure. Although I didn’t have the words ‘commons enclosure’ at the time to describe it, these are the words I would use now. She had a legal case with the Walker Evans estate and ended up shutting things down. I wouldn’t have called it open source at the time, but that’s what I did when I scanned the works out of the same edition of the book and put them up online as hi-res images and certificates of authenticity which you print and sign yourself...8

This coding/hacking/recycling/remixing practice is gaining ground on the hype cycle, but do curators and critics really understand its origins and how it might be similar to or different from older forms of conceptual art such as chance/collage-based works (so as not to just fall into a trough of disillusionment with it)? As British artists Thomson & Craighead commented in a recent conversation, it’s not that artists’ appropriation tactics have changed (it’s a centuries-old practice), it is just that copyright is increasingly wielded against creativity, even used vindictively at key moments. Their recent project 9 is a cut of the 1960 George Pal film The Time Machine with the scenes reordered alphabetically according to the dialogue. This work, made for gallery viewing on a loop, seems quite different from other contemporary remixed video artworks that don’t always have an intrinsic reason for the appropriation beyond the fact that it is possible and fun, and looks mighty fine in a nightclub or in a television commercial. (Advertisers have long had a habit of appropriation as evidenced, for instance, in the case of Christian Marclay’s artwork Telephones [1995] remade by Apple for its 2010 iPhone ad campaign explicitly without Marclay’s permission.)

Thomson & Craighead’s The Time Machine in alphabetical order (2010) also brings a new angle to the debate about artists’ use of material that resides in the public domain (without which a lot of remix work simply wouldn’t exist) and how in general our access to information has changed with digital technologies. H. G. Wells’ original 1895 novella, The Time Machine, is out of copyright, but the film isn’t. And here lies the crux: copyright is a geographical and time-based concept, while artistic practice, and remixing as a strategy for making and disseminating work, is mostly neither. Judging from what can be seen online, different artists have different approaches to a distributed authorship practice—some conceptual, some technical, some musical, others more aesthetic. When they’re all to be found in the same place—on the mostly commercial Web—how do we learn to tell them apart?

Related discussions about open source methodologies and ways of working online quickly spill over into the field of hardware, as we increasingly carry about in our pockets commercially developed devices to consume rather than produce the Web, which are designed to become obsolescent and are hardwired to particular purposes and protocols. In the aforementioned interview, Mandiberg also talks about his design work, such as the Bright Idea Shade (2008) for compact fluorescent lightbulbs, for which he has released an “Instructable” online to facilitate others stealing the idea.10 In the group exhibition Untethered at Eyebeam Art and Technology Center in New York in 2008, Hans-Christoph Steiner launched his Reware project, 11 which taught workshop participants how to unlock/untether and hack their old iPods, Wi-Fi routers and PDAs to load open source software and turn them into new devices (guitars, telephone exchanges, game machines), while at The Banff Centre in Canada last year the GOSH! (grounding open source hardware) summit grappled with the debates between the now seemingly old-style artist-engineer partnerships, in which intellectual property is disputed, commodified or awarded research points in academic environments, and the more “design guild”-like ways of thinking about sharing tools and trading talent in a forum befitting our open, social-networking age.12

Angie Waller, Myfrienemies.com, 2007; website; courtesy the artist

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Pulse Room, 2006; La Constancia textile factory; originally commissioned by Plataforma, Puebla, Mexico; courtesy the artist; photo by Alejandro Biazquez

3. Exhibiting process and research: artists curating artists.

The exhibition Untethered also raised the question of the curatorial impetus to exhibit work that is deliberately open about its authorship, variable in its end form, or demands participation from the audience in order to be fully appreciated or understood. Many artists are increasingly interested in the potential for using digital tools and social networking to engage in more open-ended research processes, which could as easily be seen as curating. In his interview with CRUMB, Simon Faithfull described his Mobile Research Station no. 1 (2009) as a sculpture made from a garbage dumpster installed in a park in Berlin where guest pseudo-scientists (artists with a data-collection practice known to Simon) were invited to be in residence. He commented that he “didn’t require anybody to actually resolve anything at all. There are some plans, some very beautifully resolved objects that came out of it, but the only receptacle that I have set up is the blog where all of our research data are published.”13 When asked if, by choosing the artists, was he curating the research station, his reply was telling, indicating how the autonomy of the artwork and the research process could be balanced against the authorship of the outcomes:

The context that I offer to people, and I could imagine other artists to resent that context—but actually no one really saw it like that at all—is the chance to be in my sculpture. Everyone was able to make boundaries quite clear, I think. They didn’t see it as a collaboration with me, it was like I have this meta-work but the space within was absolutely theirs to define.14

All of this leads us to conclude that artists working in the field of art after new media generally show an impressive understanding of systems and networks—those complex hierarchies of who is connecting with what, be they authors, audiences, participants, co-producers, artists, software or objects. As a result, both artists and curators have testified that the ways in which they curate are changing in response to new kinds of art. In a conversation between Woon Tien Wei (who is part of the p-10 artist/curator collective in Singapore) and Nina Czegledy (transnational interdisciplinary curator), the two discussed a range of collaborative curatorial modes, including “meta-curating” and a “modular” approach that enables transnational projects to happen using whatever media necessary.15 Both the art itself and the ways of working are fascinatingly complex, but if they are to be discussed as anything more than a “new” bump on the landscape of art, then we need to keep worrying away at the detail of how these systems work, and be critical of how open, participative and distributed these systems are. To do this, curators must be forthcoming about their own processes, and again, new media affords a fine platform on discussion lists, tweeting or by whatever means media offers—our recent books have been highly informed by this kind of authorship, and all experiences are welcome on the CRUMB discussion list.16



1. Beryl Graham and Sarah Cook, Rethinking Curating: Art After New Media (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2010); Sarah Cook, Beryl Graham, Verina Gfader and Axel Lapp (eds.), A Brief History of Curating New Media Art: Conversations with Curators (Berlin: The Green Box, 2010); Sarah Cook, Beryl Graham, Verina Gfader and Axel Lapp (eds.), A Brief History of Working With New Media Art: Conversations with Artists (Berlin: The Green Box, 2010).

2. See http://www.myfrienemies.com. This work was included in the exhibition My Own Private Reality (2007) curated by Sarah Cook and Sabine Himmelsbach for Edith Russ Haus, Germany.

3. See chapter on participatory systems in Rethinking Curating, op. cit.; and Beryl Graham, “What kind of participative system? Critical vocabularies from new media art” in Anna Dezeuze (ed.), The ‘Do-it-Yourself’ Artwork: Participation from Fluxus to New Media (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2010), 281–305.

4. A body of his work was on view in the solo exhibition Recorders at Manchester Art Gallery in September-November 2010.

5. See www.msl.org.pl.

6. In Rethinking Curating we cite the interesting example of Robert Morris’ aborted show of participatory sculptural works at Tate Galleries in 1971, which has since been reprised successfully in 2009 in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. Rethinking Curating op. cit., 125-127.

7. Sarah Cook, Beryl Graham, Verina Gfader and Axel Lapp (eds.), A Brief History of Curating New Media Art: Conversations with Curators (Berlin: The Green Box, 2010), 197–207.

8. Artist Michael Mandiberg was interviewed by CRUMB doctoral researcher Dominic Smith; his project www.AfterSherrieLevine.com launched online in 2001. A Brief History of Working With New Media Art, op. cit., 182.

9. Documented on their website www.thomson-craighead.net.

10. Instructables is a website, the idea for which originated at the MIT Media Lab, that allows users to teach others how to do just about anything, from brewing beer to making a gravitational shield. The Bright Idea Shade instructable is at http://www.instructables.com/id/Beautify-your-CFLs-with-Bright-Idea-Shades-steal-/.

11. The international group exhibition Untethered, a sculpture garden of everyday objects deprogrammed of their original function, embedded with new intelligence and transformed into surrealist and surprising readymades, was curated by Sarah Cook. Documentation including an audioguide to the exhibition can be found online at www.eyebeam.org/events/untethered. Hans-Christoph Steiner’s Reware project is documented online at http://vimeo.com/2397102.

12. For more information about GOSH! visit the wiki at http://www.gosh2009.ca/wiki/index.php/Welcome_to_the_Gosh!_Summit.

13. Simon Faithfull was interviewed by CRUMB senior researcher Axel Lapp, A Brief History of Working With New Media Art, op. cit., 216.

14. A Brief History of Working with New Media Art, op. cit., 226.

15. A Brief History of Working with New Media Art, op. cit., 165–179.

16. See www.crumbweb.org.

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