Space, Materiality, and the Audience

Artefacts and even space itself can be "cyberized" by programming that simulates some other space, time or agency…. An electronic and virtual art may work through metaphors that are realised across different degrees of virtuality and materiality.

—Margaret Morse, Virtualities: Television, Media Art, and Cyberculture, 1998
Shadow Silhouette
Figure 3.11.
Shadow silhouette as seen during a performance of the virtual reality environment Ephémère (1998) by Char Davies.
Courtesy of the artist.

The challenges of presenting Web-only works of art, not just in physical space but also in cyberspace, are also found in presenting other forms of new media art, considering that computer systems are capable of simulating and representing many types of lived experience. Distinguishing Web-based art from the rest of the cultural production found on the Internet is a challenge for an audience member not familiar with what he or she is looking at or for. Works of art that deal specifically with this melding of virtual and physical space are that much harder to "frame" for a viewer's experience. So how does one present works of art whose primary characteristic is the simulation of another, not physically tangible reality?

Works of simulation-based art, such as immersive video games, are a challenge to present because they are premised on the idea that the awareness of the mediation should be the viewer's primary experience. Aside from their physical interfaces—the headset and joystick—virtual reality gaming environments prioritize the mediation of digital intangible "information," and the viewer encounters the work as a "user" making choices affecting how the experience unfolds. Each encounter is unique, so the curatorial role in the presentation of this kind of immersive installation may simply be in the entering and exiting of the mediated space. At the National Gallery of Canada, for instance, users of Char Davies's immersive installation Ephémère (1998) had to sign disclaimer forms and be coached in the physical actions required to navigate the digital landscape.


4. Time

The term "real-time systems" refers to the information, telecommunication and (multi)media technologies that have come to play an increasingly important part in our lives… "Real time" can also stand for the more general trend towards instantaneity in contemporary culture, involving increasing demand for instant feedback and response, one result of which is that technologies themselves are beginning to evolve ever faster. Charlie Gere, Art, Time, and Technology, 2006a

As outlined in chapter 2, the relationship of new media art to time in general concerns the ambivalent state of being new and the peculiar timescale of the technological hype cycle. As Charlie Gere (2006a) states in his book Art, Time, and Technology, not only is the development cycle of technology accelerating, but the concepts of real-time connectivity and real-time computer processing are becoming inextricable from the behaviors of new media technology. This "real time" differs from the concepts of "time based" or "live," which may be more familiar to video or live-art curators, and, of course, all three concepts come as a fundamental challenge to curators of objects. With the proviso that time and space are particularly difficult to separate in new media, this chapter examines how the histories of time-based arts range across video art and performance or "live" art. Several of the most high-profile institutional new media curators—including David Ross, Barbara London, and Eddie Berg—came from a background of working with video art, and parallels are often made between new media histories and video histories, [1] but is this the most appropriate field for comparison?

Time presents particular challenges to curators because, as outlined in chapter 3 on space and materiality, any artwork that is not a static object involves the timescale of process in some way. This chapter discusses the ways in which the timescale of new media art differs from that of video art or performance art and what these differences mean for exhibiting beyond the paradigms of the white cube of the art object or the black box of video art. Audience expectations of the speed and availability of new media, such as the twenty-four/seven nature of the Internet, also figure here.


The answer to how new media art differs from video art therefore lies not only in the new kinds of distribution and connectivity offered by the Internet, but also in what the software itself is doing over time.

Computability and Real Time—the Opposite of Live?

The concept of interacting with the computer, begun in the 1960s, referred then to programmers and analysts developing their software and retrieving their data in real time instead of waiting for hours or days for batch-processed results to be eked out of the computer.

Regina Cornwell, "Interactive Art: Touching the 'Body in the Mind'" 1992

"Real time" for video means instant feedback: the ability to record and show at the same time differentiates video significantly from film. "Real time" for computers concerns instantaneity of processing and manipulation of data. Real time used to mean not having to leave the mainframe computer to process overnight and hence concerned the speed of processing within the computer itself. It can be argued that real time for video was therefore an inherent part of camera and monitor from inception, whereas computer processing has struggled to attain "live" processing.

Thus, in 1995 Char Davies's virtual reality installation artwork Osmose was still notable for having such a detailed level of three-dimensional computer graphics generated "in real time" so that viewers would have a quick response to their movements in a "virtual reality" helmet. Again, it can be argued that if video's default option is the simple recording and transmission (albeit mediated and reproduced) of real-time visual information, then the computer's talents lie in the manipulation of data (ideally in real time). Thus, computer software such as digital video editing can manipulate images, and video jockey software has relatively recently enabled VJs to manipulate, cut, and paste video clips in real time. Those artists who are well experienced in both fields tend to be the ones who are able to identify the subtle differences of analog or digital time within manipulative tools: Nam June Paik has described how he wanted to "handicap" himself and do low-tech video rather than use high-grade computers all of the time because he was interested in both very rapid and very slow imaging in artworks such as Living with the Living Theater (in Zurbrugg 2004, 285). Other artists who come from a background in video have vouched for the effects of new tools on practical production: "When I edited a tape with the computer, for the first time in my life I saw that my video had a 'score,' a structure, a pattern that could be written out on paper. We view film and video in the present tense—we 'see' one frame at a time passing before us in this moment" (Viola 2003, 465).

Is computer real time the opposite of "live"? If the term live is used here as in "live art," then this field, like performance art, centers on the presence of a live human performer. If so, then new media has an interestingly ambivalent relationship to this kind of live because it is usually considered the opposite of live—the mechanical reproduction, the android, artificial intelligence, or the cheap ersatz imitation of life. It is precisely this reputation that Alexei Shulgin plays with in 386DX (1998-). The artwork is essentially a piece of software that makes computer-generated voices sing cover versions of songs such as California Dreaming—badly. A solo computer has also been known to perform the work—sitting on the streets of Moscow as a lone electronic busker. Shulgin's deadpan performance adds a live projection of the software code, as, of course, does his live persona on stage, with a computer keyboard slung where an electric guitar should be. Shulgin, in fact, does not need to be on stage because the computer program can perform the instructions alone. He can change the code live, however, as many performers of electronic music do, in which case the performance is live and in real time. These distinctions in liveness are not always obvious to the uninformed viewer, but they do form a key area of difference between new media and live art.[6]

Inke Arns (2004) has examined "the performativity of code" in relation to computer programs and software art. Programs can offer instructions that then can perform over time. In addition to acting as a straightforward "score," these programs allow for improvisation and for elements to react to each other over time. Autogena and Portway's Black Shoals: Stock Market Planetarium, as previously described, turns stock-market figures into stars. However, another layer of programming creates simple graphic creatures that feed off the energy of the stars and exhibit flocking or cannibalistic behaviors using basic artificial life metaphors. These behaviors evolve, are not fully controlled by the stock-market data, and may not be wholly predictable to the computer programmer. Thus, the score of a computer program is a much looser performance than the score of a conventional musical performance, but it can be argued that computer code displays performativity.

To summarize, the time-related factors of new media art have been informed by the histories and understandings of video, performance art, performing art, and live art. Technological histories add a particular culture of time. These understandings of the behaviors of time characteristically move across seemingly incompatible categories, including, for example, Meg Webster's minimalist sculptural installations, which sometimes include video, and Mark Napier's Net art, in which software by the artist can be set off to forage across the Internet for code that is then combined in unpredictable ways: "It outlines a more broad-based strategy in which the seemingly incompatible work of artists such as Meg Webster and Mark Napier both can be construed as 'performed.' As a behavioral model, the initiative articulates a performative dimension that is not fixed but fluid, not congealed but contingent, such that a work can be simultaneously installed, performed and interactive, thus upsetting a predisposition toward mutually exclusive categories" (J. Fiona Ragheb in Sutton, Scholz, and Ragheb 2002, 18). To be exact about these behaviors, it is in the characteristics of both connectivity (primarily the distributed nature and "liveness" of the Internet), and computability (the real-time, generative nature and performativity of the computer program itself) where the major differences in "new media time" lie. The key question is: How might these differences change the ways in which the artwork needs to be curated?


Time and the Audience

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."

Benjamin Weil, in Beryl Graham, "An Interview with Benjamin Weil," 2002b

People know approximately the "time slot" of a movie or a concert, or how long they might be in a major museum exhibition. Video art, sound art, performance art, or new media art, however, may have a nominal or compulsory duration of anything from a few seconds to many hours. Artspeak publicity is notoriously vague about this topic for the novice, and video art labels still neglect to mention the duration before members of the audience step into a dark room. Curator Hannah Redler confirms the important fact that the audience "need[s] to know the level of `commitment' in advance" (2001). The primary frame of reference for an art gallery is still dominantly the short time allotted to each of a series of objects; according to Carol Stenakas, even in dealing with installation art, "we work in seconds" (2001). A. D. Coleman remarked some years ago, "You really need an hour alone with the thing, which is impossible under the circumstances of everyday museum attendance… How do you attract an audience with an attention span of three seconds?" (1994, 29). Coleman was describing Sonata (1991-1993) by Grahame Weinbren, a single-screen, interactive, narrative video work. The cinematic metaphor of narrative obviously has repercussions for audience members' time expectations while they sit uncomfortably in a gallery. The lure is the obvious long-term engagement so desired by artists and institutions, but the problem for galleries is that this longer period creates traffic-management problems, especially for an artwork designed for solo use. The audience also jealously guards such time: if you need an hour alone with the artwork, then the fact that other people are looking impatiently over your shoulder is very uncomfortable. Even if a new media artwork is not narrative, then time is still necessary to understand new concepts and new interfaces.

If we are considering Net art in particular, then the argument as to whether to view it at home or in a museum goes beyond the hardness of the chairs. In the United Kingdom, at least, only 56 percent of households had broadband in 2008, and local telephone calls are not free, making dial-up Internet access a pay-per-minute ticking clock. This factor tends to change radically one's time perception. However, Net time is not as simple as pure duration; like computer time in general, it is both speedy and slow:

The abolition of waiting time is the Grail of the Internet and of computing as a whole. Yet, in contrast to the impatience at seconds or minutes spent waiting for pages to load, the easy slipping away of hours spent online is caused by the constant urge to move on to the next thing. . . . Time on the Net is not experienced unfolding smoothly but in an irregular, juddering pattern, for the command to move to a new location initiates, not mobility but a pause, and then (with a slow link) a page loading element by element or (with a faster link) apparently all at once. (Stallabrass 2003, 40)

With regard to interactive art, the time issues get even more complex (so we come back to this topic again in chapter 5). Again, it is artists who tend to be most fully informed on this topic, and some disagree entirely with the "time-based" categorization of this type of art.

I disagree with the idea that interactive art is time-based. You cannot apply the rules of video or cinema, for instance, to interactive installations that may not have time-constraints, or that do not have a predefined start and end. Except for a few pieces, such as Char Davies's Osmose, participants may interact with an electronic artwork for as long as they want and in this sense the pieces are not "art rides" with theme-park statistics such as "client throughput per hour." Instead, some people call electronic art "event-based," i.e. the piece unfolds according to user and program exchanges. My own description is that electronic art is "relationship-based." (Lozano-Hemmer 2001b)

For the audience, the time characteristics of new media art can be confusing because they are based on the mixed metaphors of event, cinema, and video game. For the curator, they are equally confusing, with choices to make between metaphors of means of exhibiting new media art and limited information on time and audience to inform these choices.[8]


8. Curating in an Art Museum


Working across Departments

The whole show had this sense of blur to it, that was really nice in terms of curatorial blur, in terms of chronological blur, in terms of media blur, and in terms of the way pieces were either newly commissioned or loaned. I think that, to me, was the strength of the show; that it developed.

Kathleen Forde on 010101, in Beryl Graham, Curating New Media Art: SFMOMA and 010101, 2002a

This book has mapped how new media art crosses traditional boundaries of space, time, media, taxonomy, and disciplines. It has also been mentioned that collaborations across disciplines, although exciting, are prone to "the anxiety of interdisciplinarity" (Coles and Defert 1998). Joline Blais and Jon Ippolito identify in their book At the Edge of Art (2006) six "functions" of new media art, based on the biological behaviors of antibodies or viruses. Although these functions might engagingly describe the particular behaviors of new media, the crux of the problem with placing new media art in an art museum is that both curators and institutions are notorious for their "boundary issues." Some curators like things neatly in discrete vitrines; some institutions fight internal territorial wars. If new media art behaves like a virus, then many curators will be personally glad to cleanse the foul contagion, and some institutions would be relieved to secure the departmental firewalls before it spreads and hybridizes. There are, of course, exceptions to this tendency, which serve to underline the ways in which new media art can push the boundaries not only between curatorial departments, but also between all departments of an institution.

Example: 010101, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

In a move described as "utopian," SFMOMA director David Ross instigated an exhibition of "art in technological times" to be curated across four curatorial departments: Architecture and Design, Education and Public Programs, Media Arts, and Painting and Sculpture. The exhibition, 010101 (2001), included artworks by John Maeda, Anton Gursky, and Shirley Tse, as well as Net art commissions by Thomson & Craighead and Mark Napier, therefore including both new media and non—new media artworks. In a research study of the differences in institutional structure demanded by this show, when interviewees were asked about their roles, the word that recurred most often in their descriptions was blur: they were "exploring how architecture and design was to be integral to this show, exploring the blurring boundaries between the various forms of cultural expressions; making a point about how increasingly difficult it is to delineate," stated the Curator of Media Arts Benjamin Weil (Graham 2002a, 11). There was no "lead curator"; curatorial staff made some shared research trips; knowledge was shared between the curatorial departments; and the hierarchy was slightly disrupted by curatorial associates (inclduing Kathleen Forde) having more input into selection and events than was usual.


The challenges of working across more departments than usual, with more communication needed between more people, fell mostly on the Director of Exhibitions and Project Coordinators. Particular challenges included the event-based or durational nature of some of the new media artworks: inventing administration systems for tasks such as booking appointments for Char Davies's virtual reality artwork and dispensing the video cameras for Janet Cardiff's audio/video walk (17).

Working across curatorial departments demands the sharing of concepts as well as the physical gallery territory—immaterial things such as shared critical vocabulary and, of course, knowledge of the art itself. Working across wider departments, including front of house and building systems, also demands immaterial systems of good communication and development. It is sometimes assumed that being able to show new media art hinges on stacks of hardware. The hardware, however, cannot function without an understanding of the systems. In reality, a building may be immaculately wired and stuffed with kit, but if the systems of people and knowledge are not in place, then all is for naught.


1. Like new media, video art can exhibit different "behaviors" in different contexts, and the spread of literature reflects this variability. For example, video literature is very good on issues of narrative related to time: for books that are starting to integrate new media, see Caldwell and Everett 2003, Rieser and Zapp 2001, and Shaw and Weibel 2002. Likewise, video art literature is good on issues of space and installation as well as, to a lesser extent, on issues of time; for examples, see Frohne, Schieren, and Guiton 2005; Hall and Fifer 1991; Morse 1998. Those with a better grasp on connectivity, broadcast, and technological times unsurprisingly come from a background of communication, media, or cultural studies; for example, see Hayward 1991 and Lister et al. 2003.
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6. Shulgin's work and other examples of the relationship between new media and live art are explored in Cook 2006a and Graham 2007a. Issues of embodiment are also discussed in chapter 3 on space and materiality..
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8. As explored in chapter 7, some of the anecdotal and formal research on audiences arid duration may be useful to curators. The little research that has been done on the duration of audience attention suggests that, yes, some new media artworks can hold attention for longer than the few seconds' glance at an art object, but that the dynamics are very variable. Above all, artists tend to have a firm grasp on how long is needed to get a reasonable impression of their work, and they feel that curators should strive to cater to this time frame, even it means having comfy chairs in their gallery. Graham (1997) draws together some findings from user research on interactive interpretative installations and observes some interactive artworks in museums and galleries. The findings are briefly summarized in Graham 1999.
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Last verified: August 1st 2013.