This article was published by Rhizome.org, a review of "Curating The Net" - Cached 5 - ICA - London - 20.06.98, and is now part of their resource at Rhizome.
Curating on the Edge of Chaos
"It is clear, however, that natural selection reveals both aspects of feedback, Natural Selection - which would be more accurately characterised as 'natural destruction' ...compels organisms and species to strive for stability and preservation ... but the selective pressures of a changing and variable environment mean that they must learn to operate their capacities for adaptation innovatively at the 'edge of chaos'." - Keith Ansell Pearson, "Viroid Life"
Redefining curatorial practice; escaping systems of art curation; dissolving boundaries between the roles "artist" and "curator" - these were just some of the issues addressed at "Curating The Net", the fifth seminar in the Cached series at the ICA. It was a very hot and humid day in London and those attending the seminar seemed to be physically dissolving, as the heat made it very difficult to maintain any sense of separate body space. Combine that with a meltdown of mindspace and you start to get the picture...
Benjamin Weil set the scene by looking at the changing role of the curator since the 1960s, when the emerging ephemeral nature of Fluxus, Performance and Conceptual art gradually effected a move away from the strictly traditional conservation of collections and towards a "more artistic" approach where the "curator makes an interpretation of the instructions given by the artist"(Weil). Specifically Weil described his experience on ada web of translating the art concepts of Jenny Holzer and Yoko Ono, neither of whom had computer skills, into the technical requirements of the Web. He felt their work addressed issues relevant to "the understanding of the network", and this was why he had commissioned them. It also suggested the importance of affirming a link between process art and the perceived transient nature of net.art - whether this link is challenged or confirmed by current practice remains to be seen.
The theme of the curator implementing the technical requirements of an artist's vision recurred frequently in subsequent presentations. This was particularly the case with Simon Faithfull "Container-ship" website, where his role in commissioning "containers" of web-oriented works had so far led him to focus on artists whose work he "admired" and who had not used computers before. Again, their art practice was "translated" into web based programs by designers and programmers who were then credited on the site.
In contrast to this approach was the work of Nina Pope & Karen Guthrie, and Alexei Shulgin. They had developed their own skills in html programming over recent years. While their work might have seemed more "clunky" it had a fresh and strong integrity of intention. Shulgin was very witty about his role as self-styled artist, curator and inventor of "form-art" and the form-art competition which had a jury of one (i.e. him). Pope & Guthrie made off-line comments about such things as "themed exhibitions" where "you search around on the floor of your studio to find anything that will fit the theme" and they expressed a sense of feeling outside the general trends or support systems of new media in the UK. Basically what these three had in common was their ability to get on with the job whether they were funded or not and tackle technical problems which would put many artists off using "new media", but had led to truly original inventiveness in their use of the web.
Shu Lea Cheang presented her latest web project "Brandon" - and the spirit of Brandon was well and truly summoned that day. As the event took place in the Brandon Room at the ICA it was an entirely appropriate location for him/her to emerge. The exploration of a trans-sexual identity within cyberspace enables the tensions, generated by "mutation" in terms of physical and digital realities, to be addressed.
Cheang really captured the sense of curation on the edge of chaos. The fact that she personally has "no fixed address" but moves between cities internationally - working within public institutions to access venues and equipment, organising finances and collaborations with other artists - seemed very unstable in the best sense. Through her experience as a film maker Cheang treats the project as a "big production" with multiple interfaces, multiple authorship and the additional use of others' technical expertise to realise the concept of an "ever-processing site". Interestingly she did acknowledge that at some point in her work she does get "sick of the whole thing" (some things don't change) and so will hand the site over to a "curator" who can carry on maintaining it and finding artists/writers who want to contribute material in the future. Ironically this brings the whole practice back full circle to a new kind of conservationism in curation.
The most problematic and seemingly unsatisfying project was presented by Graham Gussin who, with Susan Collins, had been commissioned to work on "Tumblong", a UK/Australian online project exploring trans-cultural relationships between English and Australian artists, with colonial history being a possible source of tension. In this case the "translation of the artist's instructions" was not so successful. Gussin, another artist who was new to the web and computers, was irritated that the Australian curators/ site managers had not translated his instructions as he had described them. The Tumblong site seems to have been over-curated in the sense that the UK artists felt they had no chance to respond "freely" but instead were supposed to respond to "virtual artefacts" which did not inspire them.
There does seem to be a kind of uneasy tension between the "novice" artist and the "expert" curator in control of technical realisation. The "curator" must respect the artist's vulnerability in the sense that they must handle their ideas accurately and sensitively, otherwise the whole thing just falls apart as in the case of Tumblong.
The afternoon culminated with a discussion chaired by Peter Ride (imagin@tion), who did well in picking up the ever-dissolving-processing elements of the day and trying to get them to stick together in some kind of identifiable entity. Questions were asked from the audience about the importance of artists having technical expertise, accessibility by the public to the net - viz curated sites being easier to understand than artists' own sites, as well as the relationship between the web and gallery spaces.
There seemed to be a general consensus that artists ideas need to be translated by curators + programmers + designers, even though this raised concerns about the expenses involved of paying programmers, as well as the problems of artists being over-controlled by curatorial "experts" in the production of work.
"Brandon" illustrated an alternative phenomenon (in more ways than one) of artists/programmers/curators interpreting instructions given by the director/artist Cheang. I this sense Cheang is acting as a dynamic mediator "organising" both curators/artists/technicians in their overlapping roles as maintainers and producers. In her role of "guiding the motion" of the project, Cheang is directing rather than curating in the traditional sense of the word (of maintenance and exhibition). However, due to the emergence of the curator-trans-art or artist-trans-curation it becomes difficult to tell the difference...
It seems that the current challenges for artists working with digital technology are still similar to those which first occured in the 60's. Artists either have to develop their own technical skills in computer programming/ electronics or they have to find a way to collaborate with or pay others for those skills. Sometimes if you are clever or lucky enough you might even get paid for your idea alone while someone else "makes" the work for you. It is clear that this only works if the artist is already very successful in other media, otherwise you're in danger of being in a meltdown situation: ever-processing matter in the artist-trans-curator's hands.
Aurora Lovelock 23.06.98
My apologies to David Sinden (Artec) and Michael Gibbs (Why Not Sneeze?). I missed their contribution due to temporary bodily meltdown problems of my own.