Beryl Graham and Sarah Cook. Rethinking Curating: Art After New Media. Cambridge, MA, London, England: The MIT Press, 2010.
by Katerina Gkoutziouli
“Rethinking Curating. Art After New Media” by Beryl Graham and Sarah Cook has been a much-awaited book for those working in the field of new media and curating. In 2000, the authors launched CRUMB [Curatorial Resource for Upstart Media Bliss], an ongoing online resource and mailing list for curating new media art, which operates as a place for research, networking and discussions on the subject. This book is a consequence of all those years of research and work in the field by the authors, coupled with the input from the CRUMB community.
Acknowledging the fact that new media art is a contested term on its own, the authors make clear from the very beginning that they seek to define new media art as a ‘set of behaviours’. Thus, they prefer to call it “Art after New Media”. Besides, their primary focus is on the behaviours/characteristics of the artworks and then later on the various media used for production, distribution and presentation. By doing so, they address the possibilities of discussing new media art in the broadest context of contemporary art as seen through previous moments in art history and through a strong illustration and analysis of projects, exhibitions and practitioners’ views on the subject. As Steve Dietz puts it in the introduction “it's not a book about new media, it is a book about art; it’s not a book about curating new media, it's about rethinking curating” [p. xiv].
The first part of the book is concerned with putting new media art in context by illuminating its characteristics and by reviewing the convergence points between older and newer art forms and methods. To understand what new media art is and how it behaves, one first needs to relate it to a broad set of theories and histories that not only respond to an art context but also to technological histories and other cultural forms. This book is not about the debate between Turing Land vs Duchamp Land as Lev Manovich has put it, but it is about finding and looking at the correlations between these two lands.
The concept of ‘The Art Formerly Known as “New Media”’, challenges the very notion of the new, almost provocatively questioning curators who are seduced by the novelty and not by the context that the artwork seeks to generate. Can new media art be interpreted by its behaviors and be explored through computability, connectivity and interactivity?
Having these characteristics in mind, the authors seek to unfold the particularities of two main issues for art, namely space and time. They discuss the analogy between the dematerialization of the artwork in the 60s and 70s (something that was then framed under the terms “conceptual art” and “systems based art”) and the immateriality of today’s art within networks and virtual spaces. The art space itself has extended and so has curatorial practice. Which brings us to the question of what the role of the curator is in a distributed networking condition? And how have the variable manifestations of space redefined curatorial decisions? The authors set out to explore not only how significant the space is for art but also how art can be transmitted and communicated in different contexts. “When the work is immaterial – framed and understood only through participation in the system itself- then the network of its distribution is highlighted”. [p.60]
On the other hand, space and material, of course, do exist in new media but we can trace the differences, for example, between real-time projects, the immateriality of code and algorithm on a computer screen and virtual reality projects. It becomes apparent then that the challenge for curators remains in bridging the gap between virtual and physical spaces.
In new media art, it is difficult to differentiate between time and space, as both seem to converge in the behaviours of the media such as liveness, connectivity and computability. The distinction between “real-time”, “time-based” and “live” is useful in order to comprehend the concept of time. For example, the concept of real-time is different in video art from other forms of new media art. As the writers put it: “Real-time for video means instant feedback…while… real-time for computers concerns instantaneity of processing and manipulation of data” [p.97]. Curators need to constantly reinvent methods in order to respond to the needs of an artwork and correspond to the ways that the institution, the audience and the exhibition itself interpret time.
The authors move on to an investigation of participative systems taking into consideration the interactive, participative and collaborative behaviours of new media art and they ask the question “Who is involved in the systems, and how?” [p.111] An analysis of new media art projects, such as Rafael Lozano Hemmer’s “Body Movies, Relational Architecture No.6” (2001) and Harrell Fletcher’s and Miranda July’s “Learning to love you More” (2002-) leads the discussion to the varying dynamics triggered by the use of different media. Participation is a tricky behaviour, as it might be prompted by the art, the media used, the institution, the gallery, the curator and most importantly by the audience. However, there are still various factors at play that keep redefining the levels of participation, a fact that turns curatorial activity itself into a hybrid practice.
The second part of the book looks into the practice of curating in terms of contexts, practices and processes. Starting with an account of the different working realities of a curator, such as working in a museum, working on both a freelance basis, and as part of an institution, the authors consider the varying ‘responsibilities’ of a curator. The work of a curator usually aims at creating a structure or a process. However, especially when it comes to new media, curating can be identified as having several experimental modes and exhibition models, which the authors seek to unravel in the following chapters.
The analysis that they put forward highlights not only the theoretical aspects of curating but also challenges the ways that curators and institutions work. They look at how new media art is perceived in terms of interpretation by the institution and the audience when it comes to the method of display. Providing an extensive list of examples, ranging from online platforms such as Tate Media and exhibitions such as 010101 at SFMOMA (2001), the authors discuss the challenges of new media when it is archived and presented online as interpretation material and when it is accompanied by interpretive material in physical spaces. The ways that new media art enters the museum are examined, as it is often through educational departments. Questions regarding audience reception and interpretation of new media art are also explored relating to themes of curatorial practice, such as how you build an audience for such practices and who your audience is when it comes to curating in online spaces.
Looking at theoretical issues (such as how a curator’s decision might be influenced by the art museum) as well as at practical issues (such as the technology required for a new media exhibition along with marketing, sponsorship, archiving and collecting) the authors explore the ways that new media art behaves in such contexts. The call for curators to acquire a crossover approach on the subject in order to incorporate this type of work in a museum framework is increasingly becoming urgent.
For this reason, other modes of curating are explored in the book, such as the festival, publishing, the public space and the lab among others. With well-documented case studies such as New Media Scotland, the V2_ Lab, Rotterdam, and independent art projects like Kate Rich’s “Feral Trade”, the authors attempt to investigate the experiments and the boundaries between art, research and technology. These strategies lead to questions such as how different audiences perceive art and how the curator operates within hybrid art contexts.
Furthermore, collaboration cannot be absent when we talk about new media art and it is a subject discussed in relation to other ways of curating, outside of the institutional context. In this light, artist-run organizations and alternative spaces that focus on working methods of learning and sharing serve as examples to highlight the collective processes undertaken between artists, curators and audience. Exploring the interplay between roles that range from ‘the artist as curator’, ‘the audience as curator’ to ‘no curator at all’, the authors seek to address the particularities of new media art, including interconnectedness and networking, that allow for these experimental structures.
Given the fact that new media art tends to commonly be described or categorized by its medium, this book sheds new light on the various approaches a curator might take, as well as on the methodologies of historicizing and creating contexts for such work to be explored, analyzed and reviewed.
Ultimately, the best reason to read this book is because it puts new media art in context. It serves as an insightful compilation of projects, exhibitions, and theories on new media that might have otherwise gone uncontextualized. “Rethinking Curating” does not aim to serve as a media-specific book since new media art is an unstable field in constant evolution, but as a curatorial handbook that provides a comprehensive analysis of curatorial practice while creating a semantic bridge between older and newer art forms.