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by Dorothee Richter

Curating the Digital – A Historical Perspective

It is commonplace now that despite how incredibly young digital media in fact are, they have nevertheless upended all aspects of our daily life—all infrastructure, all ways of communication, all production processes. It is more than obvious that these profound changes and turmoil, with their material infrastructures, their image production, their ideological constructions, and their acceleration, have changed and influenced all ways of living, of being, and of being-with, from dating to voting to the exchange of goods and money. Literally everything is now influenced through the digital space, and what is more, processed through algorithms, which, of course, have racist, gender-specific, class-related, and national undercurrents. Just to cite one example: on dating platforms, people are suggested to each other based on a resemblance in income, “race”, and other issues, so these tools help to sustain classes, or even breeding specific classes, “races”, and so on. Here we are, still astonished, fighting for an awakening, as we try to grasp what all of this means, and we try to react, to comment, and to respond with our activist, artistic, and/or curatorial means.

When I started to write this text, I wanted to briefly present and discuss exhibitions that have dealt with digital media and therefore reflected and (re)presented outlooks on digital media and its connotation. These exhibitions function as nodes in the discourse on the digital and its contexts. During the writing process, I became more and more uneasy; did this kind of overview not claim to formulate an approved history of digital art? And did it not—and, of course, this did not come as a surprise—show a severely male-dominated area? In summarising the exhibitions and projects that one finds when researching digital art, one reproduces mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion. I recognised during my research that feminist approaches to digital media in particular are more or less neglected in the official history of digital media, existing instead in twilight zones, which are much harder to (un)cover.

So, when I tell here the his-story of exhibition-making concerned with the digital, I want you, dear reader, be aware of the hidden parts—they are there, but partly not available. Especially if one concentrates on the nodes in the discourse, the big exhibitions. Please keep this in mind.

Nevertheless, I want to briefly present and discuss exhibitions (and some artistic projects) that have dealt with digital media and have therefore reflected and (re)presented outlooks on digital media and its connotation.[1] I have tried to weave more neglected positions into this mainstream narrative, to make you aware that there is more behind the official reading. I will briefly mention, as most literature does, that at the beginning of the 1950s, a group of scientists and engineers working for the US Navy during WWII on code-breaking, a division known as the Communications Supplementary Activity - Washington (CSAW), founded ERA, the so-called Engineering Research Associates, who developed numerical computers and memory systems.[2] (This might also explain the absence of women in the early stages.) Another boost for the development of digital systems was a meeting of IBM users, which developed into the still existing platform SHARE Inc., a volunteer-run user group for IBM mainframe computers that was founded in 1955 by Los Angeles-area users of the IBM 701 computers.[3]

The bullet points of a public appearance in the arts are named by Mark Tribe and Jana Reena, such as the Computer Music Performance at MoMA in 1954 by founders of the Computer Music Center at the Columbia University, ASCII American Standard Code for Information Interchange in 1963, and the influential publication by Marshall McLuhan: Understanding Media.[4]

Around these special, representational, and widely acknowledged events (which I will describe in the following pages), many more artists experimented with electronic media, especially at the intersection of visual arts and music. As Dieter Daniels has researched, artists in the context of the Dortmunder Music days in particular integrated TV and the manipulation of TV early on in their work; the “first” one (if we want to follow this art-historical convention) was, as presented by Dieter Daniels, Nam June Paik.[5] Daniels “curated” the scientific platform of the ZKM, Centre for Art and Media Karlsruhe, whose archived remnants you can find under www.medienkunstnetz.de. This resource has not been developed further, but it is still valuable.[6]

TV, as a mass medium that influences big crowds, became part of daily life in the US and in Europe in the ‘40s and ‘50s, respectively. Daniels pointed out under the subtitle, “A medium without art”: “Television is the most efficient reproduction and distribution medium in human history, but it can scarcely be said to have come up with anything in the last half century that could be called an art form unique to that medium. The high-low distinction never took hold here in the way that it did in film. There is no form of high television culture that could be seen as a lasting cultural asset to be preserved for future generations. The only exception is the music clip, which has emerged since the 1980s. Selected examples of this form have attracted accolades in the context of art and become part of museum collections.”[7]

As Daniels explains, in Europe and in the US, radio and television developed differently; in the US, the commercial stations funded by advertising held the field, but in Europe for a long time the state was in charge of the programming, implying lofty cultural aims as well as political influence. Political parties and groups were involved in the decision-making for the programming. “In the USA, the average family in the 1960s was already watching about five hours of television per day. There was also a choice of over ten channels according to region. They broadcast round the clock, increasingly in colour from 1957. Until 1963, viewers in Germany were offered only one black-and-white channel, in the evenings only. Even so, it can be assumed that from 1965, with currently ten million television sets and statistically 2.5 viewers each,‘television is already reaching the whole German nation.”[8] Early critics of TV as a mass medium and as cultural industry were, of course, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, after having emigrated to the US and then returning to Germany as faculty members of the so-called Frankfurter School. According to Adorno and Horkheimer, cultural industry (or mass culture) creates a situation when culture becomes a commodity for the masses. The recipients degenerate into passive consumers, and the ideology conveyed by cultural presentations supports existing relations of domination.  Cultural-industrial products support existing gender relations, racist discrimination, class divisions, and nationalist ideas. In late capitalism, one would have to add neoliberal working conditions, which are made palatable to us through cultural industry.[9] Cultural industry has to be separated from critical cultural production, which might show/transfer truth; this truth would always embody an awareness of the conditions of production.

Today, one can read that Marshall McLuhan had already foreseen major changes with his dictum “The medium is the message”; one can only shudder when the introduction of the book reads: “Understanding Mediawas written twenty years before the PC revolution and thirty years before the rise of the Internet. Yet McLuhan's insights into our engagement with a variety of media led to a complete rethinking of our entire society. He believed that the message of electronic media foretold the end of humanity as it was known.”[10] But one is also reminded on the forceful answer by Paul Beynon-Davies, “Communication: The medium is not the message,”[11] or the article by Daniel Pinheiro, “The medium is NOT the message!” which actually accompanied an exhibition in Portugal in 2017.[12]

One could argue that digital media can be used for war and for medical purposes alike, or for showing something as truthful as possible or as misleading information to influence political decisions; therefore, it is on the one hand clear that the medium and the message are definitely not the same, and that the content, of course, matters enormously. McLuhan also did understand the media in a very broad sense, but nevertheless his dictum has a rather interesting side to it. When McLuhan tried to demonstrate that media affects society in an extreme way, hepointed to the light bulb as an example. A light bulb does not have content in the way that a newspaper has articles or a television has programs, yet it is a medium that has a social effect; that is, a light bulb enables people to create spaces during night time that would otherwise be hidden in darkness, or to work at times when this was before impossible. He describes the light bulb as a medium without any content. As a conclusion, he states that “A light bulb creates an environment by its mere presence.”[13] In my perspective, media changes the material base of a society (one can work and produce day and night, for example), but it does not say anything about in what way “race”, class, and gender are repositioned by this change.

Today, about 51% of the world’s population uses the Internet; in Germany, about 88%; in Spain, about 82%; in Switzerland, about 87%; the highest percentage is in Iceland, 100%; and, of course, countries where people fight for their basic needs have the lowest percentage, like, for example, Eritrea at 1,1%, or Burundi at 1,5%. [14] Even so, the access to digital media through cell phones has increased enormously, especially in the countries in which only few households have access to WLAN.

Bernard Stiegler proclaims that digital media has caused a global hallucination. What has been proven essential is Bernard Stiegler’s argument that the influence of our constant connectedness with digital devices and digital spaces has profoundly changed the formation of our subjectivity and communities, and that in 2020, when this article was written, it is obvious that the bourgeois subject with a central perspective and with the concept of autonomy as its foundation is not applicable on a one-to-one basis today.[15]

To repeat McLuhan’s vision: “The tendency of electric media is to create a kind of organic interdependence among all the institutions of society, emphasizing de Chardin’s view that the discovery of electromagnetism is to be regarded as ‘a prodigious biological event’.”[16] Indeed, it has a biological dimension in the way the production of everyday life and the production of subjectivity has changed.

New experiments with all sorts of media came up in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, if one thinks about the early experiments around the John Cage classes. One such happening took place at Gallery Parnass, in which Nam June Paik and Charlotte Moorman showed their experiments with electronic devices and a cello.  As you clearly see, here they questioned notions of sexuality, high and low culture, sound, etc.[17] They worked together for some years, but as it happens, the more well-known partner of the duo became Nam June Paik. Charlotte Moorman was later even arrested in New York on charges of pornography for her performances.[18] The introduction of the first portable, easy-to-use camera was used by Nam June Paik in 1967. As it is said, Paik used it during the visit of the Pope, but, of course, not to film the Pope but to film scenes from everyday life happening in the meantime on the streets of NY. (The film as such is lost.)


Nam June Paik, Charlotte Moorman, 24 Stunden Happening, 1965

Nam June Paik, Charlotte Moorman, 24 Stunden Happening, 1965

Nam June Paik, Charlotte Moorman, 24 Stunden Happening, 1965


Carolee Schneemann, Fuses, 1965

Carolee Schneemann, Fuses, 1965


Part of this big group of experimental artists was also Carolee Schneemann. This picture shows shots from her film Fuses from 1965. Fusesis a self-shot silent film of collaged and painted sequences of lovemaking between Schneemann and her then partner, composer James Tenney, observed by the cat, Kitch. Like so many female artists of her time, she used new technologies to question the relationship between private space and public space, thereby criticising gender relations and normative behaviour. Even if the big events got more attention, the film and then video provided also a new playground (and battleground for that matter) for testing roles and patterns.

– 1965 Paik, Nam June; Moorman, Charlotte, “24 Stunden Happening”
– 1965 Carolee Schneemann, Fuses
– 1966 E.A.T. Experiments in Art and Technology
– 1967 First transportable video camera by Sony, PortaPak
– 1968 Cybernetic Serendipity ICA London
– 1970 Software at Jewish Museum NY
– 1971 Floppy disk by IBM
– 1972 Atari video game company

One of the major shows about electronic and digital devices and performances was conceived in 1966, initiated by Robert Rauschenberg and Billy Klüver, and it was held at the 69thRegiment Armory: “9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering”.

The participants consisted of ten artists and some thirty engineers to create a blend of avant-garde theatre, dance, and new technologies. “9 Evenings” was the first large-scale collaboration between artists and engineers and scientists. The two groups worked together for ten months to develop technical equipment and systems that were used as an integral part of the artists’ performances.

And medienkunstnetzdescribes the events as follows: “The main technical element of the performances was the electronic modulation system TEEM, composed of portable, electronic units which functioned without cables by remote control. Cage used this system to activate and deactivate loud speakers that consistently reacted to movement by way of photo-cells. For not always being technically and artistically successful, these performances exhausted for the first time the full range of the live-aspect of electronics, taking advantage of its artistic potential in all of its diversity. Seen in that light, the ‘9 Evenings’ rank among the milestones of media art, even though today only a few filmed documents bear witness to the event.”

Medienkunstnetz mentions the following artists: John Cage, Lucinda Childs, Öyvind Fahlström, Alex Hay, Deborah Hay, Steve Paxton, Yvonne Rainer, Robert Rauschenberg, David Tudor, and Robert Whitman.[19]

Wikipedia also mentions Merce Cunningham. And with further readings of descriptions and reports, one stumbles above other names. Notable engineers involved include: Bela Julesz, Billy Klüver, Max Mathews, John Pierce, Manfred Schroeder, and Fred Waldhauer.[20]

Closed-circuit television and television projection were used, a fiber-optic camera picked up objects in a performer's pocket; an infrared television camera captured action in total darkness; a Doppler sonar device translated movement into sound; and portable wireless transmitters and amplifiers transmitted speech and body sounds to Armory loudspeakers. It is said that the art community in New York became involved in helping with “9 Evenings”, as fellow artists, dancers, musicians, and performers volunteered their time for setting up and troubleshooting, and then appeared in the performances. A high-powered, but slightly distorted publicity campaign resulted in more than 1,500 people each night attending the performances, many of them astonished by the avant-garde performances they saw. It is clear that this event also demonstrated a great enthusiastic reaction to all possibilities of digital media. The underlying creativity concept combines a strong belief in technology with geniality. The figure of the male white artist is enhanced with that of the almost all-powerful engineer. The visitors were involved because they were moving in the middle of the action, the framing of a traditional exhibition with immobilized objects and controlled visitor-subjects was surpassed by this project, one could argue. This exhibition tried to reflect the major changes in society that started at that time, in the ‘70s, and involved all parts of daily life and all forms of culture. As Felix Stalder has put it: “It is more than half a century since Marshall McLuhan announced the end of the Modern era, a cultural epoch that he called the Gutenberg Galaxy in honor of the print medium by which it was so influenced. What was once just an abstract speculation of media theory, however, now describes the concrete reality of our everyday life. What’s more, we have moved well past McLuhan’s diagnosis: the erosion of old cultural forms, institutions, and certainties is not something we affirm but new ones have already formed whose contours are easy to identify not only in niche sectors but in the mainstream. [...] This enormous proliferation of cultural possibilities is an expression of what I will refer to below as the digital condition.”[21] In this sense, the exhibitions and projects represent a rupture in the understanding of the human as the body in the hegemonic space of art as a part of an electronic environment, an involuntary participant, and the digital space could be seen as something interacting with the human body, where it became difficult to decide what became the cause and what the effect.


Robert Whitman, Two Holes of Water, 1966 | Photography Robert Whitman,  at “9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering”


Robert Whitman, Two Holes of Water, 1966 | Photography Robert Whitman, at “9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering”


Robert Whitman, Two Holes of Water, 1966 | Photography Robert Whitman, at “9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering”


Robert Whitman, Two Holes of Water, 1966 | Photography Robert Whitman, at “9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering”

Robert Whitman, Two Holes of Water, 1966 | Photography Robert Whitman, at 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering

The next appearance of E.A.T. – Experiments in Art and Technology (Billy Klüver and Robert Rauschenberg), launched after having collaborated on many previous projects, was a major exhibition in a museum: the 1968 Some More Beginningsat the Brooklyn Museum presented a large number of innovative technical, electronic, and other media projects, but looked quite tame in the photos, with wooden floors and white walls. The ferocity and unfamiliarity of an old army hall was tamed by using the framework of bourgeois museum.

In 1968, Cybernetic Serendipityat the ICA London was curated by Jasia Reichardt [22], and I quote here from the press release: “Cybernetics—derives from the Greek ‘kybernetes’ meaning ‘steersman’; our word ‘governor’ comes from the Latin version of the same word. [...]

A cybernetic device responds to stimulus from outside and in turn affects external environment, like a thermostat which responds to the coldness of a room by switching on the heating and thereby altering the temperature. This process is called feedback. Exhibits in the show are either produced with a cybernetic device (computer) or are cybernetic devices in themselves. They react to something in the environment, either human or machine, and in response produce either sound, light or movement.”


Cybernetic Serendipity at the ICA London, 1968


Cybernetic Serendipity at the ICA London, 1968

Cybernetic Serendipity at the ICA London, 1968


There is still a website where you can see some of the works, and unlike the presentation in the short films on the net, where you get the feeling of playfulness and being immersed, the images of the exhibition present a surprisingly conventional exhibition design. This gesture of nobilitation started a new phase in the exhibition history of new media, as it clearly tried to reconcile the displays that were used in modernity with the somehow strange and dangerous immersive moment of the new formats provided by new media. When a new genre or medium is introduced into the canon, it is a customary gesture to present the new medium in the same manner high art was presented before to claim it as high art as well. The list of artists is exclusively male (as far as I see), and again, the short announcement of the curator is rather enthusiastic about this new world of technology. The ideological narrative equates enthusiastically human entities with machines. The problem with this kind of narrative is that is blurs where the possibility to act is located. The exhibition design that positions items in the same way as paintings usually are transmits the pretension of increasing the value and status of new media art and therefore the digital sphere.

From the ‘70s onwards, one could exemplarily understand that the critical usage of digital media was happening not at representational exhibitions and projects, but in content-driven circles. Not for Sale: Feminism and Art in the USA during the 1970sis a film essay by Laura Cottingham that is based on material found in feminist archives and shows how much the feminist movement was invested in video for recording and re-viewing as a tool of consciousness-raising practices and of subverting and re-formulating behaviour patterns. These films circulated in women’s groups with decidedly feminist agendas, and since some artists were acknowledged in the official art world, Cottingham shows that the experimental formats and critical content were based on shared, multi-authored experimental feminist meetings. In Cottingham’s own words:

The participants in the Feminist Art Movement arrived from different artistic and educational backgrounds. Some wanted to transform traditional European-derivative media, such as painting and sculpture, with feminist awareness; others, most notably the African American artists, sought to introduce non-European aesthetics and values into the American visual vocabulary. Still others eschewed object-making altogether in favor of performative strategies, championed video as the new frontier of artistic democracy, called for an elimination of the division between craft and fine art, united the aims of artistic freedom with those of political activism, or set forth an aesthetics based in an understanding of introducing female experience and female-coded labor, the female body, women's history, and individual autobiography as the foundations for a feminist art. Although the parameters of the Feminist Art Movement can be charted according to specific historical determinants such as exhibitions, meetings, individual productions, letters, publications and other documents, the Movement was first and foremost far from a unified front. The disagreements between its participants—some of which are overtly presented in Not For Sale, while others must be inferred by the viewer--are as crucial to its definition as the consensus that inspired and sustained it across ideological ruptures, personal frustrations, and a general lack of access to significant economic or institutional resources. Participants in the Feminist Art Movement of the 1970s were motivated to transform the underlying tenants of fine art—including the production, critical evaluation, exhibition, distribution, and historical maintenance of art—beyond terms dictated by sexism. The challenge they offered has yet to be met.[23]


E.A.T, Pepsi Pavillion, Expo Osaka, 1970


E.A.T, Pepsi Pavillion, Expo Osaka, 1970


E.A.T, Pepsi Pavillion, Expo Osaka, 1970

E.A.T, Pepsi Pavillion, Expo Osaka, 1970


On the side of mass-oriented media events, the pavilion at the Expo in Osaka was another attention-drawing activity by E.A.T. in 1970. As Randall Packer enthusiastically describes: “The ‘Pepsi Pavilion’ was first an experiment in collaboration and interaction between the artists and the engineers, exploring systems of feedback between aesthetic and technical choices, and the humanization of technological systems.”  The Pavilion‘s interior dome—immersing viewers in three-dimensional real images generated by mirror reflections, as well as spatialized electronic music—invited the spectator to individually and collectively participate in the experience rather than view the work as a fixed narrative of pre-programmed events: “The Pavilion gave visitors the liberty of shaping their own reality from the materials, processes, and structures set in motion by its creators.”[24]

Subjects are immersed in an environment, losing clear distinctions of space, sound, and time. The effect is a hallucinatory moment. The gaze regime changes here obviously from the central perspective to a hallucinatory scopic regime.[25] The subject is displaced from the position of the controlling overview and is now caught in confusing images and sounds. One can see it as a melancholy anticipation that this immersion was taking place under the auspices of a large-scale gigantic advertisement. “The spherical mirror in the Pepsi Pavilion, showing the real image of the floor and the visitors hanging upside down in space over their heads. This optical effect resembles that of a hologram. Because of the size of the mirror, a spectator looking at the real image of a person could walk around that image and see it from all sides. The effect was spectacular.”[26]

– 1970s Feminist movements in the US experimented with video
– 1974 Nam June Paik coins the notion “Information Superhighway”
– 1977 Apple II and Tandy TRS 80
– 1979 First Ars Electronic in Linz, Austria
– 1981 MS-DOS
– 1983 MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) presented at fair for North American Music Manufacturers
– 1984 The notion of “Cyberspace” was coined in a novel by William Gibson
– 1985 “A Cyborg Manifesto” by Donna Haraway

In 1974, Nam June Paik coined the notion of “Information Superhighway”. As technology rapidly moved towards personal computers, the desire to name these new phenomena grew. One can imagine the speed at which the technical side developed when one sees the old machinery at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View in Silicon Valley.

In 1979, the first Ars Electronica was held in Linz. This festival went far beyond mere representation; aesthetic and social aspects of the new technology were discussed in workshops and talks. Digital space specialists, artists, curators, and scientists took advantage of this exchange platform, which remains an important venue for the gathering to this day with 100,000 festival visitors. As you see in this amusing image, it hosts also an extensive archive of talks and workshops.[27] So, the festival seemed to be the more appropriate format for the new technology.

And while techniques of electronic music and synthesisers (as they were then called) were developed and changed the music business profoundly in the long run, the brave new world was reflected in literature as well. William Gibson invented the notions of Cyberspace, Matrix, Cyberpunk, and the World Wide Web, and he also uncannily anticipated a dark, rather brutal future of the USA, held together by corporate conglomerates, oligarchs, the military, the drug trade, and computer games.[28]

Donna Haraway emphasised more positive aspects of digital and electronic devices when she published "A Cyborg Manifesto" in 1985. In her writing, the concept of the cyborg is a rejection of rigid boundaries, notably those separating of “human” from “animal” and “human” from “machine”. She writes as follows: “The cyborg does not dream of community on the model of the organic family, this time without the oedipal project. The cyborg would not recognize the Garden of Eden; it is not made of mud and cannot dream of returning to dust.”[29] The Manifestoopened new ways to criticise and rethink traditional notions of gender, and rejected any form of fixed identity, or binary constellation; it proposed instead coalition through affinity. Haraway uses the metaphor of a cyborg to urge feminists to move beyond the limitations of gender, and politics; the "Manifesto" is considered an extremely important contribution to the discussion of feminist posthumanist theory.[30] These movements spread and grew in quasi-underground circles, coming to the surface in publications, existing in email lists, series of semi-public meetings, and discussion groups.


Les Immatériaux, Centre Pompidou, Paris, 1985


Les Immatériaux, Centre Pompidou, Paris, 1985


Les Immatériaux, Centre Pompidou, Paris, 1985


Les Immatériaux, Centre Pompidou, Paris, 1985


Les Immatériaux, Centre Pompidou, Paris, 1985


Les Immatériaux, Centre Pompidou, Paris, 1985


Les Immatériaux, Centre Pompidou, Paris, 1985


Les Immatériaux, Centre Pompidou, Paris, 1985

Les Immatériaux, Centre Pompidou, Paris, 1985


In 1985, Jean-François Lyotard curated, with Thierry Chaput, the exhibition Les Immatériauxat the Centre Pompidou, Paris. He worked with a medium that was basically unknown to him, but he used this strangeness to question philosophy as an activity at the same time. “Can we philosophize in the direction of the general public without betraying thought? And try to reach this public knowing they are not philosophers, but supposing that they are sensitive to the same questions that philosophers are also attempting to formulate."[31]

The idea for the exhibition design was that the exhibition in its display should resemble philosophy as a complex way of thinking. In the following, I refer to Antonia Wunderlich’s publication: “Der Philosoph als Kurator” (The Philosopher as Curator).

Wunderlich describes Les Immatériauxas a major event in French cultural life: it occupied the entire fifth floor of the museum (3,000 square metres), took two years to plan, and was the most expensive exhibition staged by the Pompidou up until that time. Visitors to the galleries were required to wear headphones that picked up different radio frequencies as they navigated a labyrinthine maze of grey metal mesh screens, such that each visual display was paired with an audio text, from Antonin Artaud and Frank Kafka to Paul Virilio, advertising jingles, and noise. Following her intensive research, the space was loosely divided into five possible paths or zones (subdivided into no less than sixty-one sites). Concluding from the complex floor plan, visitors could not possibly get an overview, they had to find their way through a labyrinth with dead ends and variations.

A total of 61 stations were structured by 30 infrared transmission zones for a headphone program and five paths running through the entire space, so that the entire exhibition consisted of several interwoven semantic bundles. Those who allowed themselves to be discouraged by this complexity—and this indeed happened to many visitors, as the entries in the guest book and a large number of critical reviews show—left the Centre Pompidou disappointed or annoyed. In Wunderlich’s understanding, it was precisely the immense physical, sensual, and intellectual challenge that lay in this complexity that was a central moment in Lyotard's conception. By means of a kind of constructive overload, he wanted to convey to the visitors an impression of their near future in a digitalized, de- and immaterialized world. As Wunderlich surmises, Les Immatériauxwas intended to make it perceptible that everyday life would change radically and showed this in such disparate themes as nutrition and aromas, fashion and gender, architecture and photography, or the stock market and the automobile industry. From our contemporary point of view, this proved to be true; all spheres of live have been profoundly affected and changed in the meantime. Felix Stalder has pointed out three major trajectories in this cultural and societal change: referentiality, communality, and algorithmicity.[32] We will come back to this later.

Lyotard diagnosed this experience in an album that functioned as one of the three parts of the catalogue as a model for the future: "The visitor strolls around in a rhizome in which no thread of knowledge appears, but generalized interactions, deposition processes in which man is nothing more than an interface knot."[33]

In this new model, the basic idea is therefore that philosophy should be taken into consideration, as important paradigms of modernity have to be given up, for example, the sovereign subject as author. One could connect this concept with the referentiality that is discussed by Stalder. One of the profound changes through digital media is referentiality, everything turns into something one could quote, the difference between the original has vanished. Consequently, Lyotard developed together with the exhibition architect media clusters in space with as much complexity as possible, created through the multitude of images and viewpoints and the semi-transparent division of spaces. Important for the exhibition design was the idea of a semantic openness.[34]

Andrea Wunderlich comes to the conclusion that in Les Immatériaux, Lyotard overlooked an important aspect of this mastery didactic: dialogue. For only the dialogue enables the master to adapt to the pupil as well as the pupil, to reassure himself and to protect himself from a complexity that oppresses him. By confronting the visitors of Les Immatériauxwith the greatest possible complexity, Lyotard denied them the medial form of conversation, and through the headphones even made conversations between themselves impossible. In this way, she argues, Les Immatériauxbecame rather hermetic. Another reading of the setting and display would be that, in fact, Lyotard, with this authoritarian gesture, showed the effect of the Internet, a device that ties you in an affective entanglement but in the same time condemns its subject to a specific form of isolation.

Not directly connected to digital media, but as a theoretical exploration that is based indirectly in the possibility the net provides, Judith Butler published Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identityin 1990. Like other feminists, such as Sigrid Schade and Silke Wenk, she discussed gender through a Lacanian perspective. In this view, gender is something that is implemented in the construction of subjectivity via language (the semiotic register). The development of the subjectivity is moreover founded in an imaginary wholeness, in the mirror stage. Especially gender is reaffirmed through a constant re-performance. This theoretical understanding also opened up a counterhegemonic re-reading and re-performing of gender. The now thinkable possibility to change binary gender codes, to invent or rediscover gender in multiplied digital versions of the self and new possibilities through medicine allowed that major change.

– 1990 Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity
– 1991 Donna Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature
– 1991 Judy Wajcman, Feminism Confronts Technology
– 1991 VNS Matrix, A Cyberfeminist Manifesto for the 21st Century = the clitoris is the direct line to the matrix
– 1994 Old Boys Network


Hybrid WorkSpace at documenta X, 1997


Hybrid WorkSpace at documenta X, 1997

Hybrid WorkSpace at documenta X, 1997

As has often been noted that documenta X, curated by Catherine David, represented on many levels a breach with the past, which I would like to characterise briefly, while the different levels deserve a lengthier and more detailed comparative analysis.[35] The changed interpretation of what is to be understood by contemporary art was noticeable at the very entrance to the documenta-Halle. Peter Friedl set his stamp on this documenta, declaring the hall, in neon letters, to be a CINEMA. This in itself indicates that the status of the “exhibition” had become uncertain, as had the status of the visitors as subjects.

On the level of the display, the emphasis was no longer entirely on individual pictorial works: instead, the visitor was enveloped in whole “environments”. So, the status of the work was no longer that of a classic, autonomous work of art: it might, for example, be a landscape created out of photo wallpaper, with the appearance of having been digitally produced, by Peter Kogler. This, too, situates the visitors: it appeals to them as subjects operating in the digital age, being in matrix, so to speak.

In the central area of the documenta-Halle, the curator dispensed with works of art altogether and set up a bookshop designed by Vito Acconci and a discussion area designed by Franz West. By doing this, she positioned art as part of a social and political discourse that included cultural and art studies. Overall, this pointedly demonstrated the nature of contemporary art as a complex discourse made up of a variety of subject matters, concepts, commentaries, and political contexts.

It is notable that Catherine David appointed Simon Lamunière as curator of the website and facilitated the creation of a Hybrid WorkSpace. The Hybrid WorkSpacewas above all a largely uncontrolled space, which is hard to imagine when you think of previous and subsequent battles over access to the documenta exhibition space.[36] The Hybrid WorkSpacewas initiated by Catherine David, Klaus Biesenbach, Hans Ulrich Obrist, and Nancy Spector, but organised and curated in a way by an entire group: Eike Becker, Geert Lovink/Pit Schultz, Micz Flor, Thorsten Schilling, Heike Foell, Thomax Kaulmann, Moniteurs; the group was given the use of a five-room apartment where they could invite guests, plus a permanent space at documenta, with the possibility to make radio broadcasts, communicate with the outside world, and establish contacts with web initiatives and make them accessible.

It was “the summer of content”, as one of the organisers mentioned in an interview. The furniture was moveable, and workshops and discussions happened, and visitors could encounter the materiality of the digital works. This marks the moment when the digital condition became an ongoing topic in contemporary exhibitions, and the networks, mailing lists, and other formations became visible for one moment in a representational context. In 1991, the Australian group VNS Matrix (VNS Matrix (Josephine Starrs, Julianne Pierce, Francesca da Rimini, and Virginia Barratt) formulated  a provocative manifesto: “The clitoris is the direct line to the matrix, and in Europe, Old Boys Network, a group of feminist cultural producers, organised the first of a ‘Cyberfeminist International’ series at the Hybrid Workspace of documenta.[37] Julianne Pierce is the connecting link between the two groups. One of the founders of Old Boys Network, Cornelia Sollfrank, has recently published Beautiful Warriors: Techno-Feminist Practice in the 21stCentury.[38]


VNS Matrix, A Cyberfeminist Manifesto for the 21st Century, 1991

VNS Matrix, A Cyberfeminist Manifesto for the 21st Century, 1991

Since documenta X, new centres for art and media have been established. These venues and festivals present and produce digital media projects and fuel the discussion around the influences this radical change in infrastructure has had on our living conditions.

– Barbican Centre, performing arts centre in London (founded in 1982)
– ZKM Zentrum für Kunst und Medien Karlsruhe (founded in 1989) http://zkm.de/themen
– Ars Electronic in Linz ( Ars Electronica Center founded in 1996) http://www.aec.at/news/
– FACT Liverpool (founded in 2003) https://www.fact.co.uk/
– HeK Basel (founded in 2011) https://www.hek.ch/

As mentioned in the beginning, Bernard Stiegler’s argument has been proven essential; the influence of our constant connectedness with digital devices and digital spaces has profoundly changed the formation of our subjectivity and of communities, that in 2020, when this article is written, it is obvious, that the bourgeois subject of central perspective, with the concept of autonomy as its foundation, is not applicable today. Felix Stalder reflects critically on the current situation: “Apparently many people consider it normal to be excluded from decisions that affect broad and significant areas of their life. The post-democracy of social mass media, which has deeply permeated the constitution of everyday life and the constitution of subjects, is underpinned by the ever-advancing post-democracy of politics. It changes the expectations that citizens have for democratic institutions, and it makes their increasing erosion seem expected and normal to broad strata of society.”[39] Insofar as algorithmicity is one of the three characteristics of the digital, it is observing and guiding civil society in a profound and deeply problematic way.

William Gibson’s statement, “The future is already here—it's just not evenly distributed,”[40] becomes true, when Trump supporter and Silicon Valley millionaire Peter Thiel tries to prolong his life through blood exchange with younger individuals.

Nevertheless, Stalder foresees other possible developments through communal formations.[41] What he proposes is a reclaiming of the communal ways of a shared economy, which includes non-hierarchical decision-making and acting beyond market values. However, Stalder points out the precarity of these future possibilities:

For now, the digital condition has given rise to two highly divergent political tendencies. The tendency toward ‘post-democracy’ is essentially leading to an authoritarian society. Although this society may admittedly contain a high degree of cultural diversity, and although its citizens are able to (or have to) lead their lives in a self-responsible manner, they are no longer able to exert any influence over the political and economic structures in which their lives are unfolding. On the basis of data-intensive and comprehensive surveillance, these structures are instead shaped disproportionally by an influential few. The resulting imbalance of power had been growing steadily, as has income inequality. In contrast to this, the tendency toward commons is leading to a renewal of democracy, based on institutions that exist outside of the market and the state. At its core of this movement involves a new combination of economic, social and (ever-more pressing)) ecological dimensions of everyday life on the basis of data-intensive participatory processes.[42]

In the arts, these conditions are met with different practices, for example, those of Trevor Paglen. He is currently exploring the material side of digital media: the big cables that cross oceans and satellites that function as surveillance apparatuses. What he wants from art is to see the historical moment in which we are living. He is pointing out how digital media can be used as weapon in cold wars, and he has found out about secret units of the American military. As he shows the hidden (by the military), extremely substantial materiality of the digital, he also shows the power struggles between states, companies, and economic powers. In his presentations, which can be all followed through his website, he also shows the maps of these enormous cables under the sea. So, he is proposing a counterhegemonic strategy to the unseen mapping of the world via data. Rudolf Frieling has pointed out the connection between mapping and power: “From the outset, maps have surveyed and inscribed territories in order to take possession of them, to occupy and colonize them. So historically speaking a map was not just a cognitive instrument but primarily an instrument in the competition for economic advantage and power.”[43]








Other artists use infrastructures and skills in a nearly curatorial way, such as Miranda July and Harrell Fletcher (Yuri Ono designed and managed the website), with Learning to Love You More. They used scores and the unlimited possibility to take part in a shared project to propagate a more communal understanding of culture. “From 2002 to its close in 2009, over 8,000 people participated in the project.”[44] Of course, this does not replace political movements towards the commons, but these projects help to establish the idea of shared experiences, shared interests, a shared cultural space, and shared politics across nations. One of our own curatorial projects also opens up to participating and including new audiences and new ideas; see Small Projects for Coming Communities.[45] Even if these kind of projects are relatively small and do not at the moment play a role in a political struggle, they might help to lay a foundation for understanding new forms of communality, where the visual and the political will become close. These kind of more complex structures or research projects on the commons like “Creating Commons”[46] might provide a background to political struggles under the motto of FridaysForFuture[47] or Extinction Rebellion.[48]

Dorothee Richter is Professor in Contemporary Curating at the University of Reading, UK, and head of the Postgraduate Programme in Curating, CAS/ MAS Curating at the Zurich University of the Arts, Switzerland; She is director of the PhD in Practice in Curating Programme, a cooperation of the Zurich University of the Arts and the University of Reading. Richter has worked extensively as a curator: she was initiator of Curating Degree Zero Archive, Curator of Kuenstlerhaus Bremen, at which she curated different symposia on feminist issues in contemporary arts and an archive on feminist practices, Materialien/Materials; recently she directed, together with Ronald Kolb, a film on Fluxus: Flux Us Now, Fluxus Explored with a Camera.


[1] I have relied on some important sources that I would like to generally acknowledge: Mark Tribe and Reena Jana, eds., “Art in the Age of Digital Distribution,” in New Media Art (London: Taschen, 2006), 6–25; Oliver Grau, “New Media Art - Art History,” Oxford Bibliographies (2016), accessed 13 February 2020, https://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780199920105/obo-9780199920105-0082.xml.
http://www.medienkunstnetz.de/ %20/ZKM)

[2] Tribe and Jana, eds., “Art in the Age of Digital Distribution,” 6–25.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media (Oxon: Routledge, 1964).

[5] Dieter Daniels, “Television—Art or Anti-art? Conflict and cooperation between the avant-garde and the mass media in the 1960s and 1970s,” accessed 21 May 2018, http://www.medienkunstnetz.de/themes/overview_of_media_art/massmedia/.

[6] Daniels practically manages to write this article without naming any female artists.

[7] Daniels, “Television—Art or Anti-art?”  

[8] Ibid.

[9] Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, “Kulturindustrie. Aufklärung als Massenbetrug,” in Dialektik der Aufklärung (New York: Social Studies Association, 1944).

[10] See https://www.amazon.de/Understanding-Media-Routledge-Classics-Paperback/dp/0415253977/ref=sr_1_5?ie=UTF8&qid=1525189968&sr=8-5&keywords=marshall+mcluhan, accessed 1 May 2018.

[11] Paul Beynon-Davies, Communication, the medium is not the message, in Significance, Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2011, p.58-76. The abstract of the paper states the following: “In the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan famously coined the phrase, the medium is the message (McLuhan, 1994). By this he meant that communication media rather than the content of messages conveyed should be the focus of study. This influential statement has acquired something of the status of an aphorism: a universal statement of truth. But in our terms it makes a fundamental mistake: that of treating knowledge of communication media as equivalent to a complete understanding of communication. This chapter begins the process of explaining why communication is much more than media or channels of communication.”

[12] Daniel Pinheiro, The medium is NOT the message, 2017, see https://www.academia.edu/35264801/The_Medium_is_NOT_the_Message_Daniel_Pinheiro_2017_?auto=download, “This text was presented in the context of the exhibition  The Medium is Not the Message (Maus Hábitos, Porto, Portugal); The exhibition took place between 18 November and 10 December 2017. […] Curated by José Alberto Gomes and André Covas.”

[13] McLuhan, Understanding Media.

[14] See http://www.internetlivestats.com/internet-users-by-country/, accessed 1 November 2018.

[15] Bernard Stiegler, Von der Biopolitik zur Psychomacht (Frankfurt a.M.: Logik der Sorge 1.2., 2009).

[16] McLuhan, Understanding Media, 269.

[17] Charlotte Moorman and Nam June Paik, “24-hour Happening,” Galerie Parnasse, See http://www.medienkunstnetz.de/works/24-h-happening/. “Charlotte Moorman and ‘Robot K-456’ accompany Nam June Paik on a European tour. Both perform Paik's musical pieces (albeit in somewhat different ways), but their contribution to the ‘24-hour Happening’ is a joint effort. Charlotte Moorman plays the cello in her famous see-through plastic dress, occasionally diving into a barrel of water and then continuing, dripping wet, to play her instrument, or rides around on Paik's back. According to Paik, however, there were interruptions due to human frailties: ‘Charlotte and I wanted to play a piece by John Cage, but shortly before we were due to begin, Charlotte fell into a sleep from which she was reluctant to awake, no matter how much I shouted and shook her. At my wit's end, I pretended to sleep while playing La Monte Young's piano pieces. Charlotte woke up at 2 in the morning, and they tell me she delivered a wonderful performance.’”

[18] Nam June Paik, “As Boring As Possible.” See http://www.medienkunstnetz.de/works/so-langweilig/.
“Paik and Moorman staged a number of joint performances in the course of a European tour in 1965-1966. No objections were voiced in Europe to the best-known of these pieces, Paik’s 'Opera sextronique' in which Moorman discarded an item of clothing after each movement. In New York, however, it led to the arrest and subsequent trial of both artists in 1967.”

[19] “9 Evenings.” See http://www.medienkunstnetz.de.

[20] See  http://cyberneticserendipity.net/.

[21] Felix Stalder, The Digital Condition (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2018), 2-3.

[22] Cybernetic Serendipity, ICA London, 2 August to 20 October 1968.

[23] Laura Cottingham, Not For Sale: Feminism and Art in the USA during the 1970s, a video essay, 1998, cited from Apex Art, accessed 1 June 2019, https://apexart.org/exhibitions/cottingham.php.

[24] Randall Packer, “The Pepsi Pavilion: Laboratory for Social Experimentation,” in Future Cinema: The Cinematic Imaginary after Film, eds. Jeffrey Shaw and Peter Weibel, (London and Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2003), 145, cited from http://www.mediaartnet.org/works/pepsi-pavillon/images/15/, accessed 1 November 2018.

[25] Martin Jay, “ scopic regimes of modernity, in Hal Forster, Vision and Visuality, 1999

[26] See http://www.mediaartnet.org/works/pepsi-pavillon/images/15/, accessed 1 November 2018.

[27] ARS ELECTRONICA ARCHIVE – PICTURES, http://archive.aec.at/pic/, accessed 1 November 2018. The Pic Archive contains an extensive collection of pictures of Festival, Prix, Center, Futurelab and Export. A selected collection can also be found on Flickr (Ars Electronica Stream). Older pictures are from a now obsolete version of a custom-made image filing system that has been migrated to the new structure.

[28] See the interview by Jochen Wegner with William Gibson, “Ich hoffe, wir sind nicht in negative Utopien gefangen,” Zeit Magazin, 12 January 2017, https://www.zeit.de/zeit-magazin/leben/2017-01/william-gibson-science-fiction-neuromancer-cyberspace-futurist/komplettansicht.

[29] See Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Cyborg_Manifesto, accessed 1 November 2018.

[30] Ibid.

[31] "Les Immatériaux: Un entretien avec Jean-François Lyotard,” CNAC Magazine 26 (March 1985), 16. Translation by Stephanie Carwin.

[32] Stalder, The Digital Condition.

[33] Lyotard, catalogue accompanying Les Immatériaux, see Alexandra Wunderlich, “Les Immatériaux von Jean-François Lyotard. Der Philosoph als Kurator,”

[34] McDowell, “Les Immatériaux.”

[35] For a most interesting discussion of documenta X, documenta11, and documenta 12, see Oliver Marchart, Hegemonie im Kunstfeld, Die documenta-Ausstellungen dX, D11, d12 und die Politik der Bienalisierung, ed. Mariuas Babias, n.b.k. (Cologne: Verlag der  Buchhandlung Walther König, 2008).

[36] See documenta X website: https://www.documenta.de/en/retrospective/documenta_x.

[37] See https://www.obn.org/obn_pro/fs_obn_pro.html.

[38] Cornelia Sollfrank, The Beautiful Warriors, Technofeminist Practice in the 21st Century (Brooklyn, NY: AUTONOMEDIA, 2019), brings together seven current technofeminist positions from art and activism. In very different ways, they expand the cyberfeminist approaches of the 1990s and thus react to new forms of discrimination and exploitation. Gender politics are negotiated with reference to technology, and questions of technology are combined with questions of ecology and economy. Those taking different positions around this new techno-ecofeminism see their practice as an invitation to continue their social and aesthetic interventions. Book contributions by Christina Grammatikopoulou, Isabel de Sena, Femke Snelting, Cornelia Sollfrank, Spideralex, Sophie Toupin, hvale vale, and Yvonne Volkart.

[39] Stalder, The Digital Condition, 146-147.

[40] William Gibson, quoted in The Economist, 4 December 2003.

[41] Stalder, The Digital Condition, 152 et seq.

[42] Ibid., 174.

[43] Rudolf Frieling, “Mapping and Text,” Editorial, http://www.medienkunstnetz.de/themes/mapping_and_text/ accessed 1 May 2019.

[44] See http://www.learningtoloveyoumore.com/.

[45] See https://www.comingcommunities.org/.

[46] See http://creatingcommons.zhdk.ch/.

[47] See https://fridaysforfuture.de/.

[48] See https://rebellion.earth/.

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