In my contribution, I want to focus on the specific challenges an institution has to deal with when curating and collecting media art. I will do this based on my experience as the director of HEK (House of Electronic Arts), Basel an institution with a specific focus on media arts. Based on examples of the institution’s three main trajectories—presenting, mediating and collecting digital art—I would like to show how we are addressing and shaping the public understanding of the social and political complexities of art and media technologies.
The often process-oriented nature of electronic and digital media poses numerous challenges to curatorial practice as well as to the institution itself—from the presentation, mediation, and collection to the preservation of the works. Strategies of presentation, collection, and preservation, which are tailored to a classic object—be it painting, sculpture, or installation—are often not suitable for dealing with media art. Distinct from traditional art forms, media artworks are essentially process-oriented, often immaterial (for example, only software), or networked systems. Digital culture consists of "practices, not objects." Despite the immateriality—especially network-based art—there are still many material components and technical hardware which must be taken into account when exhibiting, collecting, and preserving media art.
In our programming and collection activities, we focus on works that use digital technologies as tools for production and that take advantage of the digital medium's inherent characteristics. We showcase artworks that reflect the input of media technologies on our society, that describe our current condition in an age when digital processes are shaping our actions and inform our understanding of the world. Media art can take on numerous forms—from interactive installations to software, from virtual reality to locative media. It can be experienced in various forms of distribution—from displays within a museum, to displays on smartphones and tablets, or online.
HEK's activities focus on the presentation and mediation of digital culture and the new art forms of the Information Age. Founded in 2011, HEK soon began to assume the role of a nationally recognised centre for media art in Switzerland, covering the presentation, production, mediation, and collection of works in this field. After a transition phase in a temporary space, HEK moved into its current building in November 2014, which has been refurbished for the particular needs of the institution. We were fortunate to be involved during the whole construction phase and to be able to develop floor plans as well as the technical infrastructure together with the architects. This was quite important, since media art often requires a technical infrastructure that architects might not be aware of (including cabling, electricity, and network access points, location for the supply of technical equipment, etc.).
Media artworks often consist of a variety of different media and materials, the use of global networks or mobile media, which has had a fundamental impact on the role of the curator. The curator becomes a producer in the discussion with a diverse group of involved actors—from the artist and the programmer to the exhibition technicians and, of course, the audience. During the installation of an artwork, it is necessary to clarify the technical infrastructure and work-related presentation conditions. An exhibition often involves a reconfiguration of existing works, which might be adapted to a particular spatial situation—for example, presentation as a projection, on a flat screen, or on a kiosk computer. The size ratios might change, the equipment used can be different, and so on. Media competency and technical know-how are required, which is why an exhibition is hardly possible to maintain without constant technical support.
I would like to present several exhibitions that showcase these demands.
Rafael Lozano-Hemmer: Preabsence
In Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s show, Preabsence, at HEK in 2016, the involvement of the audience was key. The Mexican-Canadian artist employs technological systems in many of his installations, which are primarily used for monitoring and controlling. Cameras, tracking systems, and biometric measuring processes have transformed the public space into a monitored space where every step and every activity can be registered and stored. Lozano-Hemmer makes use of the same technology in his interactive and participatory works, but instead of monitoring and controlling, he offers the exhibition visitor an opportunity for social interaction. He develops playful and poetic installations in which the recordings and data generated by the visitors document their presence and participation in a social event.
I will discuss three works from the exhibition and explain the decision-making process that led to the final presentation in collaboration with Lozano-Hemmer.
The work 1984x1984 (2014) has so far only been shown on large flat screens. In the curatorial discussion with the artist, we opted for the work to be displayed as a projection. The work needed to be recalibrated exactly for the size of the wall in the HEK. Within the wall, a Kinect sensor had to be installed and hidden—this also contributed to the decision as to where the work could be placed. The importance of mentioning this is the influence the physical presentation and the effects of space have on how digital works are shared and experienced. When entering the room, an intuitive interaction took place. The colourful projection that consists of hundreds of numbers changes within the silhouette of the viewers and the otherwise random numbers of house numbers registered by Google Street View changed to a 1984 collection as a reference to George Orwell's pioneering book of the same name, which describes the end of privacy. In his installation, Lozano-Hemmer shows, in a very poetic way, how this is already the case today.
For Redundant Assembly (2016), we installed two glued footprints on the ground as the point where the visitor could interact with the work. The work used their face and that of other visitors from six camera perspectives at the same time. The result was a composite image of either one’s own portrait from six perspectives or a merged portrait of two people also seen from six perspectives simultaneously. The technology used for the two presented works consists of commercial hardware: the Kinect sensor, a projector, a flat panel display, two panels with inserted cameras, and specially programmed software. The hardware is interchangeable and is dependent on the current industry standards and the rapid change of the technological infrastructure. In that respect, media artworks are more context-dependent than other works of contemporary art.
The last example, the work Call on Water (2016), was created for this exhibition. It creates breathable poetry using an array of ultrasonic atomisers. An ultrasonic atomiser vaporises water into superfine steam. The poem “A Draft of Shadows” and other poems by Mexican poet Octavio Paz reflect on themes of water and its transformation into language. The poem’s content becomes tangible, as its words ascend from a pool in the form of water vapor. The words are seen briefly, then disappear. The work had only been tested in the studio; when it was installed at HEK, we faced several problems because of the different physical environment—different amperes in the power systems, different types of water (distilled instead of normal water), and many other issues. It was a joint process to find out what had changed and how to find a solution within the new technical environment for the perfect aesthetic presentation of the piece.
My Boyfriend Came Back From The War: Online Since 1996
An interesting example for the presentation of historical works of Net Art is the exhibition My Boyfriend Came Back From The War: Online Since 1996, which was centred on the seminal work of the same name by the Russian net artist Olia Lialina and included remixes and responses to the work over the last twenty years. My Boyfriend Came Back From The War is an example of the pioneering period of Net Art. Lialina is among the first artists to explore the Internet’s artistic possibilities. Her work broke new ground—both as Net Art and as an interactive narrative. It focuses on the story of two people who are trying to talk with each other about a war that has just ended. The work’s historical significance lies in the formal aspects of the use of hypertext in a new form of narration, where the online user clicks through the story and plays an active role. But another central aspect of the work’s effective power is in the universality of its story. And that is what has inspired artists for more than twenty years. Lialina has collected twenty-seven versions so far in what she calls the Last Real Net Art Museum, an online archive that has become a work in itself. The selection of thirteen works, which were shown at the HEK, reflects the development of the World Wide Web as medium and technology—from its rarity to its now daily use. The various stages of the Internet’s development are traced in the project’s structure and technical constitution: from HTML to Flash, dotcom to e-commerce, from the website to the app.
In order to do justice to the original ‘look and feel’ as experienced by the users in the mid 1990s and also to illustrate the developments leading to today’s ubiquitous Network—accessibility through mobile devices—the works in the exhibition were presented on equipment of that era. Apart from the artistic works, it was also important for the exhibition to discuss the technical changes—the hardware and software—and the rapid technological development visible to the viewer. Regarding the hardware, we are grateful to the Department of Conservation and Restoration of the Bern University of the Arts, which helped provide historical equipment. To create the sense of authenticity, we also needed to reproduce the historical conditions of the Internet. In the early days, it took a long time to load an image; a click did not bring you to a new frame within fractions of a second. Therefore, all the historical works in the exhibition have been emulated. It was the software emulation that allowed visitors to the exhibition to appreciate the poetry of the historical works and intrinsic quality of the media as they have been perceived in their time. The tension and silences between the two protagonists in Lialina’s story can only be experienced in the slowness of the connectivity of that time; the protagonists’ waiting, their love and loss become apparent within the formal qualities of the work, and part of its beauty is lost if experienced via our fast Internet connection of today.
The Unframed World
Another example is the show The Unframed World, curated by Tina Sauerländer in 2017 for HEK, which was one of the first shows solely on the topic of Virtual Reality in a museum context. It illuminated to questions surrounding Virtual Reality’s artistic use. In nine works, different approaches and uses of the medium were presented—from the high-end product HTC-Vive to the modestly priced Virtual Reality tool Google Cardboard. The curatorial concept focused on showing works that have a physical element that connects the VR world with the environment in the exhibition space. Thus, in the exhibition, VR could be experienced as a meta-media, which extended different artistic practices into the digital space—from painting to performance or sculpture. Virtual worlds of images and real space were entangled with the works’ physical manifestations—one involved the other or referred to it.
In Rachel Rossin’s installation, Just a Nose (2016), the viewer emerges on the rough surface of the open sea. In the real surroundings, paintings on the wall hang close to the water’s moving surface. In VR, similar painted fabric pieces float around. The user can grab them with a horn-like nose reminiscent of a sailing ship’s jib boom. Elements from the real and the virtual layers are transferred onto the other and create a unity, just like the two worlds merge in our real, daily lives. Rossin uses digital data that she transforms into paintings, which then find their way in a digitalized form into the VR space. They reveal abstracted, deformed versions of real objects of the artist’s surrounds.
In the virtual world of HanaHana (2016), created by the Swiss artist Mélodie Mousset, the user grows arms with hands as chain-like plants in a desert-like sandbox. The title refers to the protagonist Nico Robin of the Manga series One Piece, who—thanks to the power of the Hana-Hana fruit—can infinitely sprout and reproduce body parts outside her body. The repetition of Hana (Japanese for flower or bloom) refers to the replication of the hands in VR as well as to the self-reproductive system of nature. The endless copying of one’s own body parts (the self) reduces the meaning of the original and of the individual self in general—especially in the digital and virtual realm without any ‘originals’.
Another example is the virtual world of Mercury (2016) by the German artist duo Banz & Bowinkel, which examines the conditions of materials and substances in the virtual space and in relation to earth’s physical laws. Several islands could be explored and traversed via several narrow bridges with the help of the pointer. Fear of heights made this impossible for some of the visitors. Throughout the duration of the show, several staff were in the exhibition space to support visitors when they encountered problems—for example the fear of walking over the virtual bridges in Mercury, but also to support them on how to use the pointer and move within the virtual worlds, put on the equipment, explain the use of the mobile phone with the Google Cardboard Tool, etc.
Virtual Reality means experiencing works of art, instead of merely viewing them. In Virtual Reality, there is no longer any distance from the presented world we experience. One is in the middle of it and becomes the centre of a digitally created world. VR is often described as an “empathy machine,” as it allows one to dive directly into action. Here, the art acts more as a critique-enabling entity. The works presented in this exhibition are not about an empathic experience, but instead about social feedback showing how the new medium has fundamentally changed our sense of space and time, social, private, and public life, and the relationship between artist and user.
Mediating what is seen and experienced within the exhibitions is important. HEK sees itself as a place for discussion and as an experimental field in which media education and media reflection are carried out. An essential part of the activities is therefore the education programme, which is designed as independent and not just a supplement to the exhibition activities. Objectives of the education programmes are learning communicatively by participating in creative, aesthetic, and technological processes and thus mediating conceptual and formal knowledge. We would like to promote a dialogical and active exploration of contents, themes and works of exhibitions in a theoretical and practical way—also in direct collaboration with artists. Mediation is understood as “production of meaning” and as “communication.” We try to create an awareness of the media technologies that we are using in our daily lives and a self-determined use that goes beyond the use of consumer goods. For us, digital media are not primarily interesting as techniques, but above all as places and platforms of participatory cultural forms and practices, which is the focal point of our education program and concept. We take this as a vantage point for connecting technological, social, and artistic questions. Sometimes even an exhibition itself derives from the conceptual approach of mediation and education. An example is Critical Make, an exhibition and festival format that hosted workshops, performances, and talks. In the middle of the exhibition, there was a stage that was constantly activated with lectures, workshops, and performances. The theme of Critical Make was the question of self-making as a means of learning, exchange, and cultural production. We asked questions like, What are the artists doing? What is the role of the spectator? Therefore, doing and production—from the side of the artists as well as the visitors were central points.
With Critical Make: Turning Functionality, we wanted to throw different perspectives on the DIY culture and their links with the arts and their political and pop cultural dimensions. The pioneers, hackers, and hobbyists of the DIY movement are indispensable in the context of the media arts. In its conception of a critical and self-determined media practice, the educational programme at HEK also refers to them and often cooperates with actors from the local DIY scene. The idea for the project was to integrate educational aspects and activate the space with discussions, talks, and artist presentations to reflect “the idea that thinking is a hands-on process,” as Roger Whitson claims in his presentation on “Maker Culture.”
Another example is the “Internet Yami-ichi” event that took place in 2017. It's an Internet flea market where goods and services related to Internet culture are offered for sale. The Internet Yami-ichi emphasises an active form of participation. It encourages visitors to introduce themselves, to produce and show something—so, rather a “bring-in cultural participation,” in contrast to the generally customary “take-out cultural participation” of education formats. Workshops with artists take place on a regular basis. They encourage a hands-on approach and active use of media technologies, and they also invite to reflect on the digital tools we use. A playful example would be the “Painting with Drones” workshop by Addie Wagenknecht that invited kids to use drones to create paintings, or the “Kill your Phone” workshop conceived by Aram Bartholl, where visitors were invited to sew a small mobile phone pocket that shields their phones from surveillance.
In addition to continuous exhibition activities, HEK is also building up a collection of digital art, focusing on born-digital-art, and specifically on artworks that are net-based and networked. This means we no longer deal with a static object that can be “stabilised” in the classical sense, but rather with a boundless practice that is embedded in networked systems. These works—which use the Internet not as a tool but as an artistic medium—are challenging traditional notion of preservation. Traditionally, preservation means the fixation of a work, based on authenticity and integrity. But net-based and networked artworks are fluid by nature: they are as unstable as the networks in which they are embedded. They are beholden to industries, to a fast-changing technological environment and are limited by other parameters beyond the museum’s reach. Conservation practices must acknowledge these performative and processual qualities.
More and more software-based artworks are entering museum collections, but as curator Christiane Paul points out, for decades, the relationship between digital art and the mainstream art world and institutions has been notoriously uneasy. Joanna Phillips, conservator at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, stated during the third Tech Focus Conference at the museum last year that the Guggenheim collection includes only 22 software-based artworks, which is the equivalent to 0.3% of the total collection. Nevertheless, the institution is doing groundbreaking work with regard to digital preservation strategies. “Software-based art is perceived as a risky area,” says Pip Laurenson, Head of Collection Care Research at Tate. She supposes that the reason for the limited collecting activities in this area in museums is mainly due to the “lack of established documented practice for the conservation” of these works. I think it is exactly this quality and expertise that give institutions like HEK their raison d’être, with their expertise in handling software-based art and their experience in meeting artists demands regarding technical infrastructure, equipment, or maintenance.
Building up a collection of media arts and research addressing the ‘digitality’ of our society is part of HEK’s agenda. Our collection is still in its infancy, but it is growing steadily and reached more than sixty works by the end of 2017. Of course, for such a small institution—no more than six people work full-time at HEK—preservation is a tremendous task but nevertheless an important one. We involve many different experts in the management and monitoring process, in order to handle those complex and fluid artworks—from our technicians and those responsible for the information infrastructure of the institution, to the external expertise for inventory-taking. When the institution moved into a new building, it was not only the physical infrastructure that was newly built. We also redesigned our virtual information infrastructure so we could host and care for net-based artworks. These works are the focus of our collection at a time when few museums are collecting such works—one exception is the Art Base of the digital arts organisation Rhizome, which is associated with the New Museum in New York.
Preserving those net-based artworks means preserving behaviors, not only artefacts. An enormous threat is technical obsolescence. In our world of rapidly changing technological formats, there is no way of knowing how long hard- and software devices will remain functional, how long software-based tools will be supported or are downward compatible, for example. We are dependent on an industry that is based on and nourished by continuous change, promoting a new version and products in ever-shorter periods of time. For researcher Jon Ippolito, born-digital equals “born almost already obsolete.”
The last fifteen years have seen many collaborative research groups and projects dealing with the issues of preserving media art. They have helped museums adapt to the idea that an artwork can no longer be presented with the original material or equipment. The Variable Media Network at the Guggenheim Museum has done groundbreaking work with their focus on the idea of “endurance by variability.” They set the standards for the four main approaches to preserving media art: storage or hardware preservation, emulation, migration, and re-interpretation. One of their valuable outputs is the Variable Media Questionnaire, which today is used and promoted by the Forging the Future alliance.
Another project is Matters in Media Art: Collaborating Towards the Care of Time-Based Media, a joint project by Tate, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, MoMA in New York, and the New Art Trust. They provide helpful guidelines for the logistics of acquiring and lending media artworks. Many more could be named, and I am mentioning only one more example from Switzerland, Aktive Archive (Active Archives), a project initiated by the Bern University of the Arts that dates back to 2004 and is focused on documentation, preservation, and restoration as well as on storage of diverse forms of media art.
But the handling and preservation of net-based artworks is still a rather new field. HEK has been part of the tri-national research project Digital Art Conservation, led by the ZKM | Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, with the only net-based project among the ten case studies that have been explored. We continue our research and networking in that field by establishing the event series Conservation Piece(s), which aims to start a dialogue with specialists and experts from various fields, to collaboratively deal with the pressing issues of preserving media art. We hope we can foster a dialogue and help build regional and national knowledge communities here in Switzerland and also with international partners; to develop a “network of caretakers” or a “community of concern,” as media curator and researcher Annet Dekker calls it.
On ongoing case study for preservation is the work onewordmovie by Beat Brogle and Philippe Zimmermann from 2003, an important example of net-based artistic practice in Switzerland from the early years of the 21st century, which entered the HEK collection in 2015.
onewordmovie is an online platform that organizes the flood of images on the Internet into an animated film based on user-supplied terms. A search for a particular word creates image results that are turned into a movie. Using a specially programmed search engine, users can call up images from the Internet that match their search term. The project's search engine is built on top of the most popular image search facilities available on the Internet—in this case Google. Supplied with a search term, the engine produces a “hit list.” This list can be several thousand images long, depending on the term. The images on this “hit list” provide the “raw material” for the movie. Following the ranking of the “hit list,” the images are animated into a film in real-time, following a fixed and predetermined score, which consists of a series of interwoven loops. Each film has an individual trailer displaying the search term as the title, and each film lasts until the ‘raw material’ is used up.
The challenge for preservation is “distributed obsolescence” due to the boundless or uncontained structure of the work, which uses technological infrastructure and data services of other big online companies that the artist does not control. The process of preservation is not completed yet. The strategy includes migration or reprogramming of the work and its parameters. The goal is to find a solution that would keep the work accessible online, keep the functionality intact, and simultaneously keep the historical aesthetic of the piece intact.
Since 2012, Sabine Himmelsbach is director of HEK (House of Electronic Arts) in Basel. After studying art history in Munich she worked for galleries in Munich and Vienna from 1993–1996 and later became project manager for exhibitions and conferences for the Steirischer Herbst Festival in Graz,
Austria. In 1999 she became exhibition director at the ZKM | Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe. From 2005–2011 she was the artistic director of the Edith-Russ-House for Media Art in Oldenburg, Germany. 2011 she curated gateways. Art and Networked Culture for the Kumu Art Museum in Tallinn as part of the European Capital of Culture Tallinn 2011 program. Her exhibitions at HEK in Basel include Ryoji Ikeda (2014), Poetics and Politics of Data (2015), Rafael Lozano-Hemmer: Preabsence (2016), unREAL (2017), Lynn Hershman Leeson: Anti-Bodies, Eco-Visionaries (2018), Entangled Realities. Living with Artificial Intelligence (2019), Making FASHION Sense (2020), Real Feelings. Emotion and Technology (2020) and Earthbound. In Dialogue with Nature (2022). In 2021 she curated the online exhibition and conference Hybrid by Nature. Human.Machine.Interaction for the Goethe Institutes in Southeast Asia. As a writer and lecturer she is dedicated to topics related to media art and digital culture.
 In the case of a VR solution (virtual reality), however, one can speak in a certain sense of it being walkable. In the future, the digital space will be walkable just as much as the physical space.
 The digital space can also become a production space, and a digital work of art is always also presented in a certain setting. Furthermore, the question arises as to whether the neutrality of subsequent presentation or documentation steps has to be reproduced in this production stage, or whether it makes more sense to continue the artistic process here, as in all other stages that can be designed.
 In the case of New Scenario, specially selected settings were for the most part the starting point of the exhibition projects, and these went on to influence various conceptual decisions due to their composition. http://newscenario.net
 When converting digital exhibition images into a physical two-dimensional printable or three-dimensional presentation version, it is possible to display the surrounding structure, e.g. the browser, i.e. the digital setting, or to display it with the playback device, e.g. the computer in a physical space.