Beryl Graham and Sarah Cook started working together in the North East of England in 1999. They founded the website CRUMB, based on a shared interest in the questionsassociated with the display of computer-based and interactive art-works in museums and galleries. The site, a resource specifically aimed at curators dealing with the issue ofexhibiting new-media art, houses a collection of material ranging from academic papers on the subject, interviews with curators and administrative reports and technical advice and information. The CRUMB discussion list has around six hundred subscribers, divided more or less equally between North America and Europe. The email facilitated discussion is free ofcharge and open to all; Cook and Graham do not edit the contributions but mediate its content by proposing themes for discussion on a bi-monthly basis and inviting specific practitioners to take the lead on these.
Barnaby Drabble: Is CRUMB a curated site?
Sarah Cook: I guess the first thing to make clear is that CRUMB was established to fulfil a need. Before its existence there wasn’t anywhere you could go to read the reports from conferences thathave taken place or texts dealing with the issues of the exhibition and presentation of new media art. So in that sense we do collect together information and put it in one place.The other need that it has filled is to encourage curators to engage with technology and to share information and their research before they put the exhibition up. Personally I have observed that working on an exhibition tends to be very private in the initial research stages, with all knowledge held back until the exhibition goes public. Furthermore, the tendency isthat at the point of display, we choose to share only knowledge about the art itself and not knowledge about how the exhibition came to be. We wanted in some way to move to thatpublic stage a little earlier in the process.
Sometimes I think of CRUMB as a support group.
Obviously the mailing list is not in any way curated. We pick topics that need discussing and in that sense we are acting as editors, in the same way that if we were doing a journal wemight pick a different topic for each journal issue we put out. But we don’t explicitly point to particular art content, so if you are taking the strict definition of curating as the presentationof art I don’t think it’s that either. It is about resource sharing and professional development and it tries to make public those stages of a process that are often not public.
Barnaby Drabble: Aside from the needs it is clearly fulfilling, were there additional, perhaps individual, reasons behind setting up CRUMB?
Beryl Graham: Yes, for me it stemmed very much from my own professional experience. I had organised a show called Serious Games1 for the Laing and the Barbican Art Galleries in London in1996, and this, alongside other shows from the early nineties, was very much the first contact for museums with any kind of computer based work. This process was full of challenges, notprimarily technical ones, as you might expect, but other challenges that went all the way from research through installation to the press-work and critical response to the exhibition. Because putting on those shows almost killed me, I decided that other curators might actually appreciate some sharing of knowledge and information about this kind of thing.
Sarah Cook: While working at the Walker Art Center (in Minneapolis) in the visual arts department, I managed information around the works that were in the permanent collection. At the time, Steve Dietz was upstairs working on Gallery 9 and essentially collecting online works of art. I became increasingly aware of a really fundamental disconnection between those two departments and the challenges of getting the curators who dealt with the actual gallery spaces to consider that what Steve Dietz was doing was curatorial, and not simplyeducational or presentational, and therefore could have an impact on the collection of the Walker. I came to understand those who already felt that new media art was something that deserved to be curated along with the other visual arts, and part of my agenda with CRUMB was to create a place where people could become familiar with new media art insuch a way that they understood it as a part of curatorial practice, as something that could be curated.
Barnaby Drabble: Picking up on an element of Steve Dietz’s address at this years ISEA conference2 he summarised the ups and downs for new media art practitioners in the past few years.And from what he said one gets the sense of a close knit community, a hermetic scene if you like, which is defending its boundaries and fighting for its importance or its equality within institutions. Is this a fair reading of new media art today? What are the strengths and the weaknesses of having this scene feeling in new media art at themoment?
Beryl Graham: Well I am not sure that I would agree with that, because I am not sure that it is that close knit or that it is defending is boundaries. In fact it tends to be without boundariesby its nature and to be really quite free flowing. Indeed I think this lack of boundaries is sometimes one of the things which galleries find challenging about it, new media art often wants to merge with other kinds of art forms and everything from activism to fine art is some how now connected by new media.
Sarah Cook: I disagree here as well. Steve Dietz was proposing that while there was necessarily, for a period of time, an area where new media was really only speaking to its peers, thatthis was no longer necessary or appropriate. Like with any emerging discipline in whatever field, there is a point at which having its own category can be useful because it allowspeople to become familiar with it and get a handle on it. At the most practical level this might mean the Arts Council will have a particular grant that will support this particular practice, even if only at first recognising that something is going on out there that they don’t know that much about yet. This occurred in the Northeastwhen the Arts Council of England hired Michelle Hirschhorn to actually identify new media as a discipline of art practice, because at the time it was within a department supportingpublishing and broadcasting. I think what Steve was getting at or suggesting was that there has been this initial period of self-organisation and then a period of exploration by museumsand funding bodies trying to adopt it, and then in some instances rejecting it again. He was talking about a discipline and the institution’s relationship to this, not about a hermetic scene.
Barnaby Drabble: But, the nature of many of the artists, producers and curators involved in new media is that they are networked internationally and they are very media-savvy, so there is acommunity and as CRUMB shows this community is online.
Do you not think that this community might appear closer knit from the outside to traditional art practitioners and curators?
Beryl Graham: I think that it is quite easy for mainstream curators to be absolutely unaware of this because it is totally invisible to them if they are not aware of that network. Then I think that it comes as a shock to them that there is this whole group of people who care about what might happen to the Walker’s Collection of net art (for example) and are surprised whenthey get hundreds of emails about it.3
Sarah Cook: I would like to point out that such networks exist not that differently in the offline world. I mean if you come from a small town in Iowa and you visit New York you have thissense that New York maybe the centre of the art world. But how long does it take you to actually break into that network and to discover which of the hundreds of galleriesare the ones that you’re interested in or which curators relate to your practice? Perhaps the main difference with the offline art world is that there is this long standing tradition of publishing and criticism and available tools that enable people to find their way in and out. That has been less the case with new media.
Barnaby Drabble: From my reading there seem so many definitions of this term new media, when you use it what artistic activities are for you referring to?
Sarah Cook: Briefly, one of the fundamental things we have to make clear when talking about new media art is how any definition relies on the relationship between the technologies ofproduction and the technologies of distribution. For us New Media Art considers distribution as an integral part of the way in which the work is produced. With this in mind you can easily distinguish between new media art and say contemporary photography, where you may use a computer to edit a photograph but when you eventually print it out it exists in 2D form and is distributed as such. For our concerns we are interested particularly in work that seems to indicate the further potential of the technology itself, and here one might think about the point at which you engage with computer code or internet technologies. At first this definition also helped us to get some necessary distance from the notion that if you painted a lot of paintings and then scanned them and put them onto a website you were creating new media art!
Barnaby Drabble: In relation to this observation of the important relationship between production and distribution in new media art, I have a question about what Mark Tribe calls a ‘fuzzy line’4 between making and curating. The fuzziness of this line has provoked a considerable amount of conflict of opinion between curator, artists and critics in recent years. Is this problematic for the curator as a creator as marked in the field of new media art as it is in other fields of art practice?
Beryl Graham: I think there are fuzzy lines but they are not necessarily between artists and curators. I wouldn’t call myself an artist/curator and I don’t think that it necessarily applies to newmedia more than other kinds of contemporary art practice. But there is a certainly more fuzziness between other roles, for example between the interpretation person for the websiteand the website as a site for displaying art, between the technical departments and curatorial departments, and of course between the curatorial departments themselves how they might move between photography-based work, digital media and sculpturally-based interactive work for example.
Barnaby Drabble: Your answer seems to deal with the institutional model of how this material is dealt with. In other cases we can observe micro-institutional models with sites, which presentnew media art works, and which are also programmed, interpreted and curated by the artists themselves. This form of self-publishing is perhaps a clear case of where this fuzzy linedoes exist.
Sarah Cook: I remember a remark by Lynn Hershman that she used to have to write reviews under a pseudonym, because no one was writing them for her!5 But seriously, on the one hand it is impossible to ignore the peer review network, which all net-based new media artists have grown up with. And essentially this takes the form of using the network toexchange works of art with fellow artists, as opposed to being at an art college where you all study in one building and you walk into one another’s spaces to see what everyoneis up to. It might be better to see this as file exchange, rather than curating. In fact this is where things like the bulletin board system really originated.
On the other hand it is important to understand that making new media art is a very collaborative process, it also involves teams of people, whether they are engineers orscientists working with arts, or designers, programmers, etc. So at some point in that, the role of project manager, or producer, or commissioner can in some ways be perceived asan artistic role. They are after all creating this team and shaping the way in which the team produces the work.
Barnaby Drabble: Is there is something to be learnt by curators working with other media, from the models being thrown up by curating new media?
Sarah Cook: Absolutely, I think Database Imaginary6, the exhibition I curated in Banff with Steve Dietz and Anthony Kiendl, is a really good example of this. I feel as though we’ve broken a major rule of curatorial practice by including on the website photographs of us installing the show. This reveals what is behind the scenes and at the same time provides incredibly useful information. It is also clear that no matter what the art form is, when you’re putting up a show you’redealing with a lot of the same issues: you’re still figuring out what’s going on the labels; where the work is going; how are people going to find it and what the nature ofengagement by the audience will be. I think that maybe that’s the level at which you see so many of the different things that people can learn about exhibition creation through new media.
Barnaby Drabble: Susan Morris has described in a report the common characteristics of new media art as being, and I will list them here: fluidity, tangibility, liveness, variability, replicability,connectivity, interactivity, computability, and chance7. I was looking down this list when I first read it and realising just how radically incompatible all of these things are with, let’s say, traditional procedures of collecting, exhibiting and archiving which the museum partakes in. When I look at this and consider the propensity for artists and curators within the field of new media art to question their under-representation within the institutions themselves, I can’t help thinking that this wish to be in the museum exhibits amisunderstanding of the potential of these practices. Am I right in perceiving a kind of conservatism within this potentially radical practice?
Sarah Cook: Firstly, Susan Morris’ list is just one list. Mark Tribe’s list has nineteen behaviours8. Steve Dietz had three at one point: connectivity, computability and interactivity9, which I believe he’s now recoiling from. Secondly, in relation to the question of archiving, the Variable Media Initiative has suggested six behaviours of works of art that cause challenges forexhibition and preservation. They are looking at what they call variable media, everything from Eva Hesse to Dan Graham, sculptures to light boxes and performance-based work tonew media.
Amongst other things they raise the question: if one of the behaviours of the work of art is that it is participatory then how do you preserve it? Thirdly, about under-representationand whether this is a conservative part in relation to radical practice: I don’t think that the artists are worrying about under-representation so much as the curators or theinstitutions. They are worried that they are missing this emerging field of art practice that they might not have known about and they are also worrying that if there isn’t a history written there won’t ever be. We are really aware of how that’s happened with other forms of art practice, like performance and video work that has not found its way into collections and results in situations like the one we now suffer in the UK, where the only video art history that we have access to is the American one.
Beryl Graham: I agree and would add that if this practice is not represented in the museum discourse then it does become much more difficult for researchers to later develop critical theory about it or to come up with a balanced critical response to what follows.
Sarah Cook: There is a particular moment that Charlie Gere has written about in the late sixties and early seventies when conceptual art and minimalist art practice was first reallyaccepted by the museum; this was the time of the Software show at the Jewish Museum and the Information show at MOMA.10 Those exhibitions included minimal and conceptual art practice alongside essentially network- based art practice, including works involving computers as well as fax machine projects and together these were thought ofthe art that was suggestive of the information age that people told us we were heading into. What happened was that the museum really adopted conceptual art and minimalistart and they stepped away from systems art. It is easy to see that one has a very well-documented history and the other has not.
Barnaby Drabble: I wanted to come back to the relationship to early conceptual art which was certainly considered to be critical and radical in its time and encompassed not only institutionalcritique but also openly political material and activism, both things which, in a co-authored article, you have referenced as roots of present day new media art. Could you explainmaybe how that passage has happened?
Beryl Graham: One of our colleagues at CRUMB, Ele Carpenter, is writing her PhD about the relationship between activism and net art. She has pointed out that there is actually quite a lack of crossover between the two knowledge bases in lots of ways. Yes, there is certainly a lot debate about activism in the new media field and we can trace this back to the activities of the whole generation working with the early internet. As soon as the net stopped being a purely military technology, it started being used for ecological activismand for getting participatory projects going. There is also the way of working – new media artists and activists tend to have a similar collaborative and collective nature, which Sarah mentioned earlier. So history links the two in various and different ways. But, once you consider relationships to the fine art context, activist histories have always sat reallyuncomfortably in the gallery setting. As an example I think of the community art photography projects of the 1980’s, which I experienced firsthand, where it certainly seemed strange tobe placing the results in a fine art gallery, divorced from its media workshop production history. Equally there are parts of new media art that have never had any kind of an activist history, take artists working with landscape digital video installation, for example.
David Ross has written quite interestingly about tracking the history of early video art from an activist expectation, that it was going to ‘change the world’ to a more fine artsorientated practice. He also suggests that there is possibly a parallel in the development of new media.11
Sarah Cook: I think this process rings true, certainly with the rise of experimental TV studios there was the idea at one point that cable access TV could essentially be a video art channel. Julian Stallabrass has written really quite usefully on this topic by bringing in a more fundamental issue, which is that of economics.12 Essentially he maintains that whenartists started to engage with new technologies they were looking for what the economics of it were: what you have access to; what you have to pay for access to; and how youuse that. As such, a lot of activist-type projects are essentially manipulations of the existing technologies in order to make work, which suggests that the technologies are proprietary, and I think that’s quite significant. As far as I know, there isn’t really an equivalent of that within art history (and I don’t think the colour field painters of the 60’s went tohouse paint specifically because of economics!). In the light of this it is interesting to observe projects that are moving away from an interest in the World Wide Web, as the public face of network computing, towards software and code-based art to try and suggest that there are other ways of networking computers that aren’t just web-based.
Certainly works like Shredder or Webstalker have really tried to breakdown the idea of the browser altogether, as something that has become a commercial feature of our daily lives. I think you could call that activism, because it is a deeper investigation of the economics of new media networking.
Beryl Graham: And a lot of artists are, as you know, making work that is inherently critical of the technology itself. For example groups such as Critical Art Ensemble work with anything frombiotech to the Internet in order to be critical about the powerful nature of the very technology that they are using. In a lower tech way artists like Alexei Shulgin, the Russian artist, have done some very ironic, clever pieces that point out just how lame a lot of the technology is, undermining the utopian power of technology.
Barnaby Drabble: It is interesting to see this word ‘filtering’ being used so frequently in the field of new media art, almost interchangeably with the word ‘curating’. With its scientific connotations Iwas also thinking about Hans Ulrich Obrist’s use of the word catalyst in relation to curating projects.13 What do you think about either of these analogies? Are they interchangeablewith the term curating?
Sarah Cook: I try not to use filtering interchangeably with curating. I think it is one particular methodology that sits within the curator’s practice and I would hope that curators’ practices arealways responsive to particular time and spaces. For instance if you are doing something on the web and an institution asks you to select work that is representative of thediversity of practice in that country or region then adopting a filtering methodology might be appropriate. But I certainly wouldn’t think the way in which I had co-curated Database Imaginary in Banff was simply filtering. I responded again to time and space, but chose clearly to ‘curate’ the show. Perhaps this term ‘filtering’ is left over from the ‘dot com’ boom,when it arose to deal with the notion that with content portals being established, there would be a need fill them up by ‘mining’ the contents that were out there. I remember IliyanaNedkova commented at the time that it was potentially more lucrative than straight-up curating because the dot com portals certainly had money for you to be their filters.14 But therewas this flip side to this lucrative possibility and that was essentially that you were being ‘outsourced’ by them with all the implications that brings.
Beryl Graham: Filtering does tend to infer a really quite old- fashioned connoisseurship role for the curator, which is kind of different from being an editor; there is an element ofcurating where you are aiming to help your viewers understand the art work, in the way that you select, governed by how you present it. I think the catalytic role is important aswell: CRUMB itself as a website is mostly about gathering and editing and putting together, but we also initiate things which are outside of the website. We don’t actually present artwork on CRUMB but we do independent projects, like the seminars on curating new media we did for the BALTIC, or independent exhibitions. Obviously in these situations we are less editorial and more catalytic.
I am interested how a lot of the debates about curating and research crossover. The debates in research revolve around a dual role; you are either a god or a servant: you couldhave your god-like research knowledge which you deign to give to the world, or you’re a servant who is gathering information to share with other researchers and promote thegrowth of knowledge. So you know you can either be filtering or catalytic, and I think often both at the same time.
To move on, I wanted to just reference the interview with Peter Weibel which Sarah conducted in 2000.15 He interestingly claims that the challenge for curators of new mediaart is greater than for curators of traditional media, mainly because the infrastructure of the market – critics, curating, the independent scene, the music scene, the museum, etc – isn’t there, or certainly not in the same scale. So it’s difficult to find out where the guides are for whois good and who is not; the canon isn’t easy to find. And he claims that in the absence of this that the most important tool for the curator is theory and I am interested to knowwhether you agree that new media curating is a more theoretical pursuit than other forms of curating?
Sarah Cook: I think with that interview you can see where Peter Weibel and I start to disagree. I don’t agree that theory is a tool in any form of curatorial practice, let alone newmedia. When I was doing an MA in Curatorial Practice (and I am not sure if it’s as prevalent in any other curatorial courses) we had a critical theory class and a philosophy of aesthetics class. What resulted, it seemed to me, was that the course leaders wanted us to be able to work with certain theorists and philosophers and encouraged us to doshows about non-linear narrative (or whatever the theory de jour was). I think this became just a very easy gloss with curatorial students saying “here’s a bunch of art I’m interested in, how do I tie it together? Oh, here’s some interesting theory that will do the job!” However, having said that, I think what Peter Weibel does at ZKM is to come at it from the other direction, which is to be commended. He goes out to find theorists and philosophers, like Bruno Latour, and says, “all right let’s talk about how knowledge is madepublic” and then they curate a gigantic exhibition. This is admirable, as it is a contribution to scholarship in quite a serious way. Personally for the practice of the curator inrelation to theory, if it doesn’t start with artwork then you’re really in trouble.
Barnaby Drabble: What would you see as the most important tool for curators of new media art, if not theory?
Beryl Graham: I think I agree with Sarah, that it has to start with the artwork. I feel as though I’ve been embedded in photography theory which I might unconsciously use as a tool early in the curatorial process, but I don’t tend to be led by theory because it’s not necessary useful for the audience who’s going to be looking at the work, they have to be looking at the artwork first and then articulating the point behind the show. So maybe that is the most useful tool: the ability to collaborate, to network and to connect, and by connect I mean to connect ideas or to connect the right kind of people to work together. The thing about theory is that fashions for theory change, as often as fashions for art do.
Barnaby Drabble: So you are suggesting that theory is a tool in the state of being a curator but maybe not actively in curating exhibitions?
Sarah Cook: Yes, I think that’s true.
Barnaby Drabble: I will move on to my final question, which again brings us back to Steve Dietz’s recent address at the ISEA. Calling for a new inclusiveness, and stressing that new-media art needs to move on, he asks us to assume a moment of ‘art after new media’. I want to know if you agree with this observation. Has new media art really won what it set out to win?
Sarah Cook: Well, he was being deliberately provocative because he is the director of the next ISEA, so he is tasked with the sole responsibility of organising one of the world’s biggest newmedia festivals. Right now, interests within new media are ranging from mobile technology to architecture and I am sure that Steve is trying to promote a cross-disciplinary curatorialapproach when he talks of what is now appropriate.
Beryl Graham: I have always tried to present new media along side other art forms, just to get people to make those connections and to not have it exclusively what Lev Manovich would call ‘Turing-land’16 which is the kind of art-science-new-media specialist land as opposed to the arts in general. So I always try to do that, have it not exclusive, but I think that new media is hardlyubiquitous in arts organisations. As Sarah said, the number of specialist new media curators in institutions is tiny, as a result lots of people still haven’t seen any of this kind ofartwork, so I don’t think new media has won. I don’t think it wants to win exactly, but it may want to be included, to be allowed to play too.
This interview was conducted in Sunderland, November 2004.
Sarah Cook is an independent curator and currently post- doctoral (Leverhulme Early Career) fellow at the University of Sunderland, England, where she is the co-editor of CRUMB – an online resource for curators of new media art (www. crumbweb.org). From 2000 to 2006 she split her time between the United Kingdom and Canada, curating exhibitions (DatabaseImaginary, 2004; The Art Formerly Known As New Media, 2005; Package Holiday, 2005), organising educational projects, conferences and seminars, editing publications and managingartists’ residencies in conjunction with BALTIC, The Centre for Contemporary Art (Gateshead) and the New Media Institute and The Walter Phillips Gallery at The Banff Centre(Banff). She has an MA from Bard College's Center for Curatorial Studies in New York and in addition to her freelance curatorial work she has also worked at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and with office-based art agency Locus+ (Newcastle). She has lectured and published widely on art, new media and curatorial practice.
Barnaby Drabble is a curator and writer based in Zurich. Previously curated exhibitions include Ein Zweites Leben (Stadtgalerie, Bern, Autumn 2007), co-curating Nothing to Declare (Oberschwaben, Contemporary Art Triennial, Spring 2008), I almost feel like doing it again… (Zurich, 2004), New Visions of the Sea (National Maritime Museum, London, 2000-2003) and Burning Love (London, 2000). He works in long-termcollaboration; with Dorothee Richter: Curating Degree Zero Symposium (Bremen, 1998) and Curating Degree Zero Archive (touring since 2003); with Hinrich Sachs as Drabble+Sachs The City that never Sleeps (Umea, 2004-2005), Geneva Unplugged (Geneva, 2003), and Trademark Guerrilla (Swiss Expo, 2002). He completed his PhD research at the Edinburgh College of Art, and between 2000 and 2007 has taught and lectured on the topics of curating, contemporary art and cultural criticism at colleges and art-centres worldwide. In 2005, together with Dorothee Richter he established the Postgraduate Program in Curating at the School of Art and Design in Zurich. Today he is a lecturerat ECAV in Sierre.
Beryl Graham is a professor of New Media Art at the School of Arts, Design, Media and Culture, University of Sunderland, and co-editor of the CRUMB web site resource for curators of new media art (http://www.crumbweb.org/). She is a writer, curator and educator with many years of professional experience as a media arts organiser, and was head of the photography department atProjects UK, Newcastle, for six years. She curated the international exhibition Serious Games for the Laing and Barbican art galleries, and has also worked with The Exploratorium, SanFrancisco, and San Francisco Camerawork. Her Ph.D. concerned audience relationships with interactive art in gallery settings, and she has written widely on the subject for books and periodicals including Leonardo,Convergence and Switch. Her book Digital Media Art was published by Heinemann in 2003, and she is co-authoring with Sarah Cook a book on curating new media art for MIT (Cambridge, Mass.). She has chapters in the books New media art: Practice and context in the UK 1994-2004 (Arts Council of England) and The Photographic Image In Digital Culture (Routledge). Dr.Graham has presented papers at conferences including Navigating Intelligence (Banff), Museums and the Web (Seattle and Vancouver) and Caught in the Act (Tate Liverpool).
3 Kathy Halbreich's response to the net art community's concerns regarding the future of new media at The Walker Art Center, 2003, available online: http://www.com/walker_letter/halbreich_letter.html
4 Mark Tribe in Sarah Cook and Beryl Graham (eds.) Curating New Media, Third Baltic International Seminar, May 2001, available online: http://www.newmedia.ac.uk/crumb
6 Database Imaginary, available online: http://banff.org
7 Susan Morris “Museums and New Media Art”, Rockefeller Foundation, available online: http://www.org/Library/Museums_and_New_Media_Art.pdf
9 Steve Dietz “Signal or noise? The network museum” in Webwalker #20: Art Entertainment Network, 2000, available online: http://www.walkerart.org/gallery9/webwalker/ww_032300_main.html
11 David Ross “Transcription of Lecture by David Ross, San Jose State University, March 2nd, 1999” in Switch, available online: http://switch.sjsu.edu/web/ross.html
14 Iliyana Nedkova in Sarah Cook and Beryl Graham (eds.) Curating New Media, Third Baltic International Seminar, May 2001, available online: http://www.newmedia.ac.uk/crumb
15 Peter Weibel in an interview by Sarah Cook, Karlsruhe, 2000, available online: http://www.newmedia. ac.uk/crumb/phase3/pdf/intvw_weibel.pdf
16 Lev Manovich “The death of computer art” at Rhizome 1996, available online: http://www.rhizome.org