Staying close to home, Nick Lambert introduced ‘Museums in the age of new media’ for the eighth week of the core course (week 6 was reading week and the tutor for week 7 was unavailable). As the scope of the interface between digital technology and museums would hardly seem to fit into a single lecture, it made sense to break it down into three distinct areas:
- Interactive displays in traditional object-based museums
- The digitisation of collections
- New Media Art, and its commissioning, display and preservation by museums
Nick posited new media in the museum as located somewhere in the contradiction between Andre Malraux’s desire for a museum without walls and Walter Benjamin’s awareness of the reduction of aura of reproduced works (I think this is an unnecessarily negative reading of Benjamin – he talked about film and photography in the context of a ‘renewal of mankind’).
Nick’s own background is in work with Birkbeck’s Vasari Centre, a digitisation research centre and lab, which collaborated with the National Gallery on the high-resolution and colour fidelity electronic scanning of paintings in its collections. As well as digitisation, Vasari staff have also worked on various data repositories and research databases, including the National Inventory of Continental European Paintings. The Computer Art & Technocultures project, an AHRC-funded collaboration between Birkbeck and the V&A, is investigating and archiving the history of computer-generated art; its predecessor, CACHe, an ‘archive of pioneering British computer art’ produced the book White Heat, Cold Logic.
Nick took the roots of interactivity in the museum space back to Alfred Barr’s 1939 invitation to the public to involve themselves in MOMA (“The Museum of Modern Art is a laboratory: in its experiments the public is invited to participate”). There was some discussion in the class about the nature of museum interactives and their (in)accessibility to older people or those unfamiliar with technology (I put the case that museums in fact create this divide by fetishing large piece of ‘technology’ as distinctly separate entities from the object displays, rather than more subtly enhancing the latter with available technologies).
Nick also discussed New Media Art as such: art that uses electronic technology (and the mapping of familiar technological culture such as Sarah Cook’s application of the Gartner Hype Cycle onto forms of digital art, and Curt Cloninger’s ‘Nine times of New Media’; we looked at Tate’s acquisition model for New Media Art.
We discussed the V&A’s recent Decode exhibition which largely consisted of interactive artworks. Reactions from those who had seen it were not all positive: one class member said that the crowded museum meant that in works which recorded the viewer and the re-presented images of him/her, your image was never left for long before it was erased by a newer viewer/participant (I thought this was an interesting measure of a work’s interactivity – how long it bears your impression). There was also a rave review of Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s Recorders show at Manchester Art Gallery.
Though there’s a lot to gather together here, in the ‘study skills’ session after the course three of us considered Nick’s own essay questions for this term, which seeks to relate Alfred Barr’s quote about the museum as laboratory to contemporary New Media Art exhibitions. One of us was considering an extensive participatory website in its light; I’m thinking of drawing out the implications of participation and the laboratory to the V&A’s Decode: in some senses New Media Art invites literal, physical participation in the creation of its aesthetics, and the public museum space provides an egalitarian, social space in which to do this; on the other hand, as art objects, interactive artworks are still subject to essentially the same disciplines and control as artwork in Barr’s day; in that sense the revolutionary spectre of net.art has failed to transform art as a whole.