Presenting Art in the Digital World

In early 1996 I began work on my doctoral thesis. Initially titled The cybermuseum: the impact of new technologies on art museums, I set out to see how the internet, CD-Roms, video etc would affect the museum as we currently know it. 2?years later my thesis has been retitled and rethought, and the impacts I believed may occur, have already happened - on-line museums and exhibitions, catalogue databases. The speed of change in some ways makes my work an historical document. Now titled Remembering the lost future: Art museums in the techetronic era it is an examination of the historical development of the institution of the museum, and a postulation on its possible futures. The title refers to the functions of the art museum as a repository of the past and as a creator of posterity, to how it will fulfil these roles, and what they mean in the accelerated world of communications technology and new media arts. My work is now more concerned with web-specific exhibitions and the collection and display of new media art works.

Modern art museums have developed along the lines of the taxonomic principles of the Enlightenment: everything has a place and must be fitted into an overall schema. The museum is defined by a lineated, euclidian space of, usually white, walls with set paths to follow, telling a story of evolvement. The web provides a more curved idea of space, with paths more amorphous, and the interruptions we encounter more frequent: it is impossible to find one point of focus. Sam Weber in his recent seminars at QUT spoke of Brecht's notion of interruption defining space. As these interruptions become more frequent the world seems to speed up and we can never clearly see either the past or the future, and so both become more important.

There is no way to fix a place, and so the basis of the museum, if it is to stay relevant to contemporary society, will have to be transformed.

The recent development of museums dedicated to the collection of multimedia, such as the ZKM in Germany and the Eyebeam Atelier's Digital Museum, due to be opened in New York in Spring 2000, perhaps should be viewed less as marginalisation of the work of artists employing digital, or electronic media, and rather a tacit admittance that 'the museum', as it currently exists, cannot universally survey the history of human creative output, as has been its attempt for over two hundred years. No museum can be all things, although any art museum with a policy of collecting contemporary art cannot ignore multimedia: definite parameters need to be set, being particularly mindful of the reliance of much of this new art on peripherals, such as video players, software and hardware. Walls and cabinets are not enough, and the partnerships that this new age seems to foster, between technicians, artists and other professionals, will be part of this i.e. ensuring that when a work is acquired, if the institution does not, or cannot afford the means to play it, then that it will be accessible elsewhere.

Amanda McDonald Crowley, Director of ANAT [Australian Network for Art & Technology] spoke at the 1996 Museums Australia conference of this problem of marginalisation through specialist museums, her main concern being 'preaching to the converted'. She also spoke of the need for museums to include artists in the design process of musem displays. At the recent MAAP forum this was also a concern - the need to forge partnerships, to be flexible. This affects also how museums collect new media work and how they and the artist envisage its display.

This has been described as 'variable media', that is a work can be realised through more than 1 medium - eg Shorelines is a web-based exhibition, but is also on display at the QAG and was part of performances during MAAP.

The title of Malraux's influential essay 'The Museum Without Walls' has been appropriated by the Smithsonian Institute's digitisation project. Within this project is the prototype exhibition Material Culture, which brings together sixty everyday objects. These articles, ranging from 1970s bell-bottom jeans to a Victorian celery vase, would not only be almost impossible to display together, they would be swamped in a physical exhibition space. By constructing an on-line exhibition, based on a filter database to create mathematical relationshipsk, the sixty objects are able to be arranged according to themes, eras and type, so there are varying ways to examine the same object, making the process of selection explicit. There are also advantages in the type of supporting material available, with three 'voices' for each object: a personal or first person narrative; the social/historical context and bibliographic records, which act as a deeper research tool. The audience can also add their 'voice', by submitting stories about their 'stuff'.

This is a new way of recording history. After my first draft I realised that the things that were of most concern to me were memory and forgetting, often the same thing, meaning that museums and the objects they contain enable the community to forget them, to visit them, like an attic of the forgotten, but desired. Computers hold a similar position within our society on some levels: we are able to visit a site, bookmark it and forget it, knowing all the time that we can come back if needed.

This raises issues of spatiality and temporality. If we can take the objects out of the museum and play with them in cyberspace won't the notion of the museum be changed?

The Fluxus on-line project serves as a case study for some of these concerns, examining how technology could serve the institution and its clientele better. Envisaging a museum website as an umbrella, spikes go from the general information - opening times, exhibitions etc - to web-specific exhibitions, such as Fluxus, which do things that could not be achieved within the gallery space. In 1997 the Queensland Art Gallery was given a large collection of Fluxus objects by Francesco Conz, and in December Ann Kirker curated an exhibition of these works. My idea was to take the existing documentation, including video of performance, selected objects, existing text, and create a site that would be the 'future' - what was possible, not to see on everyone's browser now, but what could be seen as bandwidth and computing power grows. The website does not form part of my thesis, but the documentation of the process and the issues involved has now become the final chapter. Fluxus as a movement offers a particularly powerful case study - art created to be anti-institutional and ephemeral has been absorbed by the museum and technology offers the possibility of reinscribing its intended radicalism, its history and issues of why an anti-museum context was, and is, important to artists who identify with Fluxus. There is opportunity to set the work free within new contexts.

Museums have potential as information / knowledge providers than simply telling stories of the history of art, in whatever forms that may take. They are able to show and teach different ways of looking at and interacting with objects, a skill which many artists and art historians take for granted. With the development of the technotronic/information society this proficiency will be especially important, as there are many ways of seeing the world, and while all are subjective, there are specific languages which museums, libraries, broadcasters and publishers utilise.

When I began work on my thesis I did not really understand or see the creative potential of new media. I was approaching technology from the administrative side of museums, but now I realise they cannot be separated. Now I have reached the conclusion that museums have to be information sources, and one of the main ways they can do this is to help people use the visual world, showing different ways of looking and interacting.