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[Nettime-ro] (Guggenheim) Museum
Attila Tordai-S. on Tue, 19 Feb 2002 13:14:04 +0100 (CET)


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[Nettime-ro] (Guggenheim) Museum




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<http://www.nytimes.com/2002/02/18/arts/design/18ARTS.html?todaysheadlines=&;
pagewanted=print>

February 18, 2002

ARTS ONLINE
Getting Tangible Dollars for an Intangible Creation
By MATTHEW MIRAPAUL

In a strong endorsement of a young genre, the Solomon R. Guggenheim
Foundation is acquiring two works of Internet-based art for its permanent
collection and today is hanging them, so to speak, on a special section of
the foundation's Web site at guggenheim.org/internetart. The works are
"net.flag" by Mark Napier and "Unfolding Object" by John F. Simon Jr.

Jon Ippolito, the Guggenheim Museum's associate curator of media arts,
said, "The objective is both to demonstrate our conviction that these
forms of cultural expression deserve to be safeguarded for the future and
also to demonstrate a method for doing it."

Now that the artists' development of the works is finished - a relative
term for projects that will continue to change as online visitors alter
them - the Guggenheim can officially acquire them, a process that is
expected to be finalized at the foundation's spring board meeting.

Although there are a few online pieces in other collections, museum
acquisitions of Internet art are still rare. Steve Dietz, new-media
curator at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, said, "What the
Guggenheim is doing is what every contemporary arts institution should and
will do: treat Net art like any other contemporary art in its collection."

But for a museum whose primary purpose is to collect, exhibit and preserve
art, online works pose a fresh set of challenges. How do you collect art
that exists everywhere - and yet nowhere - in cyberspace? What does one
acquire when there is no tangible object to possess? The artists have
conceived two new works, but what they have created is computer code, the
underlying set of software instructions that determine what is seen on the
screen and how it responds to user input.

So what does a museum pay for online art and what does it get? Mr.
Ippolito declined to reveal what the Guggenheim is spending, but a person
familiar with the acquisition process said it was in the range of $10,000
to $15,000 for each piece. In return, the museum receives the work's code
and the exclusive right to exhibit it.

Arguing that a discussion of contract terms misses the point, Mr. Ippolito
said: "The Holy Grail of selling a Web site is a red herring. To collect
an artist Web site is less about owning property than stewarding
heritage."

So the Guggenheim has set up a small preservation fund, the Variable Media
Endowment, to pay for recreating works endangered by technological
obsolescence. This is part of the museum's larger initiative to work with
artists in all ephemeral media, including video and installation art, to
make sure that their intentions are followed in case their works are
remade under different conditions.

How effective this will be remains to be seen, and the Guggenheim's two
Internet-based works are among the guinea pigs. No one knows what it will
take to preserve works in a genre that is less than a decade old and
subject to constantly evolving technical standards, but some action is
inevitable. Mr. Simon said, "With Internet art, it is only a question of
time before there will have to be changes to the code."

A painting may require the occasional cleaning, but software-based art
could demand a complete overhaul on a regular basis. Thus, for instance, a
piece that runs on today's Web browsers may fail in future versions,
assuming there will still be browsers in 10 or 20 years.

There are also shorter-term preservation issues. Both Internet projects
build on previous visitors' input, so they must be copied onto multiple
computers on a daily basis. A painting may be stashed at a Guggenheim
archive on the West Side of Manhattan, but "Unfolding Object" will be
stored on computers in Seattle, Mr. Ippolito's office and Mr. Simon's
studio. Recalling that the Guggenheim's computer network was knocked out
on Sept. 11, Mr. Ippolito said, "I can't let the destiny of these works be
at the whim of a power surge."

Although the cost to acquire the Internet works may be modest, Mr.
Ippolito said it does not reflect their true value. One must also consider
the museum's commitment to sustaining the works.

Mr. Ippolito said: "A pet owner who spends $5 on the runt of the litter
may be willing to spend thousands to keep it alive over time. Which is a
better marker of the value of that animal?"

Ultimately the works' real value will be determined by their aesthetic
impact. Neither "net.flag" nor "Unfolding Object" represents a
technological breakthrough, but technology-based art need not be cutting
edge. Instead, these projects are refinements of ideas that both artists
have gnawed on before.

Mr. Simon's "Unfolding Object" confronts visitors with a Josef Albers-like
square within a square. Clicking on one of the central square's edges
causes another square to swing open from it, as does clicking on any of
the successive squares' edges. As the virtual object unfolds, each square
contains marks indicating how many visitors have previously opened that
exact square.

Playing with "Unfolding Object" is akin to popping the pockets in Bubble
Wrap, but there is a more serious purpose. As in the "Alter Stats" project
on his www.numeral.com site, Mr. Simon has built a history of past
interactions into the work. Visitors to the new work must decide if they
want to follow well-trod paths or strike out on their own, a nice metaphor
for the creative process.

In "net.flag," Mr. Napier lets visitors wage a symbolic battle over
virtual turf. On the site there is a flag that can be digitally changed
however one likes. A French flag could be replaced by an Italian one, or
the red stripes in the United States flag could be turned into an Arabic
green. The work gained new resonance after Sept. 11, but it is more about
whether it is possible to stake a claim in cyberspace, where there are no
boundaries.

As in other projects on Mr. Napier's Potatoland.org site, he encourages
visitors to obliterate what past viewers have done. But this is the first
time that he is ceding control of a work to another. He said: "There's a
definite tug for me. It's like the male version of an umbilical cord."

The acquisitions are the remnants of an ambitious plan conceived in 2000
by Thomas Krens, the Guggenheim director, under which the museum was to
commission 20 online works the first year.

Because of the Guggenheim's financial troubles, that plan fell by the
wayside along with the stalled Guggenheim.com e-commerce venture. An
online exhibition space, the Guggenheim Virtual Museum, also seems
moribund. But Mr. Ippolito said he continued to discuss the possibility of
future commissions with other digital artists.

For Mr. Simon, the Guggenheim's ownership of his work provides a rare
possibility for the digital artist: a promise that his work may outlive
him. He said: "If the museum buys the art work and values it as part of
its permanent collection, there will be an economic incentive to keep the
code running. The museum is the archival storage for my code. Isn't that
what a museum does for art anyway?"

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Attila Tordai-S.
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