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NEW-MEDIA-CURATING  July 2012

NEW-MEDIA-CURATING July 2012

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Subject:

Re: July Theme: Collecting New Media Art

From:

Domenico Quaranta <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Domenico Quaranta <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Wed, 4 Jul 2012 16:43:17 +0200

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Dear List,

it's a great opportunity for me to be invited to participate in this  
discussion. The issue of collecting has obsessed me for a long time,  
and still does. At the same time, I'm a little bit overwhelmed by the  
need to reduce my ideas about this issue, which are very layered, to  
the form of a short statement, in a language that is not my native  
one. Hope it will work....

For the sake of clarity, I will try to divide the topic in three  
different areas:

1. collecting new media art;
2. collecting unstable media;
3. collecting the digital.

1. Collecting new media art. New media art IS collected, by private  
collections and institutions, as long as its cultural relevance is  
accepted in the art market field. That is, not so much, because  
galleries, art critics and curators didn't do a great job so far in  
making this cultural relevance a widespread truth in the field of  
contemporary art; and yet, enough to allow anybody to make a nice "new  
media art show" with collected or collectable works provided  
exclusively by private and institutional collectors or commercial  
galleries. That's what I - together with Yves Bernard - tried to do in  
2008, with the show Holy Fire. Art of the Digital Age (iMAL,  
Bruxelles, <http://www.imal.org/HolyFire/>). Budget limitations didn't  
allow us to provide a veritable snapshot of new media art collecting  
all around the world at the time, but I still believe that the  
exhibition was quite well representative of the forms in which new  
media art entered art collections: mostly in traditional, accepted,  
stable forms, such as digital prints, editioned videos, byproducts,  
and sometimes well crafted, artist's designed, plug-and-play "digital  
objects": from John Simon's art appliances to Boredomresearch screens,  
from Electroboutique's self-ironic works to Lialina & Espenschied's  
touch screen version of the web piece Midnight (2006). This is no  
surprise. Like it or not, digital media - like all unstable, variable  
media - challenge collecting in many ways. And along the XXth century,  
radical forms of art had always to face this conundrum: either accept  
compromise or stay out of the market. Performance art entered the  
market through documentation; video entered the market through video  
installations and editioned VHSs or DVDs; conceptual art entered the  
market through objectification and autenticity certificates.

Many of my friends think that compromise is a bad thing, and they  
dismiss these "products" as just a bad way to make money. If this  
argument was true, it would only mean that 99% of new media /  
performance / video / conceptual artists are just idiots, because they  
sold their soul to the Devil without actually changing their financial  
situation at all. The truth is that traditional artifacts often work  
as a preservation strategy for the artist himself, who doesn't know  
any other way to ensure his own (digital) artwork to the future. They  
are also means of dialogue and mediation, that help artists  
approaching audiences and collectors that may be unfamiliar with  
digital technologies, but also different spaces and different  
contexts: a clever choice, when technology is not the core topic but  
just a tool, or a display, or one of the many possible interfaces to a  
content.
In terms of quantity, when (in 2009 and 2010) I was curating the  
Expanded Box section for the Arco Art Fair in Madrid, I counted around  
50 commercial galleries all around the world working with at least one  
out of 136 artists that could be connventionally described as "new  
media artists", from Vera Molnar to Raphael Lozano-Hemmer. Either  
these dealers are bad businessmen who find a perverse pleasure in  
failure, or they have a small but brave network of collectors  
interested in new media art. So, again: new media art is collected.

2. Collecting unstable media. New media art CAN ALSO BE collected in  
its unstable, computer based, digital form. This is difficult, but not  
impossible. And it already happened, quite a few times. Why not? In  
the past, collectors bought conversations, candies, fresh fruit,  
living and dead flies, dead and badly preserved sharks, performances:  
why should they be afraid of old computers, interactive installations,  
websites, softwares, etc.? Also, collectors (expecially private  
collectors) are the kind of people who love challanges and risky  
businesses. Paradoxically, in the art world it seems to be easier to  
sell challanges than compromises. What they want in return is cultural  
and economic value. Collectors can buy almost anything, if it is  
interesting, highly desiderable, and if it can be sold back to  
somebody else at an higher price tag (not necessarily in this order).  
In collecting, the preservation issue always comes later. But both  
cultural and economic value are not a given. They have to be created,  
in a convincing way. That's why collecting new media in its unstable  
forms is going to be just a funny experiment, and an innocent game,  
until artists won't start talking to the right people, and until  
galleries, museums, curators and critics won't be able top persuade  
the art world about its cultural relevance.

3. Collecting the digital. The digital is challenging collecting in  
many ways, but the biggest challenge is probably connected to its  
reproducible, sharable nature. This turns scarcity into something  
completely artificial, and abstract. You can keep making limited  
editions, but you can't lie to yourself: there is no difference  
between the five certified copies of that video and the sixth one,  
that somebody uploads to YouTube and that hundreds of people all  
around the world download on their desktop. No difference except an  
abstract, ritual act of transferral of ownership. And there is no  
difference between the 5 collectors who bought the video and the 500  
ones who downloaded it for free: the latter don't own a bootleg, a bad  
copy, but the same file; they just don't own a certificate.

The other problem is sharing. A collector can accept almost  
everything, if he is rewarded with cultural and economic value. Yet,  
what most collectors can't still accept is to be the owners of  
something that is available for anybody else for free. Why should I  
buy a website and leave it publicly accessible to anybody, as Rafael  
Rozendaal suggests in his beautiful contract <http://www.artwebsitesalescontract.com/ 
 >? Why should I have no privileges and no rights, only duties? Why  
should I buy an animated gif (or a video, or a sound file) and allow  
it to circulate freely on the internet in the very same form?

It would be easy to conclude that, because of this, traditional forms  
of collecting won't never apply successfully to digital art forms.  
Brad Troemel recently wrote: “The commodification of internet art is  
not going to happen in the way the art market has traditionally  
operated or in any way currently being attempted. This all comes down  
to a simple square-peg-in-a-circular-hole economic dilemma, which is  
that digital content is infinitely reproducible and free while  
physical commodities are scarce and expensive.” <http://thecreatorsproject.com/blog/digart-why-your-jpegs-arent-making-you-a-millionaire 
 >.

What's true in this is that the digital allows another form of  
collecting, free of any money investment and available to anybody:  
downloading. This form of collecting has been widely practiced for any  
kind of digital content: from animated gifs to amateur photographs,  
from videogames to pornographic pictures. For example, a collection  
that is highly valuable to me is Travis Hallenbeck's Windows Meta File  
Collection, that can be downloaded from here: <http://anotherunknowntime.com/wmf.html 
 >. Hallenbeck collected more than 3,000 cliparts in an obsolete file  
format, that doesn't work properly on most modern computers. Most of  
these images – designed by amateur and professional designers along  
the 90s – are now rare, so Hallembeck's collection has an high  
cultural value. But any time anybody downloads his collection, he  
becomes the owner of a perfect copy of it – thus making these images  
less rare. Furthermore, since Hallenbeck is an artist, we should  
consider his collection a work of art: a work of art we can “collect”  
just clicking on the zipped folder. Is my act of collecting less  
legitimate because I didn't pay, and I didn't get a certificate in  
return? Hallenbeck is not selling his work of art on dvd, and he is  
not writing certificates of authenticity for those who buy it. There  
is no other way to collect this work of art: you can just download it  
for free.

Suppose that, in 50 years, Hallenbeck website won't be online anymore.  
Net art will be an highly respected form of art. And you, who  
downloaded this file and made your best to preserve it, will be the  
unique owner of a great net art masterpiece. Will museums consider you  
a legitimate collector?

What I mean here is that, even if a digital file can be reproduced  
infinite times with no loss of quality, scarcity is always around the  
corner. With the digital for the first time, art preservation can  
become a social, distributed thing, not something regulated only by  
those in power, such as institutions and economic elites. And thus do  
collecting.
And yet, this doesn't mean that traditional forms of collecting won't  
never apply successfully to digital art forms. Art collectors should  
be brave enough to confront the challenge, and accept the idea of a  
shareable property. When they will, they'll realize that becoming the  
legal, unique owner of something that can still be enjoyed, played,  
stolen, remixed by hundreds of people every day is an immense  
pleasure. Owning and sharing: isn't it what God is doing with his own  
property, after all?

Thank you for your patience,

My best,

Domenico

---

Domenico Quaranta

web. http://domenicoquaranta.com/
email. [log in to unmask]
mob. +39 340 2392478
skype. dom_40

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