Management of meanings - annotations on the curatorial work realized by digitalcraft.org
by Franziska Nori
The exhibition projects produced by digitalcraft.org, an independent curatorial team, aim to investigate selected topics of our current digital culture reflecting them critically. The projects are being exhibited mainly within institutional settings where digital art and culture generally speaking is still not being perceived sufficiently. Ultimately these projects are not mere (media-) art exhibitions. Rather, the digitalcraft.org team has set itself the task of carrying out projects that contribute augmenting the general understanding towards contemporary expressions of media enhanced culture in order to permit a potential audience to perceive its social, political if not ethical connotations and to form an own differentiated view. In this case art - or better, the arts - are treated as just one of the differentiated subsystems of society, alongside politics, economics and the natural sciences, which as a whole constitute society.
Digitalcraft.org's activities mainly serve to try out possible (new) models of exerting cultural influence.
One of the assumptions in this respect is that an exhibition is seen as a medium that cannot be neutral towards the information that it encodes and conveys. The use of media constitutes meanings per se. Attention should therefore be drawn to its structure, especially in the specific case of an exhibition, which in turn results in extended opportunities for managing meaning. In concrete terms digitalcraft.org strives not merely to develop art exhibitions following the traditional parameters as to design spaces in which specific topics are being deconstructed and reconstructed in public in order to provide a contextualized interpretation and to create a new structure of meaning.
The challenge lies in attempting two things at the same time. One is to create conditions that allow visitors to consider information and knowledge at the greatest possible number of different levels - in the tradition of enlightenment, as it were. The other is to stimulate discussion that, going beyond the purely specialist sphere, dares to aim at forming opinions according to both political and ethical criteria.
As an example, let us consider the current debate on security policy, with issues such as electronic surveillance in public and semi-public spaces, the introduction of biometric data in connection with ID cards, and the use of RFID technology to give uninterrupted control over the logistics of retail goods. The debate is primarily restricted to politicians and experts in the area of so-called security, each of whom focuses closely on the own particular point of view. In the social and cultural sphere, these developments have not yet been addressed on a larger scale. The amazingly weak reaction of the general public varies between vague fear and indifference. This fact might indicate that among other motives the lack of in depth public information and debate as well as the lack of an overview on a rather complex topic might have provoked a general state of indecisiveness towards an issue that is of such crucial interest to our democratic system.
The Curator as Mediator :
Yet it is precisely these matters that constitute the challenge faced by culture, which can no longer regard technology as a tool alone, but as a carrier of cultural content and social change. Technical achievements have had and will have a strong impact on all aspects of society, whether on the private or public life. These changes do confront the individual with ethical questions and actually do demand also political decisions of him.
Within contemporary society the active shaping of technology is itself becoming a power factor. Decisions on the forms that technologies, their application and the related juridical framework will take are often left up to technocratic, political elites or parties with commercial interest. Biometric passports are just one current example of this. The control of genetic technology and the development of global computer networks are also throwing up numerous questions, which have yet to be answered.
The interrelations involved are often too complex for individual person to be able to exert influence as knowledgeable and thus politically mature citizens, let alone to shape them and decide upon them. So how can they be empowered to acquire knowledge and gain an overall picture? How do individuals become qualified and competent to act as citizens who, thanks to their understanding of matters, are able to influence decisions on them? Only the committed individual, according to the existentialist philosopher and political activist Jean-Paul Sartre, can "bring it about that nobody can ignore the world and nobody in it can call himself innocent". Sartre's central conviction is that the person who is free from (or abandoned by) supernatural ordinance must bear not only the responsibility for his own existence, but also for others, in other words, for his social and political environment - the idea of the "homme engagé" (J.P. Sartre, L'Existencialisme est un Humanisme).
Against a background of this nature, a curator, too, can take on the role of a "homme engagé" when he observes, researches and publicly comments upon contemporary art and contemporary culture. His task could consist of putting visions and opinions up for debate. He can arrange for a large number of specific disciplines to encounter each other and enter into dialogue in the sphere of art as well, since specialist expertise alone is only visionary under certain conditions. Seen in these terms the curator might act as a sort of moderator who selects various aspects and points of view to a specific topic and finds a language in which to transfer the diverse expert's knowledge to a broader audience.
Exhibition Codes :
As a moderator the curator has to choose between taking a more neutral position or to adopt a subjective standpoint - formulating an own curatorial statement. The latter can be articulated primarily through the choice of themes itself, through the selection of contributions taking a stand already during the activity of pre-selection of contents and secondly through the arrangement of contents in space. The curatorial activity demands formal solutions for the displaying of work playing a decisive role in determining the significance of the exhibited 'objects'. From the 'Wunderkammer' to the 'White Cube' the history of curation has developed a vast range of possibilities for creating a meta-textual level of meaning.
Looked at in formal terms, digitalcraft.org experiments deliberately with the 'code' of exhibitions and its stylistic and curatorial elements. A strong influence is given by Harald Szeemann's work whose aim consisted in revealing correspondences between works independently from which period, culture or conventional stylistic context. Szeemann abandoned the classical classification standards to look for possible connections between the objects and works. The ponderate employ of light, space, colors or more generally the exhibition design also represented a key element in creating a 'language' to vehicle his views.
"I love you" :
Using a structural analysis of the "I love you" exhibition, I would like to present, in outline, several curatorial methods that digitalcraft.org employs, and subject them to public debate.
This exhibition has been shown in four different places to date. The first version of "I love you" was originally conceived in 2002 for the Museum of Applied Art in Frankfurt. It was adapted in 2003 for the transmediale.03 media festival in Berlin and again in 2004, with the title "I love you" [rev.eng], for the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University and for the Museum of Communication in Copenhagen. The original concept was continuously and systematically revised in terms of content and was adapted (in its design as well) to suit the contexts and the conditions prevailing at each location. At the Institute for International Studies, for example, students are mainly concerned with international politics. Therefore the exhibition was campaigned by a symposium, which focused on global risks of interconnectivity and new forms of global governance. At Copenhagen's Museum of Communication, in contrast, attention was focused not only on the artistic work but also on the network strategies as communication systems.
In case of the "I love you" exhibition digitalcraft.org aimed to enable visitors to gain a broad understanding of the phenomenon of computer viruses, approaching it from different angles trying to give an idea about the many layered interrelations. The project subjects the term "computer virus" to lexical analysis and shows it in its technological, social and political - as well as artistic and literary - aspects.
The exhibition had been structured to cover the following aspects (a full documentation of the whole exhibition and each of its contents can be found at www.digitalcraft.org/iloveyou):
The historical background of computer viruses, the technical background to understand their functioning, correlations with experimental literature (code as a language), selected art works dedicated to the topic of computer viruses, the context of hacker culture and its political, social and economical implications.
For instance, few visitors knew that historically the programming of viruses originated in an academic debate about artificial life and that in some cases it had required and resulted in highly advanced programming techniques; neither did they know that computer viruses can boast a history of over forty years.
digitalcraft.org opted to address the technical aspects of viruses and internet security in order to create a deeper understanding of the phenomenon, which the majority of the audience had only ever been confronted with as victims, if at all. The challenge laid in finding ways of designing visual translations for procedural events such as viral spreading and infections. We selected four of the possible ways:
by analogy with a museum collection - in the installation "In the zoo"; by visualizing the causes of viruses - through a terminal devoted to so-called 'payloads'; by mapping and visualizing the global spreading of viruses - in the interactive installation "Virus Mapping Tool"; and by a 'do it yourself' approach through installation "Virus Lab".
The installation titled "In the Zoo" involved two terminals. One of them contained a collection of pre-selected, executable computer viruses and worms. For each of these, digitalcraft.org designed a dedicated virtual PC to provide a secure environment for infection. The terminals thus constituted a practice area, in which the audience was explicitly invited to launch the viruses. Further a step-by-step guide with further information for every displayed virus was developed as additional didactical aid. The second terminal functioned as a log file reader, visualizing the traffic induced by the virus in the operating system.
Payloads are actions performed by viruses in an infected computer system. Not all viruses carry payloads. Payloads range from harmless text, image or sound messages, which may be displayed on the monitor, to extremely destructive actions that delete the entire hard disk. The curatorial team researched and presented a selection of visual payloads, which got 'recorded' directly from infected computers and then edited to create a long video projection.
digitalcraft.org designed the so-called "Virus Mapping Tool", which mapped and visualized the outbreaks of a range of selected viruses as they spread around world. Inspired by the aesthetics of games, digitalcraft.org programmed an interactive environment that allowed visitors, by operating a joystick, to experience the otherwise invisible processes involved in a global virus outbreak. For the creation of this installation, our team collaborated with the internet security company Symantec who provided a broad range of data about the national origins of viruses, their behaviour during spreading processes, their activity time spans and spreading cycles, and the rapidity and frequency of their actions. This data was been cross-linked with data like web population statistics, traffic patterns and security information, which then were inserted as a whole in a navigable world map.
The "Virus Lab" terminal contained a collection of eight 'Virus Construction Kits' (VCK) like the ones freely available in the Internet. This type of software provides an interface that allows the user to generate different kinds of viruses, such as Visual Basic worms, macro-viruses and Trojans, without needing knowledge of programming - simply by assembling pre-programmed code modules. By examining (reverse engineering) the viral code produced by the VCK software, programmers actually learn about the way virus work. Visitors were invited to play with the programmes. As the terminal was not connected to the internet, launching the assembled virus was strictly limited to the installation's environment.
A further topic of the exhibition was that of program code as language. Comparisons between traditional poetry and contemporary code poetry were drawn. A historic line from the Carmina Figurata of antiquity and the Middle Ages, via the concrete poetry of the 19th and 20th century, to modern poets to contemporary code writers and so-called code poets helped visualising concrete analogies between similar textual approaches. The curatorial intention lied in investigating possible correspondences between historic literary experiments with certain phenomena of current source code production.
Moreover, the exhibition examined the influence viral code and its anarchic dispersion structures had on the artistic production and therefore functioning as a source of artistic inspiration. Artists such as 010.ORG and epidemiC presented the computer virus "biennale.py", which, as well as being a self-reproducing program, is one of the first "art-viruses" to have been declared a social work of art. The work "The Lovers", by the British artist Sneha Solankis, uses two mutually infected computers to create an analogy of distorted communication between two lovers.
"I love you" [...but do you know what love really means?]' by the artist Caleb Waldorf is an installation video montage that reflects how the media portray the phenomenon of viruses and how governments and corporate entities react to the increasing threat of cyber terrorism. And finally the source code reading of the "I love you" computer virus made by the Italian media philosopher Franco Berardo evoked correlations between acoustic and textual experiments performed by Kurt Schwitters' in his public DADA readings.
A further focus of the exhibition addressed the motives of the hacker scene, in itself extremely heterogeneous. Questions of an ethical, social or political nature inevitably arose as part of the exhibition. What is a copyleft production? What is the thought behind the Open Source movement? What are the dynamics and the intentions of for example Denial-of-Service Sever attacks?
The exhibition presented a series of interviews lead in the internet with well-known virus-writers, which seen as a general study revealed a more differentiated picture than what is commonly propagated.
Also on display was "The Hacker's Manifesto" by The Mentor, written in 1986 is a historic document and probably the most famous essay about what it is like to be a hacker.
The exhibition gave a exceptional insight into the culture of hackers, by using a broad spectrum of film material created in the scene itself, such as "Freedom Downtime" by the New York hacker community 2600, "Hippies from Hell", by the Dutch director Ine Poppe, "TheBroken" by New York double_d, "Hippies from Hell" by Stig Sörensen made for the University of Tromsö and "Unauthorized Access" by Annaliza Savage.
digitalcraft.org posed all participants, corporate as well as hackers the question about the reciprocal influence that in some way connects the hacker scene and the security companies: who needs whom and why? At what point do economic interests play a part? Which firms are targeted for attack by hackers and why? Representants of internationally leading companies in the field of internet security like Symantec and Trend Micro were invited to engage in a moderated public debate with code writers and hackers using the museum context as a neutral platform of encounter.
Networks of Meaning :
The core consideration characterizing digitalcraft's approach sees exhibitions as well as museum collections in general as democratic (versus elitist) acts of aesthetic and intellectual statement with a high degree of educational effect. They contribute in creating the collective memory of a society and at the same time carry the responsibility of generating a "sense of historical place and meaning", as Bruce Sterling expressed it.
The consideration is based on the idea that exhibitions are strategic systems of representation. Depending on their content (subject of the exhibition), their context (the specificity of the given political environment, the historical context and the institution or site at which the project is shown) and their authors (artists and contributors of content), exhibitions create their own web of significance using a variety of stylistic elements. The assumption therefore lies in the fact that there is a communication established between the curatorial team (who creates a coded system) and the audience (who knows how to de-code, how to read the underlying intentions).
The spatial relation in which the single elements of the exhibition are put to each other and which reveal the curatorial assumptions play a key role. Therefore the aesthetics (site-specific and work-specific) along with the exhibition design and architecture helps creating a visual code as well as a meta-text between the works which is essential to explicit the curatorial notions. Some elements for example are the wall colouring (psychologically meaningful), the lighting (narrative element that adds dramatic emphasis) or the creation of spatial situations which bear specific connotations (e.g. white cube, black box, Wunderkammer Style or Petersburger hanging, in public site, in institutional site, indoors, outdoors). Furthermore a broad didactic concept which involves various levels of complexity in contents as well as different support media (guided tours, wall texts and labelling, interactive terminals, catalogues,...) contribute to meet the single visitor's desire for deeper understanding.
digitalcraft.org experiments with the use of different methods of exhibition design, the rhetorical elements of curation, so to speak, testing diverse approaches for each project. These can be applied intentionally to create an aesthetic code, which helps adding a further level of communication. This sort of 'meta level' might enhance a sensory level of experience, a rather associative and less verbal level, which in connection with works that often have a highly conceptual quality and therefore primarily addresses the intellect, seems to be of crucial importance.
If we consider the exhibition to be a medium of communication that generates a coded structure of meaning, one that the audience needs to decode according to its personal cultural background, we could say that the task of a curator, consists not merely of selecting objects and putting them on display, but that in presenting them he/she deliberately creates relationships of sense and meaning, thus formulating a curatorial statement. The audience's ability of decoding these statements is strongly related to its level of 'connaisseur-ship'. It therefore is the curator's assignment to function not simple as a researcher but as a mediator and to provide the viewer with tools that will help the latter to undertake this deciphering. This means that he/she has to empower others to acquire relevant knowledge. Within this line of argument it also is the curator's task to openly formulate his/her standpoint and underlying ideas therefore putting them at public debate.
digitalcraft.org's work strategy arises from a critical tradition that considers cultural and technological processes as inextricably linked.
In the Sixties, Carlo Giulio Argan (Italian historian and art critic, Turin 1909 - Rome 1992) published his work on the concept of reality in contemporary art. One of his fundamental conclusions is that art creates an independent reality. In order to perceive and understand it and its full implications, it has to be examined in the relevant historical context. C. G. Argan thus proposes a kind of art history and art criticism that does not act in isolation from all other aspects of society, rather one which takes into account as broad as possible, multi-disciplinary basis for its conjectures; in concrete terms, this means that art cannot be understood if one does not know the spiritual, religious, political, prevailing economic and social conditions of the epoch in which the work was created.
digitalcraft.org's curatorial approach might be seen as a continuation of Argan's postulates, in the sense that in conceiving exhibition projects it does not comply with presenting and introducing individual works of art in isolation from their respective contexts, but tries instead to show them in - and above all, against - their social backgrounds. What the digitalcraft team is trying to achieve in doing so is to convey a more broadly defined understanding of artistic intentions; one that does not explain works and their origins in terms of art history, but rather presents the ideas and attitudes inherent in them.
Further, as earlier mentioned, our work draws a number of parallels to the considerations made by the curators Rudy Fuchs and Harald Szeemann.
Their concept of 'laboratory' in opposition to the finished work of art as well as the idea of 'ahistorical' exhibitions are a fundamental starting point from which digitalcraft.org further investigates the possibilities offered by the exhibition as a medium. There is an established tradition of art critique applying a mode of analysis to the production of artwork, emphasising the process rather than the end product. Szeemann for example experimented largely with the idea of exhibiting the work understood as a process and not so much as 'object of art' like he did in the exhibition "When Attitudes Become Form" at the Kunsthalle Bern in 1969. The exhibition's innovation was to ignore all categories and to refuse to arrange and clarify according to the art genres like Minimal Art, Arte Povera, Anti-Form, Conceptual Art.
Szeemann's and Fuchs' intent was to reveal correspondences between works from different epochs and styles as well as from different disciplines and contexts. Szeemann suggested leaving behind the evolutionary view of art history and searching instead for the essence of a work of art, for its timeless dimension (e.g. exhibition "A-Historische Klanken", Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam, 1988). With his next project called "Happening & Fluxus" he pushed even further the event character of contemporary art. He started to exhibit also filed documents of happenings which had taken place only over a very limited amount of time. Szeemann took some of these ideas into his curatorial work for Documenta 5, where he had to come to terms with the difficulties of inserting his anti-institutional extrapolations of art into an institutionalized mass gathering.
Rudy Fuchs proposed the idea that classification in terms of style had become irrelevant, since style could no longer be the only criteria for evaluating the content, the position or the relevance of a work of art. As art began to be expressed in all sorts of media, materials and forms, style lost its claim to be the key to a work. Nevertheless, as curator of the Documenta 7, he decided to react towards Szeemann's Documenta 5 concept which focused on the time specific event character of art by remuseifying the exhibition site. On the one hand side he used the strong material and symbolic character of the Friedericianum as platform to emphasize the art work, but on the other side he managed to keep his critical distance towards the institution by defining the exhibition as a temporary 'in situ' event.
Szeemann further reflected on the role of museums as places which ought to protect art, because (and this is how Szeemann defines art) it is fragile and represents an alternative to everything in our society that is geared to consumption and reproduction (in: Archis 3 1988. "Vraaggesprek met Harald Szeemann"). Museums, in his opinion, are institutions that play a fundamental role in determining the significance of work of art. In the Seventies, Szeemann experimented with the function of museums, attempting to use them as platforms on which social contradictions could be made visible. On the one hand, he freed art from being restricted to museums, on the other hand he brought museums back into contact with the world outside. Considerations such as these stand in the tradition of Andrè Malraux's "Musée Imaginaire" and its historic continuation, Marcel Duchamps' "La Boite en Valise").
The Utopian Force of Art :
In the context of a rapidly changing communication and knowledge society, in which technological, scientific and social changes are happening at breathtaking speed, the role of artists and cultural operators can still be of crucial relevance to the general orientation of collective visions. Questions such as where our society is heading, who we still are and who we shall be, questions about our identity and questions about conceivable future scenarios are still of social - as well as individual - interest. I would like to plead for the original utopian force of the arts (consciously spoken of in the plural) in investigating existential matters, transcending art historians' classifications and market-driven strategies.
Without considering here the many causes of museums' loss of relevance in respect of their social role, I think that we can recognise a gradual change of awareness and a new attitude to self-legitimation in their work. Institutions are rising to the challenge by experimenting with event-driven concepts, mass-audience mammoth exhibition projects and edutainment for all ages, to name but a few.
Museums historically do have the purpose to preserve and present historical objects, fulfilling their function as part of a cultural memory, but in the society of information they find themselves facing an entirely new set of questions, regarding the culture of new media and internet.
Although digital technology has had a strong impact on all sectors of contemporary society, both in the public and in the private domains, neither the general public nor cultural institutions have yet developed a broad acceptance of current media art production as an equally valid form of artistic expression.
On can speculate whether this is because technology is only ever seen as a tool and not as a vehicle of cultural content, or whether those in the media art scene stick too closely to their disciplines and work too hermetically. A further explanation might be that the enormous flood of information to which we are subjected has created such a high degree of apparent complexity that it is nearly impossible for the average person to grasp all the factors and relationships determining political, economical, social and cultural reality today.
In the field of (media) art, curators can bridge the gaps that often separate different specialisms, bringing together a wide range of expert knowledge. They can play the part of intermediaries and moderators, or function as 'translators', or catalysts, between experts (such as artists and academics), the public and even museum institutions; they can contribute in creating knowledge and meaning and they can engage in ethical evaluations and debates. How? By making meaningful selections of themes and artists, by establishing correlations and interdependencies between discourses and by creating experiences that are visual (aesthetic) as well as intellectual in physical space.
It is fundamental principal for digitalcraft.org that we see our task as that of a mediator, functioning as a bridge between individual expert discourses and a participative public. We have found this task to be quite challenging, since it has to be performed anew each time, for every project, in accordance with the context and the content concerned. There are different kinds of communication; different levels of complexity have to be offered. digitalcraft.org recons its work to be a constant process of experimentation with tasks of this sort as to optimize the results. For this reason, we are searching intensively for exchanges of views and cooperation with colleagues, experts and institutions and are convinced that this event and publication will contribute to the further exchange of thoughts.