- Mobile Performance
- Electric Speed
- Schematic as Score
- (Re)purposed Clothes
- Collaborative Spaces
- Device Art
- Digital Dub
- Rise of the VJ
- Sample Culture
By Domenico Quaranta
[Two stills from the exhibition Port / 1997 / Image: artnetweb.com]
The dramatic explosion of the internet around the mid 90s, and its diffusion as an artistic medium, has ignited the theoretical debate on curatorial practice, rarely livelier than in these last fifteen years. There are many reasons behind this, though it is beyond the scope of this essay to examine them all individually. On the one hand the Net makes the curator's job much simpler: it ensures faster, easier access to information, and email facilitates relations with artists and other members of the art system. Some assert that it makes the curator all the more necessary, because this vast sea of information calls for a filter, while others believe that the curatorial role has become somewhat redundant, as information is better filtered using the specific tools available - curatorial software - and because, in the era of links and tag aggregators, the filtering function attributed to the curator can be performed by virtually all users.
With regards to art on the Net, the debate has developed in two complementary directions. The first sees the Web as a new context for curatorial practice, which can be summed up as "online curating", while the second tackles the concept of bringing works designed for the Web into the "physical" arena, and how this process of translation might be effected. The concept of translation plays a key role for both: the first looks at translating curatorial practice into forms suitable for the Web, while the second regards translating works that exist on the Net into forms that are practicable in the real world. Lastly, both approaches have flaws of formulation, something which has inevitable repercussions on the debate itself, rendering it often tedious and stale, and forcing it to focus on seemingly false problems.
In the first case the main error, in my view, lies in viewing the operative arena of the online curator as Net Art. On the internet, art exists in many different ways, and draws life from a constant interchange with a wide range of practices, cultures and subcultures. In the first years of its existence, when the efforts of artists and critics were focussed on identifying the specifics of this artistic practice, certain barriers made sense, but now we all know that it's one thing to put your work on the Web, and quite another to create Net Art; now we all know that there is a big difference between software and software art, between fan culture and game art, machinima and video art. Maintaining these barriers means, at the very least, contributing to the ghettoization of Net Art, isolating it artificially from its context, and cutting the very ties that make it vital, interesting and contemporary. Just as it is about time for Net Art to appear on the cultural horizons of contemporary art curators, it is time for online curators to start looking beyond Net Art, to explore its links with contemporary art, corporate software, film narration, vernacular practices and so forth.1
In the second case, which brings us to the subject of this essay, the main error lies in considering the intangible nature of data and the presence of technology as the main obstacles that the curator must tackle in his or her mediation work; if you will, interpreting curatorial practice as a mediation between two spaces, rather than two radically different contexts. The curator's priorities are thus as follows: to transform the work into an object, whatever that might be; to bring technology into the exhibition venue and display it as if it were a key element of the work, and to be familiar with technology. As a consequence, curators do little more than complain about the fact that exhibition venues are not suitable containers for New Media Art; that New Media Art cannot be stored or commercialized; that people don't "get" it, and that the art system is not interested. Rarely, however, do they get round to thinking that this is largely due to their own inability. The scarce appeal of New Media Art, so powerfully exposed by Geert Lovink in Zero Comments2, is due first and foremost, in my view, to the inexperience of curators, their inability to comprehend that the mediation they must implement is above all cultural in nature, and the way they have banalized the concept of translation, which deserves to be reinstated in all its complexity.3 New Media Art is cooler than ever: we just have to make people able to appreciate its beauty.
'Translation is the action of interpretation of the meaning of a text, and subsequent production of an equivalent text, also called a translation, that communicates the same message in another language. The text to be translated is called the source text, and the language it is to be translated into is called the target language; the final product is sometimes called the 'target text.''4
The first thing we learn from the Wikipedia definition of the term "translation" is that translating means interpreting, seeking an equivalent for conveying a message in another language. If we try to import this statement into our argument, we can see that installing a computer in an exhibition space, and using it to display a website or work of software does not constitute an act of translation. This is more akin to a foreignism: a word taken from another language when there is no equivalent in one's own language. Foreignisms are generally looked down on by translators, as they represent a failed act of translation, and when they are unnecessary they are usually reviled as barbarisms.
The question we must address at this point, is the following: when we are in the position of exhibiting an online work in a real space, are foreignisms necessary? Is there really no "equivalent" that would enable us to convey the same "message" in a totally different context from the work's original one (the Net, the computer screen, the "private" use of a work accessible to all)? In other words: are we looking at a foreignism - undesirable but necessary - or a barbarism?
[The Net Art section at Documenta X / 1997]
When it comes to the first occasions where Net Art tackled the arena of real space, the records include shows like PORT: Navigating Digital Culture (1996)5 and Documenta X (1997). Both started out from the assumption that the dimension of Net Art was the Web, and that organizing a "real" exhibition meant not a display of "works" but a sort of access portal to another context. Both shows saw this foreignism as necessary, but tackled it in very different ways. In Port, the curators Robbin Murphy and Remo Campopiano created a lab-like space with technology exhibited as a cornerstone of the Net Art experience. This was at an early stage, where technology was still viewed as geeky, and where the exceptional nature of New Media Art lay in fact that it was "New Media" - very new, very media. At Documenta X, on the other hand, the French curator Simon Lamunière came up with an office-like space, with works accessible from various terminals not hooked up to the Net. It is significant that the main criticism of Documenta X concerned the office metaphor and this lack of connection: at that time no-one believed that these works could be "translated" into forms suitable for real space. Foreignisms were regarded as necessary not only by curators, but also by artists, critics and the public. What was challenged was the way in which it was incorporated into the target language: the frame, or, if you will, the notes in the margin.
[Jeffrey Shaw / Net.art Browser in the Exhibition net_condition / 1999]
Also in 1999, with the Net.art Browser designed by Jeffrey Shaw for net_condition6, there was no debate over the fact that the works were accessible via a screen in the exhibition venue: the problem was the fact that they were overwhelmed by a high-tech frame that had little in common with the spirit of the works, and that was in fact an artistic installation in its own right.
So when did foreignisms cease to be inevitable? The answer is banal: when artists stopped viewing them as such, and began to work directly on new ways of translating their works. When they began to think that technology could be put aside without necessarily interfering with the integrity of the message, or be adapted to the needs of the exhibition space. And when the public and the curators began thinking in the same way. At that time, a whole new era in Net Art and New Media Art in general opened up, deriving from a freedom of interaction with its medium that video art never enjoyed, and that is actually comparable to performance art. Video art remains bound to its medium, something that to date, and in spite of its success, has rendered it entirely unsuitable for exhibition purposes, an inadequacy never resolved by television screens, video boxes or screenings, and which is basically to do with its temporality and need for isolation in terms of lighting and sound.
As for performance art, there was a time when artists did not conceive of any kind of translation, in view of the blatantly unique, unrepeatable character of events. Nowadays not only can performance art be staged on more than one occasion, but also using a series of alternative presentational approaches: objects, props transformed into installations, images and video documentaries, etc. 7 New Media Art, when curators get round to realizing it, can aspire to a similar freedom. For this reason, confining a work of Net Art to a horrible networked computer in a corner of the exhibition space is a crime, or worse, a barbarism. That any good translator should avoid like the plague.
Mind the context!
'Translation must take into account constraints that include context, the rules of grammar of the two languages, their writing conventions, and their idioms. A common misconception is that there exists a simple word-for-word correspondence between any two languages, and that translation is a straightforward mechanical process. A word-for-word translation does not take into account context, grammar, conventions, and idioms.'8
'A good translator understands the source language well, has specific experience in the subject matter of the text, and is a good writer in the target language. Moreover, he is not only bilingual but bicultural.'9
Another die-hard assumption, and the most fatal for any kind of translation attempt, is that the transition is just a question of state: from bits to atoms, from process to object, from the intangible world of the media to the material world of life. From this angle there are no real translations, only metaphrasis, literal translations, like those offered by the numerous translation programmes available on the Net, producing translations that sound wrong to anyone who speaks the target language. Translating a work of Net Art for "physical" space does not mean simply transforming it into an object or an installation: it means adapting it to fit the aesthetic, cultural and formal needs of an audience different to that of the Net. It means knowing the context, the grammar, the conventions and the idioms of the target language. It means, for example, knowing that there are contexts like Ars Electronica and the Venice Biennale which have entirely different conventions and idioms.
In an essay written around ten years ago10, Lev Manovich proposed distinguishing between two radically different territories, in terms of culture and needs: Duchamp Land, namely the contemporary art world (interested in ironic, self-referencing, content-oriented, sophisticated works) and Turing Land, namely the New Media Art world (interested in simple works with a technological orientation, which take technology seriously and where possible employ it to the utmost of its potential). This distinction, albeit toned down by a decade of New Media Art of a duchampian matrix, still exists. Toshio Iwai feels more at home at Ars Electronica than Ubermorgen.com. I would add a third category to the original two, which, following on from the Manovich model, could be called Baran Land. This is the world of the Net, the people who vote for videos on Youtube, blog about their passions and give rise to 15-second crazes and celebrities. Those in question are often young, with a low attention span but high critical faculties, culturally voracious, technologically savvy, often nomadic and constantly moving between different worlds: Turing Land and Duchamp Land, naturally, but also fashion, design, videogames, film, subcultures of all kinds and degrees. The high end model could be Régine Debatty or Tom Moody, but the variations are endless. This is the Net Art public, an audience that does not look to art in search of a collectable item, or a novel application of a new technology, just a cultural stimulus.
But when we move away from that world, if we want to make a mark we need to fulfil other demands. Neglecting these out of ignorance, arrogance or a flawed idea of consistency means creating a translation which is unsuccessful, and therefore essentially unfaithful. It should of course be remembered that translation is not always necessary. If I feel that my text only has full meaning in its native language, I can oblige other readers to read it in this form only. Many net.art projects that challenged the concept of a work of art as a unique object, and questioned the other premises of the art system, never left the Web: the art public sought them out in their own context, and loved them for their very radicalism. Zero compromise = avant-garde, which net.art indeed was. But if we choose to go down the translation route, we need to compromise. It is about identifying the essence of each work, and trying to translate that into another language. In general, in Duchamp Land, if the technological interface, the connectivity, the processual aspect, the accessibility, the openness and non-unique nature of the work are not essential, it is a good idea to put them aside. If this is not the case, it is as well to keep them: the art world is open enough to accept open, replicable, processual works, if these aspects are an essential part of the work in question, and if their value can be transferred onto something else. Tino Sehgal's performances are an effective example. What is fundamental is that the translator, whether artist or curator, be not only bilingual, but also bicultural: and if he or she works both in the new media sphere and the contemporary art world, tricultural.