Old Art and New Media: The Contemporary Museum

By Frohne, Ursula | Afterimage, September 1999 | Go to article overview

Old Art and New Media: The Contemporary Museum


Frohne, Ursula, Afterimage


Since the 1960s the museum's function as a domain for artwork in a formal and autonomous entity has changed into being a complex organism where art and the everyday collide and conflate into new hybrid forms of art practice and the art of living. Agency and action are gradually becoming the preconditions of art's reception. Models of participation are catching up with the sensory perception of self-contained artwork by demanding active exertion of influence from the spectator and placing him or her directly at the intersection between perception and creation. In her essay "Just Do It," Dorothea von Hantelmann states that "The concept of the exhibition as a reproducing and documenting apparatus has had its past. Exhibition programmatics of contemporary art are not oriented any longer to an historical consciousness/awareness, but instead to create an experiential intensity." [1] She continues with her diagnosis stating that "an art, which exists more in situations instead of complete works--setting this hic et nuc, live and in real-time into action--supplies the spectator/consumer/participant with a direct corroboration of his or her participation and receptivity to experience." The characteristics of certain kinds of artistic production, particularly interactive media art structured for a temporal event rather than a permanent presentation, constitute a challenge to the museum to experiment with new exhibition methods in order to deal with an "electronic avant-garde."

Whether one's reaction toward electronic images is motivated by fascination or repulsion, the triumphal march of the "new media" in society has a number of consequences for the definition of the contemporary art museum. There is a strong need to catch up, since most museums have staunchly held on to the historically-based difference between the aesthetic meaning and value of old art genres and new, technologically-produced work. Such museums have as much as capitulated in the face of the archival problems connected with these new ephemeral types of art by completely ignoring the visual possibilities of electronic images in fear of being overcome by a mundane flood of images devoid of any content and of getting increasingly involved in the mass media's maelstrom of banality.

In the relatively young history of the museum as an institution this resistance is not new. When we recollect how long it took for photography to be considered worthy of museum status and the reluctance to include video installations in contemporary art collections until just a few years ago, it becomes apparent that museum politics, which in many respects follow a profoundly conservative cultural mission, are more likely to impede a progressive acceptance of new art genres and artistic practices. Adding to this, many media artists and authors reject museum presentation. These protagonists of media art often view themselves as having directly inherited the legacy of institutional distrust from the zenith of modernism with its multiple anti-art and anti-institutional declarations, destined to render the museum obsolete and replace it with anything else--football stadiums, for example. The virtuality of new concepts indirectly connects with the subversive and critical actions of a past avant-garde and follows the Constructivist motto for a utopian concept of an international artistic language: "Not pictures, projects become living things." [2]

Seen from a twenty-first century perspective, the new economies of digitized reproduction and distribution of artwork via the Internet seem to replace the traditional museum practices of purchasing and collecting. The spirit of past imperial gestures, which is still present in the large historical collections in Paris, Vienna, London, Berlin and Munich, is losing its persuasive cultural power with the emergence of the ideological concepts of networks and the efficiency of communicative systems capable of making simultaneous contacts between distant spaces and identities in a matter of seconds.

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