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Fresh cream. It's been a while. We did some contemplating. What came out
was that we decided to change focus a little bit here. Whereas before
cream would be a mixture of thought, theory and criticism, this year we
decided to become more concentrated. Hope you like the taste of it. 
When presenting cream at the second Berlin Biennial someone came up to
me to talk about criticism. Writing criticism, this man said, had really
challenged him to evaluate his thoughts and to check whether his value
'systems' worked or not. Considering this, and considering that we see
too few critical evaluations of projects, art pieces and festivals on
the net, it seems a logical step to concentrate on art criticism this
year. Thought and theory are not thrown overboard. They are inherent to
critique. Focussing more on practice via criticism helps keep our feet
on the ground though. 
Then of course there is the matter of art criticism itself. Like art it
is constantly developing. Where is main stream art criticism when it
comes to the practices of net art and its relatives (hacktivism,
projects for mobile networks, biotech art etc.) though? It does not make
sense to just complain that something is missing. 
To see if we could somehow get a grip on this a meeting was organized.
This meeting was connected to a public presentation of three cream
contributors (Sarah Cook, Tilman Baumgaertel and Frederic Madre) and
three artists (Graham Harwood and Jodi). The meeting took place January
25th in De Balie in Amsterdam and was non public. Several dutch critics,
curators and organizers were invited to brainstorm with us about the
question whether art criticism maybe simply needs some new tools in
order to be able to deal with present day art practices. These new
tools, media theory and media criticism, could help understand and
handle this new work properly. As networked media especially create a
situation in which media space and art institutional spaces merge both
these disciplines provide not only critical or philosophical knowledge
to grasp this art with, but they also give some insight into the
artists' material. Also, media theory has been the most influential in
many theoretical discourses in the last decade. 
Two maybe remarkable things came out of the meeting and evening
presentations. The first was that everybody seems to agree that the New
Criticism (for want of a better term) is developing as we speak. More
precisely: we are creating it while we speak (or write). So does this
mean we are far from any kind of consensus still? The second revelation
to me was that this New Criticism is as diverse as the art it covers.
Not just in its opinions (that speaks for itself and was to be
expected), but also in its approaches. Whereas a few years ago it was
still unclear where net art criticism would go, we can now see three
clear distinctions. First is the 'active' maybe traditional analytical
approach while the second is a more 'anthropological' approach. Both aim
to get a grasp on the larger picture of art today. Yet whereas the first
tries to formulate answers and new ideas of how to deal with art and art
criticism in an outspoken manner, the second one keeps a journalistic
distance. It more or less tries to paint a picture of the situation of
art by meticulously recording all that happens. Doing interviews with
artists is its most well known strategy. Then there is the third and
most radical approach, a pop art criticism aimed specifically at the
internet. This last form of criticism seems to actively separate itself
from any broad discourse about art. You can find representatives of all
three forms of criticism here on cream. 
To start of a new year for cream it seems best to present you the talks
and some thoughts that came out of the meeting in Amsterdam. We hope it
helps both you and us to warm up for the new year and cream's new focus.
Because some of the texts, especially this first one, are quite long
some issues of cream will only contain one or two texts. We appreciate
any feedback you have. You can send it to our info adress at
cream-info@laudanum.net, which is the adress through which to reach a
person(for subscribing, questions and comments). 
Today you find Sarah Cook's text on net art, art criticism and curating
in your mailbox. Sarah Cook is, together with Beryl Graham, managing the
website and mailinglist for curating new media 'Crumb'. In our next
issues we hope to present you the texts/thoughts of Tilman Baumgaertel
and Frederic Madre. Graham Harwood, the one artist speaker in Amsterdam
(jodi only presented their last work untitled-game, which you can find
as a free cd-rom on Mute #22 or at http://www.untitled-game.org) decided
his thoughts on art criticism were best represented by a special
interview done for cream. Another thing to look out for! 
Enjoy your cream.

http://www.laudanum.net/cream
http://www.newmedia.sunderland.ac.uk/crumb

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          Net Art, Art Criticism, Curating. 

          Sarah Cook. 2002.


Part One:

When I was a student learning how to be a curator in a curatorial
training program, we took classes with art critics - Michael Brenson
(who more or less was fired from the New York Times for raising the
issue of quality) and Peter Schjeldahl (who dropped out of college and
disdains theory but loves reading books). While Brenson taught us prose,
Schjeldahl tried to teach us to think like critics (because it would
make us better curators or better writers I am still not sure). He
created for us a number of interesting assignments based on his
favorite poets, his love of the beats and Raymond Chandler mystery
fiction, and his desire to see art and life always be a part of one
another. One assignment was to write a description of a work of art that
you could give to a cop should the work be stolen from your museum. You
had to write it in such a way that the policemen and detectives - who we
guessed didn't have time for art jargon - could imagine what the work
was, but also be able to distinguish it from fakes, or other works of
art just like it (assuming most robbers replace stolen works of art with
forgeries to give them more time to get away). Another assignment was
based on an exercise used by the literary critic W.H. Auden. It was to
compile a list (and I hope I'm remembering correctly) of art that:

a) you like and you know you should like,
b) you don't like but you know you should like (i.e. you should study it
more),
c) you like and you know you shouldn't like,
d) you don't like and you know you shouldn't like.

It was a litmus test of what you have time for, and how much you respond
to the pressure of public opinion, or, for the same matter, insider
opinion.

In reminiscing on these curatorial art critic training courses I read
with interest a news headline in England recently about the Institute of
Contemporary Arts in London. It turns out Ivan Massow, millionaire
chairman of the ICA, thinks that that most conceptual art is
'pretentious, self-indulgent, craftless tat' (i.e. art he doesn't like
and knows he should like, but wants to tell everyone they shouldn't
like). According to the Guardian Newspaper, Mr. Massow berated the
critics, saying they have bought into the establishment, for not showing
their teeth. "Boundaries have been pushed further and further but, I
wonder, isn't it all now rather piss-poor compared to the brilliant and
explosive interventions of our modernist forebears?" (1)

Massow  who has since been dismissed from his post - isn't the first to
blame the critics for turning their profession into nothing more than
shoptalk. A long lecture by critic Lane Relyea in Houston deconstructed
ArtForum Magazine as a trade journal catering only to the international
curators able to travel with museum budgets supporting them (while
critics with no institutional budgets to pay their plane tickets sit at
home working on the scraps left behind). (2) Adrian Searle, Guardian Art
Critic responded to Massow's claim that the British art world is in
danger of disappearing up its own arse' by saying he often feels more
like a proctologist than a critic' (though he in the end came down
against Massow's damning of all contemporary art as conceptual). (3)
Lane Relyea said:

'With theory now so widely disdained, art criticism has lost much of its
ideological heat, with fewer forceful positions or allegiances staked
out by either critics or artists. We no longer believe in theory as
intrinsically progressive and oppositional; it smacks too much of an
institutionalized language, talk smothered by professional obligations,
burdened by protocol, by footnotes. Instead we prefer to just talk -
casual talk like in everyday speech, like party talk, talk at openings,
or the visiting artists talks and studio crits at school, or the
artists talks at museums or in the growing number of magazine
interviews, shop talk. We prefer talk as an antidote not only to theory
but to writing in general, which seems too static, detached and
impervious compared to the direct and intimate connection we attribute
to face-to-face speech.' (4)

While I agree with some of what she says, if I learnt anything from my
lessons with those New York art critics it was that you didn't need lots
of theory to be a good critic; that good art criticism exists in the
descriptive middle ground between casual talk and ideological posturing.

What we need to examine in order to figure out what we're missing in art
criticism today is the basic nature of criticism itself. Art criticism
is based on judgments, more specifically, value judgments. Las Vegas
based art critic Dave Hickey, at a conference on curating, said:

'In truth, I don't think there's any serious discourse of art that
doesn't begin with the discourse of value, with a preferential choice.
... In my view, when we talk about quality in art, we are, invariably,
displacing some quantity of our own response, so that when we say a work
of art is good or that it has quality, what we mean is that some
quantitative measure in our own response invests it with value. What we
are saying, really, is: wow, I can look at this for a long time; wow,
this makes me really excited; wow, I can write a whole lot of words
about this (my favorite); or, wow, this is really expensive; or, wow, I
want to take this home and look at it for a long time; or, wow, this
work is so memorable that I can go home without having bought it and
think about it for a long time. These are all quantitative measures that
invest art with its perpetuity. They all measure one thing: the extent
to which a work of art presents itself to us as the incarnation of
values that we value. ... People come to the museum to figure out for
themselves what they think is good - to engage in a general discourse of
value - to ascertain or discover in works of art values that they
value.' (5)

He continued by saying that one of his personal rules of writing art
criticism is to 'make it personally more persuasive, and make it less
institutionally coercive' - a good rule that would turn criticism away
from being insider shoptalk and into considered opinion invested with
value judgments. 

In contrast to critics, contemporary art curators purport to make
institutionally coercive value judgments on behalf of the public. Backed
with public money curators insert themselves, often too visibly in my
opinion, between the audience and the art. Increasingly they collaborate
with the artist in the creation of the work of art, becoming both
patrons and producers (which can be a good thing as it recognizes the
need for a varied skill set in the creation of new art). It is curator's
personalities that become persuasive (see for instance the article about
Thelma Golden in a recent New Yorker magazine) (6). The privilege that
curators have and that critics do not is to be able to bring emerging
art forms into the canon - I don't believe critics and theorists could
do this alone. Often the greatest sea-changes in an art institution's
exhibition program, collection or way of thinking have been the result
of maverick, independently ambitious, yet under the radar,
self legitimating curators. 

Part Two:

Leaving aside the watering down of mainstream art criticism, the role of
the critic and the distinctions between criticism and curatorial
practice, the question at hand concerns the seemingly blind eye art
criticism has turned to the media arts. This topic encompasses an
awareness of the effects that the infrastructure behind new media  --
from the software industry to broad band interactive television -- are
having on all aspects of daily life and theory, not only the creation of
web-based art. 

In his 'Letters upon the Aesthetic Education of Man', Friedrich Schiller
wrote: 'I hope to convince you that this subject is far less alien to
the need of the age than to its taste, that we must indeed, if we are to
solve that political problem in practice, follow the path of
aesthetics.' (7) Which is to say, examining and critiquing all of art
through the lens of the most recent art (net based art) is not happening
because we don't need it to, but because it's not fashionable to do so
yet. If we're following the model of 'curators as the new critics' then
I would garner that this is why we have yet to have strong non medium
specific curators who are comfortable organizing exhibitions, events,
festivals, conferences and publications that mix the newest of media art
with other mediums - painting and performance, let's say. What we seem
to have instead is exhibitions like 'BitStreams' and '010101':
multi-media museums ghettoizing new media production into one show out
of the 12 or so in their exhibition program; or new media specific
institutions programming exhibitions and events that rarely catch the
attention of the mainstream art world. As Walker Art Center curator
Steve Dietz has said:

'To be obsessively focused on the distinctive characteristics of
incunabular media while omnivorously contextualizing across the fields
of art, technology, and culture seems about right. (...) If one is
exploring the distinctive properties of a medium, one exhibition is not
a commitment. If one is exploring a particular cycle of themes in
contemporary art, including tech art in only one of the exhibitions is
not a commitment.' (8)

Curators tastes in art (which art world skeptics think of as nothing
more than 'fashion' anyway) are still tied to its individually 'tangible
medium'. Which is why the comments from the ICA chairman are so
interesting. He is saying that his taste for conceptual art has worn
out, and that artists aren't taught to know their 'tangible' medium
anymore. What is a tangible medium anyway - something you can have a
feel for, right? (And by tangible I don't necessarily think 'tactile').
In that sense, is net art any less tangible than painting? To those of
us who spend a lot of time with it, the answer is no. We've all
developed a feel for net art, a feel for the difference between net art
and web art and code art and vr art, etc. Which makes you wonder what
Massow would think if he were shown some net art - which is for the most
part inherently conceptual (at least that's what I like about it) and
very medium specific. He obviously doesn't have a feel for video, but
museum curators now definitely sense the tangibility of that. Is it only
a matter of time before they get a feel for interactive, time based arts
that play on the network also? As Josephine Bosma, in preparation for
this panel asked: 

'Why was it most of us became uncomfortable when the first big net art
exhibitions in museums happened, mostly in the US? These exhibitions
showed mostly web based, aesthetically (visually) pleasing works. One
could say they show the dominance of the aesthetics of web design over
network thinking. (...) It seems like we see a very strong curatorial
view developing there of which we can ask ourselves whether it is based
on lack of knowledge or preference of works that easily fit in visual
art traditions. I think we should worry about both of these options, as
they are both destructive. The preference for web based works is a sort
of easy way out for curators. It helps them avoid complicated issues
around the net.' (9)

Perhaps. Another view is that which British art critic and theorist
Julian Stallabrass described at a conference on curating new media art:

'[Works of art made for the Internet] are different from even the most
radical works of conceptual art (which I think they follow on from in
certain sense), which retain some sliver of materiality that was seized
upon as they were drawn into mainstream art institutions. The ownership
and status of online works is a really difficult matter for the art
world sunk as it is in ancient craft practices and habits of patronage.
Even more terrifying perhaps than the sharing of music files is for the
music industry, because as Eric Hobswan points out, the art world has
not yet embraced mechanical reproduction fully, never mind the next
stage.' (10)

My take - based on discussions held on the CRUMB list - is that museum
curator's preference for web based works over installation based
networked art is based in part on the realization that you don't have to
give up gallery real-estate for it - it is cleanly contained within the
web browser. (11) Net art tends to be more ironic, conceptual, and
critical of the system, a feature of much of contemporary art, whereas
networked installation based new media art sometimes appears - at first
glance - as technological experimentation. This often results in the
museum having to hire someone to sit in the gallery and explain to
viewers how the piece works (which museums really don't like having to
do) or put up with it continually breaking down as it suffers the wear
and tear of many gallery visitors. Furthermore, commissioning work for
your museum's web site gives the impression you are opening your museum
up to the opinions and values of a new networked audience, (or a new
previously unreachable museum disenfranchised audience). But we digress.

Part Three:

To put the role of the curator aside for the moment, what makes the
little new media art criticism there is interesting to me is that it
seems to have been able to sidestep some of the pitfalls of mainstream
art criticism. For one, it mostly exists on listservs, on the Internet,
in emails, in hypertext, and this, our Houston critic would be pleased
to know is like both writing and something closer to 'face-to-face'
speech. Furthermore, these lists grew out of an anti institutional
stance (as did the work of the original net.artists, if we want to make
those historical distinctions) and as such, there has been far less
media art criticism that merely toes the institutional line because
there isn't one (yet). Further still, most of the good criticism of net
art works comes from a peer review system - fellow net artists know far
more about their 'tangible medium' than do curators (because they spend
more time with it). In this last instance, we come back to the often
lauded heyday of art criticism: the 1960s, the age of our 'modernist
forebears' when the pages of the New York Times bristled with debate
about color field painting and minimalist sculpture. Guess who were
writing the reviews then? The artists were (Barnett Newman, Donald
Judd), as were one or two critics (could you call today's Matthew
Mirapaul the Clement Greenberg of his time?), and theorists (which the
new media field has aplenty).

All this is to say that the conditions are ripe for a healthy state of
new media art criticism, but we're still in for a difficult fight to get
the effects of new media art to trickle down and re-colour mainstream
art criticism, and it probably won't happen until curators get more
comfortable with the media at work. There have been moments when this
seemed almost possible - I think particularly of General Idea's
networked mail art and media critical performances of the 1970s,
reviewed by a Canadian journalistic culture high on McLuhan inspired
media studies, or the writing about the failed but notable Bioapparatus
residency on VR at Banff in 1991 which brought artists in all media,
programers and theorists together. If we are truly to turn towards
aesthetics, as Schiller suggests, then we could begin to look at all of
art from the view permitted by the advancements of the newest art.
(Truthfully, I think this has always been the case: how do you
understand color field painting unless you've looked at a lot of other
painting and see it in that context?) Talking about the aesthetics would
be a welcome relief from the continual talk about the environmental
conditions of the creation and exhibition of that art (the art world,
the media/technology industry). This means asking the difficult
questions about what constitutes new media art as art, in light of art
history, stepping away for the moment from the questions of what
constitutes new media art as media, as politics, as technological
developments, etc.

This type of art criticism is out there, but it is not prevalent. For
instance, the L.A. critic Bruce Hainley writes: 

'So much of what passes for contemporary art relies on providing
something which fits rather too snugly within the parameters of what
contemporary art is supposed to look like, usually by tediously rifling
on art already historicized and situated instead of testing the limits
of what art could possibly be.' (11). 

On the same wavelength, Cream contributor Sarah Thomson writes: 

'[in net art or web based art] There is often a sense of aiming to
transform/extend traditional formats, simply because the opportunity
exists online, rather than to explore network practices for their own
sake. These works perhaps fit more easily into visual art traditions for
that reason.' (12)  

This thought has been sustained in the work of mainstream art critics
who have tried to address what the aesthetics of net art are. Take for
example Blake Gopnik writing in a Canadian newspaper in May 2000:  

'Pop collage. Conceptual art. Radical poetics. Role-playing. Political
art. In case you haven't noticed, much Web art simply translates an
extant artistic genre into its cybernetic equivalent, with more or less
success.' (13)

This sense of net art being nothing more than the computerized
equivalent of conceptual art of the 60s is still prevalent amongst the
mainstream art critic crowd. Dave Hickey claims art on the Internet is
the popularized expression of the last 25 years worth of ideas in art
(he actually says that web sites are 80s photo text art (14)). 

How do we get beyond this constrained purview? I suggest we all begin
with our own lists: net art I like and know I shouldn't; net art I don't
like and know I should...


End notes/links

1. Fiachra Gibbons, 'Concept art is pretentious tat, says ICA chief.'
Thursday January 17 2002, The Guardian. (Mr. Massow's comments were
published in the New Statesman Magazine).

2. Lane Relyea, 'It's The End Of Art Criticism As We Know It (And The
Artworld Feels Fine).' On the web at:
http://www.core.mfah.org/show/assets_show/relyea_online_lect.pdf.

3. Adrian Searle, 'Do believe the hype: The ICA chairman claims that
conceptual art is 'in danger of disappearing up its own arse'. He has a
point, but what's new?' Thursday January 17 2002, The Guardian 

4. Lane Relyea, 'It's The End Of Art Criticism As We Know It (And The
Artworld Feels Fine).' On the web at:
http://www.core.mfah.org/show/assets_show/relyea_online_lect.pdf.

5. Dave Hickey, Responses to the conference 'Curating Now: Imaginative
Practice/Public Responsibility'. Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative,
2000

6. Ian Parker, 'Golden Touch', The New Yorker, January 14, 2002 

7. Friedrich Schiller, 'Letters Upon the Aesthetic Education of Man',
1794

8. Steve Dietz, from an as-yet unpublished essay from the proceedings of
the Banff Curatorial Research Institute's Curatorial Summit, Banff
Centre for the Arts / Walter Phillips Gallery, 2001
(www.banffcentre.ab.ca)

9. Josephine Bosma, question posted in an e-mail to CREAM
(http://laudanum.net/cream)

10. Julian Stallabrass, from the proceedings from the BALTIC
International Seminar on New Media Curating, May 2001. BALTIC Centre for
Contemporary Art, Gateshead, UK. (Extensive excerpts are online at
www.newmedia.sunderland.ac.uk/crumb)

11. CRUMB: Curatorial Resource for Upstart Media Bliss.
www.newmedia.sunderland.ac.uk/crumb

12. Bruce Hainley, review - Tim Rogeberg, Frieze Magazine,
November/December 1998

13. Sarah Thompson, in an e-mail posted to CREAM,
(http://laudanum.net/cream)

14. Blake Gopnik, 'Outta site: Web-based art is finally breaking into
serious museums and drawing big prize money. It hasn't yet reached
critical mass, but observers are predicting a fabulous future.' The
Globe and Mail, Saturday, May 13, 2000

15. Dave Hickey, 'Responses to the conference Curating Now: Imaginative
Practice/Public Responsibility'. Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative,
2000


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cream is an experimental collaboration of writers and curators in the
field of net art. cream will come to you as a (often irregular)
newsletter devoted to theory and criticism concerning art in network
culture. All texts and reviews are kept as short as possible, they are
not introductions to larger texts elsewhere on the net. The idea behind
it is to provide a continuous injection of critical thought into the net
art field, to provoke a more prominent critical and theoretical
discourse around art in net culture and to do this in a way that asks
for discussion rather then that it obstructs a flow of discourse. You
can subscribe to cream and we invite you to forward this mail to anybody
you feel might be interested in the content of cream.

Contributors to cream: Saul Albert, Inke Arns, Tilman Baumgaertel,
Josephine Bosma, Sarah Cook, Florian Cramer, Steve Dietz, Frederic
Madre, Robin Murphy, Tetsuo Kogawa, Sarah Thompson.

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cream would not be possible without the work and hospitality of the
House of Laudanum, http://www.laudanum.net .

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