Steve Dietz, the visionary founder and curator of the Walker Arts Center’s online space Gallery 9, was fired last week as the Walker put its plans for a custom-built Digital Art gallery on hold:
“Steve Dietz, the center’s new-media curator, and six other Walker staff members were laid off in a cost-cutting move that is expected to save more than $1 million annually, officials there said last week. Although the Walker is proceeding with a $90 million expansion scheduled to open in 2005, the center’s director, Kathy Halbreich, said plans to build a digital-art gallery would be deferred for at least five years”
[from the NY Times – log-in required]
Gallery 9 was undoubtedly a role model for other art museums’ engagement with digital and online work. Steve took in important historical projects, such as the archive of adaweb, the ground-breaking curatorial project set up by Ben Weill, and used innovative programming, such as the Art Entertainment Network, to create interfaces between online practise and the ‘real world’ of museums. Of all US museums, it seemed that the Walker really ‘got’ digital art, or at least had the savvy to support someone who really got it and gave them the chance to support innovative work. By firing Steve, they’re sending out the message that, in these post-dot.com-crash times, the internet isn’t a culturally relevant space anymore, and so institutions like the Walker can cut back on their online programmes and get back to the ‘real’ physical stuff that sits still and behaves itself.
But is this being too cynical? Mark Tribe, one of the founders of Rhizome, has suggested taking a wider perspective:
“We are certainly witnessing a retrenchment in institutional support, but these things develop in cycles. I predict that in ten years time every major museum (and many of the not-so-major ones) will have a signficant commitment to new media art in some form. Meanwhile, the boundaries between new media art and other forms of art are getting blurrier–a welcome transition, in my opinion. The walls of the new media ghetto are crumbling. Bring ’em down!”
[From Rhizome’s Digest email]
In 2000, at a Rhizome.org panel at the Kitchen a few years ago when the Whitney Biennale first included online artists, Mark introduced a phrase which elegantly described the bifurcation of net.art into two practises – one based on an exclusive relationship with networks, and one that tries to map networks onto physical museum spaces – ‘net.installation’. Mark now seems to be suggesting that this bifurcation was in fact a sequential, not parallel, development, and that the first phase of the maturation of online art is now over. The second phase will be the rise of ‘net.installation’ – work which mixes the real physical spaces of the museum with the radical dynamics of the net.
In this analysis, Gallery 9 will stand as the apothesis of art museums’ assimilation of the ‘first phase’ of net.art, but where are the role models for net.installation? The walls of the new media ghetto might have been brought down rather abrubtly, but the ingenuity of artists and curators like Steve Dietz will route around the rubble and find other homes. The trouble is, the resources to build something as substantial as Gallery 9 are rare, and normally built bit by bit (excuse the pun) over many years.
Of the three US curators who most successfully infiltrated the museum system in the late 90s, Steve seemed to be the most well established. Ben Weill moved from Adaweb in New York to a frustrating time at the ICA in London, before seeming to find his perfect home at SFMOMA, just in time for the seminal 010101 show. He’s now moved to Eyebeam Atelier, where I hope he finds the perfect environment for his curatorial skills. Christiane Paul is, as Rachel Greene points out in this week’s Rhizome Digest, the last remaining US institutional new media curator, by dint of her ‘adjunct’ position at the Whitney.
Is this the curatorial equivalent of the ‘glass ceiling’ I mentioned in my post about the FACT Centre? How can the excellent work of someone like Steve be brushed aside as if it were an expensive experiment? What kind of strategies can digital curators use to embed their work into the heart of institutions? And is it possible to do this without either compromising the intial political or aesthetic concerns of the artists, or creating a ‘ghetto’ that will condemn these artists to being a kind of prosthetic limb that can be discarded when the money gets tight?
I think Mark is right, in that there are cyclical cultural patterns that will see the re-emergence of digital art within an institutional context. But the problem is, without people like Steve Dietz at the heart of these institutions, it gets harder for artists to make work on their terms, and harder for audiences to see work that challenges and redefines the museum experience.