João Enxuto and Erica Love weave a provocative conversation with Sarah Hromack on the current and future roles of technology in institutional spaces. Discussed here, their work, Art Project 2023, embodies the social anxieties prompted by technology in its narration of a speculative digital future for the Whitney Museum of American Art. Did you know that the Google Art Project is building a vast and sophisticated private digital archive of art works owned by an international cohort of museums? Might we consider heralding the ‘collective’ intelligence of social media as a new form of folk art? These are just two of the many questions raised within this dialogue.
sarah hromack: The three of us recently participated in a public program called “Shared Spaces: Social Media and Museum Structures” at the Whitney Museum of American Art, where I currently work as director of the museum’s Digital Media department, and where you recently participated in its Independent Study Program. I know your practice fairly well, admittedly, yet I was struck by your presentation that evening: João narrated a fictive account of a dystopic future wherein, following a global economic crisis, the Whitney Museum’s Breuer had been purchased by Google for $500M in 2023 as the “physical interface” for its Google Art Project; in the tale, the building gets digitally mapped, razed, and replicated through 3D printing technology as a virtual “Art Project Museum.” Your narrative envisions a future where visitors use Google Glass to navigate the museum and “Google Glass Art Scholars”—recent art history grads, paid by Google—serve as a human interface to the otherwise-digitized experience. The story was an amusing one in some regards, but only in that it so accurately reflected the fears and anxieties technology raises in the museum space and the cultural sector writ large. So, let’s start this conversation with a little speculative feasibility study: do you believe that museums will be mediated by technology in some of the ways your story suggests?
joão enxuto & erica love: Art Project 2023 is a third- person narrative told 10 years in the future that reports, very matter-of-factly, on the fate of the Whitney Museum’s Marcel Breuer building as a Google acquisition; cloned, destroyed, and rebuilt as an interface for the Google Art Project. The piece focuses on contradictions in the art field. Stark disparities in wealth, economic volatility, and real precariety in the cultural sector might account for the “realism” that is conferred upon our fiction. We are interested in the many ways that technology is a welcomed palliative for the hollowed-out public sphere, and to museums in particular.
The feasibility of Art Project 2023 could be best assessed by taking the pulse of art institutions in the decades leading up to the rise of the digital economy. At least since the 1960s, modern/contemporary museums in the West have increasingly engineered spaces for participation, thereby foregrounding the frame of social interaction. In the late 1990s a clairvoyant curator could have preemptively hashtagged this tendency as “#NewInstitutionalism.” Now we are living through a period when most cultural institutions are being assimilated to the digitization of everything. The museum is a product of the Enlightenment with very particular and well-worn conventions. These institutions deliver narratives structured by archives that don’t seamlessly migrate to the computational logic of a database. Contemporary museums, on the other hand, carry the obscure baggage of avant-gardism; an imperative to test vertically ordered hierarchies and staid exhibition formats. So after decades of consenting to institutional critique and embracing social practices, the contemporary museum has been restructured to assimilate a newer horizontal paradigm, the network technologies of informational capitalism.
In Art Project 2023, we reason that if the “new ruling class of geeks consider the art world to be too elitist and pretentious to square with the populist Web 2.0 ethos that had made them very rich,” then it would only be a matter of reformatting parts of that art world into decentralized interfaces that feed the Cloud.
sh: Even though I actively advocate the use of technology in the museum space as part of my daily work, I nevertheless remain vigilantly aware of the tension that exists between the “natural” human-computer interactions that govern use of the smartphone or tablet computer and the more contemplative visitor behaviors that museum staff—curators and educators, most specifically—often desire to see. It could be argued that technology has altered the social order of the museum. And yet, as we know, the relationship between people and their devices is a real one; smartphones aren’t going anywhere. Perhaps it’s time to reconsider the definition of behavioral acceptability in the museum space? You have dealt with these issues extensively. Tell me more about what you’ve observed in your research and how it has informed your work.
je & el: The Museum of Modern Art launched its first app in 2010 and soon after that we noticed significant behavioral shifts in the museum audience. The public had ceded its leisure time to the production of photographs and networking options linked to their handheld devices. They were like artists-in-residence working through the possibilities of the museum selfie.
Since we are New York-based artists, we purchased an artist-rate MoMA yearly membership and returned to the museum over many weekends to do observational work, capturing the hyperactive flow in museum galleries on our own smartphones while gathering multimedia and crowd-sourced content from MoMA’s app and website. The cumulative effect was the revelation of Joseph Beuys’ famous maxim “Everybody is an artist” turned dystopic, when everybody, with the technological means, becomes a content provider. Under these conditions, to paraphrase Hito Steyerl, the museum becomes a factory where private experience and cultural production merge.
Several months later we decided to be counted among the museum’s burgeoning peer producers. Taking cues from the curators of MoMA’s 2011 exhibition, “Andy Warhol: Screen Tests”, we showed willful disregard for scale and the apparatus of 16mm film projection. From YouTube, we downloaded a digital version of Warhol’s Blow Job (1964) (titled with a MoMA copyright) and projected the file with pocket projectors next to MoMA’s sanctioned digital version of Blow Job. This action tested, for us, the enduring integrity of museum walls. Shortly thereafter we attended a Douglas Crimp talk at The Kitchen where he spoke fondly about the affecting materiality of the Screen Tests, the film flicker at 24 fps and the sound of the projector that confirmed that one was in the presence of another body. Crimp was seemingly describing an object lost to the museum in ruins, as imagined in his 1980 essay On The Museum’s Ruins.
sh: What was the reaction to your MoMA intervention—from visitors, as well as the museum’s guards? I’m interested in the tension that exists between the digital and the physical in the museum space. I know that you’re also interested in the Google Art Project—how does a project that articulates the museum’s holdings and program in digital form complicate the relationship between the digital and physical?
je & el: Visitors gathered to watch our impromptu screening. The gallery guards allowed us to proceed but requested that our friends stop documenting the intervention due to the museum’s photography policy. To date, MoMA lacks a video projection policy in galleries.
Art Project 2023 came out of our ongoing project “Anonymous Paintings” which are derived from screen captures of Google Art Project’s virtual “walk- throughs” of art museums where paintings have been blurred because of copyright restrictions. The countless hours spent in Google’s Museum View (there are 99 institutions with Museum View to date) helped us to imagine the virtual museum space described in Art Project 2023. It is worth noting that a corporation, not a publicly-accountable government entity, is accumulating the largest digital archive and the highest quality reproductions of the world’s prominent art collections.
sh: Museums would not exist without artists and the works of art they produce. What do museums, as institutions, produce in 2014? I think a lot about the viewer-as-visitor’s role in the institutional “production process”—especially when technology comes into play. Digital production only complicates this question: Instagram photos, Facebook status updates and Tweets are discrete digital products, whose value is determined in relative terms. How do these comparatively nascent forms of production complicate the question of labor in the institutional space? What’s the relationship between “participation” and “production” in the museum context?
je & el: New technologies have been deployed as social controls to connect an audience to museum networks that aggregate the flow of comments, images, and tweets. Much of this data is collected and repurposed for marketing. In 2011, a single clear acrylic drop box was installed in MoMA’s lobby to collect cards printed with the open-ended solicitation: “I went to MoMA and...” The box was part of a mass marketing ploy devised to mimic Internet crowdsourcing, but for us it embodied a set of institutional contradictions that we have sought to expose throughout our work. The acrylic polling box was an echo of the double boxes installed by Hans Haacke for the “Information” show in 1970. On the heels of his Art Workers Coalition activities, Haacke leveraged public participation and transparency in MoMA-Poll as a means to scrutinize the policies of the host institution. Over time, transparency and participatory strategies have become diluted buzzwords recuperated by museums as the rationale for the seductive technologies of information aggregation. A single acrylic box will now do instead of two.
On Google Street View, if you click west on 53rd Street, away from MoMA and past the ill-fated American Folk Art Museum, there is an empty lot surrounded by a fence covered by the crowd-sourced products of the “I went to MoMA and...” campaign. This free content was deployed throughout the city as advertisements on buses, bus stops, in newspapers, and on a museum wall surrendered by MoMA curators.
For Art Project 2023 we suggest that the “collective intelligence” of social media will be heralded as the new “folk art.” We speculate that the virtual galleries of the Art Project Museum will lose eyeballs to more established museums which hand over more than half of their gallery space to the display of real-time comments, tags, likes, grinds, and selfies: “Nothing stood between the public and its art.” Following the destruction of the American Folk Art Museum, the MoMA expansion will accommodate more social spaces to incubate the new digital folk art platforms called Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Google.
As a cultural critic, Sarah has written for publications including Frieze, Artforum, Art in America, Red Hook Journal (Bard College), Mousse, Print, Paper Monument, and Rhizome, amongst other websites, blogs, and print publications. First launched as an art school thesis project and now long offline, her blog, Forward Retreat (2000-2008), was part of the early cohort of American art blogs that bore initial influence on then-emerging digital publishing practices in the arts. Sarah's recent work is supported by a 2016 Creative Capital|Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant.
— A series of essays on the visual culture of motherhood.
— "@Artist: Performing the Digital Self " is an ongoing project awarded support by the 2016 Creative Capital | Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant Program.