Exhibition Strategies For Digital Art: Examples And Considerations

Written in Stone. A net.art archaeology as partially re-enacted for net.art Painters and Poets, Mestna galerija Ljubljana 2014 (curated by Vuk Ćosić & Alenka Gregorič)

Published in: Lorenzo Giusti, Nicola Ricciardi (Eds.), Museums At The Post-Digital Turn, Amaci — OGR — Mousse Publishing, Milan 2019, pp. 177–198. Buy the book here

The aim of this contribution is to contest itself — or, rather, its title. It is to demonstrate that, at the end of the second decade of the twenty-first century, we have reached an evolutionary phase in the so-called digital arts in which there is no longer any point hypothesizing about whether it is necessary to develop specific exhibition strategies that may facilitate public presentation in the display spaces of contemporary art of works that make use of digital media in their production or distribution, and/or make reference to the themes, aesthetics, and procedures that have emerged alongside digital media. [1] Further radicalizing the matter, this text sets out to show that today, the “problem” with digital art lies in the very use of this term, and in the artificial logics of merging (of works and artists that have little or nothing in common) and of segregation (from the rest of contemporary art) that its use reflects, and at the same time contributes to maintaining and consolidating. [2]

Obviously, maintaining that displaying digital art has never been a problem and that this term never had its own raison d’être would mean constructing a historical falsehood: the current state of affairs is the result of an evolutionary process, and it is with the aim of tracing this historical trajectory that a title like “Exhibition Strategies for Digital Art” turns out to be useful, effective, and poignant. The first part of this text is dedicated to illustrating a series of important stages and emblematic moments in this process. The second part, through reference to Linda Nochlin’s 1971 essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” attempts to deal with the reasons for the persistence of the “problem with digital art” when by now it ought to be considered surpassed and resolved. [3]

Mediascape (1996)

“Art worlds provoke some of their members to create innovations they then will not accept. Some of these innovations develop small worlds of their own.” — Howard S. Becker, Art Worlds, 1982 [4]

The opening of art toward new languages, including “technical” media (at the time, largely photography and cinema), was a valuable conquest of the historical avant-gardes, taken up once more and broadened upon by the neo-avant-gardes of the 1960s. It was in that extraordinary moment of experimental opening that the then-budding IT technologies first made their appearance on the art scene — a presence that was immediately picked up on by various major exhibition events, as much in Europe as in the United States. [5] Without wishing to go into great depth, a dutiful homage must be paid here to the theoretical and curatorial work of Jack Burnham. [6] Burnham did not restrict himself to merely accepting the artistic use of digital technologies, but through his work, he also acknowledged the impact of cybernetics and theories of information on the dematerialization process of the non-digital artistic practices of his era, and on the advent of what he was to call “systems esthetics.” Thus he ushered in an authentically “post-digital” perspective that, had it been taken forward, would probably have altered later developments radically. [7]

Instead, what happened between the 1970s and 1990s was that after some initial signs of interest, for various reasons the world of contemporary art shut itself off from artistic experimentation with digital media, and also from critical reflection on their impact on culture and contemporary society. And so, while other “technical” languages (photography and video) slowly found their own path toward acceptance, media art followed a different path over those decades: that of the development of its own production, exhibition, and discussion context. That is, its own art world. [8]

The moment the art world became aware of the consequences of this schism may be symbolically traced to the exhibition Mediascape, held in the Soho venue of the Guggenheim New York in 1996. [9] It was organized by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in collaboration with ZKM (Zentrum fur Kunst und Medientechnologie) of Karlsruhe, Germany, with sponsorship from Deutsche Telekom. Founded in 1989, ZKM was putting together its collection, for which the Guggenheim proposed a number of masterpieces. Presented by Thomas Krens as the start of the Guggenheim’s commitment to exploring the relationship between technology and culture, the exhibition aroused critical reactions focusing on the intrusiveness of the corporate sponsor in the show’s design, the outdatedness of the “art and technology” paradigm, and the quality of a number of specific works. Roberta Smith in the New York Times, after strongly criticizing the sci-fi exhibition design and calling Jeffrey Shaw’s The Legible City (1989–91), an icon of media art, “one of the worst works on show,” went on to reflect on how the exhibition was unable to choose between art and entertainment, and ended up being a display of technology. Lucy Bowditch in Afterimage praised the works of Jenny Holzer and Bruce Nauman, but scoffed at the playful superficiality of the interactive works, concluding: “ZKM appears to have many toys, and at this point random distraction is the greater part of the game.” [10]

documenta X and net_condition

Be that as it may, Mediascape marked the restart of the uneasy dialogue between media art and contemporary art, which between the 1970s and the early 1990s had been sporadic and fragmentary. Aside from the dynamics that had led to this, the fact that it took place in 1996 was no coincidence. While as far back as 1982, Time magazine momentarily replaced its traditional “Man of the Year” with a computer, calling it “Machine of the Year,” it was not until the first half of the 1990s that there began to be a collective and public perception of a digital revolution under way. In 1995, with a glorious advertising campaign, Microsoft launched Windows 95, its graphic interface operating system, which was to ensure its lasting market presence. The following year, the event would constitute the apex of the trajectory outlined by Triumph of the Nerds, a PBS documentary that in celebratory tones related the unfolding of the digital revolution. Only a few years before, the World Wide Web had seen the light, then made popular by browsers like Mosaic (1993) and Netscape (1994).

In 1996, one of the web pages that could be found while surfing with one’s browser bore the words — in block capitals beneath the heading of the CNN website — “Specific Net.art found possible.” [11] It was a work by the Slovenian artist Vuk Ćosić, who had plagiarized and modified the interface of the famous television network to announce to the world something that had already been discussed over the previous months on mailing lists like Nettime. [12] The advent of net art marked a key moment in the history of the artistic use of digital media: their passage from economically inaccessible and hard-to-use tools, calling for specific training or collaboration with IT technicians and professionals, to tools that were ever more accessible and widespread — not to mention ever more user friendly, or at any rate available for amateur use. Net art opened a new chapter in the history of media art, in which the “high-tech” approach of the 1980s, based on creative experimentation with the medium, was coupled with a “low-tech” approach, founded on amateur use and often on the destructuralization and critique of the medium in question. None of the early net artists were trained programmers. Their cultural references drew on Dadaism, public art, and the anti-art movements of the second half of the twentieth century, in a manner recalling early video art in its deconstructive attitude toward the technical medium. Lastly, net art was the prelude to a phase that came full circle only some ten years later: one in which there is no need to be a “media artist” in order to integrate digital media into one’s range of working tools.

At the same time, by prevalently existing online and on a screen, net art offers a number of substantial challenges to the art world and to the exhibition space. It occupies another space entirely, in which there is no need for institutional mediation (that is, by museums and galleries) or cultural mediators (curators) in order to establish a dialogue with an audience; it makes itself accessible to a generalized audience, not just those “in the know”; and as it is public and freely copyable, like all digital data, it is not marketable or adaptable to the art world’s economy of scarcity. It was this very alterity compared to the tradition of media art, and this breaking away from the economy and the distribution circuits of contemporary art, that made net art one of the first manifestations of “digital art” capable of arousing interest in the art world. In 1997 documenta, one of the most important global contemporary art events, deemed it so crucial as to dedicate a section to it — one that also marked one of the first great curatorial failures in the presentation of digital art in an exhibition space. Curated by Simon Lamunière at the request of Catherine David, artistic director of documenta X, the net art section consisted of a room with blue walls, full of desks with computers on them, on which the selected works could be viewed locally, lacking any internet connection. The metaphor of the office space, the blue of the walls (the shade was that of IBM, one of the sponsors), the offline fruition, and the concentration of lots of works in an unwelcoming space were all subject to discussion and reflection, influencing all future attempts to present net art in an exhibition space. [13]

Another glorious example of curatorial failure in the presentation of net art in an exhibition space dates back to 1999, with the net.art Browser designed by Jeffrey Shaw for the show net_condition at ZKM. [14] The installation, destined to host a selection of websites, consisted of a great flat screen mounted on tracks, along which it moved on the basis of the orders given by the visitor using a wireless keyboard. On the wall behind the screen, the captions for each work were displayed (name of the artist and title), which were detected by an augmented reality system, which would immediately show the corresponding work on the screen in real time. In Shaw’s intentions, the net.art Browser “interactively positions virtual information in the physical space of a gallery or museum. It hybridizes the private act of surfing the internet with the public display of the websites visited, placing them like artworks along the surface of a museum wall.” [15] The problem with the installation was that its use of advanced technologies proposed a means of viewing works that irredeemably altered the perception of technologically simple pieces — pieces that were often critical of the rhetoric of innovation that is all-pervasive in the world of technology, and largely destined to be seen privately, in a domestic context.

An “Immaterial” Art?

The two examples given are indicative of an issue that would remain at the heart of the debate on the public presentation of net art in exhibition spaces around the turn of the new millennium. While other forms of digital art would find their natural “physical” context within the display space in the form of interactive installations, videos, digital prints, or sculptures, net art remained bound to online fruition, from a computer screen. It is just not made for exhibition spaces, and any attempt to present it as such had to come up with translation solutions that, if they were not put forward by the artist, had to be decided upon by the curator. In other words, the curator had to come up with the forms of display and the access interfaces for the works, lacking any ready-made solutions, burdened by all of the issues inherent in bringing a computer into an exhibition space. Hurdles included the obvious facts that, in the exhibition space, the computer inevitably becomes an object and part of the work, while in its private use, it tends to disappear as a mere access interface for viewing the work; that in museums, computers are usually included to offer further information, not to access the artworks themselves; and that in a public space, internet access should be controlled and restricted to prevent free surfing. Such examples well reflect the state of the web debate at the time.

In 2002 the curator and artist Mark Tribe, founder of Rhizome, addressed this issue head-on with the organization of a net art exhibition for Moving Image Gallery in New York. [16] Titled Net.ephemera, it substituted the display of the work with the display of “ephemera” — sheets of notes, sketches, diagrams, drawings — generated during the creation of the work. As Tribe explains on the archive page of the project:

This curatorial project grew out of a conversation with Michele Thursz…. We were discussing the difficulties of exhibiting net art in galleries and museums. Most net art is meant to be experienced as a solitary encounter. And many net artists saw their practice as oppositional to art world institutions. Putting net art in the gallery involves a recontextualization that can radically alter the experience and significance of the work. [17]

Net.ephemera treated net art as a performance or site-specific work that could be presented in a museum space only through fragments of its own making process and/or documentation.

Other exhibitions staged over this period took a less radical and more hybrid approach, blending the display of object fetishes and performance “props,” documentation (produced by the curator or generated by the artist), and the work itself on a computer in those rare cases in which it was strictly necessary, alongside a number of interesting “curatorial inventions.” It is no coincidence that these exhibitions addressed the narrative and “mythopoetic” dimension of net art: its effort to construct its own narrative, and its tendency to historicize and attribute a heroic aura to specific gestures and moments.

A minor masterpiece of curating, in this sense, was Written in Stone: A net.art archaeology (2003), curated by Per Platou for the Museet for Samtidskunst, the National Museum for Contemporary Art in Oslo. [18] Speaking of curatorial inventions, the steel ball poised on a red cushion in a Plexiglas case to represent the period in the expression “net.art” is now the stuff of legend, along with the six plaster busts commissioned from a local craftsperson to depict and celebrate the five artists who initially gathered around this term (Vuk Ćosić, Olia Lialina, Alexei Shulgin, Heath Bunting, and the duo JODI), and the screenshots of the home pages of a number of net art classics, printed and mounted in gilded baroque frames. The exhibition included a number of materialized works, for instance Classics of net.art by Ćosić, [19] a web page peddling (obviously nonexistent) monographs on Ćosić himself, Shulgin, Bunting, and JODI, translated into a sealed case in which the four images became real books (yet without any text inside them); and Introduction to net.art (1994–1999), [20] a text manifesto by Alexei Shulgin and Natalie Bookchin engraved and displayed on six heavy slabs of stone with the complicity of the artists Joachim Blank and Karl Heinz Jeron. Otherwise, “ephemera” were proposed in the exhibition space alongside documentation materials (emails, posters, self-printed publications), fetishes, and memorabilia donated by the artists, for instance the orange sweater purchased by Olia Lialina at her first festival, the Superman T-shirt often worn by Vuk Ćosić at conferences, and the bunch of roses (dutifully dried) that Ćosić received at the opening of the Slovenian Pavilion he curated for the 2001 Venice Biennale. As well as first dealing with the issue of digital time — in its twofold dynamic of obsolescence and historicization — as Lialina noted, the exhibition worked like a “link sent by a friend”: it substituted fragments of a story for the works, in an attempt to generate interest around a phenomenon that actually had to be experienced online. [21]

A similar attempt took place in Italy in 2005 with Connessioni leggendarie. Net.art 1995–2005. [22] The exhibition dealt with a broader time span, stretching from the heroic era of net art right up to software art and media activism, adopting a range of exhibition solutions depending on the practices and problems that it intended to recount. [23] A number of stories, subjects, and projects — from Digital Hijack (1996) to Toywar (1999), from RTMark to Vote Auction (2000–06) by UBERMORGEN — were recounted on large graphic panels, with the support of video and documentary materials. The panels, alongside video documentation of performances and readings, were also used to present works of “code poetry” focused on the interference between computer code and natural language, or that reflected on the relationship between original and copy, or the theme of plagiarism. The computers were used when necessary, for example to show a fair part of the works of software art, such as modified video games and alternative browsers. But even here, the choice was to print whenever possible. This was the case for example with Screen Saver (2001) by Eldar Karhalev and Ivan Khimin: a software artwork that consisted of instructions in natural language to set the default screen saver of a PC so as to make it reproduce a masterpiece of modernism: the Black Square by Kazimir Malevich (1915).

Post-Media, Post-Digital, Post-Internet

A number of common elements ran through the display projects mentioned above. All three focused on the exhibition, in a physical space, of “internet-based” or “computer-based” artistic projects. To different degrees, all three opted to leave the computer outside the exhibition space, or to make use of it only when strictly necessary (as in the case of Connessioni leggendarie, to display a number of software projects that could not be translated into other forms). At the same time, the choice to omit the computers and materialize the works or translate them into forms deemed acceptable to the world of art (video and installation) was not linked to commercial requirements, but rather to display needs or narrative aspects. This choice also reflected the desire not to spectacularize the technology in any way, and to minimize the importance of the most commonly celebrated characteristic of the field of new media: interactivity.

But perhaps even more important was the fact that, by the start of the 2000s, there were still very few works being displayed on the basis of a layout dictated by the artist. By way of example, consider two works displayed in Connessioni leggendarie: Vote Auction (2000) by UBERMORGEN and Biennale.py (2001) by Eva and Franco Mattes (then known as 0100101110101101.org) and [epidemiC]. Vote Auction was an elaborate media-hacking operation that centered on an internet site that declared it could provide American voters who intended to cast a ballot in the presidential elections the chance to put their vote up for auction to the highest bidder. The obsession of the American media and justice system with this project, skillfully kept alive by UBERMORGEN, generated a feverish level of attention, then expressed in legal injunctions, letters ordering them to cease and desist, newspaper articles, and even a whole episode of the CNN law show Burden of Proof dedicated to the project. In Connessioni leggendarie, Vote Auction was told with a graphic panel, and the whole video of Burden of Proof was presented as a “readymade,” alongside a selection of printouts of the countless legal documents generated by the project. In that same year, for a show at the Lentos Kunstmuseum in Linz, Austria, [24] UBERMORGEN defined the ideal means by which to present the work in the exhibition space, associating the name of the project (printed on a large canvas) with a 700 kg paper sculpture that, in a minimalist-type installation, brings together the above mentioned legal documentation.

Biennale.py is a computer virus created and spread for the Venice Biennale in 2001, in which 0100101110101101.org took part in the Slovenian Pavilion, then entrusted to Vuk Ćosić. In the Biennale, the virus was exposed to two computers that would infect each other reciprocally, and was also printed onto a large banner so as to be legible. (The code of the virus, written by [epidemiC], works on the interplay between computer code and natural language, and between the respective functions, giving rise to an executable program while still bearing semantic value.) It was spread online, printed onto T-shirts given to visitors, and recorded onto gold-colored CD-ROMs. Both its online diffusion and the print of the source code served the performance aspect of the project: that of the spread of infection. Over the years to come, 0100101110101101.org would come up with a spin-off of this work known as the Perpetual Self Dis/Infecting Machine (2001–4): a series of computers, taken apart and put back together in a Plexiglas case, busily undergoing an eternal process of infection and disinfection. In Connessioni leggendarie, however, Biennale.py was told through the display of the source code printed and annotated by the artists (what Mark Tribe would call “net ephemera”), and through a graphic map illustrating the global spread of the infection.

UBERMORGEN and Eva and Franco Mattes are two early examples of artists who decided to invent for themselves the display forms of their own work, in the wake of growing interest on the part of institutional spaces and the start of collaborative projects with private galleries as well. The premises that warranted this trend to “self-curate,” more and more common over the coming years and ever more natural for new generations of artists, were manifold: the need to offer an adequate response to the requirements of the exhibition space, and to guarantee their own works a presence that would go beyond a computer stuck in a corner; the start of a dialogue with the art market; and the first reflections on the conservation of the works, in which the physical artifact became one of the ways (but not necessarily the only way) to deliver a digital work to the future.

But a progressive change in operating conditions should also be noted and, in a broader sense, linked to the rapid evolution of the relationship between living space and media space, and between the art world and that of digital communications. The rapid proliferation and normalization of digital media was to bring down any clear-cut separation between “virtual” and “real,” assuming that this separation ever did make any sense. At the same time, artists ceased to see the internet as a space of utopian projection and an escape route from the art world, and began to experience it as an extension of the world, with its own infrastructures, contradictions, and power balances. Having become part of everyone’s everyday experience, the digital sphere was no longer just an artistic medium, but a cultural area of reference to which it perhaps made more sense to “hat-tip” from within the exhibition space. As Olia Lialina explained in 2007:

Yesterday for me as an artist it made sense only to talk to people in front of their computers, today I can easily imagine to apply to visitors in the gallery because in their majority they will just have gotten up from their computers. They have the necessary experience and understanding of the medium to get the ideas, jokes, enjoy the works and buy them. [25]

This shift, according to Lialina, is not just natural but also fitting, for while the internet has now become an extremely stratified and confused discursive space, the gallery allows for greater concentration on the work, and thus becomes the ideal context from which to set up a critical reflection on developments in the digital sphere.

In her text Lialina also refers to a technological evolution that makes it ever easier for an artist to hypothesize exhibition solutions for their “born digital” works. She focuses on the production of screens and computers designed for public display, but the discourse may be extended to the improvement and enrichment of two- and three-dimensional printing solutions, on-demand production systems, and the emergence of open-source prototyping platforms and open hardware like Arduino.

All these developments, heralded by the reemergence in the critical debate of notions such as “post-media” and by the establishment of concepts like “post-digital” and “post-internet,” outline a situation in which the digital is no longer perceived as “other” but as a part of the real — in which the “digital revolution” has been overcome, and the novelty and “future shock” (I’m implicitly quoting Alvin Toffler) become the banality and “present shock” (I’m implicitly quoting Douglas Rushkoff). For the younger artists who in 2006 put together the first “surfing clubs,” it is no longer a matter of reconstructing the network but of inhabiting it — picking up, recontextualizing, and putting back together the fragments of this mediatized mirror of the “real” world. In 2008 the artist and curator Marisa Olson, one of the founders of the Nasty Nets surfing club, began to use the expression “post-internet art” to describe her work and that of her traveling companions: “I think it’s important to address the impacts of the internet on culture at large, and this can be done well on networks but can and should also exist offline.”26 As far back as 2006, Paul Slocum, also an artist, had opened And/Or Gallery in Dallas, a small affair in a garage that until 2009 provided various digital artists with the chance to come face to face with a physical space, and to experiment with forms of display in a familiar context, far from the limelight and frenetic rhythms of the great art centers. [27]

A few years later, on the basis of dynamics whose analysis is beyond the remit of this paper, the expression “post-internet” would end up assuming merely aesthetic and formal connotations, identifying a trend in the art world and in the contemporary art market, with all the problems that a development of this kind may entail. [28] What is important, on the other hand, to underline here is how over the first decade of the twenty-first century, supported most of all by galleries such as And/Or and others devoting their more or less exclusive attention to this sector, the artists reached the point of facing and solving the problems intrinsic to the display of born-digital, computer-based, and/or web-based works, formalizing them for the exhibition space in ways that leave the following question outdated or at best badly posed: Is it possible to develop specific strategies for the display of digital art?

Today, “digital artists” know how to inhabit the exhibition space, and in certain cases may propose a definitive formalization or a range of alternative solutions for the display of their works. Some of these solutions may demand a certain degree of technological literacy on the part of the curator, and the availability of a museum technician capable of solving whatever problems emerge on a case-by-case basis. But on the whole, what all these works require is the cultural openness necessary for them to be understood.

Experimental Display Formats

By the way, it should be noted that the process outlined did not necessarily develop toward the materialization of the digital, or of its adaptation to the characteristics of the institutional or commercial space of art — meaning, those of the white cube. Over the course of the 2000s, alternative display formats were proposed, largely by artists themselves, in order to meet their specific needs. This is the case with BYOB — Bring Your Own Beamer, proposed by the Dutch artist Rafaël Rozendaal in 2010. The need he was responding to was to create a display format that, in a period of growing professionalization of artists, would maintain those characteristics of openness, level comparison, and construction of relations that may be breathed online. Reflecting on the fact that anything inside a computer may be brought into a real space simply via a projector, Rozendaal and Anne de Vries invited a number of friends to show their works on the evening of July 20, 2010, in a studio in Berlin-Mitte, bringing their own computers and projectors, freely and without a predefined display. Presenting the project as an open format, Rozendaal encouraged its viral circulation, facilitated of course by the simplicity of its organization and the pleasantness of the situations it generated. Dozens of BYOBs were coordinated across the world by artists and curators between 2010 and 2017. [29]

A similar fate awaited Speed Show, an exhibition format likewise proposed in 2010 in Berlin, this one by the German artist Aram Bartholl, who in order to stage an exhibition of browser-based works rented out an internet café for an evening. The Speed Show maintains net art in its native habitat, the net, identifying a public space — albeit one designed for individual and private use of the computer — as its exhibition area. Like BYOB, the Speed Show also bent the rules of the game, associating the communication and documentation of the various events to a website that, so far, has staged fortyfive events around the world. [30]

Aram Bartholl recognized in 2013 that there is no longer such a thing as a gallery-goer without a smartphone connected to the internet in his or her hand or pocket, which led him to organize Offline Art, a show featuring nothing but modified routers, each configured to host an internet site associated with a specific Wi-Fi network. [31] By hooking up to one of these networks, the visitor could use their own device to experience a work on show. Offline Art was not destined for viral circulation, but having been released as an open-source project, it may be — and has been — used for other exhibition projects. Thus, in ways suited to the current moment, it solves a problem that appeared impossible in the 1990s: how to feature a work destined for private viewing in a public space, on a personal device, in the space from which we usually access the internet. Over time the problem solved itself because today the space from which we access the network could be anywhere: and Offline Art ironically bore this in mind.

What’s Left to the Curator?

“So why do I have a sense that the appearance and content of contemporary art have been curiously unresponsive to the total upheaval in our labor and leisure inaugurated by the digital revolution? While many artists use digital technology, how many really confront the question of what it means to think, see, and filter affect through the digital? How many thematize this, or reflect deeply on how we experience, and are altered by, the digitization of our existence?” [32]

The discourse laid out in this text would appear to lead to an inevitable conclusion: that today there is no need to develop specific exhibition strategies for digital art, and that displaying digital art is no longer a problem. The artists have solved it, for the good of the curators, who need do no more than insert the works into their display projects. The individual successes of certain artist figures, and the persistence — in fields both critical and institutional-commercial — of terms like “post-digital” and “post-internet” would also seem to point to the same conclusion.

Instead it is here that this problem reemerges, redefined. While exposing digital art is no longer a problem in museums, galleries, and the great exhibition events, there is still very little digital art to be seen. On an international level, there are a number of positive signals. And yet, even after Hito Steyerl conquered the peaks of the “Power 100” of Art Review, [33] it is still hard to respond to the provocation Claire Bishop launched in September 2012 from the columns of Artforum with more than a handful of names.

But it is most of all from a peculiar point of observation like Italy that the problem comes to light in all its seriousness. Among the directors and curators of Italian museums, there is not a single professional figure who can claim in-depth knowledge of this sector of contemporary artistic research. This has unavoidably led to little or no presence in exhibitions, in collections, or even in the critical debate. Among the Italian artists who may be referred to by this definition, very few have come to the fore on the international stage, despite the existence of an active and lively scene, again due to the scarce support of Italian institutions and galleries.

It being such a fitting example, I would like to present a personal case. In 2016, I was invited to propose an exhibition project for the 16th Rome Quadriennale. [34] This edition of the event, which dates back to 1927, had no artistic directorship, but intended to offer “a map of artistic production in Italy post-2000” through ten exhibition projects chosen by a committee, curated by just as many curators. As a critic and curator who has focused his attention on digital languages and themes, in situations of this kind, I often find myself faced with a dilemma: Should I come up with a “special interest exhibition” with a view to promoting and defending a series of practices that would not otherwise be adequately represented, or grant myself the luxury of an exhibition that might set off to explore new territories, in the hope that it might encourage others to cast their gaze on digital art? In the end I opted for the former, proposing a show of fourteen Italian artists reflecting on the impact of digital media on society and contemporary culture, entitled Cyphoria. Although the overlapping of artists among the various projects was common, none of the artists I put forward was involved in any of the other projects. Of the fourteen, only six had stable relationships with private galleries, and largely not in Italy. Some were very young; others, like Eva and Franco Mattes and the collective Alterazioni Video, had long careers already under their belts.

Most critics were quick to pigeonhole Cyphoria as “anecdotic” and “post-internet,” and criticized it for its “chaotic and confused” display, while carrying out very little analysis of the individual artists or actual works. [35] Of course, these readings may be attributed to the poor quality of the exhibition; but this is not the point I want to drive home. The thing is that if I had not played the role of “special interest curator,” an event that in 2016 purported to offer “a map of artistic production in Italy post-2000,” featuring young curators, would have otherwise completely overlooked works that make use of digital languages, or that, in Bishop’s words, “thematize… or reflect deeply on how we experience, and are altered by, the digitization of our existence.”

The need to insert a “special interest exhibition” in an event of this kind shows the insufficient integration of the digital arts in the world of contemporary Italian art; in other words, it shows there is still a “problem with digital art.” To put this into focus, I would like to draw on the theses put forward by Linda Nochlin in her seminal essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” (1971), dedicated to the identification of the so-called problem with femininity. Nochlin starts by contesting the existence of any form of femininity that may be expressed in art: while there are common traits among the artists belonging to specific schools or trends,

No such common qualities of “femininity” would seem to link the styles of women artists generally. … In every instance, women artists and writers would seem to be closer to other artists and writers of their own period and outlook than they are to each other. [36]

Having established this, Nochlin locates the problem in the social structures that have prevented women from dedicating themselves to art, or when they have done so, to rise to a level of greatness comparable with that of their male colleagues:

The fault lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles, or our empty internal spaces, but in our institutions and our education — education understood to include everything that happens to us from the moment we enter this world of meaningful symbols, signs, and signals. … Thus the question of women’s equality… devolves not upon the relative benevolence or ill-will of individual men, nor the self-confidence or abjectness of individual women, but rather on the very nature of our institutional structures themselves and the view of reality which they impose on the human beings who are part of them. [37]

In conclusion, there is no such thing as female art: there is a society and its institutional structures that have developed and incorporated a vision of art based on the mythology of the hero-creator that only conceives of women making art by way of exception. There is no female problem: the problem lies in the institutions and the vision they implement.

Nochlin’s argument may be easily mapped onto the “problem with digital art.” There are no digital artists; digital art does not exist, for there is no essence of “digitality” that might be identified indiscriminately in all the artists that have been recognized over time in this category, and because the elements in common between the digital artists active since the 1960s are much blander than those that link these artists to their contemporaries. There are artists or works that make use of digital media, be it on an occasional or exclusive basis, and artists and works that address the social, cultural, political, and economic effects of digital media. There is no digital issue. There is an art world that, for a long time, discriminated on a training, exhibition, and discursive basis against the artistic use of digital media, and which to this day, despite growing awareness of the contemporary nature of these languages and the issues they raise, is still unable to completely deploy the conceptual paradigms, the linguistic codes, the technical knowledge necessary to fully integrate them in their own idea of art. Nochlin concludes:

The total situation of art making, both in terms of the development of the art maker and in the nature and quality of the work of art itself, occur in a social situation, are integral elements of this social structure, and are mediated and determined by specific and definable social institutions. [38]

The first step toward overcoming the “digital issue” will be the abandonment of any definition that leads us to consider it as a category apart, from digital art to post-internet or post-digital. The next step will be the change taking place in these institutions and in the vision of art they reflect. It will take time.


1 This text does not deal with the specific issues arising from the display of art in a digital context, in a browser, or through the mediation of other software or apps; nor does it deal with experiments that apply the notion of “museum” or “exhibition” to an archive device (see by way of example the Harddisk Museum by Solimán López, http://harddiskmuseum.com/, or DVD Dead Drop by Aram Bartholl, https://arambartholl.com/dvd-dead-drop-eng.html).

2 Used in a strictly technical sense, terms like “digital art” and “media art” maintain their own validity when we go on to study the specific issues arising from the works’ conservation.

3 Linda Nochlin, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?,” ARTnews; January 1971, http://www.artnews.com/2015/05/30/why-have-there-beenno-great-women-artists/; although for different purposes, Nochlin’s text was first used in relation to digital art by American curator Steve Dietz in his seminal text: “Why Have There Been No Great Net Artists?,” in Through the Looking Glass, November 30, 1999. http://www.voyd.com/ttlg/textual/dietzessay.htm.

4 Howard S. Becker, Art Worlds (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1982), 36.

5 Among the most meaningful events, we might recall Computer-Generated Pictures, Howard Wise Gallery, New York (1965); 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering, 69th Regiment Armory, New York (1966); Cybernetic Serendipity, curated by Jasia Reichardt, ICA, London (1968); Tendencije 4, Muzej za umjetnost i obrt, Zagreb (1969); Computerkunst — On the Eve of Tomorrow, curated by Käthe Clarissa Schröder, Kubus, Hanover, Germany (1969); The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age, curated by Pontus Hultén, Museum of Modern Art, New York (1968); Information, curated by Kynaston McShine, Museum of Modern Art, New York (1970); and Software — Information Technology: Its New Meaning for Art, curated by Jack Burnham, Jewish Museum, New York (1970).

6 In particular Jack Burnham, Beyond Modern Sculpture: The Effects of Science and Technology on the Sculpture of this Century (New York: George Braziller, 1968).

7 Jack Burnham, “Systems Esthetics,” Artforum 7, no. 1 (September 1968): 30–35.

8 On this topic, cf. my book Media, New Media, Postmedia (Milan: Postmedia Books 2010. English translation: Beyond New Media Art, Brescia, Italy: Link Editions 2013).

9 The featured artists were Ingo Günther, Jenny Holzer, Toshio Iwai, Marie-Jo Lafontaine, Bruce Nauman, Nam June Paik, Bill Seaman, Jeffrey Shaw, Steina Vasulka, Woody Vasulka, and Bill Viola.

10 Roberta Smith, “A Museum’s Metamorphosis: The Virtual Arcade,” New York Times, June 18, 1996; Lucy Bowditch, “Driven to Distraction: Multimedia Art Exhibition by the Guggenheim Museum Soho,” Afterimage, January–February 1997.

11 Vuk Ćosić, net.art per se, 1996, http://www.ljudmila.org/naps/naps2.jpg.

12 The Nettime archives are available at http://www.nettime.org/. The expression “net.art,” with the dot between the two words ironically hat-tipping to domain and file names, today defines the “heroic period” of this practice and the work of European artists who identify with this definition; in the text, I shall by and large use the more neutral and comprehensible form “net art.”

13 Part of the debate is available in the forum of the original site of the event, now accessible at https://www.documenta12.de/archiv/dx/english/frm_home.htm.

14 Curated by Peter Weibel, Walter van der Cruijsen, Johannes Goebel, Golo Föllmer, Hans-Peter Schwarz, Jeffrey Shaw, and Benjamin Weil. https://zkm.de/en/exhibition/1999/09/netcondition.

15 See www.jeffreyshawcompendium.com/portfolio/net-art-browser/.

16 Tribe founded Rhizome in Berlin in 1996 as a mailing list, and over the years it became one of the main organizations dedicated to the production, display, conservation, and discussion of digital art. See http://rhizome.org/.

17 https://www.marktribe.net/net-ephemera/.

18 An archive site of the project is still available at http://www.perplatou.net/net.art/.

19 See http://www.ljudmila.org/~vuk/books/.

20 See http://easylife.org/netart/.

21 See Olia Lialina, “Little Heroes and the Big Dot,” 2002, http://art.teleportacia.org/observation/oslo/oslo.html.

22 At Mediateca Santa Teresa, Milan, curated by Luca Lampo, Marco Deseriis, Eva and Franco Mattes, and Domenico Quaranta. See Luca Lampo, Marco Deseriis, and Domenico Quaranta, eds., Connessioni Leggendarie. Net.art 1995–2005, exh. cat. (Milan: Ready-Made, 2005). http://domenicoquaranta.com/public/pdf/Connessioni_Leggendarie_catalogue.pdf.

23 The expression “software art” came to the fore toward the end of the 1990s, when the advent of works like The Web Stalker (1997) by the collective I/O/D — an alternative browser that shows the structure of the web instead of its interface — introduced a reflection on the cultural use of software. The practice and its definition would be explored through platforms and special events, such as the “read_me” festival (four editions held between 2002 and 2005) and the online repository runme (http://runme.org/), which may be consulted for further reference.

24 Just Do It! The Subversion of Signs from Marcel Duchamp to Prada Meinhof, curated by Florian Waldvogel, Thomas Edlinger, and Raimar Stange.

25 Olia Lialina, “Flat against the Wall,” 2007. Transcription of the intervention on the panel Media Art Undone, Transmediale, Berlin 2007, http://art.teleportacia.org/observation/flat_against_the_wall/.

26 In Régine Debatty, “Interview with Marisa Olson,” We Make Money Not Art, March 28, 2008, http://we-make-money-not-art.com/how_does_one_become_marisa/.

27 And/Or Gallery reopened in 2016 in Pasadena. Its archive of exhibitions and photographic documentation is at http://www.andorgallery.com.

28 For further discussion see Domenico Quaranta, “Situating Post Internet,” in Renewable Futures: Art, Science and Society in the Post-Media Age, ed. Rasa Smite, Raitis Smits and Armin Medosch (Riga, Latvia: RIXC Center for New Media Culture and Art Research Lab [MPLab], Liepaja University, 2017).

29 See http://www.byobworldwide.com/.

30 http://speedshow.net/.

31 OFFLINE ART: new2, XPO GALLERY, Paris, curated by Aram Bartholl. See http://www.offlineart.net/.

32 Claire Bishop, “Digital Divide: Contemporary Art and New Media,” Artforum, September 2012, https://www.artforum.com/print/201207/digital-dividecontemporary-art-and-new-media-31944.

33 Hito Steyerl is an artist, theorist, and professor of new media art at Berlin University of the Arts. Art Review’s “Power 100” is a list of the one hundred most influential people in the art world, updated yearly. Her presence near the top of the list is explained by her ongoing effort to question the power structures on which the art world is based. See https://artreview.com/power_100/hito_steyerl/.

34 AAVV, 16a Quadriennale d’arte. Altri tempi, altri miti (Rome: NERO, 2016).

35 See for instance Ludovico Pratesi, “Quadriennale ieri e oggi,” Artribune, October 26, 2016, https://www.artribune.com/attualita/2016/10/confronto-quadriennale-roma-ludovico-pratesi/; Michal Novotný, “16a Quadriennale d’Arte di Roma,” Flash Art, November 27, 2016, http://www.flashartonline.it/2016/11/16aquadriennale-darte-di-roma-33/; Vincenzo Estremo, “Generational Quadriennale, Roma 2016,” Droste Effect Mag, November 4, 2016, http://www.drosteeffectmag.com/generational-quadriennale-roma-2016/.

36 Nochlin, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”

37 Nochlin, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”

38 Nochlin, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”