murph the surf on Tue, 11 Aug 1998 09:41:46 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> A Shiny Red Sports Car

Another "mailbomb essay" concerning the concept of the "virtual museum"
also published in the upcoming INTELLIGENT AGENT 2.03


Virtual Museums on the Internet Symposium
ARCH Foundation
Salzburg, Austria
May 8-10, 1998

by Robbin Murphy

The Virtual Museums on the Internet symposium in Salzburg, Austria May 8-10
gathered together individuals involved with art, technology, communication
and law to attempt to define and interpret new technologies as they may
apply to museums in the future. It was sponsored by the ARCH Foundation, a
non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation and restoration of
cultural heritage, and  held in the conference center of the Schloss
Leopoldskron, home of the Salzburg Seminars.

The small group of about twenty presenters with the same number of audience
members, the beautiful, fairytale-like location and the unusually warm
weather combined to give the symposium itself something of the aura of
unreality often associated with the word "virtual", especially to those us
more accustomed to assembly-line conferences held in sterile convention
centers or spending our time isolated  computers. The Schloss Leopoldskron
is instantly familiar to most Americans as the setting for the movie "The
Sound of Music" - much to the annoyance of the locals, who would rather
promote their native son, Mozart - and it wouldn't have surprised me at all
if Julie Andrews and her children had stepped up to the podium to burst
into song before traipsing off for a hike and a picnic in the distant Alps.

Andrews and crew never materialized though the melodies of Mozart did seem
to follow us around  giving the whole weekend the feeling of a movie. And
that was, I assume, part of the reason the organizers chose the site - to
catch us off-guard in an alternative reality in order to reconsider what we
might mean by a virtual reality. The Schloss is, in fact, not a "true"
historical restoration from the 18th Century when it was originally built
but a theatrical recreation by director Max Reinhardt, who bought the
castle in a near-ruined state in the 1920s and "restored" the building and
grounds to relfect his own reality.

The ARCH Foundation was founded in 1991 by Francesca von Habsburg in
response to the destruction of cultural artifacts around the world and
particularly Central and Eastern Europe. While the group still sponsors
conservation projects they've expanded their mission with their "State of
the Art" mellenium progect to encourage contemporary artists to explore
connections between the past and present in their work. This requires new
ways of thinking about the exhibition of art in museums as well as the idea
of the museum and the possibility of creating an institutional structure
that will, in the words of ARCH, "define the four dimensional framework of
a new museum space which has no real world manifestation."

In order to achieve this goal the Foundation was joined in the planning of
the symposium by The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; ZKM - Center
for Art and Media Technology, Karlsruhe; Illuminations, London; University
of Applied Arts, Vienna; and Techno-Z, Salzburg.

The presenters, including myself, were a pretty homogenous group. With a
few exceptions we were predominately white males of European extraction
with many having established institutional reputations - hardly
representative of "global cultural heritage" that was one of the topics
we've gathered to discuss. On the other hand we did represent what I've
started to sense is a kind of "mid-life crisis" taking place in what was
only yesterday  called "new media" and what is now a conflagration of
techno/video/electronic and/or computer art coming to terms with the
Internet and all that it entails. Missing were some of the most interesting
artists and theorists working on and with the Net today from around the
world who could have added additional perspectives.

As it was we seemed to be engaged in what could be called the "shiny red
sportscar" theory of art history. We look out our window one day, adjust
our bifocals and see gangs of young Tadzios and Lolitas frolicking in an
open field. Though these youngsters  are immature and probably dangerous we
see they are gaining ground and want to join them. Where an individual in
the same position might buy themselves a shiny red sportscar, "new media"
now has the Internet to hop aboard. Being older, of course, we wear our
seat belts and obey the traffic rules but feel we're headed toward a living
present and away from what seems like the increasingly cemetery-like
environment of the traditional museum.

Off on our roadtrip there were no clearly demarcated roadsigns but most of
the symposium presentations seemed to have three general themes as their
	1. Defining the virtual museum
	2. Social aspects
	3. Artworks

The organizers of the symposium are to be commended for their willingness
to experiment, to do a broad field survey that generated more questions
than answers. Most presenters approached all three themes in one way or
another from the vantage point of their own area of expertise. I will
attempt here to give some sort of an overview of what was presented and to
try to create not a superhighway but more of a pleasantly winding alpine
roadway through the various ideas.


The term "virtual museum" has become a popular clich=E9 on the Web - an
AltaVista search turns up thousands of sites using these words as part of
their title -  yet what does it mean? A cursory review of sites show most
of them engaged in some sort of simulation of an existing institutional
structures and collections using the Internet as a means of distribution.
These "Web brochures" can be extremely useful and convenient but add little
more than guide books or catalogues do to the the museum itself while the
Internet seems to promise the museum the promise of a new dimension.

The basic premise of the traditional museum is as a place of fixity, where
authentic objects are collected and displayed. In contrast the current
trend is towards virtuality, process and participation demanded of
communication media and network systems.

 The talks that followed attempted to address some of the questions raised
by this opposition.

The Center for Art and Media Technology (ZKM) in Karlsruhe, Germany has
been one of the foremost centers for the creation and collection of
media-based art in the world and is now in the position of creating a
context for the development of the virtual museum. This is, however, at the
risk that many fear of dragging the past into that future while ignoring
the present social environment.

Hans Peter Schwarz, director of the Media Museum at the ZKM started by
asking if the museum, even in its state of inertia, still has a value as an
institution that can "stop the mad rush, if only for a moment, of visual
communication so that we can obtain an image of the world for reflection of
this environment?" The museum's relationship with other social mass media,
he said, has always been competitive and the relationship between new
electronic image media and the traditional museum hasn't changed.

We only have to take the resistance to photography as art by many museums
as a reminder of the basic conservativism that hinders the positive
acceptance of anything new, the fear of contact from "the other side,"
meaning, of course, outside the museum walls. The very difference of
interactive media art from traditional art objects, and its
interrelationship with mass media, blinds museums to the possibilities they
could offer  in the development of that art.

What is needed now is the development of useful criteria for new media
integration into museum collections and that means expanding the museum's
scope.  This entails acknowledging the many museum-like environments
emerging on the Internet created by people outside the professional museum
walls. This does not mean an out-and-out surrender. The traditional museum
has one advantage over all other mass media in that it confronts us with
the foreign, the unknown and even the embarrassing when other mass media,
dependent on public acceptance, cannot. Ironically, it is because of the
museum's distance, its seeming intertia, that the virtual museum can be of

Schwarz went on to say that the museum is one of the last places where one
can assess reality in an age of simulations. The issue now is to accept
that there are many realities, virtual and physical and that it might be
art's task at the end of this century to define, interpret and shape the
interfaces between these worlds. So it is then the responsibility of the
museum to organize these interfaces between mixed realities. He ended by
advising museums to be anticipatory - not imposing perspectives on the
history of art, but opening up a pool of possibilities from which art might
emerge. Not as a machine but as a structure with its own memory, reacting
as much to us as we interact with it -- essentially an electronic central
nervous system that will generate a productive situation between the
public, the artist and the museologists.

The virtual museum as defined by Schwarz  is relatively conservative and
retains the traditional structure we have from the 19th Century as a
physical site to house art objects, but expanded .

Taking this  view to an extreme, media artist and curator Peter Weibel
defined the virtual museum as closer to the classical "museion" or "home of
the muses": relying on an archive and acting as forum of discourse rather
than a place to store objects. The goal  should be to not treat the mass
audience as a mass, but to find methods of accommodation for the individual
through increased multifunctional variety that  would include
multidisciplinarity, multimedia and multiculturality. A "museum of multiple
choice"  that is situated "in the net" of culture and available to any
person at any time in any place.

In contrast to the tradition concept of a museum, no matter how decentered,
as the answer Alonzo Addison of the University of California, Berkeley
questioned the commitment shown so far to new media in recent high-profile
museum projects. He would shift the definition of a virtual museum  into
the wider realm of architecture, urban planning and 3d visualization that
is the concern of the Center for Environmental Design Research where he is
a project director for the Design Technology Group.

Unlike the Guggenheim Bilbao or the Getty Center in L.A., neither of which
include new media into the design several museums now under construction in
Japan have integrated the virtual museum into their planning stages. One of
them, a cultural museum on an island in Japan's inland sea, is part of a
larger master plan for the entire island that uses the net as a tool for
the preservation of its culture without the impact of cultural tourism.

Addison believes it is important for the virtual museum to realize the
potential for placing and viewing art in the context under which it was
originally created and to consider the virtual museum, like the physical
museum or the city, as a social place where people go to interact and build

To demonstrate this he worked with a group of international students in the
small city of Massa Marittama in Italy to create an Internet site
documenting the declining city with interviews, models, pictures, maps,
guides, VRML and QuickTime movies etc. While the end result was a typical
"Web brochure" the process by which it was created was  a community event
where citizens were able to re-experience their city and their heritage. A
previous project in another city resulted in the Mayor being able to ask
for funds from the European Union to build a media studio where the
citizens now maintain the web-site. The technology was a spark that
empowered the citizens, particularly the young, to re-inhabit their city.

The virtual museum, then, expands into the urban social network becoming an
important part of the overall structure, one that should be taken into
consideration at the earliest planning stages.

Another possible "site" of the virtual museum is the crossover between old
broadcasting and new network systems. John Wyver an independent producer
with Illuminations in the UK attempted to bridge the gap between television
and the Internet with a project called "The Mirror", a 3D social space done
in conjunction with British Telecom, Sony and the BBC. When that networked
space proved successful they took the next step and tried to integrate the
on-line system with a television program, broadcasting live from inside an
on-line world. Technically is was a triumph but the end result was
incoherent to television viewers.

Still, Wyver said he is undetered and sees the possibility of these
experiments evolving into a form of public service media with profound
forms of democratic participation.


No matter what its manifestation, the virtual museum is as much a social
medium as digital. Wyver joked about how, "the Field of Dreams principle
doesn't apply. If you build it, they won't necessarily come." He and his
partners had to create ways to draw people into the space and did that with
a combination of scheduled special events like weddings and art openings.
They also discovered that, like in the physical world, it was important to
have people in the space, especially hosts who were there on a regular
basis to introduce people and guide them.

These new social spaces are being explored by sociologist and media
researcher Volker Grassmuck who questioned the possibility of "cultural
heritage" on a global level and proposed if there is such a thing as "world
culture" it would have to be media.

How, he asked, can seven billion people consider a unique singular object
as their culture? Only technical reproducibility allows a trace of the
artifact to reach a "world culture".  As an example he suggested the caves
of Lascaux, which have been closed off in order to protect the fragile
drawings, while a replica has been built next to it for visitors. T replica
could also be reproduced for travelling exhibition using panoramic
projection systems. Thus we have "a powerful metaphor of an object being
closed off in order to save the abstract idea of the original." At the same
time, those who experience Lascaux as part of their heritage still have
access, at least a trace of it.

This would seem to be a direct contradiction to the belief voiced by
Schwarz  and others that the virtual museum is an antidote to simulation or
the re-enactment of cultural heritage that has become popular in museums
today. But Grassmuck points out  that museums themselves derive from such
re-enactments, practices to commemorate the dead using objects made to
manifest something other than themselves, acting as links between the
visible present and the invisible past. This is a distinct part of cultural
memory that bonds groups together and it's when this memory turns to
storage that the collections take on the character of a mausoleum and
objects lose their traditional use value. Societies become
"self-museofying" and collect not for  present use but for some perfect

Grassmuck sees the virtual museum (as well as the Internet) not so much as
the answer but  as a test tube  for on-going empirical research into the
questions. If we are to accept the notion of world culture, and that
cultural heritage is something worth preserving then what follows is a
demand for accessibility that can only be realized via media.

A separate panel on legal aspects placed many of these theoretical
considerations into more pragmatic terms, not just the question of
ownership and payment but also accountability - who is responsible?

 Graham Defries, a solicitor with the London based law firm Bird & Bird who
specializes in telecommunications law gave a general outline of
intellectual property issues and how current laws are being challenged by
digital technology. I followed with examples of artists who are taking up
the challenge and working with the resulting ambiguity and used Henry David
Thoreau as a model of point-to-point interaction. G=FCnther Wilms then
outlined recent proposals for copyright reform made by the European
Commission and implementing the World Intellectual Properties Organization
(WIPO) treaties.


There were a number of projects presented that point to possible directions
for the virtual museum to investigate in practice. Michael Naimark's
continuing investigations about making representations of actual places and
Rafael Lozano-Hemmer's large-scale projections based on his concept of
"Relational Architecture" show how virtuality cannot be separated from the
politics of place.

Jeffrey Shaw, director of the Institute for Visual Media in ZKM presented a
number of original artworks that embody paradigms to consider when thinking
about virtual museums even though most of the projects he showed depend on
high-end computing environments that make them inaccessible over the
Internet. He suggested, however, that they can still be studied as models
for future installations that may be able to take advantage of higher
bandwidth and computer capabilities. He also brought up the valid point
that the virtual museum should be understood as incorporating any digital
data to be locally or remotely accessed by a large public and that the
Internet should be understood as just one of many possible carriers for
this data. We should not discount working with technologies that do not
have broad accessibility at the moment.

Most of Shaw's examples have been widely exhibited, including his own "The
Legible City" where the visitor navigates through a virtual space by riding
a stationary bicycle. But he is right in that even though they may not be
geared toward Internet access, the ideas behind them are worth
reconsidering in light of the new network capabilities. My favorite was
"The Golden Calf" with it's LCD monitor attached to an empty pedestal,
which visitors manipulate to view a computer-generated imaged on the
pedestal. What was once a kind of miniature VR helmet now takes on new
meaning when considered as a "hand-held Internet appliance" or a "personal
browser". This goes to prove the importance of experimenting without being
overly concerned with practical application and the necessity of collecting
such work for future study.

There is, according to Shaw, tremendous diversity of potentialities of the
new media and new virtual museums should be created as extensions of the
artworks themselves.

Lynn Hershman Leeson, media artist and a professor of Electronic Art at the
University of California, Davis sees virtual museums as places where we
will find lost memories buried beneath cultural foundations where we will
both retrieve and built a history we've barely begun to imagine. The net,
she believes, is alive and expanding like the universe and communal
imagination is an important element.

Much of Hershman's work has been done in existing sites like motel room and
outside the museum walls. As a result her work has not had broad
institutional exposure as it doesn't conform to institutional demands.  She
has recently moved into the realm of mass media and completed a film about
Ada Lovelace, the inventor of the first computer language, titled
"Conceiving Ada". It combines live action with PhotoShop images as
background so that Ada moves around in a digital environment, which
couldn't exist without her original inventions. Her next project,
continuing her commitment to excavating our communal memories, is a film
about the Bride of Frankenstein.


The Guggenheim Museum recently announced plans for a $1 million program to
create a virtual museum later this year that will include both an expanded
Web site as well as studio space for an artist-in-residence program. As a
prelude they have commissioned a project for the Web by Shu Lea Cheang
titled "BRANDON:  A One-Year Narrative Project in Installments" that was
previewed by Matthew Drutt, curator of the project, during the symposium
and officially launched on June 30th.

The story of BRANDON - a woman living as a man who is eventually murdered
after her real gender is discovered - is true and, to say the least, a
controversial choice for a major museum.  It's this very controversy that
is the real theme of the project and the reason for doing it. The unease
produced by the subject is the unease of an overtly sexual Calvin Klein
advertising campaign or a voyeuristic TV talk show meant to draw the
attention of the masses as they pretend to be offended.

These ruptures of good taste draw our attention because they provoke, if
only briefly, small states of emergency in life, like a ride on a roller
coaster where reality shifts and causes us to rethink our position. Whether
BRANDON will go beyond its initial provocation remains to be seen as it
unfolds over the year but the basic premise for doing it, this shifted
reality rather than a virtual reality is something to examine when we try
to imagine a virtual museum.

ARCH Foundation

Schloss Leopoldskron

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

ZKM - Center for Art and Media Technology



Peter Weibel

Alonzo Addison

Thoreau, Walking

World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO)

Michael Naimark

Lynn Hershman Leeson


426 Broome Street, NYC 10013  212-925-1885
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