Director's Statement: A Moment in Time
by Bruce Wands
Anniversaries are a good time to pause and reflect on the past. Time has an uncanny way of putting things into perspective. What was once the present is now the past, the future has become the present, and yet there is still more of the future to come. The concept of Vectors: Digital Art of Our Time started with the desire to do something special to celebrate our tenth anniversary. The first New York Digital Salon exhibition was held at the New York Art Directors Club and was one the earliest exhibitions of digital art in New York. Over the past several years, the exhibition has evolved into an annual international survey of digital art. It has become more comprehensive, expanding to include prints, installations, Web sites, CD-ROMs, computer animation, digital video, essays on digital art and culture. Last year we added a digital audio and electronic music category. Each year we receive approximately 1,000 entries from all over the world. We choose several different jurors to give the exhibition a variety of curatorial perspectives, and to provide exposure for high-caliber international artists who use digital tools to create their work. The annual exhibitions generally consist of about 100 works from artists representing 15 to 20 countries. In the past we would open the exhibition in New York and then tour in Europe, starting at the Circulo des Bellas Artes in Madrid in January, and then continuing on to several other locations.
While we were pleased to see that the exhibition had matured, it was also this stability that prompted us to do something different this year. While the number of entries continued to grow, there was beginning to be a group of core artists whose work, regardless of the jury, ended up in the show every year. The primary idea behind the New York Digital Salon is to promote the art form and not the careers of a small group of artists. So to celebrate our tenth anniversary, we decided to do something unique.
Vectors: Digital Art of Our Time represents a significant departure from our normal format. The year 2001 saw major museum exhibitions of digital art at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Brooklyn Museum of Art. We were encouraged by the increase of public exposure that digital art was receiving. However, during our research, we also learned that digital art exhibitions in major museums were not being planned for the 2002/3 season. Also, the Whitney Museum exhibition concentrated on American artists while the Brooklyn Museum show focused on printmaking. The media also tended to treat digital art in these exhibitions as something new - an art form without a history. We knew from our ten years of exhibitions that this was not the case, and felt that the pioneers in this field, as well as important contemporary artists, also needed recognition.
And so our task began. What type of statement can we make with the tenth-anniversary exhibition that will be lasting and have a significant impact on art history? Our first thought was to do a retrospective exhibition by gathering the best work from the past ten years of the New York Digital Salon and making a large exhibition from it. While appealing at first, we were limiting ourselves to our archive and wanted to present a broader view of digital art with this exhibition. We also had done a Selected Works exhibition at the Corning Gallery in New York during the summer of 2001 that had a retrospective component to it. This exhibiton consisted of prints from the past several years, along with computer animation and a few interactive CD-ROMs.
Since the New York Digital Salon has generally operated outside the established art community, we thought it would be interesting to invite curators from major museums and institutions to select the work for our next project. I resisted the idea of using a single curator, since it would only provide a single perspective on digital art. Not knowing what I was getting into, I came up with the typical American idea of a "top ten." Ten curators would pick ten works each for a top 100 survey of digital art. While at first a simple and clear idea, the task ended up being far more ambitious than I could have imagined. I still believed it was a good idea: A large group of curators would eliminate personal biases and provide a wide variety of viewpoints. This would give the exhibition two important qualities. First, it would be the first true international survey of digital art. Second, it would be a truly unique collaboration among international curators. Given the global scope of digital art, this made sense.
The first question was, however, who were the top international new media curators? What criteria should we use in selecting them? Should we choose them by their particular specialty or museum association? We started by making a list of curators, museums, and cultural institutions that had a history with new media. We wanted the list to be international and composed of people who were experts in digital art. We gave considerable thought on how to divide the curators. Would we choose one curator for installations, one for computer animation, etc.? As the list narrowed, we decided to focus on curators whose area of specialty was new media. Dividing them by genre would also limit the perspective created. However, in a couple of cases, we did decide on specific individuals. Lev Manovich would focus on important publications and writings on digital art and Joel Chadabe would focus on electronic music and digital audio. Many weeks, letters, and phone calls later we had achieved our goal. What we did not realize is how busy these curators were and how difficult it would be coordinating their efforts. We established a private Web site where the curators could post their selections and maintain a dialogue.
Next, we had to establish the selection criteria for the curators. How were they going to choose the work? What theme would the exhibition focus on? We finally settled on asking them to define "works that have changed and are changing the course of art and music history, from the earliest days to the present, with an eye to the future." While extremely broad and somewhat vague, I really wanted to give the curators freedom in selecting the work. I felt it was important that the history of new media art be represented fully. Not only does the New York Digital Salon have a ten-year history, but artists have also been creating and experimenting with technology as far back as the 1960s, with groups such as Experiments in Art and Technology, started by Billy Klüver. When asked about the selection criteria, I would often use the analogy of a tree. I would say, "Digital art is like a tree finally starting to bear fruit. What I would like to do with this exhibition is to not only enjoy the fruit, but also take a look at the tree and explore how it grew and where the roots began."
What you will see in this issue is the whole tree, from the roots to the fruit. These works date back to the 1960s and continue to the present. Due to the sheer magnitude of this project, it has required constant rethinking. Early on, we found that our desire to produce such an ambitious exhibition would require three elements: committed curators, significant funding, and an appropriate venue. We also found ourselves working under several different deadlines: grant proposals, publication deadlines, venue exhibition schedules, etc. For example, the curators were asking where and when the exhibition would be in order to make it easier for them to choose work that would be appropriate for the space. As organizers, we were struggling with funding issues, which were critical in putting together an exhibition of this magnitude. To make things simple, I divided the process into four phases, so that all parts of the project could proceed simultaneously.
Phase One: Publication of the Leonardo Special Issue
For the past several years we have used this special issue of Leonardo as the catalog for the exhibition. It has been an excellent forum for the New York Digital Salon. While the exhibition has been the primary focus of the New York Digital Salon over the years, we feel it is extremely important to encourage and publish critical essays and dialogues concerning digital art and new media. While there is considerable content of this nature on the Internet, there are very few publications that deal with this subject matter.
Making the publication of Leonardo Phase One gave the curators total freedom in choosing the work. We asked them to look at this stage as more of an art historical process rather than trying to have everyone agree on a specific selection of work for a single exhibition. This freed them from the constraints imposed by a specific set of dates and a particular venue. We were very happy with the results, as you will see while reading this issue.
Phase Two: The Web Site
Now that we have completed the publication of Leonardo, we have entered Phase Two. The New York Digital Salon began creating a Web site to accompany the exhibition several years ago. Initially, we would leave the site up for a year and replace it with the following exhibition. As part of my desire to create a lasting archive of digital art, we now keep the exhibitions online permanently. We currently have the seventh, eighth and ninth exhibitions online and are planning to do a Leonardo publication and Web site launch in the fall of 2002.
We are now in the process of researching and gathering material from early New York Digital Salon exhibitions and hope to create Web sites for all of them. In addition, we are also expanding the role of our Web site. Previously, it had served to document the exhibitions. Starting in 2001, we began developing it into an online digital art and new media resource with webcasts, links, essays, and other content. While other online organizations tend to focus on net art, we are planning to transfer our comprehensive approach to an online format. In keeping with our expanded role of producing events throughout the year, we have put several webcasts with curators and artists online. We also hope to have these transcribed into text and translated into several languages in order to make the site accessible internationally.
Phase Three: The New York Exhibition
Since publication deadlines are early, at this time we are still in the process of finalizing the venue for the New York exhibition. This information will be posted on our Web site by our October publication date. It is our hope that the Tenth Anniversary New York Digital Salon will be part of the new media and digital art renaissance now occurring in New York.
Phase Four: International Tour
As in the past, we plan to tour this exhibition internationally. We have received a grant from NESTA (the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts) in the United Kingdom to research the educational content of an interactive digital art roadshow, which will encourage greater public understanding of this emerging medium. I will be working with Jeremy Gardiner, former New York Digital Salon juror and postgraduate pathway leader in Digital Arts for the London College of Music and Media. We hope to stage this roadshow in late 2003 and early 2004. It will consist of several conferences, panel discussions, exhibitions, screenings, and hands-on activities throughout the United Kingdom. We also hope to produce a documentary for BBC 4, as well as a Web site, Webcasts and a publication.
Digital art and new media have emerged with the Internet and the widespread availability of digital tools has given artists with a Web site a global audience. This has allowed them to circumvent the traditional museum and gallery hierarchy and get significant public exposure for their work. It has made the Internet a valuable resource for those interested in digital art. While everyone I speak with agrees that this has had a very positive effect on the art form, I also believe that it is more important than ever to bring a curatorial perspective into play. This is one of the reasons why we brought together a group of international curators in the first place. It is through their eyes that we can see and learn how to decipher the evolving aesthetic that is digital art.
A Look to the Future
The New York Digital Salon is now entering a new phase of its development. Our original mission of providing an annual venue for digital art has been accomplished, as evidenced by the growing number of major museum and gallery exhibitions and their recognition of digital art as a major force in contemporary art. It is our intention to focus on the Tenth Anniversary New York Digital Salon for the next two years. The statement made by this year's curators is too important to last only for a single year. We are planning a wide range of events and activities, including the exhibition, an international symposium, public programs, artist talks, screenings, performances and an expanded Web site. I am also pleased to announce that we are in the process of establishing the New York Digital Salon as an independent non-profit organization. Having begun ten years ago as a project of NYC/ACM SIGGRAPH, the New York Digital Salon has always been a volunteer effort, with primary sponsorship and support coming from the School of Visual Arts. It will now take on a life of its own and continue to support and promote the use of digital tools to create contemporary art and music.
In closing, I would like to thank all of the people who have believed in and given their time and support to the New York Digital Salon over the years. In particular, I would like to mention Silas Rhodes, the founder of the School of Visual Arts, and President David Rhodes for their vision and support.
As we look toward the future, we should all take a moment in time to remember the past.