Report on training for curators in new media

For Australian Network for Art and Technology

Themes from Interviews
Results of Questionnaire Study

    1. Introduction
    2. The official brief of this project was…

      …to research and develop a framework for an intensive training model for curators interested in gaining skills needed for the inclusion of technology based artworks in exhibition and/or the development of exhibitions specifically dealing with artists working with science and technology.

      Within one generation, various computer technologies have emerged as media for artistic expression. However, such work currently lacks an exhibition context. One reason for this is a lack of experience by contemporary curators in work using this technology. An intensive training course provides an opportunity for a generation of curators to learn the new lexicon of digital art. The result will hopefully be engaging exhibitions of new media art in public art galleries.

      Research on the training needs of curators in new media began early May. Kevin Murray interviewed new media artists and curators in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Adelaide. These interviews are complemented by results from a questionnaire distributed in both soft and hard forms.

    3. Themes from interviews
    4. The aim of the interviews was to research issues that an intensive training course would need to face. These issues provided the structure of the subsequent questionnaire.

      Points raised by interviewees are outlined below without reference to their source. While there seems no obvious problem of confidentiality, the source of themes does not seem necessary to their understanding, and may confuse the messages.

      The interviews were conducted in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Adelaide. A list of interviewees is attached. Their principle focus was the process of putting new media work inside an art gallery. Questions were raised that covered not only the practical issues of displaying screen-based art, but also symbolic considerations about the destiny this art in a gallery space.

      1. Practical
      2. In spaces not normally setup for display of screen work, there was much said about the practical problems that delay installation. In a custom-made space, such as the Red Room in the IMA, CD-ROM art is much easier to show than normal work. Incidentally, the accessibility of new media artists on email greatly facilitates communication with the curator.

        However, the limits of a custom-made space are evident in the conflict between the immersive lure of a computer screen and the free circulation of an audience in a traditional gallery. Some interviewees advocated ways of showing work outside the small screen. One alternative is to project an individual's screen actions onto a gallery wall. Another is to construct booths that provide some privacy for visitors. With hard architecture, though, problems occur with variations of handedness and the elevation of the mouse. Though beyond the ken of this report, there was a suggestion of alternative display spaces, such as cinema and railway stations.

        One of the practical problems raised in display of new media work was the absence of art that is worthy of exhibition. A positive reading of this line argues that multimedia is currently at a Daguerreotype stage of evolution. A less favourable comparison is with film, which quickly established itself as a popular medium. The absence of distribution points for highbrow and art CD-ROM titles compounds this problem. One practical response to perceived paucity of available work is the development of a register of new media work for curators to access when compiling artists for exhibition.

        A related complaint about the new media art on offer is the relative dearth of thematic exhibitions. While the medium is still the main message, the capacity of this art to reflect meaning is limited.

      3. Symbolic
      4. One of the major disputes in the introduction of new media into the gallery space was the status of games. While the MCA exhibition Burning the Interface was seminal in allowing CD-ROMs into a sanctioned fine art space, it did so to the exclusion of works based on a game structure. The curatorial rationale for this exclusion was that games simply reproduce known structures of dealing with the world, whereas the task of art is to question our assumptions. Naturally, this is a point contested by those who write games for art spaces.

        One of the questions raised was the point of putting a screen-based medium in a space traditionally developed for hanging two-dimensional images on walls. Various opinions converged on the historic significance of a gallery as a site of art history, in which important manifestations of aesthetic vision are seen to occur. As such, the gallery provides a location where experimentation is possible, and thus where viewers have learnt to look more closely at its contents. Alongside this, it was thought that openings have a role as places for re-groove the social network and judge yourself alongside peers.

      5. Internet

      Various people have argued that CD-ROM is a transitional medium, awaiting the broadening of bandwidth that will open the Internet to immersive multimedia works. The prospective move online further abstracts new media art from the context of a gallery. The issue of connecting the offline gallery space to online network seems the next significant challenge to the imaginations of curators.

      One immediate response is to burn worthy web sites onto CD-ROM, providing gallery visitors with a filtered and accessible sample of this medium. A little further down the track, the development of communication arts, involving the live exchange of images and sounds, opens a different kind of window to the gallery space.

    5. Results of questionnaire

Questionnaires were originally sent out to a list of 52 individual email addresses and 36 hard mail addresses. Reminder emails were sent out with a link to an online version of the questionnaire. At the time of data compilation, 32 replies had been processed. Since then, another 12 have been received. While these twelve are not included in the percentages, their responses to open-ended questions have been incorporated.

1. My occupation is:  

Just under half the respondents listed curator as their occupation. The other half gave answers that ranged from program manager to HTML author. Of the 24 whose states could be determined, 9 came from Victoria, 7 from NSW, six from South Australia, three from Queensland and two from WA.

2. Previous new media experience:  
Produced CD-ROM(s) 12%
Exhibited CD-ROM(s) 33%
Explored CD-ROM titles 79%
Visited new media exhibition(s) 97%
Exhibited computer based interactive installations 64%
Exhibited Internet based art online 61%
Exhibited Internet based art in a gallery 42%

There seemed a reasonably high number of respondents claiming an encounter with new media art; and around half have some experience in presenting it, either in a gallery or online.

3. I would like training in these particular areas:  
Configuring computer for using CD-ROM 30%
Greater familiarity with local new media art 67%
Greater familiarity with overseas new media art 82%
How to set up live Internet link in a gallery 39%
Alternative installation paradigms for screen-based art 70%
Ways of taking computer art out of the screen and onto the wall 61%
Theoretical issues informing new media practice 73%
Design issues for installing screen based art in a gallery context 64%
Knowledge of technical requirements of installing computer based work in a gallery 58%
How to use the Internet for research 30%

Surprisingly, technical issues were seen as less important than aesthetic matters. There seemed to be a strong need to familiarise with new media work, particularly overseas work. As yet, there wasn’t a strong interest in ways of using the Internet inside the gallery, though investigating means of presenting work beyond the confines of the computer monitor was a priority.

4. Preferred form of training:  
Lectures 21%
Demonstrations 55%
Projects 42%
Research 27%
Group discussion 52%
Hands on workshops 73%
5. Preferred learning unit:  
Individual 21%
2-5 45%
5-10 61%
10-15 12%
over 15 6%
6. Preferred duration  
one week intensive 61%
two week intensive 15%
three week intensive 9%
weekend workshops 39%
one evening a week over a semester 27%
one evening a week over a year 9%
7. Preferred accommodation  
Residential 24%
Non-residential 58%

Responses indicated a strong preference for group work and active participation. The most popular format seemed to be a one-week non-residential workshop with groups of no more than ten individuals.

8. What factors are important when considering the display of new media works in an art gallery:  
technical support 88%
sourcing the right equipment 85%
finding new media works to exhibit 55%
avoiding the 'small screen' as potential trap for visitors 67%
supplying interpretive materials, such as a catalogue 55%
the appropriateness of 'interactivity' in a gallery context 64%
granting new media works and their creators legitimacy as artists 58%

The majority of respondents acknowledged all the factors suggested as playing an important role in the display of new media work. Practical considerations tended to outweigh the conceptual issues.

9. Example of work

A wide variety of works were cited as examples of new media that was appropriate to a gallery context.

10. The ideal place for viewing a CD-ROM is...  
Art gallery 45%
Cyber-café 42%
Library 55%
Cinema 27%
Privacy of one's own home 70%

Answers to the question about ideal viewing for CD-ROM problematise the aim of showing this medium in an art gallery. While certainly not the only format for new media, the answers do question the default acceptance of the gallery as the only venue for this work.

11. Playing a CD-ROM is more like reading a book than viewing a work of art  
Agree 24%
Disagree 45%
What is a book? 9%

The range of responses suggested that this is a fruitful area for discussion when covering the issues underlying the display of multimedia in a gallery setting. (Addresses of the other 9% have been passed on to Santa Claus for seasonal re-education purposes.)

12. Would you like to be notified of any training for curators in this area?  
Yes 94%


    1. Teaching opportunities
    2. Partnership with a professional teaching institution is important for supplying accommodation and equipment. This training may be available as a teaching module within an existing department. A meeting with Colin Jellett, Head of the Faculty of Visual Art and Display at RMIT, opened this possibility. Once the parameters of the training are more clearly defined, then this institution would be suitable for approach. A meeting with Dennis Goh, Multimedia Education Manager Ngapartji, offered a similar opportunity, though without the formal educational structure.

    3. Recommendations

Responses indicated a strong need for curatorial training in how to display new media work in a gallery setting. The most desired training configuration was a one-week intensive workshop. This workshop would allow participants to gain hands-on experience in groups of less than ten people.

The main areas of teaching could include:

  1. Access to local and overseas works
  2. Someone with an overview of new media work presents a survey of works, which includes not just CD-ROMs, but also installations. The emphasis is on work that used the gallery space inventively. During the course of the workshop, participants have access to CD-ROMs to explore individually.

  3. Exploration of gallery space
  4. Participants explore the various configurations available for the presentation of screen-based work in a gallery. This includes not only the ‘monitor on a plinth’, but also wall projections. A brief introduction to the field of ethnomethodology is useful in sensitising participants to the social charge of a viewing space. Group exercises explore such variables as the difference between having someone peer at your screen over your shoulder and having the same screen looked at on a wall. This involves discussion about the trajectory of visitors through a gallery space.

  5. Theoretical issues
  6. An appropriate theorist is commissioned to collate a reading list of books and articles that pertain to new media art. Its author briefly introduces this list. Certain critical questions are addressed in separate groups. Examples are ‘Is there anything in new media that corresponds to the experience of the sublime in fine arts?’ Given the application of multimedia in other domains, such as literature and home entertainment, some discussion is focused on the criteria by which a CD-ROM is considered a work of art eligible for display in a gallery.

  7. Technical demonstrations

Though not necessary of interest to all participants, it seems important to have a remedial overview of the technology involved in media such as CD-ROM. This covers issues about hardware and software compatibility. An artist is in the ideal situation to present this material. Ideally, this extends to an explanation how to install an ISDN line into a gallery.

For inquiries about this report, email Kevin Murray

For inquiries about the Curator Training course, email ANAT.