Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Harris Museum and folly: pioneering experiment in collecting digital art

In late 2010 the Harris Museum & Art Gallery, Preston in partnership with folly, Lancaster have launched Current : An Experiment in Collecting Digital Art. The partnership invited applications from Artists working with technology to propose new or existing work for exhibition and acquisition. They requested proposals for work such as digital art, interactive art, net art, electronic art, multi-and time-based media.

The project was heralded as a unique case study in the collection of digital art. Conceived to encourage debate from visitors, artists and sector professionals about the process of integrating digital artworks into existing permanent collections.

UK-based artists working in digital media and new media technology were invited to propose work for an exhibition at the Harris Museum & Art Gallery which took place 25 March - 4 June 2011 .

Work was selected for inclusion by an expert panel (including Mike Stubbs CEO of FACT , Ruth Catlow, Co-founder and co-director of and HTTP Gallery London , and Beryl Graham, Professor of New Media Art at the University of Sunderland and co-editor of CRUMB).

The objectives of the project were:-
  • A public exhibition of new media artwork to be held at the Harris Museum & Art Gallery.
  • An acquisition of one artwork for the museum's permanent collections.
  • A public debate.
  • Evaluation of the project to inform future collecting of new media at the museum
The shortlist of artists selected:-

Southampton based artists Vicky Isley and Paul Smith make artworks inspired by the diversity that exists in nature. boredomresearch use computational technology to explore this diversity often using techniques similar to those used by scientists.

Michael Szpakowsk
Michael is an artist, composer, writer & educator. His music has been performed all over the UK, in Russia & the USA. His short films have been shown throughout the world. He is composer & video artist for Tell Tale Hearts Theatre Company & a joint editor of the online video resource DVblog.

James Coupe
James is an artist who works with systems, autonomy and networks. His controversial recent work with surveillance systems, in installation projects such as (re)collector and Surveillance Suite, use computer vision software to extract demographic and behavioural information from live video footage.

Harwood, Wright, Yokokoji
These artists have collaborated together from 2004 to 2009, firstly as part of ‘Mongrel' - an internationally recognised artists collective. Previous projects involving the group include the first online commission from the Tate Gallery, London , a BAFTA award nomination and work in the permanent collections of the Pompidou Centre Paris and the Centre for Media Arts in Karlsruhe (ZKM).

Thomson & Craighead
Thomson and Craighead are fascinated how trends of globalisation and networked global communications have been re-shaping the way we all perceive and understand the world around us. They live and work in London and Kingussie in the highlands of Scotland making artworks for galleries, online and sometimes outdoors.

The piece selected to become part of the Harris permanent collection was the Thomson & Craighead's piece 'The distance travelled through our solar system this year and all the barrels of oil remaining ' (2011).

The work was selected by an expert panel, including Paul Hobson, Director, Contemporary Arts Society; Sarah Fisher, Chair of Axis and Chair of FACT ; Gavin Delahunty, Head of Exhibitions and Displays, Tate Liverpool; Taylor Nuttall, Chief Executive, folly; and Alex Walker, Head of Arts & Heritage Preston City Council.

The work consists of two wall based gallery projections that dynamically display the number of remaining oil barrels left in the world alongside the distance the earth has travelled this year. By juxtaposing something global (the statistic streams) against something local (a visit to a gallery and contemplation of an artwork), the piece allows a poetic connection to be made between the individual and the world at large.

Alex Walker, Head of Arts & Heritage, Preston City Council said;

“We are delighted to acquire this piece by Thomson & Craighead. The work is a completely new departure for the Harris Museum & Art Gallery. It's very much of the 21st century and could only be produced now. It makes use of live stream from the internet, and also deals with the big issues of the environment which are of concern to everyone. It may not initially have obvious connections with the Harris' collections, however, artists have always been concerned with helping us to understand and relate to the world we live in. Through the Current selection process we have acquired a piece which is both experimental and innovative.”

To complete the project a public debate was held at UCLAN on 24th May 2011 to analyse the experiment and share findings and best practice on collecting digital art.

As an artist engaged with New and Multi-Media practice I had great expectations for the exhibition but was rather under whelmed by my visit. The artists brief for the exhibition was a little ambiguous. The general preamble spoke in terms of 'New Media' yet the artists were asked to submit proposals of work such as digital art, interactive art, net art, electronic art, multi-and time-based media. Whilst the broad term 'New Media' has a wide ranging definition one thing the term does generally imply is interactivity with the medium. With one exception the works in this exhibition were most definitely not interactive.

Maybe my disappointment with this exhibition was exacerbated by my recent visit to the wonderful "New Media" exhibition "Recorders" at the Manchester Art Gallery a major exhibition by Mexican-Canadian electronic artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer. This really was cutting edge interactive 'New Media' art.

I attended the debate at UCLAN on the 24th May. The debate did help to clarify some of my miss giving's about the exhibition. For starters, the selection of short listed exhibits can only be as good as the work submitted for selection. Having said that the highlight of the debate was the presentation by Alison Craighead 50% of the winning partnership, Thomson and Craighead. I wasn't familiar with the work of these London based visual artists. They have been working together with video, sound and the internet since 1993. Their work explores how technology changes the way we perceive the world around us. They use live data to make artworks, including template cinema online artworks and gallery installations, where networked movies are created in real time from online material such as remote-user security web cams, audio feeds, chat room text transcripts and social media output. The breadth and ingenuity of the work is impressive. In my opinion the work acquired by the Harris, whilst of the moment, given our preoccupation with dwindling natural resources, it is possibly one of their less inspiring pieces. It may have been more relevant to relate the consumption of oil with the rocketing price of say petrol! I am not sure the man on the Clapham omnibus has much concept of how far we travel through the Milky Way; he is aware of the cost of fuel!

Quoting from the Harris website, "the aim of the project was to raise the profile of this area of practice; to help digital artists to become integral to art's history; and for digital art to be seen as something to be collected in perpetuity, thereby reinforcing the public perception of it and its value". They also intended to address the challenges facing curators, in terms of integrating digital art into existing collections. One challenge being to display the work as it was originally intended. Another being the ability for digital media to reflect a continual state of evolution in its production and exhibition and in the case of the Thomson and Craighead installation the original data source.

The recently resurrected BBC Doomsday project highlights the problem of incorporating digital media into art collections. The rapid evolution of software, hardware, storage and presentation equipment in this sector presents numerous issues and potential problems. It was this aspect of the acquisition that engaged the speakers and audience alike, the reason why the public debate was such an important part of the project. All those concerned in the process confessed to a steep learning curve.

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