The Jekyll and Hyde of the integration of new media in the museums

Since the beginning of the 1960s, many cultural practices have strongly demanded that art must be set free. However, free from what? Robert Smithson has defined museums as “cultural prisons”, places where vacant rooms transform works of art in pure elements to be consumed (Smithson 1996, 155). Therefore, in Smithson’s eyes, art should be set free to fly away from institutional incarceration. Nonetheless, how can art manage to do so?

In “Right Here… Right Now… Art Gone Live!” (2012) Gavin Hogben explored how art practices have the tension to fly away from objects, working now with new methods that operate through time and space and can challenge the structured world of museums environments. Interestingly, Hogben establishes a relation within Smithson’s ideas and new media practices. He suggests that digital art, specifically, disrupts the ideology of obsolescence creating, as Smithson had suggested, “practices that are situated by, undertaken with, and induced from events in the field” (Hogben 2012, 304). However, Hogben also highlights that those nomadic, ludic and progressive practices are sometimes capable to enter the museums, creating a two directional dialog, in which a disintegration of the traditional curatorial interests in space as a static construct can be achieved.  He positively exposes how museums are engaging more and more with an entire new construction of curatorial practices based on “flows”, “databases”, live-ness” and “virtual” that can ultimately defy the “walls of containment”.

Several attempts have been made to analyse whether the integration of new media practices in the museum are a positive or a negative move. Far from being a debate that can be resolved with either an option A or B, the question has brought one of the most problematic debates in contemporary museum studies. Michelle Henning has demonstrated in her text “New Media” (2011) how the positive and the negative aspects that this discussion has arisen are ultimately intrinsically associated. On one side, it is true that museums can make use of new media tools to present multiple points of view that can encourage social interaction and can engage the visitor to create associations autonomously. But on the other side, it is also certain that new media can turn museums into commercialized sites for entertainment, where terms as participation, interaction and democratization can be overlaid within discourses of profitability and cost. Consequently, Gavin Hogben’s celebration of the liberating process of art through new media is also confronted with what it seems to be the Jekyll and Hyde of the integration of new media in the museums, in which the power to engage the fugitive moment inside and outside the “no-longer solid and monumental art museum”, is also framed within the awareness of an instauration of a massive culture industry (Hogben 2012, 314).

However, one of the limitations with the arguments of both Hogben’s and Henning’s texts is that the use of specific notions in too broad contexts create an apparent inconsistency in their findings. I do think that the data presented in their texts must be interpreted with extreme caution because not all the museums are ruled by the same parameters and not all media works are formulated in the same way. If art, as Hogben suggests, has managed to be set “free” by the use of nomadic strategies that can resist the hierarchy of centralization, then its subsequent analyses should be cautious so as not to decontextualize such practices. As a conclusion, I do think that such nomadic practices demand accurate analyses with new ways of thinking through modes of reception and production, and that consequently, researchers should be aware and prepared to engage with the analyses of works that enact forms of reception that don’t conform to existing models. Nomadic practices demand nomadic analyses, and that is the tricky part.

Pulished in Beyond the Walls.