Here in New York, the avant-garde crown belongs to "BitStreams" at the Whitney Museum of American Art, at least for this spring. But digital dementia is well on its way to infecting the entire museum world. What's more, the number of nonprofits working in new media is growing, and ranges from Thundergulch, a downtown video program sponsored by the New York Foundation for the Arts, to Eyebeam, a multimillion-dollar museum of art and technology under construction in Chelsea.
"Dot Not" may be the word on Wall Street, but the art world is banking on new technology as an investment in the future.
In addition to "BitStreams," curated by Lawrence Rinder and Debra Singer, and "Data Dynamics," the Whitney's companion show of "net.art" curated by Christiane Paul, the following projects have been announced in the past two months:
* The Guggenheim Museum is scheduled to establish a "virtual museum" this year, complete with a $1-million acquisition budget.
* The Museum of Modern Art has launched TimeStream, a web project by Tony Oursler, and is also presenting the work via video projection in the museum's downstairs media café.
* The New Museum has opened Media Z Lounge, a compact exhibition space devoted to digital art works, complete with seating, in the basement behind the bookstore. Currently on view is Waveform by David Galbraith and Teresa Seemann, organized by curator Anne Ellegood.
* The Dia Center for the Arts has published Fantastic Prayers, a CD-ROM update of its very first artists' web project, created by writer Constance DeJong, artist Tony Oursler and composer Stephen Vitiello. Gary Simmons' first project for the web, Wake, is the latest installment in Dia's web-art commissions.
With all this, one thing (at least) is clear -- big digital shows can attract big digital sponsors.
"BitStreams" is nothing if not an advertisement for digital technology, and it boasts an impressive list of corporate underwriters: Reuters.com and France Telecom NA along with a Whitney standby, Philip Morris. Instinet, a Reuters affiliate, funded the opening events; Netmedia designed the "BitStreams" website; and StorageApps, New Jersey-based information network company, created Artport, the Whitney's new online exhibition venue.
"All of these companies have come to us in the last year," says Whitney Museum director Maxwell Anderson, "they are attracted to exhibitions demonstrating the leading edge of technology."
Not bad for a show that was assembled with rapid-fire speed by the art-world's new digital golden boy, Larry Rinder, who only joined the museum in April 2000 (for more, see Deborah Solomon's 6,000-word profile of Rinder in the New York Times special section on museums, published on May 2).
Thr Whitney managed to open "BitStreams" within weeks of "010101: Technology in Art" at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, allowing Anderson to share high-tech glory with David Ross, the former Whitney, now SF MoMA director. "010101" is funded by Intel, the deep-pocketed maker of superfast Pentium computer chips that also sponsored the Whitney's "American Century" show last year.
Digital dollars are being mined downtown, too. The New Museum opened its Media Z Lounge in November -- and the "Z" stands for Zenith. Media Z Lounge is the only New York exhibition space entirely devoted to new media, according to curator Dan Cameron. The gallery was built with Zenith support (in the range of $200,000) and equipped with Zenith products.
What's in the deal for Zenith? "It gives us presence within a cultural institution that is a respected conveyor of information to the market we want to reach," says Tom Doody of Cramer Krasselt, Zenith's public relations agency.
The true pioneer in putting high-tech digital art in museum galleries is the Guggenheim, which staged the first interactive digital show back in 1993, a virtual reality exhibition curated by Jon Ipolito. Encouraged by record crowds, Guggenheim Foundation head Thomas Krens announced that the Guggenheim Soho would be renamed the Deutsche Telecom Galleries, a center for new media, sponsored by a five-year multi-million-dollar grant from the German telecommunications company.
The "center" opened in 1997 with "MediaScape," a joint effort by the Guggenheim and Karlsruhe media lab ZKM (Zentrum fur Kunst und Medientechnologie). Soon after, Krens hired John Hanhardt, director of film and video at the Whitney, to head the initiative, which also included an electronic reading room sponsored by Italian communications firm ENEL. Next came the Samsung Center for Art and Technology -- a nebulous space centered around the mammoth video-wall in the SoHo Gugg lobby. The museum used the wall to present Shu Lea Cheang's web project, Brandon, and to show a piece by Nam June Paik.
And then the Guggenheim all but moved out of SoHo, ceding its valuable ground-floor real estate to Prada (for a store that has yet to open). And what happened to the media program? According to a Guggenheim spokesperson, the museum's new media center is awaiting the development of the Frank Gehry building in lower Manhattan. That could be a long wait.
Today, the museum is concentrating on the web, and is slated to open its Virtual Museum soon, a project designed by Asymptote Architects and described by Gugg curator Matthew Drutt as a Guggenheim-satellite in cyberspace. Meanwhile, Ipolito and Drutt are commissioning artists to create net art projects for the museum's permanent collection. First up are works by Mark Napier and John Simon, Jr.
Commissioning online projects is a far cry from Krens' original proposal and is standard fare at many institutions. In New York, Dia has been commissioning web projects since 1994 and continues an active online program. Likewise, MoMA is slated to commission three projects a year. Even the Whitney -- which in 1994 was the first museum to put online art, namely Douglas Davis' The World's Longest Sentence, into its permanent collection -- now prefers to describe its net art ventures as "commissions," not "acquisitions."
Curiously, online projects that theoretically reach millions via the internet seem to be less visible than gallery-based shows -- and therefore fail to get the same high-profile high tech funding. Online projects at both Dia and MoMA are paid for by foundation grants. And, now that the Guggenheim's digital undertakings have retreated to the internet, their support comes from the Bohen Foundation, not international telecommunications firms.
Both Dia and MoMA have categorically chosen not to ghettoize digital art simply to attract high tech funders. "We are not interested in isolating work solely on the basis of the medium," says Dia director Michael Govan, pointing to Diana Thater's installation, Knots and Surfaces, as an example of presenting an artist's work for its own sake rather than as a DVD display. Similarly, MoMA has no intention of setting up a separate "New Media" department, even though the museum has consistently presented technologically advanced artwork without high tech fanfare. "The digital is in the museum -- look at the Andreas Gursky show," says video curator Barbara London.
But so far, we don't see Intel, Microsoft or any other tech company lining up to fund such "integrated" programs.
Ironically, the Whitney's Maxwell Anderson -- who has been a "bit-head" since his days at the Emory University Museum in Atlanta -- views exhibitions like "BitStreams" as a way of confronting the corporate domination of new media. "It is time to take a scan of an environment that has been dominated by commercial imagination, " he says, "to show the impact of digital media beyond the creation of consumer conveniences and venture capital." Stay tuned.
BARBARA POLLACK is a New York-based artist and art writer.