Curating Mutability

In The Flux of Artistic Context

John J. Francescutti

London, July 7, 2008

What is the role of the curator in contemporary digital arts? Is it that of negotiating the commercialization and mass diffusion of the artist's practice or is it the framing of a critical understanding of the artist's aesthetic, which fluctuates between reality and illusion, real and virtual?

This paper is based on an interview and discussion with Dr. Lanfranco Aceti, artist, curator and Associate Professor in Contemporary Art and Digital Culture at Sabanci University in Istanbul and AHRC Research Fellow on the Computer Arts and Technocultures project at Birkbeck College, University of London. The project is in collaboration with the Victoria and Albert Museum where Dr. Aceti is a Visiting Research Fellow.

The modalities of production and comprehension of the research element present in the new forms of hybridized artistic practices escape the viewer, who is limited in the aesthetic perception to the concept of taste. The Kantian debate, which Gadamer re-presents us with, of the unsatisfactory concept of taste, obliges the curator to reconsider the concept of genius. The latter concept, which is better suited to be a principle of universal aesthetic according to Gadamer, offers to the viewer the possibility of engaging with both the process of construction as well as the teleological aesthetic propositions.

The paper will discuss how the curatorial frameworks need to be altered when dealing with contemporary new media artworks. In particular the issue of the display of artworks that are based on a transmedia process, a framework that allows the digital artwork to flux between real and virtual, will be analyzed. The curator in this media context has to offer to the viewer the possibility of understanding the research, conceptual and aesthetic artistic frameworks, crucial elements of the creative processes, in order to appreciate and knowledgeably engage with the artist's production process and final product.

Keywords: Real, virtual, digital, curatorial, intermedia and transmedia

Is contemporary art - in particular art that is based on research and scientific and technological interdisciplinary engagements - by not giving an insight of the artist's production process, excluding the casual viewer? And can one argue that the production is limited to the physical process of creation of an artwork, thereby excluding the research and conceptualization that underpins, informs and inspires the creative aesthetic process?

These are questions that touch the cords of both the artistic creative process and the curatorial duty to facilitate an engagement between the audience and the artwork, its aesthetics and the artistic processes that have produced it.

The audience's engagement with the art process is more difficult if the object that is presented is the product of an artistic practice determined by alteration, liquidity, transmediality, convergence and mutability in a constant evolutionary framework of exchanges between art, science and technology.

Darren Tofts' analysis of cyberculture and the transformative role of technology set the premise for this article when he stressed the necessity of exploring the "particular traces of technological change that, in retrospect, seem prescient, foreshadowing the lineaments of our contemporary moment."1

In the presentation of contemporary art, particularly the contemporary artwork that is a product of an hybridization and interdisciplinary process between art, science and technology, the difficulty for the curator is to explain in a few words, often the words of a caption, what the curator and the artist have mutually discovered about the artwork through exchanges, conversations and reflections.

This is the first practical issue of a contemporary digital curator, the necessity to embrace a series of fields that range widely from neuroaesthetic to paleobiology, from color and brush techniques to exotic transmediated pixellation effects. These are some of the fields that the artists who are challenging the contemporary boundaries of digital-media-travel describe through an itinerary of discovery that is often serendipitous, volatile and ambiguous. Lanfranco Aceti subscribes to this approach particularly when the process involves the digitization of an historical collection of computer and digital art, such as The Patric Prince Collection2 being accessed at the Victoria and Albert Museum as part of the AHRC project Computer Art and Technocultures.

The second issue, mentioned by Darren Tofts, regards the framing of change. This is a particularly difficult task because it requires formalizing something that is in development, that because of its contemporaneousness is ungraspable in all of its implications, both textual and contextual.

The role of the curator, according to Aceti, "is a constant attempt to stop Proteus, the Greek god who constantly changes his shape, in his transformation. The curator has to frame a protean nature of digital and online artworks and be able to describe, in that brief frozen frame of time, what the artwork was and what it will be. What sort of impact its technological applications and aesthetic experimentation will have in years to come." In his approach Aceti supports the concept of change presented by Tofts as an aesthetic framework able to provide a curatorial framework suitable for contemporary new media.

"Mutability is not simply about change, but is rather an ongoing inclination to change, a constancy in human thinking on matters of technology" (and art, I would like to add) "a constancy that can be characterized by the idea of becoming."3

It is this becoming that the curator is asked to grasp and share with the viewer in a field, namely in the field of digital media, where the transformation is constant and technological tools adopted to create artworks are diverse and unusual. This is an artistic field where the buyers fear the awkwardness of these new digital aesthetics, participatory forms of authorship and complex research strategies that imbibe contemporary artworks. A task that is daunting and would seem almost impossible, if it wasn't at the same time exciting, challenging and revelatory of the changes affecting society and of the infinite evolutionary possibilities that technological and aesthetic digital media hold for mankind and for the artists who choose these paths.

The curatorial analysis is squeezed in between the conflicting relationship of innovative and conceptual new media aesthetics and the need of the market for contemporary art, which is increasingly expanding into the field of digital and Internet fine arts. This difficult and conflicting relationship is resumed in the words of Stuart Plattner, who opens his article "A Most Ingenious Paradox: The Market for Contemporary Fine Art" with the following words: "This article is about a market where producers do not make work primarily for sale, where buyers often have no idea of the value of what they buy, and where middlemen routinely claim reimbursement for sales of things they have never seen to buyers they have never dealt with. Welcome to the market for contemporary fine art."4

The recent development in the fields of digital, virtual and online art would further confirm Plattner's cynicism. These new areas present artworks that are the production of machines' interactions; where the viewer is a passive spectator or a source of data, often with no possibility of critical interactions. Where artworks that are without authors are produced by the audience through interactions, through collective labor or through exploitation of the audience's desire to participate and share in the creative genius. Artworks that are virtual representations with different aesthetics and modalities of interaction which, when compared to historical perspectives and modalities of production in the fine arts, expound the problem of every aspect of contemporary artistic production in the field of computer based art.

"It is not only a matter of giving computer-based art a historical and theoretical perspective but also of re-actualizing and reinterpreting conceptual art; and of realizing multiple common aesthetic agendas with non-computer-based contemporary art, regarding both subject matters, tactics, production and not least concepts of art."5

It is in this particular historical context that the aesthetic observations of Hans-George Gadamer regarding taste become relevant. "Taste avoids the unusual and the monstrous. It is concerned with the surface of things; it does not concern itself with what is original about an artistic production."6 And it is the Kantian conflicting relationship between artistic genius and taste that is re-presented and analyzed by Gadamer when he writes: "Thus the critique of taste - i.e. aesthetics - is a preparation for teleology."7 This process of preparing to understand the final goals of the artists' and artworks' aesthetics is fundamental to provide the viewer with the keys to unlock the immateriality of the artistic production. It is key to engage with and share in the aesthetic representation of teleological universal values. This is the role of the curator, to negotiate the forms of communication and create and manage a flow of exchanges that are complex, multi-layered and based on universal aesthetic teleological representations, modality of productions and interactions between the artist and the viewer. These are aesthetics that are the product of continuous historical comparative analyses and contextualizations. The curator exists in order to facilitate communication between the artist, the artwork and the viewer.8

"The art of genius serves to make the free play of the mental faculties communicable. This is achieved by the aesthetic ideas it invents. But the aesthetic pleasure of taste, too, was characterized by the communicability of a state of mind-pleasure."9 This becomes the new role of the curator, that of negotiating between artistic genius and taste, providing the tools for the communicability of a state of mind, for sharing in the aesthetic experience which, residing in the virtual and immaterial, escapes the traditional boundaries of the audience's taste.

This curatorial process of negotiation - to provide audience's access to the immaterial, the teleological conceptualizations, the aesthetic creation of genius in order to share in the aesthetic pleasure of taste - is a difficult and complex exercise. It is a process of negotiation between the audience's taste and desire of participation in the artistic subjective world and the necessity to preserve the solidity and aesthetic conceptual basis of the artwork. But it is also a process of negotiation between the work of art itself and the artistic processes of creation, whereby participating in the artistic creation puts the audience on the same level as the artists by equalizing both the audiences and artists' subjective worlds. Hegel describes this process of negotiation.

"... [the artwork] if goes too far out of itself to him [to the viewer], it pleases but is without solidity or at least does not please (as it should) by solidity of content and the simple treatment and presentation of that content. In that event this emergence from itself falls into the contingency of appearance and makes the work of art itself into such a contingency in which what we recognize is no longer the topic itself and the form which the nature of the topic determines necessarily, but the poet and the artist with his subjective aims, his workmanship and his skills in execution. In this way the public becomes entirely free from the essential content of the topic and is brought by the work only into conversation with the artist: for now what is of special importance is that everyone should understand what the artist intended and how cunningly and skilfully he has handled and executed his design. To be brought thus into this subjective community of understanding and judgement with the artist is the most flattering thing."10

The participation in the creative process and the equalizing of both the audiences and artists' subjective worlds generates mediated and globalized frameworks for sharing in aesthetic forms of production. The shared process of production in the virtual worlds of representation can dangerously offer the illusion of a democratic aesthetic participation by the audience.

The sharing in the artistic process, offered as a democratic socio-political participation, presents the curator with the necessity of grasping the teleological nature of the immaterial and virtual aesthetics of digital and new media art. It is relevant to ask whether the audience and the artist reflect upon, endorse or negate hidden sets of contextual socio-political forms of conditioning and behaviors. Should this be the case, the role of the curator becomes increasingly questionable in endorsing shared technocultural frameworks of social exploitation which have already been processed and acknowledged by the artist and the audience in shared forms of interaction, engagement and participation.

Aceti in his screen based exhibition and interaction titled In Between Spaces at The Birkbeck Cinema in London discussed these issues in the panel discussion with the artist Paul Brown and Dr. Nick Lambert.

In particular Aceti, referring to The Patric Prince Collection, discussed the importance of aesthetic practices that challenged and questioned traditional aesthetics as well as traditional forms of curatorship. In Between Spaces represented an opportunity to discuss the role of digital intervention in an intermedia and transmedia aesthetic approach that can move beyond authorization and create interventions in virtual spaces that impact on the real without previous permissions and authorizations.

By squatting on virtual institutional art sites in googlemaps Aceti created a series of events that were not just the representation of an aesthetic endeavor but, contrasting the Hegelian approach to art, attempted to re-present the contextual and conceptual elements of the artworks as the real forms of engagement. This was achieved by offering no other possibility to the audience that to 'share an itinerary in the discovery of the nature of contemporary media' versus the commonly shared platform of false interactions through instantaneous mediations.

The interaction with the artist was the artistic component of the piece together with the challenges that he had brought to the social concepts of ownership of space automatically transferred into virtual spaces.

Brown, in the panel discussion, stressed the social component of the art interventions as 'a virtual squatting' not just in its aesthetic superficial impact, but in the context of larger issues related to the relationships between artistic practice, digital media and forms of artistic censorship.

Aceti's latest artworks, Screams at Tate Modern, Screams at Centre Pompidou, Screams at MoMA and Screams at the Neue Nationalgalerie, are conceptual and aesthetic challenges, which are inspired, as the artist said: "by previous artistic practices that through the computer and digital arts delved into the social changes and threats of contemporary media functions as signposts for possible alternative futures shared with subjective communities of understanding."

J. Francescutti: What influence in your artworks has Gadamer's concept of taste had? And how important is the audience's communicability and interaction in your artworks?

L. Aceti: Very important and not at all. This shall be my answer to both questions. In a less cryptic manner I would say that this question has a twofold characteristic to it: the first is the importance of communication between artist and viewer through the artwork and vice versa, the second is the audience's role in shaping my personal research for a subjective teleological aesthetic.

In the first case, the importance of communication between artist and viewer, I have somewhat given myself up to the whimsical interpretations based on the intentio lectoris and intentio operis (the intention of the viewer and the intention of the artwork). I see an increasingly limited role that the intentio auctoris, the intention of the author, can play in the contemporary aesthetic framework due to distorted curatorial approaches which seemingly focus on all other elements but the artist's aesthetic.

Due to these limitations my artworks have also taken up the role of documenting social and mediatic malaise and are engaged in the process of exposing Jean Baudrillard's analysis of 'the conspiracy of art' as well as rejecting traditional forms of aesthetic and commercial engagement.

I am aware that I am not painting a pretty picture, both in the analysis of commercial reality and media's ideological aesthetics. This is a reflection of the complexity of contemporary social challenges that are increasingly affecting multiple areas of life in the 21st Century. It also needs to be added that the conceptual and technological tools used to create art and aesthetic experiences offer multiple possibilities in the way in which an artist can interact with the audience. The artistic relationship between the artist and the audience can also be based on a parameter of time: short, medium and long-term.

If I were to produce artworks for a short and medium term, the concept of taste would have a very great influence in my production along with the concept of audience communicability and interaction. In reality, my artistic production is geared toward a long-term timescale that doesn't oblige me to conform to present audiences' needs and taste.

For this reason the curatorial analysis of the itinerary of an artists' production becomes particularly important. This approach is fundamental when, as in my case, the artworks are considered as evolutionary media structures, which change in time and space and have multiple outputs.

Failure to understand this concept and attempting to present to viewers my artistic practice or that of any intermedia and transmedia artist subsumed under traditional media classifications: i.e. prints, video, installation, computer art etc. would be a false and distorting practice.

Unfortunately contemporary curatorial approaches, limited in both their aesthetic perceptions and necessity for media classifications, pigeon hole the artist within a particular frame, discarding the conceptual and aesthetic liquidity of intermedia and transmedia artistic practices.

J. Francescutti: What would be your ideal curatorial approach to contemporary digital media?

L. Aceti: Certainly one that focuses on the artist and on the contextualization and recontextualization of artistic practices. These practices should be framed in an historical, social, technological and cultural framework in order to understand the relevance and evolutionary processes, particularly in contemporary digital media and computer art, which have taken place in the past 50 years. The Patric Prince Collection offers this possibility of analyzing the development of computer and digital art in an historical contextualization as well as a contemporary re-contextualization process. This is the reason why I find working on this project so interesting.

Of course there are complexities inherent to an aesthetic hermeneutic based on comparative and recontextualization approaches. The problems are indeed daunting, but any other approach that does not recontextualize the operative frameworks of these artists and pioneers in the context of contemporary technocultures would be partial and incomplete.

The importance of The Patric Prince Collection is not in the necessity of an isolated analysis of artistic historical practices, somewhat fossilized in their time and technological restriction, but in a comparative methodological analysis that would allow an understanding of the conceptual, aesthetic and technological contributions to the larger fields of digital art and new media of these artists and pioneers of computer and digital art. The accession of a collection, particularly of a new media collection, should provide elements for the evaluation of the aesthetic contribution to the evolution of the contemporary media landscape by offering the opportunity to analyze which practices are still relevant today, which have contributed the most, which have been dismissed by contemporary artists and commentators and which, dismissed by contemporaries, have proved visionary and have shaped contemporary artistic behaviors and aesthetics.

This is my argument... the necessity to pause and evaluate past and current artistic practices and develop an insight into future media evolutions. This is an hermeneutical methodology that should be applied to the accession of a collection of artworks or to the analysis of a series of selected artworks. The necessity to acknowledge the curatorial methodology, particularly for new media artworks, is paramount in providing the reader and viewer with an understanding of the historical technological processes and their evolutions, as well as the artists' journeys over the course of the production of imagery. These artworks, because of curatorial restrictions based on time and budget, often have their complexity condensed in the simplistic and reductive aesthetic framework of a print.

J. Francescutti: You seem to imply in your answer that there is a lack of curatorial vision when dealing with new media...

L. Aceti: That's exactly what I am trying to say. I can think of quite a lot of examples of excellent curatorial projects and theoretical approaches, particularly within the contemporary arts. There are many people that are doing and have done a great job in the field from Lev Manovich to Mark Nash, Peter Weibel to Sue Gollifer, Patric Prince to Jasia Reichardt, Roger Malina to Oliver Grau... Just to name a few.

In 2003, in the journal Leonardo, Rainer Usselmann published an article titled The Dilemma of Media Art: Cybernetic Serendipity at the ICA London. The article is an analysis and critique of the motivation behind the crisis of digital and media art. "The art establishment has not been blown to pieces; on the contrary, if anything, the enthusiasm for all things digital has suffered a considerable setback. But perhaps the time has come to debate the evolution of computer art with a greater sense of historical and critical distance."11

The problem is not the necessity for historical and critical distance, to be achieved through a decontextualized curatorial approach, but the necessity to understand the importance of presenting the evolution of computer art as something very much in flux, which cannot be represented by a restricted commentary of this or that artist, or this or that artwork, with a simplified caption below an image. The crisis of 'all things digital' has suffered a setback due to the inability of 'institutional curators' to convey - beyond the numerically restricted audiences of devotees and supporters - the processes of artistic creation, the research elements, the technological innovations, the theoretical and conceptual approaches...

The failure, if we want to call it that, is in the impossibility of engaging in new media frameworks for the creation of an experience that goes beyond the curatorial approach of displaying a picture on the internet as the epitome of digital institutional Avant-gardeness or the clicking of a button as that of the cutting edge model of interactivity.

The whole issue becomes a question of old content in old formats placed in new bottles, as Peter Greenaway wrote, or that of the rear-view-mirror approach that goes back to Marshall McLuhan. The curatorial issue is just this, an old problem that keeps on being re-presented with old approaches within 'old institutional' frameworks that rarely see their curatorial role beyond that of acquiring, cataloguing and preserving. Not much space is left for new media approaches.

Figure 1 Spatial Collapse, Tate Captive at the Beaubourg, Lanfranco Aceti, 2008 from Enraged: Screams on Paper, Lanfranco Aceti, 2007, remediated intervention in digital space.

Figure 2 Spatial Collapse, MoMA Captive at the Nationalgalerie, Lanfranco Aceti, 2008 from Suppressed Silences: Screams on Paper, Lanfranco Aceti, 2008, remediated intervention in digital space.

Brief Biography

John Francescutti was born in Detroit and graduated from the London College of Communications with an MA in Enterprise and Management for the Creative Arts and has been working as a freelance curator in digital, Internet and virtual arts. He has collaborated with London based international artists and curated digital shows, focusing on the issue of presenting online artworks to offline audiences. He is now researching for his Ph.D. the materiality and immateriality of digital artworks and new forms of digital curatorship and arts' management.

He is also curating online exhibitions that focus on spoof art, social networks and critical theory issues related to artistic censorship and self-censorship.


  1. Darren Tofts, "Introduction: On Mutability", in Prefiguring Cyberculture: An Intellectual History, ed. Darren Tofts, Annemarie Jonson and Alessio Cavallaro, 2 (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press).

  2. The Patric Prince Collection is a collection of computer art and ephemera that Patric Prince collated during her curation of SIGGRAPH Art Shows. The collection, constituting artworks from the late 1970s to the 1990s, has been acquired by the Victoria and Albert Museum and is part of an AHRC research project titled Computer Arts and Technocultures at the School of History of Art, Film and Visual Media at Birkbeck College, University of London.

  3. Darren Tofts, "Introduction: On Mutability", in Prefiguring Cyberculture: An Intellectual History, ed. Darren Tofts, Annemarie Jonson and Alessio Cavallaro, 2 (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press).

  4. Stuart Plattner, "A Most Ingenious Paradox: The Market for Contemporary Fine Art", in American Anthropologist: New Series 100, no. 2 (1998): 482.

  5. Jacob Lillemose, "Conceptual Transformation of Art: From Dematerialisation of the Object to Immateriality in Networks", in Curating Immateriality: The Work of the Curator in the Age of Network Systems, ed. Joasia Krysa, 56 (Brooklyn, NY: Autonomedia, 2000).

  6. Hans-George Gadamer, Truth and Method (London: Sheed and Ward, 2001), 56.

  7. Ibid., p. 54.

  8. Umberto Eco, Interpretation and Overinterpretation: Umberto Eco with Richard Rorty, Jonathan Culler, Christine Brooke Rose (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 25.

  9. Hans-George Gadamer, Truth and Method (London: Sheed and Ward, 2001), 53.

  10. G.W. F. Hegel, Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, Vol. II (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), 619-620.

  11. Rainer Usselmann, "The Dilemma of Media Art: Cybernetic Serendipity at the ICA London," Leonardo 36, no. 5 (2003): 389-396.