Rising exhibition designer Bika Rebek is on the pulse.
Turns out museum technology isn't as sophisticated as appearances would lead us to believe. High-tech capabilities aside, art museums and galleries are, like the rest of us, neither immune to nor exempt from the headaches of low-tech glitches—any number of which can and do prevent artworks from being experienced as intended.
Take, for example, a headset that breaks down on a regular basis, or GIF-based pieces that seem all but impossible to troubleshoot. That installation running on custom-built programming? Refuses to cooperate. Behind the scenes, the administrative programs that support curators, archivists, and other museum workers rarely fare any better, the vast majority of which are outdated, difficult to manage, and equally temperamental.
This pain point is where one Bika Rebek is taking aim. A former exhibition designer for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rebek, along with a team of three other designers, is working to streamline both backend and frontend museum technologies with a project called "Tools For Show." The full scope of its applications is still forthcoming, but the software is purportedly able to tackle common museum inefficiencies.
At its core, Tools For Show is a software that facilitates proposals completely online by using 3D-models that visualize a collection. With that information centralized in one place, curators and designers gain access to a single organized vision, allowing for functions like maintenance and foresight. What's more, curators will have a unique opportunity to learn together as technological hiccups surface, starting from the backend and into the galleries.
“The reason it's so difficult and expensive for many museums to integrate technology in their shows is because all the processes leading up to it are essentially analog,” Rebek told us in a recent interview. “I think it will soon be necessary for museums to start building their own digital experiences and engagement tools. Maybe twenty years ago, museums didn’t think they needed a digital department, or ten years ago they thought they [didn't] need a social media manager. Now, these jobs seem indispensable.”
Installation view, "Geographically Indeterminate Fantasies." Courtesy Art F City.
Thorough technical prowess—on both the artists' and technicians' part—is an artistry in itself, and may very well be one of the most valuable forms of craftsmanship of our time. The capacity to curtail and resolve technology’s tendency to deteriorate typically relies on the skilled work of coders, designers, and information specialists.
Two years ago, the Guggenheim Museum launched the Conserving Computer-Based Art initiative, a fellowship program for specialists to upkeep the tech-based pieces in the museum’s permanent collection. The initiative has already restored Brandon, a narrative work by Shu Lea Chang that relies on embedded links that repeatedly broke overtime.
Chang’s problem is exemplary of the kinds of hurdles software-based artists rub up against. In short, the logistical support needed to keep their work up-to-date is either too difficult to secure or just simply doesn’t exist.
In 2016, veteran art critic and curator Paddy Johnson of Art F City organized an exhibition of animated GIFs called “Geographically Indeterminate Fantasies IRL: The Animated GIF As Place,” which was held both online and IRL. Johnson told the STREAM that broken technology in shows is all but “ubiquitous,” clarifying that "it’s not that it’s sloppiness, it’s that technology breaks down.”
“Often, artists’ ambitions exceed the budget they have," Johnson continued. "When they’re able to pull that off against all odds, they’re the most incredible shows you’ve ever seen. For instance, despite the small budget of the first Prospect Biennial, a large number of the commissioned works are now canonical because artists found a way to get them made and they believed art could help save a city devastated by Hurricane Katrina and found ways to make it happen. They made sure the technology worked. But now that the urgency has died down, the budget realities have real consequences and that means I’ve frequently seen work where the tech is crapping out. I think artists who frequently deal with these issues come up with strategies to help manage these issues. For instance, Nicolas Sassoon had very specific projections that he wanted for his animated GIFs, and those required very specific types of projectors. So you either have those types of projectors, or you don’t."
According to Johnson, technological requirements like Sassoon's can determine whether a show even happens. "You can’t show the work if you don’t have a particular screen, and with good reasons," Johnson explained. "Like for [one] type of animated GIF, the virtuosity and the craft behind [Sassoon's] work was the crispness of it. He had combined thousands of these tiny GIFs that are used in memes to create this mandala. So the fact that he was able to produce the thing without compressing it into something that looked like total garbage showed a technical mastery.”
Angela N., Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., by Nam June Paik at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Courtesy Flickr Creative Commons.
Then there's the small matter of preserving digital and tech-based works that have existed in archives for decades. Technology-based practices have established strongholds in contemporary art for over a century, and curators now face the herculean task of making dated mediums displayable.
Carmen Hermo, Assistant Curator for the Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, noted that there is a sense of risk to incorporate too much tech-based art and time-based material into a collection, but bears in mind the value in using it. The exhibition that the Sackler Center is installing now, for example, “Radical Women: Latin American Art,” is a largely video-based show.
“We’re looking at under-sung artistic practices of Latin American and Latina women here in the US between 1960 and 1985," Hermo said in a phone conversation. "Lots of closed surveillance systems, and lots of early video art. These things aren’t preserved quite as they should have been, but they tell something through the moving image that the paintings, sculptures, and works on paper often really can’t do.”
Of course, there's always a curatorial risk involved in displaying a video piece that hasn’t aged as well as it could have. But, as Hermo expounds, video was a lot like early photography in its earlier moments. "It was a technology to be done at home, that women could therefore pick up and learn. For feminist art in particular, video art has always had a special place.”
“It’s interesting,” Rebek mused. “While I was working at The Met, they actually decided to take all [the] technology out of the galleries. The argument was that in such a big institution, it is impossible to keep all tech elements up-to-date, so you would have one type of screen in one gallery and another type of screen somewhere else.” Ironically, a recent report from the New York Times revealed that tech-based art boosts turnout from young audiences.
With programs like “Tools For Show,” a new and more clearly-defined market for museum technology is beginning to take form. The software introduces a compelling sense of what streamlined digital management systems can look like. Time will tell if the project delivers on its projections, but considering the myriad challenges museums are dealing with, it's already shaping out to be in a league of its own.
Editor: Rain Embuscado