Museums and the Web 1999

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Published: March 1999.


In Search of Meaningful Events: Curatorial Algorithms and Malleable Aesthetics

Andy C. Deck

So much of the contemporary experience of the World Wide Web is searching and sampling of the unfinished, insufficient precursors of what one may expect tomorrow. In the climate of "cool" that prevails, many are occupied with looking, searching, and waiting rather than with dialogue, synthesis, derivation, and playful production. In fact the trend is encouraged: the more pages of "search results" we scan the more advertising we see. The significance of editorial selection and algorithms that shape the resulting view of the internet extends beyond aesthetics. Yet the concentration of authority around the mass market internet portals engages discursive formations that have emerged in recent years with respect to art and the public sphere, institutional critique, and freedom of speech. Artists are posing questions about the limits and function of the arts in the sphere of the internet. Insofar as public institutions treat their web sites as publicity tools glorified pamphlets one must turn toward the margins of creative production for clues about latent alternatives. Fortunately the margins and centers of the internet continue to mingle, especially in a technical sense. So one may still entertain some marginally central questions: If an art form overturns the paradigm of broadcast, allowing reciprocal action between transmitter and receiver, in what consists the act of curation? Is the curator then a moderator? An artist? A programmer? Malleable aesthetics provoke such questions.

The cybernetic systems I have in mind may prove incompatible with normative museum practices, with the curation of objects and the documentation of art that exists prior to its reception. The malleability I mean transforms hypertext and hypermedia: its essence lies in profound reconfigurability in response to feedback from observer/participants. Whereas the beauty of existing hypertext and hypermedia art is supposed to reside in the masterful interplay of prospective narratives wired in by the author, the allure of malleable aesthetics is the potential digression toward and development of any direction. Incompatible with forced enclosure, the purest forms of this category of production are licensed to assure that programming code remains in the public domain.

Some of the most intriguing microcosms of malleable aesthetics to date have been textual interactive systems that privilege the familiar signification of natural language as writing. The call and response of textual dialogue, whether at the pace of conversation or in a slower, gradual accumulation of related ideas ("bulletin boards"), offers a suggestive model for the articulation of meaning online. There are dozens of varieties of dialogic text systems that embody different approaches to the control of events and interface. One bland form, chat, imposes a potential anonymity, sometimes resists the use of one's preferred language, and favors people who can type. But usually there is little or no censorship. While this type of communication may foster subtle, shared events and ideas, usually there is no lasting record, except in the memories of the readers and writers.

Microsoft's Comic Chat with
drawings by Jim Woodring

Variations of the chat interface include the categorization of discussion topics, and the ability to whisper to (or exclude) some readers. Perhaps due to the transience of this type of speech, "freedom of chat" remains controversial only among the most domineering hosts. Microsoft and AOL use the popularity of chat to leverage their power as a marketing venues. Despite differences in their revenue models, both are developing a base of users for online consumer colonies. That users have no profound, programmatic control of the underlying software greatly limits the malleable potential of such systems. Public feedback used in this way becomes a disposable byproduct in the pursuit of market share. It seems clear enough that developments that do not serve this pursuit will not flourish in regulated commercial software spaces, where feedback is reduced to what Hans Magnus Enzensberger has termed the "lowest level compatible with the system." (Enzensberger, 1982).

There is little enough reason to believe that norms held-over from broadcast are applicable to the internet. Even the notion of communicative reciprocity seems a bit dated, since it appears to have more to do with ham radio than with the cagey mediation of software. It would be a mistake, also, to assume that the appearance of persistence, in the form of the database, is a panacea for the passive legacy of broadcast. However, those forms of persistence that contribute to the diffusion of control over public interactive systems, lead toward malleable aesthetics. When feedback might affect the purposive qualities of a system, politics enters the picture. "Once something is going to be permanent everybody cares about it" (Antin, 1992). And so it goes even in the corners of cyberspace. Those interfaces that give people opportunities to contribute in a cumulative way are usually absent from the fortified web sites of corporate media (and museums).

Really to include the unknown lays open a Pandora's Box of expressive liberties to an anonymous public. Most institutions are reluctant to pursue web ventures that cannot insure a degree of decorum. Fearing what might happen, they front web sites that inexpensively advertise their stuff. In so doing, they contribute to the mutation of the internet into an elaborate yellow pages catalog. Here, public institutions follow the lead of the marketing sector, instead of standing with artists and intellectuals who would advance a different culture than the bogus authoritarianism of commercial television.

Clearly this is not to advocate institutional support for puerile uses of the new media. The amazing growth of the web is evidence of the will of people to leave a mark aesthetical, rhetorical, or otherwise and it is with this in mind that one must ask whether museums, and other public institutions, will endorse or reject that will? Insofar as the museum on the web will become more than a repository of support materials referring to a permanent collection, it must address the issue of feedback. Is it wanted? With what limits? How might it be used?

Situating the museum and curator in the network of public collaboration, it may be said that control or moderation of input can take the form of preemptive interface design and programming, concurrent moderation by a living participant, or retroactive exclusion, censorship, and editing. Concurrent moderation is the unviable offspring of broadcast and the chaperone. Likewise, that there exists a technical solution able to resolve the political difficulties of real public participation is a myth. If an interface stops the cacophony of chat and the banality of "my first homepage" it might also prevent the ideal contribution, whatever that may be. Software should not be used like a Kafkaesque bureaucracy to hide the trail of responsibility and repression. Instead of resisting the response of the public, instead of serving as apologists for mediocre software, and instead of abstractly ascribing responsibility to "technology," institutions need to become more accountable. Due to the political implications of interactive system design, it should be open to revision and debate. In moving away from the stuffy, cosmetic web sites that have sprung up all over, the need for more transparent control policies is evident.

Paradigmatic of this openness are the multi-user, object oriented "MOO" projects that have derived from role playing, text only "multi-user dungeons" (MUDs). Participants with access to the internet connect to a computer that hosts the MOO server software and database. Typically, the people who use the MOO most become the policy architects and chief content providers. It is not unusual for a leadership committee to consist of a geographically dispersed group of interested users. As with chat, the transience of utterances tends to make censorship a rarity, but in those situations where someone's behavior becomes really disruptive, generally, a joint decision is made concerning the best response. This process, which ranges from democratic to oligarchic in practice, invokes a governmental, consensual protocol for the harmonization of online discourse. This kind of governance has predominated on the MOO systems over the last decade, and in practice it allows a wide latitude for expressiveness.

Regardless of whether the MOO participants consider themselves artists, conflicts of authority arising from the regulation of collaborative, public art projects can be arbitrated in this way. Rather than preemptively or automatically stifling behavior, it encourages participants to resolve their own differences, as tends to happen outside of digital channels. Although not ideal, this model can also provide a flexible mechanism for institutions to defray controversy over online content: the responsibility for settling disagreements is delegated.

MOOs differ significantly from chat for several reasons. For one thing, persistent characters and environments give continuity to repeated visits. Although anonymity is an option, the metaphorical space of a MOO becomes familiar, as do the various personalities. Regular visitors can contribute many types of 'objects' to the database--descriptive, programmatic, automatic, responsive. Users confront one another at the boundary of natural language and programming, but both novices and 'wizards' can meet and converse in this border zone. People with modest programming skills add features (scripting, "rooms") to the MOO for others to use. Nor is it unusual for the underlying source code, which can be obtained freely, to undergo changes. The resulting synergy, by which the space is gradually reinvented, opens onto unanticipated paths. The term "malleable aesthetics" as I mean it refers to this ability to accumulate not only statements, or data, but also the structural changes wrought by users of the system.

Hybrid interfaces have appeared that attempt to give a more visual form to MOO personas and places. This has been tried in numerous ways without widespread success. Although networked, user-directed constructions are possible with multimedia (witness the World Wide Web itself), creating graphical avatars and imagery for visual MOOs demands some uncommon skills the public is generally unfamiliar with programming languages and authoring tools. Networked action games like Quake, while in some respects graphically responsive, impose a stark thematization. Whereas MOO thematics span from quest games to postmodern culture, the graphical hybrids remain mired in layers of procedural complexity and graphical preconception.

Even if, through simulation, one is able to traverse a game "world," this remains the preconceived, labyrinthine navigation of non-malleable hypermedia. In the arena of the reality engine, extension of default boundaries founders at the counterintuitive, mouse-driven interfacing of level editing, image processing, solids modeling, and motion control. As a result gimmicks that offer superficial choices abound. But whatever virtual wallpaper one selects, a shoot 'em up game is still a shoot 'em up game. The challenge latent in all the hybridized multi-user systems is the retrieval of narrative and visual thematics from engineers, programmers, and the competing demands of commodification in the marketplace of software and services.

Probably it will not be long before microphones and digital video cameras explode the dominance of the mouse as a device for contributing to spontaneous, networked audio-visual events. One can imagine low budget, "on the scene" reporting being produced by independent documentarists equipped with little more than a video camera, microphone, PC, and internet connection. Some indication of this pattern is already evident in the global spread of talk radio and independent music through streaming digital audio. Such technologies promise to bring an intuitiveness to the creative use of computers that will make the boundary between player/consumer and producer/artist more permeable.

But at the corporate portal, and within the intranet, a concurrent involution threatens this promise with cookie-cutter software that reduces creativity to one of several options and equates expression with consumption. Still, given the tools that are widely available, the boundary is not altogether firm. While firewalls, filtration, transmission asymmetry, and security mechanisms encroach insidiously on the technical feasibility of new forms of reciprocal communication, nonetheless experimentation continues. The Java language, originally conceived of as a control language for interactive television, has become a popular means to orchestrate so called "client server" communications. Using it to implement a collaborative drawing system, I have found that in spite of the limitations of the mouse, the programming language, and the browser context, I've become involved in a relationship with a public imagination that interests me more than mine alone. The things that have been made things that have happened in this unusual space keep me focused on overcoming the looming sense of inadequacy. Many times I have corresponded with people in dream-like non-verbal dialogues. While I'm away from the place, some of my collaborators leave their experimental animations, whereas others labor away on a single image. Because the saved drawings can be "played back," in the same sequence of strokes and marks used by the artist, the products of this program resemble time-lapse studies. Eventually I'd like to give people of an editorial disposition tools to script metanarratives using the material that has already been made.

I wonder whether it would be good to let people erase things in the database. This would subvert my desire to accumulate a seamless retrospective view. Perhaps the solution is to proceed in both directions, though I can oversee only one. This is called "forking" in the field of free software development. Open source, GNU General Public Licensing allows anyone, if desired, to produce derivatives of my software. Having put so much labor into the project, it is not easy to let it go like this, but that's the only alternative to a world in which the software wheel is reinvented again and again. With software, derivation is more productive than invention.

In building the program, I have been struck by the many ways that censorship intertwines itself with design. Each configuration can discourage someone and attract another. Interfaces interpellate subjects. It is from this point of reference that the term "curatorial algorithm" comes to make sense to me. The programming and design decisions I've made determine, broadly, what people are likely, and able, to produce with the drawing software. In practice, I rarely delete or censor what people have added to the database. Certainly there are elements of graffiti, shout outs and attempts at self promotion. But I'm not keen to tell people how to use the software or what to write. In this respect, I avoid the conventional role of the curator. Nevertheless, it is clear that making the interface less (or more) simplistic, dissuades some people from drawing. Design decisions, then, which may derive from programming logistics or various biases, can amount to a form of feedback selection. The people who are put off by the design ultimately will not be represented in the collective art that is made.

With this in mind, I have tried to make an interface that at first view seems simple, but which also retains a certain functional depth, a capacity for subtlety. I conceive of this software as a sort of bridge between entertainment and a creative process. It has been my experience that people learn by doing, a common observation that is expressed more eloquently by Andreas Huyssen in writing of the Heiner Müller's "learning plays":

Don't learn from them (object lesson, theater as finished product, uncritical acceptance of thesis), but, by actively reproducing them, learn through them (example lesson, re-production of a process, Bei-Spiel, critical trying out of behavior). (Huyssen, 1976)
Software has the potential to stage the contradictory processes of dramatic presentations, and to allow people to learn by the acting through of situations. But it also has the potential to forestall such imaginative investment, leading users through a procession of preselected hierarchical hoops. As individuals, small groups, or modestly funded museums, the pace of content production set by advertising sponsored, venture capital infused, web sites appears unattainable. And probably pace is not a virtue anyway. Instead of emulating it, systems can be implemented that encourage the creative participation of visitors. Such sites may be popular and at the same time conducive to the "critical trying out of behavior." In this sense, it is possible to compete with the emerging web entertainment industry; and, what is more, this competition need not follow in lock step with the genres and values of the Gee Whiz industry. Rather, the opportunity exists to close the gap between passive pass-times and nuanced artistic and intellectual engagement.


  1. Antin, David. (1992) Fine Furs. In Mitchell, W.J.T. (Ed.) Art and the Public Sphere. University of Chicago Press, 1992. pp. 249-262.
  2. Enzensberger, Hans M. (197?) Constituents of a Theory of the Media. In Critical Essays. Continuum, 1982. pp. 46-76.
  3. Huyssen, Andreas. (1976) After the Great Divide. Indiana University Press, 1986. p. 83.