unplace. a museum without a place

In Featured Events / November 17, 2015

When initiated in 2014, the unplace project aimed “to discuss the notion of intangible museography in the field of contemporary art exhibitions which are specifically produced for virtual and networked contexts.” Ideas of a “Museum without a Place” and “Virtual Exhibitions” had completed the working frame of a project that has since developed into a broad research and investigation project that encompasses numerous consideration on contemporary art, new media, architecture and technology. Looking at the influential agency of museums and their influence on culture, tourism, urban revitalisation and economy within a globalised world, the project has paid particular interest in how Internet-based initiatives involving virtual museums and exhibitions challenge the institutional grounds and provide alternative possibilities for curators, architects, designers, artists and cultural agents. “While these virtual projects seem to fruitfully embrace immateriality as an operative and creative norm,” lays written in the project description, “many of them further configure a paradoxical movement. In fact, and surprisingly enough, most cases fail to propose utterly innovative works or environments, as they simply tend to reproduce prevailing models from the material world: digitising existing collections and duplicating, online, real exhibition spaces.”

(Such concerns are also addressed in discussions with Daniel Alexander Smith, one of the initiators of Paper-Thin, but more clearly in an extended conversation with Alfredo Salazar-Caro and William Robertson, the co-founders of DiMoDA – The Digital Museum of Digital Art. It should be said, however, that, unlike museological institutions using digital resources to present and preserve their collections, activities or practices – which, as mentioned before, are a means to diffuse knowledge and re-inform the powers, politics and strategic knowledge incorporated by these “real museums” – recent Internet-based initiatives and digital art projects aim to bypass materiality vs. immateriality divides and their accompanying tropes. In doing so, they relate to the matters of their art quite distinctively. “In our attempt to understand the virtual, we return to this exercise of comparisons,” observed artist Laura Splan in an interview about the TechNoBody exhibition that took place at the beginning of 2015. In the same interview, artist Claudia Hart explains that a virtual world “is a facsimile or a model of the real one. (…) the virtual is a conceptual construction, one that is Platonic in the broadest sense, but is specifically a model of the real that could be computer-generated, or physical or just an imaginary one.” Artist Victoria Vesna adds: “I have always challenged the separation of virtual and real that relates directly to the separation of the flesh and spirit.” And artist Carla Gannis provides a most compelling account of virtual realms: “It is an ever-expanding no-place that is empty and full simultaneously; a space when and where the data ghosts of our former selves roam freely; a dimension with infinite possibilities for future self-iterations; a time where age, gender and location mean less than meme, mythos and metonymy. (…) And this virtual realm can be as painful to our physical selves as a slap in the face, as beguiling as a kiss, as enlightening as a hike to a mountain top. Therefore, I perceive the virtual as real (…). Should there be a day when the big plug in the electronic cloud is pulled, still I believe that the impressions made upon me during electronic immersion will remain. But, of course, we have inhabited the virtual world since our first thoughts as babies, when words and images emerged in our ineffable mindscapes. The emergence of technologized virtuality I see as an effort to address, if not alleviate the alienation of our self-contained virtual domains.”)

unplace acknowledges that collaborative ventures, such as Google Art Project, aim to highlight “the geographical diversity of the world shared heritage” but are inseparable from “the simulation of pre-existing realities,” while virtual museography remains deeply informed by traditional stereotypes, whether they refer to architecture and design, or their constituent practices. The research project focused on understanding how the persistence of material references informs virtual museum / exhibition projects, analysing “remarkable case studies which effectively succeed to overcome the conventional and tangible references in the field of digital exhibitions,” and proposing “to outline alternative guidelines for future developments in the domains of museum architecture and virtual exhibitions.” Expected outcomes to create a participatory network where artists, curators, designers and architects could share and discuss innovative concepts and practices, came together with ideas around “a future exhibition of contemporary art, entirely web-specific” and possible (re)formulations of the concept of “intangible museography.”

Between October 31 and November 1, 2014, an international conference was organised together with the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon, titled “Uncertain Spaces: Virtual Configurations in Contemporary Art and Museums.” This constituted an opportunity to investigate the impact of technology, digital art, virtual environments and the Internet on contemporary art and museums. A series of questions have been raised to further stress the project’s mission and intentions: “What are the differences between digital representations of an existing museum building and a purely virtual, Web-based exhibition space? How are we to study, classify, preserve and exhibit Internet art works and collections? How is the emergence of the ‘intangible’ affecting heritage, exhibition design, art practices and public participation? Is ‘intangible museography’ a new field of specialisation for scholars, museum professionals and independent curators?” The initiation of a Database already counting more than 1000 records on artists, researchers, curators, exhibitions, collections, or virtual museums – unavailable yet, unfortunately – that challenge the paradigms of physical spaces and artistic experiences, together with a series of presentations and publications that aim to consolidate an interdisciplinary perspective and stimulate further discussions, has also seen the development of “networked art: places-between-places” – the first unplace exhibition, which “brings together Internet and web-specific artworks in which the tensions between real and virtual spaces are highlighted through online practices, ranging from geopoetics, fiction and hacktivism to participatory projects in networked environments.” Curated by António Pinto Ribeiro and Rita Xavier Monteiro, with the collaboration of Helena Barranha, Susana S. Martins and Raquel Pereira, the exhibition also included a series of projects selected through open call by a jury composed of António Pinto Ribeiro, Helena Barranha and Susana S. Martins: Contingent Movements Archive by Hanna Husberg and Laura McLean, Radio Nouspace by John F. Barber, and Solo Show by LiMac [Sandra Gamarra Heshiki and Antoine Henry Jonquères].

Comprising works by Ahmed El Saher (Egypt), Ai Weiwei (China) & Olafur Eliasson (Denmark, Germany), Alfredo Jaar (Chile/USA), Art is Open Source (Italy), Clement Valla (France/USA), Giselle Beiguelman (Brazil), MIIAC-João Paulo Serafim (Portugal), JODI (Belgium/Netherlands), John Barber (USA), Paula Levine (Canada/USA), Thomson & Craighead (UK), Wilfredo Prieto (CUB), Perry Bard (Canadá), LiMaC –Sandra Gamarra (Peru/Spain) & Antoine-Henry Jonquères (France/Spain), Hanna Husberg (Finland/Sweden) & Laura McLean (Australia/UK),  S.A.R.L. group (Portugal) – the exhibition was the focus of a recent interview with curators Helena Barranha and Rita Xavier Monteiro that you can read below, including a broader exploration of the works presented as part of the exhibition.

Giselle Beiguelman, Mirrored Cities, 2015. Image from the collection of digital images website produced and edited with mobile devices. Image courtesy of unplace. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Giselle Beiguelman, Mirrored Cities, 2015. Image from the collection of digital images website produced and edited with mobile devices. Image courtesy of unplace. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.

Sabin Bors: The title “networked art: places-between-places” is a challenging one because it already encompasses a critical relation between networked art and the idea of place. How do you understand these ‘places-between-places’?

Rita Xavier Monteiro: First of all, the unplace exhibition “networked art: places-between-places” should be understood and framed as a stage of the research project in which we aim to question the idea of “a museum without a place”, gathering information on digital-born artworks, artists and virtual exhibitions and discussing new paradigms of intangible creation, museography and perception.

The idea of an “in-betweeness” appeared in relation to the flowing essence of the art around the WorldWideWeb, where there is no space to stop and stay. This permanent and fast traffic provides the confrontation of apparent opposites: local-global; proximity-distance; intimacy-exposure; private-public; freedom-control. Recent art practices reveal an awareness of the Internet network as something that, nowadays, goes far beyond the simple act of clicking and liking and make material and virtual worlds really converge and collide. These artistic strategies play conversely with facts and fictions in the area between real and virtual, representing a territory whose substance or origin, lost in the network, can no longer be seen.

As we already know, there is an important distinction between space and place (Augé, Foucault, Borges), considering the anthropological place, where an aesthetic experience – an affective link (Juan Martín Prada) – could occur. When “the place is nowhere and everywhere”, the final problem that feeds all the exhibition is: Can virtual space become a place?

Sabin Bors: I find the idea of online exhibitions most interesting but inherently problematic in how they redefine our relations with the object of art. I have recently discussed this with the initiators of the Paper-Thin virtual art platform, asking whether simulated spaces can account for the experience of interacting with a work of art. But Paper-Thin, like Crystal Gallery or Panther Modern and many other projects that are currently being developed, is a project that only exists in its virtual format. How would you define your exhibition in terms of its medium? Do you think there is a ‘virtual public’ that will begin visiting such exhibitions like they would visit the physical spaces of a museum? What would be the difference between ‘virtual public’ and online visitors? Does one interact with the art object as such or rather with ideas, affects, information and networks?

Rita Xavier Monteiro: We are self-mapping and registering material reality on the Internet, by overlapping all its layers. The virtual is not the reality, but it is a real space. It is the space over there and is almost entirely surrounding us! So I believe that we can no longer address to the online spaces as simulated spaces, but as an expanded reality (with all the problems this idea may bring). As Michael Connor well pointed in a recent article, thinking about the idea of a Post-Internet age and its relation with art, “there was no after the internet, only during, during, during” and the boundary is fading in a way that “internet culture is increasingly just culture.” However, we hope that the mediated experience behind the screen – which imposes a space of the viewer and a space of representation – and the new hybrid environments, would never completely replace the fruition of an art object as an effective presence, but instead coexist or even complement it.

What we wanted to investigate and experiment was a purely online exhibition space including web-based artworks. In this sense, and considering that Internet Art relies on its own techné and language, perhaps we can just conclude that online visitors are dealing with this new media literacy and, above all, are interested in thinking about a networked nature provided by these new geographies of the public space. We had the opportunity to interview Jon Ippolito who mention, in 2006, the aesthetics of Internet Art as an aesthetic of relationship, also referring to the danger of a musealisation of these projects when they are removed from their native habitat.

Sabin Bors: The exhibition comprises 16 works by artists from 12 different countries. Could you please tell me the curatorial rationale behind your selection of these specific artists and/or artworks? How does their work reflect the intentions behind your curatorial approach and how do the works relate between one another?

Rita Xavier Monteiro: All selected artworks are deeply rooted in the idea that “place is nowhere and everywhere” to bring up, in particular ways, the aforementioned interstitial space. Together, these works illustrate the main online artistic practices, ranging from geopoetics, fiction and hacktivism to participatory projects in networked environments, revealing critical perspectives about the mechanisms for production, storage and dissemination of digital information at a global level. There was also a concern for the countries of the selected artists, mirroring the diverse geographies of the Gulbenkian Next Future Programme, partner institution of the unplace project, and which was “dedicated in particular, but not exclusively, to research and creation in Europe, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean.”

In addition of the selected works, the exhibition featured 4 web-specific (Mirrored Cities, by Giselle Beiguelman; the Facebook project Code Name OSCAR by S.A.R.L group, Rio (MIIAC), a project by João Paulo Serafim; Solo Show (LiMac), a project by Sandra Gamarra and Antoine-Henry Jonquères and Sound Diary, Radionouspace, by John F. Barber) and displayed 3 projects that were selected through an open call launched in May 2014. We also worked with the DIA Art Foundation to obtain the updated version of Wilfredo Prieto’s Moment of Silence for the exhibition, addressing preservation concerns around web-based works.

Paula Levine, TheWall-TheWorld, 2011. Interactive Website, Google Earth. Image courtesy of unplace. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Paula Levine, TheWall-TheWorld, 2011. Interactive Website, Google Earth. Image courtesy of unplace. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.

Sabin Bors: I found it interesting that you divided the exhibition in two thematic tours, one that approaches networks of power and control, the other approaching issues related to spaces of fiction and interaction. These are systemic and institutional oppositions that reflect numerous political considerations. Could you please explain the two titles and the way you wanted visitors to engage with the six specific terms: network – power – control, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, space – fiction – interaction?

Rita Xavier Monteiro: Each one of the thematic tours proposed general questions to the visitor raised by the projects. On the one hand, Networks of Power and Control opens a critical reflection on the mechanisms running behind the web -“How are the digital technologies reconfiguring the public space? To what extent does the virtual imply a dominant network? In what way does the Internet shape the political, social and cultural concerns of artists and activists?” After taking the perils of surveillance and manipulation on the web into account, Space(s) of Fiction and Interaction offers the (re)presentation of a community from alternative and curious practices, asking “What does it mean to be connected? To what extent can the virtual change and broaden our perception and experience of the real? What potentialities does the network culture offer with regard to the way that we exhibit ourselves and relate with others?”

Each tour contained sub-themes that put in touch concepts and artistic strategies of the projects, helping the visitor to freely build their own perspective around those issues. Nevertheless, the visual puzzle built with GBNT, the designers team, was there to remember the multiple associations and constellations of ideas that may be played and explored – from window to window – by the online visitor.

Sabin Bors: For years now, topics such as ‘geopoetics,’ ‘hacktivism’ and the very idea of ‘participatory projects’ or ‘networked environments’ have been prominent in critical discourses, workshops and alternative spaces/projects but remain rather marginal in the world of art, galleries or the institutional spaces of museums. How do you explain this?

Rita Xavier Monteiro: The uncontrollable character of these projects, the critical attitude towards large corporations, as well as the radicalism of some of them, can explain it and why they frequently escape the common art market circuit.

Sabin Bors: Uncertain Spaces. Virtual Configurations in Contemporary Art and Museums is an e-book that was published within the framework of the unplace project. In the introduction you’ve written together with Susana S. Martins, you formulate two most critical questions following the international conference that was organised as part of the project, questions that I would like to re-address to you. Based on the outcome of the project so far, the conference, the volume and now the exhibition – “How can we deal with the under-representation of Internet artists in major collections worldwide?” and “How are we to study, classify, preserve and exhibit Internet Art works and collections?”

Helena Barranha: Most of the questions which have been addressed at the beginning of the unplace project are still open and under debate, especially those related to the conservation and exhibition of Internet Art. First and foremost it is important to discuss what should exactly be preserved because, as many researchers and curators have pointed out, most of these works are based on technologies which become obsolete very rapidly. For this reason, contemporary art museums should form qualified multidisciplinary teams to deal with these new challenges, not only in terms of conservation but also in terms of exhibition; in many cases, forcing a physical gallery presentation of a Web Art piece, conceived for an online medium, might be misleading.

On the other hand, our research has definitely confirmed that Internet artists and web-based artworks are strikingly underrepresented, if not completely absent, from most contemporary art collections worldwide. The underrating of Web Art is evident not only in small or medium scale institutions, but also in major contemporary art museums and centres which, apparently, tend to privilege more conventional or stable artistic media. I believe that the first step to overcome this marginalisation is to increase the investment in research, education and curatorial programmes specifically oriented to networked artistic practices. The main objective of the unplace project was to contribute for this process, namely through an International Conference, two open-access e-books and one virtual exhibition of recent Internet Art works.

Sabin Bors: In your introduction to the publication, titled “Art, Museums and Uncertainty,” you discuss ideas of uncertainty, transience or instability that define a processual understanding of artistic manifestations today. The mutability of processual manifestations involves a cultural re-accommodation of the unexpected and the accidental as a means to escape the principles of control and allow non-institutional practices to shape our spaces of living and imagining. How did network(ed) cultures impact the participation of the public, in your opinion, and how do they shape the political today?

Helena Barranha: Network(ed) cultures are, undoubtedly, reshaping all aspects of our lives, and artistic practices are obviously no exception. Although the idea of involving the public’s participation in the artistic process is not new to contemporary art, the last two decades have opened up entirely new possibilities, particularly with the globalisation of social media. Nevertheless, social media also reveals that few artistic projects are able to mobilise the audiences as much as prosaic facts, messages and images. Therefore, I think that more than assessing the public’s participation, we should question what is the focus of that engagement and to what extent can it be object of economic or political control. As the unplace exhibition reveals, many artists are addressing these issues, particularly in the field of Post-Digital Art, exposing and criticising new forms of surveillance and manipulation.

In a recent paper, we have also observed that the democratisation of information and communication technologies brought with it other forms of segregation: “[…] while some frontiers are tending to disappear, new ones are also being created. In fact, the emergence of new digital (or digitised) territories with particular access protocols and specific cartographies has generated new forms of social and cultural exclusion, based on digital literacies, as well as on the availability of technological resources.” (Helena Barranha, António Pinto Ribeiro and Raquel Pereira: “Towards the metaphorical transformation of urban space. Digital Art and the City after Web 2.0”, 2015)

Ai Weiwei & Olafur Eliasson Moon, 2012. Interactive website. Screenshot. Image courtesy of unplace. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Ai Weiwei & Olafur Eliasson Moon, 2012. Interactive website. Screenshot. Image courtesy of unplace. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.

Sabin Bors: In an article titled “Beyond the Landmark: the effective contribution of museum architecture to urban renovation,” you discussed the relevance of museum architecture in shaping the city and urban cultures. Extending the discussion, to also tackle the role of the museum as institution in shaping cultural memory, how should we understand the virtual museum? In what ways does it hold the power to shape the everyday, its orders, its manifestations, and living environments?

Helena Barranha: I think that virtual museums are powerful means to configure, transform and consolidate cultural references in terms of museum architecture, collections and exhibitions. However, I would distinguish three different scenarios: firstly, the virtual museums which correspond to digital, online (re)presentations of physically based institutions; secondly, mixed media examples that include the first dimension but also web specific projects, such as virtual exhibitions, online educational programmes, etc.; and finally, purely digital museums with no physical existence and, therefore, more able to explore ground-breaking, and often utopian, conceptual and formal solutions.

Sabin Bors: When you initiated the unplace project, you also mentioned virtual museography and collaborative museum experiences risk reproducing conventional museum models. How can they avoid this? Equally importantly perhaps, how can they avoid the museification of the virtual itself and the participatory practices we develop to counter this museification?

Helena Barranha: I believe that the best way to overcome the mere transposition of conventional museum models to the digital sphere is to risk exploring alternative paradigms, either purely intangible or hybrid. Augmented reality, for instance, has proved an efficient resource to develop curatorial and educational projects combining real and fictional dimensions.

The integration of participation practices in museums in not negative per se, as long as both artists and audiences have conditions to develop alternative projects, outside institutional frameworks.

Sabin Bors: Do you think large museums and institutions will begin considering virtual museography as part of their program in the coming years? How will the evolution of virtual museography impact current institutions and how do you think they will respond to developments in virtual spaces?

Helena Barranha: Most referential museums are already producing virtual exhibitions, as well as organising interesting online activities. Hopefully many other institutions will follow this trend. But, as Antonio M. Battro pointed out, “The problem is not only to ‘digitise’ everything that is worthy of publication on the web but to produce new contents, to propose new activities, to explore new links within the arts.” On the other hand, I there is significant evidence that virtual museography is a promising alternative field which does not aim to replace traditional museums.

Sabin Bors: The idea that virtual or ‘intangible museography’ will become a new field of specialisation for scholars, museum professionals and independent curators has underlined the development of the unplace project. On the one hand, this inevitably goes back to fears of reproducing conventional museum, institutional, research and classification models, without which the foundational and constitutive idea of the museum would come under question. But I would nevertheless like to ask the inevitably utopian question: do you think it is possible to conceive such thing as a ‘participatory museum;’ one that would stimulate unbounded and termless access and participation to its constitution, similarly to Wikipedia perhaps? What would be the implications and challenges of such an initiative?

Helena Barranha: Utopian visions have always inspired museum projects. The very concept of museum is somehow founded on the utopian idea of creating a virtual world where works of art can be preserved on ideal conditions, regardless of time and material decay.

There are many reasons to believe that, in a near future, there will be qualified and diverse participatory museums, exclusively accessible on the Web. In a certain way, websites and social media such as Flickr and Instagram have paved the way for online art galleries, based on public participation. Moreover, Google Art Project and many museum websites have also introduced the idea of visitor as curator, as online users are now allowed to create their own galleries and virtual exhibitions based on high-quality reproductions of institutional collections.

Sabin Bors: If artistic practices will indeed turn to collaborative virtual environments, how will this change, affect, stimulate or refashion the social role of the artist?

Helena Barranha: Modern and contemporary art have always relied on the diversity of languages, media and practices. Consequently, it seems quite unlikely that collaborative virtual environments will completely dominate the artistic scene over the next decades.

Giselle Beiguelman, Mirrored Cities, 2015. Image from the collection of digital images website produced and edited with mobile devices. Image courtesy of unplace. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Giselle Beiguelman, Mirrored Cities, 2015. Image from the collection of digital images website produced and edited with mobile devices. Image courtesy of unplace. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.

Closing Notes

It is uncertain to what degree “networked art: places-between-places” may be seen as an exhibition. The theoretical frame and artist selection are compelling, but this is a curated and thematic visual index rather than an online exhibition as such. The curators have justly identified the typologies of these works as resulting from “their permanent traffic,” a transitory state marked by “uncontrollable ecosystems” and continuous mutability, metamorphosis and potential for deviation. But the presentation frame fails to create a ‘place-between-places’ of its own and reinforces the need to address critical concerns about what is it that makes a website an exhibition. “What we wanted to investigate and experiment was a purely online exhibition space including web-based artworks,” said curator Rita Xavier Monteiro in the interview. How exactly are we to define this “purely online exhibition space”? With its thematic structure, distinctive layout and options to zoom in on artworks, would it be possible to say anti-utopias itself is a purely online exhibition space? I am not at all sure about this; it largely remains an online platform but not an exhibition as such.

In their approach, the curators have identified a set of variables that condition the realisation and experience of virtual online exhibitions: “the fact that only a minority of contemporary artists make use of the possibilities offered by virtual technology to produce their works and to install them online; the high and fairly uneven cost of this advanced technology; the lesser interest shown in this artistic genre by the agents involved in the distribution and conservation of art (galleries, collectors, critics, museums); and the low visibility/accessibility of Internet Art, even among those who are assiduous visitors to the virtual public sphere.” Discussions may be initiated in relation to these variables. It is safe to assume, at this point, that most contemporary artists make use of virtual technologies to produce their works – whether this also includes “installing” them online is, of course, an open question, but we also need to define the limits of what this online installation is. As discussed by the initiators of Paper-Thin or DiMoDA, to name here just those I recently spoke to directly, their aim is to bypass the costs of “advanced technology” by using freeware: Daniel Alexander Smith says “Paper-Thin is built with a variety of 3D modeling software and everything is put together in Unity. My associate, Cameron, and I basically picked out the free programs that have industry standard quality,” while Alfredo Salazar-Caro says “I like to use Blender to model and Unity for interactivity. I particularly like these software because of their free availability and power. I’m a big believer in freeware, copyleft and the free flow of information.” “Advanced technology” is inseparable from corporate technology and corpocratic organisation patterns; and most of contemporary artists using virtual technologies address such issues in an emphatically critical key. This is a time when artists deliberately start giving up on previously reclusive positions, revisit high-tech adorations, and assume gender, ethnic, sexual, socio-cultural, political, economic and class biases to explore technological residua, subjective leftovers and socio-political gestures of mimicry. We know that “lesser interest in this artistic genre by the agents involved in the distribution and conservation of art” is due to art market considerations and misguided art education. At the beginning of the 2000s, Rachel Greene’s Internet Art had attempted to look at Internet Art in an art-historical context and provide a relevant timeline for Pre-Internet Art and Internet Art main events and developments, going from the emergence of the Dada movement in 1916 to the publication of Lev Manovich’s quintessential The Language of New Media. (See a selection from Greene’s timeline in the sidebar.) For the coming years, art markets will most likely continue to privilege partisan divides; discard of such divides would amount to destructuring their constitutional economical foundations and organisation. When discussing “virtual / intangible museography,” we should neither limit the discourse to Internet Art alone, nor position Internet Art as the main manifestation. In spite of constellations of studies, researches and critical perspectives, Internet Art, Digital Art, New Media, Virtual and Augmented Reality, 3D Art, Locative Media, or the benighted issue of Holograms, to name just a few, are all still at wait for a founding discourse that would ground them in an art-historical perspective. This is due mainly to the fact that most of the critical attempts address these issues in connection with technological and techno-social concerns, without discussing the actual figurative qualities of the artworks or the “real” social conditions that the same Internet seems unable to encompass or educate upon. As previously discussed, sociality, communication technologies and the Internet have also conttributed to and intensified the creation of stereotypes, decontextualisations, the perpetuation/generation of (new) forms of periphery and marginality, and – most importantly in this context – generic rather than representative conditions.

The unplace exhibition does not attempt to illustrate a story of how digital art has transformed over the past decades: “(…) we have mainly sought to gauge the effect that the new type of shock of these artistic genres can produce. In particular, the unplace exhibition gives privilege to the questions that are implicit in digital art, but, above all, to the way in which this art form circulates and is exhibited.” What the project emphasises is the locus of contemporary artistic culture and the broader conditions of technological presence: “the apparent democratisation of the Internet and the network culture; the various political movements that appropriate these models of connectivity and make them more spectacular; the relationship that exists between the technological development of war machines and their reuse in these works; who manages them, who archives them, and, in the final analysis, who causes such a large production of information to circulate.” There is yet need for additional efforts, following the initiation of this project, to reflect on the possibility of an epistemological criticism that would reveal the powers “that control and legitimise all of this vast quantity of production and artistic experimentation” and evaluate how digital art (and digital technologies) “reconfigure (or not) the most common and resistant artistic categories.”

There are two thematic tours of the unplace exhibition that visitors to the website may consider. As the curators note, these thematic visits are just proposals, as the sixteen works can be connected “through all manner of visual associations and links between their contents.” The first, titled “Networks of Power and Control,” looks at various relations between digital technologies and the public space, the degrees in which the virtual may be considered a dominant network, and how the Internet shapes the political, social and cultural concerns of artists and activists. It investigates how artists engage with the material and the immaterial so as to reveal their expressive transformations, the dilution of binary boundaries, and the structures of power and domination lying camouflaged within the networks. Three topics are proposed as part of this tour. “Tangled” deals with appearances in the democratic nature of the spread of information shared through social networks, as reflected in the works of the Art is Open Source collective, which seeks to avoid the perverse systems existing for the manipulation of data that are exploited by large technological companies; Ahmed El Saher’s video game Nekh (2011), where a battle of camels caricatures the passivity many experience when in front of a computer, in an “eminently political work” that is “an ironic metaphor for the reality of the violent episodes of the Egyptian revolution and the way in which these are seen by the global society;” and the collaborative work of Hanna Husberg and writer and researcher Laura McLean, whose ongoing project Contingent Movements Archive is an active speculation on the social and environmental consequences of the climatic catastrophe in the Maldives, the lack of preventive policies, and virtual alternatives to preserve the culture of a nation uprooted from its place. The second topic, “Geopoetics and Geopower,” looks at how works exploring the softwares used for mapping from a “topocritical” perspective, may at times resort to “virtual instruments from the standpoint of a globalisation of space” or point out to “contradictions in their geographical representations,” as evidenced in Paula Levine’s The Wall – The World (2011), which simulates real situations in space based on image-based representations and allows visitors “to take part of the wall built between Isreal and the West Bank and to overlay it onto their own city;” or GeoGoo (2008), developed by net.art duo JODI, and Clement Valla’s Postcards From Google Earth (2010), where distortions in Google Maps and Google Earth create either conflicting and divergent interfaces, or transformed cartographies that question forms of territorial power in a radically altered perspective on world geography, structure and organisation. “Losing Control” is the title of the third proposed topic, as reflected in the works of Portuguese S.A.R.L. group and Wilfredo Prieto. S.A.R.L.’s work on hyper-reality as “the space without its origin, the condition and the collusion of networked knowledge,” reveals construction paradoxes, “overlapping time frames and layers of information between the real and the fictional, which confuse and disorient the spectator. When the relations between objects, processes and bodies are mediated by digital technologies and manipulated by a code, it becomes almost impossible to distinguish reality from its simulation.” Their web-specific project Code Name: Oscar (2015) investigates the twofolded relation between surveillance and the protection of privacy: “Facebook users are invited to accompany and participate in a research narrative and possibly change its direction by taking part in a game that implies joining together and dispersing rigid signs and reflecting on the structures of control and power.” Wilfredo Prieto’s A Moment of Silence (2007), a project that has been specifically updated by the DIA Art Foundation for the unplace exhibition, gives users the possibility to disintegrate the technological space, in an actively political gesture to reclaim, perform and alter virtual (public) spaces.

The second thematic tour of the unplace exhibition, titled “Space(s) of Fiction and Interaction,” explores the meaning of being connected, the possibilities of the virtual to broaden perceptions and experiences of the real, as well as the ways in which we exhibit ourselves and relate with others within network(ed) cultures. These ideas are rooted in the blurring boundaries “between being inside and outside the World Wide Web” and considerations on the construction and representation of reality “through actions that are shaped by technological devices.” Issues of hyperconnectivity, Internet Art, fiction and interaction inform a sense of the virtual that involves the active participation of audiences, aiming for a critical rethinking of “the socio-political nature of the museum, as well as the experience of networked art.” Here as well, three topics are proposed that visitors can negotiate freely. “Fictional Spaces” is illustrated by Brazilian artist Giselle Beiguelman’s Mirrored Cities (2015), a gaze upon the urban territory where the act of seeing, (over)valued in the hierarchy of the senses, becomes a haptic and operative experience of “seeing with one’s hands” within altered space-time fields and dislocated visual terrains; and in the perceptual translocations of the Lima Museum of Contemporary Art (LiMac), founded by Sandra Gamarra in 2002, and coordinated by Antoine-Henry Jonquères, and the Improbable Museum of the Image and Contemporary Art (MIIAC), developed by João Paulo Serafim since 2005 – two museums which only exist virtually, as fictional museums that fill in a void of effective institutions: the absence of a contemporary art museum in Lima, Peru, in the case of LiMac, and a “machine for thinking about the image” inside and outside the museum, in the case of MIIAC. Both virtual institutions present temporary exhibitions, consolidate an archive and aim to provide a critical contribution to the architectural design of a possible space; “the markedly institutional nature of the display of the respective web pages is yet another irony that confuses and reflects the roles and the actions of cultural agents and institutions.” The second topic of this tour, “Connection Problems,” reflects on the transmission and assimilation of events through the use of the Internet, as shown in renowned Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar’s Emergencia (2013), which prompts to ethical urgencies amidst “concrete situations of political and social hegemony, following both a logic and an aesthetics of resistance” – here, a website conceived as a warning about the AIDS epidemic in Africa and the need for world intervention; and in Thomson & Craighead’s A Short Film About War (2009), a work around the disturbing nature of networked news, the virtual state of mediation, and the consequences of a possible “googlisation.” The last topic, “Interactive Spaces,” is illustrated with John Barber’s Radio Nouspace (2013), where the artist rejects the dictatorship of the image in search for a political reclamation, collection, preservation and broadcasting of sound and audio recordings by the agency of the Internet; and with Perry Bard’s The Global Remake (2007) – a collaborative global platform where spectators can upload images and videos that appropriate Dziga Vertov’s 1929 film “The Man with a Movie Camera,” in a parallel organisation of the original/authorial and the participatory that helps to reinterpret the cinematic work of cinéma-vérité and contrast the everyday Russian life of the 1920s with present day global(ised) life – the global vérité of the Internet era, “shaped by the crowd and framed in a post-cinematic scenario (Steven Shapiro).” Ai Weiwei and Olafur Eliasson’s Moon (2012), a poetic contribution to this tour, is based on the reproduction in images of the Moon as a metaphor for dreaming, the intangible, and mass mobilisation: a reflection of reality and a subconscious latency in society.

In what concerns my personal experience of the “online exhibition,” my aim was to look at the projects in “networked art: places-between-places” in running order, as randomly (adaptively?) displayed by the computer (on a 13” screen; the order may vary based on screen size and/or resolution, though I did not test this). Instead of a thematic order – a random, “virtual” and chance re-ordering of the projects and their interconnected viewing/reading. It started with João Paulo Serafim’s RIO exhibition at MIIAC – Improbable Museum, to continue with:
Art is Open Source’s Real Time in Cairo,
John F. Barber’s Radio Nouspace,
Grupo S.A.R.L.’s Code Name: Oscar,
JODI’s GeoGoo,
Clement Valla’s Postcards from Google Earth,
the Contingent Movements Archive and The Free Sea by Hanna Husberg and Laura McLean,
Giselle Beiguelman’s Mirrored Cities,
Ahmed El Shaer’s Nekh,
Wilfredo Prieto’s A Moment of Silence,
LiMac’s Solo Show,
Ai Weiwei and Olafur Eliasson’s Moon,
Paula Levine’s The Wall  The World,
Thomson & Craighead’s A Short Film about War,
Alfredo Jaar’s Emergencia,
only to end with Perry Bard’s Man with a Movie Camera: The Global Remake – a reflection on the global vérité understood as the “decoding of life as it is” (in Vertov’s own terms) and the worldwide montage we all participate in.

The interpretation of the possible re-negotiations of meaning as entangled by viewing/reading the “online exhibition” this way is a task for later. Visitors may rush to visit the exhibition before its closing on November 19 and will be greeted by a project that, for all its rather academic approach and debatable issue of what an online exhibitions should be or feel like, will only show its full potential in the next stages. For now, the finely curated selection of artists and artworks, together with the initiation of a critical research apparatus and a collaborative Database, offer a glimpse into the multiple possibilities that are yet to be negotiated – possibilities that need to remain open.

Presentation text and interview with Helena Barranha and Rita Xavier Monteiro by Sabin Bors, the curator and editor of the anti-utopias contemporary art platform.


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