"Leaping into the abyss and resurfacing with a pearl". E-mail interview
with Jon Ippolito
di Domenico Quaranta
[Published in "Noemalab", October 2005,
In the same section you can read previous interviews, more focused on
ada'web, with Steve Dietz -
and Benjamin Weil -
In despite of the pioneering commitment of curators and institutions
which, during the last decade, started studying the methods of archiving
and preserving new media, they are very far away from a definite
solution, the one that defeats all the rest, forces itself upon them and
becomes routine. Maybe there is no best solution, and (maybe) this is
the best part of the whole business.
Jon Ippolito's work seems to substantiate this hypothesis. Even better,
it seems to say: "there is a best solution, but it's variable". From the
seasoned case history of ada'web's archiving, that Ippolito - together
with his adversarial collaborators, Janet Cohen e Keith Frank - worked
out with an unreliable archivist, to the Variable Media Initiative and
the Seeing Double exhibition, let's run through the stages of this
DQ. What do you think about ada'web? Do you think that its (old, in
web-years) experience can teach something to current net art?
JI. ada'web's role in the history of Internet art is unmistakable. There
were certainly works of Internet art that preceded ada'web and/or
reached beyond its cultural and geographic bias - most notably the
classic European "net.art" works of the early 90s. Nevertheless, ada'web
was the first and foremost platform for Internet art in the mid-1990s,
and remains relevant to this day.
That said, my artistic collaborators Janet Cohen, Keith Frank, and I
didn't like everything on ada'web - which is why we set out to "improve" it.
DQ. What about the way ada'web has been collected by the Walker Art Center?
JI. While other curators wrung their hands about the nightmare of
archiving digital media, Steve Dietz, the architect of the Walker's
Digital Study Collection, leapt into the abyss and resurfaced with a
pearl. Of course it would have been great for him to do variable media
interviews with all the artists first, but you have to remember that one
of the inspirations for the Variable Media Network was Steve's daring
leap. In new media, we learn by doing, and Steve was the first to do it
in a thoughtful way.
DQ. How did The Unreliable Archivist see the light?
JI. Janet and Keith and I often joked about our Force Majeure resume -
Force Majeure being the clause that lets parties break a contract thanks
to an "act of God" like a war or hurricane. This resume was full of
exhibitions and publications cancelled at the last minute because of
ceilings declared unsafe and so on.
When ada'web curator Benjamin Weil offered to let us make the next
featured work for ada'web, we were very excited - until we heard that
AOL dropped ada'web's funding, at which point we thought, OK there's
another line for our Force Majeure resume.
Then Steve heard about our proposal and the light turned green again.
As an aside, I've worked with and alongside curators who simply shuffle
commissions in and out of their exhibitions to coincide with prevailing
fashions. Steve was a provocative and engaged interlocutor in our
collaboration, both in refining and contextualizing the project. He
probably deserves credit as one of our artistic collaborators.
DQ. Why 'unreliable'? Do you think there's a reliable way to archive a
piece of net art?
JI. Ha! No, you're right. The word "archive" derives from the Greek word
for "house of government" - the same root as monarchy - and their
centralized, controlling nature is proving increasingly unreliable for
the preservation of digital culture.
That said, I'm working with some collaborators on a completely
distributed model for documenting digital art and criticism. I should
also say that I think archiving and collecting are two different things;
the former implies fixed documentation, while the latter requires a more
variable approach to preservation.
DQ. How much of the curator Jon Ippolito can we find in The Unreliable
JI. Hopefully none. A curator's job is to nourish artists and safeguard
their work. In The Unreliable Archivist, my job was to knock them off
DQ. In an interview you had with Liisa Ogburn in April, 2000, you make
yourself a question: "What would it mean to adapt museum culture to net
culture?" Can I make you the same question?
JI. It would mean complementing archivists with animateurs. Animateurs
are those loony folks who re-enact historical moments, whether medieval
jousting tournaments or the Wright brother's first flight. One of
Internet art's first "historians", Robbin Murphy, once suggested that
thinking about animateurs might help us understand what's missing in new
media preservation, and I think he was right. We need this kind of
person - for their anachronistic skills (whether it's wielding a
crossbow or Commodore), their interpretive fidelity (how do you cast
Hamlet in a chat room?), and their enthusiasm for the process of
DQ. As new media curator at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, you
conceived the Variable Media Initiative. What's the current state of the
JI. I was never alone in working on the idea; collaborators like Keith
Frank and Rick Rinehart have contributed more to the idea of variable
media, while folks at the Guggenheim and Langlois Foundation have done
most of the heavy lifting. One of the most ambitious projects we've
accomplished to date is a test of emulation, which is one of the most
important tools in the animateur toolbox. In 2004 Caitlin Jones, Carol
Stringari, Alain Depocas, and I organized Seeing Double, a Guggenheim
exhibition that paired works still running on their original hardware -
such as Grahame Weinbren and Roberta Friedman's Erl King from 1982 -
with emulated versions running on completely different hardware. We did
audience surveys and held a symposium to gauge the reaction of viewers
to the digital doppelgangers we built in the gallery.
Along with innovations like Seeing Double, we continue to refine the
variable media questionnaire, a tool for allowing artists and others to
articulate their visions of how a work may - or may not - be re-created
in a new medium once its current medium becomes obsolete. Although
anyone can currently download the prototype just by requesting it, our
latest thought is to get a Web version up so a broader audience can play
DQ. How did artists react to the VMI?
JI. Almost without exception in our case studies to date, artists have
reacted to the questionnaire with a serious and sustained imagining of
how their work might unfold over time. Some had already devoted some
thought about the future of their work; for others the experience was a
revelation. In every case, as far as I can remember, there was at least
one question the artist had never considered before.
I did get criticisms from a few artists who had no direct knowledge of
the variable media paradigm. They had heard that we asked artists to
give the museum permission to re-create works, and these critics figured
it was just a way for museums to wrest control of the work away from the
artist. Whereas in fact it is precisely the opposite - as the market's
influence on the ultimate fate of Dan Flavin's light installations has
made painfully clear.
DQ. The VMI began with a reflection on net art and its preservation, but
it spread out as far as covering many other fields, and more traditional
(or simply older) art practices. In this sense, can we say that net art
can reach an invaluable role in the updating of museum engine?
JI. Absolutely. The hardest innovation for the museum to swallow is the
network, for museums have historically been defined in the exact
opposite terms (centrality, stasis, rarity, disconnection).
DQ. In "The Museum of the Future: A Contradiction in Terms?" you say:
"… the most extreme departures from the material object, digital or
otherwise, are ultimately the ones whose future depends on the very
institution they were designed to render obsolete". So, does net art
need museums to survive? Do you see other possible solutions?
JI. Net art doesn't need today's museums - it needs what museums will
morph into if they take up the challenge of adapting to the needs of an
increasingly networked culture.
To be sure, my colleagues in the Variable Media Network and I have been
exploring more distributed alternatives to documenting and preserving
Internet creativity. But even the most net-native scheme requires
someone somewhere who dedicates herself to keeping culture alive. More
than technical knowledge, that person needs interpretive skills and a
passion for preserving history undaunted by the many challenges in her
way. Right now that person is most likely to be found in a museum.
DQ. I find the VMI very interesting, but I think it runs the risk of
seeming something like an aggressive therapy. Looking at the
questionnaire, and thinking about strategies like emulation, I can't
reject the idea that they are based on a question like: "How would you
like to live when you'll be dead?" What about this real risk?
JI. New media artworks die and are reborn constantly, with or without
the variable media paradigm. Apartment, a networked piece by Martin
Wattenberg, Marek Walczak, and Jonathan Feinberg, went through some
30-odd variations from 2000 to 2002 alone; it has been incarnated
variously as a net-native piece, a single-user installation, and a
While the artists are still kicking, they can direct the life cycles of
their artworks. But before the artists themselves kick the bucket, they
should have the option of entrusting others to supervise future
re-incarnations of their work.
Your question implies the Variable Media Network could explore the
possibility of resuscitating dead artists as well as artworks -
definitely an option I hadn't considered! Researchers like Hans Moravec
and Ray Kurzweil have proposed that we download our consciousnesses into
hard drives for use with new bodies once our present ones disintegrate.
The reason I find that suggestion so revolting is that I feel very much
part of my body. Partly this is because all my experience is mediated by
it; I might be writing different words now if I were a woman penning a
manuscript in a monastery rather than a guy typing on a laptop in an
airport. But the other reason I've grown attached to my body is that
I've never been separated from it. This is not the case for digital
artworks, whose bodies are swapped out for new parts all the time.
DQ. Today, the ‘love affair’ between contemporary art museums and net
art seems to be in troubles. What about the future of this relationship?
JI. Sure, the relationship is on the rocks now. But there's a
groundswell of interest in Internet art on the part of graduate students
in art history and museum studies departments. Things may change once
this new generation gets a foothold in the museum world. But even then,
these folks will bring a perspective on networked culture that's
different from geezers like me.
DQ. What are you doing now?
JI. I'm about to publish a book with Joline Blais called At the Edge of
Art, which proposes a functional definition for art in the age of the
Internet. We argue that the most creative work these days is coming out
of scientific labs and online activism, and conversely that a lot of
works in galleries - paintings, sculptures, installations - aren't up to
the new tasks that art must fulfill in the 21st century. The book is
sure to piss off curators who assume Duchamp granted the power to define
art to the white cube's gatekeepers. But if Duchamp could be
reincarnated as you suggest, I like to think he would have a good laugh
at their expense.
Jon Ippolito - http://www.three.org/ippolito/
The Unreliable Archivist - http://www.three.org/z/UA/
Variable Media Initiative - http://variablemedia.net/
Seeing Double - http://variablemedia.net/e/seeingdouble/index.html
mob. +39 340 2392478
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