Online Curation: A Discussion Between Nicholas Weist and Lumi Tan



Nicholas Weist and Lumi Tan are co-founders and directors (along with their partner Summer Guthery) of the online curatorial project "Why + Wherefore". Tan was also a guest curator on a previous online curatorial project founded by Weist called pHytonics-- which is now director-less but lives on as a fixture of powerHouse Books' online program.

"Why + Wherefore" was begun in December of 2007 with an invitational featuring over 50 artists. For the current show, entitled "TBD," each of the three curators select works to be loaded individually, reacting to each piece in succession with the following. The work is loaded in real time. The next show, which will include only video-based work loosely related to pop and media culture, will debut in early May. A screening of select work from the show will be held at Monkeytown, Brooklyn, NY, in early June.

Lumi Tan: As we're both curators who have done shows on and offline, do you ever feel like either one influences the other, in terms of format or themes or anything? I tend to keep them completely separate in my brain, with ideas never overlapping.

Nicholas Weist: That's a complicated question, and the answer is both yes and no. Whenever I'm working on a project, online or off, I always conceive of the biggest, best, and most expensive thing I possibly can. Then I pare down based on practical concerns like budget, how I'm going to actually get artwork, or even just how much time I have available. The major strength of working online is that I don't need to worry myself with these concerns at all: "space" is practically free, and if an image exists on the internet- then it's yours for the taking. If the field of possibility is more open, I definitely have different patterns of thought about what I'm doing.

But of course the allowances of working online come at the cost of a schism between presentation and representation, in the case of most of the world's artwork. It's an interesting problem, especially in contemporary art... I mean perhaps "aura," to use an clichéd but appropriate word, is no longer so important.

Anne Collier, Reflection, C-Print, 2003 (Screengrab from Why + Wherefore's show "TBD")

LT: That's always been my main hesitation with curating online. The artists I'm drawn to generally work in installation or sculpture, mediums that require a physical encounter with objects. How does this work translate, if at all, to the internet? Will it change the dialogue with the work completely? One thing I am especially cautious about, due to the proliferation of online curating and curators seeking artists online, is when an artist's image of the work needs to be as "good" or as effective as the work itself. I would never want an artist to have to edit a work in order to be reproducible online.

However, I'll be the first to admit that without the proliferation of comprehensive artist and gallery websites, I would never be able to see the majority of work I do on a daily basis. Consequently, I have a conflicted relationship with online representation. How do you think the emphasis on having a presence online has changed artists' (who aren't normally working in new media) relationships to documentation, or even art making itself?

NW: I do think that artists, and especially younger artists, are thinking more critically about the eventual representation of work. It's scary to think that we belong to the last generation to not archive our entire childhood in real time online. Think of all those stories that make you cringe on some twelve-year-old's blog! Mortifying photographs that live forever in a Flickr account you forgot the password to! I think the public is slowly realizing that this content doesn't disappear, and, in response, becoming smarter about their presentation of information online.


Colby Bird, Dave and Tim, 2007 (Screengrab from Why + Wherefore's "The Inaugural Invitational: Beginnings")

I'm excited that we will be following our current show "TBD" on Why + Wherefore, in which our own ideas are privileged, with a video show that empowers our viewers. I mean, simply, that people will have the opportunity to fast forward, rewind, and freeze frame in our next show: which you almost never get in a gallery. How do you think people will react to this type of agency?

LT: I think it's an absolutely positive quality. I'm embarrassed by the number of video shows I've missed out on because I simply don't have the time to sit down for 20 minutes during a lunch break, or my inability to focus because of outside distractions in galleries. It becomes really frustrating in a large museum exhibition, such as the current WACK! show at P.S.1, which seems to have hundred of videos worth watching-it doesn't matter how many benches they put out for you, you'll still never be able to devote enough time to them.

Since we'll have at least 40 videos in our next show, the idea of being able to watch them wherever and whenever is ideal. Having artists' videos hosted on YouTube or Ubu has really changed how viewers experience of video. The physical element, the inherent self-consciousness of being judged by other viewers on how long you watch a video in a gallery, or how you are reacting to what is onscreen, is gone. The tradeoff at this point is the quality and resolution of watching work on a computer, and this doesn't work at all for installation, but the freedom and availability of the work now is refreshing. Video is a medium which is meant to engage with the viewer, and this dialogue is only enhanced by its availability on the Internet.

Are there other websites that you've found are really contributing to this relationship to video, or to art in general?

NW: Gotta give some love to Rhizome here: the community and the staff do a great job selecting out cogent, interesting work and presenting it in forms appropriate to their "venue," the internet. VVORK is a great curatorially-minded blog, and mysterious enough to intrigue while providing links where possible for further investigation. Our boys at Sundays New York, an artist-run dark horse riding in from out West, are consistently amazing. And Jon Feinstein and his colleagues at Humble are expanding their excellent monthly solo and group shows to include texts and now even a grant program. All of these, though, are heavily curated programs. I do love the comprehensiveness of registries like those at White Columns and Artists Space, but frankly it's mostly just sensory overload when I try to pick through them. And forget about Saatchi: it's like every grandma with a paintbrush is up on there. Here again is the strength and weakness of the internet; democracy can be overwhelming!

You recently curated an open invitational at Third Ward with Feinstein, and I remember you had something like 1,000 submissions from a call to action by Humble? What a classic transposition of the internet into physical space: swimming through so much work to present something compelling and navigable. What was that process like for you? Did you feel that the show had more weight because it was presented in a gallery setting, or could it have been as effective online?

LT: I think it was very important for the Humble show to happen in physical space- it added legitimacy, for the organization and the artists. Many of the artists in the show were already featured at one point or another on the website, but having their photographs actually printed, framed and hung on the wall for the public to interact with made a huge difference. This differentiation is especially explicit in photography, when many works will never be printed unless purchased or exhibited.

Humble certainly would have never received 1,000 submissions without the countless number of photography blogs, online listings, message boards, etc., essentially promoting the show for us. Wading through any pile of submissions is exhausting, and clicking through a slideshow becomes akin to flipping the pages of magazine, though with less risk of papercuts. I think our generation is more accustomed to this type of editing, searching, and quick viewing, though, and as a contemporary curator, your brain is trained to sort and absorb images at an accelerating pace. And many times when you curate a show, you don't see the physical work until it arrives for installation. You've stared at the jpeg for so long, the actual object can be jarring.

Your past online project, pHytonics, had stringent rules about the image presented being "the work" rather than documentation of the work. Has your attitude about presenting work online changed since then?

NW: Well pHytonics was a strange beast.... One of the core values of the project was derived from title, which itself was a derivation of the word "phyton." It means "the smallest possible part of a stem, root, or leaf that when severed may grow into a new plant." From the beginning, it was very important for me to present only work (as opposed to documentation thereof), in order to craft a space where it was possible for what was selected to be able to speak for itself, and possibly become something new. Secondarily, the site was also meant to be a promotional tool for the artists (each week a single artist presented a selection of work) and as such, ease of navigation and clarity of purpose were key.

In other projects online, I don't feel it's important to present only "work." Quite the contrary, I believe that the flattening power of the internet we spoke about earlier, or the slip of presentation into representation, expressly allows one to show an installation shot as if it were work. Can you imagine if a gallery printed a photograph of an installation and showed it in lieu of a piece?!

Wait, but do you remember when I was going to have a show of representations of art? The idea was to collect and present only those objects that are actually "work" by big-name artists, but that was not actually the work itself. For instance the Bruce Nauman poster you can get in the basement of DIA; hi res files from photographers (originally destined for books I was working on) that I could have had printed; or Cory Arcangel's "Black and White gif", 2006 (free printouts of how to make a black and white gif). Maybe a forged Carsten Höller even: I mean how hard would it be to buy a plastic slide? At bottom the idea was to question how a fiscal value is placed on objects, and also investigate the idea of (again!) "aura." Have you ever represented a work in real space in the hopes that stand-in speaks for itself?

LT: I haven't really, though I immediately thought of artist Brian Clifton, who had a exhibition of his collection last year at his project space ("On View: Selections from the B.C. Project Room Permanent Collection" B.C. Project Room, New York) that included Seth Price and Fia Backstrom works available for free download off their personal websites. I love how ubiquitous this idea has become, both with independent artist sites and institutions. Ezra Johnson just did a fantastic project with Dia where he made 17 short animations as downloadable screen savers. And I've heard multiple people talk about doing shows completely comprised of downloadable PDFs. Here the viewer immediately "owns" the work, and it is repeated endlessly, with very little damage to the "aura". Like the Nauman piece you referenced, and of course others such as Felix Gonzales-Torres' work, the ordinary public is privileged by being able to take a work of art and walk out of a museum without any danger of a security guard running after you. And after you take it home (or, if you download something on your computer, you're probably already home), you have total agency to do what you want- you can frame it like any other work on paper, you can toss it in the recycling bin, you can delete it off your desktop-it's available to you anytime you need it. It's the perfect medium for these times of intense, instant consumerism and remarkable distraction.