Art Focused and Distracted: Three new media exhibitions curated by Joshua Decter

Image of äda 'web page produced for the exhibition "Screen," 1996.

In 1996, curator, critic, and educator Joshua Decter colorfully defined "media cultures" as "a euphemism for how we reproduce ourselves, as a society, into a spectacular—i.e., ocular and aural—organism whose viscera has become technology itself."

Throughout his career, Decter has paid special attention to media cultures and their relationship with the public sphere, developing a curatorial practice that has long been distinguished by its openness to adjacent new media and net art practices. Beyond spectacle, his use of websites, apps, and other technological apparatuses sheds fresh light on artists and artworks generally considered to be decidedly analog.

I invited Decter to walk me through three curatorial projects, all ambitious group shows, that exemplify his career in digital and AFK spaces. In each, the artwork is mediated—either by conceit, didactic, or display—so as to variously diffuse and emphasize the image, addressing the nature of art and its publics under the condition of networked technologies. 

"Screen," Friedrich Petzel Gallery and äda 'web

January 19—February 24, 1996

For the exhibition "Screen" at Friedrich Petzel, I mentioned to Benjamin [Weil, co-founder of early online art website äda 'web] that I was curating a painting show thinking about the relationship between painting and television. It was a kind of conceit, in terms of theories of velocity and reception, not in a way that was meant to be didactic or academic, but more playful... I thought, why not work with äda 'web to build... a virtual extension of the exhibition? This work is still online.

It wasn't groundbreaking as an interactive interface, but it was meant to ask, "how does one articulate a curatorial structure on the web?" [The online project] involved the text being integrated into the visuals of the exhibition; it allowed people to click on individual paintings that would then become screengrabs from television, paralleling through interaction the actual television in the site of exhibition, and the interpenetration of images of television and images of the paintings... in a video catalogue produced alongside.

These were screengrabs from news images, commercials, sitcoms, what have you. Our developer, John Simon, built an algorithm so that there was a randomness to the [screengrabs] and the paintings. We wanted to make it more elaborate—that there would be a real-time feed from a television signal, an endless uploading and then grabbing of images—but for some reason technically we weren't able to accomplish that with the means that äda 'web had at that time.

Participating artists: Richard Artschwager, John Currin, Nicole Eisenman, Gaylen Gerber, Peter Halley, Mary Heilmann, Peter Hopkins, Alex Katz, Byron Kim, Jutta Koether, Bill Komoski, Udomsak Krisanamis, Jonathan Lasker, Glenn Ligon, Allan McCollum, John Miller, Laura Owens, Jorge Pardo, Elizabeth Peyton, Lari Pittman, Sigmar Polke, Richard Prince, Gerhard Richter, Matthew Ritchie, Alexis Rockman, Gary Simmons, Rudolf Stingel, Philip Taafe, Luc Tuymans, Christopher Wool, Chris Wilder, Sue Williams.


"Transmute," MCA Chicago

July 24—September 19, 1999

Installation view of "Transmute" at MCA Chicago in 1999; at center, the virtual curator kiosk.

MCA Chicago was inviting outside curators, maybe even one or two artists, to interpret the collection. Not knowing it well, I was tentative about this, but decided I would do it if we could figure out a way to broaden its scope in terms of outreach, to move beyond parochial education programs, because, in the end, this was seen as an opportunity to re-energize the collections. I wanted to work with an interactive programmer to design a dual system: a virtual artist component and a virtual curator component. Both were available on kiosks in the site of exhibition and online.

A screenshot of the virtual curator application created for "Transmute."

For the latter, I selected a John Baldessari work from the exhibition—this would be an opportunity for people to engage with a Baldessari in a conceptually consistent way with how John actually makes his work. Appropriating. Selecting. Reorganizing. Doing something to public or private domain images. People could submit their own images that would be plugged into a virtual template, basically of the Baldessari work, so that one could manipulate the image. These public submissions were not necessarily meant to be as art, this wasn't about endeavoring to transform people into artists per se, but to offer a sense of what it means to actually make a work of art with images. 

To me, the more exciting element was the virtual curator, in which the public had an opportunity to re-curate the exhibition, not in terms of selecting new works—I wanted to do that, but the museum could not give me access to other pieces—but reinstalling extant works in the show. From what I understand that had not been done before. I was very excited about this, still today when I think of what other things museums could have done, what roads they could have taken, but didn't.

This was on until the mid-2000s, but then it disappeared. Apparently, no public archival version exists.

Participating artists: John Baldessari, Matthew Barney, Chris Burden, Jeanne Dunning, General Idea, Gilbert & George, Mona Hatoum, Gary Hill, Jim Isermann, Mike Kelley, Jeff Koons, Barbara Kruger, Charles Long (with Stereolab), Rene Magritte, Bruce Nauman, Tony Oursler, Jorge Pardo, Jack Pierson, Richard Prince, Mel Ramos, Allen Ruppersberg, Jim Shaw, Cindy Sherman, Lorna Simpson, Liam Gillick, John Miller, LOT/EK, Noritoshi Hirakawa, Grennan and Sperandio, Miltos Manetas, Julia Scher, Fariba Hajamadi, Sam Samore, Mans Wrange and Gerwald Rockenschaub.


"Dark Places," Santa Monica Museum of Art

January 21—April 22, 2006

Install view of "Dark Places" at Santa Monica Museum of Art, 2006.

Developing a framework for "Dark Places"...I was thinking about noir, urban psychogeographies, and remapping space, coming out of the ideas of [architecture critics] Reyner Banham and Anthony Vidler. And that led me to thinking about I don't simply want to curate an exhibition where I invite artists whose practices had been re-working one space or another. Instead, I thought it would be more compelling to rethink the format of presentation in a fairly radical way.

Installation view of "Don't Look Now" (1994) at Thread Waxing Space.

What allowed me to do that was going back to an earlier exhibition—my first, technically—in 1994 called, "Don't Look Now" at Thread Waxing Space. For that, I invited 100 people (artists, writers, and other cultural producers) to submit one image in 35mm slide form. I worked with a designer to build an environment for 80 slide projectors, which would run simultaneously, continuously. That was about using the available technology of mediation then—the slide projector—in relation to the movement from some kind of "real life" to mediated space.

So, I thought back to 1994 in 2005-06, when I began developing "Dark Places." I thought, what is the technology of mediation that's available, what are the mediating devices? Of course, it was digital imaging. (I should note that the video catalogue for "Screen" was produced with [the nonlinear video editing system] AVID, but in 2006 we were talking much more advanced digitization.) I reached out to servo, a group of architects, who were working with information-based, systems architecture. I collaborated with them for a couple of years on this apparatus of display, presentation, and projection, an apparatus that would allow me to curate in a quite different way. 

Installation view of Dark Places (2006) at Santa Monica Museum of Art.

For the show itself, I invited a large group of artists to have their work digitized—ranging from one image or sequence of images to an entire video or digitized film—and I broke their contributions down into eight quasi-autonomous "scripts." All were presented via this display apparatus, the collaboration with servo—this kind of thing, which had a thingness or an architectonic sculpturality. And each node was an opportunity to curate a sequence of these works, presented via screen. So there were eight exhibitions contained within one, but, of course, taken as a whole, there was a lot of stuff happening at once. 

Clearly, I wanted to push things as far as one could in terms of mediation, through digitization, sequencing, scripting, simultaneity of audio/visual information and effect, challenging the autonomy of works in a way that I thought was somehow commensurate with how art operates digitally, virtually, within the broader culture, amidst distraction. I didn't want to produce distraction, but I wanted to see how far things could go, in terms of velocity, attention, focus, and de-focus.

Participating artists: Vito Acconci/Acconci Studio, Franz Ackermann, Francis Alÿs, Michael Ashkin, Jaime Ávila Ferrer, Dennis Balk, Matthew Barney, Judith Barry, Thomas Bayrle, Julie Becker, Douglas Blau, Monica Bonvicini, Daniel Bozhkov, Mark Bradford, Miguel Rio Branco, Troy Brauntuch, Candice Breitz, François Bucher, Sophie Calle, Eduardo Consuegra, Jordan Crandall, Teddy Cruz, Jonas Dahlberg, Stephen Dean, Anne Deleporte, Diller Scofidio, Sam Durant, Anna Gaskell, Douglas Gordon, gruppo A12, Fariba Hajamadi, Pablo Helguera, Noritoshi Hirakawa, Julian Hoeber, Emily Jacir, Christian Jankowski, Vincent Johnson, Mitchell Kane, Joachim Koester, Glenn Ligon, Dorit Margreiter, Fiorenza Menini, John Miller, Muntadas, Paul Myoda, Yoshua Okon, Catherine Opie, Lucy Orta, Hirsch Perlman, Raymond Pettibon, Richard Phillips, Richard Prince, Raqs Media Collective, Alexis Rockman, Julian Rosefeldt, Aura Rosenberg, Peter Rostovsky, Sam Samore, Paige Sarlin, Julia Scher, Gregor Schneider, Allan Sekula, Andres Serrano, Nedko Solakov, Doron Solomons, Wolfgang Staehle, Javier Téllez, Anton Vidokle, Eyal Weizman/Nadav Harel, James Welling, Wim Wenders, Judi Werthein, Charlie White, Måns Wrange, Jody Zellen, and Heimo Zobernig.

A graduate of the Whitney Independent Study Program, Joshua Decter is a New York-based writer, curator, theorist, educator and editor, whose writings have been extensively published over the past twenty-five years.

Decter founded the M.A. Art and Curatorial Practices in the Public Sphere program at USC in 2011. A collection of his writings, titled Art is a Problem, was recently published by JRP-Ringier. Last week this saw a launch in New York, with events in Los Angeles, London, Vienna, and Berlin forthcoming.