The ‘new’ in new media art has caused handwringing in the capital A art world for about three decades; expert gatekeepers think long and hard about the criteria by which a select few works made with emerging technology (rather than within established mediums) make it into the white cube and bask in its limelight. A tough question lurks beyond ‘how do we display, collect, and preserve digital art?’ though. ‘What would a digital museum of digital art look like?’ is even more troublesome. Freed from material (polished concrete floors) and social (art selfie policies enforced by zealous docents) concerns, a digital museum could be pretty much anything: how exactly is it arranged spatially? What kind of works does it feature and what curatorial strategies does it engender? These dilemmas were explored with HTML in the 1990s, in Second Life in the ’00s, in smartphone and tablet augmented reality-enabled ‘overlay incursions’ into existing institutions quite recently – and now they are being reconsidered again in virtual reality.
Amongst the many eccentric VR projects we discovered at WEIRD REALITY last fall, none captured our imagination quite like DiMoDA. While eclectic ‘experiences’ abounded at the Frank-Ratchye STUDIO for Creative Inquiry-initiated symposium dedicated to “new and independent visions for virtual, augmented and mixed realities,” DiMoDA was thinking about VR at a platform level – prototyping how the nascent medium could transform the curation, exhibition, and viewing of digital art. An acronym for ‘Digital Museum of Digital Art,’ the venture was launched by artists Alfredo Salazar-Caro and William Robertson in 2015. Its second iteration, an exhibition called “Morphé Presence” was staged five times in 2016 and the latest version of it opened at the RISD Museum in Providence, Rhode Island in January.
“Most of the work being produced in VR right now is very industry-focused,” says Salazar-Caro as we chat over Skype. “I wasn’t seeing a lot of content that I was interested in or anything particularly experimental, so DiMoDA was kind of an outlet to find the people that are pushing those edges — and archive and display them.” For “Morphé Presence,” those desires are articulated as a Greek temple accented with neon floating on an asteroid, with spatial navigation that defies the laws of physics. While its site is extraterrestrial, a surface reading of the interior reveals familiar media art techniques and tropes – data moshing, FPS nostalgia, geometric abstraction, visceral digital surrealism – but the effects of these aesthetic pursuits are heightened through immersion.
“For the RISD show we built some monster machines with gnarly graphics cards, really powerful beasts that can run VR like butter – they’re great!”
CAN recently caught up with the Chicago and New York-based artist while he was on a layover at Newark airport, and that downtime was a perfect moment to reflect on the significance of his collaborative DIY museum venture. “High-end virtual reality is not so accessible or affordable right now. We thought it would be cool to have installations in physical spaces, and relationships with galleries and museums where people can go and experience the works.” In its current form DiMoDA consists of a pair of high-end PCs with Nvidia GTX-1070 GPUs (“really powerful beasts that can run VR like butter”), each with a Rift headset. The machines are kitted out in transparent cases with wild LED lighting that would thrill a discerning fifteen year old gamer, and become part of the show rather than nondescript black boxes. Wall-mounted displays allow other gallery visitors to peek in on the action; just like in any museum, viewing is a social experience.
DiMoDA may celebrate immateriality, but it’s rooted in a critique of the mandates of brick and mortar institutions:
As the preeminent Virtual institution devoted to Digital/New Media Art, the Digital Museum of Digital Art presents the full range of contemporary Digital art, with a special focus on works by living New Media artists. DiMoDA is dedicated to collecting, preserving, interpreting and exhibiting Digital art and its collection while expanding the conscious experience of viewing Digital art in a Virtual space. DiMoDA is arguably the finest holding of twenty first-century Digital art in the world.
Salazar-Caro emphasizes the DiMoDA statement is a little sardonic and not meant to be taken literally. “I just looked at the mission statements of my favourite museums – The New Museum, PS1, all these really prominent contemporary museums – and took their statements and remixed them: adding terms like virtuality, digital artworks, living new media artists.” A more succinct distillation of that lofty strategic plan lingo would be that he and Robertson are finding the talented folks pushing at the edges of VR and “putting a team behind them so they can develop their ideas to their full potential.”
↑ Four flavours of virtuality (clockwise from top left): Rosa Menkman, Miyö Van Stenis, Brenna Murphy, Theo Trian’s contributions to “Morphé Presence”
“Morphé Presence” is comprised of DCT:SYPHONING. The 1000000th (64th) interval (Rosa Menkman’s modern translation of Flatland by way of compression algorithms), War Room (Miyö Van Stenis’ bombastic exploration of power, gender, and violence in videogames), a series of lattice-y superstructures composed by Brenna Murphy, and a somewhat slimy and esophageal self-portrait by Theo Trian. The show was conceived of and developed (conceptually) by Helena Acosta and Eileen Isagon Skyers. Respectively based in NYC and Portland, the curators are expectedly nuanced in their framing of show. When asked about the tension between the mediated and corporeal experiences implicit in VR, Isagon Skyers points out that “in many respects, what happens in VR is necessarily a physical reality.” And she’s right. We talk about ‘disembodiment’ in VR but that is just shorthand for the (current) crudeness of those experiences. “Despite the fact that virtual reality and computing reflect mere representations of the material world, they consist of the same underlying patterns, codes or structures, that comprise the everyday ‘stuff’ we encounter.” “Virtual spaces have no rules, for us, this was one of the appealing aspects,” says Acosta of the invitation to curate for DiMoDA. “VR is a platform which has a complex potential for designing experiences capable of challenging perceptions – socially and aesthetically.”
While Salazar-Caro expressed a wariness about the industry early in our conversation, he can’t ignore which direction the trade winds are blowing. When asked about the prospects of a cheaper more distributed version of DiMoDA for smartphone-enabled mobile VR platforms like Samsung Gear and Google Daydream he is cautiously optimistic. “Its just William and I running the whole thing. As we get involved with artists that are creating more demanding installations we keep pushing the envelope technically, so there is only so much we can do. Right now we’re working to get more people involved that will make all of this happen – we’ll definitely go mobile.”
Beyond questions of distribution and the allure of an exponentially larger audience on mobile, the spatial quality of what a digital museum should or could be seems unresolved. With “Morphé Presence” it’s realized as (quite ironically) a Greek temple by way of Miami, but the artworks could just as easily be dispersed across Fallout or Skyrim landscapes – DiMoDA is authored in Unity afterall. In its current building-like iteration and beyond, where does Salazar-Caro think the architecture stops and the art begins? “Part of the ideology of the white cube is to not get in the way of the artwork, he says. “But you know, at the same time, I’ve seen a lot of other virtual platforms that are digital exhibition spaces that emulate it, and I find that to be quite drôle because what’s the point of having infinite power when you’re just going to create the most basic space possible?” He then hints future iterations of the museum may not be so familiar. Regardless of the museum’s exact spatial configuration, Isagon Skyers brings the focus squarely back to the work and the traditions from which it has emerged. “Art pieces in formats like 3D rendering and GIFs had often been conditioned by the frame of the screen. In this sense, DiMoDa proposes a space where visitors can experience new media art in its own environment.”