The Practical Futurist: Are Museums Obsolete?

Every two years the Whitney Biennial descends on the New York art world, attempting to assay the state of American art and dependably drawing howls of disapproval from various quarters of the esthetic community. Sometimes the selection of works is deemed too political, or too New York, or too regional, or too academic. This time, when the Biennial opened last week at the eponymous museum on the Upper East Side, critics noted the presence of very little painting or traditional sculpture—electronics, in the form of video, audio and Internet art, was much in ascendance. And that raises a provocative question about the future not of art, but of museums themselves.

The Internet art pieces were of particular interest: a significant shift from earlier efforts in computer-based art that simply happened to be displayed on the Web, but which could just as easily have been viewed on a computer not connected to the Internet. This year, most of the pieces actually use the Web, or the contents of the Web, as raw material for the art itself. Perhaps the best example is Mary Flanagan's [collection], (www.maryflanagan.com/collection.htm), in which the artist requests users to download a small bit of software that then pulls bits of text, images and data from one's hard drive, combining that with similar cullings from thousands of other users' hard drives into a three-dimensional collage of constantly shifting images.

If [collection] sounds like a computer security expert's worst nightmare, it certainly is; this is definitely a do-not-try-this-at-the-office piece of artwork. Thousands of computer criminals, worldwide, are at this very moment trying to get innocent online citizens to download similar software in the form of "Trojan horses" onto their computers for more nefarious purposes than high art. But Flanagan, with the willing participation of thousands of Net citizens, turns the technique into a window onto the subconscious of the Web.

Other pieces—James Buckhouse's Tap (www.diacenter.org/buckhouse) and Margot Lovejoy's Turns (www.myturningpoint.com) contain prepared content that is enhanced by users' contributions. Tap is a very clever idea: something of an esthetic Tamagotchi. You download a tiny animated tap dancer to your Palm PDA, which you can use to create new dances, which you then upload to a bulletin board where users share their choreography. In addition, your tap dancer is at first a bit clumsy, and you can drop him or her off at the Web site for additional practice to perfect their style. Turns is more serious, a compendium of personal stories about turning points in people's lives, again represented in an imaginative, highly graphical way that allows users to filter the stories in various ways (by category, such as health, family or war, or by topic, such as ethnicity or age), and also to add their own.

Perhaps most striking piece is a blend of novel browser plus scientific visualization. Lisa Jevbratt's 1:1 (www.c5corp.com/1to1) maps the entire Internet on the basis of numerical IP addresses—that is, the individual string of numbers, somewhere between 0.0.0.0 and 255.255.255.255, that is behind the .com or .org addresses that we normally type into a browser. Jevbratt used software that automatically searched through billions of combinations of numbers to determine which represented real Web pages—even pages with restricted access, or no conventional names--and then used that pattern of numbers to generate a graphical view of the Web that is a blur of colors. Click anywhere on the colors and an actual Web page appears. The result: a vision of the Web as a vast and anonymous information galaxy populated by millions of individual information stars. Even those who have spent years wandering the Internet will be a bit awed by this new way of seeing the immensity of what humans are creating in cyberspace.

All this raises interesting questions about just where the physical museum fits into the game. Trying to comprehend an interactive art work on a screen in the middle of a crowded room surrounded by other folks grabbing at the mouse isn't exactly conducive to contemplation. This, arguably, is art better viewed at home. Indeed this year an enterprising artist launched an alternative Internet biennial at www.whitneybiennial.com (the official Biennial site is www.whitney.org). When asked about the competition, Maxwell Anderson, the ever-urbane director of the Whitney, told The New York Times that many institutions might have "a bit of concern about the brand. But we don't feel that way."

While that's certainly generous, it does beg the question: as museums show more and more Internet art—along with audio and video pieces that can also easily be put on the Web—are they setting themselves up to be replaced by a server farm in New Jersey? Certainly not—but it may mean that for economic as well as esthetic reasons, Whitney Biennials of the future may once again find themselves "rediscovering" traditional forms like painting and sculpture. Perhaps the Whitney has already figured that out. When I sent a note to the press office to tell them that several links on the museum's site seemed to be broken, I received a reply that their e-mail had been suspended. All analog, all the time?