Resident Expert: Curating Art in the Digital Age

Contributed image of the Face to Facebook gallery installation by Paolo Cirio and Alessandro Ludovico (Italy, 2011).

“Screen media — whether films, television or web series, video games, augmented-reality (AR) apps, and so forth — have important insights to contribute to ongoing discussions in the sciences, humanities, and social sciences.”

Q&A with Dale Hudson, NYU Abu Dhabi associate teaching professor and curator of film and new media, and:

What does it mean to be a digital art curator? What do you do exactly?

Digital curation involves both finding projects, particularly ones that may not have been exhibited widely, and assembling them into an exhibition around a meaningful theme.

I curate digital media the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival (FLEFF) in the United States, which has partnered with other festivals in Cuba, India, Indonesia, México, Nigeria, and elsewhere.

FLEFF uses a broad theme each year to refocus thinking about environmentalism from conservation towards ecologies. It explores how the biological and computational, human and nonhuman, cultural and technical, rational and emotional, visible and invisible coalesce around environments.

Since its founding 20 years ago, FLEFF has expanded beyond educational documentaries to include other arts practices, such as installations, live performances, and online exhibitions of digital media. The festival actually emerged around the time that web browsers and email applications began to popularize the internet for non-military use. Artists, coders, and activists started to collaborate in new forms of arts practice, so it was fitting that the festival has included exhibitions of digital media for the past decade.

Since art is inherently political, I look for projects that foreground their politics rather than attempt to camouflage them in attention to commercial production values or appeals to universal truths. I am more interested in the concepts and ideas that push us to think more, and try harder to be cognizant of our shared environment.

The internet has changed the way that we research, teach, and think. Students now arrive in our classrooms with access to information that we have not encountered. I consider this challenge a productive one, both for students and for faculty.

Dale Hudson, associate teaching professor of film and new media
How is new media art curation different from traditional?

I haven’t curated non-digital art, but I know from having interned at several art museums in Manhattan and Brooklyn when I was a student that curators at museums and galleries develop personal relationships with their artists by visiting their studios, which is something that I have found works differently with new media since it is premised on networked communication. Artists often collaborate between multiple sites, never meeting in person until after projects are fully realized. At the same time, I develop relationships with artists over the years. There is an ever-growing group of FLEFF alumni who have contributed projects to more than one exhibition over the years.

I think that a very different aspect of curating digital art is that the exhibitions are not bound to the need to generate revenue to pay for expenses. Conventional museums need to attract audiences who are willing to pay for admission so that the museum can cover its expenses. By comparison, digital exhibits are mounted with an entirely different sort of concerns since shipping and insuring art, staffing galleries, and so forth are not issues.

I also think online exhibitions can be more daring and provocative, and can bridge the divide between academic institutions and cultural ones. Curating digital media directly contributes to the kinds of questions I pursue in my research.

The internet is huge and technology is always evolving. How do you keep up?

Collaboration. As many people have noted, the arts and humanities are late adopters of the collaborative research models that have been commonplace in the sciences and social sciences for decades.

There is simply too much material for any one person to grasp. The lengthy acknowledgment section in my recent book with Patricia Zimmermann lists other academics, activists, artists, programmers, and friends with whom we collaborated in various ways to have a sense of some of what people are doing online.

The challenge of knowing that it is impossible to claim expertise in the old sense of “mastery” over new media is actually energizing. The biggest challenge, then, could be that students now arrive in our classrooms with access to information that we have not encountered. I consider this challenge a productive one, both for students and for faculty.

The internet has changed the way that we research, teach, and think. For current intellectual and political questions or problems, I think that it’s important to acknowledge that answers and solutions cannot ignore that society will not likely return to pre-computer or pre-internet ways of thinking. Our research remains relevant by engaging not only with new theoretical paradigms but by using new networked and digital infrastructures.

Personally, I’m more interested in interdisciplinary collaboration than disciplinary isolation. I think of how our curricula and pedagogy are changing since the advent of the internet. Students arrive with digital proficiency that gives them easy access to information on the internet, thus refocusing our teaching onto digital literacy and critical thinking about how to evaluate and activate information.

When does a website or mobile app become a piece of art?

Definitions of art will forever remain unsettled. Art is, after all, a socially defined category. While I wouldn’t say something as cliché as “art is in the eyes of the beholder,” I would say that art doesn’t have to conform to any preset assumptions.

Some people might hesitate to think about a website or mobile app as art per se because digital media complicates assumptions about art as bound to original objects—and thus assumptions about private ownership and market value that conventionally determines artistic value.

I’ve always been more attracted to projects that challenge definitions, not simply of art and aesthetics, but of urgent matters that really affect us all, such as structural inequality, species extinction, global warming, racism and sexism (including internalized forms), policies of austerity and scarcity, kleptocratic governance, and ethnocentric populisms — all of which are interrelated and now affect places like the United States as visibly as elsewhere.

Screen media — whether films, television or web series, video games, augmented-reality (AR) apps, and so forth — have important insights to contribute to ongoing discussions in the sciences, humanities, and social sciences.

Dale Hudson
Describe a few memorable pieces of digital art you’ve found.

Lahore Landing by Jeremy Ho (Singapore, 2015)

Still image from the interactive documentary film Lahore Landing by Jeremy Ho.

This interactive documentary produced by undergraduate students at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore explores life in urban Pakistan from a variety of transcultural perspectives and cuts through the mischaracterizations of entire societies, increasingly fueled by state disinformation. The documentary engages with the everyday pleasures and disappointments of life in Lahore without minimizing social difference. It serves as an example of socially engaged, collaborative media practice.

The documentary communicates to audiences in non-Muslim–majority states, such as the United States, where Muslims, particularly ones from the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia but also Africa and Southeast Asia, are increasingly imagined as altogether different than everyone else. While the documentary focuses on Lahore, it highlights aspects of South Asian cultures that transcend state borders.

Maiden Voyages by Valerie Hird (Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Palestine, United States, 2010)

Still image from Maiden Voyages by Valerie Hird.

A collaboration between US artist Valerie Hind with women in Egypt, Iran, Jordan, and Palestine. My colleague Khulood Kittaneh in Arabic Language Studies introduced me to the project, which rejects foreign misconceptions about the Middle East, particularly ones associated with foreign military interventions premised on “saving” women from their own cultures.

Rather than speaking on behalf of these women, Hind speaks alongside them. The project is a collaborative diary in which five women record events and thoughts that concern them. For people unfamiliar with the diversity of the Middle East, the women’s everyday concerns might not be what they anticipate. It opens thinking to practices of feminism that negotiate social and political complexities. It also underscores how western feminisms can be counterproductive.

Face to Facebook by Paolo Cirio and Alessandro Ludovico (Italy, 2011)

In this project, software scrapes (an automated form of taking without authorization) public profile pictures from the social networking site. The photos were then sorted by Artificial Intelligence software, categorized by facial expression, and uploaded to a fake online dating service called Lovely-Faces. When people learned that their profile pictures might be used without their permission, they were outraged — and told news investigators.

Still image of Face to Facebook, a digital art project by Paolo Cirio and Alessandro Ludovico.

The project brings the matter of “gifting” our personal data for us of “free” services into public view for many people. It also includes a gallery installation that projected images with old-fashioned overhead projectors to contrast with the perfectly cloned digital images.

Offshore by Brenda Longfellow, Glen Richards, and Helios Design Lab (Canada, 2012)

Still image of Offshore, an interactive online documentary by Brenda Longfellow, Glen Richards, and Helios Design Lab.

This animated, feature-length, interactive documentary allows users to enter at different points a story about the British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon and the 2010 oil spill that has forever altered the ecosystems in the Gulf of Mexico, as well as human cultures dependent on these ecosystems.

The effect is different from traditional time-based media that offer a streamlined linear narrative of history. With Offshore, documentary is reconfigured as a nonlinear and interactive mode that presents complexities within a nexus of energy, human and nonhuman animals, offshore drilling, deep-water fishing, pollution, and environmental protection. Users get to determine how “deep” they want to “drill” into their analysis.

Cybermohalla by Sarai, in collaboration with Ankur: Society for Alternatives in Education (India, 2001).

Still image of Cybermohalla by Sarai.

More and more, artists are collaborating on projects that apply arts practices to social justice. Sarai developed through a collaboration by Ravi Vasudevan and Ravi Sundaram, both of whom were fellows at the Center for the Study of Developing Societies in Delhi, and Monica Narula and Shuddhabrata Sengupta of the Raqs Media Collective.

Sarai’s Cybermohalla (“cyber-neighborhood”) creates spaces for underserved populations in Delhi, such as factory workers and school dropouts, many of whom are Dalit and Muslim women, to learn to create their own digital and analogue media. It disrupts class-based assumptions and opens debates to perspectives that have often been silenced due to structural inequalities in access to technology. It signals the urgency of sustaining free software platforms for knowledge sharing as a voice of dissent against the so-called creative communities that threaten to restrict access to technology and ideas.