The ABC’s of cultural curating

Vince Dziekan, Monash University, Australia


The digital era has seen the modus operandi of the museum shift inexorably towards increasingly integrative modes of interaction with its audiences. The New Media Consortia’s New Horizon 2015 report identifies participation as one of the key drivers of technology adoption in museums in the immediate future. For their part, new media artworks reconfigure the spatio-temporal dimensions of cultural experience in distinctive ways. They may also extend the range of transactions that exist between the institution and its publics; in some cases, the character of these transactions is representative of the perceived social value that open access imparts within digital culture. Such socio-cultural developments are indicative of a postdigital paradigm shift that has distinctive implications for art museums. This paper seeks to explore how the currencies that digital culture exemplifies translates in important, transformative ways upon the perceived roles, practices, and values associated with curating. After setting out some initial problematics concerning the broadened scope of curatorial practices under contemporary postdigital conditions, the remainder of the paper will be structured as a set of discrete entries designed to offer a series of notes of a provisional nature that relate –in direct, illustrative and more overtly intertextual and theoretical ways– to the subject of cultural curating. This formative lexicon will deliberate over the mediating function of curation as the interface between the institution and various inter-actors or agents. While conceding to the speculative nature of these formative ideas, their intent and larger ambition is to initiate further research into how forms of curatorial programming influenced by the qualities of new media art and digital culture activate interactive, discursive spaces between the museum and its constituencies.

Keywords: Cultural Curating, Curatorial Design, Museum Media, Museum Communications, Postdigital


The digital era has seen the modus operandi of the museum shift inexorably towards increasingly integrative modes of interaction and content creation, both inside and outside of its institutionally defined boundaries. The New Media Consortia’s New Horizon 2015 report makes the following observation:

The idea of the museum as a participatory institution has advanced with the tide of technology as tools to communicate and share have become more accessible to the general public. As a result, many artists and museum curators are embracing a paradigm shift that requires visitors to actively contribute to installations and exhibitions to create meaning. (Johnson et al., 2015)

While identifying such an increased focus on participatory experiences as one of the impacts that will continue to drive technology adoption in museums in the immediate future, the range of transactions that new media artworks, in particular, facilitate between the institution and its publics are representative of the perceived social value imparted through forms of open access in digital culture and a reconfiguration of the spatio-temporal dimensions of cultural experience in the wake of the digital revolution. Digitally mediated architectures and new technology infrastructures—ranging from large-scale media projections and immersive sensory environments to mobile, distributed, and mixed-reality experiences—have proliferated to the point of becoming commonplace features of visual culture. As increasingly pervasive aspects of our lived, constructed environment, these forms of digital mediation demonstrate an ever-closer correspondence between virtual and physical spaces. Creative practices associated with new media have redefined material, informational, and communicational transaction, in the process altering our perspective of the nature of social and collective interaction that underwrites our current postdigital paradigm shift. The term postdigital indicates a “dramatic change in the way in which sociality is performed and mediated through new distributed digital media technologies” (Berry & Dieter, 2015). Supported by methodologies informed by an open-source ethos premised upon transparency, peer production, and collaboration, their adoption can exert a disruptive influence to more established proprietary models. Such socio-cultural developments have distinctive implications for art museums. For its part, this paper seeks to explore how the perceived cultural currency that digital economies exemplify—represented by the influence that the Internet and distributed media have had upon the production and exchange of information, knowledge, and experience—translate in important, transformative ways upon the role, practices, and cultural values associated with curating.

After setting out some initial problematics concerning the broadened scope of curatorial practices under contemporary postdigital conditions, the remainder of the paper will be structured as a set of discrete entries designed to offer a series of notes of a provisional nature that relate –in direct, illustrative and more overtly intertextual and theoretical ways– to the subject of cultural curating. This formative lexicon will deliberate over the mediating function of curation as the interface between the institution and various inter-actors or agents. While conceding to the speculative nature of these formative ideas, their intent and larger ambition is to initiate further research into how forms of curatorial programming influenced by the qualities of new media art and digital culture activate interactive, discursive spaces between the museum and its constituencies.


On the occasion of the second Museums and the Web conference convened in Toronto in 1998, preeminent new media curator Steve Dietz pronounced that technological advances affect museums by altering their perception of their mission. In particular, Dietz (1998) emphasized how the accelerated development of the Internet and the Web over the preceding decade had “inevitably placed stress on the curator’s central role in the museum,” before continuing with the following observation: “Regardless of how the curatorial role is defined, however, the Net in particular and interface culture in general introduce interesting and perhaps profound opportunities, which might also be perceived as competitive pressures in the culture arena.” This final observation, though, carries the caveat that while debate may surround the role of both museums and curators in contemporary culture, his paper does not directly address this problematic, since “regardless of your view of either, the Net will affect and intersect with it” (Dietz, 1998). On re-reading this paper again nearly twenty years later, I find myself intrigued by this marginal footnote, especially as it relates to understanding subsequent developments in art museums and the spectrum of practices spanning new media art and its aftermath. The expanding variety of distributed, computer-mediated practices over the intervening years have inspired, if not more directly instigated, distinctive forms of curatorial programming that in the process have lead towards what might be construed as a “pervasive museum,” our contemporaneous “museum (of) the Web.”

Curating, it is fair to say, has become something of a ubiquitous feature that characterizes the current day. Exceeding the remit of its professionalized definition, curating’s scope has broadened noticeably under the contemporary conditions of mediatization, leading to what some theorists and cultural commentators have described as a distinctive “curatorial” turn (Lind, 2012) or “curationist” moment (Balzer, 2014). Reinforcing the confluence of the museum and the digital age, influential museum director and curator Daniel Birnbaum (2015) points to globalizing power exerted by the Internet upon contemporary cultural practices since its invention. Celebrated curator Hans Ulrich Obrist (2014) takes up a similar position in the closing section of his candid Ways of Curating. Framing contentions for the future of curating, Obrist briefly relates a conversation with Stewart Brand (the publisher of the Whole Earth Catalog) in which the influential counterculture figure expresses that curating has “been democratized by the net, so in one sense, everybody is curating. If you are writing a blog, it’s curating. So we’re becoming editors and curators, and those two are blending online.” Indeed, curating may well be the defining cultural phenomenon of our information society and the networked age.

A systematic exploration of the curatorial is therefore timely, resonating with the widespread adoption—some may say misappropriation—of the term itself in popular usage today. Does the proliferation of curatorial “practices” (in a De Certeauian sense) found in contemporary culture—ranging from compiling playlists in iTunes, to judiciously selecting the elements that make up wardrobes or menus, to customizing the interior architecture of renovated warehouse apartments—devalue the expert knowledge and skill that the professional art curator brings to their practice, and should this trajectory be followed to its inevitable conclusion, eclipsing the central importance that curating plays within the modern museum system? According to leading new media scholar and curator Christiane Paul (2008), new media challenges the underlying basis of the traditional art world by inducing a shift in long established, institutionalized practices, such as “its customary methods of presentation and documentation, as well as its approach to collection and preservation” from a spatially pre-determined to a digitally-informed orientation. Elaborating upon how museums and galleries themselves have been predicated by forms and practices of “objectification,” she asserts that ‘”ongoing developments in digital and information technologies will affect the nature and structure of arts organizations and institutions in the coming decades and change the role of ‘art spaces’ in the broadest sense” (Paul, 2008). As an inherently process-oriented and participatory art form, new media art directly raises a range of conceptual, philosophical, and practical issues for curating. More broadly still, because “new media art is deeply interwoven into our information society—the network structures and collaborative models that are creating new forms of cultural production and autonomy and profoundly shape today’s cultural climate—it will always transcend the boundaries of the museum and gallery and create new spaces for art” (Paul, 2008). The challenges presented by distinctive new forms of cultural production and agency spawned “(after) new media art” are certainly demanding a re-consideration of the central role of the curator within the museum. As Dietz foresaw, the networked structure of the Internet and the collaborative models associated with digital culture calls for adaptation on the part of curatorial practice in order to reformulate the significance of curation as part of today’s postdigital museum.

Provisional entries for a formative lexicon of Cultural Curating

The remainder of this text embarks on this process by unpacking what curating under postdigital conditions might entail. Drawing from the context of museum studies and digital heritage research, the identifying trait of the “postdigital museum” (Parry, 2013) is that the role of digital technology is no longer seen as revolutionary; rather, “digitality” has become a pervasive condition. Therefor, a postdigital museum is one that has progressed from a state of adopting digital processes and platforms to one of wider digital integration or adaptation occurring across the organization, whether embedded in strategic and operational policies or naturalized through various museological practices, including modes of curating. The following section is structured as a formative lexicon. Used to catalogue a language or branch of knowledge, I have opted to apply this format as part of an analytical approach that places particular attention to the relationship of words and their behavior as part of meaning-making processes. My intention in doing so is highly exploratory and speculative: to identify, establish and (begin the process of) more fully elaborating upon a series of “entries” relating to the proposition of cultural curating. Qualifying the provisional status of its thesis, cultural curating describes representative modes of contemporary curatorial practice (e.g. co-, crowd- and cloud curating) within the postdigital museum that exercise the agency or the capacity of actors (e.g. artists, artworks, audience) towards forms of interaction in a given environment. Representatively, these modes can be enacted through distributed curatorship, techniques that montage spatial practices and digital mediation into new forms of curatorial design (Dziekan, 2012), and the interdisciplinary application of museum communications.

The first entry, Architecture (Program Architecture), takes a definition of curating as its point of departure before briefly indicating how contemporary curatorial practices informed by new media exemplify the mediating function of curation as the interface between the museum (i.e. as instituted; constituted) and its constituencies (e.g. public, audience, viewers). The second entry will engage with the creative practice of Branger_Briz more substantively. Representative works by this collective of artists and programers will be discussed as articulating the digital landscape through public facing interactive and co-creative projects that leverage the networked potentials of new media, including, a distributed networked performance commissioned as part of MWX on the occasion of MW2015 in Chicago. Finally—in recognition of the inherent limitations of the current investigation to offer more summative findings at this stage—the paper will close with some remarks designed to add further weight to the contextual basis for the proposition of Cultural Curating. While acknowledging the incompleteness of this hypothetical dictionary, these entries aim to serve as a partial but indicative “primer” that will be elaborated upon and discussed in a more illustrative way as part of its accompanying conference presentation.

Architecture (program architecture): terminology; describes a redefinition of the operative institutional structures of the museum in the expanded cultural context of the postdigital museum.

The US Department of Labor provides the following definition of “curator”:

Curators, also known as museum directors, direct the acquisition, storage, and exhibition of collections, including negotiating and authorizing the purchase, sale, exchange, and loan of collections. They may authenticate, evaluate, and categorize the specimens in a collection.

While used in the above definition in a more restrictive sense (i.e. applied directly to collections-related management in that instance), I find the term negotiating especially resonant to the proposition of cultural curating. Used in this expanded context and with the qualification that “there are as many kinds of museums as there are kinds of curators” (Graham & Cook, 2010), curatorial practices might be said to negotiate the nexus connecting art, the museum, and the public. Within the institutional setting of the museum, it does so by traversing a combination of internal as well as public-facing work. In this sense, negotiating shares a certain affinity with related terms like interfacing or mediating. As Beryl Graham and Sarah Cook (2010) note in their defining survey of new media curating, Rethinking Curating: Art After New Media, the curator’s purview within its museological context has developed from a specialist who “cares” for objects to serving as a crucial intermediary who acts—or better yet, transacts—between artist, artworks, the institution, and its audience. And while the museum or gallery still remains the “default zone” for art, the program architecture of the postdigital museum has become a greatly expanded constellation of spaces, formats, and event-structures, which place particular demands on the value of curation. So, what part does the curator play in a distributed model of exhibition practice, when what is being distributed is not just the art, but rather the very process of curating itself?

Propositionally, the term program architecture provides a means of rethinking how the museum defines itself through instigating various operative sites and situations that connect and integrate its primary mission to acquire, conserve, research, communicate, and exhibit both tangible forms and intangible practices of heritage under these conditions. Through its program architecture, the museum produces museological interactions with the broader lived, socio-cultural environment. This ecosystem forms interrelated webs of meaning-making that traverse the museum’s physical and virtual boundaries, and these forms of border crossing are performed through its curatorial programming, with forms of cultural curating serving as distinctive means of mediating collections and exhibitions through curatorial intervention with artworks, artifacts, and collections, as well as initiating platforms for exhibition and other forms of cultural production and public-ation. An indication of what this configuration of practices entails might be gleaned from insights of curatorial researchers whose focus has been directed towards understanding the distinctive challenges associated with curating new media art most directly. Conventionally understood aspects of curatorial practice, such as selecting, organizing and framing have been expanded in a supplementary way by a distributed practice like online curating. While asserting that presenting “net art” within a gallery setting or other institutionally-affiliated spaces, such as the museum website, introduced new models of curating (that, it must be acknowledged, go back at least a quarter of a century ago now), Christiane Paul (2006) also raises the implications that new media holds for curatorial authorship more generally. These models include modes of curatorial practice that exhibit tendencies towards incorporating multiple perspectives inclusively, from different positions or domains (that for my purposes here will be designated as co-curation), as well as forms of “public curation” (variants of crowd- and cloud-curating are illustrative of this orientation). And while open-source principles of co-production and collaboration can be said to adhere loosely to exhibitions whose conceptual development or selection process is expanded in one way or another by audience input or involvement, Paul (2006) makes an important note that “within a technological framework, curating is always mediating and agency becomes distributed between the curator, public, and software.”

The investigative work of curatorial researcher Joasia Krysa situates itself within this particular configuration. In Curating Immateriality she identifies the chief implications for curating within networked systems. In addition to extending the repertoire of what can, actually, be curated, new possibilities for the organization of the curatorial process itself are suggested as a range of digital technologies become integral to exercising its practice. To this end, Krysa developed the concept of “software curating”, and in doing so offers a redefinition for curating more generally as “an engagement with the instructions (the program) and the writing of these instructions (programing) but also the other processes upon which the program relies to run” (Krysa, 2006). Notably, amongst these “other processes” or infrastructures is the “operating system” of art itself along with an ever-widening array of both official and unofficial contexts in which socio-cultural practices of curation unfold. Demonstrably, modes of cultural curating operate within this expanded field, ranging from institutionally-sanctioned programes designed to promote direct public access and interaction with pre-defined archives—the British Library’s “open collection” initiatives are notable in this regard—to more tactical interventions or maneuvers that negotiate the increasingly porous interface between institutional and non-institutional settings. Curatorial tactics of this type may include non-sanctioned “audio tours” or augmented reality projects, such as the program staged by Manifest.AR during the 2011 Venice Biennale.

Branger_Briz: proper noun; a collective of creative practitioners and programers who articulate the digital landscape by creating public facing projects that leverage the networked potentials of new media.

The practice of artist collective Branger_Briz provides an illustrative basis to help appreciate the postdigital conditions under which contemporary museum communication and cultural curating operate. Formed in 1998 by Nick Briz, Paul Briz, and Ramon Branger, this studio collective draws upon the expertise of artists, educators, and programmers for whom the behavior of the user is the common point of contention for their creative projects, regardless of whether applied towards more commercial or experimental outcomes. Their practice reflects how contemporary culture has become indistinguishable from digital culture; an ethos characterized by their affiliation with Chicago’s distinctive “dirty new media” art scene—which was focused upon in the 2015 iteration of Museum and the Web’s exhibition initiative, MWX. As part of the MWX2015 exhibition, Branger_Briz produced a networked performance titled (figure 1). This distributed artwork used custom software to bring artists from Chicago’s experimental new media community (many of which no longer physically reside locally) together for one night in a virtual desktop chat room to play, experiment, perform, and (screen)share. The resulting collaborative desktop performance existed simultaneously online across the artists’ networked computers as well as physically as a site-specific media installation using a collection of locally sourced CRT monitors.

Figure 1: Branger_Briz, Distributed networked performance. MWX2015, Museums and the Web 2015 conference. Palmer House, Chicago. 10 April 2015. Photograph: Vince Dziekan.

Before discussing this work more directly, I would like to take the opportunity to elaborate upon an earlier work by Branger_Briz that challenges our complicit relationship with embedded technologies. First presented at Art Basel Miami in 2011, A Charge for Privacy is a conceptual art installation that raises awareness of the privacy policies of terms and service that most individuals unwittingly agree to whenever they transact online. Composed of a power supply unit enclosed within a transparent cube, the “artwork” per se is easily dismissed as essentially an iPhone charging station. Insidiously, the contractual basis of the work’s relationship with the viewer is foregrounded by making explicit its terms of engagement; effectively, exchanging the provision to recharge their mobile phone with permission to access photographs contained on it. The following text (appropriated from Facebook’s Terms of Service verbatim) is emblazoned across the planar surfaces of the Perspex case:

[…] You (b) grant Branger_Briz an irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, fully paid, worldwide license (with the right to sublicense) to use, copy, publish, stream, store, retain, publicly perform or display, transmit, scan, reformat, modify, edit, frame, translate, excerpt, adapt, create derivative works and distribute (through multiple tiers), any and all of the images retrieved.

Once downloaded, digitally manipulated versions of these harvested images are projected publicly in the exhibition space. As the artists observe, “like it or not, this is the normative economic exchange for services online today, privacy is the currency of our digital ecology” (Branger_Briz). Subsequent showings of A Charge for Privacy have reiterated its primary subject of personal privacy in a hyper-connected world, while also broadening its critique to “mediatized” cultures and the still uncharted ethical boundaries associated with digital communications. The “exhibition life” of this particular work overlaps with notorious cases of cyber security breaches, including the WikiLeaks revelations of large-scale surveillance and data capture by government agencies by Edward Snowden. This artwork’s continued relevance or topicality has not lessened over the intervening years (as the more recent assertion of an orchestrated campaign of interference in the 2016 US Election by the Russian government illustrates). Intriguingly, Snowden posted the following Tweet (figure 2) in response to WikiLeaks’ release of emails and voicemail recordings from the US Democratic National Committee and the party’s donors in 2016:

Figure 2: @Snowden, “Democratizing information has never been more vital, and ‪@Wikileaks‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬ has helped. But their hostility to even modest curation is a mistake.” Twitter post, 29 July 2016.

This missive earned a swift response from WikiLeaks (figure 3), replete with a hyperlink to the Wikipedia entry for “Digital Curation”:

Digital curation is the selection,[1] preservation, maintenance, collection and archiving of digital assets.[2][3][4] Digital curation establishes, maintains and adds value to repositories of digital data for present and future use.[3] This is often accomplished by archivists, librarians, scientists, historians, and scholars. Enterprises are starting to use digital curation to improve the quality of information and data within their operational and strategic processes.[5] Successful digital curation will mitigate digital obsolescence, keeping the information accessible to users indefinitely.
The term curation in the past commonly referred to museum and library professionals. It has since been applied to interaction with social media including compiling digital images, Web links and movie files.

Figure 3: @wikileaks, “@Snowden Opportunism won’t earn you a pardon from Clinton & curation is not censorship of ruling party cash flows…” Twitter post, 29 July 2016.

The inclusion of A Charge for Privacy in Furtherfield’s Beyond the Interface exhibition neatly illustrated its main curatorial contention—that interfaces induce transformation, in many cases facilitating the transgression of what was previously held to be morally, socially, or legally acceptable:

The interface is the boundary across which information is exchanged, causing a transformation in one or both sides of that boundary. Between individuals, corporations and states; beliefs and disciplines; components of computer systems; or machines and living beings. Interfaces have always been a site of control, hidden in plain view: symbolic, social or technological. Seduced and habituated, we forget to question how we are dominated and reprogrammed by the very facilities that are supposed to free us as part of the digital revolution. (Furtherfield, 2015)

As curatorial researcher Sarah Cook (2015) notes in her contribution to the survey exhibition, Right Here Right Now (in which A Charge for Privacy was contextualized alongside notable artist projects that respond to the ubiquity of the Internet today), in the age of information culture and social media, the ways in which identity is formed (by individuals as well as communities) is increasingly subject to a constant flow of data across this human/computer interface. In the case of Branger_Briz’s, the work fits into a contextual legacy of artists employing telecommunications to explore the ways in which digital networks reformulate our understanding of the interface between private/public spaces, providing propositional models for audience participation, real-time experience, and consensual content production. This legacy harkens back to early satellite projects developed by Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz in the late 1970s. Operating under the auspices of “Aesthetic Research in Telecommunications,” these projects were designed to test the creative possibilities of telecollaborative arts and virtual space performance. Their experiments drew upon the performing arts as a mode by which the possibilities and limitations of networked technologies to augment environments and create new contexts of “being-in-the-world” could be investigated. This course of research would ultimately inform their seminal “public communication sculpture,” Hole-in-Space (1980), which effectively provided a public portal connecting general audiences located in New York and Los Angeles.

As part of the curatorial program of MWX2015, Branger_Briz drew together a community of participating artists into a shared performance space. This “survey” of creative practitioners with affiliations to the Chicago “dirty new media” scene was achieved by transmitting the computer desktops of individual artists into the exhibition venue in real-time via a customized VP.N application. Effectively, the project exhibits a tendency towards cultural curating, particularly drawing upon modes of crowd- and cloud curating. Arranged into a totemic rack of nine separate monitors, a rotating program of artist “channels” were relayed. These screen environments presented multi-modal forms of communication ranging from sound, text, image, and video. While highly personalized and idiosyncratic, in large part, a “desktop aesthetic” of cascading frames, text editor windows, workspaces of software applications and video players floating above “wallpaper” backgrounds served as a unifying visual vernacular (figure 4). In certain cases, responsive actions were precipitated between the “performing” artist and members of the audience assembled at the Palmer House in Chicago relayed via webcams and live chat protocols. The effect created from the media mix of proprietary software workspaces, media sharing and social media platforms, serving both live and recorded media, was that temporal and spatial boundaries had been eclipsed by a state of shared, consensual connectivity. The resulting installation anchored this experience by providing a strong sense of physical presence and communality to the otherwise virtual experience of the shared desktops. Precedents for this form of collective performance space include The world in 24 hours, a telecommunications happening involving twenty-four participating artists and groups from around the world produced by artist Robert Adrian X for the 1982 Ars Electronica festival in Linz; and Galloway and Rabinnowitz’s Electronic Café, which linked five cybercafés in Los Angeles in 1984.

Figure 4: Branger_Briz, Detail of desktop performance. Distributed networked performance. MWX2015, Museums and the Web 2015 conference. Palmer House, Chicago. 10 April 2015. Photograph: Vince Dziekan.

The experimental works of artists like Branger_Briz revive the participatory social concepts of their telecollaborative arts predecessors. Their practice, along with that of contemporaries such as Eva and Franco Mattes, Constant Dullaart, and Lauren McCarthy, reflects upon the medial and social processes of our times by drawing upon various forms of mediated communications and mixed reality spaces linked to the Internet. These “networked narrative environments” (Zapp, 2004) share a common aim of integrating the artwork, the viewer, and the network into a composite ensemble from which it is virtually impossible to disentangle its individual constitutive parts. While it is important to note that a significant subset of contemporary art produced since the 1990s has proceeded with an expressed aim of activating social agendas through participatory communal events, as eminent media art curator and historian Rudolf Frieling (2008) points out, they “rarely make use of today’s networking technologies.” Inviting participants to effectively become the artwork is a strategy that artists inclined towards social sculpture, relational aesthetics, and new media art share. However, Frieling singles out numerous projects initiated by Harrell Fletcher working in collaboration with Jon Rubin and Miranda July over this period in this regard because of the ways in which they harness the distinctive attributes of physical, networked, and online platforms for the creation of interactive exchanges with the public. For its part, the museum itself becomes integral to articulating these social conditions by “offer[ing] open spaces for undefined interactions” (Frieling, 2008). Taking up this mantle doesn’t come without its administrative and curatorial anxieties, he concedes; nonetheless, by instigating more inclusive forms of practice—including cultural curating—the perception of the museum as an “inflexible, deadening container” can be radically altered by consigning this perception to history:

The museum, from this perspective, is no longer a container for art, nor does it manufacture consensual communities. If successful, it becomes a producer of and arena for social and aesthetic experiences, temporarily interrupting singularities through the presentation of participatory art that actively generates a discursive public space. (Frieling, 2008)

Cultural Curating: a proposition, a work-in-progress

In lieu of providing a formal resolution to this paper, I will instead attempt to bring its discussion full circle by returning to its initial seed of inspiration. As intimated in Steve Dietz’s marginal observation, the intersection of the Internet with museums has had an inevitable effect on the perceived role and value of curation within this new, postdigital cultural formation. Therefore, in closing, I will attempt to further underscore the contextual basis (and potential relevance) of cultural curating by closing with some final comments about this formative concept.

Museum director Glenn D. Lowry (2009) has described the interface that exists between the goals and mission of the museum and the public it serves as a constantly shifting boundary requiring continual renegotiation. Lowry asserts that the museum is a “disruptive institution,” specifically relating how the mission that inspired the founding of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) endures to this day and continues to be regenerated in the face of ongoing social, cultural, and technological transformation. The specific insights that he provides about MoMA can be usefully extrapolated and generalized to facilitate a broader discussion of museum transformation. While paying particular attention to how successive building projects undertaken by MoMA since 1939 have each in their own distinctive ways responded to “the changing position of the institution, expanding and altering its galleries and public spaces to meet the needs of an increasingly complex understanding of the period, as well as a dramatically enlarged collection and constantly growing public” (Lowry, 2009), he singles out the transformative influence that both performance art and social media have had in more recent times on the experiential encounter with works of art. Reflecting the type of increased focus on participatory experiences that the NMC’s report alludes to, these considerations have enabled “the Museum to evolve beyond the physical and into the realm of the psychological and metaphysical” (Lowry 2009). Whereas in MoMA’s case, this disruptive project has been reflected most evidently through an architectural program  that clearly departed from traditional museums’ adherence to classical and neoclassical references, and via the introduction of exhibition practices that “treat the galleries not as a venue for display of the past but as a laboratory where new ideas could be explored and where the public was invited to participate” (Lowry, 2009), by contrast, the transformative promise of what I have termed here in this paper as the “pervasive museum” may well be achieved through its program architecture.

Multiplatform and distributed network models of the museum that have arisen since the Web was launched at the beginning of the 1990s have since been absorbed under postdigital conditions. In a certain sense, the range of social media and distributed communication platforms that ostensibly exist “outside” of the museum have seen their affects internalized in the postdigital museum. “Elsewhere” has effectively become “everywhere.” Through this process of normalization and institutional adaptation, the threshold of museums’ ubiquity and pervasiveness within contemporary culture has (nearly) been reached. New media practice—which, or course, entails associated curatorial developments alongside artistic modes of practice—holds larger cultural implications for the production, dissemination, and reception of art. Curatorial modes of thinking, doing and experiencing “digital” promote an increased understanding of the reconfigured relationships between technologically enabled mediation and spatial practice. These possibilities develop beyond what might be thought of as the initial stage of “digitalization” (with its emphasis on the technical and administrative processes involved with the digitizing of museum assets, “databasing” this content and publishing it through digital formats and channels) towards what has been posited as a postdigital stage characterized by a more wholesale and thorough integration of digital content in museum practices, including exhibition design and various forms of museum communication and publication. Emerging modes of curatorial (as well as paracuratorial) practices facilitate new kinds of exchanges. The resulting interactions between cultural content, the museum and its audience are catalyzed by the mediating function of curation. Through serving as an interface between the institution and various inter-actors or agents, curatorial practices demonstrate—in critically considered and self-reflective, as well as thought-provoking, surprising and even subversively “artful” ways—the potential of the museum to realize itself as a “contemporary utopian laboratory.” (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, 2004)

Hypothetically, the “pervasive museum” could well achieve this realization. The pervasive museum—as I have begun to theorize it here—exceeds definition by the spatial coordinates that have structured museum/digital relationships to date (i.e. physical/virtual, onsite/offsite, online/offline), thereby indicating the prospect of a comprehensive collapse or dissolution of the architectural determinants that have guided and formed museological practices by replacing physical materiality and built environment as decisive factors in how the museum attends to its principal functions (to collect, conserve, exhibit), with principles informed by an expanded subset of interdisciplinary practices that perform curatorial functions. To this end, curatorial programming entails a disruptive “antidisciplinary” challenge to long-standing, institutionalized practices associated with curating by serving as the principal means of activating discursive spaces between the museum and its constituencies.

(In lieu of a) conclusion

Pronouncements about the distinctive challenges of curating new media art by the eminent curators and scholars that I have called upon as part of the literature reviewed in this paper have come to apply in many ways to all of contemporary art over the course of the past twenty years, including the latest “post-Internet” developments. In the process, curating can no longer be reduced to a (relatively) straightforward matter of display or exhibition production, but rather its concerns are redirected towards “the development of critical meaning in partnership and discussion with artists and publics” (Graham & Cook, 2010). As Omar Kholief (2014), the curator of Electronic Superhighway (Whitechapel Gallery, London) proposes, “An apposite way to consider the post-technological sphere is to use the Internet as an allegorical lens through which to construct a narrative linking art and technology’s contemporary effects.” In turn, curating is redefined in important ways and its curatorial energies redirected towards fostering new literacies that emerge from engaging with artworks and the social, cultural, economic, political and technological eco-systems from which they are spawn. Emergent forms of cultural curating reflect the transition from traditional humanities to digital humanities-based modes of knowing:

Curation, analysis, editing, and modeling comprise fundamental activities at the core of Digital Humanities. Involving archives, collections, repositories, and other aggregations of materials, curation is the selection and organization of materials in an interpretive framework, argument, or exhibit. The capacity with digital media to create enhanced forms of curation brings humanistic values into play in ways that were difficult to achieve in traditional museum or library settings. Rather than being viewed as autonomous or self-evident, artifacts can be seen being shaped by and shaping complex networks of influence, production, dissemination, and reception, animated by multilayered debates and historical forces. (Burdick, et al. 2012)

While the curator is certainly part of this network, he or she is not—necessarily—central to it. Looking at this in a certain way, does the popularization of curating in broader contemporary culture manifest this decentering as a diffusion or dispersal of curatorial influence or affect? It is worth entertaining how a generalizable movement from closed, “proprietary” forms of museum curating towards more open, distributed and interconnected modes of cultural curating encourages us to think about contemporary curating as a “generative expertise in social relations” (Krysa, 2006). This movement turns curating into a more ubiquitous feature of cultural production, interpretation and distribution. Cultural curating—as a representative mode of this form of curatorial practice—reflects a strong motivation towards convivial forms of knowledge production and content creation that reflect open-source philosophies of modification, re-use, redistribution, and shared understanding. The nature of the practices involved in co-, crowd- and cloud curating reinterpret how curatorial agency is exercised: from the privileged position of curator to one in which authorship is seen as a shared commitment between curator, public and software, and produced as a “collective executable.”


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Cite as:
. "The ABC’s of cultural curating." MW17: MW 2017. Published February 28, 2017. Consulted .

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