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5. ART HISTORY ON THE INTERNET’S TERMS

“Any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be. This is very different from the tree or root, which plots a point, fixes an order”
Deleuze & Guattari, Tusind plateauer, 1980*24


Visions

The project within SMK digital which I became attached to was Art Stories.*25

Before this, I had been working on a smaller project with a firmly defined scope: It aimed at bringing SMK’s collections of Danish art – and the research associated with it – online. Suddenly, the generous support of Nordeafonden gave us the opportunity to be more ambitious. This gave rise to the vision of presenting art history on the terms offered by the Internet.

The vision was based on a critical attitude towards canons in art history. Museums such as SMK own very large collections, but the general public only see a fraction of them – they see the artworks that the museum curators have chosen to display in the galleries at a particular time.*26

Visitors are only presented with a narrow and time-specific selection made from a much greater wealth of artworks hidden away from the public gaze in the museum’s storage facilities. In my earlier work I have carried out an in-depth critical analysis of art history’s canon and the power structures determining what is included in art history books and museum collections, effectively deciding what the public has access to. An art historical canon is based on accepted professional criteria, that are constantly being challenged and debated and which change over time. Taken together, these criteria may be defined as a paradigm – a lens through which the world is viewed. Change the lens, and you change the perspective. [22]

Together, the evolution of the Internet and the digitisation of art radically change the accessibility of museum collections. Digitised art can be viewed in all its diversity on the Internet, that eliminate the physical constraints that apply to a brick- and-mortar museum. [23] This opens up new alternatives that eliminate the need for reduced access to the true diversity of the collections imposed by physical presentations. The longterm ambition behind Art Stories was to show all aspects of our collections, from the well-known to the obscure and the neglected, leaving it up to users to decide what was interesting to them.

[24] An example of artworks from various collections coming together in Art Stories to form relations with each other. Here, artworks from SMK, The Hirschsprung Collection and Fuglsang Kunstmuseum are connected by the common theme Artists’ Wives. http://www.smk.dk/en/explore-the-art/art-stories/stories/vis/artists-wives/
Design by Oncotype.

At the same time we wanted to make use of the networked structure of the Web and to demonstrate how SMK’s collections are interlinked with art located all around the world. Here we could show artworks side by side even though they are physically located in different museums on different continents. [24] More than that: we could provide links to a wealth of online sources that would enrich the experience and appreciation of each individual artwork: Wikipedia entries, music, literary works, maps, archivalia. And even more: we could open up opportunities for people to relate their own stories about art, sharing links to relevant images, uploading their own pictures, etc. The contours of a wide-ranging web of stories and information about art began to take shape.

The vision behind Art Stories was heavily influenced by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s description of the rhizome – a concept of linguistic philosophy or “image of the mind” as the authors themselves call it that is by its very nature difficult to delimit. They themselves describe it using numerous inventive metaphors in order to avoid a single, clear-cut definition, which would go against the grain of the essence of the rhizome. It is a non-hierarchical, widely proliferating web of endless connections – rather like a fungal organism spreading in all directions underground, sprouting mushrooms up through the crust of the earth in the most unpredictable places.*27

[25] In a dissertation on the ontology of the Internet, Chuen-Ferng Koh suggests that the diversity of the Web is similar to, and potentially even bigger, than what Deleuze & Guattari claim is characteristic of the heterogeneity of languages (Chuen-Ferng Koh, 1997). Draft of a rhizomatic information architecture for Art Stories, developed in collaboration with Advice Digital, 2009.

The rhizome is often used as a metaphor for the Internet. [25] For us, it also offered a striking metaphor for art history, specifically when viewed from a canon-critical position. [26] By using the rhizome as the underlying structuring principle of Art Stories we wanted to show art history as a web where any individual point can be linked to any other point.

One of the metaphors used by Deleuze and Guattari to describe the rhizome is a map: flat and open along all sides. It offers a plethora of entry points: it does not matter where you step in. The authors explain that it can be reworked by individuals, by groups, by social formations, and so it is always changing, always becoming, always being created. In a sense, as far back as 1980 this book had captured the fundamental contours of Web 2.0 – a web that is continually affected, increased, and transformed by the people who constitute it. [27] All these metaphors bred and multiplied in our imagination, so we conceived the idea of a website about the stories of art with

• Multiple entry points
• Multiple voices
• Multiple paths to choose
• Multiple co-creators

We are certainly not the only ones to come up with this kind of idea, nor were we the first.*28 Rather, the concept can be said to have grown out of the Internet’s technological potential and concomitant new expectations on how to approach the world, its information, and its content. A major factor in how people approach content on the Internet can be described as “the long tail”. The term has become a popular designation for the figure that appears on statistical graphs on Internet trade: The popular mainstream products at the top of the graph always attract many hits. But at the same time the few hits located far from the peak form a long tail of more scattered, yet stable demand for products that fall outside the mainstream markets. Chris Anderson’s book The Long Tail. How Endless Choice is Creating Unlimited Demand describes how the Internet has enabled the phenomenon of the long tail, and how the long tail has enabled niche cultures to challenge the hegemony of the mainstream. [28]

The “long tail” demonstrates that there is a demand for even the most obscure phenomena when they become available on the Internet. Unlike the physical world the Internet can be thought of as having unlimited storage space, and in principle any product can be displayed on the front shelf. With Art Stories, we wanted to transfer the idea of the long tail from the realm of online shopping to that of art collections: when more and more works from our collections become digitised and available online, the greater the chance that someone will find niche works that have special value for them.29 Thus, the long tail can challenge the traditional canon-based frame of mind. The Internet’s vast capacity counteracts the notion that a museum must give prominence to specific parts of their collections at the expense of others because there is not enough room to show everything at all times. In principle museums can now make EVERYTHING available, allowing users to choose for themselves. The counterpoint to this thought is that, as the amount of information and content keeps growing, a greater need for structured and qualified selection arises. Users sometimes need that content to be screened and selected by trustworthy sources. Therefore, unlimited access and curating are not mutually exclusive. Quite the contrary; the role played by the competent curator has become more important than ever in an era where the quantity of information available grows vaster by the second.

[28] “Unlimited selection is revealing truths about what consumers want and how they want to get it in service after service [from Netflix to iTunes Music Store]. People are going deep into the catalog, down the long, long list of available titles, far past what’s available at Blockbuster Video and Tower Records. And the more they find, the more they like. As they wander farther from the beaten path, they discover their taste is not as mainstream as they thought (or as they had been led to believe by marketing, a hit-centric culture, and simply a lack of alternatives).” (Anderson, 2009, p. 16) Jasper Visser also refers to the long tail, but is more sceptical of its potentials. See p. 213 ff.
Source: www.longtail.com

Much of the content offered and produced by museums falls within the long tail. Even though museums are fond of focusing on blockbuster exhibitions and famous artists, the true substance of our collections and exhibitions can only, when viewed within a wider media perspective, be regarded as niche phenomena. In Denmark, for instance, we refer to C. W. Eckersberg and Asger Jorn as “big artists”, but they are only big within our own limited world. The Internet offers optimal conditions for turning this basic fact into an asset. When no longer inhibited by conditions such as the geographical location and limited wall space of the physical museum, our collections can be reached by potential users across the globe. The online museum can be visited at any time by anyone from anywhere, and there is unlimited space available. Also, the Web 2.0 culture means that users can act as ambassadors for content they appreciate. They comment on and share what they like with their network. This brings a larger portion of the collections into circulation online, continually increasing the likelihood of new recipients becoming acquainted with them.


Diversity

Art Stories was intended as a website that unveiled and provided access to art in all its myriad forms, allowing users to dig out obscure and peculiar gems that would, for a variety of reasons, rarely or never see the light of day in the galleries of SMK. The design was based on making the images the point of entry for more information about them. We had seen far too many websites about art where the artworks themselves were lost amid oceans of text. That was a shame, as high-quality digitisation offers opportunities for close scrutiny and careful contemplation of images online. In order to promote visual exploration and a sensuous discovery of the artworks we worked towards showing the artworks in the largest formats and resolutions possible. [29]

Diversity is a central concept within the rhizome theory and in Art Stories. The site was designed with an emphasis on a multitude of clearly identified voices; a trend that has become increasingly widespread among museums in recent years – inspired by social media where you can see who is saying what. This approach marks a break with the “voice of the museum” – the anonymous, but authoritative voice traditionally used by museums. By naming the scholars and curators behind each story we wanted to share authority among several persons, each of them with their own distinct approaches, and leave it up to users to assess the various interpretations of art. The many different voices were intended to prompt users to reflect on their own position when encountering different approaches to a given subject.

Art Stories also aimed to promote diversity by linking to external sites. The idea was to use the Internet’s vast accumulated store of information as a handy reference library for Art Stories. Instead of providing explanations for everything – for example explaining the identity of the historic character Struensee in an article about the 18th century artist N. A. Abildgaard – we provide links to existing online sources whose content we find professionally adequate. This decision was based on two arguments: If something has already been suitably described online once there is no point in doing it again. And, if a given source might potentially be useful to users, it makes good sense to link to it. [30]


Reality check

Art Stories was conceived as a way of presenting art history on the Internet’s own terms. A website about art that could serve as a destination in its own right – a different way of experiencing art which is not opposed to, but supplements the encounter with the original work of art at the physical museum.

However, for Art Stories the transition from thought to action proved fraught with unforeseen obstacles.*30 First of all, in the development process we had to face that our museum organisation did not yet have the courage to open up to user-generated art stories. Thus, offering an opening for the users’ own stories and images was not realized as intended in the first version of Art Stories. Another challenge was technical in scope and concerns the system we developed. (This would follow later, see pp. 89-95). Ironically we had the vision, but not the capacity and overview required to build a scalable system where the content could grow and create ever-new relationships. As a result we ended up with a classic silo; a closed system that cannot draw in new content and data in a dynamic fashion. All updates must be made manually. Unlike for instance the Tate, we do not have a subject index for our works, nor do we have a digitised back catalogue of research-based publications about our collections, which means that we cannot enrich the content in Art Stories with existing published information.*31 This means that little new content has been added to Art Stories since its launch, and that there is already a need to rethink the basic infrastructure and workflow of the site.

A third major challenge concerns clearance of photo rights. This became evident when we began to request image files from other museums in order to show them side by side with our own works within the new Art Stories universe. The costs were tremendously high. Just one image could cost several hundred dollars, and even that would only buy us clearance for a limited period of time. The labour involved in writing to each rightsholder, asking for files, describing the intended usage, and so on, turned out to be a major drain on our manpower. What is more, the use of images from other collections prevents us from posting Art Stories videos on YouTube, where they could gain much wider exposure than when shut in and restricted to the museum’s own website. [31]

The vision of presenting art history on the terms set by the Internet had made good sense to us. It looked like the perfect medium for unfolding the paradigm of diversity. But then we came up against something that limited our options: copyright.


NOTES

*24  English version of the original French text projectlamar.com/media/A-Thousand-Plateaus.pdf

*25  Together with art historian Annette Rosenvold Hvidt, I was project manager for Art Stories://www.smk.dk/udforsk-kunsten/kunsthistorier/


*26
One important aspect concerning the issue of limited access to the collections is the fact that most of the 245,000 works in the museum’s Royal Collection of Graphic Art are in practice inaccessible to the pub- lic. The vast majority of this collection is kept in storage. For conserva- tion reasons the leaves cannot be exposed to strong light, and when exhibited they can only be on display in the galleries for three months at a time. The general public can, upon prior arrangement, view origi- nal works from the Royal Collection of Graphic Art in the museum’s study room; in 2012 a total of 240 people availed themselves of this offer. That figure corresponds to just 0.059% of the 409,583 people who visited the museum during the same period, and just 0.035% of the 680,244 visitors to the museum website.

*27  Deleuze & Guattari, 2005, p. 5-34.

*28  One could mention other examples of the presentation of art on web premises, e.g. The Imaginary Museum www.imaginarymuseum.net and Google Art Project www.googleartproject.com

*29 Whether the long tail can be directly transferred to the public sector – conceived as it is as a model of commercial market trends – is a topic for discussion. There are, however, good examples of the principle being implemented on the strategic as well as practical level in the GLAM-sector. See for instance Beale, 2013.

*30  For a thorough exposition of Art Stories, its development and test run, see Hvidt & Sanderhoff, 2011.
www.museumsandtheweb.com/mw2011/papers/rhizomatic_art_stories_balancing_between_innov

*31  Davis, 2011.

Updated: 7.jul.2014
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