MoMA Adds a Department for ‘Media’

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The New York Sun

New media. Digital art. Interactive installation. No matter what ungainly term you choose, the field of artists whose work falls outside the traditional realms of photography, film, and video is growing. In recognition of that fact, the Museum of Modern Art announced yesterday the creation of a new Department of Media, to be run by a curator from the department formerly known as Film and Media, Klaus Biesenbach. Mr. Biesenbach recently curated the mid-career retrospective at MoMA of the video –– er, media ––artist, Douglas Gordon.

Asked to define the kind of work that will fall under his department, Mr. Biesenbach described it as “time-based” work that is meant to be viewed in a gallery.”In contrast to [film], you’re not sitting and watching from the beginning to the end in a dark room with other people,” Mr. Biesenbach said. “It’s basically always gallery-based. It can be moving pictures. It can be beautiful sound installations, like the Janet Cardiff piece we had here at MoMA. It can be performance pieces. They’re all time-based, and they’re all moving in some broad sense.”

Nomenclature in emerging fields is often tricky. In choosing the term “media” over, say “new media” — a title that would instantly become dated — MoMA seems to be standing on firm ground.

As Mr. Biesenbach pointed out, another problems with the term “new media”is that the field actually dates back to the 1960s and 1970s, when technology like film equipment first became widely accessible to artists. (Several of the works in MoMA’s collection date from this period.) A seminal event in the development of the genre was a 1966 exhibition at the 69th Regiment Armory called “9 Evenings: Theater and Engineering,” which was organized by, among others, Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage, and a group of engineers from Bell Labs. The event led to the formation of a group called Experiments in Art and Technology.

In the 1990s, with the spread of digital media, the field grew. “In the ’90s, in the contemporary art production, when you look at the Venice Biennale and other international shows, a large portion of the works are media-based,” Mr. Biesenbach said.

Museums and schools around the country are still struggling with how to define these fields and adding or renaming departments to keep up with changing artistic practice. At Pratt Institute, for instance, “Media Arts” refers to the traditional genres of photography, film, and animation, while another track, called “Digital Arts,” more closely aligns with MoMA’s new department.

And, until just last spring, that department was called “Computer Graphics & Interactive Media.” “Part of the reason we changed the title is because it’s more encompassing of what we do,” the chair of the department, Peter Patchen, said. “We do not only 3-D animation and rendering and modeling, but also the development of physical interfaces and interactive installations. It uses very cutting-edge technology as a means of artistic expression.” The new name, Mr. Patchen said, “reflects our interest in pursuing [this work] to a greater extent.”

Meanwhile, at MoMA, the creation of a new department signals that the field of interactive media art has reached a kind of critical mass. “Throughout the last decade, it became [clear it was] not only one season, not only two seasons — it became a significant contribution to contemporary art,” Mr. Biesenbach said. “There were time-based pieces and moving-images pieces in the galleries, in the big biennales, in the big collection. We are just giving attention to preserving them, conserving them, giving them a chance to be seen in the museum.”

The New York Sun

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