Digital Outskirts

The Isolation of Computer-based Art in the Netherlands

Daniël van der Poel, February 2012

While Dutch museums of modern art have displayed and collected photographic and video art for decades, they have bypassed the newer strand of computer-based art. In their stead, specialized institutes such as the NIMk (Netherlands Media Art Institute), V2, Mediamatic, and Waag Society have taken up the tasks of scouting, presenting, and preserving computer-based art. Together, they constitute a sphere of art and technology quite unlike the established art scene. New media institutes tend to value experimentation over reflexivity, establish their own canons, and attract younger audiences. Besides, they harbor technical and curatorial expertise absent elsewhere. This amounts to an institutional isolation of computer-based art in the Netherlands, which allows for a bustling vanguard, but poses several long-term problems.

Rafaël Rozendaal, Yes for sure, 2010, computer projections and mirrors, NIMk, Amsterdam. Source: http://www.newrafael.com

One issue is that of collecting. Dutch museums rarely show computer-based art and as a rule do not collect it. A likely reason for this disinclination is that computer-based art generally relates to popular culture (especially video games), design, and technological discovery rather than to art history and theory. Such art might seem gimmicky to serious-minded curators, even if there is more to it. Furthermore, Bart Rutten, Senior Curator at the Stedelijk Museum, found that some computer-based works address visitors and the surrounding space in a manner that does not readily conform to the museum environment. The web art of JODI and Rafaël Rozendaal, for instance, assumes a single person is using typical computer controls, which implies local, individual interaction. Another holdback is that museums largely depend on regulated channels such as galleries and art fairs that exclude computer-based art. Thus, museums leave computer-based art to new media institutes, which are keen to represent this particular cutting edge. However, of the Dutch institutes that feature computer-based art, only the NIMk hosts a comprehensive collection, a responsibility normally carried by museums with bigger budgets and more staff.

The concentration of computer-based art is in itself a problem, for the institutes that cover it, including the NIMk, currently face debilitating cutbacks from local and national governments. Unless museums quickly embrace computer-based art, the dissolution of a handful of initiatives could erase such art from the Dutch cultural landscape. Fortunately, new media institutes increasingly share their specialized knowledge by means of seminars, joint ventures, and online resources, thereby safeguarding at least a portion of their intellectual capital. In addition, while the Stedelijk Museum recently cancelled an artistic game exhibition, its lectures series Facing Forward has addressed topics such as algorithmic art and garners much interest among young art professionals. This suggests a budding interest that, catalyzed by the overhaul of the cultural sector in the Netherlands, may lead to the diffusion of computer-based art throughout museums.

Aside from concerns of preservation, the isolation of computer-based art arguably inhibits the understanding of contemporary art in general. While new media institutes stimulate certain artistic and curatorial practices, their scope is limited by their very specialization. Today, a jury of peers articulates particular qualities of computer-based art, but presumably obscures others, good and bad, that may appear in the broad, historical context of the museum. Moreover, computer-based art embodies a technologizing of society that affects the condition of all contemporary art practices. As long as actual computer-based art remains isolated, however, museums forgo an important opportunity – presented by art itself – to engage with our changing times.

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