Tom Milnes interviews Wade Wallerstein

Akram Zaatari’s exhibition The Script at Modern Art Oxford could be seen as a collective document or archive which aims make sense of the wealth of online content uploaded from users. Specifically, it gives viewers an insight into how users in the Middle East utilise online platforms, such as YouTube, to create a sense of community online and develop unique digital Arabic identities. Undoubtedly, digital technology is changing how we all communicate and interact, but to what extent is unclear. Recently, there has been a blurring of the boundaries between the artist and the anthropologist, with an increase in art practice which explores the socio-cultural effect of the internet. Additionally, anthropological research which utilises technology to provide new insights has started to emerge, utilising methods which, until recently, might have been the sole preserve of arts practice.

To discuss this exciting development in cross-disciplinary research, Tom Milnes (Curator of Digital Artist Residency) spoke to Wade Wallerstein from UCL’s Multimedia Anthropology Laboratory. UCL MAL is a student-led research network aimed at developing innovative methods for anthropological practice which experiment with mediums such as sound, film, VR/360 video, graphic novels, drawing, sculpture, and installations to explore how they can contribute towards alternative forms of anthropological thinking. Tom asked Wade his thoughts on histories of online cultures, future virtual spaces and “algorithmic wrangling”.

Tom Milnes: Please tell us a little bit about what you have been researching at MAL.

Wade Wallerstein: In my own curatorial and research praxis, I explore techniques within digital visual culture, and specifically, digital art and curation. Joining UCL MAL in a curatorial capacity, I wanted to take the knowledge that I’ve gathered through my own research thus far and put it into practice in relationship to anthropological lines of inquiry. Our recent online exhibition Multimedia Anthropology Now, began as a research experiment to see in what ways anthropologists around the world have been using different kinds of media to propel their research forward or provide more holistic accounts of their field sites. The ultimate exhibition includes 16 different anthropologists and artists from backgrounds and that explore wildly different field sites and subject matters. Each participant has employed rigorous research methodologies to the production of material outputs, such as sound installations, digital videos, photographs, drawings, and pieces of writing. We aim to continue to explore how anthropologists can use different media beyond text to answer questions and relate to their field subjects, and also how the use of these media can decolonise anthropological conversations and give agency back to subjects. Moreover, we’re interested in all different kinds of expression within material/visual culture, and aim to create a space in which those expressions can be presented, explored, questioned, and developed in more holistic ways that cross disciplinary boundaries and step outside the elitist white box that visual culture departments are sometimes confined within at the university level.

TM: With the anthropologist perspective in mind, what do you make of the greater trend of so many artist-led online curatorial platforms that are emerging? Why do you think so many are thriving now?

WW: My research involved working solely with digital curators and I think that the growth trend in online platforms is an incredible one for a number of reasons. For one, online spaces allow many kinds of digital works to be shown in their native material environments. When you translate something from a virtual environment into physical space, or out of the private viewing space of a personal device and into a public gallery viewing space, you irrevocably alter how a viewer might relate to that thing. Showing art works in their native material contexts gives them a bit more room to be experienced on their own terms, and can even provide a more meaningful interaction. Take for instance AVD, an online platform that specifically creates exhibitions for mobile. In each of their shows, you literally get to hold each work of art in your hand and touch and manipulate it. How cool is that?!

Online spaces eliminate most of the costs associated with maintaining a physical exhibition or studio space. You can rent a domain name and use a content management system for under £150 per year. Actually, most if not all of the curators that I worked with said that one of the main reasons that they started curating online exhibitions was because of the high costs required to maintain a physical space. Further, elitism and nepotism in the art world both pose huge threats to burgeoning or underprivileged artists. While digital connectivity is uneven around the world, and the digital divide is an important consideration in any conversation about digital culture, anyone who does has a web-enabled device and access to an internet connection can put themselves (and their work) out there. There is no specialised knowledge required to build a free Wix website or post an image to Instagram.

Finally, artists and curators can potentially get much higher visibility by exhibiting online. For a physical gallery location, even in a busy and populous city like London, only so many visitors will actually walk through the gallery doors and view a show. Online, the potential is theoretically limitless. Just as anyone can post online, any person with an internet connection can visit an online exhibition with just a fraction of the effort required to travel to visit a physical exhibition space. This is why installation shots of physical gallery spaces have become a constitutive element of any exhibition. Without install shots, did the show really happen? The role of the curator of today is much more than just selecting works; curators (particularly digital ones) must also possess a command of networked practices, an ability to manipulate the flow of information so as to maximise the circulation of their exhibitions. “Algorithm wrangling” is a key component of any digital curator’s job.

TM: In what ways do you see this developing? Will more practice move online because of costs/visibility? Will we see more immersive/virtual spaces? And how will this affect the larger contemporary art landscape?

WW: In terms of your question, I believe that yes more people will absolutely move to virtual space. But virtual space isn’t the same as it used to be, and it’s not as rosy as I made it out to be. The Internet, for example, the virtual network that most people on the planet have experienced in some form or another at this point, has become totally saturated by capitalist interests. It’s become a bit of a dog pit of artists fighting for viewers’ scant attention in the aftermath of the digital shift to the long-tail economy. It’s a completely different landscape than the one that the original net.artists were working in the 1990s and during the dot com boom, and even surpassed the kind of feed-based blogroll platforms utilised by the Net Surf Clubs of the 2000s.

All of the curators I worked with who ran virtual platforms were unfunded. Their platforms continue to be supported by the artists’ and curators’ day jobs and freelance work. It has proven difficult to nail down the same digital marketing schemes that platforms like YouTube offers to content creators to generate income for their work. Services like Daata Editions and Digital Objects offer new models for displaying, purchasing, and collecting digital art; yet, the not-for-profit upstart curators that I work with don’t have nearly the cash flow nor the models for monetising their platforms that these bigger collection services offer. They remain, mostly, passion projects that boost the clout of their creators and lead to bigger opportunities or gateways to physical institutions like museums and galleries.

Regardless, collectors have been slow to adapt to digital modes of display and collection. Something about the personal computer not having the same strengths as the white cube model turns people off apparently. I find the affordances of personal devices to provide tremendous potential rich for creative exploration. One thing that I can say for sure is that for now the digital will not render the institution obsolete. That said, as you’ve mentioned, that doesn’t mean that the digital hasn’t had its impact upon the institution. Many have digitalised their collections online for free for viewers to enjoy anywhere where there’s wifi and a laptop. Many galleries have started offering their wares on marketplaces like Artsy, which function as part editorial platform, part online shopping network, and part auction house. In their physical locations, these institutions (and their patrons!) have begun to covet high-quality immersive installation art (e.g. the worldwide craze over Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Rooms — everybody has to have their selfie in the funky boxes!) because viewers are craving live experience in a world when any image can be called to screen instantly. Similarly, the presence of the artist within a space has become more highly demanded as well, as one can browse an artist’s Instagram page and become experts on their work in an afternoon (or less).

To speculate, I think we’re going to move to a pay-for-play streaming option that film, television, and gaming industries have recently swarmed to. You might, for example, be able to subscribe to a high-quality experience (that is potentially individually and algorithmically tailored to the viewer) that will be delivered directly to your desktop or mobile screen.

Wade Wallerstein (MSc Digital Anthropology, University College London) is an anthropologist, strategist, and curator based in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is the current curator of the UCL Multimedia Anthropology Laboratory. Upcoming, he will be guest curating an email based exhibition for Curated by Lolita in May, followed by a three-month curatorial residency organising Off Site Project’s ZIP-file downloadable exhibition series. You can connect with him on Instagram: @habitualtruant.

Tom Milnes is an artist, curator and AHRC Ph.D. researcher at Falmouth University. He is the curator and founder of the online platform Digital Artist Residency which recently hosted the show ✅ Remember Me at Magdalen Art Space, Oxford. Milnes co-curated the event This Image Is No Longer Available at Modern Art Oxford which took place on 27th April 2019.

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