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The Online Museum-Archive-Library of Wonder-Curiosity-Art

Steve Dietz, 2000
The media historian Friedrich Kittler gave a talk in Barcelona in the mid-90s, entitled "Museums on the Digital Frontier." In it, he raised some important issues about whether the database, generically speaking, might not be a way to get back to the idea of the "wonder chamber," before the specialization of the modern museum, circa 1800, when, as Kittler quotes Paul Valery, "sculpture and painting lost their mother, architecture to death." At the end of this talk, Kittler says:
"What looms ahead or rather what has to be done is the reprise of the wonder chambers. Johann Valentin Andrea, the founder of the Rosicrucians, once advocated an archive that would include not only artworks, tools, and instruments, but also their technical drawings. Under today's high-tech conditions we have no choice but to start such an archive or endorse millions of anonymous ways of dying."

In my 15 minutes today, I would like to briefly sketch some experiences with technologies of memory and pose some open-ended questions about how the idea of the wunderkammer might be an interesting way to think about "putting things in their places."

Many artists are working today with issues around technology and the archive, from Muntadas's File Room to Sawad Brooks' and Beth Styrker's DissemiNET to Fred Wilson's Road to Victory to George LeGrady's Slippery Traces to Natalie Bookchin's Databank of the Everyday to Cohen-Frank-Ippolito's Unreliable Archivist to Eugene Thacker's ftp_formless_anatomy to Zhang Ga's Censorium to Rick Rinehart's Boolean Typhoon to Eduardo Kac's Time Capsule to Noah Waldrop-Fruin's Impermanence Agent to Thomax Kaulmann and the Open Radio Archive Network Group to C5's 1:1, just to mention a few.

These efforts form the ecology of experimentation within which my efforts at the Walker Art Center are informed.


With the Borgesian dream of an archive of everything--or is it a library or a museum, or even a map--a distinct possibility, at least digitally, distinctions begin to blur and erode.

And when you begin to archive, collect, provide access to "objects" "born digital," because intellectual access is coextensive with physical access, because the same interface provides acces to the metadata and the data, the library-archive-museum is conflated even further. This is the case, for instance, with the Walker's Digital Arts Study Collection, which was initially formed upon the acquisition of the pioneering website äda'web. But I am not going to focus, today, on the issues specific to archiving digital media. Rather I want to talk about the yin and yang of interface and database and strategies to take advantage of this ability to blur and conflate boundaries in a digital, networked environment.

One of the Walker's first major web-based projects was a collaboration with The Minneapolis Institute of Arts at first called IAIA, Integrated Arts Information Access, which was eventually given the public interface, ArtsConnectEd. The point of this project was precsely to provide unified access to information classified according to different knowledge domains--the collection, the archive, and the library, as well as publications, educational materials, and any other information we could lay our hands on. In addition, it concatenated this information from both institutions--Walker and MIA, truly blurring the boundaries not only between disciplines but also between institutions.

On many levels ArtsConnectEd had been tremendously successful, from it's 25,000 visitors per month to Gold Muse Awards from the Association of American Museums two years running to continued funding by the State of Minnesota.

At the same time, it has been a lesson in humility. We did extensive user testing of the site on two occassions, and we found that while users could find the information in various scenarios, too often, especially with the students, the response was "so what?" The facts we have assiduously collected in our information management systems--provenance, materials, dates, etc.--do not necessarily help build a connection to the work. Like the archivist in Woody Allen's Sleeper, they wanted to know what objects meant. What stories the data could tell. Why they should care.

repository of the given

One of the truisms of the digital age is that information at your fingertips does not necessarily lead to enlightenment. Museums are remarkable repositories of facts and information, but the promise of access to all this information through digital networks seems as likely to result in a Babel of knowledge. As Hal Foster asked in "The Archive without Museums,"

"... what might a digital recording underwrite? Art as image-text, as info-pixel? An archive without museums? If so, will this database be more than a base of data, a repository of the given?"

According to Sara Breckinridge, "The object in a wonder cabinet celebrated nothing but itself as rare, sensational and unusual." In other words, it was an object for wonderment and the provocation of curiosity. Of course, even as early as 1884, Thomas Greenwood was suitably aghast at this un-order, writing:

"The orderly soul of the Museum student will quake at the sight of a Chinese lady's boot encircled by a necklace made of shark's teeth, or a helmet of one of Cromwell's soldier's grouped with some Roman remans."

For an important distinction between the early museum and the wunderkammer was classification of objects, a trajectory from the singular to the representative. Kittler derides this classification impulse as a prime culprit of the museum-as-mausoleum, initially seen in Denon's historical hanging of the Louvre galleries. And Douglas Crimp writes in "On the Museum's Ruins":

"Foucault's project includes the replacement of those unities of humanist historical thought such as tradition, influence, developoment, evolution, source and origin with concepts like discontinuity, rupture, threshhold, and transformation."

For Crimp, the museum belongs in Foucault's project along with the prison and the asylum. Is there a way, however, that museums can use the digital realm to negotiate a hybrid third way, inbetween classification and wonder, inbetween facts and stories, inbetween teleological narratives and hyperventilating sampling?

telling stories

One option, of course is to tell stories that undermine the univocal authority of the institution. One step in this direction at the Walker is a project called Through Your Eyes, which creates a digital trace of the interactions of six different visitors to the Walker over a period of months. The idea, not uncommon at contemporary institutions, is to model museum-going behaviors--primarily to encourage asking questions and understanding that there are very few right answers--with lay people rather than experts.

Through Your Eyes, to my mind, is a valuable effort, a kind of mapping of the museum according to individual curiosity. Nevertheless, it remains a unidirectional, pedagogical device, where interactivity and participation by the user is limited to randomly accessing the exemplary experience.


Nor is it enough, if one takes Kittler at face value, to simply include the blue prints with the collection; to comingle context and object, to cross the boundaries between library and archive and museum, although it is a start. This leaves out or at least leaves in, implicitly, the idea of a bounded instition, when in reality to paraphrase Sun Microsystems, the network is the museum-archive-library.

This is, in part, the attempt with Art Entertainment Network, a project I curated and produced, which uses the network-specific concept of a portal as the inteface to a database of links to distributed artist projects. The use of the portal concept, of course, is self-reflexive, a kind of meta-portal that attempts to subvert users' already formed expectations through a changeable interface that sidetracks the expected functionality.

In the case of AEN, there was user participation as part of a parallel listserv discussion called Entertainment Art and Technology. Another inspiration inspiration for a modified model of the museum-library-archive is Muntadas's File Room. The point I would like to emphasize is the gesture of creating a structure to allow users to input their own information about censorship incidents into the database alongside the starting "official" information.

If there is anything that museums and institutions in general hold onto in the vertigo of Internet uncertainty, it is our role as a filter and vetter for and of authoritative information. This is not necessarily bad, but nor is it unequivocably good.

What if user point of view was more than a specific project like Through Your Eyes or an empty bulletin board like so many that exist on institutional sites as vestigal attempts at community and bi-directional discourse? What if, like the File Room, users could add their own information into the museum's databases about its objects? A kind of open source art history. It is not an ultimate answer. There is no single answer. But it is an avenue to pursue; one which the Walker is pursuing as a collaborative project with Marek Walczak and Martin Wattenberg, along with preliminary work by Rick Rinehart, Brett Stalbaum and their students to create a global, online wunderkammer.

the network

At first blush, of course, the wunderkammer seems like an absurdly self-limiting vehicle for an open source database. And perhaps it is. But here is the plan.*

Anyone will be able to create a new "cubbyhole" for the wunderkammer via the Internet. There are three requirements: to insert (via a link) an object into the cubbyhole; to link it to at least one other object with an optional comment for each link; and to rate it on a pre-defined but editable set of x/y/z continuums such as aesthetics and practicality and complexity or evolution and rupture and stability or whatever. In essence, then, the wunderkammer has 3 modes of access/interface. One is contiguity. You can browse the cabinet up and down and across. As the cabinet grows, of course, the liklihood of seeing everything diminishes and there is also a bias toward the centered cubbys--assuming this is kept constant, which it need not, as with the interface for the Art Entertainment Network portal.

The way this interface/interaction is modified, is by chosing to display the cubbys according to one of the x/y/z coordinate schema. The contiguity of objects in the physical world is made malleable in the virtual world and also self--or more correctly--collaboratively organizing through a kind of collective intelligence.

Finally, one will be able to hyperlink from one node to another, like a mini-network, regardless of contiguity. Like the original wunderkammer, objects of particular wonderment abut other objects with no rhyme other than the order in which they were created. Unlike the physical version, one can follow virtual trails from object to object based on anyone's input, which is also very different than the original curiosity cabinets, which were privately owned and access was generally severely restricted.


As I said, I do not believe that this collaborative project is some kind of ultimate answer to the online museum-archive-library and "putting things in their place," but it does attempt to use the network to subvert the traditional institutional imperative--or rather, to support its mission while attempting to modify its univocal authority.

This is an edited version of a talk given at the symposium "Excavating the Archive: New Technologies of Memory" as part of the panel "Space, Time and Artifacts: Putting Things in Their Places" with Muntadas, Steve Dietz, and Lise Anne Couture, June 3, 2000, at the Parsons School of Design.

* An important fact about the "WonderWalker" project is that Marek and Martin took it--completely appropriately--in directions that interested them more than those originally envisioned at the time of this talk.

Excavating the Archive: New Technologies of Memory

Muntadas, The File Room

Sawad Brooks and Beth Stryker, DissemiNET

Fred Wilson, Road to Victory

Janet Cohen, Keith Frank, Jon Ippolito, The Unreliable Archivist

Eugene Thacker,ftp_formless_anatomy

Zhang Ga, Censorium

Richard Rinehart, An Experience Base--A Boolean Typhoon

Eduardo Kac Time Capsule

Noah Waldrop-Fruin's Impermanence Agent

Thomax Kaulman Open Radion Archive Network Group

C5 1:1


Integrated Arts Information Access


Through Your Eyes

Art Entertainment Network

Entertainment Art Technology

Marek Walczak and Martin Wattenberg, WonderWalker (A Global Online Wunderkammer)

First published by Gallery 9/Walker Art Center, 2000.