In October of 2015 Max Ryan interviewed me about museums and technology. Over a long period of time we wrangled the responses into the following exchange for publication. With his permission, I've reproduced it below for those interested.

MAX RYAN

In an interview John Stack, the former head of digital transformation at the Tate, said it was the responsibility of the museum to go to where the audience is and prompt conversation online. They saw the where as existing on social media platforms. What do you think of the idea of social media as a discursive space? Can it exist in the same way that is associated with arts spaces? Does the context of the platforms effect this?

MIKE PEPI

First, social media and their platforms do not constitute a public in the sense we normally discuss. And, second, I suppose I basically disagree with John Stack. The institutional imperatives (and pressures) to grow, provide access, and demonstrate engagement with social media and their platforms have completely removed their critical distance to those platforms. Instead of absorbing the best lessons from classical institutional critique, when presented with planetary scale computing, we redirected that suspicion of traditional forms of authority and hierarchy back upon the “pre-digital” museum, as if networks that were sold to us as non-hierarchical and distributed would somehow sooth the ideological inconsistencies of unilateral institutions. Somehow we got from "museums are patriarchal, colonialist hegemonic structures" to "let's use every aspect of digital infrastructure and ubiquitous computing to grow our reach!" As you can see things have gone quite differently.

And so we’ve all heard the old canard that more art exists in on the internet than in all the world’s museums and galleries combined. Apart from being an incorrect formulation, this facile slogan makes exactly zero arguments for how the institution should define its own purpose. Such a statement is a hostile provocation that assumes an as yet determined location for a new arts public. The unspoken utterance that sparks such a sentence is the dire lack of criticality that occurs when we simply forward the ideas hatched by technology companies into new terrains, reproducing the world in their image.

In Publics and Counter Publics, Michael Warner dissects what he calls a third type of public. Not the public or a public (one easily demarcated by a theatre audience or interest group) but a discursive public.

This third type of public must be self-organized, a space of discourse organized by nothing other than itself—“It exists by virtue of being addressed.” This third type of public deals in circulation, which obviously brings to mind the frontier of digital exchange that Warner, in 2002 only hints at in his text.

A public derives it sovereignty with respect to the state or other institutions by virtue of its self-organization of a discourse. Warner contrasts this characteristic against what he calls an “external network” engaged in “direct administration.” He asks, “imagine how powerless people would feel if their commonality and participation were simply defined by pre-given frameworks...What would the world look like if all ways of being public were more like applying for a driver’s license or subscribing to a professional group” where “formally organized mediation replaced the self-organized public as the image of belonging and common activity.” Instead publics are defined by their discursive nature.

Every public relates some way to a material base, but none so as directly as digital platforms and their users. Software is nothing if not an excellent administrator. For platforms that are free and voluntary, it is not so much an administration of transactions as it is an administration for content and the attention it might garner. There’s no redemptive or discursive public on social media. The stewards of the infrastructure for such a public exist for the sole purpose of achieving a monopoly hold on the attention of society. It creates the conditions for the active uptake but only by virtue of your connection and ensnarement. Agency is delivered by the frameworks and not the public itself; publics are not decision making bodies as much as they are indexed temporarily along moments of publication and circulation. Decisions are not made by them, but for them.

When we look at the privately-held infrastructure of the internet and the handful of applications that dominate its traffic do not we not see the perfect external framework? We aren’t so much in one of Warner new publics (and again, it would need to be a digital one) as much as we are enthrall to an external network. This language slippage (from network/connectivity/and audience to a new public form) makes it a seemingly natural behavior to make practical appeals to the platforms that comprise “the digital” and broadcast on these networks. This, as it has been voiced ad naseum, forms new publics in themselves. But they aren’t the same, at least not in Warner’s now prescient formulation. This is how we arrived at the now-institutionalized fallacy of the internet as a space, a wild “other”. The shorthand is adopted from fictitious William Gibson notions of cyberspace, when they really mean a “space of discourse.”

We fell in and out of love with the manner in which the web mimicked that other defining aspect of discursive publics, its veneer of “voluntary association” and “self-organization.” The first order adoption of digital distribution on behalf of cultural institutions posited an imaginary of network potentiality, that “always yet to be realized” public addressee of the the surveilled prosumer. Instead, the public of a network’s potential is just such a form of direct administration by external force—its act of “passing a text through” is subsumed into an architecture of capture, tagging, and advertising.

The Tate’s mission statement is to ‘promote public understanding and enjoyment of British, modern and contemporary art’. Does digital evolution through utilisation of social media equate to this? In the vein of tactical media, what other methods could be leveraged online to promote criticism and discussion?

It is still difficult to tell what aspects of our digital tools should be saved and which should be scrapped entirely. Most attempts are well intentioned, but then, of course, end up succumbing to the normal materialist conflicts, be they that of funding, monetization, privacy, or ownership. In theory, a crowd and/or open sourced platform could be fantastic, but the point I keep asking people to consider and remember is that there are institutional or state funded routes to these tools. Remember, that’s what liberalism was all about! The entire JSTOR controversy re: MIT was so incredible because JSTOR is free to anyone with a NYPL membership, to cite just one example. So all the rhetoric about “liberating” scholarship is profoundly misplaced. JSTOR was increasing access through digitization, and made reasonable efforts to distribute their service given the cost. Stealing their work is to take all this techno-emancipation way too far.

Latour and Weibel argue that democracy cannot be represented, it can only be enacted. Various art galleries constantly post art from their collections on platforms such as Facebook. Can interpretations of artwork from the public on social media be considered enactment? i.e. a democracy of interpretation surrounding an artwork. Or are these interactions again too short and limited by what social media is geared toward?

I agree with Latour and Weibel here. Take artsy for example: what is sold as access to the art world is a really a digital land grab, an exercise in SEO so that new entrants to the art markets will be brokered through their platform. It is an exercise in centralization attempted previously by artnet and auction houses, just this time couched in the rhetoric of openness and breaking down walls via the web. They are among the first art entities to recognize that the real judge to please are search algorithms. This is only meant to grow the of 60 Billion per annum art market, and capture that value via a yet-to-be configured mechanism. Despite the temporary comfort they have thanks to their speculative investors, Artsy isn't a free service. They care primarily about disintermediating the middle-men that handle the exchange, reputation management, and services that run the art market. If someone tells you they are trying to increase access to fine art via social media while in no way re-doubling and affirming the existing hierarchies that operate they are either woefully uninformed or willfully disingenuous.

How would you react to the statement that data analysis of a website or social media could be considered a form of democracy in an institutional context? Especially where much of that data will be fed back into making the experience ‘better’ for the public and providing increased funds for the gallery.

I am a techno-pessimist, not necessarily a techno-dystopian. There are ways to “wire” the gallery experience to send feedback—a la cybernetics perhaps—to make museums more sustainable. I get nervous when museums take this new ability to listen and use it to optimize themselves out of existence. While I’ll try not to assume the worst in my critiques, increasingly you are seeing museums follow this techno-determinism to its logical conclusion. Just because a new gadget has hit the market does not mean it must be experimented with in the museum. Technology companies have much more to gain from colonizing the art experience—a major part of aesthetic experience or the body more generally—than museums needs their trinkets. I am not a luddite either. But it’s disconcerting to see the museum become beta-testing playgrounds for new products. They’re offering up their contents, the architecture of their galleries, and their audience to fuel the hype cycles about new incursions of digital media transmission, smart, or data-driven tools. But to what end? There is a balance, but you will not find criticality coming from inside the museum. There’s an excellent examination of this in the NY Times article “Museums See Different Virtues in Virtual Worlds” from 2014. While Sree evangelically pushes first order adoption, Shelley Berstein is much smarter about it. Instead of pitch-man hype, Bernstein acts in the true spirit of empiricism: a bit of analytics revealed that the online engagement wasn’t enhancing the experience of their local constituents. Instead they shuddered some of the more broadcast based digital media work and focused on letting “digital” deliver the most to their actual visitors. She explained that “As part of a social media strategic plan, we are changing gears a bit to deploy an engagement strategy which focuses on our in-building audience.” Another quote I found quite apt: the Times reported that “The lesson Ms. Bernstein takes away from the pivot is this: “Not letting the tech community drive what you’re doing, because it may not be right.” Digital “is not the holy grail,” she contends. “It’s a layer.””

So it’s not to say that museums should not have, say, analytics departments, it’s rather that they should have some sort of rudder.

You have argued that museums have adopted a Silicon Valley style ideology resulting in institutions taking up everything from crowdsourcing to data analysis. Do you think the ramifications of this in the arts could result in a form of art populism? Or a lack of a experimentation? Especially with ‘success’ now being so easily quantifiable through data analysis .etc.

For me museums are primarily organs of art history. Literally tools for art historical research and production. Are engineers interested in improving art history? Perhaps some are, but the major drivers in that space don’t seem to be structured that way. Art history has a lot of ways it can improved, but soliciting feedback on twitter probably isn’t one of them.

Something like the US Digital Service might be adopted for the art institutional world, meaning, taking some of this publicly funded talent and problem solving and deploying it to our cultural institutions. (I know things are quite different between the US and UK). You could have great engineering minds working on problem solving, except that a. the problems they’re looking to solve, b. the solutions they propose, and c. the payoffs that drive those decisions are still within the framework of the public interest and the institution’s interest. It’s way to “innovate” on the structure such that it is respectful (and not oppositional) to the very nature of specialized, slow, humanities scholarship.

Instead you have the Smithsonian using kickstarter to raise money for something Congress apparently could not cover. The supreme irony is that a portion of the money raised through kickstarter went back into the US treasury through taxes, but for some reason they felt it was more efficient to use a private crowdfunding app.

A portion of this exchange was included in comments to the author of this piece: http://www.newcriticals.com/thats-infotainment

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AuthorMike Pepi