Free Association: A Q&A With BAM’s Richard Rinehart

Free Association: A Q&A With BAM’s Richard Rinehart

Free Association: A Q&A With BAM’s Richard Rinehart

A museum curator reaches out to digital generation youth and expands museum possibilities.


Free Association: A Q&A With BAM’s Richard Rinehart A museum curator reaches out to digital generation youth and expands museum possibilities.

Larisa Mann

May 22, 2008

Digital art is the latest creative mode to express how our lives intersect with technology. Even as we photograph and record each other with our cellphone cameras and leave messages across cyberspace for our friends and acquaintances, digital artists do what artiss have always done — highlight and question what these practices mean and show them to us in a new light.

But what role do museums play in a world where the public can easily access art online? Why should we care about museums when technology allows many of us to be able to copy, disseminate, play with and alter artworks in fun ways that museums usually have prevented?

Richard Rinehart, Berkeley Art Museum (BAM) Digital Media Director, and adjunct curator of the digital art collection is trying to answer these questions and others.

Over the past 15 years, Rinehart has introduced novel participation and distribution concepts into the museum structure, including using web technology to challenge the traditional vision of museums as a place where experts pre-select art from the collection for visitors. Rinehart’s ideas also overturn the notion that a museum or gallery’s reputation depend on exclusive access to art, rather than the ability to make it as widely available as possible.

Rinehart also has plans to make the entire digital art collection open-source and available for remix. This turns digital museums into truly public works projects, inviting everyone in to participate as well as observe, as well as fostering art that can escape the walls of the museum and roam the internet and the world.

I spoke with Rinehart on the eve of his latest production: The Berkeley Big Bang, about digital art, education and social change, and the future of the museum in the digital age.

How did you come to your current position at the museum?

Richard Rinehart

: It’s funny, I was just reading a thesis (PDF) by a grad student at MIT that’s all about how new digital art forms interface with traditional institutions like museums. One of the findings was that most digital art curators don’t come to their job in a straightforward way. Most of them don’t have degrees in art history or even digital art and most don’t apply for a job as a digital art curator, but get hired at a museum for something else. That describes my development as well.

I have a degree in Art Practice (a focus on learning about art through making art, rather than studying primarily its historical contexts) and have been doing “digital work” in museums for 14 years. “Doing digital work” can mean a lot more than curating and exhibiting. It can be doing IT, online marketing, e-commerce, etc., and a few tasks that are more unique to museums: online access to art collections, other online resources that may support research or instruction, and figuring out copyright issues that are at the unique intersection of art objects and the digital age. This work slowly and organically developed into my being a digital curator.

What’s your mission?


: I’m on a mission from God to make the world safe for the avant-garde! Just kidding. That’s the mission statement for Franklin Furnace, an art space in New York, and I just love the spirit of it. My mission here is to ensure that the museum (and museums in general by working in this professional community) take best advantage of digital media in order to accomplish the core museum functions of education, research, preserving culture, and presenting audiences with aesthetic experiences. And in a more proactive way, I think my mission here is also to keep the museum relevant in the digital age; to see where digital media and culture are heading and what opportunities that opens up for the museum that it may not have been able to consider before. So, one is to use digital media to support all the good things that museums have traditionally been about; the other is to see what museums might become in the future.

Why should we, or museums, care about digital art?


: Digital and other new media art is some of the most important and compelling work of our time. Digital work allows artists to go in new directions and ask questions in entirely new ways. Digital art is closely tied to the ways in which digital media more broadly is changing society. So, any museum of contemporary art would do well to recognize that there is a whole new generation/movement/genre of artists and make them part of the historic record by incorporating them into the museum’s permanent collection. Can you imagine if museums of 20th century art ignored photography? There would be a huge black hole in the historic record.

Tell us more about your plan to make the collection open-source and available for remix.


: Digital artifacts, unlike even film and photography, are infinitely reproducible and that reproduction does not diminish quality or authenticity. So, one can both preserve a copy of a digital artwork and at the same time provide global access to another copy from anywhere in the world at any time. In fact with digital art (or digital anything), having multiple copies helps preservation.

Furthermore, this access need not be limited to just an image of the artwork, or a presentation version, but one could provide access to the full artwork, all the materials (code) and everything under the hood. This kind of “open-source” access would only further both research and spur new artistic creation and it’s a kind of mashing up of the raw materials that is not possible with traditional art forms.

My idea is to create the OpenMuseum; a repository for both preserving and providing access to digital art in this broadest possible sense. Of course there are other concerns, artworks are not just technical objects, but also social, economic, and legal artifacts, so the OpenMuseum is a prototype to experiment with those issues and provide a new model for access to the world’s digital culture.

How do you see your work engaging with or appealing to youth?


: Since museums are by definition trans-generational, museums need to pay attention to the next generation as much as the present one. Youth are the most implicated in digital culture; that is to say the impact of new media, both good and bad, on society, but also how digital media is enabling practices that transform culture and potentially, though it may be a stretch, transform human consciousness.

Young people are in a special position because they are, or have already, grown up with pervasive digital media and had it shape their consciousness from an early age. For young people digital media is not the novel exception, but the rule. Young people are also some of the most powerful innovators in new media, giving rise to whole new social practices. The huge effect of this shift has yet to really be seen. It’s one thing to have an older generation of music corporate heads suing teenagers for downloading music; it will be another thing when those teenagers are the CEO’s and judges and the generation in power.

Power tends to keep the status quo, even across generations, but I can’t help thinking that the younger generations who have invented or tweaked social practices based on new media will take the moral values attached to those practices with them as they age and enter society at different levels. Based on these values, what will they expect? What will they demand? What will they kill off?

What does it mean that the Berkeley Art Museum is part of UC Berkeley?


: I think BAM/PFA is very much a part of the Berkeley ethos that questions the artistic and social status quo. U.C. Berkeley was home to both the Free Speech movement and the Open Source movement and those both directly inform BAM/PFA programs — particularly in the area of digital art. The Bay Area in general is home to the information revolution; many of the values and intentions of which were socially transformative. The Bay Area is also a home base to the DIY and Green movements — social movements whose values often fall very much in line with the others mentioned here and contribute to a regional character that is heavily defined in terms of social change.

How have you seen art inspire or lead to social change?


: That’s a tough one. A lot of art proposes to inspire or directly affect social change, but my sneaking suspicion is that probably less of it than we might hope does. There is certainly a lot of political art that, for instance, “draws attention” to a particular social problem, but is that enough, or does it simply act in the same way the media often does; it gets people to notice something for five minutes, but not necessarily follow up with action, and then that attention is turned elsewhere?

I probably set the bar too high when it comes to defining “inspire” and “change,” but I reserve the right to be skeptical. I do, however, applaud art that attempts to be directly relevant to social conditions such as the artist Brett Stallbaum who was part of Electronic Disturbance Theater and wrote Floodnet software that has been used in the Mexican Zapatista political resistance. (Ed’s note: Forbes Magazine called Floodnet: “Perhaps the first electronic attack against a target on American soil that was the result of an art project.”)

Are you involved in any upcoming events at the museum that we should know about?


: Everyone is invited to join us for Berkeley Big Bang 08, June 1-3, three days of new media and art hosted by the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive and the Berkeley Center for New Media, timed to link with 01SJ: A Global Festival of Art on the Edge, a new media art biennial taking place June 4-8 in San Jose.

Other notable digital art projects


Carnivore: A surveillance tool for digital networks.

Gaszappers: A game/art piece about climate change.

In Popular Terms: Part of BAM’s digital art collection.

Rhizome: Legendary digital art communities

Larisa Mann writes about technology, media and law for WireTap, studies Jurisprudence and Social Policy at U.C. Berkeley and djs under the name Ripley. She is a resident DJ at Surya Dub, San Francisco, and collaborates with the Riddim Method blog-DJ-academic crew, Havocsound sound system, and various other cross-fertilizing organisms in the Bay Area and worldwide.

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