The New York Museum of Modern Art has an interesting exhibit right now, Talk to Me, showing recent digital art. Stuff like Jason Rohrer's Passage, Aaron Cope's PrettyMaps, Eric Fisher's geovisualizations, Dwarf Fortress, Mike Migurski's Walking Papers, Nicholas Felton's Feltron reports, and Josh On's They Rule. You know, all those cool things you look at when the links go around the Internet. In a real museum, bonafide art.
Only if you're reading this blog post there's not much point in going to the actual exhibit. Because the links above (and the exhibit's site) are way more effective than seeing digital interactive art hanging dead on walls of a museum. I'm really glad that MoMA has this exhibit and Paolo Antonelli curated it very shrewdly. It's great to see this work taken seriously and shown to MoMA's audience. It's just a shame the art carries over so poorly in a museum.
Passage is staged as a screen stuck to the wall with a joystick. You can play it yourself! But Passage requires a few minutes reading to understand and a few more minutes to play and no one was engaging that way in the museum. At best someone would pick up the joystick, fiddle a few seconds, then put it down again and wander on. The Tentacles art looked great, but the interaction required taking your phone out, getting on the MoMA WiFi, installing a custom app, then trying to figure out how to operate it. I actually went through all that trouble only to find the interaction server wasn't working. The WiFi failed soon after. I felt really bad for MyBlockNYC, that exhibit had completely failed displaying an empty browser window with, I kid you not, Evony and Wizard 101 toolbars on it. One enterprising visitor later figured out how to bring up a weather website on the giant screen while other patrons raptly looked on at this exhibit of Art. (I resisted the urge to add 4chan to MoMA's exhibit, although it honestly belongs there.)
Interactive exhibit tech is hard and it's mean to pick on stuff that crashes. But then there's the projects that didn't exhibit well at all. Migurski's brilliant Walking Papers is reduced to some printouts and a paragraph of text, I fear no one looking got the point at all. And the Square exhibit is particularly baffling: a credit card dongle stuck to a wall on top of a crayon drawing of an iPhone. Really?
For a contrasting approach to digital exhibition, IBM did a nice job with the design of the Think exhibit at Lincoln Center. Beautiful giant LED display at human scale, you could walk right up to it. And an interactive video room that while a bit too Hypercardy for me was genuinely beautiful and engaging. The content itself wasn't so interesting, but the presentation was good.
I guess the real challenge here is how to collect and curate digital art with the imprimatur of a Legitimate Musuem. Video art and conceptual art have similar display challenges, it's hard to make them compelling in a gallery. I think it's a mistake to relocate online art to a museum; what works is art designed for the museum space. For the rest we need some other institution to help us curate and critique what's going on in the Internet.
PS: the most effective interactive art display may well have been the ad for donations.