Fresh & New(er)

discussion of issues around digital media and museums by Seb Chan

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Some thoughts at the end of 2012 and a year in NYC

January 1st, 2013 by Seb Chan

I’ve been in New York for just over a year now.

And it turns out that America is an endlessly fascinating, strange, land. Being away from Australia, it is much clearer to see how well Australia has fared economically – and how comparatively high Australian wages are.

And being the end of the year and there being a pause in regular posting, here’s a brief dump for the sake of timeliness rather than completeness.

Museums:

In the museum world, New York has two things going for it. Density of population (and tourism), and of capital. Context is everything, and many museums in New York rely on these two specifics – along with the sheer scale of their collections – more than any superiority or progressive-ness in ‘museum practice’. As I’ve told many people now, museums in Australia, New Zealand and even the UK are hungrier and more determined to be ‘relevant’ – out of necessity.

How can that be? Surely, New York museums are world-leading?

I’ve been thinking about this for the past little while and there seem to be some possible reasons.

The primary funding model (private philanthropists, foundations and big endowments) isn’t conducive to broad collaboration or ‘national-scale‘ efforts. Instead it entrenches institutional competition and counterproductive secrecy. A lot of wheels get reinvented unnecessarily.

The project-based nature of digital (and exhibitions) also tends to mean a much higher volume of outsourced creative work than in Australia. The heavy tilt towards outsourced digital work allows many museums over here to roll out impressive sites and apps (at unspoken high costs), but those same digital projects rarely have the chance to have significant institutional impact on the core. The ‘creative agency’ gets all the learnings from the project – and the museum acts in a ‘commissioning’ role. In some ways it shouldn’t be unexpected for art museums to operate like this as they’ve long had artist commissions, but it certainly isn’t helping them adapt rapidly to the future. The ‘cliffs’ that Diane Ragsdale wrote of recently are much closer to a reality in the USA.

If you’ve been following my team at Cooper-Hewitt’s Labs blog you’ll know that we’ve been forging ahead with some rapid change – using the time that the museum is rebuilding itself, physically – to rethink a lot of the basics, roll out a large number of ‘fail fast’ public experiments, and in the process establish some new paradigms. Aaron, Micah and Katie are forcing us to be ‘of the web‘ (not just ‘on the web‘), Pam is upturning the tables on museum publishing, and Shamus is reconsidering video in all of it – and our awesome interns and ‘residents‘ are reconstructing foundations and experimenting at the edges. (Want to be an intern or resident in 2013? Then make contact!)

It has been quite a shift moving in to a smaller museum and the race has been to establish new systems and create an environment of experimentation and rapid change – while we have the opportunity as our main campus is redesigned and rethought by Diller, Scofidio & Renfro and Local Projects. It has been a delight to have the opportunity to work alongside these firms – each with their own specialities and approaches. But the reality of inventing a new type of museum whilst also building one is exhausting – and I feel the limitations/realities of the architectures of meatspace daily.

It has also been a year where I’ve made the most of being closer to the ‘rest of the world’. I’ve joined numerous advisory committees and assessment panels, and much of the international work has continued with the second phase of Culture 24’s Lets Get Real digital engagement metrics project happening in the UK. There’s also been a steady run of keynotes and lectures and a fantastic week at Salzburg Global Seminar – the first half of 2013 is already booked up too! And plenty of trips down to Washington to the Smithsonian mothership.

Games:

2012 was the year I slimmed down my mobile gaming. In fact I can’t think of any game that has stayed on my iPhone from 2012 except for Triple Town. On the flip, though, was a reengaging with the longer form commitments required by desktop/laptop gaming. Probably the Kickstarter-mania around Double Fine Adventure and then Wasteland 2 started rekindling interest for me, and then Diablo 3 dropped (pretty disappointingly really). Notably Steam on the Mac has really started to deliver the titles that Mac users generally missed out on – so its been nice to catch up with the last five years all in one hit.

The kids went very deep into Minecraft after two years of casual play and I’m happy to say they understand and enjoy it far more than I do. That’s how it is supposed to be. I’ve enjoyed reading about the possibilities and then seeing my kids begin to enact them, and I am super happy that the Powerhouse has expanded their Minecraft workshops.

Mid-year I ended up talking on a panel at MOMA on art and videogames. I was probably the least interesting person there as I’m quite wedded to the idea of non-art games, and I do enjoy a FPS and old-school arcade shooter a little more than most art people (or parents!) are willing to admit. Whilst I’m impressed with MOMA’s recent acquisitions – games as examples of interaction design – I do find the art/not-art distinctions that others often raise as very dubious.

Music:

I knew I was going to be downscaling my musical activities upon moving to NYC. That’s been true in terms of performing and going to gigs but if anything, 2012 has been a bumper year for listening.

My Last.fm profile continues to track what I listen to in almost precise detail and 2012 was a busy year for revisiting a lot of music that I’m now physically located far way from.

(click to pop up larger version)

(click to pop up larger version)

And, after being prompted each week to log my ‘tune of the moment’, ThisIsMyJam captured a good snapshot of some of the tunes I had on ‘high rotation’ each week. Even better, ThisIsMyJam partnered with EchoNest to auto-generate ‘2012 jams’ for its users and here’s mine [see/listen!].

After seeing what is possible with EchoNest the idea of Art.sy’s Art Genome is even more seductive. Can you imagine a ThisIsMyJam-style mashup of the objects you’ve loved in all your museum visits throughout the year? MONA v2?

Although I’m probably the right in the crosshairs of Spotify’s ‘premium customer’, their service didn’t really click for me. I’m already so drowning in music, thanks to two decades of being on DJ promotional lists, and generally feeding a hardcore music habit – that Spotify’s sizeable jukebox doesn’t have a deep appeal especially for the niches in which I like to inhabit the most. (But I was never the one to listen to DJ mixes either though.)

On the other hand, Bandcamp has proven to be an occasional wallet-opener (alongside Boomkat, Bleep and the rest) as more friends start to make available their back catalogues there, and I’m gently nudged towards emerging bands by those younger than me.

I expect that there’s some lessons in that for museum content locked up in old publications and catalogues.

Happy new year, and maybe I’ll see you at one of my upcoming talks.

Tags:   · · · 4 Comments

  • http://themuseumofthefuture.com/ Jasper Visser

    Thanks for the interesting insights Seb, especially on the how the (US) funding model limits organisational change, although I’m not necessarily sure the system in Europe works so much better as you might get from your words.

    I’m really looking forward to all the great things you and your amazing team will share with us in 2013 and to seeing you in Amsterdam (or NYC!). Have a great year!

  • http://www.exposeyourmuseum.com/ Kathleen Tinworth

    Thanks for a great post Seb.
    The music and gaming stuff was particularly cool.
    Have you played with Ingress yet? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=92rYjlxqypM&feature=youtu.be&utm_source=facebook

    Here’s to a fantastic 2013 and to continuing to learn from each other’s work and passions!

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  • Catherine Roberts Shteynberg

    Fascinating as usual, to read your insights, especially about museums. It’s very inspiring to see a team doing “fail fast” public experiments, especially at the Smithsonian, and I look forward to hearing more about them. As an aside, I just got your Jam playlist on Spotify, and it’s pretty great. I’d never heard of a lot of the artists on the Darker Than Blue album in particular, and they’re going to go into heavy rotation on my Reggae playlist!