AB: In your interesting article "The Idea of a Twenty-First-Century Museum" you wrote that "displaying videotapes on monitors inside the museum isn't good enough: the museum should broadcast itself into the minds of a large and politically alienated audience". You call for a museum that not only preserves the past, but plays an active role in the present, in everyday life. The article, written in 1977, ends with the words: "if you can do this, you will be ready for the next century twenty years before it arrives". What do you think has happened during those 20 years?
DD: A complex question deserving a more complex answer than I have the time and space for here. Basically, we have seen fitful starts toward my ideal. In 1977, the very year that essay was published, which began as a lecture at the Long Beach Museum in 1975 or 1976, we saw some roaring beginnings, most of which I found myself involved with. On December 29, 1976, with the support of the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston, I performed "Seven Thoughts" in the empty Houston Astrodome. In the last ten minutes of this 30-minute piece, I spoke up from the floor of the dome to the orbiting satellite above and sent the thoughts, one by one, to every IntelSat station on earth. It was probably the first use of the satellite by a single person for artmaking purposes. To the best of my knowledge only one nation, india, allowed the thoughts to be heard over radio. But the point was not to reach a big audience. The point was to do it at all...And let the news get out (that long-distance broadcasting was not an exclusive preserve of tv networks, armies, and governments). In february of 1977, I did another performance at the Whitney Museum of Art, "Four places two figures one ghost," which was simultaneously cablecast to a large live audience outside the walls of the museum. Again this may have been the first time this happened. Finally, as you know, in July of 1977, Joseph Beuys, Nam June Paik and I performed live at Documenta 6 and were broadcast by West German tv to many countries, including the old USSR... The first time visual artists produced a global telecast. I had "the last 9 minutes" of that show, which was also the title of a piece, the content of which I can't possibly go into here. As I can't for the other two mentioned above. In that year we saw several collaborations by artists like Keith Sonnier, Willoughby Sharp and others that sent video signals across distant points, often outside the traditional art support system--but the system knew it was happening. Since that year, we have seen museums evolve fitfully to the point where they now think of television--and most of all websiting--as an irregular but normal function to undertake. Most of the time, however, the content is essentially documentary, or second-hand. The broadcasts are essentially coverage of traditional exhibitions and traditional media. Not that this necessarily forces the content into non-revolutionary modes: I could have imagined an unsettling broadcast motivated by Jackson Pollock's paintings at MoMa in 1998, or the Alexander Rodchenko exhibition in the same year. It didn't happen, but it might have happened. It would be naive of me to claim that museums are now determined to reach that alienated audience I spoke of in the 70's. But they certainly know how to do it, now. And the web makes it not only easy but quite inexpensive. My instinct is that "the museum of the third kind" (title of an essay I am working on, soon to be finished, based on the Victoria and Albert lecture in 1997) is not going to be created by a set of museum trustees plus staff...But by a lone, mad individual or two, followed by the rest of us.
AB: One way in which the museum could really broadcast itself into people's everyday lives might be to buy air time on national television, and showing video works, instead of only keeping them as an exclusive object in the museum. The artist could be paid for his or her work based on these broadcasts. Could museums spend part of their budget (part of the marketing budget, for instance) in a way that directs relevant information and aesthetic experience to recipients in their own everyday environment (tv, newspaper, internet), rather than merely putting advertisements in different media stating the museum's opening hours, new exhibitions and sponsors? In other words, instead of only attempting to attract visitors to the museum, rather spreading the various information stored in the museum to a large audience in their everyday context?
DD: Of course. But that has happened to date only fitfully, as I said above. Most museums still think of live or taped communication by means of video, audio, or web as "secondary" rather than "primary," as a means of calling attention to traditional exhibitions and events, not as media with their own qualities that ought to be exploited with the same intensity as a stretched fabric. The vast majority approach the web in the same frame of mind. They are museums of the second kind.
AB: What, then, is the possible role of art and the www as regards the spaces that people inhabit in the everyday?
DD: On the worldwideweb a large international audience of single souls lies in wait. The museum of the second kind views them primarily as a secondary market for its program. Most museum websites to date are designed by commercial webdesigners. They attempt to sell you materials from the book or gift store and encourage you to come to the museum. They make very limited attempts to interact with their long-distance audience, which is not around the corner or within subway reach, is it? When David Ross was director of the Whitney he did in fact engage in email interaction with users who approached the Whitney website, but he is a breed apart, linking back to the beginnings of video art (he was the world's first video curator). He didnt automatically assume that the user is of no interest unless he walks inside the museum building. The National Museum of American Art, part of The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, has also been above the norm in terms of activating replies and responses from website visitors. I am hoping that "the museum of the Third kind," published in Art in America next year, along with a website that will raise certain third-kind issues, might advance the field a milimeter of an inch toward a 2000 plus esthetic.
AB: It might be interesting to know how you think of your own internet projects such as "The World's First Collaborative Sentence" and "The World's First Collaborative Vision of Beauty" as now part of the Whitney Museum's collection, for instance. How do you envisage the role of these projects as regards their position within a traditional institutional framework such as a museum? Might having the museum as a "host" be an advantage for your projects, and why?
DD: Absolutely, yes. The Sentence owes its life to the Lehman College Art Gallery, which commmissioned it in the fall of 1994. Susan Hoeltzel, the director, saw it as a logical if not necessary step out of "interactions," the exhibition she had just organized at the college. Suddenly the college got access to a server, rare in those days, making a new website possible. When she asked me to do this my first thought was: the keyboard. As my first thought about video had been the gently rounded screen. The sentence and everything about it spun out of that moment; it is still spinning. When Eugene and Barbara Schwartz bought the sentence for their collection and later gave it to the Whitney (during David Ross' tenure), the work gained an even larger audience. Museums and universities and art galleries make audiences not merely possible but probable. George Waterman III commissioned MetaBody in 1996, leading to its rise onto the web on MayDay, 1997, in the teeth of a censorial wave here. But a network of museums and alternative spaces were once again critical sponsors, among them P.S. 1/The Institute of Contemporary Art in New York, The Herbert F. Johnson Museum at Cornell University, and similar sites in Reykjavik, Iceland, and Warsaw. "Terrible Beauty", my third major website, a work of interactive global theater is so complex and difficult to explain that so far I have had to move it along, slowly, on my own means. But everytime I perform it and earn a fee the work advances. Among the hosts for it have been the Information Technology Center in New York, Artspace in Dublin, Ireland, The Lab in San Francisco, and Transmediale in Berlin. I am seeking now a theater or site to leap the work into the year 2000, perhaps in Europe. And I mean to end it with a two-city performance later in the year, which will deal in a fairly radical way not only with the concept of back/front, but with the audience. In this last work the two audiences
Diagram for Terrible Beauty performance, 2000
will confront each other, for once, as seen from the eye level of the performer in each space...And resolve the narrative plot on their own, sans the author/creator. The scale and reach of all these pieces required some form of institutional support, for all sorts of reasons, not least that I am neither President, King, nor Slave.