Fifteen years ago, Timothy Murray, Comparative Literature/English, decided to curate a little show of digital art at Cornell. Nothing fancy. After all, how much interest would there really be in this new technology-dependent art form? And how many artists were even working in the medium?
“It was going to be a small show,” Murray remembers, “but at the last minute I decided to put out a call for submissions on the Rhizome new media art listserv.” What happened next astonished him. In just three weeks, he had received 140 works from artists all over the world. The show he put together, Contact Zones: The Art of the CD-ROM, toured for four years and featured 80 CD-ROMs from 23 countries, the largest show of its type ever created. At Cornell, the show consisted of eight locations scattered across the campus, housing gleaming new iMacs that each allowed users access to four different artworks. The artworks were rotated through the locations over time, so that every location eventually allowed access to all the pieces in the show.
The enthusiastic response of the artists and the warm welcome the Contact Zones tour received around the world convinced Murray he had touched on an important emerging avenue of expression. New media art was here to stay, and Murray would become one of its champions and preeminent scholars.
NetNoise, Tech Flesh, and More Help Building a New Area of Scholarship
Around the same time as the Contact Zones show in 1999, Murray also began a collaboration with Arthur Kroker and Marilouise Kroker, from the University of Victoria, Canada, who produced the online journal CTHEORY. The Krokers and Murray wanted to explore the power of new media art expression by giving artists a conceptual online journal through which to communicate. In the end, the three designed three issues of CTHEORY Multimedia, each a separate conceptual project made up of 15 pieces of internet art. (The Krokers had experimented with an initial issue of CTHEORY Multimedia prior to their collaboration with Murray.) The projects were produced by Cornell University Library and explored a wide range of contemporary issues, from “NetNoise,” which imagined the sound of art on the net and postulated the need for a cyber-ear to hear it; to “Tech Flesh,” which explored artistic issues raised by the human genome project.
When it was all over, between Contact Zones and CTHEORY Multimedia, Murray was left with roughly 125 pieces of emerging art work. “And soon, I knew, many of them would not work on a lot of machines,” he says.
Now he was faced with the twin dilemmas of an emerging art form with no scholarly support and an emerging art form with the built-in time bomb of technological obsolescence. In typical Cornell fashion, the answer was collaboration—in this case with the Cornell University Library System’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, which agreed to house the new media archive Murray wanted to found. “Our library is very forward thinking,” says Murray. “Just to take on the archive was a radical move for a division of rare and manuscript collections. We’re very proud to be housed by them.”
Preserving New Media Art, the Rose Goldsen Archive of New Media Art
Today the Rose Goldsen Archive of New Media Art at Cornell, which Murray still curates, is one of the world’s most significant collections of new media art—artwork produced on portable or web-based digital media, as well as multimedia artworks that reflect digital extensions of aesthetic developments in cinema, video, installation, photography, and sound. Along with the works themselves, the archive collects documentation of digital-related art (video art and some early forms of sound art that are analog in nature) and electronic art. It also engages in large-scale research projects on the preservation of digital art.
“This archive is a major research project,” Murray says. “It permits me to be at the forefront of international endeavors in electronic and digital art. It is also an interactive incubator of artistic research and expression. And it’s open for teaching access. Everything we do is open access if not open source.” He explains that, unlike a museum, the archive does not focus on acquiring work by individual famous artists, but rather it tries to gather a broad spectrum of new media artwork across generations. “The idea is to establish a tremendously vibrant critical mass of materials,” he says.
With the assistance of Associate Curator Madeleine Casad, Murray has spent the past 12 years building up that critical mass. From the original foundation works of Contact Zones and CTHEORY Multimedia, he broadened the parameters of the archive to include electronic art as well as digital. He has added works from a wide range of sources: 360 hours of digitized video on contemporary avant-garde art events and installations in China since 1984; six years’ worth of dossiers and work samples submitted to the yearly new media art fellowship competition funded by the Rockefeller Foundation; 40 years’ worth of independent experimental videos from the Experimental Television Center in Owego, New York; 40-plus years’ worth of electronic art and film archives from the New York State Council on the Arts—and the list goes on.
Beyond collecting a huge range of works, the archive has the added goal of preservation. This effort is complex and extremely important, Murray explains, because new media is by its nature vulnerable to technological obsolescence. Just a few years ago, the archive estimated that 70 percent of its works were becoming inaccessible due to the limitations of hardware and software. These works that were created on digital media, or “born-digital,” were originally believed to be innately lasting. “They were thought more likely to last longer than video or celluloid, and that’s not at all the case,” he says.
With that mistaken assumption uppermost in potential grantors’ minds, there was initially no support for preservation. “It took us a decade to win grants,” Murray says. “The granting committees weren’t ready when we first started applying. They were giving grants to digitalize newspapers at that point. They weren’t taking care of born-digital materials. Now they’ve recognized the urgency.” Indeed, in 2013 the archive received a $300,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities for preservation of the fragile works—the largest grant awarded in New York State that year and among the largest in the country. Goldsen also has collaborated with the internet art commissioner Turbulence.org on two preservation grants from the National Endowment for the Arts.
The Collaborative Culture of New Media Scholarship
But Murray’s work with new media doesn’t stop with the archive. He frequently curates video and new media exhibitions as part of his research. With Renate Ferro of the Cornell Art Department, he is the comoderator of the -empyre- new media listserv, a community of 1,800 participants from around the world and from all walks of life—academics, artists, programmers, curators, some university affiliated, and some nonprofit affiliated—meeting in cyberspace to converse about developments in digital expression. “This is a community of discourse that wasn’t practically possible before,” he says.
The archive received a $300,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities for preservation of the fragile works.
Community discourse and multifaceted dialogue is also central to Murray’s work as the Director of the Society for the Humanities, an appointment he took on in 2008. “One of my research profiles is to engage in global conversations and projects regarding interdisciplinary humanities,” he explains. Currently, he has been taking part in global projects in the areas of digital humanities, humanities and the environment, and medical humanities, among others. And he travels widely, especially to Asia where he has conducted research and interacted with the contemporary art scene in China, Taiwan, Korea, Singapore, and Japan. That work has dovetailed with his curation of the Goldsen Archive, sometimes fostering partnerships between the archive and Asian artists and scholars, other times leading to publication projects exploring contemporary art in Asia from the new media perspective. He most recently participated in a South African conference on Humanities across Africa, sponsored by the international Advisory Board of the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes, on which he sits.
He points out that his work is all part of the emergent research paradigm in the humanities, a development that focuses much more on collaboration than in the past. “It’s much less single-author centered,” he says, “not just focused on producing a single book, but becoming multi-form.” Listservs, blogs, exhibitions, collaborations with artists, even the Goldsen Archive itself, are all part of this new paradigm.
It’s a wonderful era to be working in the humanities, says Murray. “These are exciting times.”