Sandra Fauconnier firstname.lastname@example.org July-August 2010 – edited 12 Oct 2010
The birth of a video distribution collection
In 1978, Dutch television producer René Coelho made an unconventional decision that would change his life and career forever. He opened up his house in Amsterdam for artists, allowing them to showcase their work and receive assistance with production. These artists all had one thing in common: they worked with video – a medium not yet accepted by museums, festivals and other ‘mainstream’ art venues. René Coelho’s home gallery, baptized Montevideo, would quickly grow into one of Europe’s most prominent venues for experimental video and media art.
René Coelho in Montevideo
Montevideo, in its early days, must have felt like a community or club. It thrived upon a network of people who were deeply engaged with video art; Montevideo was a very active social hub. Many international artists (including those who would become established in later decades, like Bill Viola, Gary Hill and Woody and Steina Vasulka) visited Amsterdam and Montevideo in the 1980s and produced and/or presented work there. Of course, for Dutch video and media art, Montevideo played an important role as well. The organization had a strong relation with AKI, the video art department at the art academy in Arnhem, where many artists would graduate who would later become established names in the field. Montevideo also co-produced and presented many Dutch video installations.
Woody Vasulka in Montevideo
The production and presentation activities at Montevideo were a first step; Montevideo also looked at other ways to promote and disseminate video art. Building a collection of single-channel video works and installations was a logical step. From the beginning, it was a distribution collection: works were rented out to art venues all over the world and were presented internationally. In this way, Montevideo extensively promoted video art, the organization generated a bit of income for itself, and some royalties for the artists in its collection.
Over the years, Montevideo (and its collection) merged with other institutions, most notably Time Based Arts, the video artist network related to Amsterdam’s performance and contemporary art center De Appel. Montevideo/Time Based Arts was renamed to the Netherlands Media Art Institute (NIMk) in 1998. Over the years, the organization slowly expanded its activities to other or ‘newer’ media arts – not only single-channel video and installations, but also internet-based, software- and hardware-based work.
Since 1993, Montevideo and later NIMk have been at the forefront of research on video art preservation as well. In 2010, NIMk is working on a third phase of the ongoing preservation of Dutch video art heritage, actively safeguarding its own and other institutions’ collections.
At this moment, NIMk’s distribution collection is the largest in Europe, and at the heart of the institute. The distribution collection consists of more than 2,000 titles (single-channel video works and installations) by more than 500 international artists. Gradually, NIMk extends its collection to include a larger number of ‘newer’ media art as well (net-based art, media installations, software and interactive works, which are quite challenging in a new way) but this article will focus on single-channel video.
Cataloguing and promoting video art
This essay is mainly about the online presence of NIMk’s collection, in the context of current developments in networked media: online video, Web 2.0 and shifts in copyright and the distribution of cultural content online. It is written from the perspective of an insider and employee of NIMk: I work for NIMk’s collection and mediatheque, an art historian specialized in the online presentation of cultural heritage. I have been involved in the Culture Vortex research project, mentioned further in this essay, as coordinator for NIMk’s program line.
Non-professional online access to NIMk’s collection is complementary to professional, ‘physical’ distribution, which is NIMk’s specialization. In the past, Montevideo and NIMk have promoted the distribution collection via presentations, promotional videotapes and DVD’s, and via a catalogue. This catalogue was of course first produced in print. Montevideo’s first catalogue, designed by Hungarian director and video artist Gábor Bódy in 1984, was an artwork in itself: a UMatic videotape box filled with large ‘library cards’ describing artists and works in the collection. A second, more traditionally designed catalogue in book form was published in 1996.
Montevideo catalogue by Gábor Bódy
Besides print catalogues, the organization also regularly produced (and still produces) preview tapes and DVDs with recent works in the collection, and organizes special events, screenings and (especially in the 1990s) travelling exhibitions with works from its collection. Regular submissions to international film, video and media art festivals are also part of NIMk’s promotional strategy.
In the 1990s, as networked media and especially the internet became increasingly important, NIMk expanded its mission, to include the digital, online promotion and dissemination of its collection. As a supporting institution for media art, NIMk provides online access to its own collection and to the video art collections of various other Dutch cultural institutions. We use digitalization, and online access, to make media art as visible and accessible as possible, in order to emphasize its importance and in order to facilitate research and education – while respecting the specific characteristics and role of media art itself.
The process of digitization and providing online access started in the mid-1990s. A custom-made collection management system was developed in Delphi, based upon a solid MySQL database. At the same time, a public interface to this content management system was built, first under the name Cyclope, later Catalogue. This public interface, NIMk’s online catalogue, is now available on http://catalogue.nimk.nl
In 2002-2005, NIMk digitized its distribution collection for viewing and (DVD) reproduction purposes, during the research project Content in Context. For this digitization process, the MPEG2 format was chosen, as it was and is still an acceptable viewing format, and also the right format to be used for DVD reproduction of the works. More recently, in 2007-2009, even more works from various Dutch media art collections were digitized and made accessible: highlights from NIMk’s reference collection and archive, ICN, de Appel, the Kröller-Müller Museum and the Groningen Museum. This happened in the context of the Play Out project.
NIMk’s content management system (currently named WatsNext) and online catalogue provide access to the collection via classical lists of agents (people and organizations), subjects and events, with corresponding artworks and documentation. Additionally, accessible to NIMk staff only, the content management system provides information about carriers (the physical ‘containers’ of the works, namely videotapes and files), distribution-related administrative information, and an address database.
NIMk's online catalogue
In 2010, NIMk’s online catalogue still very much reflects the idea of a printed video art catalogue; it is a static website with a late-1990s look and feel. Compared to many other video art distributors, however, NIMk offers a special feature: most works in the distribution collection can be previewed via the catalogue website – at the moment of writing this essay, only 30-second excerpts of the works are publicly available, but hopefully this policy will change in the future (see further). Since 2005, staff members and interns at NIMk have manually created these short excerpts from all works. First, the original MPEG2 excerpts were converted and published in RealVideo. In 2009, it became clear that many up-to-date browsers and computing platforms didn’t support RealVideo by default anymore, and most of the excerpts were converted to Flash.
Also, the full-length MPEG2 videos were converted to lower-quality streaming MPEG4 files, with watermark, for password-protected educational use. This educational, online distribution service is not very broadly known or used at this moment. Also, browser and plug-in support for streaming MPEG4 files is dwindling at this moment as well; the format was originally chosen because such files are less easy to download, but is not a viable option for the future and is under revision at the moment. Evidently, NIMk keeps a close eye upon open source developments in video formats and codecs, and alternatives to Flash, including HTML5; unfortunately, none of such solutions at this moment are widely enough adopted across browsers and platforms; therefore, pragmatic solutions are chosen and in all cases, priority goes to making video files as widely accessible as possible.
Digitization of various collections, a database and an online catalogue were first steps to make Dutch media art and video art heritage more accessible and visible. NIMk has built a solid (national) digital infrastructure as a foundation for the dissemination of media art now – but next steps are needed and many challenges are still open.
Culture Vortex – user research for an online media art catalogue
In the Spring of 2010, NIMk has participated in a research project, entitled Culture Vortex, that deals with the online distribution of creative material. Two current problems are researched in the Culture Vortex project: what are viable distribution and business models which help to generate income with online cultural heritage, and how can an audience be developed into an elaborate network culture, encompassing audiovisual collections and public institutions? For NIMk, this project came at the right time – NIMk’s online catalogue for its collection, as described above, needs a design and strategic update and was used as a case study in this research project. NIMk is interested in making its catalogue richer and more dynamic, providing useful (eventually participatory) features for its variety of users. Furthermore, NIMk’s distribution activities are challenged by current developments in online culture, and the organization is looking for ways to diversify and improve its distribution services.
The Culture Vortex project allowed NIMk to perform user research in relation to its collection and catalogue. In April-June 2010, two NIMk interns, Janneke Kamp and Lorena Zevedei, used a variety of research methodologies to map the interests of several types of potential users of NIMk’s collection.
Depending on their professional or personal orientation and interests, people approach online video art for a variety of reasons. We distinguish three main user groups that reflect this diversity in perspectives:
- Makers (in NIMk’s case: artists in the distribution collection) are the copyright holders of the work. They care very much about the context and quality of presentation of their work and hope to generate (some) hard-earned income with it.
- Some users have professional interest in the video work – usually as mediators. NIMk works extensively with curators and programmers of other cultural institutions, film and media art festivals and other art events. Curators can turn to the NIMk staff for personal advice with the selection of works, and eventually rent work from NIMk’s distribution collection for presentation in their own events. Educators also fit into this category – lecturers and teachers in art history, cultural studies, media studies and other disciplines may want to include video art in their curriculum and present it during their lectures and study programs.
- Non-professionals are the diverse group of people who are not professionally involved in (media and video) art. However, many of these individuals are a specialist or professional(-in-the-making) in some other area. These people are generally not interested in the politics and distinctions between institutions and collections, and might not care very much about the art world at all. But most people do enjoy interacting with culture in some way; many of them produce it as well. At some point in their lives and careers, they might develop an interest in, or be touched by certain cultural artifacts, including video art.
It is probably useful to think of users, or ‘the public’, not too much in abstract terms, but as a very diverse network of stakeholders. For lack of more appropriate terminology, we stick to the notion ‘users’ for now.
In the Culture Vortex research project, researchers Zevedei and Kamp have used several methods to learn more about NIMk’s user groups described above.
Desk research was used to list, compare and evaluate similar online resources: catalogues, archives and platforms of media art by other institutions and initiatives, showcasing best practices and looking for inspiration. Both researchers have conducted interviews with several artists from NIMk’s collection and beyond – artists in distribution and not in distribution, upcoming and established artists, men and women, of various ages. An online questionnaire was provided to NIMk’s 3,000 Facebook friends; 166 people responded. Usability tests of the current online catalogue were conducted at the Usability Lab of the Hogeschool van Amsterdam. Finally, a dense and very productive expert meeting was held on 3 June 2010, with the members of the Culture Vortex consortium and other expert invitees from the Dutch new media, media art and cultural heritage fields.
While these research methods focused on NIMk’s online catalogue only, many of the observations and findings of the project have brought more general and strategic questions to the foreground, both for NIMk’s mission as an institute, its general activities and the (media) art and culture field as a whole. The findings may change NIMk’s relation with makers, professional and non-professional users. The next sections of this essay reflect upon some directions NIMk sees for the future – emphasizing observations that might be useful and interesting for a broader audience as well. It is important to note that NIMk has not begun with the development of a new online strategy for its collection at the time of writing this article; some directions and observations described below, therefore, do not hold any promises yet, and some of them reflect my personal opinion.
Some observations and directions
The legacy of Web 2.0
In the Culture Vortex project, Zevedei and Kamp compared several media art collection websites, online archives and platforms. It is quite striking that most media art-related collection and archive websites barely contain any typical Web 2.0 features (such as user profiling, free tagging and folksonomies, the ability to add comments and reviews, or to edit, re-use or embed content).
This seems paradoxical. Many organizations in the broader cultural field (audiovisual archives, museums, libraries and general archives) are already quite advanced in this area and have been very eager to jump on the Web 2.0 bandwagon. Meanwhile, in the media art world (with its technically advanced artistic production and tech-savvy staff in many organizations), the adoption of Web 2.0 features is not so apparent at all. I think this is no coincidence: many people who are professionally active in media art are also quite aware of the complex political implications of web (2.0) applications; many of these people are present on social networking platforms for practical or research reasons, but will remain very critical of them at the same time. This also applies to NIMk – while the organization has an active presence on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, it also hosts artists in residence Aymeric Mansoux and Marloes de Valk who develop a critical response to Facebook games. Ideologically, this is a pragmatic stance – we will apply the same pragmatic and hopefully balanced attitude to the development of the new online presence of the NIMk collection.
NIMk's YouTube channel
In general, we are lucky that mid-2010, the Web 2.0 hype has waned at least a little bit. Some developments that were sped up by Web 2.0 are unstoppable and have both positive and negative sides: the possibilities for social networking online have become more diverse; an extremely wide variety of cultural activity is blooming on the web; and many (more or less knowledgeable, more or less informed) people are able to publish their work with ease. Other aspects of Web 2.0 plainly warrant suspicion: privacy issues, for instance, or the looming dispute over net neutrality, or the corporate monopolies or oligopolies (‘the googlization of everything’) that need to be watched closely. In any case, for a networking organization like NIMk, valuable lessons can be learned here.
The online availability of video art
NIMk works closely with many of the artists represented in its distribution collection. The 500 artists in NIMk’s distribution collection have in common that they mainly work with video. Most of them have received formal training in an art academy, position themselves within the context of the contemporary visual arts, and attach great importance to the quality and context of presentation of their work. With this profile, they are seemingly quite different from the millions of active users and producers of online ‘folk’ video on platforms like YouTube and Vimeo; video art in general seems to strikingly distance itself from the low-threshold, gritty, vernacular cultural production on Web 2.0 video platforms. But perhaps the distinction is not so sharp – it is interesting to investigate the way in which video artists present themselves online.
The video artists in NIMk’s collection deal with the online accessibility of their work in quite different ways. They have very diverse ideas about content and presentation, about the role of the artist and of institutions, and about their options and possibilities to earn an income for themselves. Their attitude can vary from extremely protective to totally open. Some artists don’t want to have their work available online at all (such as Marina Abramovic). Some publish a lot of their work online, full-length, no excerpts, and are eager to use platforms like YouTube and Vimeo (e.g. Lernert & Sander). Some artists withdraw their work from distributors and archives when they become established (e.g. Bill Viola, whose early work was in distribution by NIMk and other international distributors, but was withdrawn from distribution several years ago), other artists offer their whole oeuvre to archives (e.g. Hooykaas/Stansfield). Many artists are convinced that online exposure will help them find more presentations and more income. On the other hand, they fear loss of income as well – they are afraid that low-quality, pirated copies will lead their own, uncontrolled life online (via pirate and torrent sites, for instance) and that these will take the place of the ‘real’ work.
Most emerging and mid-career artists, in any case, actively promote themselves online. Surprisingly many of them use platforms like YouTube and Vimeo. A quick, quantitative inventory of 72 recent artists in NIMk’s distribution collection (artists from whom work has been taken in distribution between 2005 and 2010) provides some interesting insights. For all these artists I have checked whether they maintain a website where they show (documentation of) their work, and whether they use YouTube or Vimeo. 81% do have an artist website, 17% have a YouTube and 15% a Vimeo account showing full-length work – surprisingly, these artists are not only the youngest, but can be found in all age groups. And it is mainly mid-career artists who structurally maintain an artist website. Most of the artists active on YouTube or Vimeo don’t actively promote the availability of their work there, and not many receive comments from ‘general’ users.
There are a few notable exceptions though – a good example is the British artist collective Semiconductor, whose work is technically and visually stunning and who receive many admiring comments on Vimeo, many of them probably from viewers who might otherwise not visit or see Semiconductor’s work in a contemporary art context. A similar observation can be made of Dutch artists Lernert & Sander. They produce not only work for an art context but also music videos and short clips for television. Their (humorous and accessible, but definitely not simplistic) short video works receive quite a bit of positive attention on Vimeo. These two examples are exceptions though; most artists active on Vimeo or YouTube have a small but dedicated following of ‘fans’ or keep their account very low-key and only use it for embedding the video in their personal website.
Semiconductor on Vimeo
Ironically, NIMk itself is restricted in its ability to show video artists’ work online, both by copyright restrictions and the artists’ own wishes in terms of piracy and presentation quality of their work. As mentioned above, in its online catalogue, NIMk presents short, 30-second previews of all works in the distribution collection. However, usability research in the context of Culture Vortex has confirmed earlier research and common sense that both professional and non-professional users hope and expect to find full-length video. As a widely accepted art form, video art is increasingly mentioned and taught in education, and is more and more frequently the subject of research and journalism.
It is ironical that NIMk would run into trouble when it would publish full-length videos of established artists in its collection (Marina Abramovic, Gary Hill and Guido van der Werve are examples of a few artists who would probably not give NIMk permission to do this) - while a website with semi-illegal status like Ubuweb does publish some of these artists’ works anyway. Ubuweb is an interesting case: its ‘rogue’ and yet at the same time high-profile and respected status allows it to ‘get away with’ publicizing content for which established institutions would be severely reprimanded or even litigated. Ubuweb is highly regarded because of the extremely high quality content it serves in the area of experimental film, contemporary art, audio art and video art, and therefore many artists tacitly agree with having their work available there, even if it is blatantly pirated according to the letter of current copyright legislation. Perhaps it is even an honor to be included on Ubuweb…
Gary Hill on Ubuweb
NIMk has a strong tradition of following artists' wishes in terms of making video works accessible online, and has, with the significant change in the online video landscape, planned to take action for a more diverse and up-to-date policy. In the first months of 2011, all artists in NIMk’s distribution collection will be approached again with (among others) the announcement that their work in NIMk’s distribution collection will preferably be made available full-length but in preview quality and with watermark. Artists will of course get the opportunity to opt out of this and to decide upon the level of accessibility for their work in NIMk’s collection. NIMk hopes to encourage a slow but steady increase in the public availability of its collection, while still working very hard on helping its artists in distribution receive a reasonable income for their work, via mediation for professional presentations.
Business models: memberships and micropayments
In the meanwhile, the Culture Vortex research has also generated a lively discussion about business models for video art and online cultural heritage in general. New business models, both for commercial parties and for non-profit institutions have become an important topic. This is due to the fact that, evidently, online media are challenging ‘older’, non-networked income models; but this development is also informed by today’s economic and political climate, where public and private funding for non-profit institutions is dwindling. NIMk is also thinking about strengthening its distribution activities and finding new formats for presentation and generating an income.
For NIMk, it has been very helpful to look for inspiration elsewhere. Many suggestions for alternative income models have emerged from the Culture Vortex expert meeting held on June 3, 2010. This expert meeting, with participants from a variety of organizations in the Dutch cultural sector, was especially fruitful in generating creative ideas for features and business models for NIMk’s collection. One participant, Jaromil Rojo, who is very active in open source development, presented a list of typical business models that exist for open source software. Many of these can be translated to other fields. The main business model for open source software, for instance, is so-called supportware: users don’t pay for the software itself, but for technical support. In a similar way, an organization like NIMk could think about more creative ways to monetize its expertise (the specialized knowledge and service from its staff and network) rather than its assets (or collection itself).
Another spark of inspiration came from the popularity and acceptance of micropayments for online, digital content; this has significantly increased in the past years –especially for mobile applications, music and ebooks. In a similar manner, NIMk could think about producing and presenting specific, exclusive content online – partly with works from the NIMk collection, partly beyond – and to make these specially curated shows available for a small fee or micropayment.
Membership models were also mentioned: when people pay for a yearly NIMk membership, they are granted access to a selection of exclusive activities, both online and offline. This is a strategy which might hold a lot of promise, but which also needs quite a bit of experimentation and fine-tuning. Are people willing to pay for online content in the long term? Even when an immediate benefit and connection to the makers is made clear (for instance, when renters or buyers are informed that a large percentage of their payment goes to the artists directly), this is not obvious.
A membership model would be a logical step for a networked organization like NIMk, however. Until a few years ago, a system of membership was already in place for discounts for technical assistance and the use of (post)production facilities. Artists in NIMk’s distribution collection automatically became members (for free); other people had to pay a small yearly subscription fee. Such a model is probably quite logically translatable to the current situation and to online programs and services. NIMk and other media art organizations distinguish themselves with the high level of technical and practical expertise they can offer to artists and other professionals in the field; this expertise also applies in other areas, such as scouting new work, for interesting artists, and curating programs about current topics and for targeted audiences.
Rhizome's membership page
Context and mediation
The idea of creating more specially curated online programs and activities points to a special quality that many cultural institutions and initiatives share: they are often specialized in one area or niche, and host a tremendous amount of expertise about this field. Some members of the NIMk staff, for instance, keep a close eye on interesting new developments and promising young artists in the field of media art in the Netherlands. Other staff members – including the author of this article – possess a sound art historical background and are good at explaining media art to a non-professional audience and/or at connecting it to contemporary art, technical developments and tendencies and phenomena in society in general. NIMk also has several employees who are specialized in video post-production, in open source software, in video editing and preservation, both from a theoretical and from a very practical perspective. When specific expertise is lacking in the organization, NIMk can count on its vast network of partner institutions and friendly individuals. These two strong assets – expertise and a great network – might become even more important in the future. NIMk might think of its collection as an opportunity to inform and teach people about media art and specific topics, and as a vehicle for social networking in the media art field.
Recently, NIMk has developed so-called guided tours through its collection: in the online catalogue, users can find specially curated selections of works about specific topics. Some tours were created on the occasion of a current exhibition at NIMk. These tours are a first step and experiment towards developing more diverse ways to use NIMk’s expertise and network to make its collection more interesting and visible.
NIMk online catalogue
For the near future, NIMk has plans to develop online resources (a collection of articles and guided tours with and through its collection; perhaps some lessons in text and/or video form) that introduce media art to a non-professional audience. With the Media Art Platform, an online social networking site for the media art field, NIMk has experimented with a platform for the exchange of expertise and for networking – this attempt was until now only partly successful, but many lessons can be drawn from it. A renewed online strategy for NIMk’s collection will ideally include both functions in a useful way.
In the past decade, video art distribution activities in general have slowly declined. This is not only a reality for NIMk’s collection but also for other video art distributors. A similar phenomenon is apparent in many fields: especially in music, the newspaper business and (scientific) publishing, the traditional ‘middle men’ lose influence. When content becomes more easily available online, and less unique, both makers and users benefit from a more direct relation, bypassing the mediation of the traditional mediators and middle men, in this case the music and publishing industry. A similar phenomenon is apparent in media art: increasingly, curators and programmers of festivals, screenings and exhibitions bypass distributors and get in touch and negotiate with artists directly. For artists themselves, this development has advantages and drawbacks. It is great that their online presence gives them the opportunity to be visible and findable. At the same time, the need to arrange and maintain contacts with curators directly might be an increased burden on their workload; distributors typically take a lot of this type of work out of an artist’s hands and are often in a better position to negotiate reasonable artist fees. Furthermore, for many artists it might be beneficial when their work is placed and contextualized within a (renowned or interesting) collection.
Due to time constraints, the role of curators’ work in this area has not yet been thoroughly researched by NIMk yet; a questionnaire targeted towards curators and programmers for art venues and festivals is being held at the time of writing this article. This questionnaire tries to find answers to a set of questions about curators’ work process and interests. Which channels do curators mainly use for finding and evaluating artworks for their future shows? Does the discovery and selection of new work mainly occur via personal networking, via physical visits to festivals, biennials and exhibitions? Does online research play a large role? Are art journals and magazines still important or is their influence declining? And in which way can an organization like NIMk be most helpful to them?
In any case, the Culture Vortex user research has confirmed to NIMk that its added value lies in its unique assets described above – expertise and network – and, additionally, in the quality label that NIMk attaches to its collection. Whatever the outcome of the ongoing questionnaire for curators, NIMk will probably benefit from renewed promotion of its collection, of bringing it to the media art sector’s attention again via specially curated programs, and via specific, personal services, both face-to-face and online.
In a renewed online catalogue, it would be very helpful when curators are able to store personal selections and preferences, and when they are automatically alerted when new works from their favorite artists or about their own specialist topics are taken in distribution. Perhaps it would be beneficial when curators and researchers can temporarily promote their own events and academic writing (with work from the NIMk collection) via NIMk’s catalogue. For NIMk it showcases and promotes the broad application of its collection; for the curators and researchers involved, it is an additional means of promotion.
The research conducted in the Culture Vortex program also generated new discussions and ideas about the non-professional audiences that might be interested in NIMk’s collection. Until recently, the online presence of NIMk’s collection – with the online catalogue – has been targeted mainly towards professional users. The NIMk collection contains work that is relevant in a wide variety of contexts and that might interest many people who probably are not art lovers per se, or who have never heard of NIMk. It is a high-priority challenge for all organizations in the cultural sector: how to reach people outside the usual circles of art lovers and connoisseurs? How to encourage increased exposure of media art to anyone who might be touched by it – maybe as an occasional and serendipitous discovery, but maybe also in a structural way?
In a previous section, I already mentioned the value of providing well-curated, diverse introductions into the media art field. These introductions can take many forms. For cultural institutions, it can be very beneficial and fresh to organize activities outside their comfort zone and via unusual channels. NIMk has experience with organizing specially curated programs during cultural and music festivals; in 2004 and 2006 NIMk introduced its collection to many thousands of people with a program entitled The Big M – using a specially designed, inflatable tent in which works from the NIMk collection were screened. This type of activity will probably be repeated and improved in 2011 and later; NIMk is at this moment trying to find funding to develop and program the Media Art Mobile, a foldable container structure in which workshops and screenings can be organized on location. For the Media Art Mobile and for other uses, NIMk hopes to develop an accessible interface to its collection via which it is possible to discover works intuitively: works connected to a specific emotion or theme, for instance.
Re-use and embedding of content is an integral characteristic of online video culture: the success of services like YouTube and Vimeo is to a large extent due to the ease with which people can embed video from these services in places that are relevant to them – most importantly blogs or social networking sites. At this moment, this is not possible for video art in any online collection – not even from a pirate site like Ubuweb; it is interesting for NIMk to think about allowing this as well, at least when the artist agrees that his/her work (eventually in full length) can be embedded elsewhere.
Finally, many cultural institutions today are busy looking for new target groups elsewhere. This is interesting for NIMk as well: video art can play a role in many contexts, including on urban screens, in the context of healthcare, public transport and other moments when people are waiting, killing some time, or can benefit from visual content with added value. But it can also speak to very specific audiences: lately, a NIMk exhibition with sound art – in the context of the 2010 Sonic Acts festival in Amsterdam – triggered the attention of a group of otorhinolaryngologists; and a next exhibition about games and (public) space might speak to a diverse audience of geeks and gamers.
Lessons for an online media art catalogue
Concluding, what might be important and general principles to be included in NIMk’s online collection? The following guidelines also reflect my opinion on what are generally valuable ways to deal with online cultural heritage in general.
Cultural heritage needs context to thrive: the context of a collection, of a curated exhibition, of the story it is part of in art criticism, of the theme or development in society it responds to. It is a challenge to make it possible that this cultural heritage can be shown and seen in many appropriate contexts as well. The success of online video platforms is partly due to the fact that the videos can be embedded elsewhere; the videos are also discoverable because they are part of playlists or can be found through recommendations. For online collections of cultural heritage, it is interesting to think about ways to make the works as reusable as possible and allowed in current frameworks of copyright legislation. For NIMk, it might be good to allow embedding of items in the collection as much as possible, as mentioned above. We can learn from online video platforms like YouTube and Vimeo, and look at what is increasingly becoming common practice even for television broadcasters’ online video archives: NIMk’s collection can receive much more attention when (hopefully full-length) videos, with artists’ permission, can also be embedded elsewhere, especially in weblogs and on social networking services.
Does it make sense to see a collection as a separate entity in an art organization’s activities? For NIMk, the collection is part of almost all activities, and the history of the organization is intricately linked to it. Furthermore, from an end users’ perspective, research in the context of the Culture Vortex project has shown that many people don’t find the collection’s separate website – especially because it is called ‘catalogue’. And it is quite illogical that NIMk’s main search engine does not produce results from the collection at all – only from the general website. It is important to show connections to work in the collection as much as possible in an organization’s website, and to use a collection and/or archive in a lively way, as context for the present.
Networking and interoperability
Earlier in this article, I described the importance of developing special, temporary and sometimes exclusive (online) programs with online cultural heritage. A collection can be kept fresh and lively when it is temporarily connected to developments elsewhere; for NIMk, this can take the form of specific artist presentations and curated programs, about a variety of topics and in a variety of formats, probably with a scope that goes beyond NIMk’s core collection. While broadening its scope, NIMk can emphasize its unique role as a quality filter and a network hub. A collection of works is a vehicle for social networking; making the life of a collection visible shows its relevance in a broader context.
Furthermore, collections of cultural heritage are not islands. Between various collections, nationally and internationally, there are overlaps and also very interesting differences in interest and focus. Stronger networking between different resources and collections is a logical next step. For instance, it would be very useful when artworks in different collections are interlinked more strongly, or when it becomes possible to discover and research the oeuvre of single artists using information from many different collections at the same time.
Interoperability between online collections and archives has been on the agenda for quite some time already. The Semantic Web held the promise of decentralized, automatic, machine-generated connections between websites in similar domains; this vision has proven to be unrealistic. At this moment, several large-scale national and international projects provide interoperability between collections in a centralized way. The Europeana project is a good example of such an initiative. In 2008-2009, NIMk has participated in the GAMA project, a European gateway to archives of media art, which provided valuable lessons in making our collection available in an international context and in creating an international infrastructure for media art. It would be very beneficial for a healthy public domain and network culture in general if decentralized models of connecting online heritage would also take root. Microformats are slowly beginning to play a role here. Linked Data, a lightweight alternative to Semantic Web protocols, proposed by Tim Berners-Lee in 2009, is also an interesting development to follow.
The main conclusion I would like to draw at this point in time, has been mentioned a few times in this article: in a changing field of online video and the proliferation of user-generated content, art organizations and collections act as a (quality) filter, much-needed mediator, and a network hub. Although most organizations’ position may be very precarious and transitional in the current economic and political climate, we are at this moment the only agents who can guarantee that online cultural heritage, and especially media art and video art, will remain accessible in a sustainable and beneficial manner. Commercial and/or semi-illegal platforms like YouTube, Vimeo and Ubuweb and the domain of filesharing and piracy are at this moment also prominent providers of such heritage; but it is highly questionable whether their interests benefits artists and society at large; cultural institutions are better placed at balancing all these interests and providing a solid, long-term alternative.
Many art organizations are looking at today’s changing landscape of networked technologies, and inventorizing challenges and suitable strategies. So is NIMk. As an intermediary for media art, NIMk adopts a pragmatic attitude when dealing with tensions between openness, publicness, ethical choices and accessibility. In our choices for technical solutions, we are pragmatic without losing track of the ethically best solutions. In terms of content, we attempt to balance artists’ and the public interest. For makers, an important question at this moment deals with the new role of distribution and new business models: how to generate a sustainable income when artistic production, promotion and distribution go digital? For the public interest, a healthy, rich and qualitative public domain is at stake; it is beneficial for society in general, for education and research, when as much as possible high-quality cultural content is easily findable and discoverable, and preferably even available for free re-use and re-appropriation. NIMk defends both interests, which it actively tries to balance and reconcile, with a strong and prominent mission towards accessibility.
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