Conversation with CRUMB's Sarah Cook & Beryl Graham

The Curatorial Resource for Upstart Media Bliss—otherwise known as CRUMB—is the brainchild of Beryl Graham and Sarah Cook of the University of Sunderland. Since 2000 it has functioned as the defacto resource for all things related to new media curatorial practice. As they've spent so much time and energy soliciting the opinions of and supporting the key participants in the field, as well working on their own curatorial projects, on February 1st, 2006, Caitlin Jones telephoned Graham and Cook to talk about their own important contribution to the field, how CRUMB came to be, and the ups and downs of the new media curator.

Caitlin Jones: I have felt for a while that I really want to read an interview with the two of you. You both have done so much work interviewing everyone else, but you have also done a lot of curating work yourselves. Beryl, I know you curated the "Serious Games" exhibition at the Barbican and that got you thinking about the problems with curating new media. And Sarah, you've talked about your experiences at the Walker Art Center as your entre into these issues, but how did the CRUMB list and the CRUMB Web site come to be?

Beryl Graham: Curating "Serious Games" as a freelancer was a great experience, but it did nearly kill me, so I really wanted to help other curators to show this kind of work without the same growing pains. At the same time I was doing my PhD at the University of Sunderland concerning curating art—particularly about interaction with computer-based artworks in museums and galleries. After I finished my PhD the University kept me on and I set up a research center, very small—it was me and Sarah basically—with Sarah doing her own doctoral research about curating new media art. And after I raised the money from the Arts and Humanities Research Board, about 5000, we effectively started up the CRUMB Web site.

CJ: So, would you say it was your direct experiences in your own curating practice which brought you to this sense of—"we really need to talk about this in a broader forum?"

Sarah Cook: We wanted to talk about curating media art in a larger forum, and to make available the research we were undertaking. But moreover it was a result of conversations we had been having with other curators and other artists; there was a sense that the field as a whole needed somewhere to talk about this stuff, and a way to exchange information about the experience of curating new media art in different gallery and museum contexts.

CJ: Whom do you see as the core audience for CRUMB? Is it predominantly new media? Is there crossover from other fields?

BG: The discussion list subscribers, whom we know the most about, are about half British, half North American, with a few other European participants. And there's a lot of museum people as well as freelance curators, educators, and artists.

CJ: Has your audience gotten broader over the years? Do you have any way of gauging that?

BG: Well again, the discussion list now has over 600 people subscribed to it—and of course that started from zero. The Web site averages about 300 visits per day. But we work to personally involve people in the list—seeing people and telling them to go to the site, or actually inviting them to discuss things on the list—these are all things we do to broaden that audience.

SC: A lot of museum curators often don't have the time to participate regularly in a lot of mailing lists (they dip in and out, or they may join a particular list for a month while there's an interesting debate going on). What happens with the CRUMB list, because we change our topics regularly, is that we have people who dip in but then lurk and linger the rest of the time. And it doesn't preclude them from using the site when they need it.

CJ: Having been involved with the CRUMB list the last few years, one of the more interesting things to me is that it seems that there are a lot of artists on it, and that there is a discussion between curators and artists talking about curatorial issues—which is very important, and often very illuminating. Was that something that was originally intended?

SC: Well, what we often feel about curating media art is that you're in the trenches. Often you're having to catch up with the artists to see how the work is developing, but then you have to slow it down a bit to fit it into a gallery setting—to somehow make it static so it works in that context. I don't know if we anticipated that there would be so many artists involved, but we knew that without their voice it was going to be much harder to discuss what was going on in the field, and we would always be a step behind if they weren't there. And because so many of the features of new media art itself are "anti" what the institution stands for and so much of the curating of the work happens outside of the institution and so forth, it just seems natural that artists who often are curating their own projects would join up with us to discuss it. So I think it's a reflection of the field of new media art we're looking at.

CJ: I want to talk about the list and the themed discussions. We talk about this dichotomy between theory and practice, and increasingly I'm starting to think that I think it's an unhealthy distinction. One of the things I find most fascinating about the themed discussion list on CRUMB is that it fosters a dialogue that is both practical and theoretical. So when you are coming up with these themes, are you thinking of specific examples? Obviously it's much easier to ground a theoretical discussion in a practical context—looking at one exhibition, or looking at something like "mobility." Are your themes generated by things you've seen? Certain problems you have in your own practice?

BG: Well, my research was actually quite theoretical—I did my research in photography in the 1980s with Victor Burgin and he had a highly theorized approach and that has informed me. But the experience of doing a PhD demands a very practical approach, as you're trying to find new and useful knowledge that is going to be used by your peers. So I think that informed CRUMB at the start, but discussion lists are tricky because it's text and people tend to think you want theory. And there is the fact that the people who have the time to spend on discussion lists tend to be academics anyway. And also in Britain a lot of the curatorial programs are very theoretically based. So, although we both have a background in theory (Sarah has a philosophy degree, we can do the theory!)—and it's actually quite difficult to get people not to talk theory and to talk about their practice—I think it makes them more vulnerable if they talk about their actual practice.

CJ: Well, that's what's so interesting. I mean, theory's obviously useful, but what I admire is the way you guys consistently try to bring us back to talking about concrete issues. And you're right, every now and then it gets into this very theoretical discussion which is not uninteresting—quite the contrary—but I think that being moderated by the two of you who have this practical concern makes CRUMB unique and truly a useful resource for people.

SC: Why, thank you! I think also that you can have curators talking about mobile technology and what it's enabled and then the artist comes along and says, "Yeah, but it actually doesn't work that way. You can't actually get a signal to go from here to there, in that way." But just to go back a bit to pedantry and how we pick the themes and organize them, in some ways they're very event-driven. CRUMB is in part a social network and it works best if you invite people and ask them to participate—you have to get them to feel "what's in it for them" and what their interests are and what they're working on right now. And so often we'll tie it in to an event and or a workshop and who we know is going to be there. So we know they're going to want to talk about it after the event has taken place, to continue the discussion.

CJ: Right-like with what happened with the REFRESH conference. That sort of spontaneously happened. Well, you led it, but it was directly generated out of that conference.

SC: We try to leave it open enough so that we can look at the calendar and say, "Okay, we know that's coming up." Or one of our colleagues might be working on an exhibition about, for example, activist practices in the case of Ele Carpenter, which might lead to a discussion of activism in media-based art practice. One way in which we schedule it is to leave room for the "Hey I just saw this and what do you think about it" kind of spontaneous discussion. We've always been open to other people proposing the themes of the month, especially if they have something that has been nagging at them.

CJ: This brings me to the interviews. Until now and the launch of the new database-driven site, the Web site was broken up into a small number of sections (each with its own meaty content): the discussion list, the section of technical details which included all the links to other helpful resources for a curator, and bibliographies for students of new media curatorial practice, documentation of the seminars workshops, and then the interviews—which are really fascinating. One of the things that sort of strikes me when I look at this list of interviews now is that they were all done when new media art was jumping into the art scene and making a big splash—they're all from 2000 to 2002. Now that the shine has come off and the institutions are waning in their support for new media art, do you guys see doing a new slate of interviews of more "roving" curators-like Sarah, you yourself, or Steve Dietz-who don't have institutional homes per se, but are active still on an international scene and well-supported on a certain level? It seems to me that new media curating has changed over the past few years, in that people don't assume that there is going to be a place for them in the institution. How does CRUMB's content reflect this?

SC: The interviews really were cornerstones for the launch of the CRUMB Web site and in some ways fitted into my doctoral research on the place of new media art in the mixed-media museum, which looked at that particular timeframe [1]. I agree that it was a really interesting moment when museums were grabbing onto new media art, but I should say that we do have a backlog of interviews that we're working on putting online that have a different focus. The other thing that we've done in between then and now is the seminars, which have been about charting the progress of new media art in relation to the museum, and which sought to get the word from artists about how they felt about being institutionalized or not, as it were. I think that the "roving" curator is an interesting construct to think about and Iliyana Nedkova in her paper at the BALTIC Curating New Media seminar talked explicitly about what it was to be international, working across boundaries, to be a placeless curator-she really was quite strong on the point of "this is nice if we can all be feeding the various filters, but it's not so nice when we're thought of as outsourced labor." Her talk is a real warning against that model of curatorial practice. So you're right to point out that it's one that we're working out in our heads and still trying to find good models for-and that's the hard thing: that there are very few role models for curators working in this way.

BG: The history of new media has really been a roller-coaster I think, and there's been a certain amount of press hysteria about it. I wrote a report on 010101, and at the Whitney there was Data Dynamics and BitStreams, so there was this sense of the growing of a field. But in retrospect it was a bunch of blockbusters and then this sort of crash since-it's been up and then down. Steve Dietz has made a great list about the problems of new media—one of his binaries is "The problem with is that it's old hat. The problem with is that it's too new." It has slightly gone out of fashion without ever really being critically dealt with. The big blockbuster shows came out, but there wasn't any sense that people understood the work—despite lots of quantity of press attention, there wasn't really the quality of criticism.

CJ: Although—and this is just an aside—I was talking to Alex Galloway the other day and PaceWildenstein, one of our biggest and most traditional Chelsea galleries, is doing a "games" show in December '05, with Alex and Cory Arcangel and Eddo Stern and JODI—in this extremely commercial space. I'm not sure whether I think that new media being accepted by Chelsea art galleries is a good measure of success but I think it's interesting that now, five years after the time, this pretty heavy-hitting gallery has decided they're going to present this work as commercial work.

BG: Liane Davison, from the Surrey Art Gallery in Vancouver, is one of the new CRUMB interviews, and is somebody who has plugged along and programmed new media alongside a mixed program in a medium-sized publicly-funded gallery. I think that is where some of the serious development work is going on. Which may not be these blockbuster shows—but I think it's progressing.

SC: I guess if I were to think about the way in which the interviews have changed over time is that while then we were looking at particular shows and the way in which they had been organized, now I think we're looking at different types of galleries (nonprofit, labs, workshops) and looking at individual curators within those places, and how have they been able to make it work.

CJ: This leads into my next question, which is maybe more theoretical. But both of you and Steve Dietz have talked a lot about how new media curation, and the process of new media curating, has the potential to change a more general curatorial discourse. It seems to me there is this closer relationship, by necessity, between artist and curator than there is in the rest of the contemporary art scene. Do you think that new media practice necessitates this relationship more than other contemporary art practice?

BG: I think that curating new media art does demand more collaboration, more group work in production and exhibition, and more blurring of boundaries. There's a growing hybridity in terms of roles, but I'm not sure the blurring of the role of artist/curator is specific to new media. Crossover and collaboration in museums—between the curatorial, technical, and marketing departments, for instance, such as in terms of the Web presence of an exhibition—is becoming a necessity. And yet these are quite strongly defended boundaries in the institution, as Matthew Gansallo found out at the Tate.

SC: As to the question of whether curating media art is "just like other curating but different," I think that what has happened is that the field of media art is networked, and everyone is participating in that network, the social and the actual technological network, and there's a certain amount of openness (interoperability) and so it's just forcing us to talk about our curatorial practices more openly. That's how I think curating new media has changed the way we think about curatorial practice in general. Traditionally, curating practice has been a quite closed academic endeavor; peoples' research only becomes public when the show opens and when the book is published. With media art and networked technologies, all of those stages happen more quickly and going public happens earlier in the process.

CJ: It also seems like, to a certain extent, with these networks and these lists, that work is put up for criticism at an earlier stage in the game—and therefore curatorial practice as an extension of that. Things are talked through and debated before they're ever seen in a gallery space.

SC: Exactly.

BG: There have been examples online also—Barbara London's early research trip, the one called "Stir-Fry" where she put on the Web a lot of her research from trips abroad, and her institution wasn't particularly pleased with that happening.

SC: But neither were the net artists, in fact when she presented that at Banff, at a conference on curatorial practice in 1998, many of the artists who were there said, "Well, if curators are going to be able to go out and travel around and pick up work they're finding and put it on the Web, then what are we here for?" I think that's a really interesting example, and definitely why we wanted to talk to Barbara London again, about it—coming out of a major art institution.

CJ: Especially an institution like MoMA which tends to be very traditional in the way it presents artworks and which hasn't shown very much interest in Internet art at all. Has such an intense inward focus on the process affected your own curatorial practice? Sarah, you're actively out there curating; with such a focus on how to curate and this constant inward looking—does that have a positive effect on your practice?

SC: It's paralyzing! [laughter]

CJ: You're too deep into it?

SC: No, but if anything it's made me more open about the process of curating and it has made me more transparent, to use one of those corporate, blah terms. When Steve and I were curating "The Art Formerly Known as New Media," we put all our installation photos up on flickr and almost got told off out of a concern that it would be infringing upon contractual agreements with the artists about official photography and dissemination of images of their work. So on the one hand it's made me much more open, and on the other it's made me really ask, "Why do I continue to curate new media in these older institutions which are really traditional in their methods?"

CJ: In your interview with Christiane Paul, of the Whitney, one of the things she brings up is about institutions and galleries being unprepared in a physical sense to deal with new media art shows. I was just thinking the other day about the "Seeing Double" show we did at the Guggenheim and that we couldn't actually show online artworks because we didn't have in our budget to get wireless or data lines to the gallery we had available to us. Do you think these practical concerns are getting easier for curators? Or do you, in your own practice, still need to plan really far ahead to make sure these basic concerns are taken care of?

SC: On one hand, there are instances where, yes, it is getting easier, but that's in the galleries that have been fighting the good fight for a long time. For instance Steve and I curating "The Art Formerly Known as New Media" at the Banff Center—it was the second show we've done together at Banff (which is one of the most heavily resourced gallery spaces on the planet anyway) but it felt like a real privilege to actually think about curating the show as opposed to how we were technically going to make it work—to actually think about curating and not just troubleshooting. But on the other hand, it still feels like every day Beryl and I—or the CRUMB list itself—gets emails from people asking things such as, "My gallery really wants me to go ahead and curate projects for the Web site, but the servers are controlled by the city library—how do I work around that?" We get those questions all the time, so I think for sure a lot of that still exists. On a related note, I've just been editing an interview I did with Jeffrey Shaw before he left the ZKM (Zentrum fr Kunst und Medientechnologie) in Karlsruhe, and we were talking about CAVE (computer assisted virtual environment) technology and I was saying to him that a CAVE was in the original plans to develop the BALTIC flour mill site into a contemporary art center, and the curatorial decision to not buy that piece of equipment in the end was a more theoretical/programming decision-the curator said "a) I haven't seen much [good] art made in a CAVE, and b) here's a hemispherium down the street in Teeside-do we need a CAVE when there is a similar virtual environment 50 miles away?" Instead they could choose to complement the resources in the region by offering different technologies for artists to play with. Jeffrey said the ZKM had decided not to get a CAVE because it would take a full-time technician to maintain it. So we had a curatorial/programming decision not to put it in at BALTIC and they had a technical/practical one not to put it in at ZKM.

CJ: Another huge issue for a lot of institutions is technical staff. We have IT people, and we may be lucky to have technicians, but they're usually very highly paid members of the installation staff and you can't have them on call 24 hours a day, and there's often not other support staff that are able to deal with problems that arise. I mean, I'd hope that this is changing because I think as digital technologies become more prevalent it's getting easier to find people who have technical knowledge and skills. But we're looking at doing this major project here at the Guggenheim in 2007, and not including the staff it will take to get it installed, it's going to take at least two full time people every day that the show is running just to deal with monitors, projectors-these are huge issues for institutions large and small.

BG: I would agree that it is often the structure of the institutions themselves, rather than the technology, that is the problem. Sometimes we have the systems, but there's no one there to make the system work, and British institutions tend to undervalue technical staff. CRUMB is publishing online technical guides written with a technician, designed to help people with very basic problems. Just having that knowledge in a publication will help.

SC: Including wonderful drawings that help you tell a SCART cable from a mini-jack plug! Because when you go to install media art shows people still ask, "What's a SCART cable? What does a VGA output cable look like?" And it's always good to know that stuff.

CJ: In the interviews you talk about documentation of exhibitions—and I think this is a really important part of the discussion. I was wondering if you had done a discussion of it or if there was a plan to? Or do you foresee publishing guidelines for documenting an exhibition? Because I actually think that would be very useful to a lot of people. Not just taking installation photos but drawing schematics and writing down throw distances, and network speeds, and these kinds of things.

BG: We aren't trained archivists, but we link to resources on this from CRUMB, and we got very interested in taxonomies when developing the keywords list for the new CRUMB Web site database [2]. I agree, it's the installation side that doesn't seem to get documented—what we end up with is the exhibition catalogue so there's no pictures of what something looked like in the gallery. Even things like installation shots from "Cybernetic Serendipity" (the 1969 show at the ICA London) were very different from the theory of that show—and could challenge the reading, or what has become the mythology, of that show.

SC: Just a little PS there though—Jasia Reichardt was at the REFRESH conference and art historians were throwing up slides of Cybernetic Serendipity and theorizing whole networked relationships based on these slides and Jasia kept putting her hand up and saying, "No—it wasn't like that at all!" Art historians have a knack for over-analyzing exhibition slides of old exhibitions!

CJ: I don't know if you've seen it but there is an amazing exhibition catalogue of the work of Eija-Liisa Ahtila and I don't know where it's from, but there are essays, transcripts and photos, but there are also installation diagrams that include things like throw distances, where the projectors were set up, what were the dimensions of the installations, what equipment was used. To me, given my interests in documentation, for historical purposes it's going to be an amazing resource, because, you know—who knows how technology is going to change? Who knows how projectors will work?

SC: To answer your original question, I don't think we've had a themed discussion of the month about documenting exhibitions specifically [3], but it's a good idea and we should do so. We've been working within our own teams, just trying to document the exhibitions we've curated and organized before we get to the bigger picture of documenting other people's exhibitions. But we have been doing case studies, like Beryl's case study of "010101." Installing my own show "Database Imaginary" (co-curated with Steve Dietz and Anthony Kiendl) just a couple of weeks ago at the Blackwood Gallery in Toronto I realized that I had written, with the artists, a manual about how to maintain the show once it was up (I wrote that when it was in Banff, which was its first venue)—how to troubleshoot the work it if it crashes, etc.—but there was no manual on how to install the show. Because the three of us had worked on it together at Banff and some of the artists had been there to install it themselves, I knew how to troubleshoot, but I didn't know how to set it all up in a different space with different computers and a different network. If you're touring a show and it's not all plug and play, then absolutely you need some kind of manual or guidelines. And that's something that never makes it to the catalogue. For "Database Imaginary" we had up on the Web site behind-the-scenes photographs of the installation process, and we felt like we were really breaking a rule of curatorial practice—God forbid someone should see what a work looks like before a show opens. But it made us realize just how important that level of information is. As far as CRUMB as a whole is concerned, we are thinking of documentation practices for our own shows and we have been collecting in a very folksonomy kind of way installation photos of net-based art projects and curator-designed interfaces to show Web-based art. But right now we may as well have it on flickr, it's simply a growing image collection that's loosely tagged. We haven't, as you've suggested, written up guidelines for how to document a show.

CJ: Well, you know, V2 did that amazing project "Capturing Unstable Media" where they specifically talk about documentation and they really captured, mostly textually, how to capture relationships betweens various components, how the user is supposed to interact—it's a very dense document, but has I think a lot of very useful information in it.

SC: A lot of people, when they document a show, they take slides—and they even take film 5x3 transparencies—I mean, what use is that? What I want is a video walkthrough, I want a QuickTime—that's not hard to do. It should be something in the default mode for a curator documenting an exhibition.

CJ: This really comes up in the conservation issues too—and that's something we talked about a lot during the emulation show. Which is, when you're looking at these early media works, what's really missing is moving images, interviews with people who actually used these things. Like, how was your experience? And we don't have that at all—we have still images. Nothing that tells us how the piece was used. As conservators are starting to realize that this is becoming a necessity, they're starting to use this for preservation practice—videotaping people using an artwork is becoming as valuable as listing the components of that artwork.

BG: That sounds great. Because I do have a particular interest in interactive work as that was what my PhD was about—how do people interact with media art works in museums and galleries? You don't get that at all in an empty installation shot.

CJ: The need has been recognized and now that we're having to deal with the conservation of these works, with 20 years behind us, we're asking, "What is it that we're missing?" and that's the number one thing people say.

SC: The documentation issue also has some serious implications in regards to how art history gets written, too, because I know of cases which barely had institutional legitimization in the first place which are increasingly being lost. For instance, if you've got an adjunct curator working outside the institution commissioning a work that's there for a short period of time and then you get a new curator or the department(s) get(s) shuffled and the adjunct curator is no longer there, who maintains the Web site and the projects that were commissioned? So unless you've got documentation both within the curator's own practice and the institution history—that bit gets written out of art history completely. And the truth is often that the more interesting new media projects that have happened in institutions have happened as a result of the efforts of more maverick curators, or were co-productions where you've got "office-based" institutions who partner up with more traditional institutions for a short period of time—and the documentation stays with the "office-based" space, and not with the institutional history—and that's not telling a fair story. It has happened here with BALTIC, where they worked with a group called Amino, which is an office-based organization. Amino organized a residency hosted by BALTIC with an artist group called white plains, who did an interactive light and sound installation, which was on view for two and a half weeks in one of the gallery spaces at BALTIC. The audience and the crew all say it was one of the greatest shows to have happened there—crew members repeatedly had people coming up to them after the show closed, asking "Where is it?" (It was kind of our equivalent of the Olafur Eilasson sun that was in the Tate Modern. It was that kind of immersive space.) Yet because that was organized outside BALTIC by Amino it no longer seems to reside as part of BALTIC's exhibition history. It's the same with performance art histories, or film screening histories. That kind of curatorial programming is subject to a different time scale than the traditional group show or retrospective exhibition—so they're subject to different levels of documentation within an institution's history. But when it's not yet historic, we're missing the opportunity to give future art historians a chance to even write it into history!

CJ: But I wonder if that will change a bit depending on who's writing the history. I guess we're playing a part in writing it now, but the history of media art practice already resides in the networks that exist outside of major institutions anyway. I understand the need to have institutional acceptance to make sure this work is seen—and in another interview you did you've brought up the excellent example of British video art that has been ignored, and UK and Europeans are forced to look at American and German video artists as the canon. But I feel like the people who would write these new media histories would look to places like CRUMB or nettime and write the history from those places, as opposed to going to the Whitney and looking at BitStreams for the history of new media art.

SC: Yeah, I think they will, and it's actually something I feel quite schizophrenic about with us and CRUMB-how by what we're selecting to interview people about or preserve in a discussion we are shaping that history ourselves. Are we pointing to the obvious things? How can we point to the not-so-obvious things without alienating those mainstream curators who we hope have found us because they're interested and feel CRUMB is accessible to them? One other aspect of CRUMB which is something we've been thinking about is almost like having a "consultancy" wing, to write reports and feasibility studies, because we have so many master's students doing theses about "Net Art and the Institution" and "media and museums" writing to us and asking the same set of questions. It makes us think that if everyone wants answers to these questions maybe we can facilitate things even more than we do already.

CJ: It's reassuring to hear that there is a whole spate of younger scholars.

SC: And the interesting ones are those that are neither artists nor curators, which really surprises me!

CJ: Well, I think it shows that it's taking a hold, because we do spend a lot of time worrying about what's going to happen to this history. Hopefully, in the way that you guys articulated it in your exhibition "The Art Formerly Known as New Media," people are looking at new media art as a part of a larger contemporary art practice. I mean, maybe I'm being too rosy but sort of feel like it will happen.


1. Cook, Sarah (2004) The search for a third way of curating new media art: Balancing content and context in and out of the institution. PhD thesis: University of Sunderland.

2. The CRUMB discussion list had a very successful theme on taxonomy in September 2004. Other publications concerning this include:

  • Graham, Beryl (2005) "Taxonomies of new media art: Real world namings." In: J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.) Museums and the Web 2005: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Available from URL:
  • Graham, Beryl (forthcoming 2005) "Redefining digital art: Disrupting borders." In: Sarah Kenderdine (ed.) Theorizing Digital Cultural Heritage. Cambridge: MIT.

3. Theme of the Month in February 2005 was Conserving New Media Art, and April 2005 was Curating Education 2 / Documentation.