Conversation with Rhizome
Rhizome is an online platform for the global new media art community. Rhizome programs support the creation, presentation, discussion and preservation of contemporary art that uses new technologies in significant ways. The following conversation between Rhizome's Lauren Cornell, Marisa Olson, and Francis Hwang, occurred on January 3, 2006 with Caitlin Jones and Galen Joseph-Hunter.
See Also: Rhizome Case Study.

Caitlin Jones: There were three reasons why I wanted to interview you all at Rhizome: 1. There are really interesting parallels between Rhizome and EAI as organizations that support emerging mediums, 2. Rhizome's 10-year anniversary is coming up, and 3. I thought it would be useful to approach the practical issues of distribution and exhibition of computer based artworks within the broader context of Rhizome's activities. Rhizome is a number of things: a discussion list, a major info resource, a virtual exhibition space and also a physical exhibition space (in collaboration with the New Museum). With the ArtBase you're a collecting institution, and you're a commissioning institution. So you really are engaged in the practical issues the Resource Guide is attempting to address, on almost every single level.

So maybe we just start with the top and talk about these discussion lists - can you explain how they function and their history?

Lauren Cornell: Let me start off with a little context. Mark Tribe founded Rhizome, which started out as a mailing list in 1996. Like Nettime or The Thing, it was used by some of the first artists who were making work online, it was a very intimate group at that time, and a very international one. They shared ideas, presented projects and generally hashed out what was then, and still is now, a very new medium. The interpretation of art in light of technological advances, and that spirit of exploration, debate, and a very global and diverse kind of community is still at the heart of Rhizome today. A question we deal with now is how to maintain and encourage online discussion in light of how the internet, and online communication, has changed.

Francis Hwang: One of the interesting missions of Rhizome is to take the world of technology in the form of an online community and graft it, or see where there are connections to the more "traditional" world of contemporary art. A world that has been quite slow to adapt to email, blogs, web pages, etc.

Email lists took a very long time for people in the art world to be familiar with and people are still reluctant to move along, which isn't a good thing or a bad thing, it is just that different communities have different characteristics and are interested in relating to technology in different ways.

One thing we've done a lot in the last couple years is add RSS feeds. The main difference between email and RSS feeds is that RSS feeds are more a "pull model", where you get info if you want it, whereas email list tends to more of a "push model", more of a fire hose. The idea behind RSS it is that you can pick and choose, its easier for you subscribe and unsubscribe and divide your community of interests into smaller and smaller groups.

Marisa Olson: If I could just add to that - I think another thing that's kind of always been interesting about the Rhizome lists and especially the Rhizome Raw list is that it is a forum for discussion of art practices that has grown out of communication technologies, but at the same time it sort of become its own platform for communication art. In a sense the list has really been a venue for communication based art practices, people send messages or having discussions which are really part of the art practice, which I've always found really interesting.

LC: That's a really good point Marisa. Let me explain a bit more. We have our unfilitered mailing list RAW. Our Site Editors, an international group or artists, academics, and so on, select what they find to be the most relevant announcements and comments from RAW into a list called RARE. When Francis designed the reBlog, he designed it so that RARE posts would automatically get reBlogged - creating a link between our mailing lists and the content we re-publish from other blogs.

CJ: Can you talk about the switch over to this reBlog format?

FH: Part of what's changed about Rhizome is that we used to be a gigantic fish in extremely small pond, and now we're a pretty big fish in a much bigger pond. Which overall is great for new media arts, and great for the whole scene, but it means that the way we relate to the rest of the internet changes. There's a lot of people now, smaller arts organizations, bigger arts organizations, individual artists, curators, who have their own blogs, and they're all pointing to different things. So one of the main purposes of the reBlog is to keep figuring out ways that Rhizome integrates with this broader discourse. The killer feature of the reBlog is that you're sucking in all these feeds from other people like "we make money not art" , and "boing boing." reBlog is a technical project made by Eyebeam and Stamen, and the whole point of it is to make the republishing process really easy, so in that sense the front page of Rhizome reflects, in a broader sense, what's happening in the entire community.

Galen Joseph-Hunter: Could you address the content of these lists? I know Marisa spoke to some using them as a basis for communication art, but are there practical issues being batted about that might help to inform some of the the Resource Guide readers? For example, are artists talking about the challenges around the exhibition and collection of this work?

MO: I think the thing that's been great about Rhizome is that it provided this space for people to talk more seriously about new media art, about their own practice, and be able to take it more seriously. But then of course there became this question about how the art world at large views new media art. There aren't so many discussions about how to best mount an installation, but I think there are semi-technical discussions in terms of the reception of the work, which is always really interesting.

FH: I think it is safe to say that a lot of the discussion on RAW is still very artist-centric, and although there isn't a ton of technical discussion, they do pop up from time to time and they tend to be from an artists point of view. Like, "I want to exhibit this thing using this kind of projector, what kinds of projectors are good, what doesn't cost too much, what's reliable?" There's a lot of pretty knowledgeable feedback they get from other artists who have tried other things.

MO: And I think there's a really great feeling of generosity among list members in terms of really wanting to share information with each other and support each other. It's a strange environment in that it could be really easy for people to feel kind of competitive for limited resources. Even though people like rant and rave on discussion lists it's always been a generous community.

CJ: This came up in my discussion with Sarah Cook and Beryl Graham from CRUMB, and this idea of openness in regards to process as a difference between new media art world and the rest of the contemporary art field. There's been a serious critique of these works occuring since all of their inceptions. An artist has an idea for an artwork, they put it out there on Rhizome or wherever, where they're forced to defend their artwork - often before its finished. Its different from the art world model which is like things are kept quiet and secretive until the curtain comes up and then voila there's this artwork!

LC: To say it would be more collaborative would be very true.

FH: It's less about broadcast and more about conversation. Being attached to the New Museum, the process has been interesting to watch. In a traditional museum, you've got a catalog that takes months to get it out the door - you've got to edit it, lay it out, the images and everything have to be cleared, and then you put it out and its this beautiful glossy heavy book. This is completely the opposite of what Rhizome does - you send an email every day, you're blogging and people write back and you've got typos, or you say something wrong and maybe you say too much and you have to apologize the next day. It's a completely different way to relate to other people.

MO: That kind of comes back the idea of communication media, as it relates to the artists' process. It's about processing. MTAA is a good example, I don't think that there is a distinction between the communication that goes on in their blog about what they're working on or what's coming up and what they are actually making.

CJ: Can we move from here to Rhizome's function as an exhibition space? Particularly the show "ArtBase101"?

LC: I organized it with Rachel Greene, the former Director of Rhizome, and also Kevin McGarry, Rhizome's former content coordinator, contributed a lot of great ideas to it as well. We didn't want it to a chronological retrospective, so instead we chose ten relevant themes, for example, 'E-Commerce,' 'Net Cinema,' 'Dirtstyle', etc.

When we were coming up with the idea for the installation there were a couple of big challenges that were on my mind. The first is the question "well why does this work have to be in a gallery?" - which is a question continually brought to exhibitions of new media and internet art . The other issue to grapple with is people's fear of new media, their fear that they wont get it or that its over their head. So, we wanted to design an installation that was compelling, and also organized a lot of information in a way that was straightforward and accessible, that catered to different levels of familiarity with the field.

We installed all 40 works on computers around their particular themes with a description of each one, and instructions for how to navigate it. Wherever the works had a physical component, we tried to also install them in the gallery space. So, the exhibition included 5 terminals, and also moving image, photography, installation and sculpture. In a sense, a goal of the show was to demonstrate how internet-based art was only ten years old but already a very robust practice that encompasses works that use the internet, and related technologies, and also works that reflect on these tools or on a technology-based culture. This was the rationale behind choosing the big, colorful, moving piece by Paper Rad, Marisa's iPod piece and the MTAA piece.

GJH: Lauren, would you talk a bit more about your process and how closely you were worked with each artist? One of the goals of the Resource Guide project is to demystify the exhibition process for those who aren't familiar with these kinds of works.

LC: In a way this process was unique because when artists enter their work into the ArtBase, they sign a contract in which they agree to having their work promoted or exhibited in ArtBase related shows. So permission and access was already there. And all, except for Shu Lea Cheang's, had been upkept, so that made the fact that the show had to be organized in a very short time frame a lot easier. We had to work specifically with each artist going over the details of their project. We were also fortunate because the New Museum has is very committed to new media, and they have excellent resources and a knowledge of how to install it Their staff is very prepared to deal with these kinds of projects and made sure the projects were accessible and the different applications worked - throughout the three month run. This was really quite a feat in itself.

GJH: Did you find that artists were customizing and perhaps reinterpreting their works for installation based on the specific environment of the New Museum space?

LC: On a non-practical side, it seems important to note that a lot of the artists were very excited to be in the show, and they were quite willing to try something new, or take a risk and put extra energy into their projects. I think this reflects the fact that shows of new media still do not so frequently happen in museum spaces, so many of the artists were enthusiastic about working in this context.

CJ: Maybe this is a good time to segue into talking about the ArtBase , because we've brought it up a couple times without really talking about what it is, Francis maybe you can give a brief history?

FH: Rhizome was started just as an email list in '96 - the website comes a couple of years after that, and about the same time the ArtBase. One of the things that Mark Tribe, who is the founder of Rhizome, was noticing is that some work in net art would basically disappear, because you'd have artists who didn't have a lot of money putting something on the web hosting, and a year later would get sick of it, or leave town, or who knows what else, and art would basically cease to exist. One of the difficult things about a form that is this non-material is that since there is very little collector's market, you can't count on the private sector to preserve anything. And since there are very few collecting institutions, you can't count on the public sector, either. So, the ArtBase was built first and foremost with the aim of preservation.

There's a pretty extensive process where basically the artist submits their name and the name of the work and their own description of it, and there's a back and forth with the artist and the ArtBase coordinator, right now its Marisa. They make them submit a lot of info about the work: what technologies did you use, your artists statement, metadata to make it easier to search in the future. Artworks can be either linked or cloned. Link is basically a hypertext link, which means that we index the work, and we point to it from Rhizome but we don't own a copy of the work. A clone is actually a digital copy - I believe about a quarter of our works are cloned.

GJH: Have you/Do you monitor whether those that are just linked remain active?

FH: We don't, actually. Sometimes people notify us, but we've never done anything really comprehensive to stay up with that. A lot of things you think you might want to automate or solve with a technical solution don't work very well in contemporary art because so many things are about breaking rules. Like, you might actually might legitimately have artwork that's all 404's Éso you can't actually have a spider that goes out and looks for files because those files aren't there and there supposed to be there, it's not broken, it's just art.

CJ: We had a problem this year related to the ArtBase 101 show with the work Lauren mentioned - Shu Lea Cheang's "Brandon" . Originally commissioned by the Guggenheim, but never formally accessioned. It was also a linked object in Rhizome ArtBase. It was one of these works that everyone else thought someone else was responsible for, and the work actually disappeared. It was slated to be shown in Rhizome's show and also another show curated by Sarah Cook and Steve Dietz "The Art Formerly Known as New Media" at the Banff Center. With Francis' help, under the auspices of the Variable Media Network, and the help of the artist we managed to cobble the original piece back together.

FH: And that process was pretty labor intensive. We get asked all the time, 'how are we going to preserve these,' 'how are we going to keep them up to date,' and I think the economics of it dictate that you accession the work, you document it as heavily as you can, and then you just don't touch it, because a lot of these works you may not actually have to exhibit. If the Guggenheim or Rhizome or anyone had constantly been trying to keep everything up to date it would be an overwhelming burden.

GJH: What are the questions you asking when these works are being taken in, or is it more metadata, and keywords?

MO: Our criteria does include questions about the relevance of the work and its contribution to the field and that type of thing.

LC: The ArtBase is growing really rapidly, we have over 1700 works right now, and we're just beginning this project to overhaul our metadata.

FH: It's a pretty non-restrictive agreement, keeping in mind that we're talking about taking copies of their art and not giving them money for it. It's a pretty basic agreement and it doesn't put any stipulations that are binding that far into the future. Certainly the ArtBase is a very broad project and it runs into the economics, so we do what's practical.

CJ: How active is your commissioning program?

LC: Our commissions program is very important . Rhizome is one of a handful of organizations that gives grants to internet-based art, and the projects we fund tend to go on to have long lives. It is growing - last year we gave out more commissions than in any previous year.

GJH: What are the ownership parameters around the commissioned projects?

LC: They work in the same way as the ArtBase.

FH: I believe the commission agreement says that we have the right to exhibit it and store a copy of it forever, basically, the only thing that is on top of the standard ArtBase agreement which is 'we give you this money so this is what we get'. And then also the standard "if you exhibit this somewhere else our name has to be involved."

MO: Both with the ArtBase and with commissions the notion of collecting and commissioning is really different from the way you'd use those terms in a museum. I think the whole idea that we're not so much the proprietor, but really help people continue making work and help provide the field with a space for researching and contextualizing it.

GJH: Do you address the acquisition process in any of these programs? Are you called upon by institutions for advice regarding collection of new media work or by artists that don't know how to sell their work? Rhizome is an important voice in the field, as such, do you feel the responsibility to create standards that address these questions?

MO: I don't think that Rhizome has been extensively involved in those kinds of discussions, we know that they are important and we want to be a apart of them, and I think that each of us gets called on as individuals from people who are asking us to offer advice. That said I don't think that at this point people are necessarily looking at Rhizome as having all the answers to those questions.

LC: The ArtBase is a unique collection, it is a very valuable resource for those learning about the field. But it is not a static thing, it is not a room full of objects. The fact that it is online, and the tools and applications employed are constantly changing, requires us to constantly evaluate our preservation standards. Like I mentioned before, now we are concerned specifically with this Metadata project.

CJ: We should mention too that in almost every organization dealing with the presentation or preservation of video and new media, the whole metadata topic is huge ball of wax. Every institution is recognizing the need for these types of structures. There's a real synergy and hopefully people will be communicating so that won't happen.

FH: Outside of Rhizome, in the world of social software, people are utilizing "folksonomy," which is basically tight bottom-up tagging, like in and flickr. Those projects are pretty much a nightmare from a standard archival, curatorial point-of-view in that there's no categorization, there is a tremendous amount of redundancy, and terms mean too many things, but they're cheap - free in fact, people tag their own things, and you don't have to pay them anything to do it. If we are talking about these more hierarchical standard structures that make sense for institutions, there is also this thing outside that we have to answer to.

CJ: That's a really good point Francis, I mean it's a fascinating project for you guys and I think maybe something that maybe this resource guide could link to at a later point. Also, I know that CRUMB is working also on whole issues of taxonomy in their lists, also V2 in Rotterdam has just embarked on a huge project looking at metadata and folksonomy models.

LC: We're hoping our project will open up the process of metatdata creation (should it be controlled vocabulary or folksonomy or both) to our community, and also to those who've worked with archiving digital art.

CJ: Then this leads me into my next question about the Rhizome community. Can you talk a little bit about the membership issues, and the fee structure, and how this has changed over time.

FH: Ultimately it comes down to the fact that if you want to have an arts organization that lives for a long time and has a devoted staff that doesn't get burned out, you need to pay them salaries, you need to have an office, and you need to pay for hosting services and all that stuff.

Rhizome for most of its life has not been attached to a larger organization, and even though now we're affiliated with the New Museum, which is a great help in lots on non-monetary ways, we're still on our own financially. I started working at Rhizome in 2002, and at the end of 2002 finances were looking bad enough that we were exploring different kinds of membership fees. Eventually in January 2003 we implemented the "5 dollar policy," which was, to use Rhizome - to read anything in it, to post any discussions to look at the artworks in the ArtBase, to submit artworks in the ArtBase - you had to donate $5 a year. There were little exceptions - Fridays were free, there was a grace period, you could sign up and you could have total free access to the site for about 30 days but that is the policy that we pursued until may of 2005.

We found that, from an operational point-of-view, it didn't work so well, because a $5 line is right in the wrong place, it's just enough that people who are turned off by having a donation requirement at all just don't come but not enough to even cover transaction costs (dealing with payments and if you've got to have charge backs and if someone sends in a check, etc). From a discourse point-of-view it was a problem because it was cutting us off from the entire web, because no one can link to you, so you sort of start to cease to exist. The NYTimes and Salo have similar models.

Now the rule is, anyone can view content for free and post content for free as long as the content is a year old or less. So you can see the last year of activity on the entire site without donating or logging in or giving us an email address or anything. And then if you want to get access to the entire archives, we ask for a donation of $25.

LC: We anticipated an immediate drop in revenue from membership in exchange for a broadening of our base of users, which would eventually lead to a larger pool of members. There was not a drop in revenue at all, and our traffic has been increasingly gradually, so its positive, but also transitional.

FH: Website activity is pretty much up on every metric, paid visits are up people are starting to link to us again. Now, if you want to start asking the broader sort of political, ethical, theoretical questions about access, then it's hard to say, and I don't know if the people in this room are the best people to comment on that.

CJ: If you want to think about it in black and white terms I guess I feel the internet should be free 100% all the time, but there are shades of gray in there too and if people are providing a service for youÉ I mean part of my routine as a museum curator is to pay for catalogs I pay for journals, why wouldn't I pay for access to the ArtBase?

FH: Again, it has a lot to do with people's attitudes about the internet. Nobody would assume that a museum never has to ask for money, or charge admission.

It's also a question of in terms of access, we can give a year for free or if you want it all to be free, we would basically shut down and give nothing. So I think that is sort of the hard reality of it.

GJH: I keep thinking about our discussions in the context of EAI. The distribution of works in the EAI collection seem to occupy a middle-ground between the open-source mentality of net-based work and the limited edition model of new media installation. While the works in EAI's collection are uneditioned, they are still distributed, at least for now, on a physical video format, which enables use to maintain some control. It is through the rentals and sales of this work that we are able to provide artists with royalties. In addition to public access to the EAI Collection, this kind of artist support is fundamental to EAI's mission. Would you say that for Rhizome, because there is not a distribution model that involves rental fees, that your service to new media artists is most rooted and exposing this work to public audiences? Is Rhizome looking towards a model that would result in artists' royalties?

FH: EAI may have to think about these policies. Bit Torrent and video iPods and things like this, people's expectations regarding whether you pay for a movie or not. The whole idea of getting online content and getting it paid for is not something that really anybody has solved in a concrete way. Outside of the art world, there are all these journalist looking how to make a living with a thing like Slate, record labels and independent musicians? Some of them do okay and some of they don't. When everything can be copied, it kind of inverts the value proposition in this way that has us all kind of confused and it might not be settled for a couple of decades.

LC: I think its still hard for people to fall in love with art that is on computers. Its not hard for me, but still for collectors perhaps. Recently, we ran a membership drive and several artists contributed limited edition works. I thought that they would sell really quickly but I think the lack of physicality that makes that process difficult, It is a similar story with video art. At first the idea of collecting it seemed absurd, but it has become standard practice. For new media art, things are changing now, as the internet, and related technologies, have become more woven into people's lives. Also, new media now exists in the form of sculpture, installation, photography and so on, so it easier to collect. People have plasma screens at home, so it easier to maintain digital or moving image works. Also, people are losing their fear. Computers aren't cold, hard machines so much anymore. Email, social software, and so on, all these forms mediate our personal and professional lives explicitly. So it's easier for people to attach emotions to them, and see their political and cultural presence in a new, more immediate light.