The Museum of the Third Kind

Any discussion of the museum of the future must necessarily respond to the computer-mediated practices which define the canon of late 20th century art. While that seems to make sense in the context of a culture saturated with computer and communications systems, services and products it would be shortsighted for this perspective to disregard the impact that biotechnology, molecular engineering, and artificial life may exert on the arts over the next 25 years. The electronics revolution has moved from where it started in communications, to the digital computer, and now into the human brain. It is the new biological and cognitive sciences rather than computer science which lead the way. Indeed it could be argued that while the body and its presence, as an instrument of interactivity and a subject or virtuality, dominates muchcurrent discourse, it will be questions of the mind/brain, that is to say consciousness, which will come to dominate art practice in the future. And the future is all that museums can provide for. We know now that there is no absolute history, that the past is written in the present. We are irredeemably futures-oriented, and our museums as well as our institutions of learning must come to reflect that. One thing is certain. Nothing is given, neither the past, present nor future: all is constructed, and the site of that construction is our own consciousness. It is well recognised that consciousness is a field, and that telematic systems are a part of its evolution.

The Internet, as it develops, may indeed come to provide the infrastructure of a global mind. Thus in one respect the museum must be a part of that infrastructure, but it would be both foolish and shortsighted to think that the museum should be no more than that, that it should exist only in cyberspace, online or in a state of total virtuality. Electronic art is soon to become bio-electronic art, just as the primary element of its practice, the microchip is about to become the bio chip, and the digital computer gives way to the neural network. We are moving towards the spiritual in art in ways that Kandinsky could hardly have imagined, such that telepresence will be accompanied by teleprescience, and cybernetic systems will integrate with psychic systems, mutating into what could be called psybernetics.

This attitude is reflected in the remarks of Isao Karube, a leading-edge technologist of Tokyo University. "Now that people’s attention is turning towards the inner world, in the developed countries where materialism has reached saturation point, the future of electronics depends on the problem of what sort of approach to take towards the brain, the neurons, and the mind.

Art is no longer a onesided encounter with official taste, nor a secondary encounter of personal interpretation, but a close encounter of the third kind, involving transformation and interactivity, where the observer becomes an integral part of the creative system. Our art may be called digital, paranatural, technological, online, virtual, post-biological or whatever, but it will always henceforth be interactive.

To talk about the Museum of the Third Kind is to talk about the two primary coordinates of its design, or rather of its artificial genetic code, since it is more a question of its process of emergence than of creating a definitive blueprint for its construction.The primary coordinates are those of behaviour and architecture. To understand behaviour in this context we must understand what I have defined as "cyberception" : Post-biological technologies enable us to become directly involved in our own transformation, and are bringing about a qualitative change in our being. The emergent faculty of cyberception, our artificially enhanced interactions of perception and cognition, involves the transpersonal technology of global networks and cybermedia. We are learning to see afresh the processes of emergence in nature, the planetary media-flow, while at the same time re-thinking possibilities for the architecture of new worlds. Cyberception not only implies a new body and a new consciousness but a redefinition of how we might live together in the interspace between the virtual and the real.

Western architecture shows too much concern with surface and structures – an arrogant "edificiality" – and is too little aware of the human need for transformative systems. There is no biology of building. Architecture has no response to the realities of cyborg living, or the distributed self, or to the ecology of digital interfaces and network nodes. Cities must become the matrix of new forms of consciousness and of the rhythms and realisations of post-biological life.

The convergence of computers and communications is producing an environment, a telematic culture, in which many cherished institutions and artistic practices are feeling challenged, threatened, or just plain redundant, as exemplified not least of all by that triumph of ideological instrumentality, the museum. The cyberstress that the new technologies and new media exert upon the Culture of Representation is felt as much at the larger political level as it is in individual, personal experience. The impact of telepresence, bionic diversity, distributed knowledge, collaborative creativity, and artificial life on our sense of self, our sense of what is natural, what it is to be human, indeed of the status and legitimacy of every day reality, is more than most traditional discourses can bear. The breaking point however is not the death of culture or the incoherence of consciousness but the revitalisation of our whole state of being and a renewal of the conditions and construction of what we choose to call reality.

Telematic culture concerns the global connectivity of persons, of places, but above all, of mind. The internet is the crude infrastructure of an emergent consciousness, a kind of global brain. The Net is prodigious in its empowerment of associative thought – the thought of the artist – that aspect of cognition which leads most often to creativity. It is the intelligence of neural networks. It is leading us to the collective intelligence of a planetary "hypercortex". Art is always first a matter of consciousness, without a spiritual dimension it atrophies. The artist working with digital technologies must always be asking the question "is there love in the telematic embrace?"

In claiming to track changes and movements in culture by selecting, preserving, and presenting artifacts objectively, the Museum is actually engaged, sometimes ideologically engaged, in constructing consciousness and behaviour. The museum does not clarify our perceptions so much as codify them. Museums are never passive. So the Museum of the Third Kind, in its online and distributed form, is potentially an extremely powerful tool. We must be sure it is in the right hands. This means that it must change its role as guardian of an official reality to being that of guide to an Emergent Reality, to Nature II, and to entirely new forms of collaborative experience. Thus, in the emergent culture the principal focus of the Art Museum shifts from the plastic arts to the xenoplastic arts, the arts of connectivity and interaction. It not only brings people together across great distances, it brings ideas together across great differences. The House of the Muses must become a Garden of Hypotheses where ideas can grow . There will be plenty of groves for reflection but the emphasis will be more on action, interaction and construction, than storage, classification and interpretation. The Museum becomes a site of transformation.

Classical museum culture will mutate into a kind of bio-electronic horticulture, "digiculture", with emphasis on planting ideas, growing forms and images, harvesting meaning. The Museum of the Third Kind should thus be a hot house of artificial life rather than a conservatory of ’nature morte‘. The divide between the creation of art outside the museum, and the curating of art inside the museum will change so that at the interior it becomes a seedbed for art, and in the external world an interface to the planetary network. This can be characterised as a process of "curation" which brings the curatorial role and the act of creation into a new productive synthesis.

The museum must also adjust to the paradigmatic shift in the public’s relationship to art, knowledge and information, in which their role is more dynamic, more demanding of interaction. For the post-biological artist context is prioritised over content. The artist is the author of systems which empower the public to create meaning through interaction. The museum will be a part of a universal macro-museum, a global resource. At the same time it will also shrink into being the micro-museum, a neural interface as minuscule as a biochip linked to the hypercortex, as in the research of Greg Kovacs at Stanford and Michael Deering at Sun Micro Systems who are working on a radio-linked chip in the back of the human neck.

What can be said of the present day Museum in the Net? Every museum director, curator and art dealer knows that the Internet is where you can display your wares to perhaps a 100 million users. There are currently thousands of public museums, university art centers, private galleries, artist groups, cultural entrepreneurs, private dealers setting up Web sites, mounting online exhibitions, publishing catalogues and critiques, and establishing archives and collections, in the dataspace of the Net. Art viewing online looks like replacing art viewing on the hoof. And maybe more significantly, the collection of paintings of one of the very earliest galleries in Europe, that of prehistoric cave paintings at Combe d’Arc in the Ardeche, was accessible in all its majestic authority on the French ministry homepage (http://www.culture.fr) within just one month of being discovered.

There is little to be said about putting material works of art out on the Net. Of course there will be distortion in any transposition from the concrete art object to the ephemeral digital image, and picture resolution is still generally rather weak. At the same time, as the designers of Chartres knew, the back lit image is intrinsically more arresting than the light reflecting surface. And it is no small thing that the great wealth of artworks and historical artifacts built up in public and private collections around the world, sometimes as the result of colonial theft and pillage, can be returned to the world with an accessibility that is truly global. As network navigation in virtual space becomes more available, no one’s geographical location will be too remote to prevent them visiting the British Museum, the Prado in Madrid, the Temple of Konarak, or the Museum of Modern Art in Caracas. This is the Digital Museum of the First Kind.

Then there is an art destined for what we might call the Museum of the Second Kind, which is not originated in pigment, canvas, or steel, but which is composed of pixels from its inception, digitally destined from the start for the computer screen, which slips easily into the Net for instant world wide consumption. Aesthetically it is hardly different from painting or drawing in the traditional sense. A picture is rendered, forms are composed, a work of aesthetic finality is created. You may navigate it but it is basically a closed world. In both cases the Net remains a delivery system, an archival source, a catalogue of holdings. It neither challenges the traditional plastic arts nor renders them redundant. It simply extends the repetoire of artistic images and ideas, reaching those parts of the globe that other gallery mechanisms cannot reach. It is current practice to call such projects the "digital museum" but such a term can only be provisional and is, in fact an oxymoron since "digital" speaks of fluidity, transience, immateriality and transformation, while "museum" on the other hand has always stood for solidity, stability, and permanence.

There is an art which exists only in the Net, for the Net and by the Net alone. This is destined to be a part of the Museum of the Third Kind. It uses the computer not as a video terminal, through which you view objects of art, a kind of digital carousel projector, but as a screen of operations, an interface, which enables you to enter into a process of manipulation and transformation of images, texts and sound. It deals not so much with the behaviour of forms, the aesthetic of appearance, as with forms of behaviour,the aesthetic of apparition, of coming-into-being. Your interaction is with its multi-mediated form and its many layered meanings. It is about the viewer being active in the creation of art, actually with the creation of meaning. In the Net, to see is to own! Whatever arrives at your particular interface from no matter where on the Net, whether it’s image, text, or soundbite, it is yours to keep. More significantly, it is yours to transform.Transformation , particularly in the hands of the viewer, is the primary functional determinant of the museum.

Virtual Reality has long been heralded as the prescription for the museum of the 21st. century. The present state of the art is arid and dry, and compares unfavourably to the wetness of nature, but there are signs of the emergence of an artificial reality, or what I prefer to call Paranatural Reality, or Nature II , which is essentially moist. It is in this moist reality, grounded in the technology of Artificial Life, and the nanotechnology of atoms and genetically engineered molecules, a post-biological reality, that life-like behaviour may emerge. We may be approaching the point of working with forces never worked with before, and sensing things which have never been sensed before. To quote again Isao Karube: "Kiko-jutsu is now in fashion (an Asian discipline which develops the inner energy called Ki) Even I could move a static piece of paper with my force, like this! This energy might possibly be measured by a sensor, perhaps a quantum wave sensor that works on a completely different theoretical basis".

This is the phase in our culture where art and science will most truly converge. Where as artists we might become partners in evolutionary change rather than simply expressive or analytical bystanders. This is a world pervaded by intelligence, as if it were leaking out of our brains and seeping into every part of the planet. Here is an art of artificial agents and algorithmic assemblies, cellular automata and digital communities which grow, expand, diversify, disperse, and reproduce within the networks, arising from that organisation which spontaneously arises from the net’s chaotic connectivity, with "no global controller responsible for the behavior of everypart", and its "bottom-up, distributed, local determination of behavior" to use the phrases that Chris Langton employs in his definition of Artificial Life .

So the Museum of the Third Kind, the museum of emergence, is a platform of operations, a seedbed, a planetary resource, a site of cultural negotiation, interaction and collaborative creativity, before it is in any sense a showcase, a stage set or repository. It will make history rather than record it. It will be future-active rather than past-passive.The art it will house, or give rise to, is a hybrid art requiring more than the artist’s skills alone. It involves disciplines which are themselves hybrid: cognitive scienceand its neural nets, biological engineering and its genetic manipulations, the physics of consciousness. Hybrid also is the viewer, user or consumer of this art. Bionic to a degree, gender-free, wholly integrated into cyberspace, transculturally oriented to the Net, living globally in the Interreality between the actual and the virtual, this is the post-biological human being. This is us as we approach the turn of the millennium. And perhaps most pertinent, in our search for definition of the Museum in this telematic, post-biological culture, it is our new faculty of cyberception which will determine the kind of space we shall inhabit, the kind of architecture we shall demand.

The Museum of the Third Kind will be anticipatory, not imposing perspectives on the history of art, but opening up a pool of possibilities from which art might emerge, working at the forward edge of contemporary culture, as an agent of cultural change, as a cause of art practice rather than as a cultural effect. It will be conceived of not as a machine but as a post-biological organism: a structure with its own memory, with a sensorium which reacts to us, as much as we interact with it, essentially an electronic central nervous system. Its interior activity will constantly be exteriorised with a constant flow of data from inside out and outside in. Similarly, satellite, cable and internet communications must allow for the 24 hour a day, two-way flow of data to and from local, regional and international centres and public places. It will have zones for the practice of telemeditation and cyberconsciousness, and for experiments with identity, persona, gender, and bionic amplification.

To understand what the Museum of the Third Kind needs to be, is to understand how the aesthetic of appearance is being replaced by the aesthetic of apparition. Where semantic closure is replaced by open-ended pathways of meaning . Where the viewing public is put in the centre of the creative process not at the periphery looking in. Where medium of art, be it electronic, digital, optical or genetic, is intrinsically and generically interactive. Where art as system constitutes a kind of structural coupling between everyone and everything within its networks, a coupling which brings the into a symbiosis the intelligence systems which constitute our world and the cognitive cyberception of our selves.

Finally, the issue of the Museum of the Third Kind is political, as the house of the Muses has always been, just as democracy itself requires a politics of the third kind, since neither Right nor Left has found any kind of satisfactory answer. The Museum of the Third Kind will be as much concerned with the democratisation of meaning as with the democratisation of communications. And unavoidably it is philosophical, since the technology of telematics is the technology of consciousness, and wisely cultivated, can lead us to a shared participation in the creation of reality.