The wall label is an apparently simple documentary form that has substantial effects on how we understand and interpret art. Often the most public-facing piece of documentation in arts institutions, it stands out as a minor text within broader institutional records. The wall label’s standard categories distill a specific, historically entrenched model of artistic production. Artist, title, date, medium, dimension, collection—these categories best represent work for which creator and product are relatively stable and distinct. Certain tendencies within contemporary artistic practice challenge these categories so deeply that the innocuous wall label—and the broader institutional archive—may conceal key aspects of the work. Time-based media art, born-digital works, and even historical avant-garde works challenge restrictive ideas of medium by working with digital and other networked sources, subverting the static substructure exemplified in highly compressed form within the wall label. Traditional interpretive materials, such as wall texts, prioritize the analogue and risk relegating awareness of deep differences among new media to academic theory.
While there has been rich dialogue around “Post-media” and new media’s expanded and networked practices, it’s often unclear whether institutional archives have absorbed such insights1. If they had, we might see fewer “variable” specifications within work records and more documentation specifying media art’s unique variability. When site-specific works are described as “variable” in wall texts (eg. “dimensions variable”), the ellided specificity is provided by sensing and experiencing the installation site. When applied to digital and time-based media, however, “variable” often references complexity and multiplicity of a more ontological kind, which may remain undetected unless mediated by institutions.
Daniel Canogar is one example of an artist working with digital media that is incompletely captured by typical institutional categories. Canogar’s Cannula (2016) uses visual data sourced and abstracted from YouTube videos. Without explicitly listing YouTube as a medium, work details from the artist’s studio and gallery helpfully offer “generative algorithm” and “custom software” as materials used, in addition to hardware specifications. Cannula’s screen displays a mesmerizing liquid scene of colors and textures. The video pixels take on organic forms, moving synergistically. The work is visually beautiful, but absent the full context of its production, its conceptual basis is easily missed.
New media presupposes a different kind of materialism than analogue media. The digital, for instance, tends toward multiplicity; the analogue is oriented toward continuity and compositionality2. In Post-Internet art, media is often not static and manipulable; it involves informational flows that integrate external data. Such media is informational: it collects and interprets data from changing sources into which new inputs continuously flow. A single new-media work can evolve through new versions, algorithms, external data, or interactions with the public. In new media works, multiple trajectories propagate from a common origin, but traditional documentation records these in an overly fixed way. New media works process information within “informational milieux”—in turbulent domains of signification within which settled meanings are continually upended.
The found object, a fixture of the historical avant-garde, is often listed within contemporary wall labels. Yet found data sources—which, like the originally shocking readymade, propose new conditions of production and exhibition—are often omitted. Granted, when a digital inquiry crystallizes into an analogue format, interpretative language might refer primarily to the final analogue form. Some new media work specifically renders images of digital generative processes: Harm van den Dorpel’s series Decompressions (Structures of Redundancy), for example, contains algorithmic compositions but its exhibitable form is largely analogue3. Even so, highlighting this source material can be valuable.
The minor texts of institutional records also affect the preservation of new media works. In his 2008 text “Death by Wall Label”, Jon Ippolito notes, “Video artist Bill Viola has remarked that museum staff who condition-check his work assiduously… fail to notice when a functional component like a speaker or transformer is missing or obsolete.” The impending obsolescence of hardware components in new media art means that traditional documentation will in turn require updates. If traditional records and categories have tended to render works “interoperable” within the rest of an institution’s collection and the larger canon (as noted in the context of the recent AI-based curatorial experiment), records for new media work must continually render it interoperable with itself—in its fully obsolescing, multiplying, evolving (dis)continuity.
Alternative, responsive archives for digital works might be partly iconic rather than just indexical—new media works often self-document, self-index, self-propagate. This iconic or self-archiving tendency is counterintuitive. Etymologically, the term “archive” initially designated bureaucratic records no longer in circulation. The media of new media remains in circulation, figuratively and literally overriding the traditional notion of the archive. Apartment (2001), a work of software art by Marek Walczak and Martin Wattenberg with Jonathan Feinberg, demonstrates how new-media work exceeds typical documentation. Over time, Apartment evolved through software updates by the creators and by archiving users’ creations. Ippolito notes of the work, “New media artists and technicians are used to this ferocious pace of media turnover. . . the curators and archivists charged with capturing an artwork's vital statistics are not. … Screenshots of Apartment a year or two apart may look substantially different, but a standard catalogue caption will treat them identically.”
The marginal questions raised here do not aim to capture a work’s process or content completely. Rather, these margins of expanded practice invite viewers to reconsider how novel art practices might be mediated within institutions and for the public. Classifying schemas that suppress fundamental differences in ontology and modality marginalize practices that draw from networked and transitory sources. An alternative documentary approach could treat these didactic materials as vectors or scores supporting the legitimation of new individual and collective artistic intentions over time. This might mean emphasizing generative programs alongside raw form, or applying language that reflects organic growth instead of settled composition.
Artworks’ histories are inflected by the contexts in which they are exhibited. This holds true for many forms of art—institutional critique, installations, participatory works, etc. The co-constitutive force between new media work and institutions can be especially strong, given this form’s tendency to change and fluctuate. Exhibiting such works can affect their evolution, and warrants accounting for their variable forms specifically and robustly. Institutions should consider how to present new media work in light of the broader Post-media terrains of practice toward which these works and their networks point us.