Annet Dekker has been involved with digital art since the 1990s. From curating to conservation to the evolving practice of documentation, there is very little she has not seen or done in relation to what was previously called media art and net art but is now more regularly classified as "born-digital" art. Since 2016 she has been working as a professor at University of Amsterdam in media studies and archival and information studies. She is also co-director of the Centre for the Study of the Networked Image at London South Bank University.

In addition to her visionary curatorial work, Dekker has also written and edited seminal texts in the field. These include Collecting and Conserving Net Art (Routledge, 2018), Curating Digital Art (Valiz, 2021) and Documentation as Art (co-edited with Gabriella Giannachi; Routledge, 2023). We spoke with Annet about her long and distinguished career, her recent exhibition The Broken Timeline and the shifts she has seen in digital art over the decades.

When it comes to digital art, the proper technical title for you is OG! Tell us about your first professional steps as a curator in digital art.

It all began in 1997, right after my graduation from Utrecht University (Netherlands). I embarked on a journey through various small non-profit organizations, where I delved into curating and co-organizing a myriad of events and exhibitions. One of my earliest endeavors was with AXIS V/M in Amsterdam. As part of a small team, we organised exhibitions and debates centered around gender, media art (back then, digital art wasn't a widely used term), and technology.

Simultaneously, I worked as a volunteer at Impakt Festival in Utrecht. Initially, I handled practical tasks during the festival, but eventually, I transitioned into a role as one of the curators for their online commission series Impakt Online. Additionally, I served on the selection committee for festival entries spanning CD-ROMs, websites, videos and films. In Utrecht, I also volunteered at Lazy Marie, a small artist initiative where we curated film evenings, performances and exhibitions in public spaces. 

Amidst these voluntary engagements, in 1999, I commenced working part-time as a curator at the Netherlands Media Art Institute (NIMk), now known as LIMA, also situated in Amsterdam. While NIMk primarily focused on video art, my attention was on presenting digital art. Alongside curating exhibitions and events, I was involved in organizing the artist-in-residence program. Initially centered around specific themes, the program evolved to accommodate the diverse array of technologies and consequently the wishes of artists. This led to the initiation of a collaborative artist-in-residence program between various organizations across Europe and beyond. My enduring fascination lies in exploring the interplay between art, technology and popular culture, and unraveling the interconnectedness of these realms.

What to me was particularly interesting was the abundance of opportunities and the myriad of approaches to organizing. Despite limited funding, there existed a cohesive network of individuals eager to collaborate, exchange ideas and share resources across disciplines — be it artists, curators, organizers or technicians. This environment fostered boundless experimentation — with technology, presentation methods for art projects and collaborative approaches — despite inevitable setbacks often attributed to funding constraints rather than lack of enthusiasm among participants. Experimentation was key, marked by relentless tinkering with technology, art presentation and collaborative methods.

One of your recent exhibitions is The Broken Timeline, which was presented online at in 2022-23. Tell us about your selection and arrangement of online exhibitions for this important historical survey.

The Broken Timeline presents historical exhibition projects that were curated online. It emerged from a project that I did together with Marialaura Ghidini and Gaia Tedone as part of the book Curating Digital Art, which spanned a decade of interviews with curators, artists and designers to learn about their ways of curating digital art. In the final production phase of the book the pandemic started, and with it the rise of online exhibitions. At the time, I really felt the lack of a historical awareness of curating online. So, together with Marialaura and Gaia we made this timeline of more than 200 entries.

The timeline was printed in the book and translated into a similar designed website, but we wanted to give it more attention. At that moment, Constant Dullaart had just launched and we all felt this was a good platform to show a selection of historical online exhibitions. The final selection, less than 5% of the total, emphasized those projects that for us were exemplary of web-specific exhibitions; highlighting the intricate socio-technical relations and aesthetics of the web.

I believe that engaging in web curation entails thorough exploration of the chosen domain, necessitating familiarization with its intricacies through either coding or (mis)using established platforms. This rationale also underpinned our incorporation of a technical timeline within The Broken Timeline, a concept that was also used by Constant as part of an online event in through his performative intervention. His inclusion of contemporary socio-political events at the time of the online exhibitions underscored the significance of interlinking these layers.

Courtesy of the artist.

In 2023 you edited the book Documentation as Art. In 2021 you edited Curating Digital Art, a massive volume of interviews. Can you speak about the technical practice of documentation in digital art, and maybe relate that to how you document curatorial practices in your book?

There’s a renewed interest in documenting physical exhibitions from the past in various formats using tools like game engines, 3D capture and photogrammetry to bring them online. In this sense, forgotten exhibitions are revived and gain new meaning within their updated context. I recall our discussions regarding The Broken Timeline, particularly when we encountered numerous online exhibitions that we intended to integrate and present within We faced several significant challenges – many of these exhibitions no longer existed, leaving us only with traces such as screenshots or fragments preserved in the Wayback Machine on platforms such as Flickr and YouTube, or on private hard discs.

Moreover, certain exhibitions required updates to align with the current platform standards, especially transitioning to the https:// protocol. Some exhibitions included extensive contextual material. In the end, we made a deliberate choice to highlight these diverse types of materials as documentation, viewing them as indicators of fragmentation. Our aim was to showcase how functional and meaningful relationships were established through the addition and juxtaposition of various fragments, rather than trying to revive or re-interpret them through contemporary tools. We were intrigued by all the fragments we could find on the web and on people’s hard drives. We wanted to see whether these slivers would still make enough sense to understand what was once there. So, we were less focused on creating a ‘conventional’ reconstruction of online exhibitions.

For me, the fragments that we collected and rearranged provided space; figuratively it opened a space to (re)imagine what was there when it all worked, and literally it was similar to how we tend to move around the web, i.e. via hyperlinks – these were now replaced by the fragments of documentation which you moved through. Perhaps this is a form of social archaeology? In some ways The Broken Timeline is limited, but it also tried to mimic strange navigation and perhaps the surprise you can experience online when you move between pieces of information that seem unconnected, and yet you start to link and create stories yourself. That type of open storytelling through fragments was something that I think is valuable to assess. 

As artworks become more complex and diverse, preserving them has become increasingly challenging. Therefore, various forms of documentation have become crucial for at least partially preserving the artwork or its experiential aspects. In the last two decades or so, the field of documentation is expanding rapidly, attracting researchers from various disciplines such as performance, theatre, film, music, opera, digital and new media arts, archival and museum studies, conservation, curation and human-computer interaction. While approaches (and aims) differ significantly across these fields, the rising popularity of performative and digital methods may foster greater convergence among disciplinary practices. More importantly, it is not just the reception or user experiences of artworks that is documented, but also their creation and development over time, as well as the context of their presentation. This documentation offers valuable insights into the context, evolution, or even degradation of specific artworks, but also provides opportunities to analyse exhibition histories and curatorial strategies to re-imagine these experiences.

Exploring the relationship between documentation, archives, collections and curating reveals how documentation becomes an integral part of original artworks, exhibition histories, and curatorial practices, thus influencing the value and experience of both the documentation itself and the documented (or newly-curated) event or artwork. Furthermore, the integration of these practices into collections continues to reshape the museological landscape, particularly in terms of how documentation contributes to validating and assessing contemporary art and exhibition-making or curating. This ongoing evolution underscores the significance of understanding the role and impact of documentation across different disciplines and practices.

Courtesy of Routledge.

You have been working as a professor at University of Amsterdam for some time now. How do you approach digital art from the disciplinary perspectives of cultural analysis, also archival and information studies?

Indeed, it's been an unusual blend in some respects. Nevertheless, the focus on cultural analysis, particularly within the realm of digital art practices, has proven highly fruitful for addressing the presentation and archiving challenges inherent to digital art. Despite most students possessing limited knowledge and experience with digital art, many find the social and technical issues tackled by these artworks very interesting. For archival students, the concepts and methods employed in these projects can offer valuable insights that are applicable to recordkeeping practices.

By shifting these perspectives, a more nuanced understanding of the broader challenges posed by the digital realm, both presently and in the future, can be attained. Mainly by understanding and examining the extent to which digital art projects are intertwined with broader networks and relationships, rather than being solely object-oriented. Additionally, these perspectives offer alternative viewpoints on conventional issues such as authenticity, authorship, ownership and preservation. This proves especially pertinent in scenarios where traditional preservation methods are insufficient or where efforts to decolonize descriptions or recordkeeping systems are imperative.

With the digital landscape evolving, there has been a resurgence of interest in archival matters among students of cultural analysis. They recognize the significance of the past while also acknowledging the volatility of the contemporary digital cultural milieu. Moreover, they grasp the necessity of delving into the backend intricacies of digital and online cultures and objects to conduct meaningful analyses. Understanding the complexities of systems, infrastructures, interfaces and using models/modelling are standard practices in archival and information studies. Therefore, leveraging methods and concepts from these disciplines serves to enhance the analytical depth and address the pertinent issues in cultural analysis effectively.

Tara Kelton, Outsourced Typeface. Courtesy of the artist.

What are some of the most noteworthy shifts in the practice and presentation of digital art that you have noticed in the past 20 years? How are these shifts pointing toward the future of digital art, either for better or for worse?

Discussing shifts in the digital landscape proves challenging due to its rapid evolution with each new invention. While technical changes are undoubtedly crucial, I’m more interested in understanding the social and cultural transformations that happen as part of or as a result of digital art.

For instance, in the last five years there has been a surge in attention towards digital art, propelled by phenomena like NFTs and blockchain, and more recently AI platforms such as Midjourney. Concurrently, the pandemic-induced closure of physical institutions led to a flourishing of online exhibitions, sparking discussions around digital art. However, this increased interest hasn't necessarily spurred innovative developments. Many experiments seem to adhere closely to traditional gallery standards, resulting in numerous skeuomorphic representations of the white cube space. 

Olia Lialina, 12.11.19 (Stuttgart) by Jule Brandhuber + GIF. Courtesy of the artist.

From a more social-cultural perspective, these trends amplify individual behaviours and acts rather than the network with its communicative and collaborative nature. Similarly, navigating the digital art sphere, particularly online exhibitions, has become increasingly daunting, with a lack of accessible resources and historical context in online curation being notable challenges. Taken together, web3.0 has not only erected ‘walled gardens’ but within these confines experimentation is stifled, and genuine social interaction is scarce – unless one considers self-promotion as a form of social interaction.

As mentioned by net artist and researcher Olia Lialina, there has been a noticeable shift from users challenging technical protocols, structures and standards in both literal and metaphorical ways, to an era where the emphasis lies on utilizing tools to affirm one's (online) identity. This seeps through to the exposure of digital art and creates an almost paradoxical situation: showcasing experimental online exhibitions or digital art projects now demands a high level of marketing insight. While some artists such as Tara Kelton, Constant Dullaart, Jonas Lund or Gretchen Andrew have aptly navigated these dynamics, the ramifications of these shifts for the visibility of digital art suggest an increasingly invisible art world.

Ofri Cnaani, Digital Afterness. Courtesy of the artist.

We would love to hear about current or upcoming projects that you are working on. 

I'm currently engaged in several projects that intersect in various ways. First, I’m interested in expanding the understanding of online curating. While physical exhibitions are acknowledged as being tightly intertwined with the processes of historiography, the exploration of exhibition history in the online realm remains largely uncharted. This gap arises partly due to the transient nature of online events and the concept of 'curating in the wild', which underscores the blend of machine learning and human curation. Both operate within an unwieldy, unregulated and unpredictable space, contributing to a sense of historical amnesia that hampers the development of a discourse on online curating. Therefore, there is a significant need for a deeper examination of the practice and methodology of online exhibition history. My focus will be on analysing these histories, particularly concerning explorations of space, time and narrative.

A second, partially related concern is the sustainability of digital art in terms of preservation. Drawing from my previous research on 'networks of care', I am exploring the transition towards a more sustainable, socially inclusive and environmentally resilient preservation strategy. This involves investigating low-tech alternatives, drawing inspiration from methods found in oral traditions and community/artist initiatives. By examining practices guided by concepts of living memory and curated decay, I aim to develop a collaborative socio-ethical approach to digital preservation, which can be adapted to various organizational sizes, contexts and needs, while also informing conventional preservation methods and policies.

Finally, in collaboration with artist and researcher Ofri Cnaani, we are delving into the infiltration of digital computing and data surveillance into everyday geopolitics. This phenomenon adds new layers of control to physical and spatial realms. Under the framework of 'digital colonialism', which contends that familiar traits of traditional colonialism are being replicated and amplified by a new ruling class rooted in information capitalism, we aim to explore novel collaborations between artistic practitioners and scholars. Together, we offer a radical yet nuanced perspective to understand and engage with this problematic cycle of reproduction and digital indoctrination.

Thank you!

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