Jorinde Seijdel 1 Jan 2000

The Exhibition as Emulator

Today's integrated circuits - several million transitions on pure silicon surfaces the size of a thumb - mock any exhibition.

Friedrich Kittler

Dead Media

Science fiction writer Bruce Sterling started the Dead Media Project on the World Wide Web: a public, ad hoc database of the deceased, the slowly-rotting, the undead, and the never-lived media (, to which everyone is free to add dead, lost or dying media. This illustrious archive in progress already contains the panorama and the peep show, and ultimately will produce a Dead Media Handbook. It still doesn't contain the 'exhibition', but that could change any moment now. But in certain circles, the question has arisen of whether the exhibition in the present Information Age is not an exhausted medium collapsing under the weight of its own premises - one that should be relieved of duty by new media like Internet and Virtual Reality.

The exhibition as a static system of ordered, coherent and representative objects does indeed seem incompatible with the electronic network society, in which information is never complete, all order temporary and 1001 realities being generated at any given time. Slow, distant and linear reflection – the reigning mode of the conventional exhibition – seems opposed to our perception as it changes under the influence of new media: quick and nonlinear zapping, scanning or browsing.

And if the exhibition can be seen as a mass medium, then the question inevitably rises of whether it has outlived itself in that capacity as well: today, everyone creates their own information networks. Navigation systems and new media are being increasingly designed for hyperindividual use.

Conclusion: a shame, perhaps, but the medium 'exhibition' will soon be added to Sterling's list. Or will it?

Immortal media

Can media die? If we are to believe Marshall McLuhan that the content of a new medium is the previous medium, then they live eternally - or there is only one, i.e., the previous one. Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, authors of Remediation: Understanding New Media, speak of remediation. They mean the way in which old and new media continually represent and re-design one another.

In a word: McLuhan's principle, but backwards. For example, the content of the World Wide Web is influenced by radio, film and tv, but its specific characteristics and aesthetics manifest themselves in the contemporary formal and social structures of these older media.

According to Bolter and Grusin, the 'double logic of remediation' also prevails in 'mediated spaces' (public spaces like theme parks and shopping malls, which depend for their functioning on all kinds of complementary and competing media). These spaces are subject to continual intimidation by new multimedia and digital networks. In Cyberspace, we encounter all kinds of reflections and extensions of physical public space. On the one hand, Bolter and Grusin distinguish 'hypermedia', i.e., media that emphasise their 'mediality' and are 'full of themselves', like web pages full of buttons and links. On the other, they distinguish the 'transparent media' like Virtual Reality and webcams, which attempt as media to be invisible and to divest themselves of any interface whatsoever.

Both hypermedia and transparent media aim to go beyond the limits of representation and be as real as possible in the viewer's experience: transparent media through denial of mediation, hypermedia through creation of 'a feeling of fullness', an oversaturation that can pass for reality.

If we accept this tempting media theory, the exhibition, as medium and mediated space, cannot be dead. And even more than that: the more new media and public spaces, the more vital and omnipresent the exhibition.

Looking back in history, we see the principle of remediation at work in the exhibition when it was a new and upcoming medium in the nineteenth century: the exhibition portrayed other media and mediated spaces, in which it simultaneously appeared. The many museum periodicals that flourished at the time borrowed not only their goals (education and recreation), but also their conceptual categories and layout from the first large museums. The presentation models, spatial organisation and sales strategies of department store, arcade and show window appeared in the exhibition and vice versa, so revealingly that they all form a part of the same ideological system, that of capitalism.

The contemporary exhibition does not only enter into such relations with phenomena like the theme park and shopping mall, but with the entire world, that can be seen in its totality as a mediated space: in recent decades, the logic of the exhibition has caused us to regard the world itself as an exhibition, resulting in today's euphoric display and storage culture, that thrives perfectly in the Information age.

How does the contemporary exhibition remediate digital media and vice versa? The new media and their effects are present in many ways in exhibitions and museums, not only as an aid, but also as an integrated part of the exhibition concept and design. Digital media are employed in presentation and communication techniques, educational events, promotion and security. Collections are being digitised on a large scale, and also made accessible in electronic databases. Simultaneously, reflecting non-hierarchical network structures, exhibitions are relying less and less on linear and chronological ordering principles, interactivity is being pursued more actively, and increasing attention is being paid to entertainment and commerce. In a word: the increasing mobilisation and globalisation of exhibitions seem to be an effect of contemporary telecommunication technologies.

We see the appearance of World Wide Web versions of exhibitions, cd-rom catalogues of physical exhibitions, physical exhibitions of websites and physical catalogues of cd-roms. The Web is largely a storage and display medium: it launches countless virtual exhibitions, presents itself as a public vehicle for the distribution of knowledge and art, and often imitates the presentation models and ordering principles of exhibitions by dividing information into various cultural sections and categories.

Conclusion: the medium 'exhibition' would seem to be achieving immortality by appropriating and being appropriated by new media. But what does that actually imply? That nothing has essentially changed and that there is therefore nothing else to say about it, or that the exhibition, through the 'double logic' of remediation, is acquiring new social and cultural capacities?

Arcadian media

A brief flashback to a past moment of post-modernist élan. In 1985, Jean-François Lyotard, the philosopher of post-modernism, created a large-scale exhibition in the Pompidou Centre in Paris, called Les Immatériaux. Lyotard's point of departure was that technological and scientific development was causing radical change in the relationship between human beings and their perception of reality. The perspectivist vision of reality that had largely determined our ideas of what formed a 'faithful' representation of reality from the Quattrocento to modern times, was being replaced by a new view which held that the human beings no longer controlled nature/material, but rather, along with all other things, were immaterialising into messages, that is information, according to Lyotard.

By making this post-modern condition visible, Lyotard wanted to create a 'reflexive unease' in the viewer regarding the implications of the information age. He created a network of technological, artistic and scientific experiments, all of which fit into an overarching language-theoretical formula, consisting of sender>receiver>bearer of message>code containing message>subject to which message refers. Lyotard did not see Les Immatériaux as an exhibition in the traditional sense, but as a post-modern time-space filled with flowing information and invisible interfaces in which the borders between various areas fade and old 'unities' dissolve. (...) it is not a question of presenting an exhibition (exposition), but rather an overexposition.

Now, the information society has already changed from philosophical concept into daily reality. And many of the state-of-the-art technologies that Lyotard used to intensify the experience of the electronic age, have probably already entered history as archaic prototypes or quaint gadgets. But Les Immatériaux was one of the first large-scale attempts to chart the information society and explore the new experience it was creating. It was also a serious reflection on the significance of the exhibition as a medium and an interface. But to what extent could Lyotard comprehend the implications and paradoxes of his solidly constructed project?

The main criticism of Les Immatériaux at the time was that its philosophical framework and semiotic formula were so dominant that the openness of the original question was lost, causing the exhibition ultimately to acquire exactly the same kind of artificial unity and coherence as the traditional exhibition. It was precisely the idea of the exhibition as part of a Grand Story that Lyotard opposed, as he himself had declared the bankruptcy of such Grand Stories. The unwanted and unexpected effect of his project was that he demonstrated a new Grand Story, that of the Ultimate Information Society, or InfoArcadia, as Jouke Kleerebezem called it.

Lyotard thus carried out a premature rescue, but also revealed that the exhibition, including its new post-modern form, continues ultimately in its aim to be an Arcadia, a coherent whole with a claim to completeness and representiveness. But would we still be fooled?

Emulating media

Is the exhibition in the information age an interface (meaning 'area of contact' or 'connection'), or a program (not in the sense of 'overview', but rather of 'software'?) Probably both. In his overexposition, Lyotard was the designer of an interface that aimed to allow the spectator to 'run a program': he was thus also a programmer.

Today, exhibitions (as a reflection of a desire to connect directly with reality) are less interface and more program, or, in the words of Bolter and Grusin: less 'hypermedium' and more 'transparent medium'. The opposite is also being simultaneously attempted by emphasising the reality of the exhibition with the aid of a kind of 'immersive environment': a space in which the viewers are completely absorbed.

Lyotard's Les Immatériaux showed something else that we now recognise because of the computer, namely, that the exhibition can also be seen as an analogue 'emulator'. In the digital sense, an emulator is a program with which a computer can imitate operating systems other than its own. mame (Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator) is an emulator that uses a new program to translate old computer games, so game fans can again gain access to a lost Arcadia with classic games of their youth.

The exhibition-as-emulator can be imagined as a kind of salvage program for all kinds of worlds, belief systems and realities that it re-translates into universal codes and interfaces. Simultaneously keeping old and new programs available means not only that all the desires of a fragmented and individualised society can be satisfied, but also that the display and amusement culture of Info Arcadia can stay in business eternally with hyperefficiency: everything can re-appear (or appear in advance) to be re-played again and again, but without the heavy-handedness of the museum, in which the world retains only display value and allows no direct interrelations, let alone pleasure.

As a thought-experimental metaphor, the exhibition-as-emulator is not an attempt to save the exhibition, but rather to understand and situate it in the here and now according to its own inherent logic. Emulation would seem to be the answer to the oft-repeated paradox that the computer as a medium can archive all other media except itself. In his essay Trancemedia: from Simulation to Emulation, Arjen Mulder suggests that emulation is the only means at the computer's disposal to secure and access its own history. Emulation of all earlier hardware plus software is the only way in which computer history can written using a computer. Why would we not also see the exhibition as a model, an 'analogue machine' that can include every model except itself? And is it not tempting to extend the analogy even further, by claiming that the exhibition-as-emulator is the only idea that can allow a retrospective of the exhibition?

The exhibition seen as emulator thus allows us to 'play' old exhibitions, displays or shows. But they are encoded according to a new program and conditioned by a current system, so they generate a new pleasure and a genuinely contemporary experience.

Emancipated from the pressure of old value systems, you can navigate with lightning speed through the Louvre, as a hypertextual network; you zap your way through stately museum rooms, 'browse' an exhibition with ethnographic objects and scan in nervous relaxation through spaces with the most tempting, 'clickable' points.

But the opposite can also occur (emulation is a much happier thing than simulation): confronted with the spectacle of the present state of InfoArcadia, you can furtively allow the old rules and speeds to prevail anew, and be touched by information and the media in the same way as in an old-fashioned exhibition: regarding a computer game as Art, the computer monitor as a movie screen...

This has again become possible, without being old-fashioned; like a wish-dream machine, the exhibition-as-emulator keeps all conditioning and models public. The only thing you have to comprehend is that you're emulating.

Returning to questions of life and death, Sterling's Dead Media Handbook is something to look forward to. It will certainly reveal not only equal amounts about live and dead media, but also about Arcadian media, awaiting their emulation so they can again be part of the present, to be InfoArcadian.

In this sense, emulations and emulating media are in between life and death: they are alternating re-animations, animations or 'pre-animations'. In InfoArcadia, all things are possible, al long as you have the right programs. But the fun will only really start when the interfaces start playing the wrong programs, or when the programs begin to hide behind the wrong interfaces.

translation James Boekbinder

Literature and references

-Friedrich Kittler, 'Museums on the Digital Frontier', p. 67-81 in the catalogue The End(s) of the Museum, Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona 1996

- Bruce Sterling,'' Dead Media Project /

- Jay David Bolter & Richard Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media, MIT Press 1999

- Jean-François Lyotard, 'Les Immatériaux', p. 159 -175, in: Thinking about Exhibitions, cd. R.Greenberg, B.W. Ferguson & S. Nairne, New York, 1996

- Jouke Kleerebezem, InfoArcadia als vertelling: inhoud, vorm en informatie in de Vroege Informatietijd, essay als part of nfoArcadia-exhibition Stroom hcbk, Den Haag, 2000

- Arjen Mulder, 'Trancemedia: from Simulation to Emulation'. p. 92-101, in: Mediamatic Magazine, vol 9#4 & 10#1, 1999

- Omar Muñoz-Cremers, 'Now that our Youth has been Emulated', p.106-116, in: Mediamatic Magazine, vol 9#4 & 10#1, 1999

this text was commissioned by Stroom hcbk, The Hague, as part of InfoArcadia-exhibition 2000