Walker Art Center

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The Thingness of the Thing
Net.art Conservation and Piotr Szyhalski’s Ding an sich

By Richard Rinehart

When Steve Dietz and the Walker Art Center asked me to write about the re-launch of the 1997 web-based artwork Ding an sich, one of the reasons humorously offered for my selection was that I was alive at the time of the original commission. I had a chuckle, but it seems entirely appropriate to measure the life cycles of new media artworks against such corporeal terms. For instance, I teach about Ding an sich in my undergraduate art courses, and much of my audience had not been born by the time this artwork was created. A generation of people has grown up to learn about this work, while a generation of technology has collapsed around it, making this a good time to revisit Ding an sich. This tack of tangibility is also relevant because it evokes questions the art world has long wrestled with—the relationship in art between materiality and experience or meaning, the body of art, and the “thingness” of the thing—into which this work and its relaunch may provide new insight.

In 1997, the Walker’s New Media Initiatives department commissioned Piotr Szyhalski to create Ding an sich, an interactive web-based artwork that launched the Walker’s pioneering Gallery 9. Since that time, the technology on which Ding an sich was built has become obsolete. Now Northern Lights.mn, in partnership with the Weisman Art Museum and with the support of the Walker and funding from the NEA, is preserving the work by migrating it from outmoded web technologies to relaunch the work as an iPad app.

The title of Ding an sich —“the thing unto itself”—refers to Immanuel Kant’s philosophical argument that there may exist objects or events that are experienced without the senses (noumenon) but that we can never know them directly since we are relegated to experiencing reality through our faculties (phenomenon). There may exist the ding an sich—the essence of a thing separate from its context in the world—but our knowledge of it will always be mediated. At one place in the artwork, shadows of tools and weapons move in a line across a lighted backdrop, suggesting Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and an earlier notion of noumenon. In calling the artwork itself Ding an sich, Szyhalski’s title functions as a foil, much like Frank Stella’s Arbeit Macht Frei (1967), for which the title, ringing with powerful connotations and worldly context, belies that artist’s famous formalist position that in his work, “You see what you see.”

In 1997, some of the less generous reactions to emergent net.art were that it did not show “the hand of the artist,” that works lacked sensual materiality, and that the genre was screen-based, thin, and had no “body” (these despite the fact that net.art followed decades of photography and conceptual art). Ding an sich was one net.art work that, like Stella’s Minimalism before it, integrated the viewer’s embodied interactions into its phenomenological core. Extending this shared body, the new Ding an sich app will include accessibility for hearing- and sight-impaired audiences. The work reveals several depictions of the human body (two heads facing each other, a woman reading, a man spinning and another holding a chalkboard) that the viewer explores with their own hands, trying various touches, pinches and swipes to activate. The new app’s touchscreen technology lends the work a tactile intimacy untenable with traditional painting and even further than the original web-based version. The hand of the artist is replaced with the hand of the viewer. And, of course, the current project to retool Ding an sich points to the manifest materiality of this and of all digital artworks.

Migrating an artwork from 1997 web technologies to a 2015 app is a more interpretive intervention than most traditional art conservation. As such, it throws the question of materiality into high relief. This migration project takes the artwork in the clear direction of preserving the viewer experience across platforms, as opposed to favoring historically specific materials. The Ding an sich app does not displace the position of its website in history, nor does it insist that there are no differences between them—but it allows for those differences, it embraces that variability. Szyhalski structured Ding an sich into twelve canons, along the musical model, and spoke about how each canon is structured less like a recording of a fixed event and more like a score that reconfigures around the interactive interpretation of the viewer, opening the work up to endless manifestations. Similarly, the preservation of Ding an sich, and other works like it, may require institutions to treat artworks as scores (or, rather, the performances of scores) that open works up to lives of variable iteration. This project also suggests that perhaps new forms of institutions and institutional practice can aid the survival of works like Ding an sich. fwd://, an imprint of Northern Lights.mn, will issue both re-made and new works of art, starting with Ding an sich, and it foreshadows a new kind of institutional framework for artworks.

I am following every aspect of this grand experiment with great interest, and as I anticipate living through at least two more iterations of Ding an sich, I cannot help but fast-forward to what the future may hold for the creation, presentation, and re-creation of media artworks. The preservation of media art will seem radically interpretive compared to traditional museum conservation, with successive generations of artworks being technically, materially, and observably different from their parents. Major preservation interventions will need to happen more frequently, keeping multiple iterations of an artwork within the realm of personal memory as opposed to history. This more intimate timescale will erode the perception of artworks as existing in a timeless institutional-historic stasis, not that they ever really did, but the rate of change will increase from slow decay and subtle touch-ups to something resembling punctuated evolution. Preservation interventions will increasingly be public events, partly due simply to the nature of a networked society, but also because the artworks themselves will need to be re-performed, and because of the nature of new institutional frameworks like fwd:// that collapse the space between preservation and presentation. The user experience will be used as a factor to test for successful preservation, positioning the public in a new role regarding the life cycle of these artworks. All of this may require a new hermeneutics for art history. It may also put preservation on par with exhibition as occasion for public dialogue about art, but these conversations will bear more tangible impacts on each new generation of variable artworks as conservation is recast as collective re-creative act and preservation as poiesis.


Richard Rinehart is director of the Samek Art Museum at Bucknell University. His book, Re-Collection: Art, New Media, & Social Memory, co-authored with Jon Ippolito, was published by MIT Press in 2014.

Ding an sich

Ding an sich

Ding an sich

The 12 canons of Ding an sich