Transmute : The Virtual Artist and the Virtual Curator

Client: Joshua Decter and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago

Year: 1999

Description: digital interactive exhibits with touchscreen and projection for the exhibition Transmute

2D Design: Kim Collmer

3D Design and Programming: Ben Chang

Transmute is an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago that rethinks the relationship between the public and the institution by allowing visitors to transform the show and individual works within it. A computer-based “virtual museum,” installed both online and in the museum, contains a selection of works from the museum collection. Visitors take on a curatorial role by exploring the collection, selecting works, and creating their own transformed version of the exhibition.

In a second computer installation, visitors transform John Baldessari’s iconic photocollage Fish and Ram, replacing its image components with new ones from a database of image material solicited from the general public over the internet. Both roles involve an active process of constructing meaning through framing and juxtaposition. In his statement for the exhibition, independent curator Joshua Decter writes:

How do museums of contemporary art create meaning with their collections? How do they determine the relationship of audience to the collection? And how might we begin transforming the relationship of the public to the collection, so that relatively passive forms of reception are converted into active processes of re-interpretation?

In Transmute, I have approached these issues by developing an interactive exhibition, at once actual and virtual, that uses works from the MCA Collection as a platform for the audience to become more directly (i.e., virtually directly) involved with exploring the conceptual, visual, and thematic attributes of the show itself. I invite members of the public to join with me in the process of rethinking – and even symbolically transforming – the collection in imaginative ways. Visitors to the Transmute exhibition at the MCA – and the museum’s website – are given the option to function in the capacity of virtual curators, and virtual artists.

The physical exhibition at the MCA in summer/fall 1999 contained computer installations of the interactive Transmute systems, and a physical exhibition of works from the collection presented as one possible configuration or instantiation of the curatorial idea. Both programs are also hosted on the MCA website.

The interactive Virtual Curator and Virtual Artist systems were created by Ben Chang and graphic designer Kim Collmer, in collaboration with curator Joshua Decter. Within a three-month timeline, we developed an image-manipulation program for the Virtual Artist and a fully-navigable 3D environment with interactive image database for the Virtual Curator. These systems were required to function in both a gallery installation and a web context. We leveraged a wide range of technologies – VRML for the 3D environment, Java for the image database and the Virtual Artist, and Flash for animated information screens about each work in the exhibition.