John Johnson by Grady T. Turner

This is an unedited transcript of the conversation.

GRADY TURNER Thanks, Betsy. John Johnson, who is to my right, the blond one over there in a suit, founded Eyebeam Atelier. We got together for a conversation a little while ago, and we discovered that in addition to looking exactly alike, we have a shared affinity for bourbon. So we’ll be drinking this evening. Knob Creek is tonight’s brand, for product placement.

JOHN JOHNSON And if anyone wants to bring up a glass, help yourself.

GT So John Johnson—some of you may already be familiar with his work—is a founder of the Filmmakers’ Collaborative and as of six years ago, founded and has served as executive director of Eyebeam, over in Chelsea. I began to think about ways that I could explain what Eyebeam is. But then I thought, “Well, that’s kind of dumb, because this guy knows better than me,” so John, explain what Eyebeam is.

JJ Well, Eyebeam’s a work in progress. So two years ago or three or four years ago we would have said, “Well, we are becoming a museum, a digital museum. We are becoming a museum of art and technology.” And before that was another idea that emerged at a point after I had founded the Filmmaker’s Collaborative, being very interested in contemporary art, and looking at the work artists were doing with technology at that point, I could see that there was a real problem with access.

At that point, and still now, artists were engaging with and looking at the way technology was impacting culture. They were creating work, but they were having difficulty making that work, seeing it through to completion, getting access to the technology. So we said, “Okay, that’s kind of like what the Filmmakers’ Collaborative is for, let’s create an atelier where there’s art production and education.” And so we began a series of programs. We focused on education and we began then to focus on art production. But let me just jump forward and talk about what we are doing now and then we can kind of sort it all out.

GT Okay.

JJ I’d start with a survey of some things we’ve been involved in, because it’s a good way to dive in to what we are doing, because all of us at Eyebeam are feeling out what we were doing. We’ve emerged from this point where according to the press and the art world at large, we were going to become this enormous museum, this place that was going to inform people what the future was and show what art would be like in the future, and things like that. And that is something that I think we’ve snapped out of and started to pay attention to other things. But ask me another question …

GT Okay. How are you?

JJ I’m great.

GT When we had this conversation before, I thought this was something that’s really rather interesting: what we thought Eyebeam was three or four years ago made a lot of sense, that there should be in New York City a museum of new media, of technologically-based art. It’s not a bad idea. And having it in a big building in Chelsea is also not a bad idea. What you’re saying now is that that idea is not necessarily what Eyebeam is about now or wasn’t even really about then?

JJ We held a major design competition, and that got a fair amount of press. And then we had a forum online discussing the ideas around the design competition, and discussing ideas around architecture fulfilling the needs of artists and art institutions. One of the things that started emerging and becoming clear towards the end of this design competition was that back at the time when we were an atelier, we had been responding to what was effectively a distribution problem: artists who were working with technology weren’t getting a lot of recognition and were ghettoized. The idea was, okay, let’s get this work into the art canon, let’s create a digital museum around this kind of work, and just push it in there.

However, once we were in the middle of the design competition and we had really committed to this path, we started looking at what was happening and realized we that we had this great opportunity. Here we were creating a new institution, a new arts institution. And what were we doing? We’re falling into the pattern of essentially modernist, late-20th-century art institutions. Falling right into a power structure, a system of authority that relates to artists in a very particular way, that says what an artist is, what an artist isn’t, that pretty fully describes what an artist’s relationship to culture and society is. And all of a sudden, that seemed like exactly the direction that we did not want to go in.

GT Right.

JJ We were about three quarters of the way through the design competition, I was seeing this, you know and here’s all this press on the digital museum, a museum of art and technology. And I’m thinking, Uhhh … okay. So when it came time to talk to the finalists, the first question I asked all the architects was, “How do you feel about starting from scratch?” And to their credit, all of them said, “Sounds good.”

So that’s what we did. And we began a research period that is still going on now. Hopefully, in some senses, it will go on forever, but it’s reaching the end of a particular phase now where we really did a lot of thinking about stepping back from new media, or from what people are calling new media, and looking at our place in terms of the history of art institutions and what we can do, and thinking about it that way rather than orienting ourselves around a very limited manifestation of what we’re interested in.

So for example, this just hit me the other day, just thinking about Plato’s cave. And remember, in Plato’s Republic, all these people are chained in this cave and they see these shadows on the wall, which they take as their reality, because that’s all they can see. But in fact there are these objects being paraded past and behind them, light shines on those objects creating shadows. So I feel like new media right now is a shadow on the wall of Plato’s Cave. And many of us art institutions are these objects, and culture would be the light source. And that’s really going to change. I feel like it’s almost over.

GT That new media is almost over?

JJ Yeah. Just in terms of this one respect, in terms of technologies very controversial, fetishized relationship to art. The idea that either art employing or engaging with technology is no good by virtue of the fact that it’s doing that; or the other side of the coin, that it’s even more interesting because it’s involved in technology, or that the technology itself is interesting as art.

GT So define new media. Give us a classic definition.

JJ No one has been able to do that to anyone’s satisfaction. I don’t want to be the 20-millionth person to try. But new media has really been a catch-all phrase to encompass the work that has the strictures of modernist orthodoxy, people letting off steam and playing with stuff that normally is frowned upon.

GT In terms of the technology itself?

JJ For example, people not painting.

GT I just had the experience of being in Cairo for the biennial there, which was abysmal. The art was pretty good, but the structure of the whole thing was a big mess. I went to a symposium and saw so much discussion among the academic painters who participated in this biennial about the plastic parts, a phrase that we don’t normally use so much over here anymore. And when I went to the show, I was struck by the fact that there was so little photography, very little video and one performance in the show. In Cairo at least, these things are still very controversial and the citadel is still very well guarded. That some things are art by virtue of how they’re made and other things simply aren’t—because of how they’re made …

What you’re saying is that baggage came along with the new media, that there was an implicit defense thrown in with its emergence; you had to make the case that a website can be art. And then it’s accepted. And that’s rather optimistic perhaps. That moment is passing. People are no longer looking at the tools being used to make the things but the thing itself.

JJ Yeah, what I think I’m seeing is that people are getting really smart. And their thinking about art is taking place on another order. In other words, now it’s much less about worrying whether the artifact created with whatever medium is art or not, but whether it’s culturally interesting.

There will always be authority structures invested in good art and bad art. And there will be people who are really invested in process and doing that. But if you were look at the 2004 Whitney Biennial coming up, and looked at it 20 years ago, Cory Arcangel is in the Whitney Biennial this year. So it’s seeping in. And its exclusion as a “medium” will be impossible.

GT Or as a term to describe it.

JJ Right. There will be the next thing, people are working in genetics, like Eduardo Kac for example. And that will be the next thing that’s viewed with suspicion, et cetera. But hopefully people are letting that go and opening up a little more, just because they’re tired.

GT They’re tired of what?

JJ They’re tired of late, 20th-century, modernist orthodoxy.

GT It seems like it’s not just inherent in new media, we were all very comfortable I think with the idea that one “ism” would lead to the next. And then we found ourselves in a place where all these “isms” were coexisting. Maybe you’re right, maybe it is just pure exhaustion, by the time you talk about pluralism, people have stopped doing that. Ideology isn’t going to work quite the same way in the art world anymore. And you’re right, new media became its own ideology.

People saw it, either good or bad, in terms of how it’s made. And that is probably unique to the last 20 years because most of the pros and cons had to do with the content … . I guess it was true of painting, when painting came back in the ‘80s after it went away, apparently. But new media did retain that intent focus upon how it’s made.

JJ Right, everything was broken up into two directions. There was art employing technology that strove for pure aesthetics, and there was art that engaged the technology it employed. And I would say in a lot of cases, the artists employing the first approach were really intent on being a part of the dominant system, the contemporary art transactional system that we know, if not totally love.

And the other folks were people who had resigned themselves to the small number of adventurous galleries that would show their work, and to festivals and other places. And now that’s changing.

GT Let’s go back to the idea of Eyebeam as a museum. It’s interesting that we are having this conversation here at the New Museum, because part of its history was trying to redefine what a museum of contemporary art could be. And they had to face all kinds of issues like, Can we have a collection if our mission is actually contemporary art? Which means we’re ahead of the curve in terms of collecting. I think one of the early solutions at the New Museum was we will buy things, but once it’s five years old, we have to get rid of it.

Which was, interestingly enough, something the MoMA once said too, until it acquired a Van Gogh, and decided that that was really not the right thing to do. The New Museum has changed its goal. But Eyebeam—it makes a lot of sense on paper, that there can be an architectural space in a certain piece of real estate where you can go and get an encyclopedic view of this thing called new media, or see the cutting edge of something called new media, and that collecting something called new media is the mission of this place.

And you were in that process to some degree, in going for the building, starting the design process and getting that great Diller & Scofidio design. Why did that implode? And did it implode, is that the right word for it?

JJ It was really perceiving that we were following a rhythm that was being dictated to us by the dominant cultural rhythm. We were just falling right into that.

Which brought to mind this idea of a missed opportunity, that there was so much missing. There was so much missing, and there are so many people, like readers of BOMB and the audience here tonight, who still feel that there is so much missing. So we thought, maybe we should take this great opportunity and try and do something different.

And in a way, that was really hard. It’s still hard for me to answer your question, “What is Eyebeam,” because we’re still figuring that out. And from a PR point of view, that’s death. You have to have your tagline. We’ve had taglines but I just … I can’t remember them. Maybe we’ll end up with one, but hopefully it will come from a good place.

So to try and answer your question more specifically, we began to think about, Well, can the artists have a different role in culture? How can we play a part in that? And in looking at the way we were doing things: Can we have an institution where it feels like a really safe place to take risks? Can we build that into an institution? Or are those things mutually exclusive?

For all of us, it’s really been a lab. We’ve been watching how things work, and looking at, for example, how we are “losing”—quote/unquote—institution memory. So now we are scrambling to try and remember the lessons we’ve learned.

GT Well, let’s go back a minute because it seems like it was such a simple idea, John. I mean, build a building, paint the walls white. The artists come in and they install their work. You put labels up. I mean, the museum model works, it’s very easy to apply. And you got there. You’re like this close, you’re going to open a museum of new media in New York and then shifted courses.

So let’s go back and say … what’s wrong with you? Why didn’t you just build the walls? What is the guiding principle behind why you are doing this, throughout your career, how does this fit? The idea that we are now denied this museum of new media, because there’s some other thing you’re after.

JJ Right. Well, it’s not so much that museums are bad, but that we wanted to try and do something different. I think there’s a yearning for something missing these days that’s felt really deeply, something that’s more fulfilling to take part in. And that’s why everyone who is at Eyebeam right now is there. On the most fundamental level, that’s what it is. And then beyond that, the opportunity to try and do something different.

GT I’m talking about your interest in process; it’s interesting how you get to that moment where it’s pretty clear how it can go, and that’s the institutional model, and you reject that. I think it’s a continuation of your really deeper interest in the process behind things. Let’s talk about where that comes from.

JJ Wow. Well, I took some time off when I was in college. And did a screenwriting program at NYU, and got invited to do some tutorial from there. And kind of as an offshoot from that, made a film. It was one of the best experiences of my life. A bunch of us lived in a farm house over the summer and made this film together. You know, stayed up late, formed a band and played music together, woke up too late, missed the shoot time. We did not know what we were doing at all.

But we had a fantastic, fantastic time, and made this film. And totally lucked out, sold it to South American television. Made 90 percent of the money back, which considering—if you saw the film, you’d be as shocked as I am. But actually, there was a lot about the film I was really happy with. The product had real heart. But more importantly, everyone engaged in making that film, really went somewhere in their life during that process. And so that was very impactful.

And then I made another film. Graduated from college and got an opportunity to direct a film based on a screenplay I had written—a much larger budget. And I had a horrible time making this picture. It had a lot to do with the money involved. At the time it was a typical low budget indie, just under a million bucks. And there was this new kind of feeling on the set. All these people were like, “Don’t pick up that sand bag, that’s my job.” “Okay, but we’re trying to … the sun is setting. We’re trying to get the shot. We’ve got to set up over here.” You know.

There were probably a lot of other factors. But I associated it with the budget, and with the fact that I was really green. Everyone was telling me, “Okay, you’re the new kid. We’re going to do you a favor and tell you how this goes. This is what you do and this is how you do it.” When I was done with that, I said, “I’ll never make another film again.” A horrible time.

Ironically, of course, this film, opens here in New York and in Los Angeles, has a nice long run on Showtime and the Sundance Channel, decent, you know, but I didn’t care. And so I became really interested in the first principles of engaging in any kind of activity. “Okay, why am I doing this again? Am I listening to someone else? What am I listening to? What are my assumptions?”

GT So you became more interested in the process behind the thing getting made, rather than the final product in that interface that people see.

JJ I think just double-checking that there is integrity. If you really look at the process—and this was back in the late ‘90s—if you really looked at the first principles of making a so-called independent film back then, it was make a film that will be distributed, for one. Two, make it for as little as possible without jeopardizing the first principle.

I thought to myself, What if you change those first principles, what would change? What if your first principle was to create an atmosphere in which to work where you and everyone you’re working with feels like they’re supported to do the best job they could dream of doing? And what if no one is sacrificing their integrity? Anyone who has worked on an independent film shoot as a PA, for example, knows that that’s all about sacrificing your integrity. So I looked at the system. And if you change just the first principles, everything in making a film changes. The entire institution changes.

Then I began to look at everything else I was doing regarding that. Change this, what else changes? So maybe you don’t build a museum of art technology. And my colleagues were right in line with me, if not preceding me, in realizing that.

GT So that became the impetus behind not doing it. It’s damned expensive to build such a thing.

JJ Right.

GT Already that’s a reason not to do it. But faced with the expense, faced with the idea of institutionalizing your institution and locking it into a certain moment, how did you come to the decision that that’s just not going to be the way it is?

JJ Well, we’re still planning to build the building.

GT You are?

JJ Yeah. But we are planning to build a very different kind of building. But nonetheless, it was tough in some ways and very easy in other ways. Tough in some ways, because our public relations consultant—you know, all the people who were invested in the idea, people for example who were giving us money, these people were invested in the idea of being a part of the MoMA of the 21st-century, it was a very shaky thing. So that was very tough.

On the other hand, all of us know when we do things that feel right, and in that sense it was very easy. It was easy for all of us. Now we are working with Liz and Rick and Diller & Scofidio, the architects, to develop something that is much more in line with the kinds of things we’re going to be doing, not projecting the same kind of authority or saying, “Okay, we are going to tell you what to think.”

GT How would that work? Will there still be exhibition spaces? Will there be more of an educational component? Will it become like an atelier or like a college?

JJ Well, it can hopefully work on a whole bunch of different levels. But the first level is what do you see when you’re walking down the street? What is this place projecting? Is it instantly readable as a museum? It’s very hard to do that. We wanted to create a place that was … that wasn’t easy to pin down as either a library or a museum. People work so hard to do just the opposite. If an architect’s client wants to build a “mansion,” that client really wants it to look like a mansion. Hence the columns and the tacky brass chandelier hanging above the front door, et cetera. So all of a sudden we are trying to do something truly new and that takes a lot of thought. It’s hard.

GT So it sounds like you’re mostly guided though by this collaborative notion. The mission statement of what Eyebeam is would be in the collaborative process behind the work that you do.

JJ Yeah, one of the things that we’re still experimenting with, and will be for years, is figuring out all the different ways that artists can plug in to Eyebeam. It was very important to all of us that there be some level of democratic access to stuff so that it’s not just a highly filtered program where three or four people a year come in and work but rather that we are really engaging with our community of artists, our friends who are artists and designers, creating a mix with all those people who have been marginalized to one degree or another. And that there are other programs that are perhaps more specialized as well. And in all those, there is collaboration.

GT So there comes the moment in the life of the founding of an institution in its early years—and again it’s funny that we are in the New Museum saying this—but where it can be very difficult for the founding director to hand it over to someone else. But this is what you plan is to do now, right? You’re leaving in May?

JJ Well, I’m not leaving. I’m staying on as chairman of the board. Eyebeam has been incredibly rewarded, over the last couple of years especially. On a funding level, which is a harsh reality for every arts institution, we’ve really started to get recognized by private foundations and other funding sources. And we’ve reached a level of momentum. Simultaneously, we’ve reached a level of self-realization in terms of what we are trying to achieve. I think we all feel like we are at this point in a slingshot, the furthest back, ready to let go. And one of the things that I really wanted to avoid was founder-itis, where the person who happened to have the idea—as we know, ideas are just out there and anyone can grab them. I happened to launch it, but that doesn’t mean I have the skill to be an executive director, to really take it to the next level. We are thinking to find someone who can do that. And that is exciting to us, bringing in a new person on the team who can make that happen for us. That is really exciting to me.

GT That’s like trying to replace your position without necessarily replace you. It’s not like you’re vanishing into the sunset. You will still be very much an active part of it but you will be giving over the reins of the day to day life of this place to someone else, who may take it in different places, might have their own sense of vision.

JJ I hope so. I’ll know that things are going really well, if that happens.

GT That’s going to be tough, don’t you think? There are so many decisions that are made in the course of a life of work, the debates and the arguments you’ve had about painting the floors blue. Suddenly you come in and they’re purple, because the new executive director said, “Purple it is.”

JJ Right.

GT And you have to like step back and say, “Purple it is, because I chose this person.”

JJ My colleagues at Eyebeam would say I’m already used to that. One of the things that makes Eyebeam different from a lot of places is the great degree of autonomy people have there. That is something I really believe in supporting. I’ve tried to, somewhat successfully as an executive director, help different people’s stars shine brightly and support them. Being a good executive director for a place like Eyebeam is less about being a rock star and more about being a good listener. If you’re running a place that is reflecting culture, then you’ve really got to listen to what’s percolating up, and support that.

GT That does fall away from the museum model more towards the collaborative. Because in a collaborative situation, ideally—and you’ve talked about groups like Fluxus and the Bauhaus being inspirational to you —is that it really is about the gifts of the individual people who are involved, and not about creating the position that could be filled again if someone departs. You don’t have a curator of new media who, once the former curator leaves, the new one comes in with perhaps different goals and ideas, but they continue that defined function. The rock band as models is a good one, you know, there may always need to be a bass player but it may be in an entirely different direction.

JJ That’s my hope. Because only then is it going to be a really safe place to take risks. My hope is that we can create a playground. Play is really important. If we just create some very wide boundaries and say, “Okay, in here is where we are going to work. And you’re being welcomed into our family as a new executive director,” Anything in this wide area is fair game. And you’re here because we all believe in you.

GT So what are you going to do with all your time? I guess I should say. What do you want to do with yourself? Golf? (laughter) Would you consider golf?

JJ No. But I’m starting research on a book on art production systems. I’ve been thinking a lot about how hard it was getting Eyebeam going, and how hard it is for artists and art institutions to support artists making work, especially work that is technically challenging in any way, whether it’s sculpture or technology-based work, or whatever. There’s a lot of reinventing the wheel. I’ve been starting to research the idea of creating a survey to see if any patterns of success emerge, things like that, so art institutions in the future can learn from Eyebeam’s experiments and see works. If they are really focussed on helping artists benefit from some recorded lessons.

GT So a time of reflection then, figuring out what you’ve learned in life thus far and how to get it out there.

JJ Yeah.

GT Your father, John Seward Johnson, is a sculptor who does bronze casting and very realistic sculpture. He is known for doing—

JJ Hyper-realist bronzes. Double Check.

GT Double Check, what’s that?

JJ Double Check is a bronze sculpture my dad did of a businessman down at the World Trade Center, checking his briefcase. And it received lots of press recently, because it was one of the few artworks to survive 9/11 relatively intact and is being incorporated as a memorial.

GT It was at the center of a very memorable Magnum photograph; it looks like a man sitting on a bench looking at his briefcase, except that he is covered completely in debris from 9/11. You’ve all seen that picture in the paper. And he recently had a retrospective that traveled. It was at the Corcoran, I know.

JJ Yes.

GT I find it interesting, that you grew up in an artist’s studio so you know the process behind the thing being made. Your dad’s work certainly wouldn’t have been considered new media at the time it was made. It was in fact a traditional media, and he perpetuated that media, making it possible to survive. But there’s a similarity in what you are doing and the studio process that you grew up in. Talk about that.

JJ Well, you know, it’s funny because once Eyebeam was officially founded, and we were working on putting together the web site, I thought, I’ve never looked at the Johnson Atelier web site, I should check that out. And I came across this founder’s statement where my dad said—it was obviously written a little while back—”Sculpture, being the most technology-intensive art,” he was leaving film out of it at that point, “artists really need support in making this happen.”

Now, at the time when my dad founded Johnson Atelier, these foundries were bound up in trade secrets. So as an artist, you would essentially drop your work off and be totally disengaged with the process of fabricating the piece. And what my dad did in creating Johnson Atelier, which is essentially a school, was blow that wide open. So all of a sudden, everyone—students, the artists themselves—were engaged in the fabrication and very intimately a part of that process. It became clear that there was a ton of unconscious influencing once I came across that.

GT That very direct link. I worked in a foundry for a few summers in Alabama. Damn, was that hot. But it really changed the way I thought about bronze, because when a sculpture is completed, the bronze is this solid, pure thing that could never have been any different. But when you’re involved in the day-to-day work of it—a lot of work you do is grunt work. And there is no special way to pour the bronze; it’s just hot. There’s no special way to chip off that stuff, it’s just hard to do.

And so when you get involved in the process that closely—you were probably seeing the making of things as often as you were seeing the thing itself in a beautiful space, which is how most people encounter it. So that’s interesting. And it seems to have scarred you for life. (laughter)

JJ In a wonderful disfigurement.

Q & A

GT Well, we’ve been at this for a little while. Maybe this is the part where we ask people if they want to ask questions. Yes?

Audience Member 1 It’s interesting to hear you talk about museums, breaking down the mold. I’ve been looking at museums for awhile as a kind of constipated conservative that never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. They keep on going in and repeating the same things over and over again. And I looked at it from the perspective of a social sculpture, how it brings all these people together, and yet there’s so little that really goes on in the interactive sense. And I was just wondering, when people leave Eyebeam, the future of Eyebeam, what do you want them to feel?

JJ What a nice question. I think there are a lot of things. This does connect for the time being very directly to technology. I think people feel pretty disengaged. And they don’t even know it. In other words, they don’t realize they’re disengaged. For example, not that many people know how many thousands new surveillance cameras are here in downtown Manhattan over the last couple of years. So my hope would be that people would feel much more connected, but in a very conscious way, not in a kind of, you know, “Here, we are just going to plug you in” way, for starters.

GT What would they see that would cause them to think that? Well, thinking about the visitor’s experience to Eyebeam, not an artist participant who would be more engaged, but someone who is there for a visit.

JJ A specific project, an artist piece that came through Eyebeam, is an excellent example of this. We happen to have the artist with us tonight, Marie Sester. Her piece Access is an overhead spotlight that employs motion tracking software, it tracks a person through a crowded room. In addition to that, it employs something called an audio spotlight so that if you are the individual that the piece is focussed on, you are potentially hearing something that I, even this close to you, am not hearing. So you are having a very isolated experience and at the same time a very connected experience, because all of a sudden, everybody is looking at you. And so you’re being confronted with all these issues around surveillance and your relationship to other people in a public space.

Obviously that experience allows for a multiplicity of feelings, because people are going to react to it with whatever baggage they carry. Some people, little kids of course say, “At last, this is what I’ve been waiting for.” And when the piece was demo-ed in Japan where their culture is much more oriented around not standing out, people were less comfortable with it. But as a result, they became profoundly aware of their relationship among that technology, their own culture, and their feelings.

Audience Member 2 You just mentioned that you are very interested in the systems of the production of art work that exists. If you look around you see the plethora of buildings or museums that have had over the last years expanded in the states or internationally; hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent, there seems to be a lot of support for that. In your experience, when you were planning this whole program for Eyebeam—what was your projected budget?

JJ 60.

Audience Member 60, 70 million dollars. Did you feel that it was easier to get support for that as opposed to support for production of new work? And if so, why is that? And the last question is, do you think it will ever change and do you think that Eyebeam has a role in trying to make that change?

JJ Oh, boy, I hope so. Any development person will tell you that it’s much easier to raise money for a building. And I think there are a lot of contributing factors. One, the culture of people with money—let me get to that in a second. The other thing is the distance people feel from contemporary art right now. So a building is a much easier thing to engage with. We have much more practice engaging with a building and with architecture, as a people here in this country, than we do with a difficult challenging piece of art. So it’s just easier, and people can relate to it.

So I think that distance is at fault in the culture of art support. There is an interesting writer/sociologist, he’s dead now, Pierre Bordieu, who talks about the genetics of cultural institutions and the way they replicate their power structures. He coined the term “cultural capital,” how these people who have money receive more education, collect more cultural capital, and in turn dictate the structures. And the cycle continues, continues, continues, with trustees, dot-com or ’80s boom money. People with those mentalities become trustees of museums and help to create direction there. And then you have dot-com money becoming trustees and benefactors, and influencing direction there. And I too hope Eyebeam can be a part of something different.


Audience Member 4 It would seem to me that for a part of your museum, there should be something like a laboratory, a kind of groping in the dark thing. I mean, do you have something like that?

GT What do you mean, “a groping in the dark thing?”

Audience Member 4 Well, when you have a great idea, but you’re not really sure how it is going to come out. You need time and support to work it out, and most institutions don’t have those kinds of possibilities. In other words, you present them with something that’s already done, instead of, “Well, I’m beginning to think about this and I would like the time to develop it. Plus maybe the expertise and the media and whatever it is else that I might need in order to develop it.”

GT That’s a very interesting idea, the idea that an institution can, instead of presenting the authoritative view, “Give me 45 minutes and I’ll give you the history of post-Impressionism,” is saying, “Help us to understand what this thing is. Be a part of that process of understanding what this thing is.”

Audience Member 4 Yes.

JJ Well, sometimes I feel like my department is the groping in the dark department. But in reality, we have an R&D department that is exploring how to support a process of exploration and figuring out if we want to try and just help a couple of artists in a significant way, a la Dia. Or do we want to sacrifice some of that end to make room for the larger community of artists to come in and be a part? A lot of this flows out of what I think is the holdover modernist picture of who an artist is. Is an artist really an isolated specialist in an ivory tower? Or is an artist an actor in culture who is part of a network and influencing the world? I think Eyebeam takes the latter perspective. And if that’s the case, then why not support the R&D process? We are still figuring out how to do that. So, we are very open to ideas.

Audience Member 4 Well, of course, at MIT there is the Center for Advanced Visual Study, but that wasn’t as collaborative as a think tank.

JJ Right, and a think tank in some respects is different, because you look at the different ways that artists can plug in to a think tank; it’s invitational. With any kind of institution like that, you’ve got to look at where the money is coming from and what’s attached to the money. I think that’s huge. Institutional leaders and cultural leaders aren’t paying enough attention to the implications that come with that.

GT One more.

Audience Member 5 I have two more very short questions. How many more video surveillance cameras are there in downtown Manhattan? (laughter)

GT Washington Square Park is insane, I know that.

JJ Yeah. I believe, over a thousand more.

Audience Member 5 Really?

JJ Yeah, as a result of this joint program we did, the ACLU’s web site or their database was updated, and I think there are over a thousand more. I could be wrong, but it was a shocking number. It might even be more than that.

GT I remember the article about a year ago in the New York Times that covered that. It showed how many different ways you’re documented on an average walk. It’s kind of fascinating and scary.

JJ This is one of the great things about that program. All these people off the street signed up for this program. They went out like they were bird-watching, and by the end of the day or a week later, they could be walking down the street with a friend and they’d say, “Oh, by the way, that’s a Sony RSU, that is an infrared camera. That’s typically employed by the state, that is not a commercial camera.” With those cameras, someone is monitoring it all the time. So we could actually wave and be waving to someone right now.

Audience Member 5 What would be the reason, to prevent crime? What is the excuse for these cameras?

JJ Surveillance, period, but I think the reason is always to increase order.

GT I should have a pithy summary statement, then. Will that pass for one? (laughter)

BETSY SUSSLER I wanted to thank both of you for doing this interview. That was really informative. I want to thank the New Museum for having us. (applause_) And I want to thank all of you for your time and for being such a great audience. This is going to be on the Internet, a short excerpt of the audio and the whole transcript will be on Eyebeam’s web site, on BOMB’s web site, and on the New Museum’s web site. So thank you all for coming. (_applause)

We do have another in our series coming up on March 4th. And it will be Glenn Ligon, the artist, interviewing Thelma Goldman of the Studio Museum.

GT That’s going to be great. That is such a great pair.

BS This was great too.

GT This was very good, but that is going to be great! (laughter)

JJ Thanks, Grady.

GT My pleasure.