Haptic Memory: Art Museums and the Internet

Martijn Stevens

Due to the rise of digital technologies, it is often argued that our sense of reality has been split into the 'real' reality of everyday life and the virtual reality of cyberspace. Therefore, our experience of location is said to be schizoid, since it is continuously pending between the tangibility and closeness of actual places, and the abstract, immaterial global flows of virtual space. The digitization of museum collections offers an excellent example of these opposing notions of spatiality. Actual artefacts are stripped from their material qualities and removed from their physical exhibition spaces, to pop up on the Internet as virtual, hyperlinked objects.

Focusing on Tate Online, I will contend that the digitization of art works forces us to rethink conventional notions of spatiality. The virtual domain of cyberspace is not opposed to the 'real' space of the museum. Rather, they intersect and merge in many ways. Digital technologies encompass a shift in our familiar structures of perception and experience, thus amounting to a new sensibility. Following Deleuze and Guattari, I would like to propose that temporal and geographic distances become obsolete. They are substituted by other notions of closeness or remoteness, such as affinity, connectivity and presence.

The Deleuzian concepts of 'becoming' and 'virtuality' are very useful in overcoming the traditional opposition between real space and virtual space. Using Deleuze's notion of virtuality, Elizabeth Grosz rightly stresses the point that the virtual reality of computer space is fundamentally not different from the virtual reality of a work of art. Furthermore, as Tate Online clearly demonstrates, the Internet offers new ways of interacting with art works that are not physically present. Introducing my recent research on Tate's digital programmes and elaborating on the notion of becoming-art, I will argue that 'virtual reality' is not an oxymoron.

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