The vast museum is empty and silent, save the slow tinkling of piano keys and the sound of water gurgling in an unseen fountain. Every now and then mechanical jellyfish-like creatures billow by with a gentle wheeze. They are pods, and disoriented visitors might do well to latch on to one for a ride, toward the open museum atrium that looks like nothing so much as giant dendrites.
That ride, like the entire visit and the pods themselves, is virtual. Travelers make their way there by computers typing www.adobemuseum.com into their browsers, from anywhere in the world.
But the new Adobe Museum of Digital Media does have a real architect, Italian designer Filippo Innocenti. He conceived the open ovoid shapes of the virtual base, as well as three 50-story-high palm frond—like white towers to archive exhibitions yet to happen. A disembodied female voice on the website informs us the structure would be roughly 620,000 square feet, if realized. But the building will, of course, never be constructed: it is a place-holder for the mental space a museum might occupy.
Adobe, the 28-year-old American software company, decided to open an online museum at the suggestion of its advertising agency, San Francisco—based Goodby Silverstein & Partners. Agency founding partner Rich Silverstein is the “museum director.” It might all seem like a marketing stunt, except for the fact that Adobe has enlisted some art-world heavyweights to help lend the project legitimacy. Adobe does not have an official collection in its real-world office, nor will it disclose costs for its online museum. (The company’s total revenues for 2009 were nearly $3 billion.) Through March 2011, since its opening the previous October, 291,000 unique visitors had clicked through the museum, which had more than 12,600 members.
The debut exhibition is Tony Oursler’s “Valley.” Oursler worked closely on the commission with the Adobe Museum’s curator, Tom Eccles, the executive director of Bard College’s Center for Curatorial Studies and the former director of the Public Art Fund. Eccles does double duty as the “guide” character within Oursler’s piece for the site.
“Valley” takes shape as a lonely red icon in a virtual gallery near the atrium, accompanied by one of Oursler’s familiar bulbous bloodshot animatronic eyes. Here, of course, the eye is not animatronic but purely digital. It takes the traveler first inside a bright red mouth, and then into a dark screen with aqua-green illustrations and handwritten titles for different virtual zones, including “Uncanny Valley,” “Fantasy,” “Experimental,” and “Dark Side.”
A traveler clicks on one of the sketches and confronts moving images of a beautiful woman and a schlumpy man, a hand writing inside a diamond, a magnifying glass, or a writhing placental sac, for example. The guide, a face in a bubble you can click on again and again—actually Eccles in facepaint— utters cryptic phrases such as “Rotten, take it apart” or “Slow it down, reverse it.”
Oursler’s piece effectively conveys the “rabbit hole” feeling of a bad web trip, where a single search leads to one diabolical and confusing place after another. The different zones “came out of a conversation about how we use the Internet, how the computer and digital world is somehow a reflection of ourselves,” says Eccles. “The mouse is in a way a prosthetic.” In its limited interactivity, “Valley” also feels, perhaps deliberately, a bit old-fashioned.
“Valley” was recently joined by a more direct lecture, on life and crafts, by artist-designer and Rhode Island School of Design president John Maeda, in the vein of a multimedia TED talk (the free online series of lectures). Next up will be a project by Japanese artist Mariko Mori.
“We’re essentially inventing a new kind of art experience,” Adobe’s senior vice president of global marketing, Ann Lewnes, wrote in an e-mail. “This means confronting challenges about how museum visitors will experience the virtual space. We had to think about giving visitors reference points so they don’t get lost.” The pods were one solution.
The Adobe Museum is hardly the first effort by an institution to maximize the potential of art online. The Whitney and Guggenheim museums, as well as the Dia Art Foundation and rhizome.org, initiated web commissions in the late 1990s and early 2000s, building substantial online infrastructure. Their efforts then slowed down or stopped altogether, but some, such as the Whitney and Dia, have restarted their commissioning of artists’ web projects over the past two years.
Still, the museum is one of the more recent and prominent endeavors to rethink how artists can create affecting esthetic experiences for people sitting at their computers. With tapping fingers and eyes as wide and potentially bloodshot as Oursler’s image, armchair travelers can find themselves inside an artist’s vision in a way that can be more absorptive than the din of a gallery. Currently, the experience is without a social component, although online talks and performances are planned. It’s as if it may take the power of modern technology to restore to us the contemplative pleasures of art, namely, slowness, silence, and solitude.
Carly Berwick is a contributing editor of ARTnews.