Books

Reading New Museum’s “Free” Catalogue

The New Museum's Free catalogue online (image from newmuseum.com/free)

The New Museum’s Free exhibition is based on the freedom of cultural exchange that has followed the advent of the internet and digital technology. Following up on that emphasis on online activity, the exhibition’s catalogue is entirely digital as well, a website-hosted document that’s somewhere between an online PDF and an interactive vertical blog. If you’re wondering why I’m reviewing a digital catalogue as a book, it’s because this is a book — it’s just online. Flipping through the catalogue, found here, is an inspiring experience that mimics the form of a print book while adapting the innovations of exhibition-websites like those found on MoMA’s site, just easier to use.

The catalogue website is divided into two columns, on the left side a table of contents and on the right a scrolling series of variously sized pages, like the leaves of a book splayed out. The relevant sections range through Artists, Essays, Events and Blog; clicking the table of contents link scrolls the pages to the appropriate section. The interactivity is a smooth, intuitive experience, which is a rare quality for online exhibition documentation and something that should be widely emulated. The New Museum’s Free catalogue condenses the exhibition to the familiar, fluent format of a blog, and succeeds in using it.

The visual aesthetic of the catalogue as well as its ease of use seems to owe much to the vertical format of Tumblr, though its simplicity is also reminiscent of early html websites. Rhizome Associate Director John Michael Boling designed the catalogue site while Jonathan Vingiano, now a New Museum staff member, realized it. The pair should be a given a lot of credit for sticking to a bare-bones execution that does wonder for the work of the exhibition itself.

Installation shot from the New Museum's “Free” (image from newmuseum.org)

The Artist section of the site goes through each artist included in the show, with high-res photos of their works and useful pop-up CVs. Publishers please note, this is soooo much better than flipping through a mammoth section in the back of a huge book. Essays currently contains an essay from Free curator Lauren Cornell, but will feature writing from Brian Droitcour, Caterina Fake, Ed Halter, and Joanne McNeil as well as the catalogue develops. Events is a directory of events the museum is hosting alongside the show, while Blog is … a blog, filled with multimedia artifacts from artists and shots of the show’s opening party. There’s still plenty of time for the blog to develop, but for now it’s more of a repository than any space for dialogue or commentary.

Still, that this catalogue is dynamic is a factor worth discussing. While the preconceived notion of a catalogue is as a static document of an exhibition, Free’s catalogue is never fixed, it is an interactive and reactive companion to the museum show. Integrated with social media and continuously updated, here we have a living display that will doubtless be seen by more people than the exhibition itself. This catalogue becomes a didactic exhibition in itself, and an effective one at that.

Lauren Cornell’s initial essay, “Walking Free,” takes the gambit of a free internet culture and runs with it, gathering and explaining her artists’ works in the context of the loosened boundaries of exchange and appropriation and the possibilities of a new digital arena of public space. It’s a good enough introduction, but I’m waiting on the later essays to flesh out more specific themes and points of reference within the show.

What the Free catalogue does well is provide an exemplary case for simplicity in the online presentation of exhibitions. Please, no more MoMA flash games. There’s a middle ground between overwrought marketing projects and the html lo-fi of the Whitney or the Metropolitan Museum’s websites, and this is it: a plain website with clean interactive features that serve as an excellent companion to an exhibition or a visual event in itself. Art institutions, please take note.

The Free catalogue is free and available online here.

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