Interview with Sarah Tucker (Dia)

Dia Art Foundation, New York, April 6, 2009


Founded in 1974, the New-York based Dia Art Foundation is internationally renowned for initiating, supporting, presenting, and preserving art projects. Dia is an important forum for cross-disciplinary art and for art criticism in the international art world.

Sara Tucker, together with curator Lynne Cooke, has been responsible for Dia's web projects since the series began in 1995. She began working at Dia at the end of 1990 after studying German and film. At the time there was only one computer in the institution. Today she is not only responsible for the production of the web projects, but is also Dia’s Information Technology Manager. PACKED staff member Rony Vissers spoke with her.


Dia's first major projects, undertaken in the late 1970s, were site-specific works by artists such as Walter De Maria and Max Neuhaus, which were unlikely to be accommodated by conventional museums because of their nature or scale. Today, Dia owns a large and important collection of pop art, minimal art, conceptual art and land art that has been exhibited at the Dia:Beacon museum in the Hudson Valley north of New York City since 2003. Dia also organizes temporary exhibitions, lectures and discussions about contemporary art.

Dia is one of the few art institutions for whom the Internet was already, by the middle of the 90’s, more than just a medium used to announce their activities in the physical world. A few of the web projects commissioned by Dia since 1995 are linked to an exhibition, but more than 30 are autonomous artworks. Amongst the artists who have created a web project for Dia are: Ana Torfs, David Claerbout, Francis Alÿs, Stephen Vitiello, Rosa Barba, Marijke Van Warmerdam, and Kristin Lucas.

The projects on Dia’s website are accompanied by an introductory text containing a short biography of the artist and a description of the project's concept. This is unusual in the field of, but is part of the informative and educational role that Dia has provided since it was founded.


PACKED: How did Dia come to start commissioning web projects? How does the commissioning of such web projects fit into the mission and history of the institution?

Sarah Tucker: Dia started pretty early with the commissioning of web projects, in 1995. Our director then was Michael Govan. He had just seen the Warhol Museum website, one of the very first museum websites. Although their website was mostly like a brochure, he thought that the web could be a great medium for artists to work in.

At the same time we were doing a rooftop performance with Tony Oursler, Constance DeJong, and Stephen Vitiello. Michael asked them whether they would like to take the material that they were using there to make a web-based version. Their website Fantastic Prayers1 is the result. It worked pretty well and people were excited about it.

Michael felt that web projects would fit in really well with Dia because the heart of the institution’s mission is to make projects happen that might not otherwise, because of their scale or their nature. This also goes for the long-term nature of projects like Walter De Maria’s The Lightning Field 2 and The New York Earth Room.3 Another aspect of Dia’s mission is to provide direct and unmediated experiences with artworks. This is illustrated at our museum, Dia:Beacon, by the lack of wall text. The institution tries to become invisible as much as possible. The web is a great medium for that. Once the visitor is past the title page and into the artwork, it is a very direct experience. This was also appealing. And then Dia had a history of working with Robert Whitman,4 one of the very early experimental artists working with new media. The commissioning of web projects seemed like a good thing all round.


PACKED: What is remarkable is that Dia has not opted for the hosting of existing web projects, but for the commissioning of new web projects.

Sarah Tucker: Yes, we have always worked by commission. We invite an artist to make a new project rather than soliciting for proposals. There were three exceptions to that.

Fantastic Prayers by Tony Oursler, Constance DeJong, and Stephen Vitiello existed as a performance before we invited them to do a web project. Also Komar + Melamid’s project The Most Wanted Paintings5 existed prior to being a website. But just by its very nature [The Most Wanted Paintings] seemed so perfect for the web. It was so data intensive. They commissioned market research companies in different countries to survey people about what they wanted most in a painting. Then they would make a most wanted painting for each country, and a least wanted painting. It is pretty funny, actually. Then we did a web-based survey. This project plays up to what was happening on the Internet at that time. The web was just becoming very popular. People were doing online surveys all the time. Three thousand people completed [Komar + Melamid's survey]. And more recently we did The New Five-Foot Shelf6, a similar project with Allen Ruppersberg. It was just a vast amount of information. He produced a kind of encyclopaedia of which only ten copies exist. Not that many people could see them. It fit naturally to the format of a web project because all information was indexed and could be hyperlinked. It had such a great content, and not a lot of people could access it. All other projects have been commissioned specifically for our series.


PACKED: Another remarkable thing is that most of Dia’s web projects are created by artists who are best known for work they have created in other media.

Sarah Tucker: Yes, but at the beginning of the series there weren't really any Internet artists. There were some people just starting, like Olia Lialina,7 for whom this was their primary artistic medium. As we got going, we wanted to try and bring in different perspectives and a wide range of backgrounds, so from the start we worked with a choreographer, with the architects Diller & Scofidio,8 with painters and video artists…this diversity has been a specific criteria as we've advanced with the project. Our curator Lynne Cooke tries to pick artists who bring a different project or voice to their commission.

What is nice about working with artists for whom the Web is not their primary medium is that they are not aware of the limitations. Lynne is very consistent about picking artists who are not only great artists but also very great people. They are all ready for something that is a bit different and challenging. I haven’t encountered anybody who insisted on something that was technologically impossible.


PACKED: Since Dia commissions projects from artists who haven’t worked with the Web before, it is often difficult to know what to expect from them.

Sarah Tucker: Right, we don’t know. Sometimes the creation process takes a long time. We are very artist-focused, and that’s another thing that is unique about Dia. We can be flexible, even if an artist might need a few extra years. There is no very specific deadline. We can wait to set a date until their idea is pretty much conceived, when we can then develop a plan and know how long it will take to produce. For some artists from invitation to launch date it has been as much as four years. David Claerbout’s project9 was a record. I think his project took only four months or something.


PACKED: How are the websites actually produced? The programming isn't done by the artists or their assistants, but by people that you contact, correct?

Sarah Tucker: That’s right. Only one artist did everything himself: Feng Mengbo,10 who is in China. And then Maja Bajevic11 found a programmer to work with because she was going to be in Sarajevo and it would have been inconvenient to travel to New York at the time it needed to be made. She worked with a Flash programmer in Sarajevo.


 Maja Bajevic, I Wish I Was Born in a Hollywood Movie, 2006,, courtesy: Dia Art Foundation


PACKED: Do you make some kind of contract with the artists when you commission a project determining the fact that the web projects become part of Dia’s collection?

Sarah Tucker: No, we don’t accession the projects. They aren’t in Dia’s permanent collection. And that’s mostly because Dia’s permanent collection is very historically specific. The agreement that we have with the artists is that we maintain the exclusive right to host it on the Internet, but they own the artwork. They can sell the artwork to people who want to run it locally.

And then there are some things that we agree to work out together if the situation should arise. Like Glenn Ligon’s piece Annotations12 which was part of a big travelling show of his work. We worked with the organising institution to make them a copy that would work locally and there was a loan fee that we split with the artist. When situations arise for loans, or if another institution wants to acquire the piece, then we work out things individually on a case by case base.


PACKED: How does this working method affect the conservation of the web projects?

Sarah Tucker: The agreement with the artists is that it is our intention to host them indefinitely. But if the situation ever arose when we were unable to do so, then the right to host the work online reverts back to the artists.

And also about making changes, the language in the agreement is that if a change would alter the functionality or the look of the work then we consult the artist to make sure that they are in agreement with what we want to do. If it is just to change code to make sure that it works with the new browser, then we don’t bother them.


PACKED: Is there a big difference in the approach to web projects compared with other art works from an institutional point of view?

Sarah Tucker: I would say that the approach is very similar. Even our physical exhibitions try to plan a schedule around the progression of the artist’s idea, how the timeline of the artist’s idea is developing. It is a lot like the exhibition program that Lynne has curated for many years for the space on 22nd Street.13 She invited artists to do site-specific artwork, and then worked with them over time as they developed their idea. And then Dia has, like in a museum, a team of construction people or installers who help realise the artist’s idea in the same way that I help the artists in the Web to realise it. But I guess that we have a little bit more flexibility.


 Glenn Ligon, Annotations, 2003,, courtesy: Dia Art Foundation


PACKED: Can you imagine a point where it may no longer be possible to take care of these works, when it becomes too complex or too expensive?

Sarah Tucker: It’s hard to say, but I feel that actually hosting the files on the Internet is not that much of a commitment now that Internet access is such a commodity. In terms of preservation, I feel that if browsers change so fundamentally that all the content that's out there right now doesn’t work anymore, someone is going to build simulators that you will be able to use to access the content. I can’t really see any near term end to these being accessible.


PACKED: Technology becomes obsolete, and maintenance is especially important because the technology changes. During the production process, do you already take into account the fact that the project might need changes in the future?

Sarah Tucker: To a certain degree. We try to make decisions based on what the current situation is in terms of browsers and bandwidth. Bandwidth is now so ubiquitous that we pretty much assume that visitors are going to have a broadband connection. But at the beginning that was so rare that we tried to make projects that would not suffer if they were viewed with a low bandwidth connection. There was some time in between where it was a little questionable where we would go, and we went for broadband knowing that that was coming.

With the projects that have used video and audio, we keep higher resolution masters. Because if someday broadband becomes even faster, we may post a full-screen video with high quality audio. For instance with Barbara Bloom’s project Half Full – Half Empty14 or Liliana Porter’s project Rehearsal.15 When it is a video and audio, almost every artist would rather have it bigger and better. The resolutions are always the biggest that we can do with the most quality and yet are still not obscenely large in terms of file size.


PACKED: Do you create upgrades of the projects? Do you adapt projects according to new technological possibilities?

Sarah Tucker: We haven’t changed things. Once things are launched, they stay as they are. We have gone back and fixed some things that stopped working because of browser changes. The one that was really seriously reprogrammed was Susan Hiller’s project. She did a project called Dream Screens.16 I’m not sure whether Flash17 in 1996 already existed. If it did it was new and people didn’t really have it yet. So we did it in HTML. But it had limitations that Susan Hiller was really uncomfortable with. The Flash version of the project is a little different from the original version, but only in ways that she wanted initially. It almost functions identically, except that it works better. This is the only one that has been completely re-engineered.


PACKED: When I first contacted you for an interview about the preservation of Dia’s web projects, you told me that it has been a problematic area for you.

Sarah Tucker: It hasn’t been as systematic as I would like. I would like to take the Variable Media Network18 guidelines and go back over the projects with each artist to confirm their intentions and wishes in my memory so that someone else could come into this job twenty years from now. What is lacking today is a systematic documentation.

It hasn’t been a huge problem of ours yet because I have been here the whole time, so I remember everything. But where I can, I would like to start making notes and organizing assets, so that if I get hit by a bus, someone else can come in and reconstruct things.


PACKED: Earlier you told me about the possibility of enlarging the size of the video images in the future. Going bigger is interesting. Over the last couple of years screens have become bigger. But at the same time the choice of resolution also becomes more complex because we also use smaller and smaller screens. Think about our notebooks, our cell phones …

Sarah Tucker: Exactly. From the iPhone to the top 24” screen, with almost 2000 pixels. I think that a lot of people are used to web browsers living in boxes on these big screens. But as a designer you have to pick a resolution... You can make some things a little flexible on the Web, but most sites have a maximum after which it floats a little anyway.


 Dorothy Cross, FOXGLOVE: digitalis purpurea, 2005,, courtesy: Dia Art Foundation


PACKED: When you start programming the work, do you follow certain rules or standards that would make the maintenance and the preservation of the work a little bit easier, like respecting the HTML standard, a clear folder structure …?

Sarah Tucker: We try to do it in a way that would make sense to someone coming and looking at it. We organize assets and folders appropriately and try to choose the most common technology available. If it is possible to do what an artist wants in strict HTML, then we just do it in HTML, with JPEGs, because their lifespan is really long, hopefully forever. For Prometheus Bound19 by Tim Rollins and K.O.S. we used animated GIFs.

If it is something that requires more complex animations, we use Flash. Except for David Claerbout’s project we didn’t use Director20 at all because it seemed problematic to me from the very beginning. Just like Shockwave21 and others. Flash was always a little more elegant and seemed faster. It quickly got the momentum. Since Flash has been really good at making all of their players backward compatible those projects have continued to work. Our very first Flash project was in 1999, and it still works.

There are also a few projects that have QuickTime22 movie streams in them, but almost all of our projects are HTML or Flash based.


PACKED: Some of your web projects are screensavers. Are these problematic?

Sarah Tucker: I think that we have got maybe four projects with screensaver now. The most recent one Is Ezra Johnson’s Wrestling with the Blob Beast.23 He made 16 different screensavers. They are stop-motion animation like a William Kentridge film made from drawings, but Ezra’s animations are painting based. The project isn’t utilizing the web specifically as a medium; it is more using the web as a distribution medium. I think that it is an interesting use of it as well. One of the screensavers is called Disturbing the Peace and has a script in Flash that randomly generates when a boat is going to come across the screen and from which direction.

I do recompile the screensavers. I just did it recently with Francis Alÿs's project The Thief.24 There is now an OS X version and a Windows Vista compatible version available. Whether the screensavers are problematic in terms of maintenance depends on the kind of software you use. We use this software called Screentime.25 They have an application that converts Flash files to screensavers. The source of all of our screensavers is Flash.


PACKED: When we talked earlier about screen size, we also mentioned Internet access through cell phones. You already created a project in 2002 for Palm PDAs, handheld computers that were very popular at the time. Can you tell us something about it?

Sarah Tucker: The project, which was Palm-based, was Tap26 by James Buckhouse in collaboration with Holly Brubach. It required Palm OS 3.1 operating system and its resolution was adapted to the little Palm screens. The technology is now completely out of date. Palm kind of lost the battle over the PDA markets.27

It was this little male or female dancer that lived on Palm. Once you put the dancer on, it had to practice steps before it would start making mistakes. You could choreograph a series of steps and then share them in a dance archive or you could beam them. Some of the Palms could beam wirelessly. You could beam the dancer to another person, but you could also beam the choreography back and forth. The programmer, Scott Snibbe28, is a really well-known artist who does interactive installations.


PACKED: You mentioned the recompiling of Francis Alÿs’s screensavers earlier. Have you done some special maintenance work for Ana Torf’s project?29

Sarah Tucker: Not with Ana’s project. Hers was made in 2004 and is new enough. During the production process she cared a lot about quality. I agree that it was worth the files being relatively large so that she could have the quality of image and sound that she wanted. It still looks good. They are not huge files, but I also think that they don’t need to be - it fits. They are kind of portrait scale.


 Liliana Porter, Rehearsal, 2008,, courtesy: Dia Art Foundation


PACKED: And the framing of the pictures fits well with the book projects that she has done…

Sarah Tucker: Exactly. I do have higher quality source files for her project. So, maybe down the road if we want to we could recompile it with higher quality video and audio but I think that they are still pretty good. And the size is also still pretty good.


PACKED: And David Claerbout’s project?

Sarah Tucker: For David’s project I haven’t done anything yet. His project is specially complicated because it is a downloadable application30 which is specific to operating systems. Whereas things like Flash have always been backward compatible, operating systems wouldn’t allow it. It is a really nice project. It does some things that David was very specific about wanting, in that it actually removes the files when it’s done.

The downloadable application is available for both PC and Mac. The PC version still seems to run under Windows Vista but one of these days I have to find out whether Vista also allows a script to delete the files automatically. The Mac version doesn’t run anymore under the current Mac OS X.


PACKED: How do you check whether a web project needs maintenance work? Do you perform regular checks? Or do you only do maintenance work when someone informs you that he/she has encountered a problem visiting the work?

Sarah Tucker: I don’t regularly go through and check everything. There are also so many variables in terms of platforms and what browser you are using that it would take two fulltime jobs to do just that.

But I do get emails occasionally. I remember that when OS X came out, that’s when I got emails saying "I can’t get Francis Alÿs’ screensaver to work on my new computer". I didn’t have a Mac, so I had no idea. But then we got the new software and so we recompiled it. Sometimes people do still write.

We also host a project called Do you want love or lust?31 by Claude Closky - the project with all those questions. One person copy-edited the whole thing after we launched it. He went through all 3000 questions systematically, and emailed me when he hit one with an error.


PACKED: If there are no regular checks, then is there a security system that prevents visitors hacking into web projects? If someone actually systematically went through Claude Closky’s 3000 questions, then I imagine that there may be someone out who would also like to change the questions, which would damage the authenticity of the work. In the physical world some museum visitors also damage work, or hang their own work between those of a museum collection.

Sarah Tucker: It would mean someone getting access to our server. I’m not saying that is impossible, because we don’t have the resources of a bank to implement security, but there is not a lot of financial reward. Our server lives in what is called a DMZ32 which is behind the firewall. So that is one level of protection. I also try to be careful about how many user accounts there are and that we have secured passwords on them.

I’m not saying that such a form of hacking couldn’t happen, but it would mean a kind of vandalism like someone going and attacking a painting. What's a little different is that when a physical artwork gets attacked then it gets noticed pretty quickly. On our website it can go unnoticed.


 Claude Closky, Do you want love or lust?, 1997,, courtesy: Dia Art Foundation


PACKED: You mentioned the Variable Media Network earlier, which is a collaboration between the Guggenheim Museum, the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archives, the Daniel Langlois Foundation, and the Walker Art Center. Are you in contact with other art institutions like the Guggenheim Museum or the Walker Art Center about the maintenance of this kind of web projects?

Sarah Tucker: Not as much as I'd like to be. But it just comes down to time. If the maintenance and preservation of the web series were my only job, I would be way more active in that area. I would love to. At the moment it doesn’t fit in, but this may change.

We are working right now on a new website for the Dia:Beacon museum, and then after that I’m hoping that the preservation of the series of web projects can be a big focus for me. So, that’s like a year on from now. For a while we had our museum in development, and after Beacon opened, we had a whole new staff. There has been project after project, which has been very time-demanding. After this new website is done, there might be time for the preservation of the web projects.


PACKED: I can imagine that the Guggenheim Museum or the Walker Art Center is facing similar problems and that the maintenance of the web projects is also not the highest priority for them as a museum.

Sarah Tucker: I don’t know. I am curious who is responsible for it at the Walker Art Center, and how they are approaching it. Like we have the Stadiumweb,33 the Walker Art Center has the äda’web.34


PACKED: What is Stadiumweb?

Sarah Tucker: Stadiumweb is a series like the one that we do. It only existed for three years, but there were some really great projects in it. There were two people behind it, and when they decided that they couldn’t do it anymore, we decided to take their server and host it here. The server is really old, from about 1994, but it still keeps running. I only had to replace its fan a couple of times. I haven’t done any preservation on these projects yet.

One of the projects on Stadiumweb is Louise Lawler’s Without Moving/Without Stopping,35 a QuickTime VR project which was pretty new in 1998. Marciej Wisniewski’s Turnstile, Part I36 and Turnstile, Part II37 involved real-time programming. Such projects can only really exist now in documentation form. One of my favourite network pieces ever is Every Icon38 by John Simon Jr. It’s just a grid, 32 by 32. But over several billion years every possible image will appear in it. You will see puppies, and flowers… This piece reminds me of Walter De Maria’s The Vertical Earth Kilometer39 in a way, you can only see the beginning of it. John Simon Jr. has even sold personal editions of it.


PACKED: Does your series contain projects with hyperlinks to external websites? I can imagine that external components make the maintenance and the conservation of the projects more complex.

Sarah Tucker: Yes, there is Stephen Vitiello’s project Tetrasomia.40 It is more like a musical instrument. You can turn the different sounds on and off. And each of them has a link to the original source of the sound. He wanted to use the internet as a field recording, to gather sound that you can find online like a fruit fly courtship. You can turn different sounds on together. When you turn on a sound, the link pops up on the site. I have put the actual web address there so people might have a way to search for it later, and use the Wayback Machine.


PACKED: Is this the only project with links to external websites?

Sarah Tucker: We also have a piece with links that don’t work anymore: the project Refresh41 by Diller + Scofidio. They did a project for which we picked 12 different webcams. This was during the days when webcams were first becoming popular, when people had them in their offices. Diller + Scofidio constructed these fictions around the webcam. The web project consisted of live images from a webcam and fabricated timelines. All the images you saw were fabricated. They photoshopped42 them into a supposed office scene.


PACKED: So the original live images disappeared since the project went online?

Sarah Tucker: Yes, the original images are gone. When this project was first launched, there would actually be people in the offices. We asked for permission from each of the websites if they could be included and if they could try to keep the camera live for a year, in the same position. But they are all gone now. For preservation purposes we have recorded some of the live webcam streams. I think that I’ve grabbed twenty images of each of the websites in order to know what happened in their short live lifespan.


PACKED: Could the original webcam be replaced? Or were these specific webcams linked to the stories?

Sarah Tucker: They were connected. Diller + Scofidio would take one image when nobody was in there and then photoshop in these different people. If one were to replace the webcams, then one would also have to redo the photoshopping, which would be a big project. Thankfully they did it in their studio, and then mailed me the images.


PACKED: But then the question arises how to keep this kind of project alive on the Internet. I guess there is a text available that documents and explains the concept of the work.

Sarah Tucker: Yes, each one has a text. They all have an introduction. The webcam phenomenon, like the survey phenomenon from the Komar + Melamid project, was very specific to a moment in time. To try to keep it up-to-date with a natural live video camera would probably be impossible, and not even true to the project. I think that it is important to keep this accessible, but it’s almost as much a document of a project as a project.


PACKED: Another possibility would have been to record some of the webcam footage?

Sarah Tucker: Yes, like using footage of when it was first live.


PACKED: Do the artists who have been commissioned by Dia to create a project also have a copy of their own work? Or do they just provide you with the concept, the video and audio files… ?

Sarah Tucker: Apart from the fact that some projects have been shown separately in exhibitions where they didn’t have an Internet connection, nobody has really asked for a copy. For the projects that were shown in these exhibitions, they asked whether it was possible to make an offline version that they could use. Maybe some of them have copies of those. Maybe the other artists didn’t want them because they are online…


PACKED: When we spoke about the contract between Dia and the artists, you told me that the artists have the possibility of selling their work. You also told me that John Simon Jr. has sold personalized editions of his work Every Icon from the Stadiumweb. Have artists who have created a web project for Dia also sold copies of their work?

Sarah Tucker: Yes, they can sell copies of their work, but I don’t know one who has done so yet. They may have sold parts of it. I am pretty sure that Arturo Herrera sold the drawings, but I don’t think he sold his web piece Almost Home43 itself.


PACKED: How many web projects does Dia commission per year?

Sarah Tucker: Our average is about two a year. Last year we had three in a row because one got delayed from the previous year. But our average is more like two. For two years during the late nineties we were commissioning three a year. It has slowed down a bit now. But there's no end in sight yet.


(Proofreading and additional text editing: Carmela Uranga and Jeff Martin)





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