Janet Cohen

The Medium Is Not the Message

Date 2/17/99

Affiliation Artist, New York


Rembrandt's oils took a few centuries to yellow; Dan Flavin's fluorescent bulbs took a few decades to go out of production; Group Z's work for Netscape 1.1 lasted a few years before Netscape 2.0 made it obsolete. The problem of obsolescence, especially with digital media, has quickly outstripped traditional conservation protocols.

The artistic team of Janet Cohen, Keith Frank, and Jon Ippolito have recently experimented with an unprecedented approach to making and preserving art. The idea for this approach, dubbed "variable media," grew out of Ippolito's experience as a curator of performative, ephemeral, and technological art at the Guggenheim Museum. For those artists working in new media who want posterity to experience their work more directly than through second-hand documentation or anecdote, the gist of variable media is to conceive of a work whose integrity is not compromised by its re-creation in different formats. It then becomes the responsibility of the owners of the work--conservators and curators, in the case of a museum--to shepherd the work's translation into new media in accordance with the artist's wishes once the artist is dead.

Rather than rely on future conservators or curators to address this issue, Cohen, Frank, and Ippolito have chosen to step out on this aesthetic limb while they are still alive and kicking. To do this they invited a select group of curators to suggest alternative media, from oil paint to video to virtual reality, in which to execute one of their artworks. The three artists then executed the versions they decided were legitimate interpretations of the original work. The results of this experiment, which will be on view at the FourWalls Gallery in SF this February, suggest a radically new paradigm for the relationship between artists, private collectors, and museums—one which may prevent art on the cutting edge from slipping through the cracks of history.


Janet Cohen, Keith Frank, and Jon Ippolito have been exploring the conflict inherent in the collaborative process since they began working together in 1992. While their earlier adversarial collaborations took the form of an installation, book, or drawing, their recent projects take advantage of the Internet's capacity for encouraging flame wars and other clashes of perspective. They were recently awarded a Tiffany prize for their body of work. You can see them haggle, argue, and throw stuff at each other at www.three.org.

-- As of 2/17/99

Related Links