17 April 2021

Digital Biennale at The Museum of Wild and Newfangled Art (mowna) Opening April 30, 2021

The Magic Hummingbird by Joseph Martin Waters

A new kind of art museum popped up online earlier this year, and its New York-based founders, cari ann shim sham* and Joey Zaza, say to expect no pop-up windows, data mining, advertising or any of the exploitative methods used by most free online platforms and websites. However, The Museum of Wild and Newfangled Art, with its bold yet whimsical name, is not free. It is a virtual, for-profit museum, conceived by artists for artists, featuring mostly new media and technologically-oriented art. Seventy percent of proceeds from ticket sales go to the artist, and 30 percent are used to maintain the museum up and running. 

What might be of immediate interest are the museum’s unique ethical stance and its upcoming Biennale show, intended to replace the Whitney Biennale, which has been postponed until 2022 due the the COVID-19 pandemic. “We have a unique, one-of-a-kind collection of curated art, all in one place, without ads or distractions, without cookie agreements or pop ups, without login requirements and data mining…we want our visitors to enjoy the art without manipulation,” says cari ann shim sham*, when asked about how the museum’s generous business model might compete with platforms that provide art content free-of-charge online.

Artists Speak asked cari ann shim sham* to go into detail as to why the founders of The Museum of Wild and Newfangled Art (mowna) think it's important for their museum to be ethical, what that means to them, and what is the relationship between technology and ethics to date. After citing the Center for Humane Technology as a pioneer in the fight for ethical technologies, she was quick to characterize GAFA as fundamentally unethical. 

Since mowna is a digital art museum, it also functions as a developer of new technological platforms for appreciating art, but it does so without exploiting artists or the viewing public. In order to highlight and support the role and freedom of the artist in the world, mowna pays artists a substantial commission and does not claim ownership over their copyright. The museum consults the artist in determining how his/her work is going to be displayed online, gives the artist the ability to remove an artwork from its archival collection or online store, and allows the artist’s work to be displayed elsewhere simultaneously. “We do not own the work, we simply store it,” says cari ann shim sham*. “We are pro-artist,” she says, emphasizing how a living wage for the artist is the goal. She thinks the Biennale might attract as many as one million viewers, which would translate to roughly $175,000 per participating artist, through ticket sales alone. While that’s an ambitious figure for a new arts organization, it is not inconceivable for a well-attended Biennale event. 

The mowna Biennale opens at the end of April and runs until September. It is intended to be a recurring event, to be held every two years, as the name suggests. This year’s show is curated by cari ann shim sham* and Joey Zaza and features 100 artists, including individuals, collectives, organizations and AI from 44 countries. It is viewable on any device that connects to the internet, and individual tickets are $18. While they are only valid for a 24-hour period, an interval modelled on traditional museum practice, a monthly membership costs $15 and provides around-the-clock access to the shows, collection and museum store, as well as special events, like meet the artists, curator talks, parties and mowna founder’s chats.

Black Man in America by Vance Brown and Justina Kamiel Gray

This year's Biennale features virtual reality artwork from Canada centering on the theme of the lockdown due to COVID-19, autobiographical visual and sound art meant to elicit the empathy of the viewer for the experience of a black Lebanese-Senegalese artist living in Ghana, a portrait series by Baltimore-based Zachary Z. Handler, who will photograph museum guests three time a week during May 2021, interactive virtual reality and video sculpture art from Brooklyn, a film about what it means to be a black man in America from New York City, a new media installation using soft robotics from Austria, comical gif art from Italy, and a series of experimental music videos from California, among others. For a list of some of the participating artists, see the press release here. Kicking off the Biennale on April 30 at 9 p.m. Eastern, mowna will host a special screening of the feature-length documentary The Faithful: The King, The Pope, The Princess, by Annie Berman, who will subsequently answer questions from the public. The screening will be followed by entrance into the virtual mowna party room, and an overview of the Biennale.   

As a reader, you may be skeptical of how the museum experience translates into a digital setting. I certainly am, but cari ann shim sham* assures us that it is an “intimate experience…there are no crowds in the way of the art or people taking selfies…the art is available 24/7, and you can spend as much time as you want with it.” And most importantly, it is a pandemic-free experience, or almost. Without the spread of COVID-19, this museum may in fact never have been created. So, artists, art lovers, tech geeks, students, teachers and people in search of something new from the comfort of your home, alone or in the company of friends and family, mowna invites you to explore the world of wild and newfangled art online.

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