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Exhibit addresses art, technology and identity and wins major award for museum – UBNow: News and views for UB faculty and staff – University at Buffalo

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Installation view of “Difference Machines: Technology and Identity in Contemporary Art” at Albright-Knox Northland. Photo: Brenda Bieger for Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York
Published July 15, 2022
This May, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery (soon to be the Buffalo AKG Art Museum) received the 2022 Award for Excellence from the Association of Art Museum Curators (AAMC).
The exhibit, “Difference Machines: Technology and Identity in Contemporary Art,” won the top prize for exhibitions at museums with annual operating budgets of up to $10 million. It was curated by Paul Vanouse, professor in the Department of Art and founding director of the Coalesce Center for Biological Art at UB, and Tina Rivers Ryan, assistant curator at the Albright-Knox.

“It is a very grand acknowledgment,” Vanouse says. And it’s the first digital art show to be named exhibition of the year by the international AAMC, according to Ryan.

AAMC announced its 2022 Awards for Excellence recipients during a celebration held in New York City. The Awards for Excellence, highly esteemed by art curators everywhere, are the only accolades by which curators directly honor their colleagues.
“Each year it is a privilege to celebrate the work of curators that have advanced new methodologies, scholarship, and inclusion and access within the arts,” says Judith Pineiro, executive director, AAMC and AAMC Foundation. “It is thrilling to recognize this year’s awardees in person and acknowledge the dynamic dialogues and broader engagement their work has sought to achieve.”

“Difference Machines: Technology and Identity in Contemporary Art” featured 19 works by 17 different artists or groups and, according to Vanouse, spanned from the early ’90s until “five minutes ago.” 
For Vanouse, the exhibit was an opportunity to feature critical issues at the intersection of art and technology with race, sexuality and other identity markers. 

“There’s not a lot of visibility for new media art that addresses these topics because museums seldom show works that aren’t from the archival norms, such as paintings and sculptures,” he says. “These types of works are usually seen in festivals and are very contemporary.
“Similarly, most early avant-garde [media art] works aren’t in major collections or are difficult to distribute because of changing digital platforms, so it was vital to show these works from the 90s alongside these newer pieces to show there’s a history to it.”
Vanouse and Ryan both have backgrounds in digital and media art.
“Working with Tina was crucial to making this exhibit happen. She had the same thoughts about the exhibit as I did, and we knew we could use the exhibit to inform and to teach,” Vanouse says.
The exhibit was so popular and well-received that it is now a travelling exhibit and will begin touring major cities all over the U.S., starting next January.
“It’s quite an undertaking for museums to do this, and it’s a pretty big honor. An afterlife for this exhibit is not something we promoted or proposed; it was just people reaching out to us saying they’d love to have this exhibition,” Vanouse says.
Vanouse and Ryan put together extensive resources and documentation for accessibility purposes.
“Most of the video pieces were subtitled for the hearing impaired and we wrote considerably detailed wall labels for interpreting every single piece of work,” Vanouse explains.

A renowned media artist, Vanouse’s honors include a 2006 Creative Capital grant and the 2019 Golden Nica at PRIX Ars Electronica. Since the 1990s, his projects have foregrounded the social consequences of new technologies. His most recent works include genetic experiments that examine his own Jamaican-American parentage to undermine deeply ingrained, colonial constructions of race.
As founding director, Vanouse also oversees the operation and management of the Coalesce Center for Biological Art – a hybrid and interdisciplinary studio laboratory facility dedicated to enabling hands-on creative engagement.
Coalesce is dedicated to biological art and emerging practices in the arts, as well as graduate positions, interdisciplinary coursework, residency opportunities, DIY workshops and exhibitions. It is also utilized to teach courses in biological art, and art and life.
“There are a number of things we do here; primarily though, we focus on audacious ideas,” Vanouse says. “We work with the tools and technologies of the life sciences with materials that are often living to make artworks that would be fundamentally engaged in the big ethical conundrums of our time. Questions like, ‘can you patent a living organism?’, ‘What are the rights of the living organism, whether it has a human form or not?’”
The center attracts applicants from all over the world and is a major facet of UB’s Community of Excellence in Genomics, Environment and Microbiomics.  
More information about the Coalesce Center for Biological Arts is available on its website.
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