is it spam?
noooo... is it a commercial?
noooo... it's net art!
by josephine bosma
Life is not easy for a net.art critic. As the genre keeps developing, the critic is in the unfortunate situation of having to deal with multiple realities and different layers of discourse. Netizens have to tackle not just the Internet (where discourse is already quite complicated to handle) but the so-called offline world as well. To complicate matters further, the definition of art on the net is a constant subject of fierce debate. As more people enter the net and the need and hunger for overviews and historical insight grows, the discussions about what art on the Internet is and who makes it tend to be polarized. Net art criticism threatens to turn into a matter of inclusion and exclusion. Wouldn't it be nice if we could skip the art-industrial battles and simply enjoy the art? It looks as if this will become even more difficult in the future. With the increasing complexities of media networks and public life, competition will grow. It therefore becomes more and more important to make personal choices as to how we perceive art. In the net environment, the high value of art isn't based on an exclusiveness established by a "cultural upper class," but on an exclusiveness created by the cultural sensitivity of the individual. This sensitivity is defined by the characteristics of the individual's cultural background (both off-line and online).
For the past two years, I have followed the winding road taken by the history of net.art (with the dot) into the labyrinth of terms that is, fortunately but confusingly, in use now. Though art on the Internet as we know it has existed practically from the beginning stages of the net, the attention of a larger, mostly online, audience was drawn to "art on the net" as a genre when a small group of European artists started to have meetings around what they called net.art. Suddenly, as a Dutch saying goes, the little beast had a name. The term was used for the first time when Vuk Cosic organized the small gathering "net.art per se" in Trieste in 1996. The dot made the term sexy and humorous--net.art seemed to be the label everybody had been waiting for. Most of the people who got involved with this "movement" were connected through nettime, the mailinglist for net.criticism. It was on this mailinglist that the first criticisms of the term were expressed; a long discussion about art on the net followed and also extended to Rhizome, the larger, New York-based mailinglist for new media art. From the beginning, it was a complex and multi-layered discussion. It started in April 1997 and its after-effects can still be felt rippling through many other mailinglists. The first criticism of the term was neither hostile nor negative. David Garcia, multimedia artist and ambassador of the Society of Old and New Media in Amsterdam, suggested that attaching your image to a specific medium would harm the artistic practice in a multimedia environment, as he had witnessed in the realm of video art. He suggested to "ditch" the term. There also was the question why this particular group wanted to link itself to this term, which so obviously could have been applied to many more artists and styles than represented in this particular "group." The term implied the danger of being exclusive.
The artists in question mostly avoided the discussion, which quickly exploded into a battle between art historians and other workers in the field--due to attempts to paint a picture of what net.art includes. Art historians and other theorists either tried to diminish the significance of art on the net and denied its uniqueness, or tried to put it in perspective within art history to get a better understanding of it; in either case, their position towards net.art was of course strongly influenced by their background. In the beginning, my position in this discussion simply was a presentation of the fact that net.art/net art existed, and that it was a new art form with some strong links to older ones. Publishing interviews was the most important strategy employed by early net art "critics" (like Tilman Baumgärtel and me) in order to mediate the "net.art experience" to a larger audience--in an attempt to leave the art as untouched as possible for the moment. It also was a way to avoid the (at times exhausting) discussions while still contributing to the debate. Even this minor interference in both art history and net.art itself was enough reason for occasional explosions of protectionism from other art experts; most net.artists, who wanted their space to be as undefined as it previously had been, reacted with a paranoid withdrawal. The net.artist Olia Lialina was the only one who tried to seriously take part in the discussions. 1
Because of this discussion and the silence of the net.artists it (more or less) caused, a mystification of both art on the net and the so-called 'net.art group' occurred. Though no discourse on art will ever reach a definite conclusion (since art is always evolving), the discourse on net.art and its many relatives or alter egos (net art/netart/web art/art on the net 2) is a most confusing art-historical discourse.
The complexity of this discourse was due to the same circumstances that make net art so hard to describe, namely its embeddedness within the networks. In the process of constructing a theory around art on the net in an ongoing exchange, one is exposed very directly to public/private issues, to different levels of perception and communication, and (somewhat less importantly) to a loss of ownership of ones ideas. Add to this the unavoidable connection to the offline world and you have an explosive mixture of interests, cultures, schools, and markets.
While the traditional "art world" (a complex of art markets, academies, theorists and journalists), in an effort to sustain itself, tries to get a grip on the development of the meaning of art in the age of new media, the old electronic arts scene keeps to itself and hardly engages in a dialogue with the "art world" about the sudden hype surrounding art in electronic media. When it comes to art developing in new media, the art market is quite literally loosing its "matter"--the self-evident creation of a product to sell. Whereas the electronic art scene (I am thinking of the circuit including ars electronica, V2, ZKM and ISEA) has organized seminars and thematic exhibitions focusing on online arts for years, the "art world" has suddenly been forced to deal with a shift away from commerce and postmodern capitalism in art--a shift induced by a medium it is hardly familiar with. The "art world" is now desperately trying to find ways to encapsulate the electronic arts, and in this process, professionals are repositioning themselves on all fronts. The development of electronic media has redistributed the tools of production and has led to a shift in the understanding of the value of art: what will become of the artist and the art work? how will art be funded and how will artists be able to make a living?
net art value and funding strategies
The recent discussions about the fate of adaweb (a prominent art site and virtual gallery that lost its corporate funding) on nettime are only one example of how delicate the development of new forms of collaboration within the environments of the communication networks really is. In the context of art on the net, the question of art's basic value becomes extremely important. Adaweb was an experimental net-based company, and its story shows that "net.experiments" need constant reexamination of their strategies. What seems to be a good tactic for a certain period of time can become outdated or downright dangerous later on. This shift has to do with certain extreme mechanisms of the Internet medium, in which the individual tends to disappear along with her/his basic rights and ethics.
As adaweb's Benjamin Weil explained on nettime: "Part of adaweb's founding mission was to explore possible alternatives as far as funding for art on line was concerned.. [..] it was my belief that the development of the web would be an extraordinary opportunity for art to desegregate itself, and (re)gain a central position in the ambient cultural discourse and practice.[.....] Rather than knocking at the corporate door asking for 'charity' money, we thought we could convince them that art could be a valuable asset, [...] it could be understood as a form of creative research which could make them understand better the medium they were investing in, and draw attention to their corporation as being innovative." Adaweb seems to have tried to sell creativity and innovation as a commodity necessary to companies, and one might argue that this aspect of art is not its main force. In fact, I think emphasizing this function too much in a market situation may in the end be harmful to art. Of course, adaweb is not to be blamed for the loss of intrinsic value that art has unquestionably suffered through the ages. In my opinion, adaweb would have gained more credibility with both the corporations it got support from and with net art(ists) if it had tried to reinforce the importance of this value when dealing with its benefactors before entering the "art as innovative inspirer" chapter. It is exactly this intrinsic, cultural value that has to be recognized if art is ever going to be valued in its own right. During the p2p conference in Amsterdam, where a lot of European media art centers met EU policy makers, this topic invited the most discussion. There was a lot of fear among the artists to be cast in the role of designers for the industry, as politicians tended to connect funding for projects to arts' so-called supportive value for the industry.
Adaweb conducted some valuable experiments, which teach us to be cautious and precise when it comes to using tactics on the net. Adaweb presented artworks by their titles and authors' names weren't a priority. This strategy assigns more value to the work than to its creator. It was an excellent step at one point in time, but does not work as a rule. Detaching the work from its "brand" (the artist or the genre, as in net.art) could become quite a dominant trend in the near future. What we of course have to consider is that--while smaller enterprises and individuals easily or partly loose their name and therefore the authorship of their work--big corporations will continue to be able to push laws that make them untouchable. It is a dangerous configuration, and even the situation within the adaweb site was sensitive. If the authors aren't mentioned, artworks tend to become the product of their presenters. Obviously one has to find a careful balance.
Adaweb did good work and their site continues to be important--not only because of its experimental set-up but also because of its choice of art. The criticism I ventured above is meant to serve as something to bear in mind for future projects.
The mystification of net.art and the discussions surrounding it have the unfortunate effect that allegations of misplaced exclusiveness and net.artists' elitism are from time to time seeping into the words and texts of other artists on the net. As I mentioned earlier, art on the net is almost as old as the net itself. From the beginning, there have been many artists on the net who are not part of any alleged net.art circle, but nevertheless produce net.specific art. In the confusion caused by a new criticism arising in the unstable surroundings of the (new) media, misunderstandings easily happen. In the fight for the acknowledgment of net art within a "high art" world, other levels of discourse are neglected or they get entangled in discussions that are not helpful in clarifying the issues. Net.art (the loosely formed European group including Alexei Shulgin, Olia Lialina, Rachel Baker, Vuk Cosic, Heath Bunting, jodi--who have always been a category by themselves-- and others) was overexposed compared to other net art. The group, which certainly includes very interesting artists, has been very active, and net art criticism, even if it still is a small field, has developed mostly around them. A reason for this could be the group's origin in the environment of the mostly European mailinglist nettime, whose members appear to have a desire for regular offline meetings where online and offline life get developed in a pleasantly human and progressive way.
There have been a few attempts from within the so-called net.art circle to deal with the necessity and construction of a criticism that would appropriately cover all art on the net. On the mailinglist 7-11--an initiative started by Vuk Cosic, Alexei Shulgin, Heath Bunting and jodi--three projects were born, two of which were attempts to break with the assumed elitism in net.art while the third one tried to hack criticism literally. The first project was homework for net.artists: the artists were asked to hand in work to Natalie Bookchin, an art professor of the University of California at San Diego. Artists were judged exclusively on the basis of the work they created for this project and received grades. The rationale behind it was that the "fame" or image of certain net.artists would be deemed unimportant. The project offered an interesting perspective on the work of less known artists, as did project number two, the Mister Net.Art contest. Both projects created a sense of community while simultaneously opening up this very community. Unfortunately, the third project-- pranks--disturbed relationships both within and outside of the net.art "community."
Behind "Mister Net.Art" was a group of 11 women who addressed mechanisms of power or the making of fame and importance. The criticism took the form of a tongue-in-cheek competition in the Miss Universe style, which was a reaction to "artist machismo" (as has been witnessed in avant-garde art groups active earlier this century) that occasionally dominated the mailinglist. Sexism however was not the project's main target. The contest tried to reshuffle the deck of famous net.artists' "cards" by developing a new way of looking at net.art. The problem with this project was the diversity of issues it was trying to tackle simultaneously; combined with its embeddedness in the 7-11 atmosphere, the project's meaning remained unclear to outsiders when it was presented on other mailinglists. The jury tried to create a website that presented all aspects of net art and a fictional identity as the site's supposed creator. This site, the work of a "self-created" artist, was to win the contest. When time became an enemy, part of the jury members decided to pronounce the deconstructive web browser Webstalker (instead of one of the actual contestants) as the winner. One might say that deconstruction and self-creation were in fact the winners of the Mr. Net.Art contest.
The third project has been mostly ignored, and its creators prefer to remain unknown. In December 1997, two fake texts were sent out under the names of two critics who are well-known in the electronic arts world. Later on, two more fake mails were sent out in which two other critics denied the genuineness of texts they had written for online magazines. These so-called pranks received a lot of disapproval, but in the end they did not spur much discussion because critics and theorists did not want to give the incident too much attention. The project suffered from the fact that its basis seemed to be a kind of simple self-promotion rather than a well-founded attack on the development of net art criticism. One could say that the pranks were based on some serious miscalculations: they targeted critics who are deeply involved in the electronic arts and online world rather than those outside of it who are holding obstructing positions; they thought of their prank as a nice joke but used an inappropriately "heavy" method aimed at promoting some "inner net.art circle" works, instead of using the opening they created for promoting the growth of net art in general. Altogether, this caused the project to mostly miss its target, and worse than that: it created the ghetto the artists in question probably tried to escape. Some net art players (such as Jordan Crandall) greatly disliked the insensitivity and misguidedness of these actions.
At least, the prank project put net.art in touch with other net art since it helped focusing away from net.art. It also helped to avoid a choking and incestuous development of net art/net.art. Ironically, the pranksters created new space by doing something unpopular.
On some level, art on the Internet is a continuation of artistic styles and experiments that developed and took place earlier in this century; on another, the experiments done on the Internet are also without predecessors. Moreover, the Internet calls for the resumption of a discourse more centered on the artwork and the value of art itself than on the mechanisms of the art market--even if one counts in the many discussions about how net artists could make a living. Paradoxes that are not at all that paradoxical.
I like to discuss net.art with "multimedia" art veterans, such as Robert Adrian, who became quite involved in the discussions about net.art last year. I consider Robert Adrian one of the first net artists. After I challenged him to speak out, he became immersed in the net.art thread on nettime. Not everybody understands the situation of net art in a historical context or the richness of cross-generation exchanges. The understanding of net.art/net art as yet another step in art history is very prominent in today's discourse of net art criticism, and in my opinion, it serves as a put-down.
I recently did an interview with Antonio Muntadas, a multimedia artist who has worked in every medium from billboards and installations to video and the Internet (and, very early in his career, painting and performance). According to Muntadas, the acknowledgment of the existence and quality of net art is a matter of time, and recognition is something the artists or those who write about this art shouldn't look for--on the contrary, "The moment these things happen, you are totally swallowed. You are hype and what happens after hype? Not being hype. Another situation." We obviously face a dilemma here: a choice between no recognition plus possible disappearance into a black hole of history and recognition plus further development of the work, linked with fees, some obligations and competitive elements. My choice would be neither to shun opportunities nor to stimulate hype.
Very early net art projects could almost be defined as performances, since they were time-based and left no or hardly any traces within the networks (which wasn't surprising as the medium they were created in also became obsolete--ip-sharp networks). There are a few forerunners of net artists; one of them is Robert Adrian who often speaks out and has a clear vision of what, in his opinion, is the basic medium at work here: the telecom or telephone lines.
What distinguishes net art from earlier art is its expanded connection to the Internet or its predecessor. One could say that the more complex network connections become, the more likely we are to talk about net art. This complexity is not necessarily due to the actual hardware connections. What makes some recent works complex is their poetic use of the whole network space and its post/transhuman philosophical depths. Today, artists are so much more at home in the network of communications that the possibilities of an emotionally deep but subtle use of its features increase. They offer us an experience that I would like to call "immersion," as used by G.H. Hovagimyan in his article in Intelligent Agent (vol. 2. no. 1, fall '97), in which he tried to describe the experience of people engaged in CU See Me performances. 3
Early net art works were working mostly with data transmissions that were reassembled at creative will on all ends of the "line" and consisted of sound, text, and performance in cyberspace, mass media, (mostly radio) and physical spaces at the same time. An example would be The world in twentyfour hours by Robert Adrian, presented at ars electronica in 1982. Though not the earliest work, it was the most complex one until that time, involving SlowScanTV, Fax, Computer mailboxes, computer conferencing, and telephone sound. 4
In more recent work, one can find tendencies towards both of these types of complexities--e.g. in the works of "young" art groups such as Fakeshop or Re-lab (Xchange. The poetic use of the medium, as mentioned earlier, can be found in the "subtle" use of the locality of servers--for example, in the "Refresh" project initiated by Alexei Shulgin, Vuk Cosic and Andreas Broeckmann--and in Olia Lialina's work Agatha appears, in which a female figure appears ghostlike in the same position on different servers' pages that are all connected. Olia Lialina has specialized in this particular, poetic use of the medium, and takes it to new levels. She has published part of her diary on the net, in which she documents her experience of a "culty" secret net.art meeting, and has also put her will online. The complexity of the latter projects lies in its apparent simplicity. For Olia Lialina, the network environment appears to be almost sacred and she strives to express its features in a sensitive, almost romantic way. Her will contains only her online work, which is to be passed on to people who share a similar obsession for net.art, the only exceptions being her daughter and another net artist's child.
An example that stands out because of its unique style is jodi. I would describe jodi's work as exhibiting depth in both poetics and complexity, though jodi rarely works within decentralized art projects. www.jodi.org was already running in the "gray" browser Netcape 1.0. YAHOO refused to list it in ANY Category. * Now the jodi site undoubtedly is one the most interesting and most discussed art websites. Robbin Murphy of artnetweb/iola once compared the work of jodi to jazz music by Ella Fitzgerald. Jodi's often dazzling play with browser features and other online phenomena certainly contains a built-in intellectual space that is reminiscent of all kinds of "mind expanding" arts, be they music, poetry or, as some people enviously describe it, early collage art. The artists behind jodi, Joan Heemskerk and Dirk Paesmans, do collaborative and individual works, both of which are presented under the jodi label. When I recently talked to them, they called ASCII art the present phase of concrete poetry.
I would even go as far as including the performance Alexei Shulgin did in Vienna 5 in the category net art. Shulgin handed out printouts of texts from the nettime mailinglist on the street. The point here is the obvious knowledge of how controversial this act might be perceived by both nettime and the Viennese audience, specific online and offline worlds.
My choice of the works and artists I'm presenting here is merely meant to give a "subjective" impression, an idea of what net art can be. There are more works and artists than I'm mentioning here and there easily could have been other examples.
Would it be relevant to make a distinction between different art forms? Perhaps the question itself is mostly irrelevant. Names for new art forms are just tools, they should be useful for an understanding of what we are dealing with on a very basic, practical level. There is nothing wrong with the categorizing of different art forms per se. By avoiding to call their work art, artists can circumnavigate counterproductive discussions about the relevancy and value of their work within an "art market" environment in which they are almost a minority. Net.artists often tend to do this.
If net art is to be put in perspective, art history has to be partly rewritten. Throughout the 20th century, too much emphasis has been put on artworks that were actually salable. Parts of the history of art have been either neglected or their value has been underestimated. For instance, many aspects of the history that describes the use of electronic media in art could offer at least as much and possibly more insights--on how artists work and perceive the world, and on how art can be understood--as painting and sculpture did in modern and postmodern society. Maybe we can retrieve that mysterious quality that makes art "art" and rethink "techniques" that value art. Among the works by artists using electronic media, one can observe a development from absolute indulgence in utopian fantasies (as could be seen in the Futurists' works with their often fascist tendencies) to experiments reminiscent of the attempts to demystify the media in the sixties and seventies; and now the net artists who play with media with great ease, humor, and a lot less dubious ideology. Net artists don't look up to their medium as much as the futurists looked up to technology. This is one of the aspects that could become the topic of a course in art history.
Of course, net art is not an easily perceivable object. A lot of art on the net has a very scattered appearance: it exists in several media at once, or only for a certain period of time. In order to experience it, one has to be on the net and follow (or rather: take part in) net culture. Nowadays, there already is a tendency among net artists to make their works more lasting, which is maybe due to the fact that their work gets more attention. Artists act and react within an environment. Some net art works are lost or have changed dramatically, such as early jodi works that used older browser versions with features that have disappeared in newer ones. 6 Some net artists try to become invisible and disappear in fake identities and ephemeral works, acting for the moment. 7
But there's no question about it: net art is still new. It doesn't matter that it had predecessors employing some of the techniques now being used in net art. Surrealism and Cubism were never denied their unique places in history because they made use of some older media. Hopefully, net art criticism will be more than the constant confusion and unpleasant feuds that arise every time attempts are made to openly discuss the features of art on the net. Accepting its existence would be step one. Even now, critics and others prefer to talk about art on the net while deliberately ignoring the work of many already quite recognized artists as if it never existed. On the net, "where nobody knows you are a dog," some semi-experts at times write abhorrent pieces, as Michael Gibbs from the online magazine Why not sneeze did on Rhizome: stuck in some faint, distant past of media art, net.art is claimed to be immature and in need of input from well-known "traditional" media artists. This misjudgment proves that net art is so different from its predecessors that even "slightly earlier media art professionals" can have trouble grasping it.
Not recognizing net arts' uniqueness obstructs the development of a discourse on net art that could grow with the art. Good chances to get an in-depth understanding of the situation are missed because the theoretical discourse surrounding net art doesn't keep up with the coming and going of the often time-based artworks on the net. Maybe art profits from this obscurity.