Excerpt Nettitudes: Context and Cultural Identity: Brian Mackern
I often get requests for digital versions of my book. Unfortunately I cannot put the entire book online, but I can publish excerpts. Here is an part of chapter two, which is called Levels, Spheres and Patterns. In this chapter I discuss the many 'layers' at which the Internet is used in art. The following excerpt deals with the conceptual layer, which I call context. I discuss a book by Urugayan artist Brain Mackern, who decided to close off a crumbling archival project of Latin American net art by documenting it in book form: The netart_latino database.
For some, the definition of a good work of art is that it moves you so deeply you almost want to cry. I have met a few people who, totally self-righteously, claimed that nobody had ever felt this deeply about a net art work, and nobody ever will. I assure you, it is possible. Stories about this kind of emotional reaction to a net art work date back to at least 1997. At that time, I was very excited about certain works myself, but never close to tears of emotion. But I did hear of others who had been by Olia Lialina who had created a kind of web poem consisting of black- and-white linked images and hypertext, called My boyfriend came back from the war, which was her first Internet work. To be exact, it touched the hearts of many Russians who had known somebody who had fought in Afghanistan. It is the story of a Russian veteran’s girlfriend, who has very mixed feelings when she is finally alone again with her boyfriend after his return from the war. Lialina made this work as a kind of filmic experiment online, and was surprised by its emotional impact, and that it found an online audience she had not even realized existed.
Since then, I have been deeply moved myself, but not often. One of the strongest works I ever experienced is Graham Harwood’s London.pl. As I read the Perl poem that runs this work I felt my stomach turn and the ground beneath me sort of give way. This code, printed on a piece of paper, turned out to be the symbolic site of a horrendous struggle between human and machine, a struggle captured in a poetic mathematical nightmare. Little did I know when Uruguayan artist Brian Mackern gave me a copy of an artist’s book with the unpoetic title netart_latino database that this book would have a similar emotional power. But, while London.pl leaves you in shock or horror about a crude calculation of deaths as a result of child labour abuses or a war, Mackern’s book evokes strong feelings of melancholy and loss across a vast history that was never told. It was made in collaboration with the Museo Extremeño e Iberoamericano de Arte Contemporáno (MEIAC) in Badajoz, Spain in 2010.109 The work takes the reader on a journey through time and space, almost as if he or she is reading a historical travel guidebook. It is also possible to see the netart_latino database book as a form of documentation. It can also be read as a fairly comprehensive history of Latin American net art. Most of all it is a statement and a labour of love.
Excerpt from Graham Harwood's London.pl
Netart_latino database is the history of net art in a Latin American context, which developed almost in complete isolation from the rest of the world, yet in the same timeframe as, for example, European and American net art. It is told through the history of Mackern’s online project of the same name, which he developed during the period 1999 to 2005. He created a linked database to just about every Latin American net art work he could find. The number of works is staggering. The result was a portal to a huge ‘art collection’, a living archive, dispersed over the Net. There is a strategy here, because the endless list of art works and artists is consciously overwhelming. Mackern took liberties to make sure this happened. Not all, but most of the artists live and work in Latin America. The one Cuban net artist, for example, lives and works in the USA. Antonio Mendoza was born in the USA after his family was exiled from Cuba. The reason he is included becomes clear during the interviews with Mackern in the book.
In these interviews, Brian Mackern assumes the role of both prosecutor and defence attorney. He uses the power of numbers to build his dramatic argument with the list of countries, artists and art works seemingly going on forever. Net art links from Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Venezuela, Peru, Ecuador, El Salvador, Columbia, Brazil, Mexico, Puerto Rico and even Cuba leave the reader overwhelmed: so many works, so few of them known. While I read them an awkward feeling started to creep up inside me. It reminded me of a feeling I get every time I hear a track by the British band Test Department called ‘Corridor of Cells’, which starts with a sound recording of an underground, illegal Czechoslovakian radio station in the former Eastern Bloc. It is an urgent and desperate call to radio stations in Romania and Yugoslavia to disseminate information about the state of affairs in Czechoslovakia at the time. The fragile but determined female voice begs listeners to translate their messages into Romanian, Polish, German, Hungarian, French, English, Italian, to ‘let the whole world know the truth’. The message is so powerful that it chokes me up almost every time I hear it. A similar feeling of urgency swept over me as I explored the content of Mackern’s book. It is the power of their arguments that are similarly constructed although their context and messages were completely different.
We learn, as it turns out, that Brian Mackern, who has been involved in making art in the context of the Internet since 1994, served as a catalyst in South America, and feels left out of the influential net art histories. His work, and that of many other Latin American net artists, was not recognized until after the turn of the millennium. Speculations about why this is vaguely reverberate throughout the book. One reason may be that some artists were simply ‘excluded’. Whether this is true or not, it portrays the early net.art ‘movement’ as an impregnable fortress. In this sense, netart_latino database is also an important history of net art as a whole, as it shows a view from the ‘outside’. It scans the borders of influential net art histories and reveals their limitations. As a witness to the countless and varied works of art and experiments with the Net in Latin America it also shows that a broader view of net art is necessary.
In the book, Argentinean artist and curator Gustavo Romano compares exploring the netart_latino database with being a passenger on Charles Darwin’s ship the Beagle, as it sails across the ocean to discover some terra incognita. Mackern’s project reminds him of a captain’s log, as well as a travel journal and a specimen catalogue. There is pride as well as discomfort here. Romano, like most of the rest of the writers in the book, is well aware of Latin America’s complex history. Especially in Romano and critic Lila Pagola’s Argentina, where indigenous culture has almost entirely disappeared. Being addressed as Latin American means waking spirits many would rather avoid. It is clear that defining a Latin American identity is problematic and maybe even undesirable to some. Many artists from this region have been labelled exotic or ‘typical’. Pagola describes a history of difficult relations between the art worlds of Latin America and ‘the North’. The Net, she explains, has redefined these relations without offering a solution for the North-South divide, where it was once mostly a physical divide, and now has also experienced a technological divide. She notes that there is a need for some kind of ‘socio-historical-political gps’, a device that can calculate ones position on the art map.
It was always well known in early net art circles that access to the Internet was and is not the same everywhere in the world. Projects were designed to specifically address this issue. For example, there was a contest that required that web pages would not exceed the 5k limit (five kilobyte would make an extremely low-bandwidth website today). High bandwidth sites were considered anti-social or even downright ridiculous. It was part of a tactical media approach to art and an attempt to democratize the art world through Internet technology. This awareness did not include being sensitive enough to realize how low bandwidth and bad connections affected the social involvement of artists in other non-Western parts of the world. Low tech and slow Internet connections were not a choice but a reality. The speed and availability of Internet connections greatly influence the potential for participation in the ebb and flow of online communication. Looking back on some of the online net.art events, for example, they unfolded in real-time, like a physical meeting between artists, critics and curators, which was enabled by fast and stable Internet connections. Eastern European artists (including Russian) were able to join in largely because of special media labs, set up in institutions funded by the philanthropic Hungarian-American millionaire George Soros, who wanted to stimulate the economies of the former Eastern Bloc by connecting them to the ‘digital highway’.
The meters long list printed on dot matrix paper is folded into the back cover.
Latin American countries did not have their own Soros Foundation. But something else was missing as well. Besides the absence of a good technological infrastructure, Latin America also lacked the necessary powerful social infrastructure (like the one that formed the basis of net criticism and net.art, which I describe in my history of net.art) necessary for the development of a strong context for artists to work in. Latin American artists worked in isolation, Mackern notes. Not only were they isolated from their European and American peers but also from their peers in Latin America. It was easier to find information about, say, the work of Alexei Shulgin, than to find information on other Latin American artists. Content on the Internet does not simply emerge by itself, someone has to create these connections. ‘Latin American’ artists were scarcely heard from in online discussions in the 1990s, for instance, and were seldom published, referred to or linked in the most active and visible net art networks. This rendered them practically invisible and not just to net artists in Europe and the USA, but also, tragically, to what could have been their own ‘local’ networks.
The gap between Latin American net art and other net art histories is the tragic result of bad connectivity all around – both in terms of band- width and available Internet connections, but also in terms of culture and language. In netart_latino database most of the writers mention the dominance of English as a major reason for the North-South divide. Their lack of English skills was one reason why their presence was limited. But this was no doubt the same for artists from other regions. Lila Pagola quotes Spanish curator Laura Baigorri, who observed that ‘access is not power’. Indeed, utopian myths of the magical powers of the Internet are still alive, and need to be debunked. What netart_latino database shows is that for cultural change within the context of the Internet, more is needed than just technical connectivity. In the context of art, social connectivity is as important as technological structures and economic factors. The difference between Latin American and European and American net art seems to be significant on all of these levels. The ‘exclusion’ of Latin American net artists from net art histo- ries is therefore not as straightforward as it may seem, and it need not be the case forever.
For many of the works listed in netart_latino database any improvement will probably be too late, however, because, although it was the first and foremost portal to Latin American net art for years, it has (like many other net art link sites) become largely a repository of dead links. As of 2010, at least half of the links were non-functional. Brazilian artist Giselle Beiguelman writes about the online version: ‘With each “not found” in response to a click I feel like I am walking amidst unburied corpses.’ By transferring it physically to this book the state of netart_latino database, as well as the urgency of its message, slowly and quite literally unfolds. Mackern’s story of Latin American net art is powerfully embodied through his choice of materials which are all highly vulnerable, common and even ‘obsolete’. Netart_latino database’s binding is made of thick, unprocessed, grey cardboard that feels soft to the hands and which (no doubt) easily stains. The ASCII art used for the front page of the online version of the project is simply punched into the cover. This illustration is a rendering of a famous critical map of South America by the influential Uruguayan artist and theorist Joaquin Torres Garcia. On this map, South America is drawn upside down, putting it at the top of the world, and the USA is imagined somewhere at the bottom.
The book contains essays and stories by Romano, Pagola, Baigorri, Beiguelman and Spanish curator Nilo Casares, printed on extremely thin paper that is quite difficult to handle. Reading the book takes an effort. Pages are hard to separate and turn. A printed version of the original netart_latino database (as it is seen online) is carefully folded into the back cover of the book. This print out is done on old-fashioned, nearly obsolete dot matrix printer paper, the kind with the little holes along the sides, and connected at the top and bottom of conjoining pages, creating a long paper roll that one could easily get tangled up in.
Reading the long list of Internet addresses from the almost end- less roll of dot matrix printer paper of some ten metres long is a near religious experience. It takes us into a universe that is literally beyond our reach because it is impossible to activate a paper link. Like much of Darwin’s universe, this world is strictly ordered, and equally frozen in time. Brian Mackern’s history of Latin American net art is a work of art in itself. The lost links of the original database turn into a transcendental text because of their awkward and complete disempowerment on paper. They have become almost holy scripture that describes a hidden world. As such, they arouse curiosity, and challenge us to become Darwins ourselves. Mackern’s netart_latino database stretches the notion of the database to include the social relations outside of its direct technological borders. It also shows the database’s physical historical relations to print’s archival and distribution systems. Most of all, it represents the fact that social mappings in net art tend to mimic that of the art world at large.