Is it a commercial? Noooo... Is it spam? Nooo... It is Net Art!

published: 
July, 1998

The most annoying discussion surrounding net art is the one that questions whether or not net art is truly a new artform. Some critics still deny the existence of this new art form within the communication networks. Net art should be given some definition and positioned in relation to offline culture.

 

 

PLACE, HISTORY, TIME

 

The term 'net.art' was first used when Vuk Cosic organised the small gathering net.art per se in Trieste in 1996. The dot in it made the term a sexy and humorous one. The people who got involved with net.art were mostly connected through 'nettime' - the mailinglist for net.criticism. nettime also saw the first criticism of the term which soon provoked a broader discussion about art on the net. From the beginning this discussion was complex, it had many layers. The discourse around net.art and its many relatives (net art/netart/web art/art on the net) is confusing in the extreme.

 

In essence, this complexity is caused by net art's embeddedness within the networks. A characteristic that also makes it so hard to describe. Building theory around art on the net, and more specifically doing this in constant discourse with others on the net, exposes one very directly to a mass of conflicting opinions, levels of perception and layers of communication. Add to this the unavoidable connection to the offline world and you have an explosive mixture of interests, cultures, schools and markets.

 

While the art world (a complex of art market, academies, theorists and journalists) tries to get its expansionist grip on the development of new media art, the old electronic arts scene keeps to itself, sceptical of this new found interest in electronic media. With the development of new media art, the art market is losing sight of the matter quite literally and with it 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 based seminars and thematic exhibitions around online arts for years, the art world has suddenly been forced to deal with a shift away from commerce and postmodern capitalism in art by a medium it is hardly familiar with. The art world is now desperately trying to find ways to encapsulate the electronic arts, and professionals are repositioning themselves on all fronts in this process. The development of electronic media has redistributed the tools of production and shifted the understanding of what the value of art is: what will become of the artist and the artwork? how will art be funded and for what will artists be rewarded?

 

ADA 'WEB

 

The recent discussion around ada 'web, an artsite which recently lost its corporate funding and had to close down, is only one example of how delicate new forms of collaboration are within communication networks. ada 'web was an experimental net-based company, and its story shows why the strategies of 'net.experiments' require constant re-examination. What seem like good tactics during one period can become obsolete or downright dangerous during another.

 

Benjamin Weil of ada 'web explained on nettime: "Part of adaweb's founding mission was to explore possible alternatives as far as funding for art online 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 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." ada 'web tried to sell creativity and innovation as a necessary commodity to companies. It is questionable whether this is art's main strength though, and arguably a subtle misjudgement was made on the part of ada 'web in proposing art's 'functionality' in this way. Perhaps ada 'web would have been more credible in the eyes of both the corporations and net artists if it had tried to convince its benefactors of art's intrinsic value before entering the 'art as innovative inspirer' chapter. On the other hand, ada 'web made many important steps, one of which was to present artworks by their names and not the artists'. Most value was assigned to the work rather than its provenance. Detaching work from its 'brand' could be quite dominant in the near future and ada 'web's experiences teach us to be cautious. For example, we also need to pay attention to the inability of small enterprises and individuals to protect authorship of their work whereas big corporations are as protectionist as ever.

 

WHAT IS NET ART?

 

Art on the internet is more than just a continuation of 20th century art. The experiments done on the internet are, in a certain sense, without precedent. Furthermore, art on the net is catalysing a resumption of discourses centred more around art's intrinsic value than on the mechanisms of the art market. The notion that net.art/net art is just another step in art history is however presently used as a put down.

 

Very early net art could mostly be defined as performance - it was temporary and left more or less no traces within the networks. What distinguishes net art from earlier electronic art is its expanded connection to the internet (or its predecessors). One could say that the more complex the connections become the more we are able to talk about net art. This complexity is not necessarily found in literal hardware connections. Some more recent works are, through their poetic use of the whole network space, complex. Artists have become so much more at home in the communications networks that an emotive but subtle use of its features is now possible.

 

Early net art mostly worked with data transmissions that were reassembled at creative will on all ends of the 'line' and comprised sound, text and performance in cyberspace, mass media (mostly radio) and physical spaces at once. An example would be "The world in twenty four hours" by Robert Adrian, presented at Ars Electronica in 19821 .

 

In the recent work of 'young' art groups like Fakeshop or Re-lab (Xchange) one can find complexity in various forms. The poetic complexity I referred to earlier is found in for instance 'subtle' uses of the locality of servers, like in the Refresh project initiated by Alexei Shulgin, Vuk Cosic and Andreas Broeckmann. It can also be found in Olia Lialina's work Agatha Appears, in which a ghostlike female figure appears in the same position on the pages of different servers. Lialina has published part of her diary on the net, in which she shows her subjective experiences of a 'culty' secret net.art meeting, and has also published her will online. To Lialina the network environment is almost holy and she wants to pronounce its features strongly in a sensitive, sometimes romantic way. Her will contains only her online work, and it is to be inherited almost exclusively by people with a similar obsession for net.art.

 

An example that stands out because of its unique style is Jodi (the collective name of artists Joan Heemskerk and Dirk Paesmans). Jodi's work is both deeply poetic and complex, although they rarely work within decentralised art projects, preferring to concentrate on their site www.jodi.org. www.jodi.org already ran in the grey Browser Netcape 1.0. It was refused by YAHOO to be listed for any category. Now the Jodi site is without doubt the most interesting and most discussed art website.

 

So, is it relevant to make a distinction between net art and other art? On the whole, the question is irrelevant. Names for new artforms are just tools, they should be helpful in understanding what we are dealing with on a very basic, practical level. In essence there is nothing wrong with the categorisation of different artforms. Equally, artists who do not describe their work as art can avoid the limiting discussions about the relevance and value of their work within an 'art market'.

 

TEMPORAL THEORY

 

To place net art in the right perspective, art history must be partly rewritten. Too much emphasis has been placed on the commodity status of artworks during this century. Inevitably, this tendency has excluded certain art and artists who do not satisfy related criteria. Maybe net art offers us the opportunity to rethink the criteria by which art is valued. For instance, one can already distinguish between those artists using - or making work about - technology and electronic media who indulge in utopian fantasies (like for instance the Futurists with their fascist tendencies) from those whose experiments demystified the media (for example in the sixties and seventies), and the playful approach of present day artists who handle media with great ease and humour and with less respect.

 

Of course, net art is not an easily perceivable object. A lot of art on the net appears very scattered due to its use of multiple media and transience. In order to experience it, one has to be an avid follower of net.culture. Nowadays there is already a tendency amongst net.artists to make their work more lasting, which is possibly a consequence of the increased interest in net art. Artists act and react within an environment. Some net artworks are more or less lost today, like early Jodi works that need to be viewed on older, virtually extinct browsers2. Some net artists try to be invisible, and dissolve into fake identities and ephemeral works3.

 

Not recognising its uniqueness is obstructing the development of a discourse around art on the net and good opportunities to understand the situation more deeply are missed because the theoretical discourse around net art does not keep pace with - often temporary - artworks. Perhaps art only profits from this obscurity.