Nettitudes - Let's Talk Net Art

published: 
April, 2011

After having my work published in various catalogues and essay collections, this is the first book under my own name. It was written for the Institute for Network Cultures in Amsterdam, and published by NAi publishers. The latter is the main publisher on new media art in the Netherlands.The Mondriaan Foundation and the BKVB both supported us making this book.

 

Nettitudes contains five essays about art and new media, and consists of two parts. The first focusses on 'net art' in the broadest sense of the word, and aims to refute persisting false definitions of this emerging art field. In the second part of the book net art is approached from three very different angles: the history of net.art (with dot), a contemplation on the digital archive, and last but not least a text on music and sound art in the context of new media.

 

 

Nettitudes can be ordered through NAi Publishers http://www.naipublishers.nl/art/nettitudes_e.html

 

 

Introduction

 

 

This book is a mixture of highly accessible and more theoretical reflection on art in

the context of new technologies, specifically the Internet. In some ways it is the result

of my efforts over the past fifteen years. Most of the texts, however, are new and were

written especially for this project. It is not my habit to walk down trodden paths. In

fact, I dislike it immensely. I like to keep moving as I explore new territories (or

hidden layers in familiar territories). But the field of net art – although it has been

much discussed and several books on the subject have appeared – still feels like virgin

land. I do not see that my views are sufficiently represented in the available books on

net art I have read, even if some of them have been very sympathetic.

Therefore, I think it is essential for me to explain what I think net art is. I do

this in the first text in this book, ‘Let’s Talk Net Art’. Here I try to explain my view

on what I think net art is for ‘insiders’ as well as for people less familiar with it. Art in

digital media (or practically all electronic media, for that matter) faces significant

amounts of prejudice that have been expressed quite passionately. I try to address

what I consider the misconceptions about net art from two sides: from people

involved in the Internet or media art, and from the angle of the critics and viewers

from a more traditional contemporary art background. I have discovered there are

people in both worlds who find it difficult to fully value art in all of its complexity.

 

The main problem seems to be the location of the medium. I believe it is impossible

to judge an artwork based solely on its conceptual or material elements. Although

many critics would agree, they find it difficult to comprehend or imagine the roles

that the computer or the Internet may play in an artwork. I have tried to establish my

argument in favor of a new, very distinct form of medium specificity by referencing

the works of various critics and theorists. ‘Let’s Talk Net Art’ sometimes becomes

quite theoretical, but it is accompanied by the more accessible and practical text

‘Levels, Spheres and Patterns: Form and Location in Net Art.’ These two texts were

originally parts of the same text. They now serve as parts one and two of a ‘definition

of net art’. As I sent my manuscript off to the editor, I noticed that the second text

could have easily been expanded. What I tried to do, and where I think I succeeded,

was to offer a useful multiple ‘view’ of net art. It is necessary for audiences and

critics to realize that net art appears in a variety of guises. On the other hand, I would

have liked to have created a stronger link to ‘Let’s Talk Net Art’ I would have

preferred being much more explicit about form and ‘what matters’ in these different

artworks. However, this would have made ‘Levels, Spheres and Patterns’ less

accessible to many readers. Still, I believe that the main goal of this text – to show a

radical diversity in net art – has been achieved.

 

Some readers will find familiar names and histories in this book. There are

simple reasons for this. My main interest in writing about net art as a whole is to try to

explain the field to those who are unfamiliar with it. I use examples that I think are

helpful. This is, therefore, not a book for those of you who simply want to read about,

say, the slickest and latest art gadgets and devices, or for those who are looking for a

top ten list of the best net artists over the past five years. The artworks I mention in

this book range from 1968 to 2010, while others I have already mentioned in earlier

texts.1 Secondly, I was asked to include a history of ‘net.art’ (with period), a specific

era of net art that I have witnessed from up close. This was not an easy task for me,

however. The net.art text is actually the only text in the book that is not new. It first

appeared in a catalogue for an exhibition curated by the Norwegian artist Per Platou

in 2003.2 I had to rewrite and expand the text extensively before it could be published.

 

What was more difficult, however, was having to again deal with this topic at all,

because this era was such an emotionally charged period in net art as a whole.

‘Net.art: From Non-Movement to Anti-History’ has departed dramatically

from the original text entitled ‘The dot on a velvet pillow’. First of all, it is three times

as long, and it contains far more historical information and ‘links’. I have tried to

maintain its connection to the Internet by adding extra quotes in the footnotes for

nearly each reference to a Web site. I recommend that you use these footnotes

because, together they serve as a kind of text that can be read on its own. I did this

consciously because I am aware that many online sources will disappear over time, as

much of it from this era already has. I was very happy to find the remains of Websites

of important events like the Next5Minutes2 events, and I felt almost like an

archeologist at times. I found traces of it via the Italian hacker site strano.net, far from

their original location.3

 

‘Net.art: From Non-Movement to Anti-History’ is fairly rich in details,

although some would no doubt prefer even more. The original text ‘The dot on a

velvet pillow’ ended without ever going into the details of net.art’s tumultuous 1997.

Here I elaborate on what happened at documenta X, Ars Electronica ’97, the

extension exhibition in Hamburg, and on the net.art mailing list called 7-11. What

many involved in or around this specific ‘scene’ or period in net art will notice in

particular is that I refrain from judging net.art as a whole. My approach to this period

in net art is to remain quite neutral, maybe even positive. I have done this

deliberately: there has been too much judgment already. There has been so much, in

fact, that many do not even want to be reminded of this era. If media art has its

‘wound’, as American art historian Edward Shanken calls it, net.art has its trauma.

Writing about net.art felt cathartic, but there is no relief.

 

Net.art has been an emotional rollercoaster for many of those involved, even

for some not generally affiliated with it, but who may have collaborated with

net.artists or did similar work. It was the first time that artists explored a potentially

powerful new technology where their work could be immediately discussed, weighed

and judged by people from very different, often academic backgrounds, from around

the world. It was as if all of the earlier art theories about the inclusion of audiences

and the democratization of art were being tested simultaneously. It was an exciting

period for everyone, the artists included. While it worked miraculously well for a

while, and numerous art practices evolved that still serve as examples today, practice

and theory came to a head-on collision in the end. The revolutionary lyricism of some

artists was interpreted as a functional, purely political agenda, and, instead of artists

being confronted on this aspect on an individual level, net art was judged as a whole.

In their prime, the involved artists were suddenly accused of having ‘failed’. They had

allegedly failed to subvert the art world, had failed to escape commodification, failed

to keep their noses clean, or failed to include other artists in net.art’s very relative

success. In my opinion, the artists were laid out to slaughter.

 

It was unpleasant dealing with this negative social dynamic at the time

(around 1999), and it still is. At the same time, the net.art period was also

characterized by a tremendous surge of energy, the likes of which art had not seen in a

long time Ten years have passed and it is now possible to reflect without the pressure

of an online ‘community’ demanding functional or politically correct behavior. By

describing the social circle and the intense history it underwent over only a short

period of time, I hope to at least recall some of the ‘good times’4 of net.art while also

exposing the still partly hidden history to a larger audience. It is important to realize

that this history is only the tip of the iceberg. There is a huge amount of online art

practice that has never made it to the public eye at all, and of which much has

disappeared without a trace. My review of Brian Mackern’s ‘netart_latino database’5

in ‘Levels, Spheres and Patterns: Form and Location in Net Art’ should give you

some idea of how much art has unjustly never found its way amongst the channels,

pages and floors of the institutional art world, precisely where we miss the presence

of net.art and its tremendous power to move and adopt new artists in its slipstream.

The void in self-representation that has been left since net.art was declared dead far

too soon has never been adequately replenished, although many good initiatives have

come along since then. There is however the renewed interest in net art as a whole,

and many new artists to curators and educators, which means we may even see some

unexpected flowers blossom from the dust left behind by net.art.

 

We also explore how new media cultures influence art from two other angles

in the final two essays in this book. ‘The Gap Between Now and Then’ deals with

memory and the conservation of artworks. This is a critical issue for both transferred

and ‘born digital’ objects in the digital domain. What fascinates me the most about

this issue is how easily it is assumed that interactive ‘born digital’ art (that is:

artworks created in digital media) cannot be preserved in any state other than a ‘dead’

state. Conservation strategies for these works currently only involves their

documentation. While I welcome any attempt to preserve important artworks for

posterity it seems illogical to me to not focus first and foremost on keeping them

‘running’. Net artworks could simply remain online, instead of being filed away in

some archive with limited access. Documentation should serve solely in a secondary

capacity as a back up. When a piece is online its chances of survival increase: works

can be copied, ‘quoted’ and even maintained or adapted by users, and actively

maintaining artworks rather than simply documenting them also encourages the

conservator or institution to invest money, as well as time and energy into the

development of new technical approaches to the work. In the digital domain, the

curator, conservator and archivist all become co-producers of an artwork. Further

changes to the shape of the artwork, and especially to its direct context, require a

conservational approach alien to the traditional archive. Conservation strategies need

to incorporate the potential of the hive, they need to be open to an active audience.

There are very strong arguments in favor of such a development. I hope to revive the

notion of living archives by interweaving the struggle of the conservator into the life

and death tales of the digital domain.

 

Last but not least, ‘The Source and The Well’ explores the extraordinary field

of sound art and music in the context of new technologies. More than the visual art

domain, the sonic domain has collapsed inward, and surprisingly revealed its

tremendous flexibility in the process. Sound and music seem to simultaneously

vaporize in ever-smaller ‘samples’ and disappear into overcommodified musical

experiences. These two extremes made me think about the meaning of sound, which

seems most strongly explored in John Cage’s 4'33", and other works dealing with

silence. Here the work of American writer and musician Seth Kim-Cohen6 inspired

me to listen for the ‘cut’ in silence today. I took Cage’s work to explore how silence

and its counterpart, noise, are part of the same universe of listening. ‘The Source and

The Well’ is about new roads to silence as well as new roads to meaningful sound and

music experiences. The listener will lead the way.

 

 

 

1 Only the text describing .walk by Wilfried Houjebek remains unaltered. It first appeared in my essay I

wrote for the catalogue of an online exhibition of Media Art Net in an essay called ‘Constructing

Media Spaces – the novelty of net(worked) art was and is all about access and engagement’. In: Rudolf

Frieling and Dieter Daniels (eds.), Media Art Net, Key Topics 2, Vienna and NewYork: Springer, 2005.

2 Per Platou (ed.), Skrevet I stein. En net.art arkeologi, Oslo Museum for Contemporary Art, 2003.

3 This is the only data on the Next5minutes2 produced by the V2_ organization in Rotterdam:.

http://www.strano.net/town/meeting/next5min/prog.htm.

4 ‘Good Times’ is the title of an artwork by the artist duo called Jodi, who were – and were not – part

of net.art, which was taken from the name of a computer virus hoax that spread across the Internet in

1994 until some years later. I saw it in my own email in-box in 1996. From Wikipedia: ‘The

Goodtimes virus was supposedly transmitted via an email bearing the subject header “Good Times” or

“Goodtimes”, hence the virus’s name, and the warning recommended deleting any such email unread.

The virus described in the warnings did not exist, but the warnings themselves were, in effect, viruslike.’

Meanwhile, well-meaning ‘netizens’ passed the warning email on to all their friends.

5 Brian Mackern, (ed). netart_latino database, Museo Extremeno e Iberoamericano de Arte

Contemporaneo (MEIAC), 2010

6 Seth Kim-Cohen, In the Blink of an Ear, toward a non-cochlear sonic art, Continuum, 2009.