The Best of 386DX
This review of Alexei Shulgin's music and data CD was originally written for Rhizome in 2001. For those unfamiliar with the 'band' or the name, a 386DX is an old type computerchip, the Intel 80386 developed in 1985.
It's here: the CD of Alexei Shulgin's cyberpunkband 386 DX. After years of begging and pushing by his fans Shulgin decided to approach Staalplaat music publishers when he was in Berlin to give a concert early this year. Recorded in London like every respectable music CD, this CD is not just another collection of music on another silver disc though: you can boot your computer from it and have your own 386 DX. Ready for performance, ready to create both sound and vision in early computer aesthetics. The CD contains an illegal copy of an early version of Windows (3.1) and you can run your computer with it. But most importantly the CD contains cyberpunkband 386 DX's most popular tunes: pop songs from the last thirty years played and sung by a computer.
Alexei Shulgin 'founded' his 386 DX cyberpunkband in 1998. The year before the first wave of interest in net art had rocked the intimate (or had I better say inner) circles of net.art. 1997 had started hopeful with heath bunting's secret net.art conference (http://www.irational.org/cybercafe/backspace/), proceeded with the first competition for net artists being subverted by Cornelia Sollfranck (http://www.obn.org/femext/int_engl.htm), the departure of most net.artists from the nettime mailinglist followed by the installation of the notorious 7-11 mailinglist (http://www.irational.org/7-11/) , in the fall the much disputed on line exhibition of Documenta X was hijacked by Vuk Cosic (http://www.ljudmila.org/~vuk/dx/) and the year ended with a coup in the net.art mailinglist 7-11 itself: heath bunting moved the entire list of members from 7-11 to a new mailing list (http://www.irational.org/american_express/) on his own server as the ultimate act of subversion in this experimental mailing list. In December of that same year Alexei Shulgin gave an important performance in Vienna (http://kunstradio.at/FUTURE/RTF/INSTALLATIONS/SHULGIN/cyberknow.html) called Real Cyberknowledge for Real People. Apart from the statement Shulgin tried to make about the so-called democratization of knowledge on the net his performance surprised in another way: apparently art does not need a direct and technical connection to the Internet to be something called 'net art'. Net art depends on the net culturally, not so much technically. It seems as if Shulgin was trying to provoke his audience and his critics by doing something outside of the much-hyped technology of the internet and worldwide web. Shulgin's mild ironic criticism of the technology hype of the mid-nineties is present in all his work and one could say it typifies it.
Like many members of the 'net.art group' (think mostly of jodi or heath bunting) Shulgin has relativized his role of being the newest media artist, a rather confusing attitude since both the computer and the network are so important in his work of course. Alexei Shulgin seemed to make it his job to subvert the expectations of his audience. He even seemed to mock his audience and in particular art critics when the first sounds from 386 DX appeared in Barbara London's diary from a trip to Russia with the rather silly title 'Internyet' (http://www.moma.org/onlineprojects/internyet/f-artists.html). The way Alexei Shulgin always balanced his criticism of art and media with creating art works within the new media is quite astounding and pleasurable to observe. Shulgin both enjoys and rejects his position as net artist and a big part of his success stems from doing exactly that in a rather 'pop art way'. It is his slack and pop attitude which make Shulgin's work so enjoyable and his cyberpunkband such a logical step in his career: Alexei Shulgin is more than any of his collegues a cyperpop artist. If it weren't so tacky and tasteless I would even go as far as declaring him the first real cyberpop artist. In exhibitions and discussion forums around the world art critics and curators like to address the 'popularisating' of art through computer games and computer design. Most of the conclusions drawn from these are completely beside the point however because they fail to include the most important aspect of the popularisating of art through the influence of the computer: the availability of cheap computers worldwide. True cyberpop includes and works with technology that is often considered redundant by web and game designers. Alexei Shulgin not only includes these redundant technologies, but with 386 DX he manages to show us the redundancy of our own pop culture by covering 30 years of pop music and make the result sound like all songs were created at the same time: just now.
The best of 386 DX has a sleeve that was designed by Alexei Shulgin and Geert-Jan Hobijn (director of Staalplaat). It is an simple piece of paper printed with an ascii version of the Rolling Stones's Sticky Fingers album. On it are the titles of 15 songs. When you play the CD you find out there are 16 tracks though. It seems as if the CD is faulty, but the first track is a CDRom track. It is the 386 DX version of Windows 3.1. As was written earlier you can start up your computer from it and make it do exactly what 386 DX does: transfer songs into the typical 386 DX sound. Not only that: you can also create the famous early computer graphics which were used for the 386 DX concert at the How Low Can You Go show at the Next5Minutes conference in Amsterdam in 1999. The music on the CD ranges from the very first 386 DX hit 'California Dreaming' to 'Anarchy in the UK' and 'I shot the sherrif'. Also the nineties blockbuster 'smells like teen spirit' and all other songs surprisingly don't loose their power but are rather given an extra dimension by their transformation. The best of 386 DX offers a most interesting experience: the ability to actually create and preserve early computer culture yourself next to enjoying a culty, early sci-fi sound of pop music. Alexei Shulgin simply is the King of Cyberpop.