published: July, 1997
Transcription of informal discussion and semi-interview between Alexei Shulgin, Joan Heemskerk, Dirk Paesmans and me, made one evening after the Beauty and the East Nettime conference in 1997. It focuses on the need for independent servers and artist domains online.
JB: What do you think of other people discussing what you do: the net.art thread on nettime?
Alexei: I don't care basically, I still consider the Internet as a kind of black hole. You send some data into it and since its big, since its kind of a distribution system, you can be sure that just by statistic law it is going to touch somebody. If I get some respons I am happy or unhappy, but it happens just because of the nature of the Internet.
JB: Because from the reactions that sometimes occurred during the net.art thread, it seems like you were not at all happy that people took the 'brutality' to comment at all on net.art, or to discuss it. As if it is something to be kept secret, to be kept as undefined as possible.
Alexei: Here again we come to this point of definition what net.art is. You yourself specified very precisely when you said you love this dot in between net and art. For me that dot also is very important because it signifies that it’s not that serious. A movement or a group can't have a name like some computer file. That’s why net.art itself, because of the nature of the Internet again, somehow resists to any definition. If you want to define something you have to consider first a context, but what is the context of net.art, it’s everything, because you can find every- thing on the net easily. There is no fysical space, but some virtual space. Everything belongs to net.art in a way.
JB: Everything that has to do with the net anyway. Do you agree with Robert Adrian then that all the artforms of the twentieth century come together in net.art?
Alexei: Yes, but I would say not only artforms, but many other things. Like.. (looking around) construction of bicycles for example can be also included.
JB: (having fun) I thought you were going to say something like sociological issues..
Alexei: Yes, but sociological issues have been included into the artrealm before the net.
Dirk: We are only really excited when someone actually makes new surprizing work on the Net. The definitions and obsessional history writing of net.art now, while it happens, is self-aggrandizing and manipulative. Net.art projects may be better criticized in a wider context, of art in general. But to cram it in the category, net.art is uninteresting; it's incestuous and limits future developments.
Alexei: I think that with net.art we have sort of a contradiction between the artistic approach and the critical approach, because as I said before it is very difficult for critics to define or contextualize net.art, but on the other hand we see very bright and wonderful examples of so-called net.art. Its like with any other media: you either feel this medium or not (talking about the artistic approach). If you feel these digits and networks, and you feel how the signal comes and how a modem works. You just have to feel it. And if you do, you are able to do some good work. If you come with some other ideas, with the same approach as gallery art, it doesn't work. I see very little people who really feel the net and understand how the net works and what it’s all about.
Joan: That’s about the medium. If you work with the net you have to understand the net, if you work with the medium radio you have to understand radio.
JB: Are there any collaborations coming, in future projects? I know there are some future exhibitions of the net.art group. When you meet I suppose you talk about that also. What is going to happen?
Alexei: Talking about group activity. We are in a way priviliged unlike artists from older generations. With the net we don't have to form any specific group to declare some specific manifesto and to do similar stuff or colaborative stuff. We all live in different cities in different countries. All we direct communication to each other, because we respect each other's work and we have something to discuss there. We'll have some shows together, but again I want to say we are priviliged that we can go on with our own work and not be dependent on other people, other artists' opinions, ideas or aesthetics. Everybody is going on with his or her own work. There will be situations in the future were we can meet and discuss things directly. Its nothing about working on joint projects, we don't need that. We are all individuals; we can just remain ourselves. Not form some artificial groupings or whatever.
JB: I was not insinuating that you were doing that, I was just asking whether there are any future projects, because I know there are some exhibitions coming up were you are maybe not collaborating as you say now, but at least you're exhibiting together.
Alexei: For me it was important to stress this point. Talking about the future: I am still working on this form-art project. In a way I sort of invented a new technology based artform. I am going to develop this site, to try to propose it as a new tool, a new medium for artists. For that I am going to set up a website, like form.org or form.ru. I want to organize an international competition, with a money prize for the best work made in this form of art. I have some other ideas that deal more with the overload of information we have now in this world.
Dirk: We will be participating in a project in Amsterdam, (in Arti et Amicae). Six artists are invited to set up a virtual environment for a 'mu. The smallest unit: mu. The Mathematical Unit and the Multi-User environment. We like the Multi-User idea a lot; it is a technically challenging thing to explore. We have been making some prototypes and tests of how to realize that kind of environment. There are some graphical chat.worlds already, like The Palace, we are working on a more abstract space for that.
I also want to say that I like very much the idea from Vuk Cosic from Ljudmila.org, Ljudmila-west. We are very interested in participating in it. We learned a lot from people from the former east, and they could help us a lot. When you are here and you look at the facilities and the enthusiasm and the smartness of the people... I don't see it anywhere else. We would like to come here. We proposed to Vuk to participate in a Ljudmila-west residency.
JB: It’s a joke on V2-east right? Instead of us arrogant westerners that think people from the east need our help, it is supposed to help artists from the west.
Alexei: Like all jokes it has two sides. On the one hand its a joke, but on the other hand it can bring some positive result. Like Jodi coming to Slovenia and working here.
Dirk: And we would bring some of our Spanish friends. We have friends from the south that insist on Islamic culture for example. They neither like the west, nor the east.
Joan: So it will be east west north south.
JB: You were talking about you all being individuals and that you don't need to be a group and your all from different countries and blablabla...Now of course everybody that has seen the internet and the WorldWideWeb knows that you can loose your way quite easily, if you don't know where to look. Artists working there need good infrastructure. For them to get known and communicate their work, they have to use good infrastructures mostly offered by others, right? Or they have to set up their own spaces, but they still have to announce these spaces in Rhizome, in nettime, in Telepolis etc. To say that you can actually work without all this seems a bit untrue.
Alexei: I am not saying that. If you look at the history of all art movements, it was always like this: you had some local initiatives, like Fluxus or NeoGeo or Trans-avandgardia or whatever with one leader, everybody would share certain ideas, do similar works, form a movement, usually with just one or two ideas behind it. People would join it. Then they would become recognisable as a group. It was important to be a group: to have a name, manifesto and whatever. But in the end, when you look what happened, it very soon becomes routine. Those artists become famous, recognised, but it very soon becomes a very boring routine. People just do what the system requires from them and it becomes totally uninteresting very soon. Artists become obliged to do certain kind of works to proof again and again that they belong to this group. They do something specific. With the Internet it’s a little bit different. Now we're sort of coming through the last stage of the early stage of net.art development. When insitutions start to pay attention to artists working on the net.., for instance I am just coming from Budapest where I am doing a residency as a net.artist. We got to know each other only because of the net. After that we met together and got acquainted. Its theoretically not possible for us to create some kind of movement. Its very different and I have no idea what can come out of it. But talking about infrastructures and institutions and whatever.., maybe Dirk can say some words. If you work on the net, one of the most important things is your domain name, like some short name in your URL, that you type in in Netscape and then you come to the place.
Dirk: I think it’s very important, I think everyone should set up his or her own domain. Its not very expensive and its not so difficult. In the beginning of the net it was promoted to do so, because there were not so many domains, especially concerned with art or culture. Now there are, not so much, but 'enough' for every country almost. Its been nationalised a lot. The geographical location in the URL, in the adress, is imposed almost. Its much more easy to get your nationality, like a sticker on your car, then to get the .com, .org, .nom or .art in URL names. It’s a bit more difficult. Little institutes who are grown on the net, if its galleries or workshops.., of course as an artist in America (I shift continents immediately), there are many young artists in America for sure who make HTML and Java, who want to do internet projects and they go to an institute nearby. They don't bother to set up their own domain. I disagree. The most important for me was to go on your own on the net. To get your own little boat, not jump on the big ferry. Have your little own domain. Its not difficult, but now they hide it more, they make it seem more difficult. There are laws that make it a bit more difficult. There are also the servers that are in position, that are in power, who make it seem more difficult. They do this with pricing or with availability of information how to do it. Its a do it yourself mentality and it's still easy.
Joan: Its for recognition. Can you say Alexei's worldwide artcentre URL? No. So, if he had had his own domain you would type it in just like that. A lot of people now because of the growth of the net are working this way. If you type in a domain and then you have to search for all the rest, you're just not visible anymore. I think it’s important for artists on the net to be visible.
Dirk: They should not join ljudmila.org or v2.nl or desk.nl or existing url's. I don't pin it on these examples, but they provide spaces for so-called experiments with html, from net.art. But one should neglect these existing institutions and go on one's own. It is also a total different approach to what projects you will do, a totally different feeling, its the independent feeling. No gallery, no in-between. The one level playing ground, John Perry Barlow calls it like that, the Californian Ideology (laughs), I mean, you can do it.
Alexei: It’s true, now you see a lot of institutions that want to have artists stuff on their pages and collections of art projects. Since there is practically not any critical context for net.art, we have really a big mess in this kind of approach and selection. Look at the Documenta site. It has a very different quality and trend and base works promoted as art works; it’s just because of this mess, of the impossibility to contextualise net.art. Thats why I think this kind of independent activity is even more important. I am far from saying that if we can all be independent. We can create some independent or paralel infrastructure. What we do is set links from Jodi's site to heath buntings site to mine, thats kind of a paralel hyperlinked infrastructure of interesting artprojects. But to tell the truth I am not sure whether it is going to work very well, because people who are interested in art will go first to well promoted art institutions, to see their links, whats on their sites. Still the situation is kind of unresolved now. This ambiguous situation will remain for some time.
Dirk: There is a battle against virtual institutions from independent net.artists.
Alexei: Now there are a lot of virtual exhibitions curated, but it seems that for net.artists it really becomes not very interesting or important to participate in them for many reasons. If you go to Documenta to make an installation, it’s a big deal. You get a lot of money as honorarium, you get a big budget to produce the work, and it’s really something serious. If we're talking about websites, small data, a few files, it’s very easy to get them and put them online and thats it. Artists don't get much from joining art institutions. They hope it will bring them something in the future, but it doesn't work. Institutions don't make real investments into it, because they don't have to.