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 (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


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 ‘’ (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 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. ‘ 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, far from their original location.3

‘ 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’s tumultuous 1997. Here I elaborate on what happened at documenta X, Ars Electronica ’97, the extension exhibition in Hamburg, and on the 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 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, has its trauma. Writing about felt cathartic, but there is no relief. 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’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 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 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 and its tremendous power to move and adopt new artists in its slipstream. The void in self-representation that has been left since 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

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 arkeologi, Oslo Museum for Contemporary Art, 2003.

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

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

of, 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.