The space of net art

published: October, 2001


In 2001 I was asked to give a talk at NCC48, a rather curious 48 hour nonstop congress in a cave in Graz, Austria. I decided to present my very own thoughts on net art, after I felt many words had been put in my mouth by others. The hype and noise around net art had produced an almost impossible climate to discuss this new art context seriously. Needless to say my words hardly impressed anyone. Today it turns out I was right: more 'users' creates more mainstream art behavior; artists have started to explore the broader virtual field of the network (which is translated in 'new' theories from post-Internet to New Aesthetic);  and art institutions are very, very slowly exploring their new expanded field of influence. For your information: the open letter by Jon Ippolito I am referring to here criticized the possibility for art institutions to be able to get a .museum domain (instead of a .org or .com suffix), posted on the nettime mailing list in December 2000.

Today I would have to add some words to the last paragraph though, to be clear. I am NOT saying the Internet is a conceptual space, but I am saying that to think about art and the internet it is necessary to let go of simplistic and outdated notions of the Internet as a purely technological, singular medium. Quote: "So the 'web of possibilities', which is in the expanded virtual space of the combination of technology and humans is the true basis of net art. One could say the ability to see beyond the purely technical environment produces a new kind of abstraction in art."

graz cave 1906158b
  Picture of the entrance to Dom im Berg, the cave in which the NCC48 congress was held

The space of net art

Theoretically there are no borders between different art practices in a digital environment. Art itself has become 'universal' and because of this it almost looses its meaning. In a networked environment hybrid cultural practices are not rare, but common. Music meets the visual arts, performance meets radio art, dance meets poetry, design meets film and mail art meets performance, all within the realm of what used to be called media art. A work of art occupies a different kind of space now. Not so much because of digitization, but because of the network, which connects all singular digital and other worlds.

The reality of art in a networked society is somewhat different from the 'ideal' of universal artistry though. The coming of the Internet, and especially the development of the worldwide web, has created a very new situation for the art world, even if the majority of those represented in it still have no clue about it. In cyberspace art institutions have the opportunity to present themselves and their work on an equal level with not only individuals and independent art initiatives, but also with big media players. For the first time art institutions have their own media channel. This is very important to realize. It is important for various reasons, the most intriguing one for me being the fact that through becoming a media player art institutions suddenly have entered the realm of media politics and social and cultural responsibility.

When entering a computer network something more happens then a simple putting one picture or text next to another. Suddenly one has a role, a character and a degree of presence and influence. When relating this to the changing situation in net art from the early eighties to now we see that the expansion of the number of 'users' , of people on line, has changed the perception of on line personae tremendously. In other words: when you go on line now it is very different from going on line in the mid-eighties or, say, in 1996. The larger the number of users, the more 'traditional' (and maybe even predictable)on line hierarchies and on line culture becomes. We are now in a situation that is very well illustrated by the letter of protest Jon Ippolito wrote to ICANN about the new web domain suffix .museum.

A quote: "Once we museums have claimed the best of the virtual real estate, what chance do these numerous alternatives have of competing for hits from the lay public? In an attention economy like the Web, small advantages can make big differences. Jane Doe looks up the artist Bill Viola in a search engine and gets links for five .orgs and one .museum. Which link is she going to follow?"

In my point of view the .museum suffix is actually only an emphasis of the present situation on the net/web. Famous art institutions simply have the advantage of providing Jane or John Doe with an established and trustworthy choice of art and art context, however relative this establishment and trustworthiness may seem to us here. It has amazed me how easily the importance of this simple fact has been wiped off the table in most net cultural circles. It has been bon ton to approach the on line presence of art institutions in terms of ridicule and dismissal, like the websites of these institutions did not matter.

In our mediated society information overload creates an attention economy in which familiar objects rule the stage. To create a presence inside this economy for either a new initiative or a work of art asks for great social and technical skills. Suddenly we are all subject to rules for mass media success. The old structures and tactics are not sufficient anymore. Suddenly the number one rule of mass media 'what is not recorded (perceived) does not exist' applies to everything we do. The net has been divided into layers of familiarity in which art starts to follow its old routines again. Not only technical virtuosity offers a chance to be noticed. Social networking, creating events and situations on line, can have equal impact. Social and technical virtuosity in fact are interchangeable in net art.

Of course being able to find a technical 'niche' in familiar structures (of web, email or other network protocols such as social habits and rules) is or would be the easiest way to success and the easiest way to establish a presence. It is not the only method though. The most important characteristic of net art is for the artist to understand the network beyond its technical structures. The artist should be able to realize and use the fact that a large computer network (or any media network for that matter) is more then a sum total of hardware, more then some computers, cables and satellite links.

Even though a completely independent automatic variety of computer exchanges is thinkable this is not what happens in reality (even if a lot of exchanges between computers are actually invisible to most computer users and might therefore be called independent to a certain degree). The Internet and the worldwide web largely depend on humans and human input. The world of humans is attached to the world online. It is in the entwinement of both where we also find the virtual beyond cyberspace. This virtual space is the true space of net art. The French philosopher Pierre Levy explains the term 'virtual' in this way: "the knot of tendencies or forces that accompanies a situation, event, object, or entity, and which invokes a process of resolution: actualization."

From a review of the book 'Becoming Virtual': "So it would seem that actualization involves taking the web of possibilities, much like what is denoted in Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, and "collapsing the waves" into a concrete object or situation. However, Levy makes an important distinction between "realization", which is the transformation of the possible to the static, and "actualization", which "implies the production of new qualities a transformation of ideas, a true becoming that feeds the virtual in turn". (...) the real is on a fixed path, subject to entropy but not, unless transformed again, capable of presenting actors with new possibilities and solutions to problems. The virtual can take one of many paths, some of which are real, others actual (and, by their nature, subsequently virtual again)"

So the 'web of possibilities', which is in the expanded virtual space of the combination of technology and humans is the true basis of net art. One could say the ability to see beyond the purely technical environment produces a new kind of abstraction in art. An abstraction that is not based on a representation of abstract forms as we saw in 20th century abstract art, but an abstraction that is constructed from actual representations in the form of dance, performance, installation, visuals or sound in combination with a dislocated and unstable spatiality of the work inside both the social and technical networks. This new abstract work of art exists in a virtual space in which the possibilities of the human network produce limitations for the technical network and vice versa.

Net art theory could help create a context for a deeper understanding of both a finished work of net art and the creation of a new one. The fluidity of theory resembles the non-structure of the virtual. The usual practice in lectures and texts is to illustrate these literally,  with examples of net art projects. I doubt whether this is always a good thing to do, especially in the case of visual examples. Just think of the 'web of possibilities' and the actual virtual space described above.

Some of you might also be familiar with my broad and somewhat unusual definition of net art: art that is based on (an awareness of) net cultures. I'd like to tell you why I insist on this broad definition of net art. The broader the definition, the easier it is to let go of it and get down to what it is all about: art itself. The only reason I persist in placing 'net' in front of 'art' for the moment is that we need to embrace present day media criticism and media theory within art theory. To me it is actually a transitional term for the changes that are brought to both our culture and the art world by the developing technologies of today.

Net art has definitely developed further then some of the early net.artists in 1996 would be able to imagine. I was kind of forced to crystalize my thoughts about this for the first time after 5 years of research in an article about net art for the Dutch art magazine Metropolis M. I decided to describe net art as something which is not a new style in art (like 'video art') and it is not yet another discipline that is easily defined by the material used. It would be more appropriate to say this art is the next stage of media art, providing the missing link between media art and other, older art disciplines and finally bringing the two together on one stage and in one context.

The relative accessibility of the Internet ‘media space’ and its technology are combined with all possible art practices and cause these to overlap and change. When writing and lecturing about net art I feel often frustrated by the desire of my audience to be provided with -my- choice of examples and names of net art projects. How can one do a proper presentation of the huge variety in works that are actually possible and present on the net? Usually these presentations end up with a small selection of works that hopefully give some sort of impression of the variety of works but the bottom-line is that the common presentation set up (stage, computer with internet connection, beamer) leaves only one striking image about net art behind with the audience: net art is something made on computers, something to see.

Maybe the trouble with the dominant position of visual net art or web based art is not so much one of a lack of understanding of the background and influence of the medium. There is another reason why creating a net art theory which has profound knowledge of our information society and its technology is necessary. The tendency towards overrating the visual aspect of net art (the digital image or the website) is the desire to find a net art object. We need to look at the apparent failing economy for net art. It is difficult for a net artist to sell her or his work. Not all net artists have access to funding and not all net art has some kind of physical, tangible residue the artist can sell. Net art theory and most of all net art criticism ideally should help form a basis of valuation that escapes the narrow margins for immaterial art on the art market.

One could say that 20th century art criticism failed miserably in creating a context that could enable a more solid structure of valuation for ‘intangible’ works of art. Looking at the extraordinary prices for works of art by painters and sculptors one cannot but wonder about how these prizes and the art market in general fail reflect the most influential art movements of the twentieth century. The philosophy of modern art has basically been sold out this way in favor of the ever-lasting art object. Net art criticism should and could help create a profound change in the way art is perceived. The inherent conceptual space of net art, it’s hybrid, virtual sphere, is an excellent entry point for a new way of thinking about art and its value to culture and to us all.