Beyond - escaping network nihilism in media art criticism

published: May, 2002

In 2002 I was invited to speak at the Reality Check for Cyber Utopias conference in Zagreb, organized by MAMA, the Croatian media lab. I decided to talk about the way art is approached in many media art contexts, something I elaborate on almost ten years later in my book Nettitudes. I make a plea for a different view of both net art and media art, and defend the legitimacy of all contemporary art practices that involve the Internet.

technorganic Peppermint

Outdoor installation at the Technorganic festival organized by Cary Peppermint and Leila Christine Nadir in 2005.

Describing the state of media art or net art today easily turns into a nihilistic form of art criticism. When we look at the state of network art criticism today we see two tendencies: either net art is approached as a specific school in media art, which manifested itself from approx. 1995 to roughly the year 2002 (netdotart) (1), or the broader scope of net art is replaced by browser specific art: web art (2). These definitions ignore both the existing critical potential of contemporary art on the net and the variety of works that are still being created. Net art is not disappearing (which some influential practitioners and thinkers that support the first definition suggest), it is simply slowly dissolving into an art practice which connects and exceeds media art and the art world. If industrial reproduction changed the state of art about a century ago, the combination of networking and the personal computer is changing it again now. We should develop an art criticism that makes sense within this environment.


The end of media art as a genre?


The Internet has offered artists a way to present and define their work themselves in a context which hovers somewhere between public and private media space. The development of the Internet and the exploration of the networked media space by artists mark an important moment in the development of media art as a whole. Media art left its ivory tower (of expensive equipment, secluded gallery spaces and specialized institutions it had retreated into in the eighties) when art on the net emerged. The Internet is to media art what the camcorder was to video art: a revolution. Media art now has an extension into the mesh of public space, mass media and private sphere that the Internet is. It no longer is art that is simply made with electronic media tools, but it actually is part of the broader sphere made up of mass media and individual, ‘private’ art experience at the same time. Not only media art is moving into this sphere. ‘Traditional’ artists (visual artists formerly not working as media artists) and artists from other disciplines (such as dance, music, literature and poetry) are using the computer and the Internet as well, both for representation and specific projects. It is often very hard if not impossible to distinguish media artists from other artists in the shared space of the Internet.

We have arrived at a point where we have to start making decisions and judgments about art that are not based on the history of each separate art discipline alone anymore. The Internet gives us the opportunity, no, the obligation to look at what it is all these art practices share, rather then to generally treat every technological development within each artistic practice separately. We also definitely cannot make a preference for one type of art (like for instance art activism, which seem to be the basis for a lot of thinking around net art) be the basis for our definition of (net) art as a whole, something which, again, is in danger of happening within some new media art environments. We are dangerously close to missing the connection to a theoretical and practical development of art beyond limiting 20th century paradigms of trend and novelty if we keep false distinctions between media art and the contemporary art field in place.


Media awareness for art professionals: a necessity


The ‘merging’ of media art and art practices also means there will have to be changes for art criticism and curating. Like all art network art and other media arts depend on a combination of use of material, environment and cultural context. The use of electronic media in art would make it logical that art criticism takes into account everything that is of significant influence on these media, like it also considers whatever is of influence in art made with other media. Electronic media can be analysed, deconstructed, and differentiated as material elements and environments. They are not uniform, hostile or inhuman objects. It would also seem only common sense that art criticism takes into account how exactly we work with those media, how they influence us and how they influence the art we create or experience.

In curating exhibitions segregation of media art, visual art and other art is starting to make less and less sense. It seems we have to look for more collaborations and exchanges between media art institutions and other art institutions. There is a need to work towards a common 'media literacy' for everyone, something we as ‘former’ media art practitioners could help create if we reached outside the inner circles of media art more. It is important people know not just how to write in text, but also how to read and create information in electronic media. ‘Traditional’ art professionals simply do not have much awareness of this yet, but that does not mean this is not changing or changeable. Why not simply demand for (or create) more knowledge and awareness of new media within the field of art criticism and curating, instead of always waiting for change or creating separate institutions and festivals? As we slip into the future a knowledgeable approach of its cultures is of vital importance.

  There is quite some tension between the media art world and the art world in general. Nobody is really comfortable with this, even if one can often here tough words coming from media art practitioners saying they ‘don’t need the art world’ or even ‘art is a thing of the past’. The intensity of discussions about the art world in media art circles and in the hazy world online proofs this in my opinion. Instead of falling into negative escapist behaviour we should try to overcome this tension in a way that makes both art and media art practitioners benefit. The art system, with its theoretical, supportive, representative and archiving institutions and funding structures, is still the best place for art because it is in the end the most unbiased and the most flexible (towards art) of all ‘structures’ (media art, art activism, design institutes) dealing with art these days. Connecting to it does not have to mean there will be a ‘sell out’ of critical ideas in net art or media art. We should create a strong theoretical basis for art criticism and curatorial practices that is 'streetwise', logical and credible and which incorporates media and media art practices. The practices of art on the net are inevitably connected to political issues, which means that a serious involvement of net art in art cannot be anything else but far-reaching. If one is interested in ‘changing the art world’ then one should work on a further development of net art criticism instead of calling it a lost case and moving to the next possible vehicle of subversion (net radio, software art or art activism), thus only weakening a critical debate by succumbing to market mechanisms and trends within the art world rather then escaping them.


Media art, politics and design.


A fixation on self-sustainability, self-representation, independence and close exchanges between artist and audience (to the extent of one becoming the other) in net art has paralyzed the development of net art criticism. I do not want to diminish or discard these interesting aspects of network art practice. What has the emphasis on these specific aspects brought to (net) art criticism in terms of positive changes though, and where did it become obstructive? Fact is that from the beginning (1996) net art criticism (not net art itself!) has been dominated by a fixation on a democratization of art practices and an empowering of the artists over institutions almost completely, making any other perspective on net art practically impossible. The energy coming from this combination of art and politics was very stimulating and interesting for a while, but it has left many blind for a broader landscape of art on the net and the legitimate exploitation of the net by non-media artists and art institutions. In fact, it seems to have obstructed a clear view on the development of art on the net as a whole in such a way that there is practically no theoretical or critical overview of the entire field.

Political struggle and art are not the same thing. Yet in European media art circles, especially those around net art, the two have been and still are strongly confused. An artist hardly ever wants the same out of life as a political activist. Art is not just about struggle and change; it also deals with beauty, fascination and/or passion or with art itself. Art is, and there is an art server that carries it as a name (3), art is -irrational-. Politics can never be irrational.

Yet the strongest critical net cultural discourse in Europe is highly political. It is dominated by festivals like Next5Minutes or Transmediale, or by mailing lists like nettime and spectre. The other big 'force' in European net or new media culture tends towards design rather than art in festivals like Ars Electronica or Doors of Perception. One could say that in these last two festivals technology dominates the agenda instead of culture. So in Europe net art criticism is dominated by either media activism or by technological innovation and design.

The main reasoning behind the attitude towards art in all the festivals I mentioned is that art as we know it should change. Breaking the borders around art has more or less become the new cliché in art, and media art institutions seem to have dedicated themselves to this almost completely without asking themselves much questions about the how and what of this attitude. This leaves us with two questions (at least): why should art change? And: what should it turn into?. Artists, designers and political activists might give quite different answers to these questions. It would be good if especially festivals like n5m and Transmediale acknowledged this more clearly.

Art cannot be the slave of either political change or market values. Art is always questionable. We should ask questions about it without destroying it. I want to hear the motivation behind these almost cliché tendencies to stretch or even erase the borders of art today and I want to hear what kind of culture people who support this envision exactly. ‘Escaping the art world’ has become a hollow phrase. There have been quite a few sloppy and even dangerous interventions in art through politics that should make us very careful and which should keep us alert for a simplification of argumentations around complex matters. It seems the theoretical backgrounds of certain 20th century formerly revolutionary ‘dogma’s’ in art (like: everybody is an artist) have become lost and that pursuing them is, in the end, destructive rather then positive for the culture of the peoples on this planet. Again: art and culture cannot be approached in a purely rational and practical manner.


Clarity in theory creates more clarity in practice


The current definitions of net art are choking and unsatisfying. They also do not make sense and they are unrealistic. What if we were to approach the network in net art from a broader perspective then either of these definitions do? In what ways do artists use new media networks and in which way do those same networks influence the work of artists offline? How has the new networking changed the artist’s perception of the world? If we look for the answers to those questions outside the realms of political activism or design (and popular culture) we will find that network activities are becoming an accepted and relatively familiar part of art practice at large, even if they are criticized or questioned. (4)

  I want to suggest two things to create a more sensible net art criticism. First and foremost we need to use the broadest possible definition of net art to avoid blindness for the variety of art practices out there. The definition I use at the moment is this: net art is art made with an awareness of net cultures. This means this art is not tied to the net technically, but culturally. Culture also contains technology. Artists consciously creating work for a changed cultural landscape, a landscape changed by new media, are all part of this. The definition of net art should be so broad that we can easily drop it for the word ‘art’ alone.

  Slightly less important, but still of great influence is the confusion around (what to some seem simple) technical terms. In order to keep the entire scope of network art practices in view the difference between the net and the web needs to be clear and it maybe even needs to be emphasized. Too often web art is seen as the ultimate form of net art. Net art criticism needs to oppose the dominant discourse of web art in favour of the hybrid art practices in contemporary networks at large. I do not oppose to web art in itself, as a genre, but approaching art in networks from the point of view of a web browser is extremely limiting. It is like looking at the world through a keyhole, one misses a great deal from the entire picture, something I think is not in the best interest of art history, art criticism and the manifold, interlayered cultures of the world. Art is a constantly changing field. A new art theory needs to be rooted in the now expanded field of contemporary arts, an expansion that is at the same time a fusion and a renewal of various art disciplines.


(1) was the name used for a rather haphazardly formed international group of artists who explored both the aesthetic and critical dimensions of the Internet for art. is often defined as 'art that approaches the internet critically' and 'which can only happen with and in the internet'. Ironically many art works placed under the term have extensions or manifestations outside the Internet. Also not all works made under this title have been obviously critical of the Internet. These definitions therefore never really made sense.

(2) Web art is made to be viewed within a browser. A browser is a piece of software which allows one to see html pages and (moving) pictures instead of just the old text interfaces in earlier days of the internet. The total constellation of web pages available on the Internet is the World Wide Web. This World Wide Web is only one part of the Internet though. Artists also work outside the World Wide Web browsers.


(4) An example would be a work of Pascal Marthine Tayou. Work description in catalogue Berlin Biennial 2001: Drawing from fiction, Tayou confronts reality, uncovers his own fictions and wittily projects them on the backdrop of a world swearing by global exchange, yet inhabited by people who don't even fathom partaking in globalisation. Tayou collected (for used and recycled radio and TV sets from markets in Ghana and assembled them to form urban landscapes which he connected with each other through a network of electric cables. These organic constructions reflect the various communication devices connecting people, while pointing out that they might not be so far apart after all. The title indicated that one may well be linked though living on the fringe of the dominant system. (Cecile Bourne)