The Demise of net.art

digitalamerica
The Demise of net.art: a Look At Artifacts Past
 by Kenta Murakami

The absorption of radical art movements by the mainstream has become a cliché of the avant-garde. “Subversion to assimilation to absorption”: a cycle net.artist Heath Bunting was accused of in an anonymous 1997 NetTime posting; the “Michelangelo of the Digital age” had appeared in an article for Wired Magazine, ailment a transgression his critic viewed as deplorable considering his art’s subversive ideology and Wired’s notoriously pro-capitalist agenda. The netizen wasn’t merely condemning a personal hero who’d sold out, however, but was lamenting the apparent demise of an art movement founded upon radical leftist politics and a (now stale) sense of optimism that had been present in the early years of the Internet. With the art world and netizens alike celebrating the first online art auction this month (powered largely by Tumblr, of course), I think it is important to retreat two decades to the origins of art online.

Net.art is a term, originally pulled from conjoined phrases in a glitched email, that has been tied to a group of artists in the early nineties. Fundamental to the practice of net.artists was the cultural climate surrounding their rise; in particular, the commercialization of the rapidly growing Internet. Used almost exclusively by academics, engineers and scientists, the early Internet was created with a sense of optimism for a communication system in which all users would contribute freely and equally. Designed specifically as an open, decentralized meta-network, the Internet was meant to resist consolidation or control and stimulate continuous expansion and fluidity. The basic architecture of the Internet provided an environment in which artists could create and distribute artworks exterior to the traditional art world. This coincided with the beliefs of like-minded cyber anarchists, who saw the Internet as a means to circumnavigate and ultimately dismantle old hierarchies. These leftist cyber-theorists prophesized a decentralized, democratized “political world in which all citizens, being connected and informed, would make meaningful contributions to debate.” Many saw in the Internet an actualization of the late Marshal McLuhan’s popular concept of a Global Village – an electronic nervous system that would collapse geography and create a ubiquitous network of humans connected in real time. This emphasis on interactivity and democracy was central to early net.art. Demonstrated in Douglas Davis’ classic “The World’s First Collaborative Sentence” (1994), users have been able to collaboratively construct a never-ending, multi-vocal and trans-national sentence, which is still open to additions today.

“The basic architecture of the Internet provided an environment in which artists could create and distribute artworks exterior to the traditional art world.”

In understanding net.art it is important to remember that in the early years, navigating the Internet was a very different endeavor. Before the popularization of keyword-based search engines, users surfed the web through human-maintained web directories or “webrings” (clustered sites organized by subject matter), or through primitive search engines in which indexes were limited to pages’ titles and headings. Following hyperlinks at a whim, web surfers would travel haphazardly through the net, stumbling upon sites that ranged significantly in quality and subject matter. One of the perks of such navigation is that the distinction between art sites and non-art sites could go unstated. In a reversal of Duchamp’s famous assertion of the power of art-signifying frames (the idea that a ready-made object can be transformed into an art object simply by referring to it as one), visitors were allowed to stumble upon net.art sites without knowing they were viewing an artwork at all. Alexei Shulgin’sWWW Art Medal, for example, presented various non-art sites awards for giving the viewer a “definite ‘art’ feeling.” Displaying the sites in pop-ups, framed in kitschy gold frames, the accolades range from “For Expression of True Love” to “For Moderation.” Many net.artists felt that this horizontality of privilege and diversity in content was fundamental to the net, focusing their efforts on subverting the homogenizing effects of commercial web browsers and search engines. Works such asJodi.org epitomized such tropes. Its creators, Joan Heemskerk and Dirk Paesmans, said that “the work we make is not politically oriented, except that it stands in the net like a brick.” The site, not unlike many genuinely faulty pages at the time, would seize control of the viewer’s browser, chaotically causing windows to shift, scroll bars to tremor and text to jump about. Pages load archaically slow (reminiscent of earlier days, when a viewers’ sense of time was experienced in “irregular, juddering pattern[s],” as navigation was interrupted by pages loading on slow bandwidth), forcing the viewer to be aware of the structure of the Internet that was rapidly disappearing behind efficient and easily navigable interfaces. Motivated by time spent in Silicon Valley, Jodi is a subversion of the tech industry’s “cult of efficiency,” in which users are forced to break their expectations for rapid surfing and rational and transparent hyperlinks. It is only once users take time to explore the site that they find graphics hidden within the pages, scrawled out in the HTML page source.

Cyber-anarchists weren’t the only ones who saw potential in the Internet, however. Critiqued in the essay “The California Ideology,” authors Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron explain how the net’s potential for Jeffersonian Democracy has been paradoxically fused with a pro-capitalist, libertarian strand of technological determinism. Epitomized in the views of Wired Magazine, the adherents to the California Ideology believe that through the development of technology, “existing social, political and legal power structures will wither away to be replaced by unfettered interactions between autonomous individuals and their software.” Barbrook and Cameron posit that the bohemian hippie culture of San Francisco was coopted by the tech industries of Silicon Valley, creating a community of contracted digerati who justified their abandonment of an “ecotopia” with the development of a future “electronic agora.” These justifications developed into an entrepreneurial spirit that found “’the invisible hand’ of the marketplace and the blind forces of Darwinian evolution” to be one and the same. Bill Gates spoke optimistically of the potential for “friction-free capitalism” in the online realm, in which near-infinite access to information would dissolve monopolies and allow the realization of a laissez-faire marketplace. The article criticizes these adherents, suggesting that such ideology has strengthened the power of corporations over the individual and reinforced social stratification. The digitalization of American has proven to create a “digital divide” between the “’information rich’ and the ‘information poor’,” which closely follows old lines of disadvantage.

“Following hyperlinks at a whim, web surfers would travel haphazardly through the net, stumbling upon sites that ranged significantly in quality and subject matter.”

Net.artists, caught in the battle between culture and commerce as both artists and net-activists, often stood in direct opposition to the California Ideology. Projects like Heath Bunting’s “Pseudo Wars” (1998), created for the Ars Electronica Festival in Linz, directly subverted the visibility/invisibility of sites as determined by search engines. Using techniques now knows as “Googlewashing,” Bunting was able to increase his webpage’s “virtual real estate” for irrelevant search terms, leaving his site at the top of results pages for queries such as “Nike” and “Adidas.” Net.artists understood that on the net, a brands power is largely tethered to the reliability and value of its name. Radical art collective RTMark pursued such ends by creating fake mirror sites for official organizations. Borrowing the Situationists’ tactic of détournement, RTMark took advantage of ambiguity and anonymity on the net to create spoof sites for the World Trade Organization and for George W. Bush, eventually facing legal action. As corporations overran the online realm, they attempted to make their brands culturally ubiquitous while still tightly maintaining the discourse surrounding them.

Like the lost American frontier, cyberspace was quickly being divvied up by competitive monopolies, corrupting a realm that was founded upon principles of gift-giving, open-source transparency, and freedom to information. These tensions came to dramatic focus in 1999 when net.art collective Etoy came into direct conflict with online retailer eToys. The company became aware of the collective as potential customers, who went to the wrong site, were met with “profanity, … sadomasochistic images, [and] images of terrorist activity.” The company offered the collective substantial compensation in both cash and shares if they would change their name. Despite purchasing their domain name first, the site was temporarily closed down by eToys; a decision met with extreme disapproval from the Internet community. Launching an extensive online propaganda campaign titled “Toy War,” Etoy utilized Floodnet to overload the company’s webpage during the Christmas shopping season. Originally developed by The Electronic Disturbance Theatre (EDT) to overload the Mexican government’s homepage in support of the Zapatista rebels (the page would return the message “human rights not found on this server”), Floodnet functions as a sort of virtual sit-in, and with enough participation, can render a server unreachable. This denial-of-service attack, in conjunction with widespread support for the art collective across the net, deeply hurt the brand’s image, contributing to the company’s following bankruptcy in 2001.

It becomes clear that in the online realm, the line between art and activism becomes increasingly blurred. Floodnet, in fact, was self-labeled as a “collaborative, activist and conceptual art work.” Similarly, Linux – a computer operating system assembled under the model of free and open source software development and distribution – has also been heralded as an artwork. These unlikely attributions show the net.artist’s fundamental sentiment towards transparency online and freedom to information in the digital age. Nonetheless, many net.artists understood they were fighting a losing battle. Witnessing the unprecedented expansion of the new technology, Alexei Shulgin wondered in 1997, “Imagine if everybody is online, if anybody makes webpages, it will become overwhelming. Who would search for grains of gold in all this shit?” Cultural theorist Paul Virilio argues that the Internet’s architecture is not set up to be emancipatory, but is an example of “social cybernetics;” an overt embodiment of late-Foucaultian biopolitics in which atomized users provide data about themselves, creating an unprecedentedly massive databank that perfects the Internet-experience for each user. Stated simply in a NetTime mailing in 1998, Geert Lovink states: “Against all expectations, the Internet is creating a Mass of ‘users’ that just shut up and click/listen. They are ‘watching Internet,’ a phrase that would have been impossible to come up with a few years ago. This silent majority in the making, which will only know the red “Buy” button, was not envisioned by the early adapters and the visionaries of the first hour.”

“Not unlike the privileging inherent in search engine algorithms, the mainstream art world of commercial galleries, museums, and fairs holds enormous power over the visibility and ultimate success of artists in the market.”

The net.artist’s struggle between culture and commerce was not, however, merely a battle against large-scale corporations, but against the mainstream art world as well. Not unlike the privileging inherent in search engine algorithms, the mainstream art world of commercial galleries, museums, and fairs holds enormous power over the visibility and ultimate success of artists in the market. The resistance to the commodification of art goes back decades, coming to the foreground of the art world in the 1960’s with movements such as Nouveau Réalisme, Fluxus, and Pop Art. The horizontality of the early-Internet was seen to provide the alternative to such a market: promising a platform in which artists could confront and challenge their audience without depending upon their appreciation for viewership, a freedom not provided the art-commodity. Julian Stallabrass observes, “It is no accident … that independent online work has been so far more political and critical than art seen in galleries and museums, because on the Net, sponsors and art institutions long accustomed to anticipating sponsor’s concerns, do not determine what does and does not get seen.”

Heath Bunting’s interview in Wired Magazine coincided with his inclusion in Documenta X, curated by Catherine David, and his acceptance of a paid residency at the Banff Center. The first inclusion of net.art in a large exhibition, Documenta’s pioneering efforts were met with heavy criticism, largely because the computers on which the works were shown were not connected to the Internet. Besides the fact that many of the works, once disconnected from the Internet, were literally destroyed, there was a feeling that net-based works cannot be experienced as traditional art-objects, but can only be experienced by isolated individuals, viewing at their leisure within a non-art environment. The problem with the “market-museum apparatus,” Robert Atkins asserts, is that the “[sense of consensus] is often manufactured …. Its clear-cut hierarchies offer a kind of elite conventional wisdom in relation to which one can position oneself.” By showing net.art in a museum or gallery context, it suddenly becomes unambiguously recognized as art, a transition that strips many of the works of their original distinctiveness. Viewing net.art in a museum has the feeling of experiencing a Happening through a YouTube video.

Introduction to net.art (1994-9), a work created for the exhibition net_conditions at the ZKM, ironically tackled the absorption of net.art by the museum-apparatus and its simultaneous demise. Laying out the rules of net.art on kitsch marble tablets, the work carved into stone what was “championed as extra-institutional, anti-bureaucratic and anti-historical …. In a stark gesture of foreclosure these tombstones of net.art dispelled any dreams of having eluded the commodification of art through its dematerialization in cyberspace.” When Documenta X announced that the online portion of the show would be removed from the net after the exhibition’s end, artist Vuk ?osi? copied the entire site and put it on his own (the site can now be viewed in Documenta’ archives). In their attempt to essentialize net.art, many art historians have confined the term to works that are somehow recursive (following the idea that art should refer to itself), either in terms of their subject matter or in terms of their formal makeup. While both of these definitions help to delineate the movement’s ambiguous and pluralistic aesthetic, they are ultimately too limiting, reminding theorists of Clement Greenberg’s dominance over Modernism through his dogmatic insistence on formalism. And while many net.artists certainly embraced modernist themes, such valuations are regressive, for they cling to the institutional measure of self-reflexivity as a way to value artists and their work.

The difference between net.art and its predecessors is that the Internet isn’t a medium like painting or sculpture; the Internet is a transmission system capable of simulating any and all reproductive mediums. Its novelty is its fusion of the powers of production and reproduction, creating a realm in which content can be added, produced, distributed (without depreciation), altered, and experienced. It has been argued that through a transmission system of both production and reproduction, artists have been reassigned “a prize and an obligation long since surrendered in liberal societies in favor of artistic license and cottage-industry production values: an explicit social role.” By surrendering this autonomy granted art since the rise of art markets, it becomes increasing difficult to judge works through purely formal or aesthetic criteria, leaving it necessary to understand net.art through the works’ broader social context.

“The difference between net.art and its predecessors is that the Internet isn’t a medium like painting or sculpture; the Internet is a transmission system capable of simulating any and all reproductive mediums.”

Under such an understanding it becomes clear why net.art is said to have died out, for while Internet art is more ubiquitous than ever, the distinct period of “net.art” was linked to a time when the Internet was still in its infancy. The period following this moment has been described by artists Gene McHugh and Marissa Olson in their blog “Post Internet.” Although the name seems contradictory to their mode of publication, they are referring to a condition “when the Internet is less a novelty and more a banality.” What they are referring to is the shift of the Internet from a specialized world for the technology-minded, to a mainstream world in which everybody resides (or at least entire clusters within a society).

In 2013 there is now a generation two decades old that has lived their entire lives in the “age of the browser”; a generation that can’t quite recall what DOS stands for, and one that certainly doesn’t understand why “Internet” is sometimes capitalized and sometimes not. Media theorist Douglas Rushkoff asserts that the increasing opacity of operating systems and the Internet was an intentional mystification of the new technology by commercial interests. “The communications age was rebranded as the information age,” he asserts: “The difference [being] that information or content, unlike real human interaction, [can] be bought and sold. It [is] a commodity.” The emphasis on interaction, both with other users and with the technology itself, was replaced with an acceptance of the Internet as a “direct marketing platform,” all interactions converted into CRM big data sets. The transformation isn’t merely a matter of opacity, but is all the effects such an opacity entails. Gene McHugh goes further in his definition of the Post-Internet condition, explaining how “any hope for the Internet to make things easier, to reduce the anxiety of my existence, was simply over—it failed …. [It] became not a thing in the world to escape into, but rather the world one sought escape from.”

The California Ideology, despite a complete dismissal of its initial, noble intentions, has paid off. Clay Shirky, a prominent media theorist, describes the state of the Internet through a story about his parents’ first date. The story involves his mother vomiting in his granduncle’s car, which he ends asking, “What part of that story is about the internal combustion engine?” His point being that the story is dependent upon the technology, but the technology itself is taken entirely for granted. With the banality that follows this efficiency, we no longer consider the Internet as a decentralized, democratic meta-network, with all the implications of radical reformation that follow. The Internet has become assumed. We now check BuzzFeed or Tumblr on our phones without even processing that we’ve entered an entirely virtual realm. We see the Internet as an opaque interface that is navigated by mouse or, hell, even finger – the network is synonymous with the plastic block through which we access it. Rather than a horizontal arrangement of self-published information, the net is now segmented into Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest, Flickr – A list of commercial entities catering to a specific consumer need; entities whose content-creation, despite being open to all, is filtered through algorithms based upon their mass-determined attention capital. The possibility for net.art died with this transition.

I don’t mean to say the Internet, as liberator, has completely failed us. If this were true we wouldn’t have media superstars like Tila Tequila (sort of kidding), Justin Bieber (what would the world be like…), or Tavi Gevinson (but really, she’s awesome). The Internet has served as a platform for endless individuals who would previously have been limited by geography, age, or even class. But the idea that the Internet could serve all equally, or that it could leave centralized media outlets in shambles, well… It sounds naively utopian now. Net.art no longer operates as intended; removed from their original context, the works are only found by the rare art history student or seen in museum halls. In the place of net-graffitists and artist hackers we are left with a new breed of Internet artists, artists who must fight for capital (and must cater to the hands that feed) in a realm more competitive than ever before.

Context Links

http://mouchette.org

The anonymous artist of this example of net.art has provoked heated reactions and garnered a worldwide audience through suggestive themes and the manipulation of cyber identity.

http://www.comune.torino.it/gioart/big/bigguest/riflessioni/californian_engl.pdf

“The California Ideology,” by Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron

http://www.jodi.org

A famous example of net.art

 

NOTES

Anonymous. “Heath Bunting: Wired or Tired?” Message to nettime mail list. 21 Dec 1997. E-mail.
Rey, PJ. “Julian Assange: Cyber-Libertarian or Cyber-Anarchist?” The Society Pages. 8 Nov 2011. Web. 7 Oct. 2013.http://thesocietypages.org/cyborgology/2011/11/08/julian-assange-cyber-libertarian-or-cyber-anarchist/
Stallabrass, Julian. Internet Art: The Online Clash of Culture and Commerce. London: Tate Publishing, 2003. 82. Print. Ibid, 38. Ibid, 40. Ibid, 38.
Schultz, Pit. “Pit Schultz Interview with Paul Garrin.” Message to nettime mail list. 13 Jun 1997. E-mail. Barbrook, Richard, and Andy Cameron. “The California Ideology.” Science as Culture. 6.1 (1996): 7. Web. 7 Oct. 2013.http://www.imaginaryfutures.net/2007/04/17/the-californian-ideology-2 Ibid, 6. Stallabrass, 7. Ibid, 30. Barbrook and Cameron, 12. Stallabrass, 91. Ibid, 100-101.
Stalbaum, Brett. “The Zapatista Tactical FloodNet.”Electronic Civil Disobedience. The Thing. Web. 7 Oct 2013.http://www.thing.net/~rdom/ecd/ZapTact.html Stallabrass, 68. Stallabrass, 64. Stallabrass, 73. Stallabrass, 117. Atkins, Robert. “State of the (Online) Art .” Art in America. Apr 1999: 89-95. Web. 7 Oct. 2013. . Berry, Josephine. “The Thematics of Site-Specific Art on the Net.” thesis submitted to the University of Manchester for the Degree of Art History in the Faculty of Arts. (2001): 51. Web. 7 Oct. 2013.http://www.metamute.org/sites/www.metamute.org/files/thesis_final_0.doc Stallabrass, 131. Ibid, 12. Ibid, 10.
Vierkant, Artie. “The Image Object Post-Internet.” Art Lurker. Self-published, 2010. Web. 7 Oct 2013. http://www.artlurker.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/image-object-postInternet.pdf
Rushkoff, Douglas. Open Source Democracy: How Online Communication is Changing Offline Politics. London: Demos Open source Publishing, 2003. 29. Print.
McHugh, Gene. “Untitled.” Post Internet. Self-published, 12 Sep 2010. Web. 7 Oct. 2013. http://122909a.com/ Shirky, Clay. “Clay Shirky on New Book “Here Comes Everybody” Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School. Harvard Law School’s Austin Hall, Cambridge, MA. 28 Feb 2008. Lecture.



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