The emergence of net.art

ARTISTIC MUTATIONS: THE EMERGENCE OF NET.ART, DIGITALLY-INDUCED DETACHMENT AND THE QUESTION OF PRESERVATION

TEXT PATRICK LABA

Could Leonardo da Vinci ever have predicted that his paintings would be preserved in the same institutes that would come to display a urinal? One of art’s most endearing and unrelenting attributes is its ability to be in a continuous state of mutation; it is a living, breathing mutation. The emergence of technology has brought questions and confusion to the forefront of artistic discussion. Physical examples of art are digitally transferred and can be viewed, enjoyed, critiqued and copied by the masses. It’s almost a rebirth of what once was – a sudden entry into the cyber-cyclical samsara of art. But what about the art that transcends this supposed concept of an “afterworld wide web”? In a world flooded with information, physical or otherwise, net.art finds itself questioned as far as if it can be considered real art, due to its presentation on an online platform. Is this art tangible, or is it all just lost truths in a post-truth world? If physical art of the pre-internet world has a home within the walls of art museums, what sort of preservation can there be for the works of art borne online? The cyber-mother has been having contractions within her pixel-pregnant uterus – tremors within the body of the internet that demand attention to the display and conservation of net-based artwork. Online pioneers such as Rhizome and net-art.org have proven to be an effective kick within the embryonic sac of the internet and have aided in the continual archival of pieces by veterans of the net.art world. This includes the immersive, disturbing and metafictional life of Mouchette, the Matrix-esque codework poetry and art of Mez Breeze, 0100101110101101.org’s pioneering hacktivism and countless other bright links waiting to be clicked and explored – these art exhibits stretch beyond and transcend any hall found within the Louvre.

Enter, among other websites, net-art.org and Rhizome. These online projects offer a digital roof over the heads of all the internet-born(e) artists and their work – a hall stretching into the limitlessness of cyberspace, lined with links directing an online audience to otherwise unattainable or overlooked works of art. Such a task is rarely as simple as it sounds; net-art.org archivist Pim Peterse laments on the website that “since the nineties many net-art projects went obsolete due to link fail, lost services, damaged code, or incompatibility with players/browsers.” There is a “mortuary” on the net-art.org page which works as a means for individuals to offer any contributions or suggestions in an attempt to aid in reconstructing otherwise lost or forgotten examples of net.art. In an age where people will sever relationships after deleting and forgetting a friend’s phone number, it is incredible to think that the minds behind net-art.org are attempting to reanimate the lost essence of internet art. Such an overwhelming project obviously comes with certain flaws; unlike physical, original works, the reconstructing of net.art finds snags in determining whether contributions to the “mortuary” or elsewhere are authentic or not.   Peterse goes on to explain how such a revival is conducted: “Net-art.org aims to collect traces of these lost net-art projects: url’s, code, screenshots, user experience, artist statements etc.” Put this into perspective: open the box of a 3000-piece puzzle and throw the contents from a plane flying above Europe. Now, set out to complete the puzzle. Is it insane? Maybe. Is it impossible? Absolutely not. Is it a reflection of the passion, commitment and unity of all those who appreciate and understand the validity of all art, regardless of form? Undeniably. Working in solidarity with net-art.org is Rhizome, a project that aims to “preserve works of net.art that are deemed to be ‘of potential historical significance.’” A recent development in Rhizome’s preservation of significant works is the “Net Art Anthology” which functions as an ongoing, online art exhibit that documents the history of net.art while offering a commentary on the progression of the internet as a whole, in unison with the art that has been created by its means. The commonality of these online projects is a continual need to restore, preserve and exhibit. Rhizome’s “Artbase” page echoes net-art.org’s discussion of the online fragmentation of art and its subsequent crisis: “Modern computers are unable to perform many of the artworks as they were originally experienced. This inability demonstrates a significant crisis in digital social memory that Rhizome is responding to with its Digital Preservation program.” This preservation program has been spearheaded by German musician and media artist Dragan Espenschied since 2014 and, like Pim Peterse, he is involved in an ongoing internet struggle to connect digital puzzles with little to no pieces as starting points. But what has come of all the tireless effort? What does internet art look like? The intriguing thing about that question is that perhaps it should be preceded by the question, “What does internet art FEEL like?”

Being the multi-dimensional force that it is, the web can throw an audience into a somewhat hyperactive state of detachment. People get addicted to social media, to online gambling, to porn; the online world offers an escape from what humanity has to offer. Perhaps the appeal also comes from the amount of control a person has on the internet. Any transgressive thoughts, immoral opinions or destructive tendencies can be purged without worrying about getting assaulted or killed through a screen. But what happens when the internet bites back? Net artists are capable of turning an artistic medium into an animate being: a living, breathing, growing, continual outlet of expression; a body of constant mutation.

How does it feel to receive a flirtatious email from a 13-year-old girl living in Amsterdam? Since 1996, net artist Mouchette has aimed to uncover and dissect such feelings. The site, mouchette.org, has benefitted from archival projects such as Rhizome and net-art.org and its controversial and intrusive reputation has been slowly spreading across the internet since its creation. On the webpage’s home page, the audience is met with a deceptively innocent introduction – “My name is Mouchette. I live in Amsterdam. I am nearly 13 years old. I am an artist…” These words stand stark on a floral background, juvenile and inviting. However, upon exploring the website further, the audience experiences the inner mutations of Mouchette beginning to blossom. Secret links, fragmented text and distorted visceral images lead the viewer into a progressively darker, interactive kaleidoscope. Slabs of meat carved with the words “mama” and “papa”; a page of a shaking and shrieking cat, with orders for the viewer to “kill this cat”; a page filled with a close-up image of a small girl sticking out her tongue with the unsettling invitation: “Want to know what my tongue tastes like? Try it on your screen and tell me.” Mouchette.org effectively tears down the wall dividing the audience and the artist. The viewer is broken down into static and swallowed into the artificial sworld of the alleged little 13-year-old artist, Mouchette. Perhaps the most jarring of these intrusive activities are the interactive questionnaires that ask for the viewer’s email address. The experiences of detachment online may begin to blur when you’ve been enveloped into the artwork itself. Days or weeks after leaving Mouchette.org, how will it feel to receive unexpected, sexually-suggestive emails from what was once deduced as simply an example of internet art?

While Mouchette playfully disturbs within the digital museums built by Rhizomenet-art.org and the like, Australian internet artist Mez Breeze(known throughout the internet as meznetwurkerdata[h!]bleederms post modemismmezflesque.exenet.w][ho][urker, among many other aliases) carefully constructs and presents electronic literature, such as code poetry, beneath the same cyber roof. Electronic literature looks exactly how you would imagine – jumbled, meticulous, and mesmerizing. So cryptically entrancing is this poetic medium that Mez Breeze’s contributions to the art form since the 1990s have developed a poetic-artistic language relating to the practice of code poetry: “mezangelle”. In her own code-laden words, Mez has noted that the “prime n.spiration was reality_shifting … of constructing a new m[c]o[mmunication]dality + m.bracing net.worked shifts + m.mergent practices in the online medium”. The language has been dubbed a central contribution to codework, electronic literature, net.art and digital writing in general. Mezangelle is based in deconstructing and reconstructing words, phrases and sentences, resulting in hybrid alterations of these linguistic techniques, as well as creating multiple meanings and a layered understanding to a piece of text. In an interview conducted by cont3xt.netMez linked the fusions of her mezangelle to the fear-dominated language ruling George Orwell’s dystopian world in 1984. Orwell created the language “Newspeak” to instill a sense of totalitarianism and restriction, and to strip individuals of their conceptions of self. With her digital, code poetry, Mez Breeze not only establishes an incredibly original, individual voice (something the Party in 1984 would have aimed to destroy), but also dips her quill into the blood of the web and scrawls densely poetic hypertext. As the restriction of Orwell’s 1984 crumbles, there is room for James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake to fuck the circuitry board of a computer. The result is as challenging as it is beautiful.

Similarly deconstructive, Eva and Franco Mattes manipulate their internet surroundings and conclude by sometimes presenting modified versions of online resources, and other times turning a mirror to the internet itself. Considered early pioneers of the net.art movement, Eva and Franco Mattes caused significant turbulence in the realm of internet art when they launched their “Copies” project, which saw the pair copying entire online art presentations with little to no alterations and publishing the duplicates to their website, 0100101110101101.org. The first of such experiments was conducted in February of 1999 when Rhizome hosted an exhibit for the defunct art page Hell.com. When the published copy on 0100101110101101.org was noticed, Hell.com approached the Matteses with cease-and-desist requests. Eventually, the original Hell.com had again ceased to exist, while the duplicated version by the Matteses can still be found on their page. A later example of a similar experiment occurred when the Matteses published a duplicate version of Jodi.org, fellow net.art pioneers. Unlike the Hell.com copy, for their reproduction of Jodi.org, the Matteses did not alter any details; it was published as a direct, mirrored copy of the original webpage. Also unlike Hell.com, those at Jodi did not argue or complain about the piece. Both the Matteses and the collective minds of Jodi.org share an interest in “art hacktivism”, that is, performing code interventions or tricks in order to create a discourse involving the digital environment in which their respective art serves as an agent reflecting the open-ended state of authenticity and originality of net.art.

An example of Eva and Franco Mattes’ more traditional artistic techniques or modification would be their adaptation of a lolcat online meme – a taxidermy cat’s head peeking down from a hole in the ceiling. The description of this piece on their website simply and accurately defines the marriage of their art form to their medium: “It’s cute and scary at the same time, like the internet.” Less of a physical piece by Eva and Franco Mattes, but no less fascinating, is their exhibit “For Internet Use Only”, a vulnerable example of internet voyeurism. Artists’ desktops are projected onto a screen before an audience, while the artists go about their business live on their computer, as if nobody was watching. The audience observes while the mouse’s arrow scurries across the blown-up desktop projection, purchasing things online, listening to music, checking Facebook – basic online activities are deconstructed and reconsidered into something of an abstract performance piece. The artistic vessel’s controls are maintained by the artists, but the point of view is turned to the audience. It is as if the internet has achieved independence: a freedom from the viewer, acting on its own, or at least acting before the pulled strings of someone else, rematerialized through the lens of cyberspace.

The boundary-bending qualities of the above examples of net.art can be identified by simply scratching the surface of the respective artists’ repertoire. This surface level of understanding encompasses the nature of internet art itself. The ongoing crisis of digital memory pushes the web-based artistic medium to the forefront of the popular narrative revolving art, its documentation and eventual preservation. The exposure these digital mediums receive is undoubtedly enhanced by the retrieval and subsequent archival initiatives implemented by projects such as net-art.org and Rhizome. These are the art museums of the digital age. The wellbeing of the resurrected body of net.art is not guaranteed. There is no safety in art; even Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa will burn if you touch a cigarette to her surface. However, there are brushes stroking against the digital landscapes of the internet. There remain artists devoted to the creation and expansion of net.art, and for all of these practitioners there are online institutions committed to the reconstruction, preservation and eventual presentation of all the work that has and will continue to influence generations of net artists to come. No visit is the same twice. Allow yourself to detach from the presumed reality of art and short circuit at the fizzling, forever-multiplying hands of the internet and the art that it has bred, art that continues to breed. Art that breathes, spits, and looks into you while you stare at a screen.

A constant state of mutation: Art.  

 

Image 1/ Art MOUCHETTE

Image 2/ EVA AND FRANCO MATTESAbuse Standards Violation, 2016

Image 3/ Art MOUCHETTE

Images 4-5/ Code PoetryMEZ BREEZE

Image 6-7/ EVA AND FRANCO MATTES, Copies, 1999

Image 8/ EVA AND FRANCO MATTES, Life Sharing, 2000-2003

Image9/ MOUCHETTEKill that Cat



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