Grave digging and net art: a proposal for the future
In the year 2000 net art was declared dead. At the time, most people had little or no idea what net art was, much less that it might be deceased. Only seven years before, the arrival of a free, easy-to-use browser had transported the Internet from semi-obscurity into a mass medium. In its pre-web days, only a few artists had ventured onto the Internet, but now, with the technological obstacles removed, many more were to follow. By 1996, a small, lively group of international artists had formed a loose network and began describing their work as ‘net art’ – site-specific art made for and on the Internet. As a group, they rapidly gained attention in media art circles and, to some extent, the larger art world. If the lugubrious millennial cries were to be believed, net art would have died tragically young – a mere four years old.
Public announcements decrying the death of a movement, medium, or even entire art genre have a long history. In the nineteenth century, art history emerged as a new field of inquiry bringing with it a new consciousness of arts place within history. Art was beginning to be valued for the novelty of its approach, as well as its expression of individual and societal subjectivity. The new appeared to be triumphing over the old, and ideas, art and specific media began to be seen as having a limited life span.
There are at least three major death warrants issued and repealed over the last two centuries that inform the deliberations over the supposed demise of net art: the death of painting, of the avant-garde and of utopia. In 1839, the French painter Paul Delaroche, upon seeing a newly invented daguerreotype, purportedly cried, ‘From today, painting is dead!’1
The daguerreotype would replace painting’s task of recording reality, and thus painting would no longer be of use. This apocryphal, often retold story was just the beginning of repeated assaults painting would suffer throughout the next century and a half. Yet despite, or maybe because of this, painting refused to die and if anything the challenges served to reinvigorate the field.
Similarly, postmodern thought, which dominated contemporary art in the 1980s, was perceived as heralding the end of the great utopian political and avant-garde experiments of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In art historical terms, the avant-garde refers to early twentieth century modernist art movements characterized by formal and conceptual innovation and a rejection of traditional values, institutions, and ways of seeing. Utopian in aim, it sought radical social, political, and creative renewal by forging new aesthetic ground and ways of perceiving the world. However, by the end of the twentieth century, the misadventures and monumental tragedies that had been wrought by many of the political and social experiments that paralleled these artistic explorations, had led to widespread disillusionment, suspicion
and skepticism. Punctuated by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent dissolution of the Soviet Union, the death of utopian idealism across the political and cultural spectrum was widely presumed. Postmodernists argued that just as the historic avant-garde had become a part of the very institutions it had once challenged, artists, rather than standing outside society, were insiders, who could not escape eventual assimilation into the mainstream. Yet, while aiming to reveal the avant-garde’s inherent failures and inconsistencies, postmodernism itself contained a fundamental contradiction. In its rejection of the historical avant-garde – with its now traditional values, institutions, and ways of seeing – it displayed the same tendencies it was trying to discredit. Through its break with the past, postmodernism appeared to be another avant-garde movement and just as the many death warrants for painting would not end painting, postmodernism didn’t finish off the avant-garde, it only helped to invigorate it.
In the midst of the apparent collapse of the great utopian projects, rumours of another were beginning to emerge. In ‘cyberspace’, individuals would soar through information unencumbered by physical obstructions and governmental controls, and new types of communities would emerge, emancipated from the shackles of ethnicity, gender and class (an idea whose refutation is by now as commonplace as the original promise). In cyberspace, techno-determinism was the mantra: the non-hierarchical, decentralized architecture of the Internet would stencil itself on the world of flesh and metal, resulting in massive decentralization, and bringing forth greater freedom and democracy, as older structures withered away.
In a less ecumenical fashion, net artists were developing their own utopian ideas about the Internet, using Hakim Bey’s The Temporary Autonomous Zone
as one of the handbooks of the movement.2
Bey envisioned an Internet where inhabitants moved nomadically through pirate-utopias, spontaneously forming short-lived anarchist clusters that mutated and relocated when threatened by outside impositions of control. Similarly, net artists wrote irreverent yet earnest manifestos outlining their independence from the mainstream art world. They made work that used the Internet and the Web as materials and systems to be manipulated for their own ends, making links to each other’s websites and circulating their work via email, message boards and mailing lists.
In the 1960s, as net artists were well aware, conceptual artists had sought to challenge the commercial art world by creating what they thought would be unmarketable art. They developed temporary works, often involving process-based installations, performances or instruction sets. Works were meticulously documented, and a paper trail of photography, film, certificates, sketches and notes was created. Although staged outside of galleries and museums, artists still depended on these institutions to circulate and exhibit work as exhibitions were produced using the documentation as surrogates for the missing objects. Often one-of-a-kind, or made in limited editions, these artifacts ultimately became equal in value to original works of art, meaning any potential loss of value instigated by abandoning the art object was recuperated. As the value and meaning of the documentation were not self-evident to the uninitiated, a caste of ‘expert’ curators and dealers was also required in order to explain the work, further reinforcing the institutional grip on the artists and their work.
Net artists revived some of the concerns of conceptual art, particularly in its efforts to route itself away from traditional art world circuits. However unlike the conceptual artists, they did not have to rely on galleries or museums to exhibit their work, which
was not only produced and distributed on the Internet but viewed there as well. There was no reason to view art on a computer in a gallery when it could be seen from any connected computer, and with that connection, artists now had the ability to reach audiences directly in their homes and workplaces, where their work could be accessed by choice or by chance.
Internet time moves fast and the death sentence on the utopian phase of the Internet came quickly. The crash of the stock market and many high-tech industries at the turn of the millennium signalled its end, as hopes for the Internet were abandoned as quickly as they had once been embraced. As a microcosm of past utopias, early sweeping pronouncements about the future of the Internet were followed by similarly sweeping denouncements, and many now sought to distance themselves as far as they could from its perceived false promises.
It should be no surprise then, that the Internet bust prompted announcements of the death of net art. Unlike its electronic predecessor video art, which had made a successful transition from its own early utopian anti-institutional period into the museums and galleries it had previously eschewed, net art could not be so easily assimilated. Following video art, some net artists began making sculptural installations more suited to a traditional art environment, but in doing so, ideas of site-specificity that helped to shape and define much of the best net art had to be discarded. Like conceptual and early video art, net art had sought to use its immateriality to challenge traditional art institutions, yet it differed in two significant ways. Firstly, net art was always available – accessible anywhere there was a net connection. Secondly, net art was a resource that could not be depleted. The art world’s business model relied on the creation of scarcity, which was constructed in conceptual art through the elevation in value of surrogate documents and with video art by replacing endlessly reproducible videotapes with limited editions and gallery installations. On occasion, net art had been collected, but by and large, it remained a conundrum for the art market. Take it off the net, and it no longer existed. Net art, it was said, was too difficult to find in the noise and chaos of the Internet, even harder to collect, and did not carry its weight in a gallery environment. These obstacles, together with the general negative mood following the dot-com crash, contributed to net art becoming a less appealing venture. Shunned by the art world, it became ghettoized as a sub-category in the already rarefied field of new media art. Artists, of course, continued making art on the Internet. Some expanded off the desktop to explore the new wireless webs, while a few others, notably artist curator Jon Ippolito and collaborators, continued working with experimental approaches to the distribution and preservation of net art. However for the most part, the discussion seemed to be over.
This situation was to change dramatically when a teenager named Shawn Fanning released a software application he called Napster in 1999. Napster was a ‘peer-to-peer’ application that allowed anyone using the Internet to connect to, search and view, the computer of other Napster users, in order to share their music files.
From its earliest days in academic research labs, the Internet had been conceived as a ‘peer-to-peer network’ meaning users could both access and
contribute content to it. Following the invention of the World Wide Web and the ready availability of cheap computers, the number of people connecting to the Internet soared. With most of these new users happy to merely receive rather than contribute content, the numbers
of computers both serving and
receiving files decreased and the network began to look like more traditional, and centralized broadcasting media.
With the release of Napster however, widespread peer-to-peer networking returned as millions began to share their music files, and the number of PCs capable of both receiving and publishing content increased exponentially. In particular, musicians without a recording contract began taking advantage of this new distribution system to reach a global audience. Decisions about who was to be heard, traditionally made from the top-down by company executives, were now being made by the music fans – if music was well received, files would be shared, and the band would gain exposure. Shared music collections were based on individual idiosyncrasies and tastes, each a curated selection now open to the public. Suppo...