Net.art in the Age of Digital Reproduction
This is a transcription of a lecture given by David
Ross Director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art at
San Jose University March 2 1999 which was broadcast live on the Internet.
The lecture was sponsored by the Cadre Institute and is taken from
Switch an online theoretical
journal dedicated to discourse involving technology.
Introduction: Joel Slayton
Good evening. My name is Joel Slayton. I'm the director
of the Cadre Institute, San Jose State's interdisciplinary, academic
and research program that's dedicated to information technology and
the arts. Cadre is one of the region's oldest and one of the most important
centers for digital media arts research and work experimentally by artists.
We're very happy to be able to be here tonight to help with this lecture.
Cadre is also the publisher of Switch, which is an online theoretical
journal that's dedicated to discourse involving technology. If you're
interested in either of those two programs, the Institute or Switch,
you can locate them on the web, of course, at cadre.sjsu.edu or switch.sjsu.edu.
The Cadre Institute in conjunction with the San Jose State
University art gallery and the Natalie Thompson endowment welcome you
to this evening's presentation. David Ross was appointed the director
of the SFMoMA in 1998. Prior to this he had served as the director of
the Whitney Museum of American Art since 1991. Widely known as a strong
champion of contemporary art, Mr. Ross has been an art museum professional
since 1971 when he was named the first curator of video art at the University
Museum in Syracuse, NY. He's organized over 100 exhibitions of 20th
century art, is widely published and has lectured at museums and universities
around the world. Mr. Ross has been involved in jurying of exhibitions
internationally including Documenta, the Venice Bienalle, and the Carnegie
International. Prior to this and his appointment to the Whitney, Mr.
Ross served in a number of key curatorial and administrative positions
at several important American museums including Boston's Institute of
Contemporary Art, University Art Museum at Berkeley, and the Long Beach
Museum of Art.
The title of this evening's discussion is "Art and
the Age of the Digital." We anticipate an insightful and fluid
discussion regarding the emergence of net.art, the curatorial challenges
faced by SFMoMA, and Mr. Ross's perceptions of appropriate theoretical
frameworks for net.art's appreciation. I'd to welcome David Ross.
Thank you Joel for inviting me down here to join with
you in one of the country's oldest and most important programs looking
at and trying to understand art made in this new era. It's an honor
to be here and I appreciate the opportunity to discuss some of my ideas
but as you know, Joel, and some of you, especially those involved in
Cadre, the real lure to come down here is all of you, because I fully
expect to learn as much this evening as to give out from what meager
I've been able to figure out of this new world that's developing so
quickly around us.
I've been looking at this material for several years and
just the fact that I've been looking puts me in a position to speak
more easily than any of my colleagues, but the reality is that none
of us really know. No curators, no critics really know where it is artists
are taking us in this extraordinary moment. I find that quite exhilarating,
a little frightening at times, primarily it's energizing. The idea of
art that's developing not only in a way that we can't predict, but in
this case it's hard to even understand what it looks like, what it's
going to do, how it functions on a most basic social level to a complex
aesthetic level, we are groping in the dark. I think that process, for
strange people like me, is one I delight in.
The way this evening should work is the following. I've
written something that I'll read. And then I'll respond to questions
and issues from some of the Cadre students who attended a talk I gave
in Berkeley several months ago and who, on their own, have been thinking
about many of these same issues I have been and who were kind enough
to email me some issues they would like me to address and I'll do my
best to do that. At that point, I hope this evening's talk will become
iterative and really become the kind of community that the web makes
possible in its day-to-day operation. This event is being webcast live.
So not only are my pearls of wisdom going out into the web and disappearing
into that giant sinkhole, but yours as well and our interaction together
will, hopefully be like a stone thrown into a pond and the ripples will
be more interesting than the stone dropping.
One of the things about the web that I like a lot is how
quickly you can change things. All of us have been involved in printing.
What a thrill it is to change something and not have to throw away 300
boxes of paper. The whole idea of its permeability, mutability, disposability,
I like that. One of the things I disposed of was the title of my talk
tonight, well really mutated it. It's now, "Net.art in the age
of Digital Reproduction."
Web.art, net.art...it captured my imagination like nothing
since video art on my own personal radar screen some 30 years ago. Oddly
the net is attracting the attention of media artists who are both attracted
and repelled to this new thing, whatever it is, in a fashion directing
reminiscent of the filmmaking community to the portable video technology
in the late 60s and early 70s. I remember a public dialogue I had in
NY with the great filmmaker/theoretician, Hollis Frampton, in which
he berated me for my involvement in video. It was humiliating, but I
admired him for his genius and I never imagined we'd be on opposite
sides of a great divide. He said to me, "When Richard Nixon was
accused of belonging to an anti-Semitic country club, he said, 'I'm
merely boring from within.'" Framptom compared me to Nixon, "That's
what you're doing, Ross, you're boring from within." I wasn't sure
if he was talking on a Buddhist level or as the mole from the right.
What he meant was that I'd always been an opponent of video art, and
that it was too early to criticize, because in 1975, when this dialogue
took place, he reminded me that artists only had access to the tools
of production. Tapes and installations were beginning to appear, but
artists had no way of using the essential quality of video, which was
the ability to create a network outside the art world, to generate a
true and valuable, nutritive relationship with an audience. It seemed
to me that until artists could do that, it was too early to critique
the idea of video art. We could only project the idea of video art and
hope that at that point the promise of cable television that would change
the world, creating a new structure for artists to gain access to the
technology of the broadcast medium that had previously been monopolized
by corporate interests. No one thought of the idea of building communities,
networks using this technology. There was a little talk of this among
small circles at places like "Radical Software" in New York
or "Challenge for Change" in Montreal, two magazines that
focused on video art.
In general, video art was seen as a medium with radical
potential. Filmmakers tended to react in a rather hostile way. They
saw it as horribly ugly compared to film with its grainy, fuzzy images.
And for what was this aesthetic given up? The idea of some kind of entry
into the world of television on the part of artists? That wasn't a place
for artists to be. Frampton was satisfied with making a film and showing
it to 25 other artists. That was the only group that ever saw that art
and that was fine. My whole idea of a museum television channel was
propelled when I left the Everson Museum and gone to Long Beach where
I'd been lured to build a new museum . They promised that they would
build a cable channel as part of the museum. That was the offense that
so earned Frampton's wrath towards me. They discovered widespread corruption
in Long Beach and so I never got to do the video channel because the
museum never got built.
But the idea that a museum was prepared to extend itself
into the community for art to take place was an idea I began to believe
in very seriously and wish I could participate in. Needless to say,
it's a wish that's never come true. When that project faded, I ran up
to Berkeley, then to Boston and to NY. That idea slowly faded as I became
a museum curator and then eventually a director. The idea that could
ever happen disappeared. I began to focus on what interested me, on
the new art forms that have come out of video as an art form, by artists
like Gary Hill, Bill Viola, Nam June Paik, and the like. And I put away
the idea that art and certain technologies and institutional interventions
could actually produce in its fusion something inherently radical, challenging
regardless of its content. I thought nothing more of it until 5 years
ago when a woman named Stacy Horn in New York started a BBS (Bulletin
Board Service) called Echo using the internet to create, what was being
done out here with The Well, creating a virtual community based on people
using email to write to each other. Five years ago it had a nice ring
For the past several years I've been trying to understand
this thing as it develops. From a text-base BBS to the graphical browsers
that have developed from Mosaic through Netscape and Internet Explorer.
They all have the same idea: to enable people to communicate. The idea
of art taking place in this new way is astounding to me. It seems to
be re-opening the potential that I thought had disappeared. It's an
art form--and I use that term advisably--that's contained within an
aesthetic movement that is itself contained within, and simultaneously
the harbinger of, a set of radically innovative social structures and
practices--all of which are within a set of technologies evolving at
an unprecedented and unpredictable pace even in an age defined by its
passion for velocity and unpredictability. It is an integral set of
production and distribution tools directed by aesthetic propositions,
varying from hyper-hermetic, ontological concerns to the overtly political,
to the broadly comic and self-referential. An art form evolving within
a system that is so fully totalizing and global that it contains within
it every other known mass medium on the planet. It is Marshall McLuhan's
dream come true or is he spinning in his grave at a rapid pace.
Working on the net, artists can engage with a set of aesthetic
practices (and to use the word, "design," is probably inadvisable
here) that seem to be designed to confront, contain and transform the
art world's prevailing economies. It's that powerful. It seems that
many of the most interesting people, groups, entities working on the
net are dedicated to the gentle, and not-so-gentle overthrow of the
prevailing order. At one extreme, net.art seems to demand an approach
to art-making so fully divorced from traditional art practices/processes,
that even contemporaneous critical activity is constructed as part of
it or within the work of art absolutely collapsing the notions of reader
and writer, between the idea of action and discourse. And much as it
is encouraging the collapse of this critical barrier within our art
culture, net.art also appears to engage an approach tot he idea of making
art that avoids many of the traps that tethered the truly radical uses
of video to novel, though mainstream, sculptural activity, or variations
on standard documentary or narrative cinema practices.
So what is this thing called web or net.art? Can we define
it, describe its principal qualities in a way that might provide a broader
understanding and its potential. It's difficult to do this. These days
it seems everyone is required to quote from Walter Benjamin, whose 1933
essay, "Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,"
has long served as a starting point with those trying to come to grips
with aesthetic change wrought by the relationship of mechanization to
modernity. Simply put, Benjamin's theory of an original artwork's aura
remains central to our understanding of modern art's essential character.
He frames what remains the central question confronting all who attempt
to understand the social and aesthetic relationships established by
new technological paradigms and how that influences our understanding
of art. Benjamin's question was in regards to an understanding of photography
and its contested presence in a world of art and ideas in its time.
Is photography actually art, might it function as an extension of the
work of an artist, might a photograph contain the auratic qualities
that Benjamin ascribed as essential qualities of a work of art?
Rather than answer that question directly, he proposed
a far more profound question. How had photography's invention changed
the central idea of art itself? Or further, how had mechanization in
the era of mechanical reproduction out of which flowed the invention
of photography changed completely the ground rules of our social lives,
the nature of representation, patterns of communication and corresponding
aesthetic practices? These questions are never fully answerable, run
through 20th century art, from Duchamp and Man Ray, through Hamilton
and Warhol, and continue to pose an especially thorny dilemma as we
consider our position today in a post-mechanical era, described in the
late 1940s by the great mathematician, Norbert Wiener, as cybernetic.
Like most questions, it provokes a range of responses, though Benjamin
did not have the impact on practice that more contemporary writers have
today. But in 1971, during the early years of video art, some thirty
years after Benjamin's death, the artist and critic, Douglas Davis,
refreshed the art world's collective memory as to the oddly predictive
questions posed nearly 40 years earlier by the German Marxist, humanist
writer. Davis' critical aim was clear and timely. In light of the contemporary
questioning of video art as a legitimate artistic practice, the advocating
of Benjamin's notion of auratic seemed the appropriate response.
Now today as we continue the discussion of the nature
of net.art and the place of the work of art in the digital era we had
best be sure we are asking ourselves appropriately large questions with
correspondingly large consequences. So once again, how do we define
this net.art? Can we locate this use of digital art within existing
structures that today represent the art world or does it call for the
construction of a new discursive space? And to paraphrase the poet/critic
David Antin's 1974 critical examination of video art, one of the first
examinations of that still-new art form, what are its distinct features
and qualities? Around the same time that Davis began writing about video
in the pages of "Radical Software," a short-lived but influential
broad sheet published by video artists and alternative media activists,
Ira Schneider and Beryl Kurow, no less than the Korean-born video artist,
Nam June Paik, directed our attention to another German Marxist. This
time it was the playwright, Bertolt Brecht. Brecht had written at a
moment roughly contemporaneous with Benjamin, his theory of radio, a
text that has increased in relevance almost with each decade of the
20th century. Its thesis remains current because Brecht recognized the
implicit fascism of one-way broadcast communications and openly questioned
whose interest was served by the development of radio as an essentially
passive, unilateral system. As another refugee of a fascist military
dictatorship, Nam June Paik was especially concerned with this aspect
of media technology and directed his early video artworks towards a
critical examination of the potential of what he called, two-way communications.
A trenchant concern was that artists direct themselves to the activation
of their audience, and though video offered a limited forum for this
kind of truly interactive work at that time, its profound difference
from broadcast television, radio, all broadcast media, at least opened
up the possibility of two-way, truly iterative communication art. As
a note, I would remind you that in a pioneering essay that Paik wrote
in 1973 for the Rockefeller Foundation, entitled, "Education in
the Paperless Society," Paik first invented the word the "electronic
superhighway," predicting the kind of intellectual commerce that
global networking would provoke.
Video art opened the door to a re-examination to these
two linked issues. In earlier works, like Davis' "Talk Out"
in 1973--a live, phone-in, broadcast television performance work--in
which viewers participated in the creation of a collaborative text by
phoning into the artist who, live, and on camera, literally typed their
responses to his text onto the screen in a continuous, superimposed
text roll. Or consider Paik's seminal 1974 video tape, "Global
Groove," which spoke directly to the need for a kind of virtual
community, combining artists as diverse as Allen Ginsberg, with a Korean
drum dancer, a Broadway drum dancer, John Cage, a Navajo singer and
others. Perhaps more important, several years later, Paik initiated
a series of live, global broadcast satellite collaborations with Joseph
Beuys, Laurie Anderson, David Bowie, Douglas Davis and others, in which
these very short-term virtual communities were linked together in art
world entertainment spectacles, connected by the shared space of extremely
expensive broadcast satellite time. The implications of the theoretical
questions of these works show through quite clearly. If video art was
to be meaningful as a new way of framing larger questions pertaining
to the paradigmatic shift in the structure of normative as well as aestheticized
communications, critical attention would have to be focused, at least
in part, on the potential for an expanded discourse as well as an expanded
cinema. And though early video work, in both its documentary form as
well as in its more overtly aesthetic use, may have been based on utopic
assumptions, especially those associated with the development of cable,
a wide range of artists found the early years of video experimentation
filled with radical promise.
In 1974, in "Collage" (dedicated to the late
Ray Johnson, the father of correspondence art, an art movement we should
all be looking at when thinking about the web and net.art) Paik added
a clever text to a reproduction of a 1944 Life Magazine advertisement
promoting television as the symbol of the soon-to-be, post-war good
times. Below the text asking the provocative question, "How long
will it be before all American homes have a television sets?" Nam
June Paik attached the text asking, "How long will it be before
all American artists have their own television channels?".
But cable television, which initially promised this economy
of abundance, did not deliver. At least in its first mature phase and
as an industry, it had no room for art or poetry. And satellite access
such as that which supported the live, global performances that I mentioned
before, were mere demonstrations of what could be possible. But the
fact was that these were fully out of the reach of regular artists who
didn't have access to money like Paik and Beuys and absolutely out of
the realm of possibility for individual artists who had their own personal
reasons for communicating. In the late 70s, radical development known
as slow scan came about in which artists used telephone lines to link
together slow scan video activities and created interactive guerrilla
theater pieces with activated audiences communicating over this very
clumsy, but very thrilling, system. It had a great deal of symbolic
resonance, but it was hard to actually create real work within this
We were, to quote the title of a book by video artist,
Frank Gillette, "Between Paradise." But more to the point
we recognized that whatever it was that had changed, it radiated from
radical transformation within the world of control and communication
devices--that world known as cybernetics--they were heady and confusing
times. The knowledge that these changes were close at hand but were
still outside of our grasp, that artists had the possibility of shaping
that change and exploring its distinct capacities, did little to relieve
the fact that most were looking something they had never seen and wouldn't
recognize if they did. All the more confusing, as Allen Kaprow has termed
it, artists were producing old wine in new bottles. This appeared within
the art world providing a delightful distraction while often providing
critical and theoretical deadends. Even more confusing because there
was little, if any, critical writing to frame any of these issues in
a broad context and little institutional support to spur public debate.
Not surprisingly, most art museums and commercial galleries viewed these
goings on with bemusement. Some responded with outright hostility which
was better than bemusement. Even though this artistic activity took
place within the context of conceptualism and its heyday, the kinds
of ontological concerns raised by video conceptualists were relegated
to an instantly marginalized status compared to the more purely language-based,
narrative conceptual artists. So even that seemed a deadend. When it
was welcomed at all into the mainstream art institutions, video was
primarily the responsibility of education departments who were able
to bring video documentaries about art into orientation theaters or
other educational ghettos within the art museum. Video made noise, and
noise generally was seem as bothersome in galleries seen as sanctuaries
away from the increasingly noisy world. From time to time, a novel video
exhibition may have been allowed in some corner of the gallery or art
museum. I was kept gainfully employed staging many of these, so I'm
not complaining, it was a living. But rarely did the ideas I mentioned
earlier find their way into a broader institutional dialogue. The era
of institutional self-criticism had yet to dawn and many of the issues
that have since transformed art museum practices had yet to surface.
The art museum was, by and large, still a privileged domain run by white
men in the interest of a set of increasingly irrelevant, antique sensibilities.
And of course, let's not forget that most video art was incredibly boring,
dreadfully under produced, if intentionally or not, as if in a way to
re-frame Andy Warhol's empire as an action drama, which in a way it
was. And though a few video/audio performance artists had the opportunity
to produce on a higher level, there were many who wouldn't be caught
dead at that level even if they could. The badge of independence was
to produce on a low-tech level and to show your distance from what Antin
called, video's frightful parent.
Yet video has held on and survived. It has transformed
sculptural practice as we know it, from Nauman to Viola, but the socially
transformative ideas embedded in its early moment have faded if not
disappeared. Ironically, or perhaps predictably, as video grew to present
less of a threat and carried fewer of the challenges to established
institutional order, galleries and museums began to exhibit and collect
artists' tapes and installations. But during this time, several other
things were brewing. Not to be ignored or forgotten, the artist-run
space re-established the role that individual artists could have in
constructing and managing a site in which their own aesthetic concerns
formed the core and informed the structure of an art institution.
That is a very important basis for what we see now with
net.art. But from the least likely direction something emerged that
would re-frame the notion of art, including video, in a truly novel
and potentially revolutionary context, and that of course is the internet.
What is it about the internet that provides such extraordinary potential
and has already created such unparalleled acceptance of a very complex
and incredibly new technological system into our schools, offices and
even into the bosom of our homes? For one thing, the internet provides
an essential use for the personal computer that everyone has and no
one knows what to do with--a use that moves beyond that of the typewriter
or lined yellow note-pad. And it has dramatically accelerated the penetration
of these devices on a global basis. But more importantly the internet
functions as a system that links together computers in a standard broadcast,
point-to-space fashion as well as allowing for addressability or to
define the audience for any specific communication. In its role as the
spine for an essentially free, global, interpersonal communications
system, the internet created a new context for art that requires, or
at least makes use of, a set of distinctive qualities that define this
new space and the activities that take place within it. Now chief among
these qualities is the interchangeable identity of readers and writers.
The ability to shift, hide and conceal or invent identity and the ability
to explore, within an increasingly controlled order, notions of non-order,
creative anomie, provisional disorder as well as anarchy itself. Though
often linked to socially unacceptable manifestations such as email harassment
or cyber crime, the fact of the matter remains that the power unleashed
by the internet has quickly become an essential component of what artists
can do within the social space constructed by the internet.
Entities such as Artmark and the Bureau of Inverse Technology
seem to have emerged from conceptual art that questioned and challenged
the hegemony of the art world's institutional order. In this respect
it may be related to 70s agitprop artist's initiatives like those by
the guerrilla Art Action Group. Or it may be seen as heirs of work by
artists as diverse as Daniel Sperry, Christo, Chris Burden, or even
more recently, the Survival Research Laboratories. But as Douglas Davis'
fairly simple, ultimately not very interesting to read piece, titled,
"The World's Longest Sentence" (a 1997 network in which the
artist initiated a sentence and then turned over the life of the artwork
to the audience)--the role of the audience in the new work of art has
changed critically. Yet whether a network involves the construction
or blurring or hiding of identities between readers and writers, it
seems clear that the nature of net space calls upon the complexities
of identity. It seems that, finally, we need to begin to define these
distinct qualities of net.art. I've beaten around the bush long enough.
I've told my sad story of video art too many times. How many times do
we want to hear this? I insist on framing this discussion within the
framework of the failure of video and its success, because I think it's
critical to understand the potential that's in place for this new art
form, this new way of working, for this new aesthetic/social space.
In response to my own initial questioning of defining the distinctive
qualities of this art form, I thought we could start by going through
my 21 distinctive qualities. I bet you by the end of the evening, it
will go to 30, because every time I have this discussion, especially
with artists who are developing this art, in real time, I walk away
saying, "Oh, of course, I should have thought of that." The
reality is art curators, museum directors, follow the route paved by
artists. I may be here lecturing to you, but in reality, I'm only feeding
back what I've taken from looking at the web and reading some of your
own writings and works.
Ross's 21 Distinctive Qualities of Net.Art
1. The ability to move and assemble audiences. Artists
working in theater or cinema are used to constructing a work that assembles
an audience. Poets have been doing that since time immemorial. But the
net allows us to take that audience and move them into another work,
to transform them, or to transform the space in which they are into
a space no longer controllable. You may be responsible for their initial
gathering, that then the authoritarian relationship breaks down. The
way that audience reconstructs itself and how it moves, is for the first
time, an element on the palette, something to consider.
This leads me to my second distinctive quality or potential
for net.art. And it regards authority, particularly in my always conflicted
role of museum director, curator, teacher. I never liked going to school,
never believed in the authority of teachers. I never liked being lectured
2. Authority shifts between reader and writer. I
am interested in what happens when authority shifts. I'm interested
in when and how an artist can generate a work where not only the nature
of where an audience disperses and reassembles, but also how that critical
line of being a writer and being a reader is blurred, eliminated. I'm
interested in where one can cross over that border and where the idea
of authority is no longer inherently a function of who owns the camera,
the broadcast transmission tower, who stands at the microphone, but
purely a function of who has the best idea or whose turn it is in an
iterative dialogue or whose role it is within a complex, new social
dynamic which evolves in a space where even fast-talking New Yorkers
like me can necessarily hold forth. It's very interesting how the dynamic
of social intercourse has changed in relation to BBS dialogues. People
are taking a different kind of time to react, to engage in the dialogue.
That's why those kinds of conversations were so special. A discourse
evolved from a new form of community interaction. One might say that
in an ideal, polite seminar this could happen, but the reality is it
doesn't. But it was possible immediately in the BBS environment, when
I got involved with Echo and later with The Well and similar online
communities and I think we've all seen how that aspect has transmuted
as artists have made use of the internet, especially as the speeds have
increased, and the ability to transmit not just text, but sound, still
and moving images in a different kind of iterative dialogue.
3. Net.art is based on an economy of abundance.
The net, even though it's not really free and we know that the idea
that we've walked into a completely democratic world where all the social
and economic barriers have been erased, we all know that's bullshit.
However, it's such a large step in a direction of abundance that we
actually can begin to talk about that. Broadcast and cable television,
those controlled forms of communication in which control is a function
of commercial enterprise in an era of late capitalism as well as political
control in an era where governments have long known the power of controlling
communications, has been changed. We've seen how the internet's relative
freedom and low cost once you have access to the tools of production
and distribution, which are the same tools. That changes the idea of
what can take place within that new space, in fact changes the nature
of this space instead of using the analog of museum space where it seems
like you'll never run out of space, but of course you will.
The economy of scarcity was the economy of thirteen channels
of broadcast. The economy that we thought cable was going to usher in
was enormous, we thought seventy channels would provide space for everyone,
every artist could do whatever they want. Of course, they ran out of
space three minutes after they opened the goldrush, because it was structured
to be another, but larger and more profitable, economy of scarcity.
The economy of abundance is a new economic model which will produce
enormous profits for many. It already has. Look at every internet stock
IPO. That's based on a broad assumption by investors worldwide that
this is where the money is--the new goldrush. I'm not negative about
this. I pray for the success of my wealthy patrons. I want them to succeed
so well that when it comes to supporting the arts and artists and a
culture in which they're comfortable and not threatened, they will allow
for a world to exist because it's in their interest to encourage a kind
of freedom and diversity and openness.
4. The net allows for the production of epic work.
Brecht talked about epic theater which was a challenge to conventional
notions theater, to the notion of theater as a commodified spectacle.
Theater that actually related to the direct lives of people, with all
the attendant boredom, the interstitial space between things happening
in life. Art has always been about compression, always within a confined
space of materiality, despite the large-scale possibilities. The real
scale is day-to-day life. It's artists who began to blur that line,
artists beginning with Duchamp and on to Fluxus and others. Those artists
finally found a medium where they could work unfiltered. That can take
place within an economy of abundance, can make epic work possible. Someone
could come to me with a proposal for SFMoMA's website that would take
the next twenty years. This is feasible. That abundance allows for amazing
things. We've seen this with webcam activity. I find it fascinating.
Andy Warhol must be jealous that he didn't live to experience webcams.
He would have had a webcam on every corner of the factory just looking
at the water cooler. I haven't really seen anyone online take on that
kind of epic aesthetic activity. Epic time is variably defined.
5. Net.art is purely ephemeral. The opposite of
the epic quality of net.art is its pure ephemerality. There's no trace.
It can have poetic brevity, that brief a life in the collective consciousness.
6. Net.art is produced within a medium in which extraordinary
digital tools are available. Artists are able to make images of
a quality which is unprecedented. They're able to create and reproduce
sound which is unprecedented. The actual texture is novel. It doesn't
look like video or film. It looks like what it is. Artists are just
now discovering the unique qualities of the net, the ways in which text
and layering can take place, the ways in which color plays. There's
enormous potential for exploration on a purely formal level, disregarding
all the other social and aesthetic concerns.
7. Digital technology affords the possibilities
of simulation and construction of truly credible images. We must
be alert to it. But it allows for enormous aesthetic opportunity and
playfulness. Digital manipulation is clearly an important quality that
has to be confronted and dealt with.
a. Shifting of identities. The 80s and 90s was
a time to look at identity. But what's taking place in the use of identity
within the web, which is so easily falsified, manipulated or acknowledged,
and the constructions that develop within this anonymity and presentness,
is truly amazing. I don't understand it. I'm fascinated by it. The most
overt examples are Artmark, the collaborative Bay Area group, doing
the Barbie Liberation Front--they constitute themselves as an anonymous
investment banking firm to generate support for socially interesting
projects both in the web and in real space. Their insistence on being
anonymous is important, shifting of identities, hiding their aesthetic
practice as Duchamp did for thirty years of his life, declaring what
they're doing as not art. That kind of active non-art art-making is
clearly going on within this frame of identity shifting.
b. The relationship or equity between individuals and
larger corporate entities. By corporate entities, I mean many things.
For example, Switch is a corporate entity, SFMoMA is another, or the
kind of websites generated by individuals who may claim to be corporate
entities or may claim to be individuals, but their power and their presence,
their ability to manipulate all of the aspects of the audience, of the
tools themselves, are equitable. That's a radical shift in power relationships
and that is a distinct quality of this new medium.
8. The intimacy of this medium. It's directly in
your face. There's rarely someone else with you. It's odd to be on stage
with a web image or a computer screen and it always seems completely
out of space. The idea of being on the web is like reading a book, it's
that kind of space. It's not theater space. Yet it has aspects of theater
space, that kind of tension. But the real space is intimate and that
intimacy lends itself to a variety of aesthetic manipulation. I think
back about Vito Acconci, with pieces like "Command Performance"
or "Theme Song" in which his ability to command the audience
to use that relationship to the video monitor to assume a kind of intimacy
with the viewer opened up the idea of the monitor. In this case, the
computer monitor as that kind of surrogate window as a kind of connector,
surrogate sexual link in the ultimate safe sex.
9. Iterative nature. There is a back-and-forth
continuum quality of the net.
10. The discursive quality can be embedded into the
actual work. Never before has the ability of the work's critical
apparatus been included in the actual work itself, so that the work
and its critical reception and its transformation in relation to its
reception, in fact, is all the same thing. There's an absolute collapse
of space that we all thought was as distinct and unchallengable as the
space between readers and writers.
11. The collapse of the distinction between critical
dialogue and generative dialogue.
12. Small-scale surfaces. The kinds of images,
texts, and graphical design that tends to be contextualized within it,
that makes use of the fact that we have frames within frames. Often
these frames are no larger than eight or nine inches. That we're working
along the same scale that is paper size and that scale calls upon certain
kinds of approaches to the graphical organization of space.
13. The ability to chose not only the transformation
of the audience, but the exact size of the audience. We can create
work that is generated to the entire internet space, point-to-space
kind of broadcast, or we can identify groups or individuals that we
wish to communicate with or create a work of art within. That control
over the size and nature of our audience is a distinctive and unprecedented
quality of this medium. You could create a work that is broadcast to
infinite numbers of people, or just to a select few, via a password,
like the "Hell" project of last weekend. It's not really "space"
but more a set of connections.
14. It's transactional. There's selling that can
take place, various kinds of buying in, of voting, of reacting distinctly
to an offer, sometimes a barter. Money can actually be transacted. New
kinds of currencies evolve. The idea of being able to work with currency
reminds me of Yves Klein who threw golddust into the Seine as an extraordinary
gesture of artistic will and the relationship of value to a certain
kind of action. Yet we have within the framework of this medium, to
work transactionally, to work with the transfer of wealth.
15. The net is not directly commodifiable. I used
to think the same think about video until dealers started producing
limited editions of artists' videotapes. There was this fairly successful
attempt to commodify video until video installation became a hyper-commodified
form of video. To this point now, I've not seen a way of the artworld,
gallery structure commodifying net.art. One could charge a fee though.
I'm thinking of Voyager's web poetry project where you had to pay $1.50
to buy a subscription to see it. It was a small transaction, but your
money was going to each poet. Imagine the scale of transaction and the
money you could make--if each person visiting your site paid a dime,
you could do pretty well. It's a different kind of transaction in which
the artist is in the center, in control.
16. Net.art is anarchic and dangerous. We shouldn't
ignore the inherent anarchy in its form. The people for whom this is
the last free space, who will be dragged kicking and screaming away
from the ability to work in this free space. That freedom is rare.
17. Three "nots": it's not cinema, drawing,
sculpture. Defining something for which it's not may be strange,
but it is something else. Unless we define sculpture in a Beuysian way
as a manipulation of social space, then it can be seen as sculpture
in that way. That's a bit tenuous. I haven't seen any net.art that could
fit that definition, but I think the potential exists.
18. The morphing of images and texts is unique in net.art.
The graphical ability to transform text and images blurs the relationship
between the two.
19. It's inherently global. We can say that cinema
or books are global, but net.art is inherently and instantaneously global.
20. It inspires the creation of a corporate entity.
Artists seem to want to cluster in this way, perhaps because of production
costs, or because of the way people work clustered together.
Questions & Answers (questions are off-mic and
1. Can you talk about art email lists/forums? Yes.
I'm on the board of Rhizome and I think it's an amazing thing. I've
learned an enormous amount, I think of it as a social space. It's replaced
Echo for me as well as reading all art magazines. I don't read any art
magazines anymore, I only look at the web. In places like 711 or Rhizome,
I find access to a dialogue that I'm vitally interested in, but also
that ability to take me as part of an audience of readers and transform
me into a writer, to move me into places directly. They form a critical
link, one that will probably be absorbed or imitated by the museum.
I think the Walker, and Dia, and The Whitney and fairly soon, the SFMoMA,
will be serving as that middle space, as grounding for dialogue, a kind
of finder for those who don't have time.
2. What is Rhizome? Rhizome is a website (rhizome.org). Here, we'll go to it directly. They manage
and maintain a dialogue, they present works by many artists, serve as
a collaborating entity. It's a guerrilla operation with no money. It's
three people running it (Rachel Green, Alex Galloway, Mark Tribe). They
send out a weekly email newsletter that contains a great deal of information
about activity on the web.
3. I missed your connection between the internet and
sex, what was it? That there isn't any connection. There's this
kind of critical distance and I've yet to see anyone trying to create
work that deals with that. Of course, there's cyberporn, which is well-financed
and extraordinarily popular. But I haven't seen any artists tackling
gender identity or sexual issues. The only thing I've seen is Chu Lea
Cheang in her piece, "Bowling Alley," which was on the Walker's
site, exploring an aspect of lesbian space. But it was so obscure and
hermetic that unless you actually knew what she was talking about, it
was hidden from you.
4. What about virtual reality? I know what you
mean by that, the goggles and the gloves. But reality is reality and
virtual is virtual, and never the twain can meet. There's real sex and
there's virtual sex. Virtual sex is buying a porn magazine or going
to a porn site. Virtual sex is like eating the menu instead of the food.
And the distance between those activities is one of the things that
the web addresses. The mechanical structure of the web is an information
appendage, a utility. It's functioning in ways it was never intended
to. It's developing a kind of aura in the Benjaminian sense. The softness
and intimacy is creating networks based on poetic concepts and aesthetic
predispositions and changing our relationship to this hardware into
this network of connected sockets and phonelines.
5. Can you talk about the notion of mastery regarding
digital media? I even wonder about the idea of the notion of mastering
this media. We're probably all much more slaves to it. I've seen some
activity that's come out of here [San Jose State University's Cadre
program] that's technically so brilliant and seamless, really compelling
visually and intellectually really complex, and I'd say on one level
it seems masterful, like the C5 piece of yours. There's really some
amazing things there I need to look at a lot more--like with any work
of art you need to spend time with it. But I'm not sure that it was
a masterful piece, whatever that means. I'm not sure that category really
exists yet, it might eventually. Joel Slayton [director of Cadre] has
been working pretty hard with the students and it seems they're working
closely together, he's not the master. It's hard for even someone like
Joel, who's been working in this area since 1985, to actually think
themselves as a master because tomorrow the rules change
and the possibilities are shifting all the time. The idea of it being
teachable at schools like SJSU and at Cadre, have a role to play. I'm
not a big fan of the idea of art school in general. I think they're
wonder places to get access to resources, but basically learning to
make art is something you struggle to do your whole life, and if you're
lucky, before you die, you've figured out something for yourself and
made something that's meaningful for you. But that's no different if
you're working in hi-tech media or on paper with pencil.
6. Is there a divide between who calls themselves "artist"
and who doesn't in this media? Our photography curator, Sandy Phillips,
has commented on photography in the same way. She said, "Oh there
was this wonderful time when photographers didn't have to worry about
what they were doing as art. And then there came a time when there was
a divide between those who called themselves artists and those who insisted
on calling themselves photographers." She thought it was a wonderful
moment when it wasn't necessary to be thinking of yourself as an artist
to make photographs. Perhaps that's an interesting comparison to today
and net.art. There are probably many people working within this space
who don't necessarily consider themselves artists because they don't
want to limit themselves and their activity by a set of prejudices and
pre-definitions of artistic practice. At the same time, since art is
undefinable and limitless in terms of the range of activities and forms,
I do think that what they're doing is making art, even if I can't recognize
it or if it takes me years to.
7. Can you talk more about categorization of the work
produced online as it relates to the museum? I have a problem with
premature categorization because I don't think people position or propose
their work within those kinds of frameworks. I understand why we need
to do this--a few of those, some with more narrative elements, others
that solely exist to produce links--the closest I want to get to categorizing
at this point is this kind of free-floating list, as a development of
a critical vocabulary. I think it does a disservice to Jodi [http://www.jodi.org],
for example, to categorize that as formal because I think there's something
else going on there--an attempt to deconstruct formal barriers and aspects
of the medium. So is that really formal if they're working against the
visual qualities and structures of the browser space? I'm not sure.
In fact, perhaps it's more political, but isn't it all political. Can't
you point to every net artist as being political, not necessarily ideologically
specific. I am enjoying that blurred critical space. It's important
that premature critical analysis doesn't start to create too many camps
or models or patterns of art-making. That will quickly develop a terrible
disease for this new space and that will be academicism. When we start
to see academic net.art, and it won't be long, that's not different
from any other art form. It's to be expected.
8. What's the role of the museum as a collector of
net.art? First, we have to define terms, what does "collect"
mean? Net.art is an experience in real-time. How would we collect a
piece that hasn't yet ended, for example? I think the museum's relationship
to artists and the net will be as a promoter. The curator will function
as search engine. If you like the photos and paintings I collect and
you relate to my version of art history, then maybe you'll enjoy the
sites I choose as well. The museum has a responsibility to expand its
traditional discursive space and I think it can do this by promoting
websites, either on our server or not.
9. How does the rest of the art world think about net.art,
do they get it? The editor of Artforum has been asking me
for two years to write about net.art. They get it. People who are thinking
seriously about art, get it. It's the lowest blow to say what you're
doing is not art. But that's critics. Plenty of artists themselves have,
historically, said what they're doing is not art. Duchamp, for example,
said his fountain wasn't art. It's a language game. The ontological
issues raised by something's artness in relationship to that particular
word is an irrelevant issue. Especially when the work is raising broader,
more subversive concerns.