Monday, August 1st, 2005

Rhizome Artbase 101

Internet exhibition supported by the New Museum of Contemporary Art

June 23 – September 10

Why is it so difficult for internet art to become part of the mainstream, when the internet itself is so ubiquitous? Maybe it’s the ubiquity that’s the problem. In her book Internet Art (Thames and Hudson, 2004), Rachel Greene hypothesizes that net art is difficult to see as Art because the tools used to make it – websites, email, games, blogs, etc. – are so omnipresent: we can’t perceive them outside their pragmatic context. We spend so much time in front of computers that we look to more traditional forms of art making as a break from the everyday. Additionally, she says, “Artists who make internet art are sometimes self-identified as programmers. This means they can’t be ‘real’ artists.” After all, how can code be identified as art?

Other hurdles that net art must overcome are commercialism and the ephemeral nature of internet art. Commercialism surrounding the internet is a turn off to purists who firmly believe in the separation of art and commerce (ironic considering that nofirm market for internet art exists.) Email forwards, downloads and hits are the indices that determine internet art’s success – not exhibitions, reviews, or auction records (although this is changing.). These abstract measurements of success and the fact that net artists do not produce any tangible objects for buyers to obtain, isolate the audience for and makers of net art.

It is important to remember that the internet functions as a public space for the display of art, unlike privately owned galleries or museums, which only display art hat has been absorbed into the official history of art. Net art rarely appears in galleries or museums. Net art explores many of the same themes explored by artists using traditional media, while relying on the internet’s media specificity for emphasis. Net artists explore the technological, economic, and social implications of the internet, which is a form of organization and consciousness on a global scale. Singular exhibitions or performances in a museum or gallery cannot do this.

Net artists are influenced by art historical figures and movements. Obvious nfluences are Duchamp and the Dadaists – particularly their ability to turn art away from pictorial representation – and conceptual art, with its emphasis on audience interaction, event-based works, and use of text and networks. These are by no means the only influences. Depending on the work, one finds varied source material, some of it pre and some of it post-Modern.

For people who are unfamiliar with (or wary of) net art, or for enthusiasts who want to take a trip down memory lane, has organized an historical survey of Net Art., one of the premier internet art organizations, was founded in 1996 as an on-line forum for artists working with new media across the globe. The exhibition allows visitors to investigate a large and varied sampling of internet works from its online archive, known as the ArtBase. Curated by Greene, former executive director of Rhizome and the current one, Lauren Cornell, the exhibition is presented at the website (), and at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in Chelsea. Comprised of forty selections from the ArtBase, the exhibition includes influential pieces by early net artists as well as contemporary pieces from today’s innovators.

Works are grouped under ten themes – Dirt Style, Net Cinema, Games, E-commerce, Data Visualization and Databases, Online Celebrity, Public Space, Software, Cyberfeminism and Early Net.Art. An exhibition with this many themes and works makes assimilation difficult and exhaustive. But that’s the beauty of an online exhibition – viewers can revisit the art at their leisure and as often as they likeat no cost and without getting on the subway.

Internet art has its origins in late-1990s Europe and Russia. As Greene notes, “The internet in these locales was emblematic of the increased access to information in these regions and the opening of international borders.” The Early Net.Art section of the exhibition highlights some of the artists working during this period, who provided the context for the internet art practices we see today.

Alexei Shulgin’s Desktop Is, 1997 began as a homework assignment given by fellow net artist and teacher Natalie Bookchin to her students at the  University of California at San Diego.  At Shulgin’s prodding, Bookchin agreed to allow artists to complete the assignment as well. Shulgin was able to turn the assignment into a group project that utilized the computer desktop as a platform for collaborative, yet highly individual, artistic production. Shulgin invited different artists (via email and web postings) to experiment and create a work using the desktop as their canvas. The piece includes Shulgin’s own poetic musings on the desktop such as, “desktop is the face of your computer; desktop is your everyday torture and joy; desktop is your own little masterpiece,” as well as links to the desktop portraits created by each artist. These works are evidence of the possibilities of artistic collaboration in a community connected via the web. Each one is a work within a work, generates dialogues that are both personal and cross-cultural.

Dirt Style refers to works that use outdated technologies (read: old as dirt) to either resist the concept of technological progress, to spark nostalgia, or to reinvent outmoded processes by using them in new ways. In GOODWORLD, 2002 Lew Baldwin asks users to enter the name of a website into his interface, which then turns the images and text on that site into a simplified, abstract work of art.

This transformation of websites can be compared to the wrappings of Christo, whereby familiar structures are wrapped in bright packaging, masking their actual purpose or importance and forcing people to look at them differently. The more links and pictures a site has, the more radical the transformation becomes. Enter, and the CNN logo becomes a phantom of itself in a block of yellow and magenta. Subordinate headers become blinking boxes in shades of gray or primary colors, while all the surrounding links are translated into the word “Good” and text is turned into a robotic “*____*” happy face. The site becomes a barrage of blinking, nervous energy, a sort of Stepford version of the Daily News, as if it is trying to force a good vibe on you. The fact that users can easily pull up the real site in a new browser and do a side-by-side comparison with Baldwin’s minimalist interpretation emphasizes the advances in web page design and technology. At the same time, it makes obvious the mainstream media’s attempt to play down the fact that most news is really bad news. One can even explore this theme on a global scale by entering another nation’s CNN equivalent to determine if the effect is the same.

Data Diaries, 2003, by the American artist Cory Arcangle, is included in the Net Cinema grouping. In this work, Arcangle explores the theme of memory; not his own memory, mind you, but his computer’s. Data not readily used on a computer (the leftovers) is sent to the hard drive via a core dump (trash dump). In Data Diaries, Arcangle has fooled the computer into reading all of this leftover data as a video file and effectively turns the data into home movies of the old files. Streams of pixelized squares run in seemingly randomized patterns across the screen while a screeching handshake – the noise that occurs when modems connect – serves as a soundtrack.

The effect of watching these “movies” is cathartic. The streaming imagery sparks nostalgia for the early days of computers and video games when everything existed in squares of color and moved in jerks and spits. It mesmerizes and sucks the viewer in – much in the same way that web surfing does. This art work has a hypnotic effect on the viewer, suggests a layering of consciousnesses – the computer’s, the artist’s and the viewers. The data is stored in the computer’s memory, but it’s the artist’s use of the computer that has built up that memory. Considering these things, the viewer becomes acutely aware of his own computer, his own memory, and then his own consciousness. What at first appears to be a robotic, cool technological interpretation of human phenomena brings into sharp focus the fact that computers influence all levels of our consciousness.

Motomichi Nakamura’s visually stunning and psychologically disturbing pieces are worth spending time with, as are the exploits of the brokerage corporation ®Tmark, whose antics have drawn attention to activism via the internet by addressing capitalist ideologies through a subversion of the very rights and tools that corporations use to protect their own intellectual property.

While valuable in the context of this exhibition, some works demand more time than even the most patient web devotee has to spare (Every IconFenlandia1 year performance video), though they do make their point that time is still an ongoing theme for artists in general. Other works emphasize the net’s propensity for documentary and cinema (Bindi Girl, Super Smile), but they would work just as well in a gallery or museum, while other works, particularly Flesh&Blood, by the Dutch artist Mouchette, in which the artist invites the viewer to lick the screen to determine if they are real and to tell the artist what they taste like, is ridiculous.

In these works, the technological and social implications of the internet are put to effective use and showcase the internet’s relevance as an artistic medium. What the exhibition points out is that at this point historically the web should be as familiar to viewers as traditional modes of visual art are. Once this point is grasped, it is not so difficult to perceive internet and new media works as Art. While accessibility to subject matter may be challenging at times (this is true of any new art), accessibility to the art itself is not.