Date: Sun, 11 May 1997
From: Robert Adrian on nettime

Robert Adrian

Everybody seems to agree that there is something happening in the networks that is connected in some way with the art of the 20th Century. Everybody also seems to be in agreement that, whatever it is and whatever its called, its pretty exciting. Almost everybody seems to agree that its is not just simulations of things made for virtual versions of white museum walls. The disagreements seem to begin with the question of whether it has a name and whether naming would somehow fix it, like a butterfly pinned on a board, as just another "ism" in the art historian’s catalogue.

The Nettime discussion about was kicked off by Andreas Broeckmann’s strong statement about the precarious future of internet access that he identified as the context:

"[...] in which a loose group of artists, almost a movement, is currently realising projects under the name Net.Art. They are based in various European countries, team up in real and virtual institutions [...], working locally as well as translocally, sometimes remotely, sometimes together on the same project" (‘Net.Art, Machines, and Parasites’, 8.March’97). As Broeckmann uses the term, Net.Art (or refers exclusively to projects taking place in the WWW: "... an important feature of projects realised on the WWW is that they can constantly be updated and changed, so that there is never a ready and fixed creation or ‘work’. Net.Art works are temporary [...] and as unstable as the networks themselves. [...] The main tool of Net.Art is the hyperlink through which one WWW document can be linked to another, no matter where on the internet that second document is located. This means that [...] millions of WWW documents are potentially linkable [...] on which artists and designers can draw."

Andreas Broeckmann’s text makes no mention of ‘Net.Artists’ and no formal prescription for ‘Net.Art’ (or and, although the examples he uses belong to a particular group of artists, he makes it clear that: "At this moment, Net.Art is certainly in a transitory state, in permanent flux, and it will change and develop as its agents and environment change."

In spite of Andreas’ effort to avoid suggesting a formula for a possible ‘Net.Art’, the history of 20th century art is full of cases of new and open media and forms being appropriated and closed by becoming named - and marketed - as ‘movements’ or ‘-isms’. For example, David Garcia suggests that the identification of a specific ‘Net-Art’ (as opposed to the more general ‘Art-in-the-Net’) could lead to the destructive effect of internal struggles over dogma, "[...] theoretical somersaults and tedioustechnological formalism that accompanied debates about what might or might not be *real* ‘video art’.", that contributed to the demise of ‘video art’. When David Garcia cocluded his reply with the plea: "The term net-art (as opposed to art that happens to appear on the net) should be quietly ditched", the framework of the ‘Net.Art’ vs ‘Art-in-the-Net’ discussion was established ...

The problem with the idea of ‘art that happens to appear on the net’ is the implication that the electronic networks are merely another venue for traditional art practice and that the differences are more a question of style than of substance, which opens the door to "the danger of reducing the idea of the net to a mere means of distribution" (Benjamin Weil). But whether you call it Net.Art or Art-in-the-Net the operative word is ‘Net’ - that is: this art is a part of - and entirely dependent on - the net and that is what makes it different from other art in any medium. In Jordon Crandall’s words: " is interesting if you regard its basis in networking, but not necessarily the internet. [...] It’s important to look at the internet as imbedded in a net ...". Art in the communications media only exists when it is shared, when it connects somewhere in the net. Which networking medium is used is not the important issue since its all really only the old-fashioned telephone anyway. At least for now.

In looking for reference points to somehow locate ‘Net.Art’ (as a phenomenon of the WWW) within the recent history of art, various contributors to the discussion have proposed most of the movements and media of the 20th century. David Garcia started the list with video art, while Carey Young found "strong links" to sculpture, telematic art, land art and especially to installation. John Hopkins mentions mail art, Walter van der Cruijsen added experimental film, performance, conceptual art, electronic art and media art. Pauline Bosma suggests radio and hints at fluxus while Alexei Shulgin and Rachel Baker’s references to on-line readymades and ‘found elements’ points to a dada connection. I can add minimal art, computer graphics and Zerography to the list without even stopping to think.

The interesting thing about this list is that, as viable separate art forms, most of these "movements" and/or media are as defunct as real video art but we find them still alive in the way artists are recovering and recombining them as part of the strategy for working in the networks - which suggests that either 1) the separateness (the ‘ism’ness) was an art-historical illusion or 2) the new networks, created by the conjunction of recording and communication technologies, form a kind of funnel through which the disparate forms of industrial culture are being squeezed and merged. It is a kind of collaging, not a collaging of images and sounds onlybut of cultural material, of memories, histories and media.

Jeremy Welsh wrote: "The kinds of things that are being done with resampled/recombined data on the web are only a further extension of a process that begins (provisionally) with the cubists and gets to be the dominant aesthetic as a result of Scratch Video [...] and its subsequent incorporation in MTV, advertising and mainstream cinema. Now that everything we look at is more or less collage it would be ludicrous to contend that collage is in or of itself a radical strategy. It’s a tool that anyone can use, and precisely this ubiquity makes it viable and interesting."

Or a game that anyone can play - as Alexei Shulgin says in an ‘interview’ with Rachel Baker: "Internet in itself is a hobby, is a game, everybody can play Internet. It’s like chess. [...] The competitive side of it has no importance, but the thing itself is very, very strategic, and that is probably what attracted me to the Internet game."

One interesting (and largely neglected) aspect of the ‘Net.Art’ phenomenon is that of the strong theoretical and practical input from the post-socialist countries of East and Central Europe. For artists whose traditions are more about communication in an environment hostile to new forms than about the manufacture and marketing of cultural products, adaptation to the low market profile of the networks is no special problem. In fact the absence of a market tradition appears to be a positive advantage in operating in the ‘gift economy of the networks’ (Pit Schultz). On the other hand, there is an almost equally strong input from post-Thatcherist Britain - which suggests that there is a lot more to discuss on the ‘Net.Art’ channel

I don’t really have an opinion about the name game and in the end probably agree with Josephine Bosma who wrote: "I like the term, especially because of that little dot in it."