Few months ago we published the catalogue of the show net.art painters and poets. Here’s the longish text I wrote, plus few installation pix. Easy.
Oh no, not another net.art memoir!
First-person shooter disclaimer
Here’s the thing. I was very much involved, so it’s a big Freudian mess to write about net.art as both a first-person shooter and a cool observer. It takes two parts PR narcissism and three parts therapy.
Which reminds me of a little piece I wrote for Jeremy Hight. It was about which artists influenced me and which were influenced by me. I googled it now and it’s nowhere to be found. As influences, I claimed Duchamp and Martek. And said I had influenced 0100101110101101.org and Rtmark. OK, now that this tangent is out of the way, let’s move on.
The few words that follow are here because I agreed to co-curate an exhibition on net.art in a gallery. The other curator is Alenka Gregorič, the show is called “net.art Painters and Poets”, the gallery is the City Art Gallery of Ljubljana and the year is 2014. I am me and you are the person reading this.
Don’t worry, net.art is perfectly normal
Just like capital, art is a little like water – it has this habit of expanding to all spheres of human endeavor. So when military-technical humans came up with this grand digital network, it was only a matter of days if not hours before art followed. That’s why I say net.art is normal.
In 1993 and 1994 the seeds of the internet passed from the military and academia to the civilian sphere. While the majority of early users were looking at a way to publish their corporate brochures or academic papers, there were a few inquisitive artistic types, each of them with their own brushes with the art system, ready to take on the beast and discover new ways of asking questions. The personal prehistory of some early net.artists looks like this: Jodi did video cut-ups in an art school, Heath Bunting was practically homeless and had experimented with anti-corporate hacks, Alexei Shoulgin was a photographer escaping the frame. Me, I was running away from literature as well as war.
Early net.art days
Upon my very first contact with the web I decided to examine the context well and it took me only two days to click through the e-n-t-i-r-e Yahoo directory. That’s how small the web was. Now you can (maybe) imagine how peculiar a moment it was to try and actually succeed in creating something that was entirely different from what the whole world was doing. That was the first adrenaline rush.
The second one was finding out that there were other people with similar thoughts. I guess I was also a bit lucky and Geert Lovink invited me to the founding conference of Nettime in 1995. That was important because I met Heath there and we started to post our stuff on the Nettime mailing list otherwise dedicated to internet theory and critique. Paul Garin was there too, and he was a bridge with Nam June Paik and all that fine Fluxus work. Most impressive was Pit Schultz, who later gave a name to our group and did the first show of ours. Soon after that meeting, Jodi began sending in some eeevil ASCII glitch materials and Alexei wrote the most deadpan anti-art manifestos. The stage was set.
We all met for the first time in Amsterdam in January of 1996 at the Next 5 Minutes conference and finally had a chance to consummate our affair.
net.art is also physical
One common misconception about net.art is that it was somehow limited to web sites, mailing lists, and the purely digital. It was not.
As a matter of fact, the backbone of our heroic period was the constant flow of festivals, conferences, and sometimes exhibitions, where we would meet and fiercely debate matters. We really liked each other very much and some of these connections are still the closest I’ve come to true friendship.
In retrospect, it is also fair to say that while we were the first generation to intuitively grasp the digital sphere, we were also among the first to understand that it really is not a separate realm. It is clear today that humanity did not exactly emigrate from the physical world into a digital one. We are rather confronted with a dynamic hybrid of the two.
In a similar fashion, it seems clear that the boundary between analogue and digital art is not a matter of some razor-sharp technology-driven divide, but a blur of cross-penetrating techniques and approaches.
Just as we managed to import some of the older avant-garde concepts to the digital space, we also exported explicitly digital features to good old analogue art practices. I call this analogue/digital vista the Umpire and it has nothing to do with Toni Negri.
But it is also important and fair to say that the vast majority of what we produced as net.art projects was in fact digital. Only in 1998 and 99 did some of us do material things, such as hardware, prints, and the like. Early net.art was browser art to a large extent.
net.art is only partly art
Our early online work was rather technological and formalist, meaning that it took us some time – a week, maybe more – to learn the underlying technology (HTTP, HTML, and such four-letter stuff). But then it began to turn conceptual and reflexive. In our case, this meant understanding the possible and probable social implications of the network. I said social, not only artistic, because for one reason or another it was clear to all of us that we had a job beyond decorating people’s browsers.
As with any self-absorbed artist, I also have a habit of collecting books and articles about my work. Some are great, some insulting, but one thing is common to all of them: none succeeds in defining net.art.
Well, here goes. I will give you a formula to calculate the proper definition: take the quote “Art was a substitute for the internet.” and rotate it by 45°.
net.art was not totally eviaN
Just like with every other generation, our life and work as net.artists was part constant work sessions, part constant discussion with our peers, and part constant interaction with the outside world. Just like with every other generation, net.artists kept in touch in order to understand their own work, to learn the techniques, and also to conspire against the art world.
During the heroic period of net.art from 95 to 98 we were thus in a permanent session of devising strategic statements and projects. First, Pit Schultz came up with the name net.art, together with a little dot. We immediately loved it because it was somehow fair that our label would sound like a file name. He then created the first ever show of net.art and it included us four. That was how the Pantheon was fixed. Pit is our Apollinaire and our Vollard.
Nettime was our studio and where the most crucial connections were made with activists and theorists. The fact that people of such different focuses were sharing the same mailing list was not trivial. It was a normal thing to read about TAZ and about Castells and about surveillance and do browser damage all in the same day. Nettime made net.art better.
History repeated itself after exactly twenty years. Just like in 1977, a grassroots creative/life movement met the broader world and it was marvelous. Just like with the year of the Pistols and the Clash, we had everything lined up: good work, success, and mortality.
In that year we suddenly started to receive invitations to big art places – most notably documenta X, which was really a display of absolute unpreparedness on both sides. Our ambition there was to show that we matter (we didn’t really) while the curators tried to prove that we didn’t matter (we actually did).
That was the year we separated from Nettime, which was a sad thing. The habit of Nettimers to be theoretical and activist about stuff was great but it was disappointing when we realized our friends wanted net.art to be located safely away in a browser with their debate space left alone. We split and made our own mailing list, called 7-11. It was moderated by Keiko Suzuki, who is the mother of the child prodigy Satoshi Nakamoto, author of the most remarkable post-internet art.
net.art was dead
In the autumn of 1998 Heath invited all of us to Banff, which is a wonderful place in the Canadian Rocky Mountains where artists go to die. The occasion was a conference entitled “Curating and Conserving New Media”, where very eminent art leaders and statesmen were to discuss our destiny in eternity. So it was necessary to hold a press conference right there and declare the death of net.art. I thought of that as a cool situational performance also reflecting the hated professionalization of our field. Instead it became a useful parenthesis with which to close a period that we now call heroic. It also did a slight disservice to net.art, giving the wrong kind of signal to the literal types that happen to dominate.
Of course, nothing died with that press conference, least of all net.art. None of the artists involved stopped working, many new ones showed up, and plenty of fine work ensued. What maybe ended was the hype that was unintentionally aligned with the first wave of the startup gold rush called the dot-com era. This refrain is being repeated nowadays with the second startup gold rush being aligned with post-internet art, which is, of course, net.art. The only difference is that selling out is no longer a topic.
net.art is in the gallery
Curating the Ljubljana show was an effort in a few directions.
The most obvious one was to claim a role in history. The point here being that net.art played a role in society’s early dealings with internet technology and consumerism and democracy. Early net culture, including net.art as its armed wing, provided solid questions and half-solid answers about the general sense of direction. We have all done our share.
Then I was musing on the fact that after twenty years we can now relatively safely say that there are some strong works of art there. And I wanted to propose these works differently than the now standard FB live feed, where all culture seems to be floating down the screen as if on some endless scroll.
And there was the issue of displaying browser art. Instead of providing the one and only proper answer, I suggested that we show the history of answering the question. The results were great. The final answer lies in asking more questions.
One further thing we did in the show was to ask some venerable historic figures from the first generation to rat on some fresher art that they find important. The crucial thing here was to show that there is a great deal of genuine intergenerational respect even among us weird electric artists.
From net.art to the internet of bad things
I see net.art as a crucial chapter in my personal history, one that coincided with an important phase in global developments.
All these years later, it is of course very sad to look at what humans have done with the net. My only thought is that a very nice opportunity was lost. I once read a book by Brian Winston where he explains the so-called period of disruptive potential of each media technology. Read it.
Now we are all investing a good portion of our annual income on hypnotic technological objects that function as status symbols but are simply tools for corporations and governments to better record our habits and friendships, direct our attention, and punish us if we breach some secretly agreed upon invisible protocol.
Think about it: your wristwatch is sending your heart beat to the cloud, your car is telling your insurer about every meter you drive, your glasses are turning everything you see into ads, and your phone and computer are conspiring to send a drone after you.
Our technology is ratting on us.
net.art after Snowden is poetry after Auschwitz
I have never read Adorno and for all my life I thought that this quote was from Celan. Never mind.
Each generation of humans contains some specimens that make it their task to dive into the outer edge and with net.art there was this sense of urgency. I clearly remember being aware that there was art that needed to be done in order to deal with the internet. And by this I don’t mean art as some personal therapeutic note-taking while looking at the phenomenon. No. I am honestly talking about a tangible feeling of being in the room while something new was being dumped on society. My job was to help. Our art was in large measure aimed not just at other net.artists, the art bureaucracy, and art consumers, but at our fellow humans creating the internet infrastructure, the early internet economy, and other grand structures. That feeling is turning sour now and I feel bad about the ways in which the digital sphere is mirroring human nature. And I think that art should address that.