About a quarter of a century ago the world woke up to the Web, a new wave of artists discovered the new networking, and I became a net art critic. The latter happened more or less by accident. One of the best features of the Internet is still how it can shift perspectives completely. Those outside of institutional settings and cultural elites can suddenly pop up in the middle of attention. This is how it could happen that, despite artists having worked with computer networks since the seventies, suddenly the work of a few artists and those working around them more or less came into the spotlight. Part of why this spotlight fell on us was also the incredibly energy going around in net art circles. In the nineties the Internet was still mostly a place of possible change and reinvention, and this was intensely captured and advanced in countless artist interventions, art projects and performances. The text below was written in the midst of that, and it is full of the excitement going around. Written in 1997, the text among other things refers to discussions of that time that may seem strange today: is art made with the Internet art at all, and if it is, should it have a special name? Then there is also the discussion around art as commodity, which was put right back on the agenda with post-Internet art, be it in a slightly different way. What does not seem to have changed is that with the development of art in a network society the art field needs to develop new trade, share and exchange systems, much like the music market has had to. It is still my conviction this is not a matter for traditional art institutions alone.
-- J. Bosma, March, 2020
PLACE, HISTORY, TIME
The term 'net.art' was first used when Vuk Cosic organised the small gathering net.art per se in Trieste in 1996. The dot in it made the term a sexy and humorous one. The people who got involved with net.art were mostly connected through 'nettime' - the mailing list for net. criticism. nettime also saw the first criticism of the term which soon provoked a broader discussion about art on the net. From the beginning this discussion was complex, it had many layers. The discourse around net.art and its many relatives (net art/netart/web art/art on the net) is confusing in the extreme.
In essence, this complexity is caused by net art's embeddedness within the networks. A characteristic that also makes it so hard to describe. Building theory around art on the net, and more specifically doing this in constant discourse with others on the net, exposes one very directly to a mass of conflicting opinions, levels of perception and layers of communication. Add to this the unavoidable connection to the offline world and you have an explosive mixture of interests, cultures, schools and markets.
While the art world (a complex of art market, academies, theorists and journalists) tries to get its expansionist grip on the development of new media art, the old electronic arts scene keeps to itself, sceptical of this new found interest in electronic media. With the development of new media art, the art market is losing sight of the matter quite literally and with it the self-evident creation of a product to sell. Whereas the electronic art scene (I am thinking of the circuit including Ars Electronica, V2, ZKM and ISEA) has based seminars and thematic exhibitions around online arts for years, the art world has suddenly been forced to deal with a shift away from commerce and postmodern capitalism in art by a medium it is hardly familiar with. The art world is now desperately trying to find ways to encapsulate the electronic arts, and professionals are repositioning themselves on all fronts in this process. The development of electronic media has redistributed the tools of production and shifted the understanding of what the value of art is: what will become of the artist and the artwork? how will art be funded and for what will artists be rewarded?
Image source: http://www.josephinebosma.com/web/node/46
The recent discussion around äda 'web, an artsite which recently lost its corporate funding and had to close down, is only one example of how delicate new forms of collaboration are within communication networks. äda 'web was an experimental net-based company, and its story shows why the strategies of 'net.experiments' require constant re-examination. What seem like good tactics during one period can become obsolete or downright dangerous during another.
Benjamin Weil of äda 'web explained on nettime: "Part of adaweb's founding mission was to explore possible alternatives as far as funding for art online was concerned. [...] It was my belief that the development of the web would be an extraordinary opportunity for art to desegregate itself, and (re)gain a central position in ambient cultural discourse and practice.[...] Rather than knocking at the corporate door asking for 'charity' money, we thought we could convince them that art could be a valuable asset, [...] it could be understood as a form of creative research which could make them understand better the medium they were investing in, and draw attention to their corporation as being innovative." äda 'web tried to sell creativity and innovation as a necessary commodity to companies. It is questionable whether this is art's main strength though, and arguably a subtle misjudgement was made on the part of äda 'web in proposing art's 'functionality' in this way. Perhaps äda 'web would have been more credible in the eyes of both the corporations and net artists if it had tried to convince its benefactors of art's intrinsic value before entering the 'art as innovative inspirer' chapter. On the other hand, äda 'web made many important steps, one of which was to present artworks by their names and not the artists'. Most value was assigned to the work rather than its provenance. Detaching work from its 'brand' could be quite dominant in the near future and äda 'web's experiences teach us to be cautious. For example, we also need to pay attention to the inability of small enterprises and individuals to protect authorship of their work whereas big corporations are as protectionist as ever.
Benjamin Weil and collaborators, äda 'web, 1994-1998. Screenshot, NETSCAPE NAVIGATOR 2.02 FOR WINDOWS, 2018.
Image source: https://anthology.rhizome.org/aeda-web
WHAT IS NET ART?（Net Art）？
Art on the internet is more than just a continuation of 20th century art. The experiments done on the internet are, in a certain sense, without precedent. Furthermore, art on the net is catalysing a resumption of discourses centred more around art's intrinsic value than on the mechanisms of the art market. The notion that net.art/net art is just another step in art history is however presently used as a put down.
Very early net art could mostly be defined as performance - it was temporary and left more or less no traces within the networks. What distinguishes net art from earlier electronic art is its expanded connection to the internet (or its predecessors). One could say that the more complex the connections become the more we are able to talk about net art. This complexity is not necessarily found in literal hardware connections. Some more recent works are, through their poetic use of the whole network space, complex. Artists have become so much more at home in the communications networks that an emotive but subtle use of its features is now possible.
Early net art mostly worked with data transmissions that were reassembled at creative will on all ends of the 'line' and comprised sound, text and performance in cyberspace, mass media (mostly radio) and physical spaces at once. An example would be The World In 24 Hours by Robert Adrian, presented at Ars Electronica in 1982 .
The World In 24 Hours, Robert Adrian, 1982, at Ars Electronica Festival. Photo by Sepp Schaffler.
Image source: https://anthology.rhizome.org/the-world-in-24-hours
In the recent work of 'young' art groups like Fakeshop or Re-lab (Xchange) one can find complexity in various forms. The poetic complexity I referred to earlier is found in for instance 'subtle' uses of the locality of servers, like in the Refresh project initiated by Alexei Shulgin, Vuk Cosic and Andreas Broeckmann. It can also be found in Olia Lialina's work Agatha Appears, in which a ghostlike female figure appears in the same position on the pages of different servers. Lialina has published part of her diary on the net, in which she shows her subjective experiences of a 'culty' secret net.art meeting, and has also published her will online. To Lialina the network environment is almost holy and she wants to pronounce its features strongly in a sensitive, sometimes romantic way. Her will contains only her online work, and it is to be inherited almost exclusively by people with a similar obsession for net.art.
Agatha Appears, Olia Lialina, 1997 (restored in 2008), screenshot. © Olia Lialina
An example that stands out because of its unique style is JODI (the collective name of artists Joan Heemskerk and Dirk Paesmans). JODI's work is both deeply poetic and complex, although they rarely work within decentralised art projects, preferring to concentrate on their site www.jodi.org. www.jodi.org already ran in the grey Browser Netcape 1.0. It was refused by YAHOO to be listed for any category. Now the Jodi site is without doubt the most interesting and most discussed art website.
So, is it relevant to make a distinction between net art and other art? On the whole, the question is irrelevant. Names for new artforms are just tools, they should be helpful in understanding what we are dealing with on a very basic, practical level. In essence there is nothing wrong with the categorisation of different artforms. Equally, artists who do not describe their work as art can avoid the limiting discussions about the relevance and value of their work within an 'art market'.
To place net art in the right perspective, art history must be partly rewritten. Too much emphasis has been placed on the commodity status of artworks during this century. Inevitably, this tendency has excluded certain art and artists who do not satisfy related criteria. Maybe net art offers us the opportunity to rethink the criteria by which art is valued. For instance, one can already distinguish between those artists using - or making work about - technology and electronic media who indulge in utopian fantasies (like for instance the Futurists with their fascist tendencies) from those whose experiments demystified the media (for example in the sixties and seventies), and the playful approach of present day artists who handle media with great ease and humour and with less respect.
Of course, net art is not an easily perceivable object. A lot of art on the net appears very scattered due to its use of multiple media and transience. In order to experience it, one has to be an avid follower of net.culture. Nowadays there is already a tendency amongst net.artists to make their work more lasting, which is possibly a consequence of the increased interest in net art. Artists act and react within an environment. Some net artworks are more or less lost today, like early Jodi works that need to be viewed on older, virtually extinct browsers2. Some net artists try to be invisible, and dissolve into fake identities and ephemeral works3.
Not recognising its uniqueness is obstructing the development of a discourse around art on the net and good opportunities to understand the situation more deeply are missed because the theoretical discourse around net art does not keep pace with - often temporary - artworks. Perhaps art only profits from this obscurity.
About the Writer
Josephine Bosma is a critic and theorist living and working in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. She specializes in art in the context of the Internet. From 1993 she made radio reports and interviews on local and national radio stations. In 1997 Bosma became one of the key figures participating in and molding the then new sphere of critical Internet discourse (and practice) taking place in email lists such as Nettime and Rhizome. Since then her writings on net art and net culture appear in numerous magazines, books and catalogues, both on- and offline, from Ars Electronica, Telepolis, Mute, and DU to Metropolis M and Frieze D/E. She co-edited the Nettime book README (Autonomedia 1999), the Next5Minutes3 workbook (N5M organization 1999) and briefly edited the online newsletter CREAM (2001-2002). Texts and interviews by Bosma have been part of anthologies like Netzkunst (Inst. für Moderne Kunst Nürnberg 1998), Cyberfeminizam (Centar za Zenske Studije Zagreb 1999), ARt & D: Research and Development in Art (V2_Publishing 2005), Network Art (Routledge 2006), Collect the World: the Artist as Archivist in the Internet Age (Link Art Center 2011), Aram Bartholl: the Speed Book (Gestalten 2012). In 2011 her book Nettitudes - Let's Talk Net Art appeared. She regularly acts as advisor and jury member in the area of art, science and technology.