net.art

triangulation by alexi shulgin

net.art refers to a group of artists who have worked in the medium of Internet art from 1994 on. The main members of this movement are Vuk Ćosić, Jodi.org, Alexei Shulgin, Olia Lialina, and Heath Bunting. Although this group was formed as a parody of avant garde movements by writers such as Tilman Baumgärtel, Josephine Bosma, Hans Dieter Huber and Pit Schultz, their individual works have little in common.

The term ‘net.art’ is also used as a synonym for net art or Internet art and covers a much wider range of artistic practices. In this wider definition, net.art means art that uses the Internet as its medium and that cannot be experienced in any other way. Often net.art has the Internet as (part of) its subject matter but it is not a requirement.

The net.art movement arose in the context of the wider development of Internet Art. As such, net.art is more of a movement and a critical and political landmark in Internet Art history, than a specific genre. Early precursors of the net.art movement include the international fluxus (Nam June Paik) and avant-pop (Mark Amerika) movements. The avant-pop movement particularly became widely recognized in Internet circles from 1993, largely via the popular Alt-X site.

The term was probably coined by Pit Schultz in 1995, but also is attributed to Vuk Cosic. Net.art stems from ‘conjoined phrases in an email bungled by a technical glitch (a morass of alphanumeric junk, its only legible term ‘net.art’).’ It was first used with regard to the ‘net.art per se’ meeting of artists and theorists in Trieste in 1996, and referred to a group of artists who worked together closely in the first half of the 1990s. These meetings gave birth to the website net.art per se/CNN Interactive, a fake CNN website ‘commemorating’ the event.

One of the best known (and much speculated about) net.art websites remains Hell.com. Many artists have continued in the spirit of net.art; an example is Aaron Koblin, whose pieces based on crowdsourcing combine whimsy, elegance, and subversiveness.

Net.artists have built digital art communities through an active practice of web-hosting and web art curating. net.artists have defined themselves through an international and network mode of communication, an interplay of exchanges, collaborative and cooperative work. They have a large presence on several mailing lists such as Rhizome, File festival, Electronic Language International Festival, Nettime, Syndicate and Eyebeam. The identity of the net.artists is defined by both their digital works and their critical involvement in the digital art community.

net.artists like Jodi developed a particular form of e-mail art, or spam mail art, through text reprocessing and ASCII art. The term ‘spam art’ was coined by Frederic Madre to describe all such forms of disruptive interventions in mailing-lists, where often texts were generated by simple scripts or typed by hand.

A connection can be made to the e-mail interventions of ‘Codeworks’ artists such as Mez or robots like Mailia, which analyze emails and reply to them. ‘Codeworks’ is a term coined by Alan Sondheim to define the textual experiments of artists playing with faux-code and non-executable script or mark-up languages.

net.art developed in a context of cultural crisis in Eastern Europe in the beginning of the 1990s after the end of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall. The artists involved in net.art experiments are associated with the idea of a ‘social responsibility’ that would answer the idea of democracy as a modern capitalist myth. The Internet, often promoted as the democratic tool par excellence, but largely participating in the rules of vested interests, is targeted by the net.artists who claimed that ‘a space where you can buy is a space where you can steal, but also where you can distribute.’ net.artists focus on finding new ways of sharing public space.

By questioning structures such as the navigation window and challenging their functionality, net.artists have shown that what is considered to be natural by most Internet users is actually highly constructed, even controlled, by corporations. Company browsers like Internet Explorer display user-friendly structures (the ‘navigation,’ the ‘exploration’ are landmarks of our social practices) to provide the user with a familiar environment; net.artists try to break this familiarity. Olia Lialina, in ‘My Boyfriend Came Back from the War’ or the duo Jodi, with their series of pop-up interventions and browser crashing applets, have engaged the materiality of navigation in their work. Their experiments have given birth to what could be called ‘browser art,’ which has been expanded by the British collective I/O/D’s experimental navigator WebStalker.

Alexei Shulgin and Heath Bunting have played with the structure of advertisement portals by establishing lists of keywords unlikely to be searched for but nonetheless existing on the web as URLs or metadata components: they use this relational data to enmesh paths of navigation in order to create new readable texts. The user is not exploring one art website that has its own meaning and aesthetic significance within itself, but rather they are exposed to the entire network as a collection of socio-economic forces and political stances that are not always visible.

Rachel Greene has associated net.art with Tactical media as a form of Detournement (turning expressions of the capitalist system against itself). Greene writes: ‘The subversion of corporate websites shares a blurry border with hacking and agitprop practices that would become an important field of net art, often referred to as ‘tactical media.”

The Jodi collective works with the aesthetics of computer errors, which has a lot in common, on both the aesthetic and pragmatic levels, with hacker culture. Questioning and disturbing the browsing experience with hacks, code tricks, faux-code, and faux-virus, critically investigates the context in which they are agents. In turn, the digital environment becomes concerned with its own internal structure. The collective 0100101110101101.org expands the idea of ‘art hacktivism’ by performing code interventions and perturbations in art festivals such as the Venice Biennale. On the other hand, the collective irational.org expands the idea by performing interventions and perturbations in the real world, acting on it as on a possible ground for social reengineering.

‘We can point to a superficial difference between most net.art and hacking: hackers have an obsession with getting inside other computer systems and having an agency there, whereas the 404 errors in the JTDDS (for example) only engage other systems in an intentionally wrong manner in order to store a ‘secret’ message in their error logs. It’s nice to think of artists as hackers who endeavour to get inside cultural systems and make them do things they were never intended to do: artists as culture hackers.’

During the heyday of net.art developments, particularly during the rise of global dot.com capitalism, the first series of critical columns appeared in German and English in the online publication ‘Telepolis.’ Edited by writer and artist Armin Medosch, the work published at Telepolis featured American artist and net theorist Mark Amerika’s ‘Amerika Online’ columns. These columns satirized the way self-effacing net.artists (himself included) took themselves too seriously. In response, European net.artists impersonated Amerika in faux emails to deconstruct his demystification of marketing schemes net.artists employed to achieve art world legitimacy.

These net.art interventions and transcontinental PR campaigns can be understood as more than simple guerrilla marketing tactics. Many also tackled the issue of art as business and investigated mainstream cultural institutions such as the Tate Modern. Harwood, a member of the Mongrel collective, in his work ‘Uncomfortable Proximity’ (the first on-line project commissioned by the Tate Modern) mirrors the Tate’s own website, and offers new images and ideas, collaged from his own experiences, his readings of Tate works, and publicity materials that inform his interest in the Tate Britain website.

Olia Lialina has addressed the issue of digital curating via her web platform Teleportacia.org, an online gallery to promote and sell net.art works. Each piece of net.art has its originality protected by a guarantee constituted by its URL, which acts as a barrier against reproduction and/or forgery. Lialina claimed that this allowed the buyer of the piece to own it as they wished: controlling the location address as a means of controlling access to the piece. This attempt at giving net.art an economic identity and a legitimization within the art world was questioned even within the net.art sphere, though the project was often understood as a satire. On the other hand, Teo Spiller really sold a net.art project ‘Megatronix’ to Ljubljana Municipal Museum in May 1999.

Teleportacia.org became an ambiguous experiment on the notion of originality in the age of extreme digital reproduction and remix culture. The guarantee of originality protected by the URL was quickly challenged by the 0100101110101101.org collective, who, under the pseudonym of ‘Luther Bissett,’ cloned the content and produced an unauthorized mirror-site, showing the net.art works in the same context and the same quality as the original.

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