While the debate over the lineage of the Internet, from net.art to Post-Internet is a hotly discussed topic – the ramifications of this practice on the institutional system have caused havoc for various museums and traditional platforms, all the way to the mecca of the art world: documenta. In an art world that enjoys its closed door policies and control over the exhibition making process, Internet art has been described as a virus, manipulating and affecting traditional barriers of gatekeeping.
To begin, take the example of the piece Biennale.py (2001), which was created in a collaboration by Eva and Franco Mattes (aka 0100101110101101.org) and epidemiC, and presented at the Slovenian pavilion for the 49th Venice Biennale. Biennale.py was developed as a computer virus released into the festival’s computer network, during the opening, with the freedom to spread as it pleased (0100101110101101.org). Within this artwork there are the essential qualities inherent to all Internet art practices but, further, biennale.py also acts as a literal metaphor for new media art’s effects on institutional boundaries. In a statement about the project and the virus process, Eva Mattes stated: “Once you set a virus free you lose control over it, you decide on when and where the performance begins, but you’ll never know when and where it’ll lead. It’ll spread out of control” (digitalcraft.org).
In Cook and Graham’s Rethinking Curating (2010) they emphasised this point of Internet art’s ability to breakdown departmental barriers: “the crux of the problem with placing new media art in an art museum is that both curators and institutions are notorious for their “boundary issues.” […] If new media art behaves like a virus, then many curators will be personally glad to cleanse the foul contagion, and some institutions would be relieved to secure the departmental firewalls before it spreads and hybridizes” (194). These “boundary issues” which Cook and Graham refer to, are the notorious conflicts that have arisen when a new media artwork enters an institution. Take the example of the Tate-Mongrel Website developed as a net art commission for the opening of Tate Modern in 2000. The curator of the project, Matthew Gansallo, in a presentation on the commissioning and curating of this piece, expressed the importance of crossing departmental boundaries: “When I say they [the Tate departments] helped, it was in the sense that I had to make them realise that […] they had to take the commissions seriously, with regards to press, development and marketing. A lot of work had to be done in this area” (Cook, Graham, Martin, 2002: 62).
Returning to Biennale.py and observing it from this perspective of a metaphorical ‘virus’ – we can observe many aspects about the artwork that come into direct conflict with established art hierarchies. Looking at the performance, by releasing a computer virus into the Venice Biennale’s computer network – several things would have had to happened. Looking back at the reflections of Gansallo about the Tate-Mongrel site – a key aspect for the success of his project was the forcing of collaborations between disconnected departments, and acting as an effective mediator between them. For instance, many institutions’ webpages, where an Internet artwork might be hosted, are predominately controlled by the communications/marketing department, which traditionally do not enter into the curatorial process. In the case for Biennale.py we have a potentially destructive force being released into this closed network with absolute freedom. Furthermore, the implications of releasing a virus creates questions of legality – as, if hosted on the institutions own network, could create conflicts with funders and sponsors, thus, the development department would have to be in the know, to insure special parties’ relations remain intact.
Even the way Biennale.py interacted with the art market created complexities. During the exhibition, the artists sold CD editions of the virus for several thousands of pounds, but simultaneously were actively distributing it for free via each groups respective webpage. In this sense we can see the effects that Internet art has on the traditions of the art world; challenging the bureaucracy of institutions, breaking down departmental boundaries, creating distinct collaborations between different parties and dissolving the curator’s overall authority over a project (Cook, Graham, 2010). Thus, the biological implications of a Biennale.py, which “exhibits properties similar to biological viruses” (Paul, 2008: 93), is an emulation of what is enacted whenever this form of art enters into an institution for display.
These practical implications on the artistic practice, which seems to instigate challenges for the establishment by means of connectivity, distribution and unpredictability, comes from the first generation of Internet artists in the 1990s. In an essay by Joachim Blank for the exhibition hosted by the Staatliches Museum Schwerin (Germany) in 1996, he wrote about what the practices entailed: “Netart functions only on the net and picks out the net or the “netmyth” as a theme. It often deals with structural concepts: A group or an individual designs a system that can be expanded by other people. Along with that is the idea that the collaboration of a number of people will become the condition for the development of an overall system” (irational.org). From this perspective, net artists began to establish their own philosophy that was in line with the Web community of the time, i.e. an open source ideology, with a hacker’s mentality. Grouping this together with the unpredictability of the movements practitioners we have this catalyst that was very much capable of challenging the traditional gatekeeping channels, via the means of superior knowledge and capabilities of the Internet, with its own community. Further to Blank’s essay, he incited there are two common identifiable approaches, which seemed synonymous to the majority of net art practice – which can be attributed to contemporary Internet art practices.
The first of these was identified as “Context Systems” – which “go back to the idea of developing perceptible claims for artistic-cultural activities on the net, and to do this not as an individual, but as a collective group project” (irational.org). Thus, what Blank was suggesting for this first approach was platform and infrastructure building – which also highlights the creation of parallel authority that is in direct challenge to the traditional art hierarchy. The second of these two approaches Blank titled, “Researchers, Troublemakers, Individual Perpetuators” – which spoke more of the utilisation of the Internet as a medium: “The Internet as a new medium is the tool of artistic projects. […] Catchwords like dislocation, identity, truth, belief, reality, territory which […] are being taken up by net Artists and often radically processed. Here it is not so much a matter of the clarification of such terms as it is a matter of artistic interventions leading to confusions among virtual visitors” (irational.org). With this perspective we can view it as the ‘hacker’ mentality of net practice that stages intervention or created “fake projects” to challenge the integrity of information exchange.
A good early example of this second perspective is the work by Cornelia Sollfrank with her net intervention Female Extension (1997). Within this ‘performance’ Sollfrank decided to develop a project that would try (and fail to a certain extent) to ‘destroy’ the net art competition by the Hamburger Kunsthalle called Extensions. In Sollfrank’s reflection about the intervention she described her actions as something that was seeking to reveal the hypocrisy of competitions, such as Extensions, that employed little to no individual specialist in their selection panel (artwarez.org). Essentially what this intervention entailed was the creation of over 200 ‘fake’ female net artists (fully equipped with email addresses, real addresses, telephone numbers, webpages and artworks to submit), which she entered into the competition, and went undetected by the institution and the jury panel of ‘experts.’ Sollfrank (2010) in reflection over the concept of Female Extension mused it, “was to disrupt or, at best, destroy the first competition for Internet art, by flooding it with hundreds of participants.” However, the entries were never detected by the Hamburger Kunsthalle, who naively released a press release over the flood of female entries: “issued on the 3rd July 1997, the museum happily announced: “280 applications – two thirds are women” (Sollfrank, 2010: 3).
At the closing of the competition, the museum, in its naivety, continued the use of Sollfrank’s fictional characters for their benefit in subsequent press releases, despite the final selection of winners being exclusively all male. At the closing, Sollfrank released her own press release at the museum’s press conference with the detailed account of her intervention, creating a news frenzy for the Hamburger Kunsthalle. In her reflections over this she stated: “Although my original plan to disturb the procedure of the competition failed, the subsequent disclosure of the intervention caused considerable damage to the museum’s image and eventually led those responsible to abandon any efforts to expand into virtual space” (Sollfrank, 2010: 4). In this instance there has been much said about the performance and its aspects of (cyber)feminism, however, for this context, the important aspect of the project is the institutional critique that Sollfrank’s activities produced. In this sense New Media Art has played with these traditional filters and channels of gatekeeping and distribution as a way to reveal the underlying bias of institutional authority “by exceeding them” (irational.org).
In terms of Blank’s first perspective of net art – the second example is the website runme.org, which acted as the submission and repository platform for the Read_Me festival, which was themed around software art (runme.org). runme.org has been described as “a system – software and its interface – that itself might be considered “software art””, and, “Significantly, Runme.org also allows a redistribution of curatorial power in a system that includes human elements, the software, and the Internet” (Paul, 2008: 100). In this regard, runme.org’s manifestation as a software repository, which created a space for programmers and artists to engage with each other, plays up a different structure than what is normally seen in the art world. On closer analysis we can start to see how runme.org adapted to its environment by focusing its model on a non-centralised distribution system similar to the traditional software repository that is commonly found on the net.
While runme.org did have its administrators and submission criteria, Olga Goriunova and Alexei Shulgin, in reflection about the project, admitted only posing some mild criteria for software submission. Additionally, the administrators provided a flexibility to the taxonomical system for the site, and in their words: “The classification was and still is constantly changing, in accordance with the works submitted or the amount of works of a certain type collected. Sometimes a project submitted asked for a category; sometimes the amount of projects outgrows a category and demands one of its own” (Goriunova, Shulgin, 2006:14). Likewise views on acquisitions were also non-linear: “Software art drew lifeblood from the folk culture of programmers, and a number of its masterpieces was obtained as ‘objects trouvés’” (Goriunova, Shulgin, 2006: 17). Thus, this produced a shift in the curatorial role, which indicated a shift from a centralised network of distribution and control, to one more community oriented, inclusive, that played with these notions much like Sollfrank’s work, but instead of doing this through disruption, runme.org produced an alternative infrastructure.
While the previous examples can paint a negative picture of the impositions onto institutional gatekeeping by Internet art, there are several examples of institutions, sponsors and funders engaging and implementing (sometimes successfully) these qualities. Take the example of the Whitney museum’s Artport website, created by Christiane Paul and launched in 2002. Created with the intention of being “as a portal to Internet art and online gallery space” (Paul, 2006: 90), Artport is still and active component of the Whitney Museum, which has actively help change certain infrastructural systems for the better care and distribution of its net art commissions and collection. In an interview, Paul told Marisa Olson about this pliability in restrictions that the Whitney collection was allowing towards its net extension:
“All of artport‘s projects were commissioned under non-exclusive licenses, meaning that the Whitney Museum has the right to exhibit them in perpetuity and hosts projects on its server, but that artists are still able to retain copies and show their works in exhibitions with a credit line stating that the respective piece was commissioned by the Whitney. The Whitney does not have exclusive ownership of artport projects, which brought up the question of whether we needed to officially acquire all of the pieces to bring them in to the collection. After discussions within the curatorial team, we decided that it does not make sense to “lock down” the works as acquisitions […] making claims for their exclusive ownership seemed like a violation of the characteristics of the net and the digital medium. We therefore chose to take a hybrid approach that makes artport an adjunct of the collection: all the works maintain their non-exclusive status but, at the same time, artport as a whole became associated with the collection” (Rhizome.org, 2015).
Thus, the case of artport and its commissions altering traditional institutional collecting and how these collections are distributed, can be seen as a positive engagement for Internet art’s qualities, creating a positive enhancement of the rigid museum structure.
To conclude, the story behind Internet art and its subsequent ‘death’ in the early 00’s, which have been attributed to disastrous displays by Web ignorant institutions, is a far more complex one. In reality what this last development of the 20th century created was a practice with infectious qualities, which has since changed the way we view and interact with art, and how current practitioners from other contemporary art disciplines make art. Take for instance one of the major texts at the end of the 90s, Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics, which drew a tremendous amount of inspiration from Internet practice without ever crediting Internet art (Daniels, Reisinger, 2009: 30; Stallabrass, 2003). With institutions increasingly re-engaging with this form of art after years of segregation, I can’t help but jest with myself: will the virus be tamed by the giant, or is the Internet the un-curable disease to this form of hierarchy.
Blank, J (1996) “What is netart ;-)” contribution to an exhibition and congress called ” (History of) Mailart in Eastern Europe” at the Staatliches Museum Schwerin (Germany) http://www.irational.org/cern/netart.txt [last accessed: 06/04/16]
Cook, S. & Graham, B. (2010) Rethinking Curating. London: MIT Press.
Cook, S., Graham, B., Martin, S. (2002) Curating New Media. Manchester: Cornerhouse.
Daniels, D. and Reisinger, G. (2009) Net Pioneers 1.0, Contextualizing Early Net-Based Art. New York: Sternberg Press.
Goriunova, O. and Shulgin, A. (2006) From Art on Networks to Art on Platforms. Academia.edu [Online] available from: https://www.academia.edu/2125723/FROM_ART_ON_NETWORKS_TO_ART_ON_PLATFORMS_CASE_STUDIES_RUNME._ORG_MICROMUSIC_.NET_AND_UDAFF._COM_ [accessed last: 13/04/16].
Krysa, J. (ed.)(2006) Curating Immateriality: The Work of the Curator in the Age of Network Systems. Brooklyn: Autonomedia
Olson, M. (2015) Collectible After All: Christiane Paul on net art at the Whitney Museum. Rhizome.org [Online] available from: http://rhizome.org/editorial/2015/aug/10/artport-interview-christiane-paul/ [last accessed: 07/04/16]
Paul, C. (ed.)(2008) New Media in the White Cube and Beyond. London: University of California Press. (Three readings)
Sollfrank, C. Female Extension: http://www.artwarez.org/femext/index.html [last accessed: 06/04/16]
Sollfrank, C. (2010) Female Extension. [Online] available from: http://www.artwarez.org/femext/content/FemExtCS.pdf [last accessed: 04/04/16].
Stallabrass, J. (2003) “The Aesthetics of Net.Art.” qui parle. Vol 14, No.1. pp. 49-72.
“Contagious Paranoia”, Catalogue essay to I Love You [rev.eng]. [Online] available from: http://www.digitalcraft.org/iloveyou/biennale_part_2.htm [last accessed: 06/04/16].
Runme.org: http://runme.org/ [last accessed: 13/04/16].
(2003) “runme.org software repository.” Rhizome.org [Online] available from: http://rhizome.org/community/24634/ [last accessed: 13/04/16].
Idea Line, Martin Wattenberg (2001) [Online] available from: http://whitney.org/www/artport/commissions/idealine/Idealine.html [last accessed: 13/04/16].