Repeat and Win

By Josephine Berry, 10 December 2001

Josephine Berry takes us on a whistle stop tour of net art history and explains how its genius depends on a consummate lack of talent

Speculating on the future of web culture, net artist Alexei Shulgin imagined an unbridled proliferation of bland, undifferentiated schlock. Without the term ‘art’, he conjectured, the quest for quality would become futile: ‘Who would search for the grains of gold in all this shit?’ he asked. The nightmare of a degraded cultural landscape has long operated as the counterpoint to avant-garde dreams of art’s supercession. Theodor Adorno was similarly suspicious of Walter Benjamin’s celebration of the demise of art’s aura and his belief in the subsequent opening of a new, radically democratic field of action. Adorno warned that the demise of an auratic or autonomous high art would not necessarily lead to the spontaneous release of the revolutionary potential within popular or low culture: ‘It would be romantic to sacrifice one to the other,’ he wrote to Benjamin, ‘either as the bourgeois romanticism of the conservation of personality and all that stuff, or as the anarchistic romanticism of blind confidence in the spontaneous power of the proletariat in the historical process – a proletariat which is itself a product of bourgeois society.’


This tension between art’s supercession and its collapse into banality has, in some important ways, been increased by the net. In particular the fluidity of information in networks has accelerated long running attempts to deconstruct the artwork’s authenticity, but equally made it harder to distinguish between art and everything else. In a flattened representational field, an art site masquerading as a commercial website has nothing to distinguish it from its referent. The exactness with which digital information can be copied is an even more central reason for this. But, contrary to Benjamin’s analysis, art on the net hasn’t definitively escaped the ‘oppressive’ singularities of author and artwork – its early role as institutional renegade and preserve of the nobody/anybody has matured into a mutually profitable arrangement of star production. However, and in contrast to Adorno’s fear that technologised art might lay itself open to the ‘barbarism’ of low cultural forms, the demise of aura within digital art has also produced a flowering of collectivised production and plagiarism which challenges art’s authenticity without sacrificing its autonomy. In net art we see the culture of the copy reach maturity, as the internal dynamic of art coincides with a wider context of information politics in which the attempt to control information and its replication is combated by those trying to preserve the public domain. For these reasons, artist and critic Matthew Fuller recently commended net artists for their lack of ‘talent’, remarking: ‘Here, no talent delivers the goods.’


The micro history of net art which follows traces a movement from net artists’ exploration of more traditional avant-garde problems under the spell of early ‘90s ‘digitopia’ to the increasingly activist nature of art resulting from the ever more restrictive conditions of the net. If these projects do not represent a Benjaminian awakening of the masses to the political possibilities of culture, nor do they confirm Adorno’s worst fears. Although sometimes involving large numbers of people, these works are still orchestrated by an intellectual vanguard. But, far from producing a sea of cultural shit, the bleeding of art into life on the net has taken on a definitively political dimension.



In 1997, Alexei Shulgin sent a call for contributions to various mailing lists inviting people to take a snapshot of their desktops, save it as a JPEG and send it back to him, or store it on their own servers. The result is one of the wittiest collaborative works made for the web as well as an excellent psycho-technical ‘snapshot’ of the net art community at this time. The effect is an Alice-like fall through the rabbit hole of recursion, as one views images of desktops displaying images of desktops through the ultimate frame of one’s own desktop. File names become words in scattered sentences, and illicit or secret information lies tantalisingly obscured from view. Where many projects from this date emphasise the relativity of virtual communities, Desktop IS explores the homogeneity of their shared software architecture. But far from presenting a melancholic view of global cultural homogeneity, it reveals its impossibility.[]


Net art, or as it had been baptised by then, first made it to the big time in 1997 when it was given its own space (albeit down in the basement) at Documenta X in Kassel. The Documenta itself was just getting to grips with the internet and had a fairly extensive website made, which drew all the trendy connections between real and virtual topographies while squeezing every last drop out of the network metaphor. But, having made this very right-on gesture, the organisers then decided to take the website down once the show had closed, and package it as a CD-ROM. With all the timeliness of a seasoned media tactician, Cosic downloaded the entire website over night and relocated it to his own server. In one elegant gesture this act exposes the hypocritical position towards participatory cultural production which the art world simultaneously hails and suffocates. Cosic’s clone not only flicked the V-sign to the institution’s double standards, but also exposed their inability to maintain ownership over artworks in the information age when originals are becoming extinct.[]



Etoy’s Toywar not only marks the moment at which the info-politics inherent within many net art projects exploded into a conflict of headline grabbing proportions, but also set a precedent for net activists the world over. Events escalated after the ‘surreal art corporation’ turned down the US toy retailer eToys’ offer to pay them $516,000 for their domain which was only distinguished by an ‘s’ from their own – In November 1999, the infuriated retailers, who were losing customers to the subversive art site, gained a temporary injunction banning Etoy from using their own site. Obviously they didn’t realise they were tangling with experts in ‘surreal incubations, cultural viruses and impact management.’ Only a few months later, after 1798 activists had been mobilised, 300 articles published in international publications, consumer groups and investors’ chatrooms infiltrated,etc, eToys dropped the case and even agreed to pay Etoy’s legal costs. []


LIFE_SHARING, 0100101110101101.ORG, 2001’s Life_Sharing project attacks the corporate privatisation of information using the reverse tactic to Etoy. Rather than engaging in heroic battles with giants, suggest a more Zen approach. Extending the concept of ‘file sharing’ – which usually occurs within situations of mutual trust like offices – to all net users, made their entire hard drive accessible via their website. Visitors can view whatever software they’re running (Linux of course!), read their private emails, access their credit card details, discover how they dodged national service, plunder contact numbers for international curators and generally occupy their data body. Declaring that privacy is a luxury of powerful corporations and that ‘the idea of privacy itself is obsolete’, the hitherto anonymous art group have turned the closely guarded treasure of identity into just another file. This idea suggests both that identity eludes the data-sets that it is increasingly reduced to as well as proposing a strategy to combat state-corporate surveillance of the individual with total data-overload. []


Josephine Berry <josie AT> is deputy editor at Mute and has recently submitted her PhD dissertation on site specific art on the net