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Net Art: Operative Tech in the Art World

By sandra araújo, 2 June 2010

Since 1990, with the massive growth of Internet use and expansion of the World Wide Web to global participation, the customization of the web browser was the first step towards emulating the increasing globalization of the "real" world, allowing the expansion of trade to online world. The Internet, initially - Web 1.0 - was characterized by being the realm where academics exchanged their notes and ideas, the military and influential state characters converged to more or less secret information, or, where a technically capable elite was cruising the new frontiers of cyberspace as a hobby. An ideology that converge radical hippies, computer geeks, students and yuppies in a belief derived from a digital utopia. The feeling of democratization regarding free access to information merging with the bohemian culture of San Francisco and the high-tech industry of Silicon Valley. From this unorthodox movement, a kind of Californian ideology , the expansion of the computer network soon infiltrated in an increasing number of terminals, and, with its outburst to private and public sectors, they quickly grasped the potential of this new network communication tool. Financial markets quickly took it as an opportunity to drastically lower their costs and increase the speed of cross-border transactions and services, so undercutting state regulation of national economies . The media and entertainment industry restructured itself in order to enable a technological convergence that leverages the means of production and distribution. In a larger scale, operates a convergence between work and leisure available on the same interface.The rise of the radical use of software and activism / hacktivism through digital media with artistic purposes, named , spread from the Eastern Europe countries. Resigning from the Cold War, this new young democracies empathized with their new proclaimed status of freedom and were driven to initiatives / movements corresponding to this newfound ideology. Accordingly, the dematerialization of the artwork and cultural information into discrete processing units , and especially the ease of digital distribution networks, contributed greatly to undermine the "security" in the artistic institution system. Implementing the web browser as an interface confronts the artistic institution with progressive upload / running of online works that arises the questioning of its role as a mediator and regulator of the art world. However, in a global art scene, digital artists did not wait forever peacefully or for endorsement by the institution. They achieve to get through the network conceptualized data flows of art to desktops around the world just by using digital tools produced from the recent proclaimed revolution of information and technology.It is suitable to establish that the Internet is not a medium, like painting, sculpture or video, but a system for transmitting data that potentially simulates reproducible media. This scenario of possibilities for the development of the visual arts also expands to hypertext narrative, music, radio, video and cinema. “Artists today program forms more than they compose: rather than transfigure a raw element (blank canvas, clay, etc.), they remix available forms and make use of data.” The ideal creation of a total aesthetic experience in the future, not neglecting the sense of touch and smell, would be the main objective of the developing of digital media in the virtual world. For now, the production and reproduction of art works specifically conceptualized for the Internet are limited to the characteristics of digital media, namely the imposition of the computer interface. The size of the monitor screen imposes a physical limit to the display, creating a frame for the work. The type and version of browser used may or may not provide / limit some visualization features, due to the advancement and constantly updated of technology. However, constructing works in HTML (HyperText Markup Language) allows running them in all types of browsers due to its universality. Another aspect to consider is the display resolution set by the user.Many net art artworks operate as opposed to conventionality and homogenization of the Internet, frustrating the expectations of users already familiar with the procedures/protocols and visual characteristics of virtual navigation. Other mechanisms exploited by artists in the sense of undermining the uniformity and commercial appeal are the sparse use of graphics, the absence of compelling and vibrant colours and the disturbance in hyperlink navigation. The intent of pioneer artists / collectives such as Heath Bunting , , Vuk Cosic and the Critical Art Ensemble , Alexei Shulgin and Olia Lialina is to spread their voice through actions in order to counteract the passive mass of users, who infinitely click website after website, just increasing the numbers of potential consumers or recipients of spam and junk mail.On one hand, the critical instance and the public regard net art as a new field open to new aesthetic possibilities and contributions on contemporary discursive language; but against this legitimate claim hovers the absence of technical virtuosity (understood as manufacturing) and the use of commercial tools (software). This practice imposes difficulties in differentiating it between graphic design and the exploitation of programming tricks/effects averse to the purpose of art. In this sense the commercial aspects associated with online artistic practices do not fit into the discursive system of museums and galleries. The artist is also not safe from criticism/questioning about his role of creator or is he a programmer? This disagreement as to its designation may be symptomatic of the need to re-evaluate the role/expectations of the artist regarding its technical expertise and about the critical issues of his work.The ethos behind most of online artworks operates in opposition to the established hierarchy of the art world system, especially its corporate features and the wealth power of its patrons. However, the artist collective ®TMark operates on corporate business principles showing at the bottom-line a cultural activist model with a radical political view. Thus, combining these two apparently conflicting strands they pursue political ends through cultural means. “This form of cultural propaganda is also found in the actions of anti-capitalist street protesters, who unite actions comparable to performance, environmental and installation art with practical acts of subversion.”Even in the virtual world, the dispute over a domain name between a powerful company selling toys online - - and the artist collective etoy corporation (with similar methodology and approach to ®TMark), gave us an overview glimpse of future implications in the emergence of collaborative and participatory art practices and cultural phenomena. The toy corporation sued the artist collective on the account of the similarity of the domain name, arguing that such resemblance would induce potential customers in error when typing the site’s name, and thereby damaging their sales volume. Not even, etoy’s precedence regarding the domain name inhibited the court to rule in favor of eToys, which motivated the artist collective on implement the TOYWAR project. Together with ®TMark, they appealed to users to the massive flood of This strategy resulted in an overload of hits to the site preventing it from loading. As a result of joint action between artists and users, gave up the promulgation of the court in their favor, coexisting in the present both sites in the virtual sphere.Which implications will suffer the art market with artworks that can be reproduced to infinity without losing any quality and, simultaneously exist on thousands of servers and millions of computers and can still be manipulated / modified by users? How can anyone buy, sell or possess that amount of data? This situation, central in Marxist theory, in which the modernization of production comes into conflict with the relations of production, reflects and operates in the digital age. The use of technology (in constant and continuous update) means producing and distribute. That dichotomy is opposed the notion of manufacture in the production of artworks and in the role of distributor / spreader of the art institutions as the exclusive patron / benefactor of the arts.It seems to no surprise that after a period of upgrading and refinement of digital platform applications - Web 2.0 - the interaction, collaboration and information sharing (social networks, blogs, wikis, P2P system) has potentiated the role of the Internet and its agents to more prominent social and cultural activities expanding themselves to the art world. This enlarged vision of a virtual network provides new languages and content explored by artists. Issues such as video surveillance, physical and virtual boundaries / borders, voyeurism, e-commerce, sharing platforms, database visualization, language and film narrative, computer games and low-fi aesthetics explode as simultaneous form of questioning and reply of the world we live in . The open source software philosophy is a clear example of the collaborative effort of an emerging kind of "spontaneous communist economy." With the synthesis of technologies of production, reproduction and distribution in the digital realm, the art institutions are dealing with a progressive loss of strength and lack in vigor of its critical power. In its extreme there will be a total loss of credibility by allowing the dilution and permeability of the financial system as a measurement barometer of quality and quantity of the artistic value of art.Not wanting to preach without falling into an innocent vindication of separation between artistic and financial systems, or appeal to the radical validation of art for the sake of art, I believe that we are before the spectrum of a new vanguard in the practices and artworks of these artists / hacktivists. Political activism as modus operandi of contemporary art seems feasible as an inherent contradiction of the role of art in contemporaneity resultant of technological changes and policies within the neoliberal system. However, giving a purpose, determination and meaning to the so far non-instrumental status of art, will subdue it to the operating model of global development, closing the door to creative freedom in the name of capital and market value. Will this narrowing, in its extreme, be a new paradigm or just an inevitable adjustment in the hierarchical structure of production relations? Is that a symptom, reflecting the precarious nature of capitalist logic, as experienced in the duality of overproduction and gloomy crisis atmosphere? Not to forget taking into account the disappearance of the auratic artwork and its author in favor of interdisciplinary partnerships. This period of otherness without apparent meaning, disconfirms the Marxist vision for a pre-determined future, that once achieved, would make history and progress obsolete. Taking this view as a global and comprehensive narrative of messianic structure, it becomes inevitable to assess that the opening to the impossibility of certainty, that the future will revise itself with the structures of the present.It remains to point out the early acceptance phase and the difficulty of penetration of net art in the art circuit. There is a promising glimpse of a fruitful period of proliferation of festivals related to digital and media art and the inclusion of digital works in major institutions (the United States and Germany) and international events such as Documenta X and the Venice and Whitney biennials. However, curators, critics and audiences seem reluctant to assimilate and even identify what is net art. This resistant attitude operates at two levels. First, the filtering performed by the institutions, both online and offline, in selecting artworks to be displayed to the public, which behaves in opposition to the supposed democratization and non-hierarchical model of functioning of the Internet. And secondly, in a posture of "customization" of the viewer when commissioning net art artworks to already well established artists. In that way, the assimilation of the aesthetic experience is / results within parameters already familiar and therefore that the future appears to be comfortable with the past.