Is It a Commercial? Nooo… Is It Spam?… Nooo – It’s Net Art!

By Josephine Bosma, 24 June 1998




Vol 1 #10, Summer 1998

The most annoying discussion surrounding net art is the one that asks whether or not net art is truly a new art form. While some critics continue to deny the existence of this new art form within the communication networks, net art should be given some definition and positioned in relation to offline culture.

Place, History, Time
The term ‘’ was first used in 1996 when Vuk C´osic´ć organised the small gathering, per se, in Trieste. The dot in it made the term a sexy and humorous one. The people who got involved with 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 outset, this discussion was complex and it had many layers. The discourse around 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 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 the 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 newfound interest in electronic media. With the development of new media art, the art market is, quite literally, losing sight of the matter, 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 by a medium with which it is hardly familiar. 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 the value of art: What will become of the artist and the artwork? How will art be funded, and for what will artists be rewarded?

The recent discussion around ada’web [] – an art site which recently lost its corporate funding and had to close down – is only one example of how delicate the new forms of collaboration are within communication networks. Ada’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 down right dangerous, during another. Benjamin Weil of ada’web explained on nettime:
Part of ada’web’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.
Ada’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 ada’web in positing art’s ‘functionality’ in this way. Perhaps ada’web would have been more credible in the eyes of both the corporations and the 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, ada’web made many important steps, one of which was to present artworks by their names and not those of the artists. In this way, value was assigned more to the work than to its provenance. Detaching work from its ‘brand’ could be a dominant strategy in the near future, and the experience of ada’web urges caution. For one thing, we will need to pay attention to the inability of small enterprises and individuals to protect authorship of their work, as big corporations are as protectionist as ever.

What is Net Art?
Art on the internet is more than just a continuation of 20th century art, and the notion that art is just another step in art history is, however, presently used derisively. The experiments being carried out on the internet are, in a certain sense, without precedent. Furthermore, art on the net is catalysing a resumption of discourses centred more on art’s intrinsic value than on the mechanisms of the art market.
Very early net art could mostly be defined as performative – it was temporary and left almost no trace within the networks. What distinguishes net art from earlier electronic art is its expanded connection to the internet (or the net’s predecessors). One could say that the more complex these 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 achieve complexity through their poetic use of the whole network space. Artists have become so much more at home in the communications networks that an emotive but subtle use of those 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 perform ance, simultaneously taking place in cyberspace, the mass media (mostly radio) and in physical spaces. An example would be The World in Twenty Four Hours by Robert Adrian, presented at Ars Electronica in 1982.1

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 C´osic´ć and Andreas Broeckmann. It can also be found in Olia Lialina’s work, Agatha Appears, in which a ghost-like 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 meeting. She has also published her will online, which contains only her online works, to be inherited almost exclusively by people with a similar obsession for To Lialina, the network environment is almost sacred, and she wants to pronounce its features strongly in a sensitive, sometimes romantic, way.
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, dates back to the grey Browser Netscape 1.0. Yet, Yahoo! refused to list it under 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 art forms are just tools; they should be helpful in understanding what we are dealing with on a very basic, prac tical level. In essence, there is nothing wrong with the categorisation of different art forms. Equally, artists who do not describe their work as art can avoid limiting discussions about the relevance and value of their work within an art market.

Temporal Theory
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. Perhaps 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 the Futurists with their fascist tendencies) – and those whose experiments demystified the media (for example, in the ’60s and ’70s), and the playful approach of present-day artists who handle media with great ease and humour and with less reverence.
Of course, net art is not an easily perceivable object. A lot of art on the net appears very scattered due to its transience and use of multiple media. 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 browsers.2 Some net artists try to be invisible and dissolve into fake identities and ephemeral works.3

Not recognising its uniqueness is obstructing the development of discourse around art on the net, and good opportunities for deeper understanding are missed because the theoretical framework around net art does not keep pace with the artworks. Perhaps art only profits from this obscurity.


Related URLs:
Vuk C´osic´, per se:
nettime archive for ‘funding for the arts’ discussion:
The homework project:
Mr. Net.Art:
Robert Adrian:
Norman White:
Olia Lialina, Agatha Appears: diary:
Recycling The Future:
Strange but good site full of net art links (on a Peruvian server):



1 Tilman Baumgaertel, journalist for both off- and on-line publications, wrote a long article on Telepolis, which is a brave attempt to put the entire history of net art into sequence. The article is available, in German only, at

2 Digital Rain is an example of an early Jodi work that has suffered from the new generation of web browsers

3 For example, Rachel Baker or 'Trina Mould'.


Proud to be Flesh