Josephine Berry on 10 Feb 2001 16:30:51 -0000

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<nettime> #2_Re-dematerialisation/Object/Artist/Biopower [of 3]

"Own, Be Owned or Remain Invisible"

"Yeah, but imagine everybody being online and creating webpages, it
would become overwhelming. Who would search for the grains of gold in
all this shit?" 
Alexei Shulgin

In 1995, Alexei Shulgin, Rachel Baker and Tania Detkina initiated the
WWWart Award ; a project that treads a fine line between a celebration
of art's potential dissolution in the Web and an anxiety over the loss
of a framework of recognition and appreciation. In this project, Shulgin,
Baker and Detkina -all self-professed artists - searched the Web for, 
"web-pages that were created not as artworks but gave us [a] definite 
'art' feeling."  In effect the award is an extension of the Duchampian 
practice of nomination, one that converts everyday (digital) objects into
art not by relocating them in a gallery, but simply by the artist's act
of selection. In a limited respect, art's transformative power is set
loose in the social field of the Web in the form of a series of judgements.
The project combines instances of 'found art' with 'found criticism' also
collected on the artists' travels through the Web and organised, as a list
of URLs, in no particular order. Rather than agreeing a list of criteria at
the outset  against which websites should be judged, the awards (which had
no money prize attached) were created contingently as a subjective response
to a certain quality possessed by a website. Accordingly, the list of 'awards'
 reads more like a series of incidental and appreciative observations: 

"For leaving us a nice message; for revealing structures; for practice
in defining beauty; for creating a better philosophy; for sincerity; for
expression of true love; for respect to history; for moderation; for flashing;
for helping us understand what net art is and what it is not; for research
into touristic semiotics; for correct usage of pink colours; for usage of
the homepage concept that transcends traditional notions of subjectivity
and authorship; for honest confronting [sic] [of] an identity crisis;Š for
valiant psychedelics"

On clicking a website link, a new window is thrown open and each found
website is displayed inside a 'clip art'  drawing of a frame. On closer
inspection we notice that the framed representation of the original artwork
does not also entail a duplication of the doctored webpage file on Shulgin's
own '' server (the location of the project's homepage) as one
might expect, but rather the award givers have convinced each webpage author
to store the framed version of their original file on their own server. This
decision to alter the original found site, not merely through its nomination
as art but also through the imposition of a jokey frame around it contrasts -
and one might say contradicts - the statement made by the artists on the
project homepage. Here the artists state that the 'open space' of the Internet
is blurring the difference between 'art' and 'not art' "as never before", and
add in neutral tones:

 "there is [the] possibility of misinterpretation and loss of 'artistic'
identity here. This might be welcome. There are no familiar art institutions
and infrastructures here. Internet art is not well paid so farŠ"

At the time WWWart Award was begun in 1995, net art was barely known beyond
a small group of initiates and there was no 'context'  for its reception. We
should certainly recognise the deliberate irony in these unknown artists
assuming the inflated and judgmental role of the conventional art world in
an area of which it was either ignorant or dismissive. It is partly the
perceived absence of art and its aficionados on the Net that affords the
space for these conventions to be parodied. The work is also parodic in the
degree to which the awards' potential specialness is undercut by the banality
of the some of the chosen websites and the seemingly flippant attribution of
merit, such as for the "correct usage of pink colours". But, taken as a whole,
we can also see the serious side of the Awards' celebration of diffuse and heterogeneous creativity in this pioneering phase of the WWW and its democratic potential. This is revealed in part merely through the gesture itself, but also through the way the artists draw attention to both technical and semiotic
finesse, unpretentious pathos, and accidental beauty. Without wishing to lose
sight of either the parodic aspects of the Awards or the extent to which the
work raises the spectre of art's dissolution in its recognition of the diffuse creativity of the Web's community, it is, however, difficult to see this work as truly disruptive of the system from which it seeks to depart. Despite their insistence on art's potential disappearance in the Net, and notwithstanding
their continuation of art through the parody of its forms, this work militates against the potential parity of art and non-art with which the artists flirt. Ultimately, we have to see the Awards as perpetuating the special power of art
that Daniel Buren condemns as 'outrageous'. 

Until their inclusion into high status, international art events which began
with the Documenta X in 1997, the relative anonymity of net artists and what
seemed like the real possibility of their disappearance seemed to express
itself in conflicting directions: the attempt to maintain visibility,
recognition and group coherence on the one hand and, on the other, the
investigation of the conditions of art's disappearance in a technological communications environment characterised by decentralisation and the
subsumption of communicative action into capitalism. Setting up virtual meeting points such as Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) and mailing lists was central to the former tendency. The first of these permanent forums was The Thing's BBS,
established  by Wolfgang Staehle in New York in 1991, and was followed some
years later by the rhizome mailing list which was founded in 1996 by Mark Tribe
and also run from New York, and the 7-11 mailing list established quite late by
Vuk Cosic and Luka Frelih in 1998 and based at the Ljudmila media centre in Ljubliana. These spaces, although giving visibility to net artists and other Net-based cultural workers, were also initially envisaged as private, somewhat reclusive spaces. In Staehle's words, it was "a forum making a direct exchange
of ideas and positions between a closed community possible. Promotional material
was not approved. The main focus was to exchange opinions and ideas."   The motto underpinning the prolific textual exchanges occurring in these spaces was: "you
own your own words". In the first few years at least these lists, although
preserving the separate status of art as a specialist practice, did indeed present challenges to the commodification of intellectual labour through a system of
free and moneyless exchange sometimes termed the 'gift economy'. In subsequent
years, however, the idea that this exchange of intellectual 'gifts' could exist outside of commodity-exchange relations has been persuasively rejected by writers such as Rishab Aiyer Ghosh and Richard Barbrook. The theory of the gift economy
or cooking pot market   as it's also known, posits a system of asymmetrical
exchanges in which participants freely contribute gifts to a forum (e.g. a
piece of perl script, an argument, a list of recommendations) and, due to the
number of participants, receive a disproportionately greater amount in return. Despite their attempts to cast the Internet as the site of a radical alternative
to the commodity-exchange relations which structure capitalism, Ghosh and Barbrook both agree that the gift economy is buoyed up by the conversion of reputations
earned online into job contracts or, in our case, exhibition opportunities  etc. offline. Acknowledging that it is beyond the scope of this chapter to
sufficiently analyse the relationship of the so-called gift economy to the
capitalist economy per se, it is at least possible to identify a historical
shift in the kind of information exchanged on these mailing lists and its
treatment thereafter. This shift certainly suggests that the promise of a gift economy could well have been a brief moment of pioneering camaraderie that
receded as soon as the culture itself became stable enough to tolerate

In the days before online culture had developed its present caché, the 
agreement that words, although owned by their authors, could also be
circulated and re-used on a non-commerical basis, seemed to produce little controversy. However, increasingly art mailing lists such as Rhizome (run 
by Rhizome Communications Inc., a not-for-profit private company) in step
with non-art mailing lists such as nettime, with their largely university educated participants , have come to view such specialist debates as a valuable commodity.
In the absence of any other such in-depth documentation of Net culture, the texts generated by these mailing lists act as crucial historical sources. Rhizome's
founder Mike Tribe commented: "I agree that nettime and Rhizome are, in effect, writing histories of this moment, and that our editorial practices thus have long-range consequences."   In 1999 nettime brought out it's first publication
Read Me: ASCII Culture and the Revenge of Knowledge and The Thing attempted to auction off its old interface and content through the online auction house E-bay. Subscribers to Rhizome are now required to comply with terms and conditions which grant Rhizome Communications Inc. "the non-exclusive, worldwide, perpetual, royalty-free right to reproduce, modify, edit, publish....[etc.etc.]"  Although
the re-publishing of most of this material is done by small and committed
publishers for whom profits are at best negligable, it is the recognition of
the value of these textual exchanges - which in many instances resemble the
ephemeral nature of conversation - that we are concerned with here. This is a
clear example of biopower in action, where the communicative fabric of a
community assumes an economic value previously unimaginable.

It is through the question of the ownership of words themselves that we can
approach the seemingly antithetical tendency, noted above, of net artists'
to court their own dissolution in the Net. If we accept that "the instrumental
action of economic production has been united with the communicative action of
human relations " under biopower, then we should also recognise art, literature
and music as early models of this communicative production of value. 
Notwithstanding the deconstruction of the author's singularity and
autonomy in poststructuralist theory, the copyrighting of a book is still
a very different matter to Microsoft's patenting of the phrase "where do
you want to go today?" The point here being that there has been a far more
radical opening up of "the communicative action of human relations" to economic penetration - from after school clubs, to the aggregation of people's 
cash-point use or phone activity into marketing databases, to commonly
used phrases and expressions - than at any previous time. Accompanying
the various 20th century avant-garde attempts to unleash the immanent
creativity of the social field is the economic attempt to commodify social (re)productive behaviour and hence specify and channel it in self-serving
ways. It is interesting then, that there are numerous examples of net art
which court the former through a parodying of the latter. Heath Bunting's
1998 work Own, Be Owned, Or Remain Invisible entails this double movement

In this work, Bunting uses an article written about him for The Daily Telegraph
by the journalist Jim Flint as the basis of a set of links that continuously
throw the viewer out into the Web-at-large almost at random; here the media construction of the artist provides the basis for the artwork's dissolution
in the Net. In Flint's exemplary piece of 'style journalism', the author
converts Bunting's somewhat subversive and 'edgy' credentials as a computer
hacker, flyposterer, graffiti artist, activist, and net artist into the sensationalised personification of "90s sub-culture". The article also includes Bunting's commentary on net art's imminent 'absorption' into the electronic art sector, his hectic travel schedule created by the popular demand for him on the electronic arts conference circuit, his 'artivism' against multinational corporations, the mono-culture produced by capitalism, the increasing
censorship of the Net, and his plans to sabotage marketing databases and create systemic disruptions through the production of 'disbelief'. In Own, Be Owned,
Bunting links all the words in the text - itself a contradictory collision of
his own radical intentions and simultaneous compliance with the media-fame
mechanism - to a '.com' website. Accordingly, the sentence: "The potential
for different possibilities is being diminished by money", becomes a sequence
of URLs thus: ';;,;' etc.

On the actual content of the above cited quote a great deal could be said, here, however I would like to confine my remarks to the observation made by Negri
and Hardt on the combination of a heterogeneity of method but singularity of
tendency in the world market, by way of a preface to the artwork in hand. In
their discussion of the shift to the new global paradigm of 'Empire' from de-colonisation onwards, they discuss how the model of modern sovereignty
failed to become the expected unanimous rejoinder to imperialism's demise.
Instead, the world's 'massified subjects' began to transform and 'go beyond' modernisation at the very moment they entered it. Pertinent to Bunting's comment
is Negri and Hardt's explanation of what this movement beyond modernisation
entails. Although the global market becomes the central structuring device of
all territories, the different speeds and styles of integration create a deeply heterogeneous production landscape. 

"What might have seemed like a coherent central axis of restructuring of global production was shattered into a thousand particular fragments and the unifying process was experienced everywhere singularly. Far from being unidimensional, the process of restructuring and unifying command over production was actually an explosion of innumerable different productive systems. The processes of the unification of the world market operated paradoxically through diversity and diversification, but its tendency was nonetheless real." 

Relatedly, one can argue, although the tendency of the Net's own commer-
cialisation - which entails or at least affects the communicative activities occurring within it - represents a unified tendency, the means by which this
occurs appears to be densely rich and complex. Own, be owned 's combination of a post-structuralist methodology of textual analysis  -- by which a singular methodology reveals a multiplicity of authorship - with the common denominator
of the 'dot com' strongly evokes this logic. 

This process entails three stages: a singular methodology creates an image of
the multiple ownership of the text which is then finally collapsed again into
the single dimension of commerce signified by the suffix '.com'. Bunting seems
to be commenting on the near total subsumption of the apparent heterogeneity of social life, as evidenced here by the cipher of the English language, into the singular tendency of the market mechanism.

 Although it is not clear (to me at least) whether Bunting's title implies that invisibility remains an option, the work certainly creates a sequence by which representation becomes necessarily linked to ownership; a coupling which seems
to leave little hope of a space beyond market relations. Bunting's apparent
refusal of an external position is also confirmed by his own contradictory participation in the media's manufacture of stars  and simultaneous denunciation
of the capitalism's flattening of possibilities. Returning to the earlier
discussion of the dissolution of art and artist, Own, be owned, can be said
to pursue this conclusion, both through its critique of representation and
ownership - one which, although not new, certainly scotches any notion of art's constitutive autonomy - with a continual ejection of the viewer out of the
artwork into the wider Web. Each time we follow one of the work's many links we
leave the material-symbolic perimeter of the artwork; an effect which designates
the radical co-extensivity of art with the wider social field. Although this is
also the case with WWWart award, here there is no jokey frame or exportation of an artistic sensibility to accompany our departure. What we are confronted with
is, more often than not, the irredeemable banality of a corporate website. This
might at first glance seem like anything but Slater's catalysis or cathexis of
desire in the social field, however I would argue that this work suggests the potential reversibility of social conditions from the starting point of its articulation of the claustrophobic invasion of the market into all fissures
of experience. As noted above, Negri and Hardt have argued that with the
immediately social dimension of biopower's exploitation, also comes the
activation of, "the critical elements that develop the potential of
insubordination and revolt through the entire set of labouring practices".
Bunting's work, albeit an infinitely small act of insubordination, suggests
both the representational equivalence of the individual (artist) to corporations
(his website, to a great extent, has the same representational force as theirs),
as well as the ease with which ownership structures can be reversed or levelled in the Web: the fact that these myriad website are entered through the artwork and therefore temporarily subordinated to its logic demonstrates the immense vulnerability of representational (intellectual) property in the Net. 

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