Cornelia Sollfrank on 21 Feb 2001 17:13:29 -0000

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Re: Re: Re: <nettime> Re: Re: net art history, forward

the following text by natalie bookchin was written in preparation of a panel discussion which recently took place in kuenstlerhaus bethanien, berlin. i would like to forward it to you as it contains some stronge arguments coming from an artist's (and activist's) perspective, and also suggests a very differenciated view which leads somewhere instead of just looking backwards and complaining. c.s.

for gerrit golke's preliminary text

In preparation for this talk I was sent a series of speculative 
questions by Gerrit Gohlke proposing issues to be covered on this 
panel. He suggests that thus far, net art has failed to deliver what 
it had originally promised. It has not destablized and offered a way 
out of the traditional art system or provided access to a social 
reality through the networks. Proposing a "net split" he argues that 
many of net art's protagonists have either turned away from art and 
towards political activism or entered a mainstream art world with 
worn-out strategies, and he ends by suggesting that perhaps the 
Internet has been overrated as an aesthetic medium.

I wanted to begin with this summery because it contains some common 
assumptions about net art that I would like to call into question. 
First, I should begin by saying that there is no doubt the net is 
here to stay and artists are and will continue using it. The question 
proposed as the topic for the panel can not begin to account for the 
fact that the net has become an indispensable tool and material for 
numerous artists. Moreover, as audiences on the net get larger so do 
the possibilities for artists to tap into them. As activities on the 
net become more formalized, so do the possibilities for artists to 
manipulate those same forms. Thus, the more relevant question for me 
is less whether net art is making enough innovative strides at the 
moment, or if net art failed, but rather how has the net altered 
artistic production?

I also wonder how useful it is to qualify and limit our understanding 
of the diverse ways that artists are using now the net by applying 
the label net art to all these different artistic activities. Such 
practices include the regular emergence of international collectives 
and networks of artists developing projects across distances, 
performative network manipulations (such as this past summer's 
borderhack project in Tijuana which was as much of an international 
net performance as it was a live local event), or even the ways in 
which the net still functions as a cheap and easy method for artists 
to have direct contact with audiences, regardless of whether they 
choose to be or are accepted in the traditional art system.

It is not uncommon today in some circles to harp back nostalgically 
to the early days of net art when there was an apparent wave of 
creativity that has now subsided, those days when a small 
international group of people named and produced a lot of "net dot 
art". Where have they all gone?

But there is another way to think about this. I think the fact that 
art production on the net was thrust into the limelight very quickly 
and for a short period of time had more to do with both very creative 
manipulation of networks and with a growing awareness of how 
information could travel over the net, than with a rush of artists' 
websites sweeping the net. These creative manipulations were used in 
such a way that propelled a particular group of people into a highly 
visible place, and this activity was then, quite self consciously 

This is not to dismiss early as mere self promotion. Rather I 
am arguing that the "art" was located less in the individual web 
sites and more in the fierce collective manipulation of all aspects 
of the networks: mailing lists, spam, email, websites, links, web 
rings and mirrored sites: all devices for trespassing into and 
parasiting networks for alternative ends. This concerted effort 
created the earliest net art "movement",  a first wave of artists who 
knew how to work the net.

As Health Bunting wrote to me in an email in 1997,

	"i think self promotion is a viable tactic for infiltration 
in this 	current art star system.  many of my european friends 
who have not 	yet suffered advanced capitalism (thatcherism) still 
have an 	aversion to these methods."

By focusing primarily on network manipulation, these works took on 
and engaged the materials of the net. Their self referentiality was 
an important aspect of an art grappling with new materials and a new 

Artists are of course still manipulating the net, but in the most 
compelling works, the focus is no longer just on the process itself, 
nor on artists simply directing attention to themselves. For example, 
it is not enough just to highjack people to your site, as it was in 
1995. (Moreover so called hijacking has since been appropriated by 
the porn industry. Last year a porn company was sued for 
"highjacking" unwitting audiences who claimed they were taken to porn 
sites against their will, and their jobs were put into jeopardy when 
they were discovered by their bosses viewing this same porn). The 
question for artists now is what to do with your captive audience 
once you have their attention.

I would like to refer back now to another speculation that I received 
in the preliminary email about this panel, which suggested that many 
net artists have moved away from art into political activism. This 
position assumes that one is either making art or making politics and 
sets up a great divide between the two spheres. In fact, I think that 
the net has facilitated just the opposite - that is, an ease in which 
one can move between different spheres and contexts in the same work, 
not just referring to, but actually entering into them. It is of 
little effect for artists to refer to the political only from 
privileged spaces dedicated to the viewing of art nor the expected 
social spaces delegated to political activism. The net has made it 
simple to shuffle between these different areas, permitting artists 
to show up where they are neither expected nor particularly wanted.

As artists have become more adapt at working the material of the net, 
questions of how to use this manipulation to engage in different 
levels and subjects have become more critical. Early net artists' 
investigations into alternative distribution systems are now being 
put to use by newer art collectives, but the subject is now not 
distribution itself, but rather  a distributed political or social 

Today there are artists whose creative and subversive uses of the net 
intentionally rub themselves against the grain not just of the art 
system but of the larger mainstream in a way that produces a quite 
visible effect. This work reaches sizable audiences unthinkable 
before the net, stretching as far and wide as the offices of major 
political candidates, the Pentagon, the director general of the WTO, 
and frequently showing up in the channels of mainstream media. One 
recent example is the project, which used all the 
conventions of the online auction house to highlight and provoke a 
corrupt system posing as a democracy, and in turn, created a not 
insignificant ripple in art, mainstream media and political realms.

There is an important legacy of artists who have been concerned not 
just with the depiction of political content, but with the politics 
of distribution and display. Since we are in Berlin, I will mention 
Berlin's own John Heartfield. A proto-net artist of sorts, he made 
political performance out of the manipulation of his public identity 
by cutting his name Helmut Herzfeld and pasting a new anglicized one, 
John Heartfield, in a show of disgust for the nationalist 
proto-fascist regime under which he was living. Perhaps more relevant 
to today's conversation were his innovative methods of distribution, 
whereby he used the new mass media to disseminate his subversive and 
political photomontages, aiming for and reaching not the galleries 
and museums, but the streets.

Finally I would like turn to a brief discussion of a project I am 
currently developing, first because it attempts use the methods I 
have been outlining and second because it is a project that would be 
unthinkable without the Internet. It first requires a little bit of 
background information .

There are a series of shows and commissions on the subject of 
genetics currently underway in the States.  As part of this 
initiative, I was invited by a NY public art organization to develop 
a public art project.

Along the way, I made an intermediary piece (with Jin Lee), a power 
point presentation called Biotaylorism, which addresses how, by 
combining Taylorist and Fordist methods with biotechnology, organic 
life is now being internally optimized for better business solutions. 
The project was included in a traveling exhibit called "Paradise Now, 
Picturing the Genetic Revolution", in NY this past fall. As it turned 
out, the show had a range of biotechnology corporate sponsorship, 
backing an unusually extensive amount of promotion, included full 
page ads in the NY Times and a panel discussion featuring no artists, 
but instead biotechnology industry luminaries such as Craig Venter. 
(CEO of Celera).

This show is not unique. As I mentioned, there are currently underway 
a number of other such well funded shows and grants to artists to 
produce work in this area. Regardless of the good intentions of the 
curators, the bill is being partially footed by biotech companies and 
their PR firms. And in Europe, Ars Electronica has had biotechnology 
as its theme for the last 2 years. One of its main sponsors is none 
other than the Swiss biotech giant, Novartis.

Although corporate sponsored shows on biotechnology are by now 
nothing new, (see Yvonne Volkart's essay "Art Strategies of the New 
World Order, or, What do resistant art works look like?") this new 
burst of sponsorship for "gene-art" coincides with a major PR 
campaign begun last year by a consortium of the world's seven top 
biotechnology companies called "Good Ideas are Growing". The industry 
saw it as a critical time to push for public acceptance of genetic 
research and development, particularly in the States. While there had 
been general complacency on the part of Americans in the past in 
regards to genetically modified foods and research, the mood was 
starting to change. The aim was thus to avoid a public relations 
disaster such as the one that had taken place in Europe over the past 
few years, where biotechnology was met with fierce public resistance. 
The campaign consists of so called educational science exhibitions, 
ads, and the sponsorship of genetics-theme based cultural programs 
such as art exhibitions, conferences and art commissions.

The question was then what do these corporations want from artists, 
and how can we possibly avoid giving it to them?

Corporate sponsors are pretty certain that artists will serving as a 
comfortable buffer offering the public non-threatening points of 
entry into these otherwise threatening industries. With artists 
making biotechnology and genetics the subject of aesthetic 
contemplation and creative visual representation, what might have 
seemed disturbing becomes engaging, accessible and easier to accept 
as our present reality. Colorful and so called "open discussions" on 
the complex ethical dilemmas are likely to assuage public anxieties, 
conveying the impression that democratic discussion is taking place. 
The very question of whether biotechnology or genetics should 
continue in their present tracks is not even broached. This instead 
becomes a given - an inevitability. Less aesthetic questions 
concerning economic interests are generally not discussed. And by 
keeping these discussions in the safe spaces delegated to art, even 
the most critical of questions will not threaten the industry.

In developing a project, it has been essential for me to think 
tactically about how to negate the instant neutralization of this 
highly politicized subject. All the issues discussed above - context, 
distribution, and form - have been essential considerations. For this 
reason, I realized that I need to make a project that can function 
autonomously - and move easily in or outside of the sphere of "art". 
Second, it is critical to make central to the project the issues of 
economic and corporate interests and how they shape and define the 
science. Thirdly because images are always easier to co-opt than 
action, I will set up a structure that will encourage participants to 
become both invested in and involved with politicized and socially 
charged actions.

I decided to make an on-line game-called Man-Alife, modeled on a 
virtual Tamagotchi game, where the virtual pet is a human worker and 
you, the player, become a manager.  You begin the game by selecting 
traits that you think are most desirable for your worker/pet. Next 
you must run your pet through a genetic screening test, which 
although unreliable and costly, will determine whether he or she 
qualifies for health insurance or is employable, and at what level. 
The test results of course may affect your pet's happiness, anxiety 
and energy levels. Knowing the potential risks may motivate you to 
select appropriate lifestyle choices, should you have enough points 
to afford to do so.

The game takes place in a virtual work place, where you must earn 
points to feed, replenish and manipulate your pet. Feeding keeps up 
energy and happiness levels so that your pet can work efficiently and 
earn more points. Working your pet depletes its energy and food 
levels and overwork or over supervision can lower efficiency, 
happiness and health levels.

There are numerous options for modifying your pet's body and mood to 
potentially affect its value, performance and job ranking, but these 
modifications entail costly and at times risky procedures. 
Overmodification or an abuse of rejuvenators can lead to 
inefficiency, job demotion, job or insurance loss, and an untimely 

If you don't have enough money - for example in the case of a pet 
that has not been given a job or health insurance as a result of the 
genetic screening test - or if you simply want or need to earn more 
points, you can leave the workplace and temporarily enter another 
game environment where you have other options for earning points. 
There, you can play a "knowledge game" on the subject of work, 
science, health or reproduction. Or you can venture into the thrills 
and challenges of real life actions and participate in a variety of 
on or off line interventions or subversive projects on the subject, 
thus earning mega-points for your pet.

One final word in on the net: the net is the only site where I could 
realistically develop such a project that could function with ease 
either as a real game, as an investigation into the interests of 
corporate biotechnology and genetics industries and as an art 
project, and that in its different faces could potentially attract a 
broad and not always prepared audience. Using the format of a game 
puts players inside the story, implicating them in this political 
narrative, and the net allows me to subsequently direct these same 
audiences/players to an extensive database of information and to 
activities on the subject, and potentially propel them towards 
various actions -all under the same umbrella. To close, I don't think 
it is time to either celebrate or bemoan art on the net as simply a 
new genre in the museums, nor is it time for artists interested in 
productive critical strategies to close the book (turn off the 
switch) on net art.
see also Jackie Stevens The Industry Behind the Curtain

Natalie Jeremijenko ,

Yvonne Volkart, "Art Strategies of the New World Order, or, What do 
resistant art works look like?"

::::::::::::::"A smart artist makes the machine do the work":::::::::::::::::::
:::::::::::::: generator:::::::
 Cornelia Sollfrank  |  Duncan of Jordanstone University |  Dundee |  Scotland 

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