Josephine Berry on Tue, 26 Oct 1999 00:01:36 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Information as Muse [part 3]

Surprisingly perhaps, and despite the partly understandable incompetence
of the 'art world proper' to deal with net art and the general lack of
will to seriously commit to a genre which lacks the endorsement of wider
market interest, the majority of net artists prefer to cultivate than to
kill institutional relations. Shulgin, much of whose work is concerned
with escaping the 'clich=E9' of identity and harnessing the nomadic
movement of information, has stressed the need to prevent art from
slipping into a form of pure communication and the usefulness of the art
context:  "..some people say that we should get rid of the very notion of
art and that we have to do something that is not related to the art
system, etc. I think it's not possible at all, especially on the net
because of the hyperlink system. Whatever you do it can be put into an art
context and can be linked to art institutions, sites related to art. And
if we get rid of that word 'art', what shall we have then? How shall we
identify ourselves and how shall we find contacts and how shall we create
a context?"  Another prominent net artist, Vuk Cosic, has also remarked on
the necessity of the established art system's involvement with net art
without which it might as well be invisible: 

" do you think you got your first Sex Pistol's record? Because they
didn't want to sell it to you?"  Invisibility is considered to be the
price of disengagement from the efficiency of the art machine with its
conspicuous architectural edifices, its army of partisan employees, its
control over art's narrativisation and its strategic publicity offensives. 

Olia Lialina, net artist and founder of the first artist-run online
gallery Teleportacia , insists on the necessity of creating a third
alternative to what she considers a dichotomous deadlock between, on the
one hand, the belief that 'net art should not be sold' and, on the other,
the institutional will to simply annex net art to established systems of
archivisation and ownership - "a heritage to forget" as Lialina puts it .
In her article <italic>Cheap.Art</italic> she discusses how the classical
anti-institutionalism of the former position was "mostly welcomed by real
galleries and institutions"  in 1998, and criticises the process by which
collaborative projects are coopted by institutions: "But again and again
the worlds you create easily become an exhibiting object at media venues.
Something that is invaluable tomorrow is sold for nothing today."  Lialina
points to the dysfunction that sets in once the world-like qualities of a
net artwork are assimilated into the museum which hinges on the
transformation of a space designed to be, in a certain sense, inhabited to
a relic to be consumed. 

In the last few years, long established arts institutions such as the
Walker Arts Centre in Minneapolis, the (increasingly global) Guggenheim
Museum, the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco and the ICA in London,
have been setting up online galleries and programming exhibitions which
seek to legitimise the genre through contextualisation, discourse and
ownership. Their multifarious strategies of ownership range from simply
creating lists of links to existing net art projects on other servers, to
buying exclusive or non-exclusive rights to display artworks, to
commissioning net artists to make site-specific works for their 'virtual
galleries'. An example of the latter is the Walker Art Centre's recent
commission of Lisa Jevbratt to create a new component to her series
<italic>The Stilmann Projects</italic>, for their site ,.for which she was
paid an artists fee of $1,000. The institutions' attempts to find a way to
render net art amenable to the criteria of ownership encounter two
perennial problems. The first is the ease with which files can be mirrored
or copied often without causing any perceivable alteration to the work
itself, and the second is the impossibility of designating a discrete art
object in the case of hyperlinked artworks. The information economy is at
odds with a classical model of ownership in which possession of the
individual and/or unique object guaranteed exclusive power over its use.
Currencies themselves have long since been cut loose of the gold standard;
a shift which definitively conceded the preeminence of transactional speed
and patterning of investment over the presence/absence of its golden
referent. Within e-commerce, the patterns of consumption are often valued
above the commodity's ability to command a certain price. The traditional
art establishment's frustrations concerning the display and ownership of
net art are deeply entwined with their inability to abandon the
correlation between ownership, materiality and uniqueness; a correlation
from which their institutional logic, power, and revenue-generating
capacities still flow. In a repeat of preceding struggles to maintain
control over video works, traditional institutions are struggling to
impose the paradigm of presence/absence onto a condition defined by
pattern/randomness.  Despite Lialina's comment that the anti-commodifying
rhetoric of some net artists is easily assimilated by institutions - which
on the level of content is certainly true - art as information does
present inherent resistance to the traditional logic of its ownership. 

With astute and comical understanding of this predicament, M.River and
T.Whid's Visual-Text Art Venue makes the absence of the material art
object and physical gallery space the focus of their online gallery. In
their mission statement they explain: "The focus of the venue is
contemporary text-based artwork which is composed only of ideas and words.
No fonts, no design, no paper, no materials, no actual physical objects
are essential to the work the V-TAV will show."  Their decision to include
only text is a means of emphasising the condition of absence; working
within the theoretical context of poststructuralism with its designation
of the signifier's severance from the signified, the word has all but
become a symbol of lack. The interface of the gallery is also constructed
linguistically; using plain courier font on a white background, the two
'gallerists' describe a tour through the imaginary gallery and treat the
textual artworks as though they were physical objects. The old world
dealer becomes a figure of ridicule:  "<bold>T. Whid (slapping knee and
laughing)</bold> Whew...almost dropped my very large glass monocle,
ahem...". Alongside their examination of the absence of a material
substrate for their gallery-as-artwork, they also invert the hierarchy of
uniqueness over reproducibility. In their Sales Department 'artifacts'
(i.e. computer print-outs) signed by the artist are valued at $50, whereas
the price of full copyright is too expensive to be specified. V-TAV's
parody of the traditional centrality of the presence/absence paradigm
effects its conversion into a referent within the latticed structure of
online representation. But this new informational order is marked perhaps
more by a nostalgia for the absence of presence than a wholehearted
collusion with the system of pattern/randomness. 

The Ljubljana 2000 - Competition, launched in early June '99,
is an example of a net based institutional critique which attempts not
only to use commodification's extension into immateriality as the primary
conceptual condition for the work itself but also as an opportunity to
develop new economic models for artists. The organisers of the
competition, Teo Spiller and Brian Goldfarb, explain the rules thus: "Work
must incorporate at least one money-earning mechanism, such as the hosting
of a commercial banner or other economic scheme to prostitute their work.
...the jury will base its decision equally upon the aesthetic qualities of
the art and the creative conception of its relation to its commercial
prostitution." The winning entry will also be judged on its success in
earning money and the innovational nature of this strategy. In this
example, the degree to which art's flight from materiality has ceased to
concern itself with an escape from commodification is abundantly clear. 

Where the point of reification was conceived in conceptual art as the
point of sale and relegated to a 'perfunctory' realisation of the idea, in
net art - where reification has come to mean informationalistion - it was
initially harnessed to take advantage of the flickering relationship
between representation and territorialisation. In other words, early net
art identified an insecurity opened up in the absence of a one-to-one
relationship between information and its material substrate on the
Internet. A corporate home-page, for example, does not own the space it
resides in the way its high street outlet does. In a situation where
control over material objects and space has been replaced, as a defining
characteristic of power, by the control over attention and representation,
early net artists understood the value of reification quite differently.
For them, the point of reification had become the point of intervention
and leverage; no longer to be mistrusted but actively deployed. At this
juncture, it is worth just briefly observing that the order of
representation designated 'immaterial' or 'virtual' is anything but devoid
of physicality.  Alongside the more obvious physicality of the computer's
dependency on the flow of electrons, ocean spanning axial cables and so
forth is the no less crucial or physical faculty of sight. In this sense
then, we must take 'immateriality' to be a very imperfect description of
the ontological status of an HTML page and its reception. In light of this
consideration it is possible to say that some of the signature attributes
of conceptual art which were enmeshed in its will to immateriality (speed,
communication, resistance to the forces of institutionalistion etc.) were
realised at the level of reification as information on the Internet.=20

Net artists of the recent past however have faced certain problems also
experienced by conceptual artists, namely, how to stay visible, how to
prevent an institutional take-over and how to support oneself? 
Obsolescence, once prized as an inherent condition of ICT by net artists,
is increasingly being viewed as a problem as the genre moves out of its
early construction period into one of historical consolidation. As with
the history of the words you no longer own on mailing lists, the initial
passion ignited by the novelty of the Internet and its renegade status
from the powers that be (which prevailed despite the widespread knowledge
of its military-industrial origins) has incrementally given way to a
recognition of the high cultural status that it has achieved. Its
inclusion in prestigious international events like DocumentaX and the
trend for established art centres to stake their claims to its history
testify to this process.  In a reciprocal move, non-commercial discursive
exchange on the Net has started to be commodified and develop into a site
of marketing, while information-based marketing has started to provide the
model and subject of net art. (In June 1999, artist Jeff Gates attempted
to sell his individual demographics at the online auction house E-bay,
commenting: "What's stopping us from selling our own information?" )  Not
only has commerce started to occupy the symbolic space formerly laid claim
to by art, but art, in an analogous gesture to pop art, has started to
mimic the strategies of commercialisation in dataspace. This new mercenary
gusto which has entered net art, far from predicating itself upon its
putatively autonomous status - "a circumference which closes it off from
actuality"  as Adorno and Horkeimer put it, and l'art pour l'art imbued -
converts this status into capital and uses it to deliver audiences to
corporate content or convert individuals into data sets. Art has become
transactional, its most core identity wrung through a process of

But this bleak picture can, perhaps paradoxically, also be ameliorated by
applying another of Adorno and Horkeimer's characterisations of art,
namely its deployement of shamanic mimesis. They have argued that the
representational practice of copying nature in prehistory - in our case
sublime nature becomes sublime informatics - displays an affinity with the
life-world subsequently lost through the objectifying practices of the
Enlightenment. When the world-as-referent becomes a semiotic field of
quantified information, then the mimetic practices of artists could
possibly be read in terms of a de-alienating process that breaks the
distance of objectification. As Hayles and Kittler suggest, the stable and
structuring distance between signified and signifier has not been closed
but lost. Net artists have taken advantage of this to literally convert
art into information and thereby update our understanding of mimesis. No
longer content to skip and slide across the patterns of corporate
information deployment, net art has started to convert itself into
instrumentalised information. This gesture, which must be interpreted as
an expression of fear, can also be read as an impulse to identify with and
not elude the conditions of information itself. This, I would argue, in
part seems motivated by the desire to deprive the corporate/institutional
complex of art as a benevolent object or system of association. By
withdrawing from its position of autonomy or alterity and operating in as
instrumental and quantifying a way as capital, net art can be seen to be
updating realism. This variant of realism combines its traditional role of
(always inflected) mirror with the informational capacity to replicate; as
such we could term it a replicatory realism whose function is to provide
no relief from the instrumentalisation of representation.

  N. Katherine Hayles, "Virtual Bodies and Flickering
Signifiers", in Electronic Culture: Technology and Visual
Representation, edt. Timothy Druckery, Aperture 1996, p. 262

  Ibid, p. 263

  Cited in Lucy Lippard, Six Years: The Dematerialisation of the Art
Object, University of California Press, 1997, p.28

   cited in Lippard, 1997, p. 14

  Ibid, p. xxi=20

  Ibid, p. <bigger>xvii

 cited in Monika Wunderer, Whose Art is it Anyway?, p.1,

  See Rishab Aiyer Ghosh, Cooking Pot Markets: An Economic Model for
the Trade in Free Goods and services on the Internet, 1998,, and Richard Barbrook's The Holy Fools: A
Critique of the Avant-Garde in the Age of the Net, Hypermedia Research
Centre, University of Westminster, 1998.

  cf. RHIZOME's "Readership Statistics",

  Mark Tribe, "Art Site Takes the Reins",, 1998

  Ibid, "Subscribers Submissions"

  Interview with Jodi by Tilman Baumgaertel,
<italic>Telepolis</italic>, 06.10.97,

  Interview with Alexeij E. Shulgin by Armin Medosch,
<italic>Telepolis</italic>, 22.07.97,, p. 3

  Art is Useless: an interview with Vuk Cosic by Josephine Berry,
<italic>Mute</italic>, issue 13, 1998, p.56

  Olia Lialin, <italic>Cheap Art</italic>, in Readme!: Ascii Culture
and the Revenge of Knowledge, filtered by Nettime, Autonomedia, 1999,

  Ibid, p. 268

  "Cheap Art", <italic>Read Me</italic>, Ibid, p.268


  M. River and T. Whid, "Mission Statement", The Visual-Text Art Venue,, p. 1

  Teo Spiller and Brian Goldfarb, <italic>The Ljubljana 2000 - Competition</italic>,


  Theodor W. Adorno & Max Horkheimer, <italic>Dialectic of
Enlightenment</italic>, Verso 1997, p.19

  See: Ibid, p...

///Josephine Berry\\\

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