Josephine Berry on Tue, 26 Oct 1999 00:44:42 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Information as Muse [part 2]

Art on the eve of the information technological revolution was still
operating within the presence/absence paradigm. Ideas and information -
two centrally important constituents of conceptual art - were perceived as
existing independently of their material substrate, or better, information
was perceived as belonging to the (platonic) realm of the idea. Their
'perfunctory' reification spelled a sort of fixity or immutability which
was a consequence of the analogue nature of the storage media.  Conceptual
art of '60s and '70s often relied on typed and printed text, audio tape,
photography, film, video and Xerox copy to preserve the ephemeral event or
to store the idea for an action that might be performed at some
unspecified future date

Writing in the 'postface' to her 1973 book, <italic>Six Years: The
Dematerialisation of the Art Object</italic>, Lucy Lippard remarked:

"Hopes that 'conceptual art' would be able to avoid the general
commercialisation, the destructively 'progressive' approach of modernism
were for the most part unfounded. It seemed in 1969...that no one, not
even a public greedy for novelty, would actually pay money, or much of it,
for a Xerox sheet referring to an event past or never directly perceived,
a group of photographs documenting an ephemeral situation or condition, a
project for work never to be completed, words spoken but not recorded; it
seemed that these artists would therefore be forcibly freed from the
tyranny of a commodity status and market-orientation."

>From this list one gets a sense of how separate the actual artwork (the
idea, the action, the spoken word) was perceived as being from its
capture, and therefore the surprise with which artists watched as these
second order documentations of their work started to gain a commodity
value of their own. If we compare this notion to the perception and
operations of net art - for which not only is the medium far more
pointedly the message, but also for which its reification does not imply
stasis - we can apprehend quite how different these two historical moments
are. In short, for conceptual artists of the '60s and '70s the information
economy had not yet become a reality and hence ideas and information could
remain sites of resistance to commodification so long as they remained
unreified (which artists inevitably failed to achieve). 

A feature of conceptual art that more closely anticipates the practices of
net art is the interest which artists and curators took in harnessing the
portability of the work and the increasingly cheap and available
technologies of reproduction and communication to accelerate its
distribution, bypass art world structures, forge closer and alternative
networks between artists and break through the parochialism of art
practice to create a real internationalism. The informationalisation of
art was seen as a prerequisite to its transmission through
presence/absence based media (speech, documents carried in suitcases,
letters, phone calls etc.) Information and communication were intimately
linked attributes of art's dematerialisation and the attendant desire to
route around the dominated field of art practice. Artists were looking to
take mediation into their own hands. As curator Seth Siegelaub explained,
in 1967: 

"Communication relates to art three ways: (1) Artists knowing what other
artists are doing. (2) The art community knowing what artists are doing.
(3) The world knowing what artists are doing...It's my concern to make it
known to multitudes."

Early net artworks such as Alexei Shulgin's <italic>Refresh</italic>
project displayed a similar wish to connect up individuals (there was no
stipulation that they be artists) from around the world. Primarily using
mailing lists - one of the Internet's key community building devices -
Shulgin sent out invitations to participate in a collective artwork.
Participants had simply to build a webpage that would act as an interface.
The webpage, once built, was then incorporated into a 'refresh loop' -
this involves inserting a command into the HTML code which instructs the
page to be refreshed after 10 seconds and then substitutes the first
downloaded file for the next in a chain of files, usually stored on
different servers. The effect is a flickering chain of downloading
webpages, all designed by different individuals and groups, more often of
interest in combination than in isolation. It functions as a snap-shot of
a community of enthusiasts and artists at a particular period in the
Internet's development. Shulgin describes the project on its homepage as:
" poetic - exploring instability, unpredictability, flow of electrons,
feeling the universe, exstasy [sic] of true joint creativity, hopping
through space, countries, cultures, languages, genders, colours, shapes
and sizes...". 

At least as significant as the collaborative art projects such as
Shulgin's <italic>Refresh</italic> are the dedicated media arts mailing
lists and bulletin boards such as Syndicate, Rhizome, 7-11 and The Thing,
which have knitted communities together, driven the development of new
media art discourse and often constituted a site of communications art in
themselves. In an important respect, these electronic communities provided
net art with its earliest support system (a site of meeting,
representation and debate) in the absence of interest from the established
art community. One of the earliest Internet-based, dedicated forums was
Wolfgang Staehle's electronic Bulletin Board called The Thing, set up in
1991 and run on a computer in his basement in New York City. 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." =20

In the early days of community-forging mailing lists and newsgroups the
understanding was that participants contribute their ideas 'for free'.  In
subsequent years, however, the notion that this exchange of ideas might
have occurred in the absence of self-interest or beyond the commercial
sphere has been persuasively rejected in Ghosh and Barbrook's discussions
of the gift economy. 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 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 article to sufficiently analyse the relationship of the
so-called gift economy to the capitalist economy per se, it is possible to
identify a shift in the nature of the information exchanged on these
mailing lists and its treatment thereafter that has occurred in the last
years. A shift which certainly suggests that the gift economy model 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 cach=E9, the
rule of thumb was "you own your own words" and this 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 the Net criticism list
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 Internet 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."  Nettime has already brought
out it's first publication <italic>Read Me: ASCII Culture and the Revenge
of Knowledge</italic>, The Thing has been attempting to auction off its
old interface and content through the online auction house E-bay, and
subscribers to Rhizome are required to comply with terms and conditions
which grant Rhizome Communications Inc. "the non-exclusive, worldwide,
perpetual, royalty-free right to reproduce, modify, edit,

The point at which co-operative efforts are converted into commodities,
regardless of whether they are used to create profit or to provide capital
funding for not-for-profit institutions, marks an important shift in the
entire ICT arts context. One of the effects is to highlight the material
disparities which exist between the online cultural participants. In this
putatively international community, a U.S company's decision to convert a
'gift' given, say, by a Bulgarian artist into a commodity for sale is an
unavoidably divisive action no matter how strong the arguments concerning
the intended redistribution of proceeds may be. Furthermore, the recent
perception of the information exchanged on specialist mailing lists as
cultural commodities inflects the nature of the information itself. In the
case of art mailing lists, the community of participants is increasingly
perceived as an audience and conduit for information relay rather than
partners in dialogue. As the participants, often through the support
structure of these online communities, ascend to positions of power within
the international art system, the discursive quality of the lists tends to
diminish as self-promotional material such as exhibition announcements
increases. Far from the gift economy guaranteeing, across the board, an
increased return on investment, some people really do get more out of the
system than others.

In seeking an alternative to existing institutionalised structures of
display, discourse and exchange, net artists have created a new object for
those self-same institutions to territorialise as well as creating new
institutional structures within the Internet itself. This development,
which hinges on a 'flickering' relationship between online and offline
activities and protagonists, can be said to mimic the signifier's
relationship to the signified described by Hayles in her analysis of the
informational paradigmatic shift. The online sphere of operations floats
like a signifier above a set of relations (institutions, national
economies, physical communities, events etc.)  which act as their
dislocated referent. The net art community seems to be marked by two
divergent tendencies; on the one hand the will to map online onto offline
art worlds and, on the other, to see the dislocation as crucial to the
conceptual and institutional development of net art. 

An example of the pitfalls in the rapprochement approach was net art's
unsuccessful inclusion in the prominent DocumentaX exhibition in Kassel,
1997. Hidden away between the caf=E9, lecture hall and bookshop in the
basement of the Documenta Halle, the exhibits were barely distinguishable
from the other recreational alternatives to viewing 'actual art'. In an
interview given during the show, the art duo Jodi described how net art's
existence in computer space afforded it low status in the physical space
of the gallery. Net artworks were stored on local hard-drives thus robbing
them of their proper Internet-specific status, and set in a space
insultingly reminiscent of an office: "All the different works disappear
in the set-up by one guy who deals with the real space. The real space is
of course much more powerful than all these networks. When you are viewing
the work you are in the real space. If you only do your work on the net,
you become a fragment of the local situation and you can easily become
manipulated in any direction."  Jodi also spoke disparagingly of their
artists' fee: "In total we got DM1200. It is a clear example of
exploitation.  Which artist would move his ass for this amount of money?"
Here is a case of net artists losing out by trying to collapse the
informational signifier (net art per se) into its non-equivalent real
world referent (museum art). 

///Josephine Berry\\\

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