[-empyre-] My ISEA panel notes

My final post for this evening, and apologies for the repetitive nature (I
have asked some of these questions already), but I thought I would post the
notes for the talk I gave at ISEA on Melinda's panel...I will follow up
(when I have a moment) with some notes on points which were raised in the

I have found  in my work and research, mailing lists are invaluable tools
for discussion, communication and networking. However I have also discovered
that they make a rather interesting and important subject of study in
themselves, because despite their obvious importance, their actual and
potential impact is often overlooked.

I recently produced a guest selection for Low-Fi on list-serve related
artworks and issues which began my research into the area - as I quickly
discovered that for one thing, it is difficult to find a comprehensive list
of lists, and the artistic interventions into list culture are few and far
between, particularly compared to blogs. 

I found myself wondering if lists were being overlooked because they are
such a regular part of day to day net life, having been likened to Left Bank
coffee houses, or creating the notion that artists have adjacent studios,
they virtually recreate the art college 'crit' and thoroughly help put the
'network' in net art. The most crucial comments, quotes and critiques on New
Media appear on lists perhaps because of their wider editorial remit and
lack of commercially powered publishing and without them, you might not know
much of the art was even there! Lists are undoubtedly important, but do they
offer something more than this? 

Much debate in New Media arts centres on its separation from the
'mainstream' establishment, how the history of art is unable to deal with it
in the way it might when faced with object-based media. Subsequently the
concern is that there isn't an adequate language of New Media either, with
which to deal with the fluctuating demands of a New Media culture and
provide an archive in the absence of institutional support. 

However this focus on the limitations of existing systems can often mean
that new or evolving systems aren't being adequately analysed or
acknowledged and that little is looked at in areas where New Media is being
historicised, and languages are forming with Institutions often preferring
to build entirely new historical initiatives instead.

I believe the list is one such area. I believe that in the absence of
physical institutions, the default validation system for New Media art is
text, and that the list provides a very particular architecture for
validation, be it the validation of art, or the validation of its community.
And that looking at the list in this way shows very real links between New
Media and the 'mainstream', after all New Media isn't all new!

The way in which the list offers a system of validation highlights its use
as an interesting art historical tool. 

Plus the art historian can shape the archive for New Media concurrently with
the production of the work, which drastically closes the gap usually
presupposed in such a discipline. 

In a realm where writers often do not have the luxury of shaping their
comments over years, or even days, but sometimes have mere minutes to throw
their hat into the ring, an acceleration of writing methods is
simultaneously accelerating the time it will take to form a coherent
language of new media. Where we have waited centuries for systems to change
in art history, is there now the potential to produce a paradigm shift in
the time it takes to send an email?

And how can we not notice the way in which lists might create the language
of New Media when the term net.art itself arrived in an email?

Although relatively little has been established for how we should work with
this type of media for research purposes, whether this type of self
publishing constitutes a practice in itself, or how the list might affect
mainstream understandings of art historical research and critical discourse
by translating some of its findings to the offline world. 

In an absence of books on the history of net art, lists are offering a
library all their own, they are increasingly quoted in books and paper and
some are even being turned into books, typo's flame wars and all.

So what skills or adaptations to disciplines might lists be effecting?

Many writers find that it is through the actual act of writing that a deeper
understanding is obtained. Although lists offer abundant content, active
participation offers the ability for participants to develop understanding
through the process as well. The list becomes a way of practicing perceptive
prowess and it becomes clear therefore that it is not the increased access
or enhanced methods of self-publication which offer the perfect use of the
web for developing writing skills, but the practice obtained in thought and
thus writing production that are provided by the list. 

When working on her PhD Mute's Josie Berry Slater used the nettime list to
actively shape her work, receiving vital feedback from immediate peers. Does
this bring an end to the notion of a 'finished' work or provide a model for
a more synchronous research? Will we discover a new need and method to
reference conversations and transient knowledge records? After all I spent
much of my undergrad days looking at the correspondence of Brecht and

And is there an emergent skill of prolific posting, where the poster has
artfully searched, filtered and digested their own path of pickings from
daily life on the web and passed it on? And does this reflect the types of
knowledge more valuable today than the in depth knowledge of a singular

Of course, even new methods of critique bring old problems and the
list-serve is no exception. It is actually a deeply controlled space.
List-owners and moderators can remove unwanted parties or change the thrust
of an argument. This global village isn't able, yet, to escape real-world
time zones and consequently an argument can wane or wander given time
delays. Neither can the Internet, yet, provide methods to transcend language
barriers and despite multi-linguistic nettimes in many instances discussions
are bound by the predominant language of the list-subscribers, not to
mention the language of the most prolific posters, and widely used phrases
from one country can confuse and cause consternation in another. 

When you add to this the fact they are hampered by often inadequate search
facilities, an awkward low-tech informatic aesthetic and an archaic gender
divide the need for more analysis seems imperative. 

I am interested therefore in the list text and process as contemporary art
historical tools, how they simultaneously create and evade the archive - or
more specifically the archive as we have known it within art history thus
far, and how the list is generating the bones of a net art criticism that is
both an integral part of the validation of net art, but also a more
synchronized way of creating a language of net art and new media.

Is the list the ultimate art historical archive of net art, and if so,
should we be looking to stabilise and historicise the archive of the list as
much as groups are already looking at preserving the art? Should list owners
and moderators be receiving more support from Art Historians? What role does
the list play in the safeguarding and historicising of works for the future,
in the same ways as conceptual art paraphernalia does? One day will we go to
exhibitions of list texts?

When I see a list posting covered in text with lots of links, because of the
format/protocol of lists, it reminds me of the gallery in reverse. Instead
of big pictures on the wall with little texts next to them, we hang the text
big and put lots of little links to the art...

However as is the case with the speed of construction in the e-age, we must
inevitably look beyond the structures we are currently creating, and it
seems fair to say that it wont be long before the relatively low-tech list
is adapted or superseded to better house the debates it has helped grow and
nurture, but it is important to understand its foundations and potential
before we build on its hopefully solid ground, lest list subsidence hamper
our plans.

Eventually the list can provide the equivalent structure to the art gallery,
for work that cannot be physically housed, providing its context, publicity
and validation if so required, so is the list the preservation of net art
that we have been looking for all along, or just somewhere to argue, point
score and pester people?


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