[-empyre-] 'real' networked art

Simon Biggs s.biggs at eca.ac.uk
Tue Oct 13 21:34:00 EST 2009

Hayles concept of Oborn digital¹ is useful in contextualising what Jodi
might have meant when they spoke of ³net.artists living on the net². Prior
to a certain point in time artists working with computers and associated
communications technologies came to this practice from other media,
employing frameworks and criteria imported from other contexts. At some
point this changed and a generation of artists emerged who had always worked
with digital and networked media. This didn¹t happen in a simple linear
manner. Nor did developments occur at the same time, or in the same way, for
the various aspects of what are now, but what were not previously, related
media (computers and telecommuniciations only got substantially together in
the 1980¹s).

There were a small number of artists working in the 1970¹s who started out
in their practice using digital systems, even a few in the 1960¹s. There
were, similarly, a small number of artists who emerged in the 80¹s who were
using networks from the start. Bunting is an example of this ­ although his
early network practices did not engage the internet but telephone networks.
Paul Sermon is another (very different) example. However, the emergence of a
generation of network savvy artists, with a culture attached, didn¹t begin
until well into the 1990¹s. The associated buzz, involving the engagement of
theorists and cultural commentators, intensified after that time. In this
sense I¹d assess Varnelis¹s observation that these technologies ³cultural
implications (were) confined to niche realms for enthusiasts² more or less
correct ­ although I¹d move the dates back a little to the early 90¹s or
even the late 1980¹s and identify 1993 as they key year in terms of impact,
when the first web browser (Mosaic) became publicly available.

There were a series of events and developments, in the late 1980¹s, when the
key players in what was to emerge in the 1990¹s, with net.art and related
practices, started to meet, communicate directly with one another and inform
each other¹s work. It is no accident that many of these people were Eastern
or Central European or were based in what had been cold-war border cities,
like Berlin and Ljubljana. A few of these artists did replay historical
tropes. Shulgin¹s playful refigurings of Suprematism is an example, although
as much concerned with developing a commentary on his personal sense of
national heritage at a time of social turbulence, post 1989, than formal
art-historical deconstruction. It can be argued that the emergence of new
medialities and formal frameworks are often associated with artists
revisiting the past. Picasso¹s confluence of Cubism and African art is
perhaps an example. Again, it would be dangerous to consider this as simply
or even primarily formal aesthetic experiment. Picasso, like Shulgin, lived
in a social and political context and he drew inspiration from the
excitement and conflict he experienced living within it.

Contemporary network culture is a very recent phenomenon. Perhaps we forget
how fast things have changed and what seemed odd or futuristic to many until
only a few years ago is now commonplace. There is a turbulence associated
with that rate of change.

Varnelis¹s piece attempts to connect artists practice with digital networks
with examples of practice from a more mainstream art world (you can¹t get
more mainstream in the UK than the work of a Turner Prize winner). To some
degree this approach is illuminating, allowing some novel connections to be
made. Zittel and Auerbach¹s work sits interestingly alongside  Halley¹s or
Estes¹s. It is also clear that mainstream arts practice of the early
post-modern period (1960-1980) was an influence on many artists who were
associated with the 1990¹s emergence of art practices situated within a
networked cultural context.

However, it is important to remember that many of those artists chose to
work with digital and communications systems in large part because they were
disillusioned with the mainstream artworld. Here I am not talking about art
practices but the artworld itself. These artists sought out of a parallel
system that would allow practitioners to work, communicate and facilitate
new audiences without the mediation of the institutional framework the
artworld was/is composed of. This activity is traceable to earlier examples,
some of which explicitly join up, with practitioners associated with artist
run initiatives like The Kitchen and Film-makers Coop in New York or London
Video Arts and Film-makers Coop in the UK (amongst many other actitivies
around the World during the 1960¹s and 70¹s) being part of the development
of the prototype digital and networked culture of the 1980¹s which Shulgin,
Bunting and many others are associated with. This is arguably a stronger
lineage of historical precedent than that which connects Peter Halley to
Josh On and in this sense Varnelis¹s piece risks being revisionist. But it
can be hard to establish new historical connections without taking such a

However, as was pointed out in the first paragraph above, nothing is linear
or simple. Whilst many of the artists associated with net.art and similar
activities did seek alternate models to the dominant artworld market model
others sought to play with it and turn the system to their own advantage.
Vuk Cosic is an example here, his provocations and interventions functioning
as both critique of the dominance of market thinking in the creative arts
and an attempt to grab some of the associated limelight. He played this
double edged sword with some skill. It is perhaps too early to evaluate
whether Shulgin¹s more recent work with easy to consume electronic multiples
is as clever and destabilising as Cosic¹s practices (he made sense of what
he was doing by Oretiring¹ young) or whether he risks repeating the failures
of Kasemir Malevich, the Suprematist Shulgin parodied in his Oform art¹
works, who, after a blazing period of creativity retreated into
politically-correct folk-art.

To me this sort of art-historical connection evidences a Oborn digital¹ art
criticism which Varnelis¹s essay perhaps fails to do.



Simon Biggs

Research Professor
edinburgh college of art
s.biggs at eca.ac.uk

Creative Interdisciplinary Research into CoLlaborative Environments

simon at littlepig.org.uk
AIM/Skype: simonbiggsuk

From: Anna Munster <a.munster at unsw.edu.au>
Reply-To: soft_skinned_space <empyre at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au>
Date: Tue, 13 Oct 2009 20:08:24 +1100
To: "empyre at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au" <empyre at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au>
Subject: [-empyre-] 'real' networked art

In this chapter you marks a distinction between earlier network art
(Bunting, Shuglin, odi.org et al) and the 'web 1.0' period  during which
there was a  preoccupation with the medium of t e net itself among many
artists (using the properties of html code  etc) and today's networked
culture in which everything is networked or rather the network is dispersed
diffusely throughout all aspects of culture. Your position (sorry to
simplify!) is that the reality of a networked world becomes a preoccupation
itself, in fact a kind of   preoccupation with the 'reality' of media. In
turn, this leads to a set of cultural/artistic tactical manoeuvres:

"On the contrary, the fascination with the real in ³reality² media, be it
reality TV, amateur-generated content, or professional ³art² is constructed
around specific tactics: self-exposure, information visualization, the
documentarian turn, remix, and participation."

However, I 'd also point to the 'big' statement by net artists of the '90s
encapsulated by jodi's comment: 'Net artists live on the net'.( that's a
paraphrase btw). So, I'd contend that in fact this preoccupation with the
'real' of networking actually begins with these earlier artists and that it
might be something of a false (although currently fashionable) position to
institute too much of a break  at least in terms of aesthetics  between
earlier and contemporary network cultures.

Edinburgh College of Art (eca) is a charity registered in Scotland, number SC009201

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