NET ART: BUILDING SOMETHING OUT OF NOTHING Self Education, Collaboration and Networking

published:June, 2005

Chapter from the book aRt&D, Research and Development in Art, published by V2_NAi in Rotterdam in 2005. The text gives a rough introduction to the development of net art, pre- and post-: the issues artists on the internet had to deal with and the context they worked in. Due to transferring the text from Word file to HTML document the footnotes are missing.

jodi oss 


A history of research and development in net art probably should begin long before the development of the internet in the late 1980's. In effect most key issues in net art were dealt with in earlier art practices or disciplines, be it writing, cinema, radio art, sound art, music, kinetic art, conceptual art, the performing arts, mail art, digital art or video art. The novelty of net art lies in the amplification and realization of earlier art concepts in a new, personalized media field.

Besides the specific technical aspects each of these disciplines share with net art (for example: editing and design processes, mediated audience experiences, collaboration techniques), many of them also share something else: a very strong philosophical or critical component which sometimes tends to utopianism. Research and development in net art simply could not just stay limited to purely technical issues due to the politically and economically sensitive development of its tool and medium. What is probably most striking about net art is first of all its huge variety of practices, many of them interdisciplinary almost by default. This makes net art hard to define. A definition of net art needs to be based on cultural rather then material or conceptual phenomena. What all of these practices share is a dependency on software and hardware, but also on media access and legislation, i.e. on social, political and cultural issues.

Early Days: Before the Internet (b.i.)

One history of research and development in net art could maybe start in the late sixties, early seventies, when experimenting with software and stand alone computers became a more or less acceptable art practice. Many net art histories however start in the early eighties, when artists were offered to use the privately owned computer time sharing network of I.P. Sharp Associates (IPSA) from Toronto for projects. Computers were still expensive and computer network access was, in the words of Canadian artist Robert Adrian, `a business tool or executive plaything'. In fact, even overseas phone calls were still so expensive that the first of these projects was organized through sending postcards. It was another Canadian artist, Norman White, who had discovered the new network medium almost by chance, as he was invited to play around with the computer system of IPSA. In an interview he says: `As I started logging onto the system, it wasn't so much APL [a computer language, JB] which caught my eye, but rather the electronic mailing system used by the globally scattered IPSA technicians to communicate with each other'.

The electronic mailing system White is referring to was to be part of mostly complex or multi layered net art projects: the digital network was usually just one aspect of a larger technical set up, with fax machines, satellite connections, slow scan TV and even radio broadcasts. Textual communication is the basic aspect of net art, be it through writing code in order to execute computer activities or to exchange information with humans. Yet also the new experience of physical space is important. Robert Adrian explains how he felt the first time he and Richard Kriesche used the IPSA network to send each other a message, while they were sitting at tables next to each other. `I got turned on by the space!' he says in the interview mentioned earlier. He continues: `Richard and I were personally sitting next to each other, but when we communicated with these machines, we entered this vast area which we now think of as cyberspace. When the machines are on and your fingers are on the keyboard, you are in connection with some space that is beyond the screen'.

This sense of space beyond the screen was explored further when the internet became available. Examples of spatial projects (of various styles) on the internet were /are The Thing, an artist platform slash art project initiated by Wolfgang Staehle (see next paragraph) ; Ping by Stelarc , in which the artist's body was moved by electrical pulses `created' by the activity of the internet of the year 1995; Refresh , a collaborative, open project initiated by Vuk Cosic, Andreas Broeckman and Walter van der Cruijzen in 1996, which was about creating a ring or loop of web pages by several people on servers at different locations; and Global String by Atau Tanaka , a musical instrument which consisted of two installations at different locations connected via the internet, creating one giant `guitar' string in 2000. Two of these, The Thing and Refresh, are definitely also communication projects.

An early spatial project was The World in 24 Hours, initiated by Robert Adrian in 1982, seven years b.i.. It involved a large group of participants, each creating a part of the whole. Robert Adrian: `There were managers of art spaces, university professors, video artists, people in video labs and so forth. But if they weren't artists, when they started, they were artists by the time they finished. The term artist has to be defined much more broadly in this context.' Adrian set up what was probably the first artist `mailing list', called Artex, which was used in this project and also for Roy Ascott's La plissure du texte in 1983. For this Viennese programmer Gottfried Bach developed a stripped down, more economical version of the email program IPSA was using, because the original program cost too much in terms of online time.

The Early Internet

When the internet appeared in 1989 access was still slightly difficult and expensive, but providers like for example Compuserve created the opportunity for non-commercial, individual network connections to develop. Computers however had become a lot cheaper and easier to handle. Artists from various backgrounds started new initiatives, ranging from internet performances to online art spaces. The Austrian group Station Rose for instance used the internet and specifically email in performances in clubs and galleries in the early nineties. Incoming messages would trigger a light switch, and the high number of them resulted in a kind of strobe light effect. When they first went online it was not a simple task. Elisa Rose: `Then it took as long to plug in a cable properly, as it does today to hang up 4 projectors. And no one really knew exactly how to hang what together'. They managed to get their own private internet connection in Frankfurt in 1991 with help from The Well, the Californian online community, and Compuserve, with whom The Well had started to collaborate. When they were not using the internet for a performance the expensive connection was a bit of an obstacle: `We just rushed in, looked to see who was online and rushed out again'.

The New York based German artist Wolfgang Staehle initiated the collaborative project The Thing in 1992. The Thing is actually one of many online projects that was conceived as an art work when it first started, but which changed into something of an art community platform over the years. Staehle in an interview with Tilman Baumgärtel: `I had one of those Amigas, on which I played around with video and paint software at first. Then I bought a modem in the summer of 1990 and started checking out some local New York mailboxes. I thought: one could make a great project with this'. Together with a club in Cologne called Friesenwall 116 Staehle set up a server in Cologne. Another server was set up in New York. At night the messages that were sent to these machines locally would be exchanged across the ocean, through what was called `Fido net', a store and forward emailing and file transmission system. As The Thing evolved it developed in a provider and media lab for other artists itself, like for instance Julia Scher and Jordan Crandall, to do their first online projects. The Thing became a network of semi virtual institutions based in several cities in Europe and the US around 1992.

Around the same time the internet was used in various real time music projects, one of which was for instance Gerfried Stocker's Puente in 1992, to create collaborations and presences over large distances. The technological aspect of Puente was being kept simple on purpose. Gerfried Stocker said in a radio interview in 1993 that he and his team made the conscious choice to work with simple technology like MIDI because it allowed even people who did not have access to sophisticated technology to collaborate in online music projects.

The network project that probably had the biggest reach so far was Piazza Virtuale in 1992 created by Van Gogh TV, a group of media artists that worked together since 1986, a project which was produced for Documenta 9. Piazza Virtuale was online globally, at site in Kassel and on radio and television in many European countries. TV audiences in many countries were able to interact with the screen through their telephone dial. Curator Kathy Rae Huffman was one of the people involved in the project. She explains how she was impressed by the technical abilities of the VGTV team. `For example the ISDN lines between Paris and Kassel had extreme problems getting conformed, the software was not available to modify the different connectivity standards,' she explains in an interview in 1998. `They were eventually solved. But they weren't solved by listening to the Post and what they had to say. They were solved by these guys who sat down and recoded things. They actually did a lot of research and development for the Deutsche Telekom'.

The Worldwide Web: RTFM (Read the Fucking Manual)

In 1993 the Worldwide Web created a huge boom in online activities. A division started to develop amongst artists using the internet. An emphasis on the screen instead of on the network started to evolve. The most difficult issue for artists on the early web was finding a web server. The first artist web projects were therefore almost all supported by institutions or media labs in terms of server space, whereas from 1996 artists started to have their own independent web sites and even web domains. The artist duo Jodi was for instance lucky enough to be given their first server space to experiment on in 1995 by IUMA, the Internet Underground Music Archive based in Santa Cruz. At IUMA Jodi were also simply handed a manual the size of a telephone book as an explanation of how the web works. It was and is exemplary for the DIY attitude in most online communities. In an interview Jodi says: `I have to say that the few times we were depending on so called help from an institution or from a programmer we failed. They didn't have enough obsession for the most horrible little details and problems as we have'. Sometimes however support comes unexpectedly: `People sometimes send us helpful code. For example, somebody send us a java applet that we actually used for our site'.

Like Jodi also other artists went to Silicon Valley to find out more about new technologies, but they often ended up finding out everything for themselves. Josephine Starrs, one of the women behind VNS Matrix, a cyberfeminist art group from Australia, writes about her adventures there: `Corporate artists have to sign NDA's (Nondisclosure Agreements) as soon as we walk through PARC's doors, so conversation at Silicon Valley parties often went something like: What do you do? ... I work at Interval, but I'm not allowed to tell you what I am working on, how about you? ... I work at PARC... can't tell you either... Nice weather we're having... etc.' Some artists however were already very familiar with computer technology. Heath Bunting for instance set up his earliest web project as a BBS before it was moved onto the internet and later also the web. Cybercafe was part of a wave a small media labs and access providers initiated by artists in Europe in 1994/1995.

The establishment of the web also produced a stronger division between artists who explore the medium themselves and those that let technicians or production teams do the dirty work. Most of the latter only make one or two internet projects. The first online gallery äda 'web , which was launched in 1995, brought these two together. One of its initiators Benjamin Weil writes in 1998: `Since the web was a relatively easy medium to work with technically speaking, it was a matter of enlarging the dialogue between the artists who had started exploring the medium on their own and as their main form of making art, and the ones who were exploring it as another medium, in collaboration with a production team' . The first artist on äda 'web was Jenny Holzer, who had to be convinced to make work for the web. Äda 'web's first web designer Andrew Wanliss Orlebar says in an interview: `The first version of äda 'web was never live. It was basically just shown to Jenny Holzer, to show her that we were for real. It was something that was built in a few days and a few nights, at a point when I didn't understand that HTML files needed extensions. This was literally my first few minutes in HTML and I had to put this together for the next day. I fell asleep during the presentation'.

Learning HTML overnight to do a presentation of a website the next day is of course harsh, but in general most artists considered this basic code for making web pages easy. Alexei Shulgin, former net artist and co initiator of the ReadMe software art festival: `What we have with is, we have a sort of shifting paradigm in art from the idea of representation to the idea of communication. For communication you don't need a lot of skills. You can use very simple software, which is widely available'.

Exploring the medium started differently for every artist. Mark Napier for instance used to be a painter. In an interview he says: `I got my first internet account in July 1995, put some of my paintings on my homepage, and then realized that this medium was completely separate from painting. Just scanning the images changed their nature, and of course I could create so many effects with Photoshop that the original painting no longer existed by the time I posted the image on my site. A few weeks later I took down all the paintings and started playing with HTML to see what I could get it to do'.

One way to find out how things work is by making mistakes, as Vuk Cosic explains: `I did a lot of HTML documents that crashed your browsers. It was not enough just to avoid this mistake; I was trying to really understand that particular mistake, with frames, or with GIFs which used to crash old browsers, or later Java Script, that does beautiful things to your computer in general'.

Mobile and Post Net Art

At present the internet is being lifted from its wiring, at least partially. Wireless technologies create a new dimension to net art. The conceptual extensions of the internet we saw in earlier projects that consisted of on and offline parts, sort of become affirmed by the literal immaterial presence of the network. At the same time the term `net art' is slowly turning into an obstacle for understanding the scope of art practices online, and there is some resistance to using it. Both of these developments create a new conceptual freedom, again. It seems as if net art has split itself in various subsections, which are related to new hardware technologies, like with wireless connectivity; to new software approaches, like in social networks and also in software art; or which seem to escape definition due to lack of a proper art theory that incorporates media networks. It is quite funny to see how, after a period in which pessimism in net art prevailed due to what seemed a victory of `click and go' web art over more complex net projects, festivals and conferences embrace what they call `the ongoing peer to peer revolution and a clear indication that audiences are now participants' simply because of the renewed focus on blogging and social networking, when intimate networks and open projects have been part of net art from day one.

There are however some interesting projects out there, like Pete Gomes' Work, Place (2001) in which the artist outlined the floor plan of a virtual office on the sidewalk according to the reach of a wifi signal; Heath Bunting and Kaylee Brandon's BorderXing (2001 2003) in which the artists document the crossing of borders without a passport on a website which is only accessible through a limited amount of ip numbers or computers; Wilfried Houjebek's attempts to design a code for walking called PML (Psychogeographical Markup Language) (2003); or Mongrel's Nine(9) (2003), a piece of software created to empower people that are not familiar with new technologies to use the net to tell stories within a grid of pictures, texts and sounds. Mongrel combines its dissemination of software with intensive real life meetings and workshops.

Some Final Words on Net Art R&D

Net art is a huge variety of practices that all share a relationship to computer cultures and networking. The most important aspect of the developments in this area is the problematic of network access, in the sense of both connectivity and server space. In short: development of net art is mostly about media access. Media labs and other, larger institutions have mainly supported net art in this area in the past, although there slowly but surely was a shift from offering technical access and close collaboration with the artist to offering visibility or representation within an institutional media presence. The latter was often not without financial complication for the artists, since many institutions ignored or were not aware of the material side of net art projects and the needs of the artists, especially with web projects. Nowadays a new problem has been added, that of copyright issues, of ownership and access to different layers of a project.

In twenty years the technology of network access has developed from being completely industrial and institutional to personal and domestic. Net art has developed along the same path: from large, institutional settings to intimate, individual projects. There is however a tendency towards institutional dependency again. Some of this is created by what is called the `attention economy', the battle for attention caused by the explosion of internet activity in the past ten years, because of which independent projects have more trouble finding an audience. Another reason is the growing number of institutional net art projects, which tend to be technically more complex then projects by individual, independently working artists. Some of these large institutionally developed projects ask for technical back up and management strategies that remind of film or television productions through their complexity and hierarchical personnel structures. An Example of such a work could be Shu Lea Chang's 'Brandon' , which was realized through the collaboration and support of both the Guggenheim Museum in New York and De Waag in Amsterdam.

One of the most important reasons for seeking institutional support for net art however seems to be the sanctuary or safe haven the arts can offer to controversial projects. This is no luxury in the ongoing regulation of the internet and the post 9 11 security mania. In projects which need a lot of bandwidth institutional support can be of vital importance too. The development of net art needs protection from the political and corporate push towards economical productivity and usability of the arts. It turns out that in the end the development of net art is still mostly a question of cultural priorities, of unconditional recognition and appreciation of art in mediated environments.

The flexibility and accessibility of new, personal media technologies and their networks however offer enough room to say that the future of independent net art is really not that bleak. The dissolving of net art's boundaries does seem to indicate that the term 'net art' is simply loosing ground to art at large, like has happened to many media art forms before.