Constructing Media Spaces - The novelty of net(worked) art was and is all about access and engagement

published:January, 2005

This text combines two  thoughts: what new art practices did the internet 'spawn' and how did these art practices deal with public space? It appeared in the book and on the website of, an extensive archive on media art supported by the ZKM in Karlsruhe. Due to transition from Word file to HTML document the footnotes are missing in the text. This will hopefully be corrected in the near future.

Some thoughts on art

When writing new media art histories one somehow always seems to get stuck in the same dilemma. Should one follow the common approach, in which technical innovations of the visual image are the dominant factor, or does one ‹look at› this art as a complex of cultural expressions that can take on various shapes? This dilemma seems to hinge on the definition of art and the cultural (and political) context, which accompanies every definition of art. There are a few strategies to avoid this dilemma. A popular one is to avoid calling some of the work and projects of artists ‹art› altogether. This creates a big void in criticism and leaves a lot of practices unrecognized. My favorite strategy opposes this: when in doubt, call it art and leave any further problems of signification to critics and theorists. Whether something is art or not has not been the most important issue for a long time: how to place and value art practices and products. Yet there has been a third popular strategy. The elusiveness and instability of art in and around electronic media have created an obscurity in which the safest, easiest and definitely most popular option has been (and probably will be for years to come) a return to looking at art from the pre-modern perspective of craftsmanship (often mixed with a hint of creative genius of an author). This in turn gets entangled with the simple assumption of artistic progress being embedded within the technical innovation of the visual media image. The problem with this strategy is that it neglects decades of interdisciplinary art practices that have been most important to the development of the new art practices we are dealing with today; art practices that are too diverse to fit into one or two categories of design and visual art and their accompanying discourses.
This essay attempts to look at art created on and around the Internet from a relatively new perspective—that of art in the public domain. It is only relatively new because the public domain has been a theme or focus within Internet art and its crossover into media activism for a long time now. The definition of the public domain has been expanded through the use of electronic media spaces, starting with radio and television, but most significantly with the rise of the Internet and its relatively easy access for the public. The emphasis on communication and freedom of expression within electronic media has created at least three rather specific new art practices. They are based or even dependent on collaboration, media access and hands on technology. In short, all three evolve around connectedness, around being connected: connected to people, to media channels, to tools and/or knowledge. The three practices I am referring to here are environments and performances involving some form of Internet access, artist initiated representation platforms or meeting places on the Internet, and last but not least software art.

(Re)defining the public domain

(Re)defining the public domain is a never-ending enterprise, or, in the words of Erik Kluitenberg, author of the «FAQs about the Public Domain»: «The public domain is something that is in constant transformation, never fixed, and as a result needs to be reinvented continuously. Truly public spaces, more often than not, just simply emerge spontaneously, and are not consciously designed.» One can even wonder whether there is anything we can call the public domain at all (at present). In his text «Designing the Digital Commons» media theorist Geert Lovink writes: «… we may find out that the digital commons is a negative utopia. As an event or experience rather than a fixed space, the digital common existed in the future (or is about to happen in the past).» When asked to explain this negative utopia, Lovink writes: «One could also call it a temporary autonomous zone that can only be recognized as such when the zone, as a real existing utopia, already has vanished.»
Nevertheless we can distinguish the main issues of the new public domain, the Public Domain 2.0 as described by Kluitenberg. The most important ones seem to be media access and knowledge of media technologies (social and technical), both of which are of vital importance for spontaneous activities in a mediated environment. In her book «Netzkulturen,» the curator and critic Inke Arns writes: «In an expanding networked world the stimulation of a critical media competence is unavoidable. Only through this can people use the Net and new communication technologies for their own interests and goals.» Public spaces in electronic media cannot «emerge spontaneously» when the specific technologies are inaccessible and/or unfamiliar. The works of the artists described in this text bring people closer to technology on many different levels. Some only create curiosity and wonder (the first level of familiarity); others clearly aim at audience participation or even education. All of these works deal with the public domain as a virtual, mediated space consisting of both material and immaterial matter.

Performing physical interfaces: Face-to-face with technology

Media art performances, easily accessible media art installations, and media art workshops with or without real time network connections are the missing link between art works in the old and the new public domain. Whereas online platforms (as described later on in this text) still have a certain kind of similarity of form and feel, which is probably due to their basis in group collaboration, these physical interfaces (and also artist software) have specific individual or (small) group aesthetics that make them more recognizable as art projects for most contemporary art audiences.
Complex media art performances and installations have been created throughout the history of electronic media. Not all of these have opened the artwork to the streets or engaged with the audience in a profound way. The element of physical presence and ‹availability› of the artist inside an art performance, event, or happening (to re-use an old term again) is probably the strongest possible way to engage an audience. But the presence of the artist can also be ‹sensed› in another way, as is the case with «Project-X» by Heath Bunting.
Engaging physical interfaces is the most direct way to reach large audiences. They connect the space of media with the spaces of the world we generally call the physical world. Media spaces are also physical, but we tend to not experience them as such. They are said to be ephemeral or immaterial. They consist partly of a manipulation of natural phenomena through the use of various machine interfaces and partly of a cultural or psychological experience. To become aware of them and the possibilities they offer for interaction or other usage they have to be made visible, tangible or ‹experienceable›. Machine or desktop interfaces do this for the individual one-on-one interaction, but for a media space that needs to be accessible as a whole, conceptually or otherwise, different solutions are possible that create an illusion of interface to an «immaterial» space. To open up the Public Domain 2.0 and make the public experience it, for example, Station Rose has used the club VJ and DJ format for creating temporary immersive environments. Heath Bunting has done various projects, and I have chosen one that is not well known in which he used chalk on the street to arouse curiosity in the public and to satisfy his own. Etoy has a project in which it works with children and teaches them some basics of media interaction, much in the same way Mongrel also prefers to engage with people face to face in workshops and even private exchanges.

Station Rose

Station Rose consists of Elisa Rose and Gary Danner. They have been active as organizers and performers in new media art since the end of the 1980s, when they started a sort of gallery in Vienna. Rose creates visuals live while Danner creates music. With sound and visuals as building blocks they develop what they like to call a «virtual space». Station Rose started doing performances through networked computers in 1988, but did not get into an Internet community until 1991, when they connected to the Californian network The Well [EL]. The performance work of Station Rose cannot be separated from Rose and Danner’s experience as Net workers. Danner says in an interview: «I try to do as much as I can in the Net – I really do not want to deal with a situation like that in a few years: we could have done something in ’99 not to make it a pure shopping mall… I feel a responsibility here. I was trained by the first ‹onliners› from The Well. They have a strong sense for community. They taught me to have that, too.»
Station Rose wants to take their audience inside their experience of cyberspace, through constructing a temporary immersive environment. In an interview Rose says: «The aspect of performing inside media-art is important. These real time-moments are in between material (and) immaterial.» Performance and other real time, physical events seem to be the ultimate opportunity to open up the double experience of cyberspace, an experience that is at once physical and non-physical and to invite the audience to enter this experience. Performance in new media art can do just that, beyond the one on one contact with a computer. For their performances in the early 1990s, for instance, Station Rose would connect their computers to the Internet and ask people online to join in the performance by sending messages. This way the performance space (often a party setting) would be extended or expanded. On a technological level this expansion happens outside the direct reach of the audience, but on a social, cultural or psychological level the audience definitely becomes engaged. «Through Telnet and this ‹u command› anyone could log on and send something, when they knew we were doing Gunafa Clubbing in Frankfurt.» Rose continues, «The (German) e-mail program we used then, Magicall, ran on Amiga, which I used to perform live with 4 projector screens. … I let ... the e-mail and the animation program run live at the same time. When I got a new message, there was a flash on the screen. That resulted in an extra light effect in the club, a digital strobe light effect, because we got so many messages». All of this happened in a time when the Internet was largely unknown, not just to the general audience, but to many media art festivals as well.» In 1994 Ars Electronica still didn’t have an e-mail address», says Danner, «if my memory serves me well». Even in 1998 it was not uncommon for media art festivals not to reply to e-mails, simply because they could not handle their mailboxes. One can only try to imagine what performances as described above would do to the audience. They must have been mysterious, arousing curiosity, definitely creating a buzz. After the show was over it would probably feel like something special was lost. «It takes hours to build virtual rooms, to bring them to life», says Rose, «and they are gone and will never come back the same way as soon as the (analogue) lights are switched on…. Composing in cyberspace in real-time is extreme.» The Gunafa Clubbing events seem to have been temporary autonomous zones, some of the unstable bits of Public Domain 2.0.

Heath Bunting: Project-X

Simple projects can be beautiful. «Project-X,» a 1996 street work by Heath Bunting, was of such simple beauty. Bunting chalked an Internet address on a sidewalk, a wall, or another object in public space. The address was and it still works. The idea was to see what people would do: would they actually go home or to their office and type the address into a web browser? If they did, what were their expectations? The website reveals a simple questionnaire and the answers of people who made the effort to fill it out. If you fill in the form yourself, that is.
Bunting’s work is very much about surprising the audience by making subtle interventions that are often not immediately recognized as art. «I am quite happy to talk about art and things amongst my friends, but I wouldn’t necessarily say that I am an artist in a certain public context,» says Bunting in an interview, «then you bring a whole group of associations that might actually work against your work.» About his work on the street he says in an interview from 1997, when Bunting was one of the first net.artists to be invited to Documenta: «By going out on the street and doing things in public, private spaces will be reclaimed.»
«Project X» seems to also have been a resistance against the growing popularity, even hype, of in 1996. «[Project X] was designed to gauge the public’s interest in the Internet and therefore would reflect the interest of the viewers,» writes Bunting in an issue of the online magazine Switch. «Project X» combines graffiti and the Internet in a very unpopular way. The chalk scribbles did not look very impressive at all, and they were made in a casual manner. Yet in a time when the World Wide Web was in its early stages of development, the mere presence of a URL on a sidewalk was curious enough. The contrast between the chalk on the street and the techno slick of the web gave the project an interesting edge. The very thought that someone might just have passed the same wall or street as you and left a message also gives the project a strange intimacy; an intimacy one may also know from finding painted graffiti on walls and street furniture. Someone left their mark, but why and for whom? What kind of culture and people do these signs represent?
With this project Bunting made a poetic intervention that works on different levels at once. The absurdity of the so-called accessible public space of media was revealed by leaving a URL at a place where people would have to make an effort to remember or use it, if they had access to the Internet anywhere at all. Those who did manage to use it found themselves faced with an unsolved mystery, which could be nothing but a joke, or some weird failing advertisement campaign or even an art project. However they interpreted it, they did become engaged in an art project, which extended from the still relatively open roads of the real world into the would-be public domain of the World Wide Web.


Mongrel is an artists' collective consisting of Matsuko Yokokoji, Mervin Jarman, Richard Pierre Davis and Graham Harwood. They make installations, produce software, texts and CD-ROMs, and give workshops. In an interview, Graham Harwood explains: «Mongrel is a mixed bunch of people working to celebrate the methods of London street culture. It was set up with the people who helped make «Rehearsal of Memory,» which is a CD-ROM made with patients/prisoners of Ashworth, a top Security Mental Hospital». On its website [EL] Mongrel say about themselves and their workshop participants: «It is our job in the workshop to unravel motivation: ours for wanting to do the workshop and theirs for wanting to participate.»
Everything Mongrel does evolves around audience participation on a deep level. Their work fits both in the category of physical interface and software in this context, but I always have found their dedication to establishing connections with people through physical meetings and education the most intriguing. The Mongrel approach to social, cultural and political systems or structures is deconstructive and experimental. Harwood again: «We are dedicated to defeating the self-image of societies in which it is usual to presume those involved in ‹intellectual pursuits,› and those attending ‹culturally prestigious events› are far above the mundanity of political conflict.»
Mongrel seem to be looking for new views of the world and new languages to describe them. Their radical attitude is present in the tools they design, and consequently their workshops cannot help but be radically different from the average commercial software workshop. For instance «(9) Nine,» a piece of software developed when Graham Harwood was artist in residence at De Waag, Amsterdam, was designed to enable people who know very little about computers and the Internet to tell their own stories in and through these media. In workshops with neighbors, women, young girls, but also older people in the Black neighborhood De Bijlmer in Amsterdam, the very first users of this software were initiated to the world of hyperlinks and uploads.
Not just the software is designed with care; Mongrel also aims consciously at a specific type of audience, the public in the most democratic sense of the word. This implies a certain openness, generosity and political awareness on the part of the artists. In e-mail Harwood writes: «[With] social software it's hard all those tricky and sticky social relations, poverty, poor education—people’s frustrations and expectations. … All the workshops are different—whether ‹swooping› shoes for a day in South Africa or in the outback of Australia or at home with the neighbors or just working with my mum. People’s intelligence manifests differently depending on whom they are with (which mongrel) and in what context they are working.» The workshops are tailor fitted for each person or group of people. Harwood in e-mail again: «Working with people is what we all do in whatever subcategory of media art we work in. It’s just part of the technology and networks. The question is who you work with and why.»

Etoy: «Etoy.Daycare»

The international group Etoy has done numerous performances inside and outside the Internet. When asked where they are from, they will reply they are from the Net. Their main tactic is to apply corporate strategies to gain what they call «cultural profit». The idea is to enhance the cultural sphere, not by monetary funding, but by adding cultural products. It basically seems to boil down to Etoy shareholders not getting money revenues, but their reward is that Etoy can make more art or that more art is produced. Period.
Etoy has always had a rather harsh image; something that may have to do with their strict application of corporate branding, which is dominant in everything they do (bright orange overalls, big Etoy logos everywhere, disappearance of individual Etoy members behind the Etoy image shell, and online Etoy has one of the few art sites that uses a .com domain). By turning their attention to a new generation, Etoy is unexpectedly softening its image now. Etoy has started a project called «Etoy.Daycare,» in which Etoy «trains new Etoy agents.» The project has been performed in Turin, Italy and recently in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. On the «Etoy.Daycare» website [EL] it says «… we inject children with a first shot of experimental lifestyle and try to win them over for a sustainable friendship with art.» In Amsterdam, Etoy managed to train no less then 130 young Etoy agents, ages 6 to 11, which basically means that 130 children were involved in workshops in which they played physical and technical games, from using a fire escape (an inflatable slide) to designing the inside of an Etoy container on a computer. The kids go home with their own pass, some Etoy shares and information on how to visit their very own Etoy web page.
The project documentation is full of pompous corporate language. Don’t let this fool you. Through its installation in the public space of a city and the fact that access to a workshop is free of charge, this project reaches a very broad audience. «Etoy.Daycare» is one of the very few new media projects that actually successfully involves and inspires children. During the workshop in Amsterdam, local kids would hang around the container in which the project was housed, where they would play with the air cushions and try to obtain little bits and bobs (stickers, badges, Etoy shares in the form of little steel marbles) from the Etoy agents in charge. Etoy manages to let young children have a taste of art, of technology, and even of a mild form of subversion. The kids are taught a sort of secret handshake that allows them to recognize other young Etoy agents around the globe. This project is installation, workshop and media cultural access provider at the same time.
Like art in the old public domain (Public Domain 1.0), art of the new public domain, which includes mediated, virtual spaces, still seems to encompass a certain kind of locality. This locality, however, mostly translates into intimacy. It is intimacy of a personal or cultural kind, not necessarily connected to a fixed physical location but more to a meeting place. Artworks for the new public domain reflect its fluidity and instability, even if sometimes involuntarily by simply becoming obsolete or disappearing because of technical changes.

Collaboration and co-authorship: Art spaces online

Art practices online seem to have focused on communication, from the earliest days of the Internet and even its forerunners. This is reflected in the type of projects that, in hindsight, have been the most influential. Mailing lists, bulletin boards, collaborative websites and art servers were and still are the crux of Net art communities. A few of those have been very important in the development and acceptance of art on the Net, but one can argue whether these projects are really art projects themselves. Their role as a platform for the development of new discourses and representation is especially confusing, since art projects are generally primarily perceived as the property of their authors, and secondly it is rare if not unprecedented for art projects to be influential socially, politically and culturally while they are still developing. Online art spaces define the context and approach to art projects in the most direct way, while at the same time providing context and content for discourses on media theory, media activism and technology.
The projects I discuss have all had major influence in the development of the discourses not just around Net art, but also around media activism and media theory. Artists initiated them all, even if the artists themselves, at some point in time, dislike or refrain from defining themselves as artists or their work as art. Choosing a specific point of departure risks a certain inaccuracy. Projects like Robert Adrian X’s «Artex» [EL], an early bulletin board look-alike created on a forerunner of the Internet and even Rena Tangens and Padeluun’s «Bionic» bulletin board (in German only) [EL] or the California-based but international The Well [EL], the cluster of forums that was not initiated by artists at all but which was still influential, are all of historical importance as sources of inspiration or early breeding places of Net culture. The most influential projects in the category of artist meeting places and platforms, however, were started in the early and mid-1990s.

The Thing

The first project of major importance to emerge was The Thing, initiated by the artist Wolfgang Staehle [EL]. The Thing was originally a bulletin board, but other sections were added, like regional branches of The Thing in several European cities creating a network of Thing nodes. But The Thing most visibly changed when a web interface was created for its presentation at the 1994 Ars Electronica.
Staehle worked as a video artist in the 1980s. He says in an interview with Dike Blair about three years after founding The Thing: «I did originally conceive it as an art project; but, the addition of the other nodes certainly changed all that.» Some years later he says: «To me it is irrelevant [whether The Thing is art, JB]; that is for the historians to decide.» So The Thing was conceived as an art project, but the artist felt its definition changed as its functions changed and expanded. In a recent e-mail Staehle puts it like this: «When I started The Thing I conceived of it as kind of a conceptual art project, sort of an ‹art by all, art for all› kind of thing.» He thought it would only last about a month. In the meantime, The Thing has gone through many transformations to become a multi-layered platform consisting of, for example, mailing lists, artist presentation web pages, a review section, and a commercial company to sustain all of it.
Although The Thing has trouble finding funding, unlike its peers that did receive funding, in the last few years it has offered sanctuary to a few controversial and also influential art projects. The art activism of Ricardo Dominguez and RTMark has brought The Thing considerable trouble, even to the point where the police shut down its server. It is unlikely that projects like these would have been possible on other local, US platforms. The Thing is not only a collaborative, conceptual art project; it also provides all the means, from discourse and theory to technology and access, for other projects to evolve. It is one of those spiders in the web. Wolfgang Staehle in an e-mail : «I like to think of it as a laboratory in which people are able to follow their inclinations and interests in a collaborative setting. Online and offline....»
This brings me to another aspect of artist platforms on the Net. Staehle’s mention of the offline part of The Thing, an office and meeting place in New York, reminds us of something that is easily underestimated in the approach of any art in the digital sphere: its roots in an actual physical world of technology and offline cultures. Online networks are intrinsically connected to offline networks, even if they also move beyond them. Many online art platforms also have physical meeting places attached to them, and it depends on the situation at hand which is more important—the online or the offline space. It seems that even the strongest online art environments could not have developed without the physical, social networks they sprouted from. Purely online spaces benefit from these same networks indirectly as the strong discourses and cultures developed from physical networks propagate through them.

Public Netbase and other early European media labs and online platforms

It took a few years before the big wave of important artist platforms would evolve beginning in 1994. As Konrad Becker, artist and initiator of Public Netbase [EL] and [EL], once said in an interview: «Internet years should, like dog years, be multiplied by seven,» which makes the two or three years difference between the development of The Thing and other projects feel like a big gap. In this period a strong physical network was established by media artists and theorists who were active internationally, which was to be the basis for many online projects to come. It also took a while before the great expectations sparked by the Internet could be turned into something solid, because the technological infrastructure was expensive and difficult to access. The development of media labs and digital cities helped overcome these difficulties. Artists were involved in the establishment of various media labs and art servers. Many of these were initially conceived as art projects.
In 1994 the Dutch artist Walter van der Cruijsen helped initiate De Digitale Stad (DDS; the Digital City) in Amsterdam. DDS was, however, not conceived as an art project. DDS managed to get people from all over the Netherlands to go online for the first time, and it was reviewed in the old media extensively. Internationally DDS has been the focus of numerous studies and it seems to have inspired other initiatives and online communities to develop. Starting online meeting places could also have just been ‹in the air› at that time. Whatever exactly inspired whom, later on that same year a few other initiatives started that would be highly influential for the development of Net art: Public Netbase in Vienna, Internationale Stadt in Berlin and, [EL] in London. The latter was only an online project, as was DDS primarily, whereas the others had physical meeting places, too. And except for DDS, all these projects were conceived by artists as art projects.
In an e-mail interview Becker writes: «Indeed I saw this as a continuation of my art work ... in fact even as the logic of a new artistic practice in an information network society, away from artifacts and singular artistic gesture. … Setting up small, temporary platforms and conceptualizing events already in my pre-Internet incarnations as electronic musician, performer and artist projects like [Public] Netbase and WIO [] naturally grew out of it.» Internationale Stadt was initiated by, amongst others, the artists Karlheinz Jeron and Joachim Blank. Through e-mail Jeron tells me that this project was also initially perceived as art: «In the very first beginning of IS (1994) at least the majority of us looked at it as an Artwork. After a little while it turned to something I would call a social-cultural project with a business oriented part.» was most of all the initiative of the artist and activist Heath Bunting. When asked if he ever saw irational as an art project he writes: «Yes—its form and process were as important as its function.»
It may seem irrelevant whether the initiators of these projects thought their work was art initially or not. The fact that they did, however, shows that the boundaries of an artwork are not just blurred; in the course of its development this particular type of artwork dissolves almost completely. In the words of Heath Bunting: «I always thought that a good piece of art should in fact be invisible, ... immediately incorporated and quickly taken for granted. So not self evident, but democratic by constant use.»
These projects were definitely incorporated almost instantly, and their function quickly exceeded that of any other artwork. They not only offered Internet access and web space, but also education and an active attitude towards the development of Net cultures.


One of the people who frequented The Thing discussion forum in the early nineties was Pit Schultz. Schultz is an artist from Berlin who was involved in media art and media activism. He is currently part of bootlab [EL] in Berlin and is involved in the on air and online radio project Reboot.FM [EL].Together with media theorist Geert Lovink he founded the mailing list nettime [EL] in 1995 at a meeting of artists, theorists and media activists at the Venice Biennale. nettime can in some ways be compared to The Well in that its digital community was also very much based on a physical network. There was a strong emphasis on live nettime meetings in its early years, which have now been replaced by new initiatives (festivals, conferences) of veteran and new nettime members. This community is connected through a common interest in media activism and information politics, which might not seem the most likely crowd for artists to dwell among, but the accessibility and development of physical i.e. technical components of media and media access are of course of the greatest importance to media artists as well, whether they are socially or politically engaged or not.
nettime can also be called the theoretical backbone of the media labs from the mid-1990s. For a while it was the platform on which people who worked on similar projects locally could discuss various issues internationally (it still is, but the focus today is much more on activism and much less on art than in the first few years). Online exchanges could extend and enhance offline meetings or projects. nettime offered great possibilities for representation and many now well-known artists published or presented their work there, where it had impact for the first time. The best known ‹nettime artists› are those commonly associated with ‹›, but also artists like Jordan Crandall, Cornelia Solfrank, Ricardo Dominguez, Paul Garrin or Margarete Jahrmann took part in it and used it in various ways. Crandall, for instance, published beautiful, lyrical texts. Jahrmann would post male versions of the then popular ASCII porn images as part of her «SuperFem» [EL] project. Garrin, initiator of the «Namespace» project [EL] which was supposed to break the monopoly on Internet domain name prefixes, hijacked the entire nettime mailing list population after moderation was installed, and called his version of the list nettime-free, enraging some people that felt their privacy had been violated.
One could say that nettime was not just a publishing space for announcements or calls for collaboration for art projects, but that a lot of artists used the list as a place to actually let part of their work take shape. The community behind the list and its expectations were the target and/or audience of anything from fake conference announcements to declarations to interventions. The project nettime turned into a public space ‹that was about to happen› for works ‹that were to be› art in the Public Domain 2.0. This ended in a clash between academic theorists (and others) who wished to simply discuss issues around Net criticism and the experimenting artists. The installation of the moderation team plus the complaints about alleged pranks and other ‹strange› e-mails by artists made almost all net.artists leave nettime at the same time to form their own list [7-11] [EL], after the first nettime meeting in Ljubljana in 1997.
The art or not art status of nettime is an ongoing source of confusion. Even if nettime began at an art festival and many of its initial members, including one of its initiators, were artists, art may be one of the last categories with which the present community wishes to be associated. Recently, however, nettime was asked to be exhibited at the Eyebeam Gallery in New York, and not much later nettime was invited by Ars Electronica to enter a competition for its new digital communities award. Both these invitations led to amusing reactions on the list about the misconceptions outsiders often seem to have about mailing list communities.
Whatever the status of nettime is, it is clear that most participants are suspicious of an art context, if they do not shun it outright, as is implicit in a response by Becker to one of my e-mail interviews: «I have arrived at a mood where I happily confess to my art identity again … (Indeed I found it at many times a mostly useless attribute, very compromised and misleading of any serious intentions…. But with such growing hostile climate against art practice (and the seemingly rotten image it has on lists like nettime…) I am quite ready to put on this hat again. Better than being a creative industry worker ;-) And while we reclaim the streets and the Net, we might as well reclaim the arts too!»
Nettime nevertheless remains a fortress of Net criticism, and it remains a very interesting mailing list and a rich source of information. The power of nettime lies most of all in its very strong physical network and string of meetings of critics, theorists and activists, which has been emphasized by its initiators many times, but something which also made it a valuable basis for other projects. Over the years mailing lists, especially those with online archives and members that meet regularly, turn out to be the most consistent carriers of media cultures and sources of knowledge —not just through their online archives but also through their veteran members. Even so, nettime has not escaped a certain development towards a magazine or a publishing group, rather than a collaborative project of all its members.


Rhizome [EL] is a project that was perhaps slightly inspired by nettime. Its initiator Mark Tribe started the project when he was still living in Berlin in 1996, and probably met Pit Schulz and maybe even Geert Lovink there. Rhizome was even seen as a competitor of nettime for a short while, when it was still in its early, more art oriented days. Most of the projects that I describe in this section are not known for being art projects or for being initiated as art projects. Rhizome, however, is. Rhizome has often been presented as an art project by Tribe, even if he does not call himself the author of Rhizome. «I do think of Rhizome as social sculpture. As such, it could be seen as an art work,» is what Mark Tribe writes in an e-mail. «This does not mean that I see it as one of my art projects. On the contrary, I see it as a collaborative project that involved many thousands of participants over the years…. I did play a leading role in developing Rhizome, and I do talk about Rhizome when I present my work, but I don’t have a possessive or proprietary relationship to it.»
The term «social sculpture» stems from Joseph Beuys and seems quite appropriate for online projects, yet it is also slightly problematic when used for big projects that create a lot of spin-offs. «Artists lacked forums for the exhibition and critical discussion of their work, critics lacked a venue for their writing, and curators lacked a place to discover artists who worked in this new medium,» says Tribe in an interview with Randy Adams of TrAce. «I still consider it very much of a grassroots community with a non-hierarchical structure. We have institutionalized to some extent, but we are still driven by core principles of many-to-many communication and inclusiveness.»
Rhizome is definitely the most successful art platform on the Internet ever. It gets millions of hits a month and has thousands of members. One can wonder, however, whether one can still speak of a community and collaboration when «there are probably 100 lurkers for every participant». The number of members and the hierarchies which do develop unwittingly inside such an organization, despite attempts of democratizing selection processes (like creating super-users to help edit or gather information), made (as Tribe admits) Rhizome turn into something of an art institution, with all the positive and negative consequences that come with it. The selection of art works for the Rhizome database alone has been a topic of heated discussions for quite some time.
Rhizome has proven to be a very powerful model for representation and self-promotion for many of its members, but we are far from a definite judgment on its structure and benefits. I sometimes wonder whether we can ever overcome some of the flaws inside the social and economic processes that are caused by the instability and the inevitable management structures within collaborative art projects. We are still at the beginning of forming a constructive criticism for them; something which projects the size of Rhizome and nettime certainly might help accelerate.

New diversity: Sarai, Furtherfield, Netartreview, Empyre

The lists and platforms described in this section so far were all initiated before 1997. Since then most mailing lists and other representation or discussion platforms online have shied away from defining themselves as social sculpture or other interdisciplinary art forms. The ever growing number of people online in combination with a growing number of platforms, websites and mailing lists has also scattered discourses and created a diffusion of new media art scenes. Representation and central debates are becoming increasingly difficult to create, to the degree that there is very little difference between online and offline tactics for both. This has resulted in an increasing physicality of online practices: they are so much more connected to physical networks and institutions that online cultures tend to be overtaken by offline practices, networks or structures.
An obvious example of this is the institutionalization of the entire new media art field, including what was once known as Net art, an area that was supposedly out of reach of any art world. The institutionalization of online platforms as described above is another issue altogether, even if it is also connected to an institutionalization of its offline supporting initiatives. This shows itself most of all in feelings of exclusion in former target members or in the wish to simply have a space of one's own, with a more intimate and focused climate for debates and research. In recent years, initiatives such as the online and offline media lab Sarai, the websites and mailings of Furtherfield, Netartreview and the mailing list Empyre have added new riches to the development of online cultures. They have yet to prove their influence in the long run, but they are already major players with their own audiences and networks (even if there is, of course, some overlap with other, older initiatives online). Of all of these only Furtherfield sees itself as a kind of social sculpture or work of art as well, but one can ask oneself whether Empyre and Netartreview are not very close to being art projects too. Furtherfield and Netartreview were both developed as a kind of alternative to Rhizome. Empyre was originally even a part of an art project by Melinda Rackham called «Empyrean» but seems to have developed away from that.
Sarai New Media Initiative [EL] in was very much modeled after European media labs such as and Public Netbase. Its emphasis on criticism and political discussion make it seem more of a community project for access and knowledge distribution than an art project, but it definitely also has a focus on art and some of its initiators are artists. The Raqs Media Collective, which was invited to Documenta 11, co-founded Sarai and together with them Sarai has developed an open source software project called OPUS [EL]. Sarai exists both on and offline and has its physical basis in Delhi, India. It focuses on many more different levels of communication, research and development than the other examples presented in this section. In the context of art in the Public Domain 2.0, Sarai is most interesting because of its ambitious and inspiring focus on media criticism and creative commons in Asia.
Netartreview (NAR) EL] was initiated by Eduardo Navas, again an artist. He writes in e-mail: «NAR is a resource for anyone to express a critical voice and for others to learn about art. … We have a format that is loose enough to let collaborators write in any given style, while being specific about the subjects that are covered. …The focus of Net Art Review demands that the writers take their contributions much more seriously than posting to a list.»
Writer Marc Garret is one of two Furtherfield [EL] initiators. Garret was also involved in and About Furtherfield as an alternative to Rhizome he writes in e-mail: «One thing I would like to mention is that the Internet would be an emptier place without Rhizome, and I just hope that the people who run Rhizome feel the same way about us. Bring on the other soft groups to offer their own alternatives—there is more than just one or two ways, we have found ours, we mutate accordingly.» When asked what it is Furtherfield offers that is specific, he writes: «Flexibility, respect and a move beyond institutionally biased history making». Both Furtherfield and Netartreview provide some of the art criticism that was so lacking in online discourses before. They are not just alternatives to Rhizome, but also very much an addition to it. Netartreview offers many fast, short reviews, whereas Furtherfield seems a little bit more slow and in-depth. Both offer what Rhizome and other online publication platforms also offer: a chance for the public to present its own views and enter or alter various art discourses.
Empyre [EL] is a very active and interesting mailing list for all kinds of art practitioners. It works along themes with invited guests, and the exchanges on the list are usually of high quality. «‹-empyre-› started as the textual aspect of a multi-user 3D environment ‹Empyrean›,» explains Melinda Rackham in an e-mail. «It was intended as an intimate list, as a way of discussing aspects of online culture, 3d culture, media arts culture, with invited guests who had written texts, done mostly online art projects or produced or curated shows which weren't necessarily mainstream, or high profile, but of importance.» The diversity of topics and the excellent choice of invited writers make Empyre the most interesting list for (at the very least) getting an impression of the state of things in new media art practices in all its varieties at the moment.

Software: Layering media, portable media spaces and media as metaphor

It can be argued that the electronic media space transcends its purely technical structures through its influence on (non-technological) cultures. Software is code that can make a machine do something, but in essence it is a language with meaning that is more influential then the language we use to communicate with each other. It is a language that can make something happen, but only during the time it is actually used. This does not mean that this language is dead when it is not in use; it is just dormant. It seems that this language is also not dependent on a particular environment, such as a specific type of computer or operating system. Software can be almost independent of the hardware it runs on, and it also seems to transcend the cultures it springs from through its immaterial nature. In short, software seems to be somewhat a space of its own. Another dimension, if you will.
Through the development of artist software the new public domain has been adorned with an art practice that is only partly visible and physical, but which has the power to execute, act, and let us act. Artist software is a very exciting terrain theoretically, since it spans such a wide array of possible actions and purposes that it offers great creative challenges, which lie within modern and pre-modern traditions at the same time. It makes us experience the modern creative genius of the artist or artists while we have at the same time entered their workshops. Through artist software we enter the artist’s practice almost literally, yet at the same time this software is part of our intimate, private sphere and a larger techno-cultural context. All software shares these traits, but artist software takes us into the unusual, the experimental, and the relatively open space of art.
The reason I categorize software art as the third specific art practice of the public domain 2.0 is that most of this software is available for free, and often it is even open source. In addition, the development of software art (and other experimental software) has exploded because of the availability of examples, patches, sources of knowledge and possibilities for exchange on the Internet. Rashib Aijer Gosh explained at a symposium on open source at V2 in Rotterdam: «Software development is a social process, based on fun, pride, and a community spirit». Without the Internet this type of art would have been extremely marginal, and hence I would argue that most software art is part of the public domain 2.0, even if it is used on a stand alone machine.»

Software art context

The digital realm had already triggered the imagination of artists in the 1960s and 1970s, especially in the realm of conceptual art. Some interactive works on computers were presented in an art context for the first time at the exhibition «Software» in 1970, curated by Jack Burnham and presenting works of, for instance, Les Levine, Hans Haacke and Joseph Kosuth. Burnham explained «Software» as «an attempt to produce aesthetic sensations without the intervening ‹object›». To understand what software art means today, however, we will look at two specific projects, «WebStalker» and «».


In 1997 the British group I/O/D (Matthew Fuller, Simon Pope, Colin Green) designed a very unusual web browser called «WebStalker.» «WebStalker» is an alternative web browser that does not display web pages as commonly expected. It visualizes the underlying HTML code in a highly aesthetic manner, in which delicate lines erupt from central points on a map to form stars or connected nodes in a web. Its appearance is almost dreamlike compared to commercial browsers such as Netscape and Explorer. «WebStalker» reveals the way a browser works, rather than actually working as a browser is supposed to (that is, visualize images and text from code). «It's designed to be predatory and boredom-intolerant,» says Matthew Fuller in an interview with Geert Lovink. «At the same time though, we hope that as a piece of speculative software it just encourages people to treat the Net as a space for re-invention…. The ‹WebStalker› establishes that there are other potential cultures of use for the web.»
Such as other cultures of use than those designed for us by industry, cultures that give us the opportunity to create, exchange and interact freely with the machine, with other people and with other cultures online. In other words, cultures that would like to see the Internet be more of a public space. Fuller has continued his experiments with software cultures in other collaborations. He has, among other things, worked as a writer and theorist for Mongrel, and his work has been very influential in the development and recognition of software art. He is also involved as a critic and juror in «ReadMe» and «RunMe.»

While I/O/D was relatively alone in its experimental software practice in 1997, one cannot say that anymore today. The ReadMe software art festival and its online database of downloadable software RunMe (initiated in 2002) are both initiatives of the artist Alexei Shulgin and researcher/writer Olga Goriunova, who have taken software art to a new level. The RunMe web site states why software art can be seen as art in the public domain: «Software art on the one hand brings software culture into the art field, but on the other hand it extends art beyond institutions» Moreover the ReadMe and RunMe projects also function as intermediaries between the fields of art and open source software production. In the introduction to the ReadMe reader Shulgin and Goriunova write: «Art festivals … are often compromised by a lack of transparency in submission and evaluation processes…. Open source communities are much more democratic, but have their own drawbacks: they focus on functionality and pragmatic usefulness, thus sometimes leaving out interesting projects seen as unnecessary in these contexts.» A funny extra to this project is that it seems as if the organizers and the jury (much in the tradition of the early work of Alexei Shulgin as a net.artist ), could not help themselves from subverting software art as a clear-cut discipline. By installing the possibility of a sheer endless number of software art categories, which users can choose from or add to, and by giving people the opportunity to submit ‹found› pieces of software to the database, the definition of software art is stretched to the extreme, giving RunMe the feel of being an art project in itself. Shulgin and Goriunova explain it like this: «Art naturally resists classification, but is nevertheless always classified and labeled when presented at, for example, exhibitions and festivals. By using the familiar interface of an online software database, could play with the idea of storing, classifying, labeling, collecting, while at the same time taking advantage of the democratic possibilities of open databases.» It seems that with RunMe almost all the practices of art institutions have been made accessible to the public, be it the selecting, criticizing or archiving of works.
ReadMe and RunMe do not just reveal and offer software art as a new art form in the public domain; they also change the art context to fit with the nature of these works. In some ways these two projects have turned into institutions of sorts themselves, institutions of the most flexible kind for the Public Domain 2.0.

Virus as intervention: Forkbomb

Italian ‹rastacoder›, programmer and artist Jaromil started doing specific art projects in 2002. Before that he was mainly known as a programmer and curator. He was, for instance, co-curator of the exhibition of computer viruses ‹I Love You› in Frankfurt in 2002 and has covered almost the entire spectrum of writing, from novels to software. The most simple looking text or piece of code he ever wrote was a computer virus for the UNIX system, a so called forkbomb, which is a piece of code that keeps replicating itself until it overloads and crashes the machine it is running on. Florian Cramer, software art critic and part of the jury of Transmediale in Berlin and the ReadMe software art initiative, called it «the most elegant forkbomb ever written.» What I find most interesting about this work is not that it can crash a computer or that its appearance (which looks like some ASCII smilies crushed into each other :(){ :|:& };: ) is of such elegant simplicity. This work is interesting because of its context and the intentions of its author. Jaromil himself writes: «I am depicting viruses as poésie maudite, giambi against those selling the Net as a safe area for a bourgeois society. … The digital domain produces a form of chaos—sometimes uncomfortable because unusual, although fertile—to surf thru: in that chaos viruses are spontaneous compositions, lyrical in causing imperfections in machines made to serve and in representing the rebellion of our digital serfs».
Jaromil’s «Forkbomb» is a form of public rebellion (he makes no secret of his identity or of his intentions), which serves as reminder of a free space in digital media that has become almost invisible to the general audience. It is in this sense also an invitation, like many other projects, especially some new media performances, to start fooling around oneself.

Conceptual software: «.walk»

Imagine walking through a city as a means to run code. The project «.walk» [EL] by Wilfried Houjebek [EL] turns people into flesh-and-blood software executors. In «.walk» computer code prescribes the movements of participants through a city, and the complexity of the movements depends on both the basic code and whether or not participants meet other participants along the way. Since the code is not written for a specific physical space it may have to be altered along the way for the participants to be able to keep moving (when participants walk into a dead end street for instance). All movements are gathered centrally by the artist as the outcome of a specific run of «.walk.»
«.walk» is based on a Situationist art practice from the 1950s called psychogeography [EL]. Houjebek, a long time advocate of open source and anti-copyright in the arts and beyond, takes his urge to open up code very seriously. By making people walk through a city by taking computer code as a guideline, the artist uses the body as a means to perform software. Florian Cramer calls it «walkware» in his review of «.walk» on the RunMe site. «.walk» actually won an award in the Transmediale software art competition. The e-mail which announced its nomination said this: «‹.walk› by is a futuristic project for public spaces, combining the mundane with the exceptional». Houjebek himself says in e-mail: «I regard it as Do-It-Yourself urbanism, a project like «.walk» is meant to add a new layer of functionality to cities. As such it is architecture and as such it is engineering». It might seem as if this project really belongs in this text’s section on performance, but «.walk» is really all about notation, about a deeply conceptual take on art.
This work seems to build a bridge between the approach of early conceptual art exhibitions with titles such as «Information» (1970) or «Software» (1970) and the work of artist programmers today. Besides his efforts to construct walks from computer code, to «program a pedestrian computer», Houjebek also is developing code, a mark up language, which takes the pedestrian’s experiences as a basis. This code is called PML: Pedestrian Markup Language [EL]. He is also developing something called OOP, Object Oriented Psychogeography, which he calls «software for landscapes» that «will crash your sneakers».
«.walk» is a form of artist software that is art in the public domain in two ways: firstly as a notation, a code which could be run on a computer and is a space of activity and interaction on that level; and secondly as a physical interpretation of an information space. I would even say it is a programming course for the digitally illiterate (and the following is not in any way meant negatively), as its playful approach of code reminds one slightly of a recitation of the alphabet in Sesame Street. There is, as with a lot of new media art, also no possibility to judge the project from the outside alone, like a traditional art audience would. «There is no audience in the common sense, either you are a participant or you are not,» writes Wilfried Houjebek. «Watching other people «.walk» must be as boring as watching a sleeping ant.»
Software art is the semi-claustrophobic technical equivalent of the intimacy of new media cultures. It is part new media cultures, part individual art practice, and part user interaction or execution. It renders a partly public and partly private art experience. The software art space makes users or audience look beyond standard interfaces or procedures and can also be inviting enough to get people to put their hands on some code themselves. Software art, both as a whole or as an individual piece, offers new perspectives on art in the public domain. Art in the Public Domain 2.0, like the public domain itself, can be tangible and intangible, portable in the physical and in the metaphorical sense of the word. It does not necessarily have a real fixed place or form, and most importantly it has extended into the home or private sphere.

Public Domain 2.0 Redux

Art in information networks is almost by default part of the public domain 2.0 (unless its accessibility is somehow obstructed and the work is no longer available through a simple mouse click or the following of a link), whether it is meant to be or not. It seems, however, that the Public Domain 2.0 has brought about a few specific art practices. The first one to really evolve was the connected performance. Performance and other physical interaction with audiences create mostly temporary extensions of media spaces that allow for all kinds of engagement, often depending on the intentions of the artist (revealing or cloaking technological systems, inviting an audience to engage or to be only ‹immersed›). Another is the artist platform, a space of social interaction online, that offers representation and exchanges of ideas and work, but which also allows for influential media art discourses to develop. The third, software art, was a bit slower to develop, probably because it took more time to master the technical and cultural skills involved with making software than it took to engage with audiences and peers in and outside the network.
Yet the roles of the critic and curator have also changed significantly, even if this is only slowly embraced in institutional practices. Critics and curators have become part of the audience again, and vice versa. The art contexts and the audience have imploded to local and even personal levels of engagement. This means we have to look for new professional relationships with the arts. With this text I hope to have given at least part of a theoretical basis for coming to terms with art in new media and the Public Domain 2.0. It seems to me that we need to have practical handles for art criticism most of all, to help place and judge contemporary art practices. After the acceptance of abstraction, reproduction and the purely conceptual in the arts it is time to accept a new aesthetics again: that which represents the relationships and exchanges between artist and audience in the profound and yet distant intimacy of the technological environments. Because of the slightly industrially tainted status of the word ‹interaction,› which is most commonly used in these environments, it might be good to use a word that reminds more of personal or social dedication. The new arts are about engagement. This engagement asks for a more conscious approach of the mediated environment artists, audience, but also critics and art institutions now work in. Since the new public domain extends itself not only into the home, but also into art institutions (through its media or network presence, such as web sites, online forums, e-mail services, within the larger scope of media networks), art institutions and critics have become part of more intimate and more open, publicly accessible discourses which are often shaped and supported by artists. Art in the Public Domain 2.0 is therefore first and foremost a site of media awareness and power struggles.

1. This definition should include both physical and virtual public spaces. Cf. Eric Kluitenberg's «Frequently Asked Questions about the Public Domain,».
2. Published online: «Designing the Digital Commons.»
3. Inke Arns, Netzkulturen, Hamburg, 2002, p. 47.
4. Cf. the text on «Reality/Mediality» at MediaArtNet on performance and media by Rudolf Frieling as part of the topic «Survey of media art» at
5. More about The Well in Wired
6. Interview online, originally published at Rhizome.
7. Station Rose, private://public, conversations in cyberspace, Vienna, 2000: «There was the command ‹u›. If you entered ‹u›, you could see who was on line.» (Elisa Rose).
8. Ibid., p. 138.
9. Ibid., p. 144
10. Heath Bunting, «Maze of Mirrors. Selected topics for Heath Bunting,» in Switch, 1 Feb. 2002.
11. See interview with Josephine Bosma in Telepolis, 17 Aug. 1997.
12. Heath Bunting, op. cit.
13. Graham Harwood, «Race, Hypocrisy and Dullness,» interview by Maharg Dla'nor Doowrah, Aug.6, 1998.
14. Ibid.
15. By Net art I mean art in and around media networks, both online and off line. I use the term Net art only sparingly because it has proved to be very confusing in the recent past. The term is often used to indicate art only occurring on the Internet, or even only on the World Wide Web. This is wrong in my opinion.
16. «HIS THINGNESS,» Interview with Wolfgang Staehle by Dike Blair (undated), in The Thing.
17. Tilman Baumgärtel, [], Nuremberg, 1999, p. 63.
18. See Josephine Bosma, «One of The Oldest Art Servers On The Edge of Survival,» in Telepolis, 19 Apr. 2001.
19. «Der Sklavenmarkt wird in die eigene Wohnung getragen,» Interview with Konrad Becker by Klaus Ambichl and Manuela Kaltenreiner, undated.
20. Tilman Baumgärtel, [], Nuremberg, 1999, p. 64.
21. «Cybercafe» was the forerunner of, and (from e-mail: ) «cybercafe bbs consisted of a loose administrative grouping of Heath Bunting, Marc Garret and Rachel Baker with occasional technical support from Ivan Pope». «The first important asset to be obtained by cybercafe was a used bbs system donated by Ivan Pope formally used to host Art Net BBS. The second major asset obtained was the domain name, again sourced through Ivan Pope and later sold back to him when he was a directory of netnames for 1000.00 GBP. This money funded the production of further projects such as graffiti street internet interface.» For further information on the state of see
22. Heath Bunting, op. cit.
23. Call for first nettime meeting
and one of the first nettime texts (by Nils Roeller ), interestingly dealing with art and technology. In 1995 Ljudmila, Ljubljana Digital Media Lab in Slovenia would be added to this group of influential artist initiatives. Ljudmila was, however, not conceived as an art project. An important reason for this was the impossibility of receiving funding for art projects, or rather the availability of the funds from the patron of many former Eastern European media labs, George Soros. He would only donate money for community media projects.
24. Jordan Crandall, «fucking screens», nettime, 25 Feb 1996.
25. Jahrmann also writes in an undated text about the function of nettime: «This Nettime server, understood as a temporary social group or community, generally functions as a value determinator and instance of standardization for what is termed Net art and consequently selected by institutional art servers such as the Whitney Museum, the DIA art foundation or Thundergulch and Walker Art Center.» See the section on «Community Gate» on the web site «STARGATE TO NETCULTURE.»
26. See for instance the text «The Importance of Meetspace» by Geert Lovink, Jan. 2000.
27. Interview by Randy Adams with Mark Tribe of Rhizome, undated.
28. Ibid.
29. changed dramatically after a kind of hostile commercial takeover, and its initiators Walter van der Cruijsen and Reinout Heeck continued some of its work online only at
30. See also the text «Read_me, run_me, execute_me» by Inke Arns in «Generative Tools» at
31. In a lecture for «Freestyle—FLOSS In Design. A seminar on Free, Libre and Open Source Software in Design,» V2, Rotterdam, 2004.
32. «I/O/D. Interview with the makers of the WebStalker browser, Simon Pope, Colin Green and Matthew Fuller, by Geert Lovink, nettime, 24 Apr. 1998. On speculative software see Matthew Fuller: «In a sense, speculative software is software that uses art methodologies, such as reflexivity, but without necessarily being specific to art systems.» Matthew Fuller on his Home Page, 2004.
33. Olga Goriunova/Alexei Shulgin, «ReadMe reader, introduction.»
34. Think of, for instance, his WWWArt Medal project, which takes readymade personal websites and declares them to be artworks.
35. Olga Goriunova/Alexei Shulgin, «ReadMe reader, introduction.» [EL.]
36. Florian Cramer on forkbomb for the exhibition «p0es1s. Digitale Poesie», Feb. 13–April 4, 2004, Kunstbibliothek Kulturforum, Berlin. [EL]
37. Jaromil, forkbomb website [EL].
38. See the text by Jaromil, «:(){ :|:& };:» for the digitalcraft website. [EL]. For an in-depth analysis of this work see the text «What is Computer Art?» by Matthias Weiß in «Generative Tools» (also for further references on «.walk») at .
39. Cf. Tilman Baumgärtel, «Experimentelle Software II», about software by artists and early conceptual art (German only) in Telepolis, 17 Nov. 2001[EL].

(All e-mail exchanges quoted from in this text occurred between April and July 2004.)