DUBAI - Acquisitions of net art by the Tate Modern, the Guggenheim, and other institutions have given institutional validation to the genre, but complicated curatorial debates rage over what exactly it includes: Can it be shown on a computer in a gallery? Can it only be viewed online? Can art not based on code count as net art?
At (It’s Not) Net Art 2: Emancipate the Medium!, one panel at Art Dubai’s Global Art Forum, heated debates began over nearly every aspect of the medium, from its formal qualities to its politicization and the notion that it is inherently radical. This argumentativeness is perhaps unsurprising given that the medium lacks a strict definition.
“We say that net art is art that uses the internet as its medium, but the internet is not really a medium,” claims speaker Josephine Bosma, by way of opening the discussion. (Panelists and audience members would later challenge her on this point). Ms. Bosma understands net art to be the product of artists working within a certain space that is at once technical and creative. She recalls Robert Adrian X’s wonderment, articulated at the first online conference in 1979 at San Francisco MoMA, at “the space behind the computer” that allows one to “enter a new world.” To her, it serves as an “an ideal space for art to evolve in because art is also conceptual.”
“Why has it attracted so much counter-culture?” asks an audience member who professes an interest in the politics of net art. Another audience member replies that there is nothing inherently radical about the genre, but suggests it is often used subversively, or to inspire political activism.
The internet’s widespread accessibility facilitates this today, according to writer and editor Victoria Camblin. Yet, Ms. Bosma, who must be approximately two decades older than Ms. Camblin, refutes her claim that the younger generations are so at ease with the internet that it becomes a natural extension of themselves. “They are only at ease with the simplest of interfaces,” she insists, adding that most people’s daily internet activity only touches the tip of the iceberg.
Triple Canopy co-editor Alexander Provan steered the conversation back the art, dwelling on the discrepancy between art on the net and internet-inspired art shown in a gallery: “A lot of people don’t make use of the specificity of the medium, which is diluting the performance potential.”
Artist Constant Dullaart put it more bluntly: “Don’t use the internet as a fucking condiment.” He was not so much addressing anyone in the tent as venting about some artists’ tendency to embellish their work with a redundant internet component simply because they think it makes their art cooler.
Mr. Dullaart edits online forms of representation, and user’s access to it, to create on-and-offline installations and performances. As he warns about the colonization of the internet—corporations and states “divvying up the web and making decisions that influence us”—we watch the Google home page on his computer rotate 360 degrees. “I manipulate Google to show how they manipulate information they display,” he explains.
Ms. Camblin accepts Dullaart’s assertion that politics and economic incentives have undermined internet freedom. However, she refutes the implication that this is necessarily problematic, so long as everyone recognizes the mechanisms of control. “People are aware of [corporate and government control],” she exclaims, adding, “We make these structures apparent; it is conspicuously clear.”
Another audience member interjects (customary forum protocol having been abandoned during the first five minutes of discussion) to raise questions about how to preserve net art and what happens once it is taken offline. In response, Mr. Dullaart equates net art to performance art, referring to his own Facebook performances: “You can’t download Facebook in its entirety [in order preserve the performance he conducts by manipulating the code], just like you can’t freeze Marina Abramovic in the middle of a performance and unfreeze her in 50 years so she can reenact it”.
According to Ms. Camblin, once a net artwork is taken offline it becomes something else. What that something else is, however, eludes her: A book? A sculpture? She isn’t exactly sure. To account for this ambiguity, an audience member calls on museums and publishing platforms to open up their respective fields and embrace the genre, even as they struggle to understand it. “After all,” says Mr. Provan, “we have to assume that all new media will eventually become old media.