Josephine Bosma. (f.1962)
Josephine Bosma journalist og forfatter med hovedvekt på kunst, nye medier og medieteori. Hun organiserte radioavdelingen ved festivalene Next5Minutes2 og Next5Minutes3. Siden 1993 har hun vært en uavhengig forsker på feltet nettkultur. Siden 1996 har hun regelmessig publisert tekster og intervjuer i foraene nettime, Telepolis og Mute. I 1995 organiserte hun radioavdelingen ved next5minutes mediefestival, i 1997 organiserte hun net.radioworkshop ved v2_Organisatie, Rotterdam. For tiden bor og arbeider hun i Amsterdam.
Teksten "The dot on a Velvet Pillow" er skrevet spesielt for utstillingen "Skrevet i stein. En net.art arkeologi".
The Dot on a Velvet Pillow - Net.art Nostalgia and net art today
It is now about 8 years ago that an international group of artists who all explored the possibilities of the internet and the world wide web met through an online forum, a mailing list to be precise, called nettime. Some of them had just discovered the internet, others had been working on or with it for a longer time already. They became friends, started to present, discuss and link to each otherâ´s work and most of all had fun. Some of them became the faces of a new way to make and approach art by using computer networks. The most (in)famous five, Jodi, Heath Bunting, Vuk Cosic, Olia Lialina and Alexei Shulgin, are now being presented in the ironic yet friendly exhibition at the Oslo Museum of Contemporary Art you are maybe visiting today. This exhibition is an homage to what the curator, Per Platou, calls the "Heroic Period of Net.art". In some ways one might even call it a shrine.
So what happened 8 years ago? In 1995 different initiatives springing from
media activist and media art backgrounds came together and converged into one
very energetic movement through communal efforts such as the aforementioned
mailing list nettime. This list in some ways was a backbone between several
open access media labs in various countries (Public Netbase in Austria, Desk
in the Netherlands, Ljudmila in Slovenia), while at the same time of course
being open to individuals outside those labs. The media labs however became
a kind of concentrated knots of exchange, in which artists, activists and others
learned not only about the technology of the computer and the internet, but
also about the new social and cultural networks that developed both locally
and internationally. The labs were a place of inspiration and creation at the
same time. There artists who previously worked alone, in their studioâ´s,
and who had explored the internet and other computer networks (bulletin boards)
without really taking part in a larger online environment, could easily get
in touch with the latest news and developments in media art, media theory and
media activism, be it through people they met in the flesh or through their
own explorations online in the lab. Not just local artists met and exchanged
knowledge this way. The development of these media labs seems to have been an
important trigger for people to start traveling more as well physically, moving
between labs or just from home base to a particular lab, to meet new people
and learn, again, about other local media cultures. This combination of meetings
in the flesh and meetings online turned out to be very powerful, because it
connected practices that were separated before in a short period of time, the
process being accelerated by the new communications through the internet. These
meetings kind of culminated in the tactical media festival Next5Minutes (N5M),
where artists, activists and theorists from all over the world came together
to talk about the changing media environment and the possibilities this changing
environment might create. The meetings (both at conferences such as N5M and
at media labs) would for instance connect free media cultures from the Netherlands
with radical media theories from, say, the German speaking countries and individual
art practices everywhere. This is the background out of which net.art was born.
"Little by little I became part of the international net art community", Alexei Shulgin says in 1997 (1), " I attended a few conferences. The most important one was "Next5Minutes" in Amsterdam in 1996, where I met some people whom I knew before through the net, like heath bunting and Jodi and Vuk Cosic."
Next5Minutes 2 was realized by a collaboration of various institutions in the Netherlands in January 1996. N5M initiator David Garcia likes to call the N5M meetings "tribal gatherings", which hints at the moving effects the event had, and maybe still has, on the socio cultural landscape of the various media scenes involved. The meeting of many, often very different minds and the variety of the program of N5M not necessarily create big solutions for large political or cultural issues, but they certainly do create a lot of spin off in terms of small scale initiatives and collaborations across borders. At N5M2 the most prominent topic seems to have been the rise of the internet and all kinds of related issues, such as the development of tactical media; the radical cyberfeminism of especially Russian feminists; and last but not least the â€˜Temporary Autonomous Zonesâ´ as envisioned by Hakim Bey (2). N5M in general seems to be a social meeting over anything else, a sort of chaotic ecstasy of small projects, workshops, performances and panels. The emphasis on independence and â€˜hands onâ´ media projects, in which everybody has the opportunity to shape media content the way she or he wants to, connects very well to the experience and wishes of media artists, especially those who work with the internet. One could say the interests of media artists and media activists overlap in some ways, and this is where they came together at Next5Minutes (3). This relationship with the grassroots politics of N5M and nettime explains a lot of what later became known as the critical or political dimensions of net.art.
The Dot and That Thing Called art
Net.art (4) did not come out of the blue, and it did not develop something entirely different or separated from what other, outer net.artists (so by artists not indicated by this term), were doing. It was simply a culmination of artistic exchanges that were highly visible, through the specific culture of large mailing lists and also through a deliberate play with representation by some of the individual net.artists themselves (together with a few conspiring writers). As Olia Lialina writes on nettime in March 1997: "[There] is no such group looking for [a] name and group identification" (5). Dirk Paesmans of Jodi never liked the term at all: "..to cram it in a category, net.art is uninteresting, it's incestuous and limits future developments". (6) Most of the artists always disliked to be categorized under the term net.art greatly. What then exactly caused net.art to go into history as this very appealing, historical (alleged) art group?
One reason is that the name was simply too attractive to resist. It was the people who wrote about net.art, who discussed net.art, the writers, journalists and critics, who made net.art a name to remember. It is therefore only appropriate that I let out a big sigh and say: "mea culpa" too. Net.art was however first described in a text by Andreas Broeckmann, nowadays director of the Transmediale festival in Berlin, who had been present at the very first meeting to discuss net.art in Trieste in 1996. No matter how much the artists hated the term and no matter how much they refused to use it, others would still do so. The reason for this probably was that at the time when the term net.art appeared there was no common terminology for art created with or within the internet yet, even though art projects on the internet already existed long before. Art created with the internet would simply be called media art, or electronic art, terms which donâ´t cover specific network issues as well as net.art does, with or without the dot.
Net.art is a word with a strange spelling error: a dot in between net and art. It seems insignificant, this little dot, but using dots in between words or just in front of a word (like .com one can find for instance .walk or .radio) is one of the ways in which â€˜cyber slangâ´ is expressed. Cyber slang is a kind of popular speech, it is part of the new modes of writing that developed amongst a large group of people working and playing with computers and the internet. Anything with a dot in front of it represents something that happens on a computer or something that is at least deeply related to computers. The use of the dot made net.art an almost instant success because of this.
Like the dot changes any word it is preceding, it also changed the meaning of the word art. Art: that word representing an art world everybody seems to have a love-hate relationship with these days. In online circles (that means: on the internet), but definitely also outside of them, art has become a most uncomfortable word to use. Nobody seems to know what it exactly means anymore. The borders of art have been stretched to their limits and still it seems impossible to cross them. The new media technologies have only added more confusion. What better way to express the changes of approach to art through new media then using a term that reflected this change in itself?
The name net-dot-art not just reflected a new approach to art (in art practice as well as in art perception), but it also introduced the ironic attitude of some net.artists into the name itself. In 1997 Alexei Shulgin says in a group discussion: "For me that dot also is very important because it signifies that its not that serious. A movement or a group can't have a name like some computer file." (6) It was Vuk Cosic who introduced the term in 1996, when he presented a small meeting he had organized called net.art.per.se (7), the meeting which inspired Andreas Broeckmann (and later also me) to use the dot between net and art. Andreas Broeckman actually called net.art "almost a movement" in his text "net.art, machines and parasites" (8). Vuk Cosic has a nose and talent for the literary. He had already produced a small magazine about cyber culture in 1995, called â€˜Very Cyber Indeedâ´. The mixed feelings about net-dot-art amongst many people however made Alexei Shulgin invent a story about the real origin of net.art, in an attempt to take the seriousness out of the whole debate about net.art (9). He claimed it was a ready made, created by the incompatibility of certain email software (10).
Net.art in Hindsight
It is quite funny how the definition of net.art, or any proclaimed art era for that matter, seems to shift and change over time. The term net.art somehow got stuck to a few people during a specific period of time, but today there is still quite a big number of people using â€˜net.artâ´ for network art as a whole, and even today there are people who like to connect to that old net.art feeling, a net.art nostalgia: some artists feel they are part of the same tradition. Only recently for instance, in February 2003, an artist called Garrett Lynch held a plea for net.art on "Crumb", a mailing list for curating new media. I thought it might be time to ask for definitions from the net.artists represented in the Oslo exhibition, just to see how they would really define net.art now. "The expression net.art signifies a time and the group that was more or less continuously in touch at the time", writes Vuk Cosic. Olia Lialina writes: "In the 90â´s I refused to use â€˜.â´ In order not to bring an important phenomenon down to [the] works of [a few] artists. Now net.art for me means early art on the web, pioneers, a heroic period, interest of the art world, true interest of the public. [â€¦] not a thousand hits a day because you are listed in a net art category somewhere, but feedback of people who found your web site by chance." Alexei Shulgin simply points at his rules for net.art, which were carved into stone by the German artists KarlHeinz Jeron and Joachim Blank. I think this is in fact an unwillingness to reply to the eternal question about the definition of net.art: it has simply dragged on for too long for some. Like for Jodi. To Jodi net.art means "nothing", while Heath Bunting describes net.art more elaborately as "a perceivable boundary in the major shift of globalization that occurred around the late 90s." He then adds: "Coming from a skateboarding tradition I recognized this sharp corner and tried to surf it as a smooth wave".
Net.art is often associated with a certain kind of political ideology, a quest for freedom and change. Even if a feeling of being able to create change was very dominant in the atmosphere at the time (and also prominent in many net art projects), I do think that a lot of critics have put too much emphasis on the ideological side of net.art. They certainly have placed too much weight on the artistsâ´ responsibilities and alleged â€˜failureâ´ to actually realize a major revolution in art over the past few years. I have always thought this was extremely unjust, even if some critics have put the final â€˜blameâ´ for this alleged failure on the internet hype or even the internet itself. The failure seems to lie with the critics, who have not been able to escape a certain hype and ideological enthusiasm themselves often, rather then the artists. I could go on and on about this, but I will try not to bore you. I have of course asked the artists whether they themselves also think net.art was misunderstood. With the controversies fresh in mind Jodi yells in reply: "Stop that nonsense!" "There are tons of mystifications, starting with the origins of the name", writes Vuk Cosic, "Most of them were a joke or a strategic hoax. Now they are all perceived as cemented truth". Not many people understood what net.art was about, says also Alexei Shulgin. In his opinion there was only some understanding amongst "those that were involved or around". Only they "could appreciate all the fun of it, as it was very much process and communication based". Heath Bunting has a more exclusive opinion: "Most people involved did not understand it, so it was hard to explain to others". Whatever caused it, the misunderstandings are often leading to a dangerous or at least unpleasant outcome. "Net.art is taught in universities around the worldâ´, writes Vuk Cosic, "and many young people fall in the trap of net.art mannerism". For what this net.art mannerism really entails we can pretty much rely on Olia Lialinaâ´s interpretation of net art today: "Net art became popular when it became a part of the American art market, which means a very superficial approach [developed]. It became known as flash animations and other drag and drop entertainment. It is a pity, but it is probably a completely normal process". For Alexei Shulgin however net.art has separated into different streams, "institutional art, software art and social and political activism, of which the first one is no more interesting to me then gallery paintings".
My personal opinion is that we can escape net.art mannerism, and there is a way to avoid the development of a net.art nostalgia that is obstructive in the sense of something Olia Lialina mentioned to me: "the impression is [created] that there is no continuation". The solution can be read in Jodiâ´s cryptic reply: "good authors make good work, bad ones bad". Ever since I escaped the cozy castle of the net.art scene (early 1998, when the scene more or less fell apart) and got back to my senses, it has been my strong opinion that there is no such thing as a simple definition of net art or of a net artist, based on either the artist media or the way of working. If we take any of the focuses of net.art seriously it just does not make sense to speak of a movement or a specific art discipline, since the internet simply created a new dimension to the entire art and culture spectrum (something one simply cannot bring down to a few technological specifics or tricks). There is for example also not just one single approach to how to curate or how to exhibit net art works. All art (and every artist that works with the internet) has to be approached individually to come to a proper understanding of the work and the context in which the artist works. This applies to the installation of a specific work in any kind of exhibition, off line or online. In this sense net art is related to conceptual art, which also Guggenheim curator Jon Ippolito likes to compare many aspects of net art to. Jodiâ´s sneaky replacement of the word â€˜artistâ´ by â€˜authorâ´ could be interpreted as another pointer in that direction, even if Jodi probably only aims to escape another dreary and predictable art discourse again. Heath Bunting writes: "nothing needs to be done except getting on with making new things". Which is exactly what Bunting is doing (11). Just like Olia Lialina has been suggesting, there is indeed a continuation of net.art, whether you want to call it net art (without the dot) or just art.
Irony and S(t)imulation, or: how to create a net.art star
Shulginâ´s appropriation of the origin of net.art shows the dot was not the only thing that made net.art stand out from other online art. Net.art was not just about subverting an existing art market or creating new politics, it was also about pose and play. Net.art added the ironic gesture to a previously rather formalistic online art practice. This meant it also added an element of humor, even if not all of the ironic gestures would be equally appreciated by everyone. The irony was not just applied to art and the art system itself, as in some postmodern art before the internet, but it was also applied to the ideologies, utopian ideas and hypes around the internet and other new media. The internet, its content and its (however new) traditions served not only as a medium, but also as material for various, sometimes controversial, art projects (12). Last but not least this same irony was applied to the artists themselves.
In reply to my questions about whether anything went wrong with the interpretation of net.art, Heath Bunting writes: "There was a lot of performance going on, which some actors started to believe themselves, [like] was true for the .com world". In electronic media the truth often is what an audience expects it to be. This was (and is) something many net artists have been very aware of. There have been numerous projects in which the artists played with perception and reality, but also with expectations and desires. Artists would send fake announcements for conferences, or would send texts in the name of others. Entire false identities would be created. Web sites would offer non existing products (13). But also, more innocently, artists and also writers would promote work of other artists, bypassing any magazine editor or publisher filtering out things she or he did not understand or approve of. This way net.art more or less gets included in the arts at large by simply expanding the art world context, instead of waiting for it to create a space in older structures.
This is the part of net.art history where I came in too. The following statement is at the same time true and untrue, like my work as a writer about net art is at the same time objective and subjective. Let me give you a recipe, not unlike the net.art rules Alexei Shulgin and Natalie Bookchin wrote:
Recipe for the creation of a net.art star:
(1) Find an artist that is bold and whose work is not too bad.
(2) Make sure this artist is slightly out of reach of the general audience and of art professionals (artists working with the internet always fit this description, at least they do for the time being).
(3) Present tantalizing interviews and texts about this artist with time intervals that are not too long and not too short, depending on the medium they are published in.
Of course this is only a very disrespectful description of my work around net
art, but it is not completely untrue. Fact is that when I first got involved
with net.art I quickly realized that this anarchic and in many ways illusive
art would not stand much chance of being recognized by the art world (unless
Jeff Koons or some other established art star would get involved). In order
to make sure that at least a few independent net artists would make it into
the bigger picture I decided to push the art works and artists I liked as much
as I could. It was therefore important to send out clear messages, that were
focused and to which an audience could somehow relate. The easiest and fastest
way to do this was, as also my colleague Tilman Baumgaertel has mentioned before
on several occasions, by transcribing interviews, adding a short introduction
and sending them out over mailing lists. Net.art has become a legend this way,
not just through my work and motivations, but also through other writers doing
similar things. Some artists and other actors in the field of net art seem to
have taken net.artâ´s promotional push a little bit too seriously, as Heath
Bunting has suggested, and go around presenting themselves as a kind of superstars.
This is only a minority, but this aspect of net.art has, again, found followers
amongst a new generation of net artists (14).
A lot of net.art would have stayed in the margins of net activism if it had not been put into the picture the way it was. Entering the electronic media one simply has to realize one becomes a media player too, artists, critics, curators and institutions alike. Also people tend to forget that a presence on the internet does not compare to a presence on radio or television, for which an audience does not have to be quite as active. All we did was make sure net.art did not go unnoticed. Now net.art is in the picture, it is time to become more reflective about how to deal with it and what the consequences are of the entrance of network art practices into art practice at large. Not an easy task maybe, if one considers having to bring individual and intimate experiences into an understanding of an art in which art institutions are now becoming dominant players rather then partners in crime (i.e. colleagues. Artists have started many institutions of their own, from magazines to galleries to other art spaces online). Weâ´re moving from the small scale, bottom up politics of net.art to the almost corporate, top down ways of working of traditional art institutions.
Intimate Meetings: Net.Art.Per.Se, Digital Chaos and the "secret
net art meeting"
One of the most striking and attractive aspects of net.art was the social environment it created. It was a beautiful mixture of distributed, long distance communication or collaboration and intimate friendships that could only be expressed at occasional physical meetings. In 1997 Jordan Crandall, American artist and initiator of various media projects, says it beautifully on nettime: "There is nothing wrong in looking at the formal aspects of [networking], if you look at the practices and forces embedded in them, and you donâ´t look at those in terms of a forced interior (that is, cyberspace vacuum)" (16). Indeed, net.art was also about the physical world, about real people. It was about "friends", says Jodi, it was about "talking to smart people interested in the rare thing that interested me too", says Vuk Cosic. Bringing pompous media theories down to earth and getting the bottom up approach into media art practice was expressed not only in artists creating their own virtual institutions, but also in organizing meetings that were deliberately different from the well known big media art conferences.
What is more pleasant then to get together with friends, eat Italian ice cream and talk about art and conspire to change the world? Net.art.per.se seems to have been just that. The ice cream meeting of net.art.per.se is exemplary for the way this particular â€˜sceneâ´ came together and stayed together for quite some time. Hakim Beyâ´s phrase "every day a holiday" was very popular back then. Human scale and human needs were to be the measurements by which new media should develop, and not the other way around. The techno fetishist attitude, which was very popular in certain new media circles, included a rejection of the body, something Russian cyberfeminism used in an interesting way, but which on the whole was rather suppressive instead of liberating. So instead of creating big conferences, which needed a lot of money and a solid organizational structure to get them off the ground, small gatherings were organized in the most informal way.
Only a few weeks after the ice cream session in Trieste there was another meeting called "Digital Chaos" (17), in sunny Bath this time (it was mid June), just below London. "There is none of this kind of â€˜heavy structuringâ´, which I know that the next conference I go to will have a lot of", said curator Kathy Rae Huffman about Digital Chaos in a radio interview, "[At the next conference] there are the people that had to pay to get in and the people who got in freeâ€¦, here it is a bit more like a working session". "Digital Chaos" was organized by Heath Bunting, who greatly dislikes institutional gatherings in fancy places for the distance they create between people. The "Digital Chaos" event took place in the small billiard room over a bar. It was very funny to witness the contradiction between the space and the event. Internationally renowned media artists and curators would have to sit on or stand behind the large pool table to present their talk, their audience often sitting less then a meter away. "I am very interested in reversing the usual uses of technology", said Heath Bunting in the same radio program," For instance: technology is usually used for mediation and protection. Iâ´d like to reverse those and make technologies for vulnerability and presence".
Only half a year later, in January 1997, the "secret net art conf" in the "Anti with E" series at Backspace in London (18) was organized by, again, Heath Bunting. This mini conference in an alternative internet cafÃ© brought together more then twenty speakers on one day who each were allowed only 5 minutes to present their work or thoughts. It was probably the most compact and energetic conference I have ever seen. Due to the intimacy of the event presentations and talks happened in the room and outside of it almost simultaneously. I still regret not acting fast enough when Jodi started to sell their work on diskettes in a hectic little auction, in an attempt to counter the general idea at the time that net.art could not be sold. The idea behind all these meetings was to take away the barriers between audience and speakers, and to eliminate the distinction between the audience and the so called "experts".
This meeting was the beginning of a crucial year for net.art. It spurred the consolidation of the net.art group, whatever it was, if only for a short period of time. At the "secret net art conference" Jodi, against the grain as always, said: "That group has already split itself up" (19). This would however not happen for another year.1997 started hopeful with heath bunting's secret net.art conference, proceeded with the first competition for net artists being subverted by artist Cornelia Sollfranck (20); the departure of most net.artists from the nettime mailing list followed by the installation of the notorious 7-11 mailing list (21); in the fall the much disputed online exhibition of Documenta X was hijacked by Vuk Cosic (22); and the year ended with a coup in the net.art mailing list 7-11 itself: Heath Bunting moved the entire list of members from 7-11 to a new mailing list (23) on his own server as the ultimate act of subversion in this experimental mailing list. It was to be the end of an era nobody asked for, yet everybody was part of.
(1) Alexei Shulgin in an interview by Tilman Baumgaertel, http://www.kunstradio.at/FUTURE/RTF/INSTALLATIONS/SHULGIN/interview.html
(2) Hakim Bey was the pseudonym of Peter Lamborn Wilson. His book "TAZ" was published by Autonomedia in 1991, and is one of the early beacons of anti-copyright. The book can be found online at various locations, of which this is one: http://www.t0.or.at/hakimbey/taz/taz.htm More writings and information about Hakim Bey can be found at http://www.hermetic.com/bey/index.html
(3) N5M2 was the episode of this festival with the most art projects in it. Later N5Mâ´s have focused more on politics, especially on the relationship between rich and poor countries and migration. There is hardly any online material left of N5M2, due to the privatization of DDS, the Amsterdam digital city. Some impression of a (preliminary) program can be found in a text of Andreas Broeckman, at that time working for V2 organization, one of the organizing institutions behind N5M2: http://www.strano.net/town/meeting/next5min/prog.htm
(4) The term net.art in this text relates to a (still rather vaguely definable) era in art on the internet, which developed from approximately 1995 to now. There is a group of rather different artists that is commonly associated to it. The most well known net.artists were heath bunting, Jodi, Olia Lialina, Vuk Cosic, Rachel Baker and Alexei Shulgin, but also other artists have been involved in this more socially then artistically bound group. I say they â€“were- known as net.artists because at present most of them would call themselves simply artists or something else entirely (art being such an unpopular term). Other net.artists of the first hour would for instance be: Akke Wagenaar, Pit Schultz, Walter van der Cruyzen and Luka Frelih. The artists I name here were part of a relatively close scene until the end of 1997 only. At the beginning of 1998 this first â€˜groupâ´ slowly started to fall apart socially and diffuse into a bigger environment of what I prefer to call net art, without the dot, in which net stands for â€˜networkâ´ and not just for â€˜internetâ´.
(10) The discussions around the terminology of net art, with or without the famous dot, which had triggered Alexei Shulgin´s action, mostly centered around whether it was or wasn´t wise to use a specific term for art made with the internet as a medium at all. Like Dirk Paesmans, some people were worried that a special term for this art would only serve as a fence around it. In the opinion of these people a name for the online art practices would create yet another art historical trend, instead of liberating artists to be able to work truly multi disciplinary, across trends and hypes. Yet some kind of naming was necessary to discuss this type of work at all, leaving everybody with a dilemma that, in my opinion, can probably only be solved by a growing familiarity of the general audience with art in networks. Such a familiarity would make specific network issues a quite obvious part of the art works they are part of, like the materiality and context of paintings or sculptures by and large are today, and net art could simply be called art from then on. This moment is getting closer today I think. Maybe Per Platou exhibiting the dot separately, on a velvet pillow in the museum of contemporary art in Oslo, is a sign.
(13) An early text referring to this, amongst other aspects of net art, is Joachim Blank´s â"what is net art?" http://www.nettime.org/Lists-Archives/nettime-l-9704/msg00056.html
(14) The Italian net art group 0100101110101101.org not only copy web sites, but they also copy the way net.art was promoted. At presentations their lectures consist almost entirely out of texts written about their work by preferably famous journalists. This group is most renowned for its so called controversial works, but in my opinion has made self promotion its top priority. 0100101110101101.org is highly predictable and seems to aim at a specific segment of the media art market: that of tactical media art.
(19) Interview made at secret net art conf: http://laudanum.net/cgi-bin/media.cgi?action=display&id=949045560
(20) Cornelia Sollfrank is not commonly associated with the â€˜net.art groupâ´, but she was at the secret net art conference and her work fits into the â€˜categoryâ´ net.art perfectly. Her "Female Extensions" project subverted a competition for net.artists by submitting art works of at least 120 not existing artists, with email addresses and web sites all over the world. Their work had been created by a special piece of software, called the "net.art generator". Cornelia Sollfrank has also written texts on net art. http://www.obn.org/femext/int_engl.htm