The Art Happens Here: Net Art Anthology
Eds. Michael Connor and Aria Dean
In the visual arts, despite the spate of exhibitions devoted to understanding life in the age of the internet, art practices that happen online and attendant questions surrounding their platforms, networks, and unique mechanics of reading, looking, context, and display are still historically peripheral or misconstrued. This is in part a problem of preservation. Interfaces age just like we do. But it is also a problem of attention, and moving beyond narrowly defined caricatures. The Art Happens Here: Net Art Anthology, a new book published by Rhizome (the digital arts affiliate of the New Museum) on the occasion of a small exhibition at the New Museum titled The Art Happens Here: Net Art's Archival Poetics (January 22 – May 26), is part of a quartet of projects that seek to define and promote a canon of net art. Coming out of an ambitious archival initiative foregrounded by Webrecorder, Rhizome's free and open-source web-archiving platform that enables users to create copies of websites, and Net Art Anthology, a related two-year-long online exhibition that showcases 100 newly restored born-digital works created since the 1980s, the book presents net art as a material with a history, rather than as a theme.
Artistic Director of Rhizome Michael Connor, co-editor of the text with curator Aria Dean, writes that these interrelated projects were inspired by the Essential Cinema Repertory collection, a storied and unfinished attempt "to define the art of cinema" whose 110 programs have screened on an ongoing basis at the Anthology Film Archives since the 1970s. Like Essential Cinema, Net Art Anthology confronts issues surrounding the politics and relevance of canon-making. It also takes on the mission of preserving, exhibiting, and studying an art form that has in many ways been operating on a discrete, if not parallel, path to the art world at large.
The publication features each of the 100 projects included in the online exhibition Net Art Anthology, divided into four chronological chapters, as well as a series of essays that touch upon the expansive conceptual parameters of the field and poetic means of engaging with ephemeral works in the present. Connor himself defines net art as "the art of a new social paradigm: an informational one, in which emergent forms of power and social organization escape traditional modes of representation." In other words, "art that acts on the network, or is acted on by it." Rhizome's Preservation Director Dragan Espenschied adds, "Everything inside the computer is a performance," that is, art taking place online happens in real time and is animated by participation in a network, yet it is also beholden to gaps in accessibility. This understanding is manifest in the numerous projects that track the rapidly changing digital landscape since the internet's inception, from those associated with the first wave of net art in the mid-1990s and its projections of utopian interconnectedness to interruptions into participatory platforms like YouTube in the early 2000s to today's environment of social media saturation and acute technological skepticism.
Much of the work, which utilizes a range of interfaces and media including blogs, webpages, code, software, video games, and physical objects is difficult, perplexing, and unfamiliar. Included are Eduardo Kac's Reacracadabra, a digital poem created for a pre-internet user-to-user communications system in Brazil in 1985, an early experiment in immaterial, networked practice; Olia Lialina and Rhizome's own Dragan Espenschied's One Terabyte of Kilobyte Age, an ongoing project initiated in 2010 to restore and preserve the homespun GIFs, lettering, and folk designs found on now-defunct GeoCities pages; and Martine Syms's EverythingIveEverWantedtoKnow.com, a diaristic website featuring a drop-down menu of all the artist's Google searches made between 2004 and 2007. Although the internet is chiefly considered a visual medium, examples like these underscore art's digitization as a history deeply entwined with language and poetry, putting forth the abstraction, deconstruction, or dramatization of text online as a theme that crisscrosses otherwise diverse practices.
Some projects are not as alluring. The final section, that can be broadly characterized as "post-internet," bookended between 2011 and 2016, gives space to the collective DIS's faux-critical stock photographs, pillars of consumerist irony, as well as an experimental marketing report by the nauseating "trend forecasting group," K-HOLE, who gave us the term "normcore." While DIS and K-HOLE's art may self-consciously embrace the internet's aesthetic grammar and its brazen pursuit of attention, these works only bare the disguise of cultural analysis. Sometimes marketing is just marketing.
At its best, however, The Art Happens Here, points obliquely to a shared methodological approach undertaken by artists coming from divergent perspectives within the history of art's digitization—one of poetics. Although only glossed by curators in the title of the New Museum gallery exhibition, poetics in this context implies a kind of strategic rub. It is a troubling of technological ideals, an intentional misuse of codes and forms, an exaggeration of the tension between interface, user, and audience, between liveness and the archive. Simple Net Art Diagram (SNAD), a rudimentary 1997 GIF animation by the artist duo MTAA, from which the publication borrows its name, illustrates two desktop computers connected by a line and a blinking red lightning bolt. "The art happens here," it reads. The "here" is the space of the network, the site where interaction is performed, for sure. But it is likewise the space of the rub, the place where interfaces of control can also provide avenues for poetic experimentation. The internet, like language, is a code—there are programmers working with it, and there are poets.