Conference Report: Where Art Thou Net.Art? On Zero One/ ISEA 2006

Posted by Randall Packer | Fri Aug 25th 2006 1:57 p.m.

+Commissioned by Rhizome.org+

Conference Report:
Where Art Thou Net.Art? On Zero One/ ISEA 2006
by Randall Packer

The long awaited Zero One/ ISEA 2006 took over
San Jose, California, two weeks ago in a
sprawling, city-wide, mega-festival celebrating
art and technology in the heart of Silicon
Valley. Much has already been written about it,
from daily observations in the local papers to a
feature in the New York Times, from the
Blogosphere to the listservs. As one who has been
immersed in the new media scene since the late
1980s, I would like to contribute a bit of
historical context to the discussion: I offer my
commentary from a pre-millennial perspective,
when the dream emerged in the 1990s, during an
era of optimism and promise, the dream of a new
art form that would side-step a mainstream art
world mired in curators, museums, galleries,
objects, and old aesthetic issues. This was the
dream of Net.Art, a revolutionary new
international movement of artists, techies, and
hackers, led in large part by the unassuming,
unabashedly ambitious new media curator from the
Walker Art Center, Steve Dietz, now director of
Zero One.

These were heady times indeed. I met Steve in
1997 while I was in residence at the San Jose
Museum of Art. His research had brought him to
the holy Mecca of new media, Silicon Valley and
the community of artists in the Bay Area who had
been working with new technologies since the dawn
of the personal computer. He wanted to meet Joel
Slayton (who would later become director of the
2006 ISEA Symposium), so I escorted him over to
San Jose State University where Joel is head of
the CADRE Laboratory for New Media.

Shortly thereafter, Steve launched two
groundbreaking Net.Art exhibitions, Shock of the
View, and Beyond Interface, both of which brought
together leading Net artists exploding on the
scene: Mark Amerika, Natalie Bookchin, Masaki
Fujihata, Ken Goldberg, Eduardo Kac, Jodi, Mark
Napier, Alexei Shulgin, to name just a few. It
was a time of artistic transformation, new
paradigms, hypernovels, distributed authorship,
and globally extended, real-time, robotic,
collective art. It seemed anything was possible.
By 1999, David Ross was Director of the San
Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Intel was pouring
millions into Artmuseum.net, and there seemed no
end to the surging tide of experimental new media
art. It was at that time that early discussion
began of an international festival of art and
technology in Silicon Valley. Beau Takahara
founded the organization Ground Zero, which would
later become Zero One.

But with the new millennium the tides would turn:
Natalie Bookchin announced the death of Net.Art,
the tech boom was a bust, and both David Ross and
Steve Dietz were ousted from their museum jobs
for harboring visionary aspirations in an
economic downturn. So with the announcement that
the Zero One Festival and the ISEA Symposium
would launch in 2006 in San Jose, with Steve
Dietz at the helm, it was something like the
Phoenix rising from the ashes.

And it rose with a bang! "Seven Days of Art and
Interconnectivity," with over 200 participating
artists, an international symposium, city-wide
public installations, exhibitions, concerts,
performances, pubic spectacles,
performative-live-distributed cinema, wi-fi
interventions, container culture, skateboard
orchestras, digital dance, sine wave surfing,
datamatics, surveillance balloons, a pigeon blog,
the squirrel-driven Karaoke Ice Battle on wheels,
and to top it off a nostalgic, bombastic
blast-from-the-past from Survival Research
Laboratories. The 13th International Symposium on
Electronic Art Exhibition took over the sprawling
South Hall at the Convention Center. Its themes:
Interactive City, Pacific Rim, Transvergence,
Edgy Products, and on and on... spoke of enough
technology to wire a third world nation.

And so, with all the buzz, and the sheer largesse
of this ambitious festival of new media, I
couldn't help ponder how it was connected to the
original Net.Art dream, when a new art form arose
from networking every computer on every desktop
and engaging a global audience in new, pervasive
ways that became possible as technology was
increasingly ubiquitous and transparent. The
Net.Art dream would call into question our
relationship to the new media, as art has always
aspired, to critique its impact on our lives, our
culture, our communications systems, our
relationships, our view of the world, our own
changing humanity in a technological world. I
couldn't help but to wonder, what exactly
happened to that dream, once driven by a small
fringe core of artists, writers, thinkers, and
curators, and now practiced by literally
thousands of techno-artists emerging from every
university and art school across the planet, many
of whom converged in San Jose for Zero One / ISEA.

The first thing that came to mind was that art
and technology no longer exists on the fringe of
the artworld, and in fact, the demarcation
between art and engineering has blurred
considerably. At Zero One you couldn't tell the
artist from the engineer (Billy Kluver must be
rolling in his grave). Joseph Beuys' notions of
social sculpture, or Allan Kaprow's participatory
Happenings now inform the new systems of art that
have dissolved the distinction between artist and
non-artist, between performer and audience. For
example, the Interactive City theme, organized by
Eric Paulos, sought "urban-scale projects for
which the city is not merely a palimpsest of our
desires but an active participant in their
formation."

In the installations of Jennifer Steinkamp at the
San Jose Museum of Art, I saw suburban moms
taking snapshots of their kids in strollers
bathed in layers of colored light. In the
Listening Post by Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin, also
at SJMA, the artists orchestrated chat room
discussion, in real-time, from around the globe.
Etoy's mesmerizing Mission Eternity involved a
trailer installation parked outside SJMA in the
downtown Plaza, which investigated personal data
storage for the afterlife (ashes to ashes, bits
to bits).

There was good art and there was bad art, but
everywhere you turned there was art or something
like art permeating the physical spaces of
downtown San Jose (including the mobile light
rail cars and the dome of City Hall), as well as
the invisible ether of the airwaves, from
bluetooth networks to cellular tours (the latest
rage). There was very little time to spend with
any particular work. Everyone was engaged in high
gear, moving from one venue to the next. In Bill
Viola's keynote address, he made the prescient
remark, "artists are jumping into a train for a
high speed ride while they're still laying the
tracks ahead."

The hyper-adrenalin flow resonated in the on-line
commentary as well, where, if you read the
considerable Blog chatter surrounding Zero One/
ISEA, you would find that the experience became
concentrated on sheer movement and the social
networking that reigns supreme at all conferences
and festivals.

And so what about the dream of Net.Art? Those of
us who have spent countless hours, in the past
decade, bemoaning the loss of the dream could now
say that the dream had been realized (for better
or for worse). I heard artist friends complain
about the democratization of Net.Art, the selling
out of Net.Art, the "mainstreamization" of
Net.Art, and other remarks I won't mention here,
and yet, I think that we would all agree that the
uber-dream of Net.Art -- to dismantle the
precious nature of the object, an art that would
defy the walls of the museum, that would, as
expressed in Roy Ascott's Museum of A Third Kind,
reject the notion of the physical museum space
altogether, the dream of Net.Art as a force that
would rewire the experience of art, a "fantasy
beyond control" according to Lynn Hershman -- had
become a living, breathing reality in San Jose
for those compressed seven days.

And if you turned to the Blogosphere there were
plenty of critics: Patrick Lichty wrote, "There
are many topics, like locative media, data
mapping, ecologies, and so on that are being
explored. On a rhetorical level I have to ask
whether these are the right ones and why these
are the ones that are compelling to us." And on
the CRUMB list, I found an insightful comment by
Molly Hankwitz, who said, "I think the process of
interaction must be done very carefully. The
worst thing is the mainstreaming of situationism
into a middle class playground."

Finally, I turn to Mark Amerika, one of the
original dreamers, for a closing observation:
"Net art is in many ways still the most alive and
accessed art movement ever to NOT be absorbed
into the commercial art worldE and that's
fantastic!" Perhaps the success of Zero One /
ISEA was in its commitment to concentrate on
experimental media art, to emphasize media art's
inclusive, democratic, and participatory nature,
and lastly, that contemporary art must embrace
the new technologies - shamelessly, fearlessly,
defiantly. Net.Art may be dead, but Net Art 2.0
is alive and kicking.

Randall Packer is a widely-exhibited artist,
composer, educator, and scholar. He is Assistant
Professor of Multimedia at American University in
Washington, DC, and the author of Multimedia:
From Wagner to Virtual Reality.
  • Jim Andrews | Fri Aug 25th 2006 3:14 p.m.
    > ...the dream of a new
    > art form that would side-step a mainstream art
    > world mired in curators, museums, galleries,
    > objects, and old aesthetic issues. This was the
    > dream of Net.Art, a revolutionary new
    > international movement of artists, techies, and
    > hackers, led in large part by the unassuming,
    > unabashedly ambitious new media curator from the
    > Walker Art Center, Steve Dietz, now director of
    > Zero One.

    a dream about side-stepping curators led by a curator? crash crash.

    ja
    http://vispo.com
  • Robbin Murphy | Sat Aug 26th 2006 6:54 a.m.
    Well, this has to win the prize for the most fanciful retelling of the net.art myth. We know history is written by the winners but in this case what did they win?

    rm
  • marc garrett | Sat Aug 26th 2006 7:44 a.m.
    Winning is for Losers...

    m.

    >Well, this has to win the prize for the most fanciful retelling of the net.art myth. We know history is written by the winners but in this case what did they win?
    >
    >rm
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  • Eric Dymond | Sat Aug 26th 2006 9:39 p.m.
    Robbin Murphy wrote:

    >
    >
    > Well, this has to win the prize for the most fanciful retelling of the
    > net.art myth. We know history is written by the winners but in this
    > case what did they win?
    >
    > rm

    It's nice to know I'm not alone. The personal memoirs of Randal's are just that ..., personal memoirs. To the author we acknowledge experience, but in no way does it constitute history.
    And do we even accept any history of an art form still in motion? Of course not, maybe in 20 years (and they will read our texts here)
    It's all too recent. As an aside...
    Barbara London or Steve Deitz (and what did he actually accomplish?)
    Mark Amerika, please..., Blade Runner on tranqs, how about Judy Malloy (creating works that were more poetic and advanced) working with hypertext years before Amerika was online.But she doesn't say fuck nearly as often.
    Natalie Bochlin....????, substitute anyone else,
    I'm glad he feels optimistic, but leave the nonsense in the 90's.
    Eric
  • Robbin Murphy | Sun Aug 27th 2006 8:37 a.m.
    Eric Dymond wrote:

    > Barbara London or Steve Deitz (and what did he actually accomplish?)

    To be fair, Steve did bring a knowledge of contemporary art discourse to the new media picnic and encouraged others to taste it at the Walker. Looking back with perfect hindsight vision it was probably the attempt to institutionalize too quickly that led to its demise. After all, new media already had its own established institutions that were more than capable of keeping the focus on the innovation needed for corporate support.

    Not everyone wanted to overthrow the art regime and many wanted to make it more accessible through new media technologies. That was the goal of THE THING in 1991 where there were many long and serious discussions on the BBS and some tentative attempts at online projects from its various nodes. nettime nearly collapsed in the brawls that ensued throwing off alternatives such as 7/11, irational.org and rhizome. Projects came and went as the dot.com bubble grew and burst and now grows again.

    At first I thought Randall Packer's essay was a fake, in true net.art spirit. Now I see it as a provocation but, you know, I don't care enough any more to respond. The earth has turned and while I'm happy for the artists who have found security in their academic positions and participate in conferences like ISEA 2600 to bulk up their CVs my attention has drifted elsewhere. Really, it's like 1991 all over again.

    rm
  • Erika Lincoln | Sun Aug 27th 2006 9:36 a.m.
    Robbin Murphy wrote:

    > Eric Dymond wrote:
    >
    >
    > > Barbara London or Steve Deitz (and what did he actually accomplish?)
    >
    > To be fair, Steve did bring a knowledge of contemporary art discourse
    > to the new media picnic and encouraged others to taste it at the
    > Walker. Looking back with perfect hindsight vision it was probably the
    > attempt to institutionalize too quickly that led to its demise. After
    > all, new media already had its own established institutions that were
    > more than capable of keeping the focus on the innovation needed for
    > corporate support.
    >
    > Not everyone wanted to overthrow the art regime and many wanted to
    > make it more accessible through new media technologies. That was the
    > goal of THE THING in 1991 where there were many long and serious
    > discussions on the BBS and some tentative attempts at online projects
    > from its various nodes. nettime nearly collapsed in the brawls that
    > ensued throwing off alternatives such as 7/11, irational.org and
    > rhizome. Projects came and went as the dot.com bubble grew and burst
    > and now grows again.
    >
    > At first I thought Randall Packer's essay was a fake, in true net.art
    > spirit. Now I see it as a provocation but, you know, I don't care
    > enough any more to respond. The earth has turned and while I'm happy
    > for the artists who have found security in their academic positions
    > and participate in conferences like ISEA 2600 to bulk up their CVs my
    > attention has drifted elsewhere. Really, it's like 1991 all over
    > again.
    >
    > rm

    I would have to agree with Robbin Murphy on the institutionalization of media arts. One has to wonder if most work is in demo mode and in the form of a conference presentation is the work succeeding (as work)?

    As for Randall's quote of the blogger

    "I found an insightful comment by
    Molly Hankwitz, who said, "I think the process of
    interaction must be done very carefully. The
    worst thing is the mainstreaming of situationism
    into a middle class playground.""

    this is interesting to point out, and i am not sure where Randall stands on this. Having time and money seems to be necessary to participating in this playground.

    erika
  • Rob Myers | Tue Aug 29th 2006 3:47 a.m.
    Quoting Erika Lincoln <fur_princess@yahoo.ca>:

    > As for Randall's quote of the blogger
    >
    > "I found an insightful comment by
    > Molly Hankwitz, who said, "I think the process of
    > interaction must be done very carefully. The
    > worst thing is the mainstreaming of situationism
    > into a middle class playground."

    Molly Hankwitz may be working class, but her disdain for the bourgeousie is
    misplaced. The mainstreaming of situationism is the fault of academia.

    - Rob.
  • Eric Dymond | Tue Aug 29th 2006 8:08 p.m.
    Rob Myers wrote:

    > Quoting Erika Lincoln <fur_princess@yahoo.ca>:
    >
    > > As for Randall's quote of the blogger
    > >
    > > "I found an insightful comment by
    > > Molly Hankwitz, who said, "I think the process of
    > > interaction must be done very carefully. The
    > > worst thing is the mainstreaming of situationism
    > > into a middle class playground."
    >
    > Molly Hankwitz may be working class, but her disdain for the
    > bourgeousie is
    > misplaced. The mainstreaming of situationism is the fault of academia.
    >
    > - Rob.
    >
    well.I think she stole this from a very famous source... (just read more) , but never the less I'm going to let that go.
    What we need is a history of the NET told by the ghost of Hunter S. Thompson. But being a dead man as he is ( what an inconvenience) , I elect Robbin Murphy as his surrogate.
    That would shut the door on the nonsense.
    Eric
  • Eric Dymond | Tue Aug 29th 2006 9:32 p.m.
    as a very serious aside,
    Robbin, you have a near complete history of NET art. Why haven't you written a at least a monograph on the subject?
    Eric
  • Robbin Murphy | Wed Aug 30th 2006 11:04 a.m.
    Eric Dymond wrote:

    > as a very serious aside,
    > Robbin, you have a near complete history of NET art. Why haven't you
    > written a at least a monograph on the subject?

    The wikipedia entry for net.art (with the dot) is pretty thorough and could be added to. For instance, it doesn't have anything about the break with nettime that begat 7/11 or earlier pre-web work by Bunting on mailing lists and newsgroups. Or that jodi.org were in residence at San Jose when they created their first website, which was rejected by an art site administrator because they didn't feel there was anything there.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Net.art

    rm
  • Robbin Murphy | Wed Aug 30th 2006 1:56 p.m.
    And, of course, Natalie Bookchin's time line is probably the most complete resource going well beyond the dot. It even includes PORT MIT, which is never ever mentioned anywhere even though it's where Turbulence and Ricardo Dominguez' EDT got their first widespread exposure. But Brad Brace can sleep soundly knowing that he isn't mentioned at all:

    http://www.calarts.edu/~line/history.html

    Randall Packer's version is in keeping with Alexei Shulgin's advice in his and Bookchin's Introduction to Net Art:

    5. Create and control your own mythology.

    http://www.easylife.org/netart/

    What's most interesting to me was the difference between the environments of eastern europe (funded by Soros) and the US (funded by nobody). Even by 2000 when everyone was accustomed to email and the web I'd show jodi.org and explain what they were about and students in the US simply couldn't understand why anyone would want to do that. To them it was like making your own television. Of course, now that youTube and Myspace are hot properties, that's exactly what people are doing.

    rm
  • Eric Dymond | Fri Sep 1st 2006 8:38 p.m.
    Robbin Murphy wrote:

    > And, of course, Natalie Bookchin's time line is probably the most
    > complete resource going well beyond the dot. It even includes PORT
    > MIT, which is never ever mentioned anywhere even though it's where
    > Turbulence and Ricardo Dominguez' EDT got their first widespread
    > exposure. But Brad Brace can sleep soundly knowing that he isn't
    > mentioned at all:
    >
    > http://www.calarts.edu/~line/history.html
    >
    > Randall Packer's version is in keeping with Alexei Shulgin's advice in
    > his and Bookchin's Introduction to Net Art:
    >
    > 5. Create and control your own mythology.
    >
    > http://www.easylife.org/netart/
    >
    >
    > What's most interesting to me was the difference between the
    > environments of eastern europe (funded by Soros) and the US (funded
    > by nobody). Even by 2000 when everyone was accustomed to email and the
    > web I'd show jodi.org and explain what they were about and students in
    > the US simply couldn't understand why anyone would want to do that. To
    > them it was like making your own television. Of course, now that
    > youTube and Myspace are hot properties, that's exactly what people are
    > doing.
    >
    > rm

    Well just a few comments on your post.
    I must admit, until the Shock of the View (a project by Steve Deitz, who has to commended for it) , I wasn't aware of the PORT project. When I looked at it then I was impressed and thought, " How come something that was that important had gone under the screen of official art". Why wasn't it on Art Forum, or at least written up in detail in Leonardo?
    The different takes on web art by Eastern European artists was also a big issue with me. Why had they eschewed irony in favour of a darkness? It becomes obvious on retrospect, but at the time I found it quite perplexing. And when they used irony it just didn't translate.
    Your own works, and GH's and Cary's held to a very different mould. I think Heath Bunting and Irrational managed to find a middle ground which seemed quite human (and thats a complement).
    My own take at the time was that Net Art was a west coast phenomena, and I was wrong. I still feel that works like The doorway (http://www.edymond.com/artseen/door1.htm 1996), Malloy and all the west coasters represented a different, more altruistic view of the possibilities of the web.
    I don't know know hoe to fit Brad Brace in. I still feel he was sub consciously tapping into On Kawara, but time will tell.
    So there ya go.

    And I will be running as a write-in candidate in the next US Presidential Election.
    Thanks for your support on that... I received 4 votes!
    Eric
  • Robbin Murphy | Sat Sep 2nd 2006 6:42 p.m.
    Eric Dymond wrote:

    > I must admit, until the Shock of the View (a project by Steve Deitz,
    > who has to commended for it) , I wasn't aware of the PORT project.
    > When I looked at it then I was impressed and thought, " How come
    > something that was that important had gone under the screen of
    > official art". Why wasn't it on Art Forum, or at least written up in
    > detail in Leonardo?

    PORT grew, in part, out of a group in NYC called Foundation for Digital Culture (DIGICULT) comprised of artnetweb, THE THING, ada'web, Plexus, Postmasters Gallery, Floating Point Unit, individuals such as Christiane Paul and others. The invitation to do it came totally out of the blue from the MIT List Center who wanted something to accompany the Joseph Kossuth exhibit in the main gallery. We promised to wire the gallery for the internet, which meant drilling a hole in the ceiling and running a wire from the Media Lab upstairs (this was 1996/97 remember, no wifi). The resulting documentation is still partly online:
    http://www.artnetweb.com/port/

    We never managed to publish a catalog, which is too bad. Tim Druckery did trash us in an Artforum article and I wrote a report for Intelligent Agent but that was about it.

    Looking back the problem was that we were neither fish nor fowl -- streamed network performance with a debt to Conceptual Art. It was a mess but, for the most part, worked out. Of course we all know more now but then it was hard enough to get a real audio server to stream.

    > The different takes on web art by Eastern European artists was also a
    > big issue with me. Why had they eschewed irony in favour of a
    > darkness? It becomes obvious on retrospect, but at the time I found it
    > quite perplexing. And when they used irony it just didn't translate.

    The art world environment in the US was in disarray -- we'd just come out of both a market crash and the culture wars, which is, I think, why some of us found the internet attractive. I saw the Eastern Europeans as highly ironic and think that whole period ended with the war in Kosov@, when reality set in.

    > Your own works, and GH's and Cary's held to a very different mould. I
    > think Heath Bunting and Irrational managed to find a middle ground
    > which seemed quite human (and thats a complement).

    We all converged from different directions so there was a lot of real knowledge, not just information and data, being shared. Once it was institutionalized that casual exchange of knowledge seemed to disappear into books and classrooms.

    > My own take at the time was that Net Art was a west coast phenomena,
    > and I was wrong. I still feel that works like The doorway
    > (http://www.edymond.com/artseen/door1.htm 1996), Malloy and all the
    > west coasters represented a different, more altruistic view of the
    > possibilities of the web.

    The importance of The Well (west coast) and ECHO (east coast) is almost totally ignored. I don't even know if the Whitney Conference on ECHO with then director David Ross exists in any form at all, which is a shame.

    > I don't know know hoe to fit Brad Brace in. I still feel he was sub
    > consciously tapping into On Kawara, but time will tell.

    If we really wanted to punish Brad we'd all make him an art star.

    rm
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