Conference Report: NET.ART (SECOND EPOCH)

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Last week I attended the NET.ART (SECOND EPOCH) conference in Buenos Aires, organized by Medialab-Prado. The subtitle, "The Evolution of Artistic Creation in the Net-system" speaks to the broad range of perspectives included at the conference and, indeed, the Madrid-based organization was able to draw participants from all over Latin America, including Argentina, Peru, Brazil, Mexico, and Chile to the week-long panel series, which was hosted by the Centro Cultural de España.

Most of the discussion at the conference centered around framing the history of net art, articulating its recent transitions, and assessing the current state of the field. There was a general agreement that while many critics declared net art dead after the fall of the dot-com economy, it in fact never went anywhere and is instead still thriving.

Minnesota-based curator Steve Dietz and Amsterdam-based critic Josephine Bosma presented keynote talks on the current state of the network and networked art. These talks were framed as "seminars," with each lecture followed by structured group debates. Dietz's talk was entitled "Beyond 'Beyond Interface': Art in the Age of Ubiquitous Networking." He proposed that we consider whether what we are seeing now as truly a second epoch of net art, or rather something more like art after networks. While his talk came before Bosma's closing lecture, the latter looked back farther in taking a different historical perspective. Bosma articulated five generations of networked artists, the first of which predated the public interest. Her paper was prefaced by a confession that critics always view work through the lens of the era in which they came upon the art scene, and that while she is considered an expert in the field, she now feels removed from the present generation of net artists who are no longer working within the "Net.Art" scene she helped cultivate from her vantage in Amsterdam.

Many of the conference participants were keen to revisit the notion of "net-dot-art," which includes a very specific clique of artists and a specific approach to the use of technology and the anti-institutional politics of their work. The consensus was that it was this conception that had failed (at least in its goal to overturn the art world) or died, rather than networked art in the proper sense.

My own presentation was on "Pro Surfer" artists and I attempted to make the point that this has become a developed genre deserving of historiography and critique. After fleshing out some of the stylistic and aesthetic markers of the genre, I made a call for discussing the work as "Postinternet Art," a topic I will flesh-out in a forthcoming Rhizome column. Curt Cloninger prepared a response that applied Michel de Certeau's concept of tactical consumption to analyzing Pro Surfer net art. His point was to step back from the ways in which Tactical Media artists have claimed the T-word, to refer to de Certeau's original ideas about the practice of reading in everyday material culture.

On that note, many of the more interesting talks were given by people exploring artistic practice in the larger context of mainstream digital culture. Guadalupe Aguiar Masuelli spoke about collaborative experiences in user-generated content scenarios ranging from Renga to videoblogs. Michael Mandiberg's presentation on artists as startups thought through entrepreneurial or pseudo-entrepreneurial projects, the ways in which their operations differ from dot-com era business models, and the ways in which they might succeed as interventions.

Both of these presentations, and most of the others, paid special attention to the role of external, proprietary platforms in Web 2.0 culture and the extent to which artists' use of them often distances the artist from her tools, as distinguished from the hands-on approach of the net.artist. On that note, Franz Thalmair (of CONT3XT.NET) spoke both about his use of Delicious as a curatorial venue (in the case of the TAGallery) and artists' offline networked practice, which was another common thread throughout the week.

Other speakers included Lucas Bambozzi, Patricia Gouveia, Brian Mackern, Lila Pagola, Gustavo Romano, Jose Luis de Vicente, and Arcángel Constantini, who ended one of the round table discussion sessions with a hair-raising group demonstration of his traveling electrocution project!

Overall the sessions were very well-structured and conceived, thanks largely to the deep engagement of Medialab-Prado's Program Director, Marcos García, and Juan Martín Prada, who curates the Inclusiva-Net line of their programs. Inclusiva is "a platform dedicated to the research, documentation, and circulation of network culture theory" with an emphasis on looking at the ways in with telecommunications networks enable creativity and political engagement. It's just one of five lines of programs at Medialab, which all revolve around enabling "the production, research, and dissemination of digital culture and of the area where art, science, technology, and society intersect."

Despite receiving most of their funding from the City of Madrid, their conferences and collaborative labs reach far beyond Spain, to stimulate collaboration and discussion around the world by a wide range of artists and practitioners from other fields, sciences, and discourses. Considering the high level of conversation, connection-building, and cross-cultural communication that occurred at NET.ART (SECOND EPOCH), one can't help but wonder what could happen if the U.S. where to form a ministry of culture and begin supporting important work like this. Meanwhile, all of the talks were videotaped for live streaming and should soon be archived on the Inclusiva site. - Marisa Olson