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Notes on a definition of Net Art based on what I remember from a borrowed copy of Nettitudes


Lately, I've been feeling a sense of inhibition relating to Josephine Bosma's book Nettitudes, which I've had checked out from the library for the past six months. I started getting emails a few weeks ago that the book had to be returned, each one charting a steadily increasing overdue fine. (Update: the book is now being billed as lost.) The idea of returning the book became a source of anxiety, because even though I could make a copy or buy another one, I've become attached to it. Also, I don't quite remember where I put it.

This is relevant to my job because the Prix Net Art announcement, which went up earlier this week, had to of course include a definition of net art. And as with last year, this definition was something Chronus and TASML curator and Prix instigator and co-organizer Zhang Ga and I discussed intently. As Zhang has argued from the beginning, one signficant motivation for this prize was to publicly discuss and debate the definition of net art.   

So we looked back at how we defined the term last year. That announcement put forth a fairly formal definition of the term: art that is primarily experienced via browsers and computer networks. Curator and critic Gene McHugh offers a similar, but more elegant, definition in his Net Art Hell podcast: "art that's primarily intended to be viewed on the internet."

These definitions don't quite convey the expansive understanding of the term that Zhang was hoping for, and they don't capture some of the useful edge cases that Bosma mentions in Nettitudes. Net art, she argues, was never only about what was seen "on the internet." From the beginning, it included Alexei Shulgin printing up newspapers and sitting in a city square, or Heath Bunting writing URLs in chalk on the sidewalk at a time when few people knew what a URL was. Arguably, these projects would be left out of net art according to McHugh's definition, or the Prix's previous one.

Last year, Brian Droitcour quoted Bosma's definition in Art in America: art "that is created from an awareness of, or deep involvement in, a world transformed and affected by elaborate technical ensembles." This is very useful, although I have some questions about this part: "a world transformed and affected by." It seems applicable to almost anything these days. I also don't like that it's in the past tense, as if this transformation happened and is now over. But it does helpfully point us in the direction of thinking about what the internet affects—both the artwork and the field in which it circulates.

As my colleague Dragan Espenschied argues, digital culture is made up of practices, not objects. Similarly, the internet is not just a technical infrastructure, it is also a social, economic, and cultural practice. (This is why, at Rhizome, we eschew the capitalization of "internet.") So thinking about "effects" is useful: net art is not defined so much by what it is (what it's made of, what it looks like) as what it does.

In his 1998 book Art and Agency, which I have also misplaced, Alfred Gell proposed that an artwork should be analyzed not in terms of meaning, but in terms of its effects on others, particularly on audiences who encounter it. These effects, he argues, are generally understood to reflect the intentions of an artist.

When we encounter a work of art, we understand it to be the result of certain intentions or actions on the part of an artist. As viewers, we make inferences and assumptions about that artist's impact on the work. We also understand an artwork to be the result of other actors too, not just the artist. An impressive carved figure, for example, might result from very impressive craftsmanship, and from a very impressive tree.

When one labels an artwork "net art," perhaps one is making inferences, or what Gell described as "abductions," about an artist's intent. For example, one might conclude that the artist intended for the work to be partly authored by the internet, as with Kari Altmann's participation in Tumblr networks as a way of reshaping memetic imagery. Or one might think that the artist intended the work to act on the internet, as when Ubermorgen.com, Alessandro Ludovico, and Paolo Cirio created a system for buying Google shares with revenue earned from Google ads, with the Quixotic mission of one day owning Google—or in more concrete terms, the execution of a script on a website by Jodi.org.

This is the thinking led Zhang and myself to the net art definition for this year's Prix Net Art call: net art acts on computer networks, and is acted on by them.

(And let's hope that Bosma, who is a Prix jury member this year alongside Chrissie Iles and Domenico Quaranta, forgives me for stealing her book from the library.)

August 2015 Update: Michael found the book.

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Nicholas O'Brien July 18 2015 14:21Reply

Thanks for the additional insights into the Prix definition of netart, Michael. I think that the notion of affect is a significant aspect for understanding the limitations (and/or expanses) of any given medium. I continue to go back to Mark Hansen's "New Philosophies for New Media" as a resource to discuss such things, though I find that an update/re-application of his definitions to netart might be a worthy endeavor. (I own a copy, but am skeptical of loaning it to you given your above track record.)

While on the subject, I did also wonder about the rest of the nomination process. How did you and Zhang decide on the protocols for nomination? It seems to me that some people that could be nominated might not have the proper credentials needed (particularly the links to critical writing about their work). I find that even some of the most prominent netartists struggle to get their work critically discussed (or if it does, it is not accessible via online links). Do you worry that this might limit the pool of potential candidates for this prize?

Michael Connor July 20 2015 11:52Reply

Hi Nicholas, Nice to hear from you.

I like the way Hansen bases his definition of new media on the body and affect, but he approaches these concepts in slightly asocial, even mechanistic ways–only the Massumi version of affect, never the Sedgwick version. Partly due to its timing, no doubt.

Also, given the gymnastics Bosma and Hansen both do to deal with the word "media," I can't help but feel like we'd be better off jettisoning the term entirely in our discussions of net art. It seems to obfuscate more than it clarifies.

To add a bit more to our theory salad here, I especially like Kirschenbaum's discussion of the "medial ideology" in "Mechanisms," which I think highlights the fact that the word media itself makes people think of some kind of spiritual process. Hansen responds to this lamentable state of affairs by trying to make the term seem like it describes something real and concrete, but I prefer just to say that "new media" is a term mainly used by wizard people for their wizarding.

As far as your second question, it seems unlikely that an artist who hasn't had any writing about their work would be able to make a strong case to any bureaucratic gatekeeper/funder/selection panel, not only the Prix Net Art jury. It seems like the bigger need isn't to change the selection guidelines but to broaden our critical coverage. Since we had to pull the plug on the fun and valuable but basically unsustainable Rhizome Today experiment, our focus has skewed heavily toward long form articles–for a while, I've been feeling like we need more short form writing to ensure a better representation of a diverse field of activity. I'm curious, what kinds of work would you like to see covered more often on Rhizome?

Nicholas O'Brien July 21 2015 12:22Reply

Hey Michael:

I wouldn't say that Massumi's version of affect is asocial, just more individual (aka less networked). That's might be part of the problem of applying his kind of affect towards netart.

I agree that the term (new) media gets in the way (and I made a point of removing it from the nomination I submitted last week). I've noticed some of the discussion about the award's definition of netart are concerns regarding its media specificity. That focus, as opposed to the terminology or "theory salad" used to help substantiate/elevate netart itself, misses the point. As a result, I find some of that chatter is a merely splitting hairs, or else gets tangled in the same problems that plague Bosma and Hansen (namely, as you say, obfuscating the issue).

My second point is more about the format of nominations than about the lack of critical writing. For example, the volume of dissertations written about netart, new media, and post-internet is on it's own enough to fill a library (or landfill). But citing these for the award would not suffice Rhizome's criteria. Maybe this is a bad example, but one closer to home might be that I couldn't cite Bosma's Nettitudes or McHugh's Post-Internet (book) given that they are not linkable. Print publications don't suffice, even though these might be more valuable for a netartist to gain the kind of recognition they need to be considered for this prize. This isn't necessarily a "defense for the printed word," but it seems like relying on web-based long-form critical writing (an infrequently and often poorly edited format, IMHO) is maybe a hurdle that sets some netartists at an immediate disadvantage. (Again, please correct me if my understanding of this is mistaken).

More to the point, I wish Rhizome didn't have to abide by the same-same gatekeeper bureaucratic structure to support its community. But, as I'm sure you know, my idealism often gets the better of me.

Your last question is tricky! As an occasional contributor to Rhizome, I feel that I have some personal stake in answering - which might color my response as having a conflict of interest. That being said, I think a simple or immediate answer would be, "keep it weird." Or… hmmm… idk I go back and forth. I'd like to see research-based reporting about communities that are often unrepresented within the netart canon. Where are the online gamblers? The twitch.tv pranksters? The specialized 3D texturing forums? The fanfic authors? The troll instagram accounts? The bitcoin farmers?

Maybe they're here and I just haven't been paying enough attention. But maybe this isn't the place for them either. I only bring them up because those voices inspire my own work. Writing or coverage about their potential influence on other artists is what I'd be eager to see more of. How is netart part of the net? How is the net part of netart? What dialogs already exist, and which have yet to be sparked?

Michael Connor July 21 2015 12:40Reply

Yeah, I think the definition we offered is the opposite of media specific. A human body can act on a network, or a script can, or anything.

My thoughts on gatekeepers have evolved a little since writing this paper on the topic a few years ago, but I think it's relevant to share:

TLDR: crowd curation is not so interesting, because the value of curating is in someone staking out a position or performing a subjectivity, while also listening and being open to new things and the interests of an audience.

As far as things to cover, these are all good topics. Thanks!

Btw, Post Internet is here: http://www.linkartcenter.eu/public/editions/Gene_McHugh_Post_Internet_Link_Editions_2011.pdf

Nicholas O'Brien July 21 2015 12:50Reply

Thanks for the link to your paper!

I had known that Gene's book was online, but I guess I had just associated it with something beyond the scope of your criteria.

I think what you're aiming for is not media specificity at all, but often the arguments around the classifications of netart (from the little talk from the community that I've seen) revolve around those issues/concerns.

As ever, I try my best to contribute to the discussion when I can. Always glad for the convo.

Michael Connor July 21 2015 12:50Reply

OK I just looked at the link again and some of it is embarrassing, but I do like the French revolution stuff.

Rosa Menkman July 21 2015 16:50Reply

Personally I just dont believe "the internet" or "the net" are timely words.
All around me I hear and read about people saying that the internet is dead. What it used to be, that promise of connectivity, freedom, etc that was so critically engaged and tactically defended by artists, which Josephine describes so well in her book, has come of age and hasn't aged well. Most of us are now stuck up to our armpits waving only some fingertips at the corporate powers. There is hardly any room for tactics any more.The dream has turned into a nightmare, we have failed the internet.

At the same time the histories of the internet inform today, and will keep on informing our work tomorrow (I wonder what happens when all pre-2000 borns have died, but .. alas I will never know). So for now lets not be all “RIP internet” or even “post-internet” or anything silly like that. Of course this is not where it ends. We can still dance with it — However, I feel like dancing with the internet, the net, is like making moves with an old man. I like old men, but I would rather dance with the kids. They have more fresh moves. They have imagination. They know where the action is ..

So here comes my take:
Net Art net.art netart are rich histories, that inform many artists, stories, aesthetics, etc. But I feel the momentum right now is found in different problems and questions. The browser, the software, the OS, the social medium, etc. The problematics often relate or are informed by the platforms. The internet has transformed to insulated, leaky and walled, proprietary gardens, the platforms, on which users can grow their personal 'profiles'.
Platforms enforce resolutions upon us, the users, the makers, that enforce certain flows and expressions and frame them in very specific ways, while they forbid, prevent or exclude others ways and actions.

"the net", "Internet" and "network/ed" have become different things and are not the same as they were in the 90s. They are all still important and play their role in ongoing histories, but I fear this is just not the covering the action anymore.

ps. you could call it of course internets but it would really make you sound naive.

Also interesting read;
* http://www.e-flux.com/journal/too-much-world-is-the-internet-dead/

Michael Connor July 22 2015 13:35Reply

I think it's an excellent point that "the internet" is not a fixed entity, but changes over time.

Bosma has pointed out on various Facebook threads that all of the traits associated with postinternet art of the past few years were already present in net art. I agree with this, but I still think the term has validity, for the reason you point out: there were massive changes in the uses of the internet around the time of the iPhone's release and widespread adoption. I think it's perfectly valid to argue that this field effect wrought important enough changes to contemporary art to warrant a new term–although I'd suggest that postinternet should be considered a strain of/period in net art rather than an alternative to it.

Also, this shifting definition of "internet" is one reason why we are sticking more closely to the fuzzier, more informal term "net art" rather than the more formal one "internet art," another distinction Bosma analyzes in Nettitudes. It's also kind of why we say "computer networks" in the definition, rather than internet–this part is about something concrete and material, but it is meant to imply a much more open-ended relationship between the artwork and the network than the word "medium" allows.

The word "internet" is expansive and muddy, but it sounds specific and concrete, so most people insist on capitalizing it even when it's clear that they're actually are talking about social or economic practices rather than a specific, proper-noun technical infrastructure.

Chase Alias July 23 2015 13:45Reply

Defining Net Art, a Thread on Rhizome.org a Response
by DS Pollack as chasealias


An interesting thread has been popping up on my email these days. I guess there is a sort of ongoing conversation about the defining of Net Art. It's based around the application process for Net Prix. Which last year attempted to ask for that very definition. I have been carefully listening for my opportunity to chime in.

The thread on Rhizome.org adds valuable a perspectrive about the limitations of previous Net Art definitions. Leading to the interpretation of a need for Net Art to have a greater resemblance to Art in general. The Art and Artist must take into a account the viewer's responses, reactions and interactions. "I agree with this. Art and Artist's should utilize responses, reactions and interactions of the viewers as a basis for conceiving and creating Net Art". This is where I define Net Art, Alter Art(alter-ism), Conceptual Art and Particularly Dada Style Performance Art which when executed online as Net Art can hope to fulfill these issues.

Immersion Journalism and Social Networks have provided a natural progression in Net Performance Art(Alter Art).



DS Pollack

#NetArt, #NetPrix, #Rhizome, #DefiningNetArt, #AlterArt, #ConeptualArt, #PerformanceArt, #ThisIsMyArt, #NewMedia, #Immersionism, #chasealias, #DSPollack, #DefiningNetArt, #Art, #Dada, #Fluxus, #ConceptualArt

Tom Moody July 27 2015 08:14Reply

Thanks for confirming that Rhizome Today has been shelved. (Sorry if you did already and I missed it.) A complete archive of these "0-day" posts should be made public, if they aren't already. It's especially relevant in light of this discussion of the paucity of acceptable net art writing. All the artists you recommended in Rhizome Today posts cannot use these recommendations if they are permanently offline.