The Art World (and I) Go On Line
Art in America, December 1995, p.
Future art historians will mark the 1994-95 season as the year the art world went on line. Art buffs with the requisite computer-and-modem hardware and Internet access could discuss the Whitney Biennial and Lacanian theory, inspect an international array of museum schedules, search the International Repertory of the Literature of Art (RILA), and peruse auction prices from Sotheby's and Christie's. They could also view artworks--some for sale and others designed for electronic, interactive formats--by artists ranging from paleolithic daubers to Laurie Anderson.
The advent of this brave, new (electronic) artworld coincided, of course, with the emergence of its non-art-world counterpart. By the end of last season, some eight percent of American households were on line, most via commercial services such as America Online, Prodigy and Compuserve. Computer-equipped consumers could preview Sony's current film offerings, read--and discuss--Noam Chomsky's articles, and monitor Congress, Socks (the White House cat), the Cannes Film Festival, or the O.J. Simpson trial through transcripts updated daily on Time-Warner's Pathfinder site. Corporations, institutions and individuals have established approximately 300,000 Internet outposts since mid-1993, the majority of them on the World Wide Web (WWW), a portion of the Internet built on hypertext technology and the closest thing yet to that ill-defined "Information Superhighway." The astonishing rapidity of this information-explosion has been matched only by the media-driven hype surrounding it.
The enthusiasm of the Wired magazine crowd as embodied in columnist-investor Nicholas Negroponte's stimulating bestseller Being Digital is a far cry from the hyperbole of Louis Rossetto, the magazine's founder and publisher. "I thought there was a revolution going on more powerful than any political revolution," he recalled in an Apr. 11 lecture at the New York Public Library. Is it any wonder that talk about "post-political society" and the shake-up of social and economic relations has spawned a backlash? This perhaps inevitable phenomenon came embodied in spring books like Clifford Stoll's Silicon Snake Oil and Kirkpatrick Sale's Rebels Against the Future: The Luddites and Their War on the Industrial Revolution. On Apr. 26, the FBI released a letter by the "Unabomber," the bomb-sending terrorist(s), that dramatically underscored such criticism: "If you had any brains," (s)he wrote, "you would have realized that there are a lot of people out there who resent bitterly the way techno-nerds like you are changing the world." The apt analogy here is not to information haves and have-nots, but to the early-19th-century Luddites. Fearful that industrialization would impair their livelihoods and culture, they mounted attacks on factories and machines.
The new communications technology has already profoundly affected museums and libraries. Will it also revolutionize the production of art? As software mogul and art collector Peter Norton observed at a packed gathering of the International Association of Art Critics' at the Museum of Modern Art on Apr. 10, 1995: "We're at a crossroads. It's our job as critical thinkers to assess what's good and bad...in the new kinds of speech like multi-media and e-media."
My notes from that meeting bear two scrawled comments: "Remind S never to let anyone publish my e-mail" and "Weren't we all going to become TV producers--rather than consumers--after Nam June Paik introduced us to affordable video cameras?" Some anthropologists would argue that the history of technology is the history of humankind and that the essential questions about technology simply recur, rather than change. The appropriate art analogy may be that much of the most effective electronic art can, in fact, only be understood within the tradition of information-oriented, conceptual- and video art that emerged during the seventies. Even in these a-historical times, we all know that the Renaissance did not spring full-blown from Giotto's head.
1994-95 was also the season that I went on line. What follows is an account of my experiences from my first extended exposure to bulletin boards and on-line artworks last fall, to my decision at the end of the season to order the (expensive) hardware necessary for Net "surfing" at home. I also stress the subjectivity of this report because no single individual could partake of more than a tiny percentage of the available on-line art and art discourse. (In this article, I have discussed only a fraction of what I've seen on line this year.)
According to Timothy Druckrey, co-editor of the invaluable anthology, Culture on the Brink: Ideologies of Technology, more than 5000 artists have staked out sites on the Internet. Likewise, every large city offers several local electronic bulletin boards that compete with the corporate giants' services. Some of them host art conferences; most provide access to newsgroups--non-commercial forums on the Internet. To call this array of choices staggering is to be guilty of the grossest understatement. As with much of the cornucopia of programming offered by cable television, most of it warrants only a passing glance. Consider this article notes toward a guide to the exploding on-line art world, as well as a consideration of some of the political and psychic forces--such as the increasing tendency to censor electronic communication--that are shaping the emerging media.
A note about its format: The diary entries that follow are in italic type, while commentary that chronologically extends those entries to include related developments throughtout the 1994-95 season are printed in roman type.
Sept. 21, 1994 : Art For Sale
After an opening of a digital photography exhibition at the Fashion Institute of Technology, I met with classical musician Jeannie Novak and Pete Markiewicz, a former biologist and animator, who are the founders of Kaleidospace. We found a quiet trattoria in Chelsea where they turned on their Powerbook to show me demonstration disks that simulated the experience of an on-line visit to Kaleidospace. They call it the first commercial gallery on the Internet. (While most such claims are unverifiable, this one rings true simply because no contradictory information has crossed my desk at the Village Voice and because the graphical technology for Web "browsing" itself is so new.) Less than a dozen artists are represented in their virtual gallery; none are names I recognize, and most of their works are modestly priced. (http://kspace.com is Kaleidospace's site address or URL--uniform resource locator, which is necessary to reach an Internet "location.") In the case of 2-dimensional works on paper, entire prints are shown in imperfect resolution--augmented by sharp details--so perfect copies can't be downloaded. Individual artists presenting or "posting" art in the studio pay a $50 setup fee for the first piece, $25 for those that follow, and a $50 monthly charge for electronic maintenance. Galleries will pay more for the same services. (Kaleidosapce acts as an agent for other galleries as well.) Since artists are not represented in the traditional, career-building sense, Kaleidospace most closely resembles the existing retailing model of cable television's shopping channels.
By the end of June, 1995, Kaleidospace offered the work of 50 artists. It was joined by other commercial-gallery Web sites including: Rhombus (http://www.cybermalls.com/rhombus), the virtual counterpart of a gallery in Burlington; ArtNet (http://www.awa.com/artnetweb/) a New York bulletin board and Internet site featuring a registry of works by 15 artists (most of them for sale); and Plexus (http://www.interport.net/~plexus), an Internet site showcasing virtual exhibitions and works available for purchase. Many artists paying to post images of their art lack major gallery representation.
By contrast, dealer Thea Westreich's Artix (http://www.tiac.net:80/biz/artix) puts well-known galleries on line--offering images and information about artists affiliated with the Luhring Augustine, Allen Stone, and Marlborough galleries, among a dozen others. Westreich is unclear whether the posted images have resulted in sales. Her observation that the Internet is a better vehicle for selling collectibles than art is echoed by Kaleidospace's Jeannie Novak, who told me that "we've sold lots of low-end prints--and even a $650 lithography by Stephen Holland--but not too many originals."
Of all New York dealers, Sandra Gering has the highest electronic profile; she's moved far beyond using the net as a tool for selling art. Last season she presented Orlan in electronic video transmission from the shape-shifting body artist's hospital bed. This year the gallery showed the ambitious BioInformatica exhibition. It also boasts its own Internet site featuring Alter Stats, an ingenious work by artist John Simon Jr. that is a constantly changing statistical profile of visitors to the virtual space (http://www.interport.net/~gering/).
Should Larry Gagosian and Mary Boone be fretting about on-line competition? Not yet. Even with thousands of colors, the computer monitor is ill-equipped to reproduce the visual subtleties of light shimmering on bronze or the textures of paint on canvas. Art retailing is also a relationship-oriented enterprise often based on personal bonds between collectors and dealers. On the other hand, as an information-disseminating tool, the computer provides a reliable way of transmitting images about an already-known artist's work. Not surprisingly, the auction houses are currently investigating on-line publishing to alleviate the high cost of catalog preparation and distribution.
Sept. 25: Muntadas's File Room
I finally got around to seeing Antonio Muntadas's File Room (http://fileroom.aaup.uic.edu/FILEROOM.html)) today. [author's note, 2001: the current URL of The File Room is www.thefileroom.org] One of the first artworks on the World Wide Web (WWW), it went on line in May, 1994. I'd helped the well-known conceptualist solicit case histories for his archive of cultural censorship since the ancient Greeks through my column last year, but had no idea how extensive this data base would turn out to be.
The archive's reach is especially remarkable in its documentation of 20th century offenses. They range from the internment of Carl Muck, the Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor who was jailed in 1918 for refusing to play the national anthem, to the recent, alleged harassment of America Online users for violating the service's vague prohibitions against "vulgar language" or explicit sex talk. I was delighted to see that current--as well as historical--transgressions are being tracked by this ongoing work-in-progress. The File Room debuted with some 450 entries compiled by a team of researchers. Since then, members of the public have added hundreds of entries to the interactive data base. Visitors--some 200 of them access the site each day--will also find links to the on-line resources of free speech organizations like the ACLU.
In addition to its more-or-less permanent status on the Internet, the piece opened as an installation at the Chicago Cultural Center, where it was seen by 80,000 visitors in 1994. It was later shown in Leipzig and Bucharest. The archive offers citizens of these (and all) formerly totalitarian societies a site for anonymously documenting offenses commited by past regimes. Muntadas implied such possibilities in his introductory notes to the project, in which he referred to it--a la Beuys--as a "social sculpture" that "gains its meaning through a group effort of individuals, organizations, and institutions." I was reminded, too, of the liberatingly subversive impact of mail art 30 years ago. Although many Eastern Europeans are ostensibly freer now, the tragedy in former Yugoslavia is a disquieting reminder that the majority of those once cut off by the Iron Curtain remain powerless to determine their destinies.
Muntadas's interest in communication, systems, and the decentralization of power link The File Room to other projects (artwork doesn't seem like an apt descriptor) that exploit the Internet as a vast information resource, rather than simply a new means of distribution.
David Gillison's Crater Mountain Project (http://math 240.lehman.cuny.edu:80/crater/), for example, grew out of its creator's interest in ethnographic art, but he describes his aims as the development of "graphic communication tools," not the production of art. The New York art professor is working to implement a system of satellite, voice- and modem-based telecommunications (the so-called World Phone) to connect school children and conservationists in the Crater Mountain Wildlife Management area of New Guinea, with nearby villages, as well as with students and researchers at the Center for Long Distance Art and Culture at Lehman College in the Bronx.
Sept. 30: Art on Disk
Tonight I attended the awards ceremony at Lincoln Center for the New Voices, New Vision competition, which opened the New York Video Festival. Co-sponsored by the multi-media publisher Voyager, Interval Research Corporation and Wired, the competition was designed to recognize independent art work created to run on a computer. The works demonstrated for the audience were produced on floppy disks or CD-Roms--which stands for "Compact Disk Read only memory" and is also the format that presently epitomizes the so-called "multi-media." Although not an on-line technology, CD-Roms employ the digitized audio and video files used for on-line artworks and virtually every other electronic purpose. Given the expense of digitization, it's inevitable that artworks on disk will be increasingly re-purposed for on-line distribution.
Of the competition's three, $5000-prize winners (Hsin-Chien Huan, George Legrady, and Todd Robbins) only Legrady's allusive An Anecdoted Archive of the Cold War is really art. (Robbins' piece is a prototype for a musical toy.) Legrady's poetic collage of propaganda posters, photos documenting the Hungarian uprising, and visual memories of his refugee childhood is set in a virtual architectural environment that evokes a library suffused with Proustian allusions to the indexing and archiving of experience.
Because the winning works in the competition were demonstrated for the audience from an on-stage computer, a brief look replaced a self-guided experience of them. Voyager is producing all 25 of the winners and honorable mentions on an anthology-CD-Rom, slated for release in August, 1995, but the shockingly expensive technology currently makes their production impossible for most artists to even consider. Distribution possibilities are also limited. What multi-media artists need are the sort of services provided by Electronic Arts Intermix, a savvy rental-distribution outlet for selected video artists.
Oct. 20: Bulletin-Board Chat Fest
Today I went on line with Echo--the self-styled hip, arts-oriented New York bulletin board and on-line service provider--and began to monitor the conferences run by sponsors like the Village Voice and the Whitney Museum of American Art. The Whitney is the second museum to host an ongoing conference on a bulletin board. (Only the Smithsonian's conference on America Online has been in existence longer.) Museum curators and guests occasionally log on for real-time chat events, but the conference mostly provides ongoing bulletin-board style hosts discussions on such topics as "Artspeak from Hell," "My Favorite Works of Art," and "The Biennial."
I discovered that once can initially read months of old postings and then decide whether or not to add to the "conversation." Unfortunately, the level of discussion is almost invariably pretty unfocused, and more-than-vaguely reminiscent of all-night, college bull sessions. The Whitney's "Art Critics" discussion-topic, for instance, began in mid-1994 with these posted comments:
- Tetsuwan Nemo: Why isn't everyone a critic?
- KZ: I thought everyone was.
- Neandergal: I usually like reading any kind of criticism more than experiencing the actual 'thing' whether it's a book, movie, painting etc. That why I spend all my time on Echo instead of reading books....It's all commentary and you never have to feel anything.
Ironically, of the entire 15-or-so months of postings I perused, these first comments seem most representative--and salient.
One problem with the BBS format derives from its unnuanced quality vis-a-vis spoken conversation. (Just how much irony did Neandergal intend to communicate?) Another difficulty is anonymity. Vast numbers of bulletin board and Internet users employ "tags" or "handles." Many users find this elective role-play liberating and have referred to the intimacy-inducing quality of such exchanges. But I remain dubious about the state of intimacy in our televison- and radio-talk-show-ridden culture. What can intimacy mean when it's cloaked in anonymity?
This week I also started to monitor The Thing, which may be the oldest visual-art bulletin board in the country and certainly provides the most challenging level of posted art-discourse of any I've encountered. (The Thing can be reached at 212-366-9738; its log-on number is 212-366-1199.)
The Thing's several hundred subscribers sometimes passionately debate cultural and critical theory. (Users from branches--or nodes--in London, Geneva, Dusseldorf, Colgne and Vienna can also join the conversation.) Its conferencing areas are augmented with files of images and essays, access to such publications as the Journal of Contemporary Art, and frequently changing exhibitions and artworks. During the '94-'95 season, the range of on-line art extended from James Nare's swirl-art evoking prints to David Platzker's quicktime movies of artist-books by John Baldessari, which were simultaneously on view-under-glass at Printed Matter. I found the former seductively eye-popping; the latter--though crudely produced--a welcome look at Baldessari's classic, two-decade-old works. Thing projects are also exhibited on its web site at http://www.thing.net./thingnyc.
Two years ago, I asked artist Wolfgang Staehle--one of the founders of the non-profit bulletin board--whether or not the four-year-old network constituted his art. He adamantly denied it. Now it's the New York resident's fulltime creative work and a Beuysian social sculpture a la Tom Marioni's salon-style talk-fests at his Museum of Conceptual Art. In the face of mounting competition from corporate on-line services, boutique boards like The Thing are the Mom-and-Pop-store Davids battling the chain-store Goliaths.Staehle is currently scrambling to broaden his audience by providing subscribers with full on-line services and Internet access.
Nov. 8: The World's First Collaborative Sentence
Douglas Davis opened his exhibition, InterActions 1967-1981 at the Lehman College Art Gallery in the Bronx. (He co-directs the college's Center for Long Distance Art and Culture with gallery director Susan Hoeltzel.) Davis has long pioneered the creation of interactive performances and installations that humanize technology by revealing the desire embodied in cold steel and cathode rays. He's exhorted viewers to reach up and press their hands (and other body parts) against video monitors and produced the first global satellite performance in 1977. In the exhibition, the documentation of such activities, and the presentation of related artworks, demonstrated the continuity of his output.
At the opening of his show today, he presented an on-line performance called Discours Amoureux, which was a scripted dialogue with Russian artist Nathalie Novarina, who responded on a computer in Galerie St. Gervais in Geneva. Their elliptical, bilingual discussion of the nature of love was carried live on Echo.
In December, Davis inaugurated a Web site through the center's server or host computer (http://math240.lehman.cuny.edu/art). "Welcome to the World's First Collaborative Sentence" it announces invitingly. Six months later more than 1000 collaborators have left their mark on this text. Thirty or so lines into it someone wrote: "who do we think we are James Joyce's great grandchildren" and someone else responded, "or some kind of Gertrude." The Sentence is a surprising, often amusing colllaborative text that--with only a single image--makes ingeniously simple (and cheap) use of the hypertext medium. Davis is currently presenting the piece in gallery format at Korea's Kwangju Biennial. A first: New York mega-collector Eugene Schwartz purchased the Sentence for "what dinner for eight would cost at a decent restaurant."
Nov. 11: The Electronic Cafe
A New York branch of the Santa Monica-based Electronic Cafe International, conceived by Kit Galloway and Sherri Rabinowitz more than a decade ago, finally opened--at the Kitchen. (Other branches are located in France, Germany, and throughout the U.S.) The opening event was Cafe Barbie, a panel discussion about the iconic doll moderated by Barbie-maven M.G. Lord and augmented with live teleconferencing from Santa Monica and Paris. It was a technical disaster in the tradition of art transmissions via satellite ca. 1980: The Paris link didn't work, depriving us of the chance to see--although we could hear--Cindy Jackson, the surgically-altered "Living Barbie." Video from the Santa Monica cafe looked like a poorly dubbed movie because the slow-scan format unsynched speakers' words from the movements of their mouths.
The event was also a showcase for performance-art-style aggression a la early Kipper Kids or Karen Finley. An ill-tempered Lord rudely cut off performer-participants in Santa Monica who were showing us their altered, now anatomically correct Barbie and Ken readymades to screen videotaped comments by Camille Paglia and Raquel Welch. This event offered the audience no greater role or participation than seeing a film at the nearby Chelsea Multiplex. Why not cablecast it--live or taped--on that still-needed, artworld cable channel for performance and video art? Electronic media seem to be promoting the 20th century trend toward the location of private experiences in public.
The Kitchen went on to produce close to two dozen, on-line events throughout the '94-'95 season, some of them without the participation of the Electronic Cafe network. Perhaps the most resonant were two evenings of excerpts from Morton Sobotnik's Angel Concerto, which he claims to be the first full-scale, electronic opera. Teleconferencing linked the Kitchen with Santa Monica's Electronic Cafe and Studio X in Santa Fe, the studio of Kitchen founder Stein Vasulka. Although I missed them, friends reported that both concerts proceded without a technical hitch.
Dec. 3: "BioInformatica"
The most ambitious, on-line show of the season at a New York gallery--not that there was much competition--opened at Sandra Gering today [reviewed in A.I.A., July '95]. More accurately, "BioInformatica" incorporated a central, on-line component among a number of more traditional elements. The work of the X-Art Foundation collective (which publishes Blast), "BioInformatica" comprises a number of elements designed to blur the boundaries of real and virtual space. Visitors can don vividly colored capes (Parangole), which reinterpret the originals created by Helio Oiticia in the 1960s to encompass the body in spatial constructions-cum-performance sets. They can examine the Blast portfolio-publication, a series of bright-colored ovoid sculptures containing dozens of artists' multiples, which accompanies the exhibition. Most crucially, gallerygoers can engage with those in an on-line cybergallery or real-time environment known as a MOO (or Multi-user dungeon, Object Oriented--see below). An oversized projection of the computer screen on a gallery wall facilitates interaction--or at least viewing--by more than one or two visitors at a time.
Designed to "resemble" a real architectural site, this MOO (actually a component of the University of Virginia's ongoing Post-Modern-Culture MOO) includes a "lobby," a "gallery," and a virtual poets' "coffeeshop." Ongoing chat takes place with other on-line visitors to a particular space. In the "coffeeshop" I encountered what might have been a virtual come-on (represented as on-screen text) from "a hard working lad [with "gel glistening" on his "hair and tattered jeans"] who was born in Montreal, but works like a dog in Toronto." Two Blast-collective members distracted me with a demonstration of the wonders of MOO technology, which facilitate interactivity and playfully simulate some aspects of reality largely through text, rather than the enveloping, visually-oriented technology of virtual reality.
The parangoles in the Soho gallery, for instance, have their electronic counterparts in the gallery "space" of the MOO. Just as you can reach into the pocket of an actual parangole and retrieve a multiple from the Blast portfolio, you can also issue a programmed text command and "reach" into the pocket of the cyber-parangole causing a graphical map of the MOO to appear on-screen. (This ability to manipulate cyber-objects is what gives the MOO its name.) "Wakespace," another interactive object in the cyber-gallery, is a "book" which you can "pick up," activating a flow of text that seems to pour out onto your screen. It is an imaginative representation of the Blast portfolio.
What I have been describing as representations strikes Jordan Crandall, an X-Art collective member, as something more--the conflation of the real and the virtual. "I'm fascinated by the MOO's assumption of objects--even bodies--in space," he commented to me over actual coffee a week later. "You can gesture to people in the MOO; they're aware of your presence." I countered that this rhetorical conflation parallels Catharine MacKinnon's anti-porn position that representations and acts are equivalent, that imagery putatively degrading to women is rape. (The Canadian Supreme Court adopted this view and the so-called Butler decision has been used almost exclusively to prevent American feminist and lesbian/gay materials from crossing the border.) Inaccurate and hyperbolic terminology like virtual reality is a slippery, Wittgensteinian slope that is rapidly leading--as in Canada--to far more than rhetorical consequences. (The BioInformatica Internet site--at http://bug.village.virginia.edu:8080/blast4.html/ --documents and amplifies the show.)
Dec. 28: Censor Sensibility
The New Museum of Contemporary Art threw a birthday party for Bob Flanagan tonight in conjunction with "Visiting Hours," his harrowing hospital-room-installation made in collaboration with Sheree Rose. At one point, Flanagan, whose work explores the varied meanings of physical pain, lay nude on a bed of nails while opening presents. A stringer for Hot Wired (Wired's Internet publication at http:www.hotwired.com) shot digital photos of the festive goings-on for Internet transmission. I can't help musing that although the far-from-conventional party and show were not NEA-funded, that hardly immunizes them against assault by federal and state officials.
Although nothing happened in Flanagan's case, the federal judiciary has already taken up the regulation of images on the Internet. As early as July, 1994, Robert and Carleen Thomas, operators of a BBS (bulletin board service) in California, were convicted on obscenity charges after a federal agent in Memphis downloaded "patently offensive" images. (Many observers assume that the feds selected the Tennessee location in order to apply the area's conservative community standards to the case.) The Thomases are currently in federal prison, while their appeals are pending.
Nor have image-free, text-postings escaped legal regulation. This year, in February, University of Michigan student Jake Baker was arrested for posting a story called "Pamela's Ordeal" to the Internet news group "alt.sex.stories." He made the mistake of using a classmate's name in his narrative about torture and domination, although he had never spoken to her. (A UM alum who happened to be in Moscow alerted officials to Baker's posting.) According to Andrew Taubman, executive director of the Electronic Freedom Foundation--a free-expression lobbying group--Baker was communicating with a "Usenet group that had other similar postings. They accepted it as a type of writing that is acceptable under their community standards." (a federal judge dismissed charges against Baker on June 21.) Late in the '94-'95 season, some senators actually scapegoated the Net for the May 1995 bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City. At a hearing on the bombing, Senator Dianne Feinstein, a moderate Democrat, took issue with First Amendment advocates defending the place of bomb-building information on the Net that is already widely available in libraries. On June 15, 1995, the Senate passed a bill mandating fines of up to $100,000 and prison terms for people who knowingly transmit indecent material over a computer network accessible to people under age 18. (Indecency is a concept lacking precise legal meaning.) Given the current, increasingly inhospitable climate for free speech, the struggle for long-established First Amendment rights will need to be re-fought if they are to be extended to expression in cyberspace.
Jan. 9, 1995: Virtual Museums
The University Art Museum's new web site (http://www.uampfa.Berkeley.edu) is among the most substantive of any American art museums' Internet offerings. It was timed to go on line in connection with In A Different Light, the museum's examination of so-called queer sensibility, which has brought me to Berkeley. Featuring color images and meaty chunks of text, the museum's web site is available before the actual catalog, which will not be ready for the exhibition's opening in mid-January. The online texts are enhanced by useful hypertext links--the Queer Resource Directory can be accessed at the click of a mouse from material about the show's "Family" section, the Safe Sex Website from the "Orgy" section, and so on. These valuable links are likely to reach--and perhaps educate--a receptive, non-art audience of gay men and lesbians who will be attracted to the site for its queer content.
Unfortunately, most museums seem to regard their Internet outposts mainly as vehicles for the dissemination of publicity and programming information, rather than education or viewer interaction. At the International Association of Art Critics panel at MoMA on Apr. 10, Dia Center for the Arts director Michael Govan noted that Dia's primary motive for establishing its site (http:www/diacenter.org) was to more efficiently spread the word about Dia programs to an international audience. This should probably come as no surprise in an era when every museum's publicity director has been renamed "director of communications." (The Dia site does feature Tony Oursler's and Constance de Jong's Fantastic Prayers performance "repurposed" for Internet viewing, but its fragmented video clips and performance stills don't add up to much.)
Even the Whitney, under the direction of new-media aficionado David Ross, offers little innovative programming on its Web branch (http://www.echonyc.com/~whitney). At its best, it presents an irresistible artist's project by conceptualist and former California gubernatorial candidate Lowell Darling culled from his Hollywood Archaeology archive of enigmatic found photos. (The text-and-image amlgams of photo-conceptualism are well-suited to digital reproduction.) More typical of the prevailing lust for visibity is the electronic, hypertextual link established by the Whitney on the guestbook--normally a place for comments--of the File Room. (No permissions are required for creating this sort of interactivity.) Instead of confronting its own record on censorship--every museum has one--the Whitney simply offered a side-trip to its site.
The most stimulating exception to the U.S. museum world's lack of imagination in Internet programming is the examination of the ethics of bioengineering, which complements the Diving Into the Gene Pool exhibition (it closed on Sept. 4) at the Exploratorium--San Francisco's museum of hands-on science and art (http://www.expoloratorium.edu/). If an on-line, museum model exists for museums, it is the state-supported French museums. These well-financed institutions have collectively staked out a more sophisticated Internet presence than any of their counterparts throughout the world. The constantly expanding Louvre site (http://www.paris.org/Musees/Louvre) now showcases reproductions of the museum's Vermeers. But the museum's on-line exhibition schedule is hopelessly out-of-date, underscoring the necessity of constant maintenance and up-dating. Even so, the most conceptually and visually rewarding World Wide Web site to appear this year is the French Ministry of Culture's showcase for the Paleolithic cave paintings found in the Ardeche. The caves were re-discovered last Christmas and the web site--with four gorgeous reproductions from the inaccessible caves--was up less than two months later (http://dmf.culture.fr/culture/gvpda-en.htm.).
Ironically, while American museums' education, publication, conservation, and communications departments have already, in many cases, gone digital, few contemporary-art-curators are willing to place computer terminals in their galleries to show electronic works. Interested curators like the New Museum of Contemporary Art's Laura Trippi, MoMA's Barbara London, or the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art's Bob Riley have already presented digital-format works, but they comprise a very distinct minority. By contrast, Karlsruhe, Germany is completing its art and media museum, ZKM, which will be devoted to art of the past 25 years, especially electronic art.
Jan. 30: Multi-Purposing On Disc and On Line
The multi-media world's been buzzing this week: As many observers suspected, the Christmas sales figures on CD-Roms were disastrous. The mostly independently produced disks suffered from distribution and marketing problems, and from their related reliance on sweat equity, rather than the financial involvement of established publishers. Many observers believe that this non-interactive digital format is transitional and that the real explosion of electronic, multi-media publishing will be located on the Internet. (The journals and magazines have already migrated there; secure electronic billing is imminent.) My recent experience is typical: The publishers of my contemporary- and modern-art guides, ArtSpeak and ArtSpoke, are ambivalent about spending the several hundred thousands dollars necessary to produce a CD-ROM version. The cost of rights for the 1000-or-so, desired images is just one stumbling block. But there'd be little point in "repurposing" an art book for CD-Rom without such visual fireworks or, as the MBAs say, without adding value to the product.
Although the digitized audio and visual computer files necessary for CD-Rom production can be repurposed for on-line viewing, many artists are pursuing strategies that obviate translating a work conceived for one format into another. David Blair's landmark Waxweb (http//bug.village.virginia.edu) is far more than a repurposed version of his 1991 film Wax; Blair suggests thinking of it as "a triple CD shareware version of the film made available to you across the Internet." It encompasses the entire, obsessively disjunctive art film about James Hive-maker, a World War I-era "spiritualist cinematographer" and peripatetic collector of images of the dead, in 4800 color stills, 560 video clips, and 2200 audio clips available in multiple languages. Viewers can travel through this dreamy narrative shot by shot or they can see all of the film's stills sorted into eccentric categories that constitute a downright Baldessari-esque perspective on the filmed imagery. Occupying a gargantuan 1.5 gigabytes of hard disk space, it is, according to Blair, the largest hypermedia narrative document on the Internet. This is another of those claims that is likely to be true.
Other artists are pursuing multii-purposing--rather than re-purposing--modus operandi. Longtime conceptualist and media-artist Peter D'Agostino conceived his recent installation TRACES (between the bombs) as both a site-specific installation and a hypertext World Wide Web project (http://www.temple.edu/~traces). Incorporating childhood home movies, video footage of Hiroshima's annual peace ceremonies, and archival imagery, TRACES is a disguieting meditation on the ultimate weapon of destruction. The installation's layers of video, photo and interactive-digital-video are perfectly suited for viewing on line. D'Agostino's multi-purposing approach is also the favored m.o. of electronically-inclined, installation artists such as Perry Hoberman and Lynn Hershman-Leeson.
March 2: Programming Women
Today K reminded me that it's Women's History Month, an occasion no longer much noticed--for good and bad--in the art world. It's easy to assume that few women are involved with on-line art: high technology, after all, is the quintessential boy's toy. But happily this assumption doesn't hold up. K's reminder did get me thinking about women and electronic art production as I walked to artist Cati Laporte's East Village apartment for a demonstration of her work. Laporte, a feisty French artist living in New York, would like to provoke criminality with her faux postage stamps commemorating the dark underbelly of the American psyche and body politic. (Postal patrons who use her stamps rather than the real thing are subject to fines.) Alleged Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh (Homegrown Terrorist), and Amy Fisher are some of her stamp-portrait "subjects," many of which are visible on her Web site (http://razorfish.com/bluedot/fire/). But Laporte's stamps are gummed objects, while another of her projects, The Living Almanac of Disasters (http://Gromit.khm.Uni.Koeln.DE:80/~wbi/Index/Smoking/Calender/Dis_Cal.html) recontextualizes similar material conceived directly for the Net. Everyday brings another bummer in this worst of all possible worlds; today, for instance, offers the disastrous 1911 fire in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory that killed 150 women, illustrated by a news photo.
Susan Farrell has also produced an intriguing body of work for the Web. Farrell's Art Crimes project (http//www.gatech.edu/desoto/graf/Index.Art_Crimes.html) is a collection of handsome photos of graffiti that originated, in September 1994, with 150 images the Georgia student had shot in Atlanta and Prague. It registered 172,000 "hits"--or accesses--during its first two months on-line. Four months later the gallery had mushroomed to 700 photos of graffiti from 22 cities. It is also a sort of club house for an international group of underground artists with few means of communicating.
Other notable projects by women are Victoria Vezna's Virtual Concrete (http://www.arts.ucsb.edu/~vive/), which offers "viewers" a chance to "order" and "pick up" a custom-designed, virtual body via e-mail, and Nina Sobell and Emily Hartzell's Park Bench (see below).
Apr. 4: The Robotic Eye and the ParkBench
Nina Sobell and Emily Hartzell are artists-in-residence at New York University's Center for Digital Multiamedia, where I visited them last night. This institutional affliliation affords them access to a high-tech camera in a robotic "eye" which can be steered by observers moving their mouses during regular 10pm, Monday-night demonstration-performances visible on the center's web site (http://found.cs.nyu.edu/cgi-bin/labcam.videos). Clicking on the image of Sobell sculpting a Giacometti-esque clay figure yields a picture of the artist at work from the selected perspective. It's the kind of gee-whiz technology that conjures up visions of European surgeons watching their American counterparts perform a tricky new procedure.
With assistance from New York City's board of education, ParkBench plans to bring a network of interactive computer kiosks to heavily trafficked public sites like Penn Station by the end of the year. Kiosk users will be able to surf the Internet for free, get neighborhood news and tourist information, and communicate via video link with the users of other kiosks. These media-studios-in-the-street also seem to fulfill the late '60s promise of genuinely interactive communication via then-newly affordable video technology. Is that Nam June Paik sitting on this bench?
Apr. 17: Alternative (Cyber)Space
I received the New York Foundation for the Arts' survey called "The State of the Digital Arts" in the mail today. The detailed questionnaire is intended to assess the needs of artists for electronic equipment and training, along with the possibilities for showing and distributing digital artworks. It's an impressive effort to quantify genuine need at a time when arts-funding cuts are often made on the basis of dotty anecdotes and crackpot assumptions.
Getting the survey also made me want to take another like at Arts Wire (http://www.tmn.com/0h/Artswire/www/awfront.html/), the three-years-old, grant- and member-funded network NYFA operates. It's grown explosively since I first saw it demonstrated in 1993.Widely considered the largest art network on line, its importance as a repository of essential information and a center for progressive politics is sure to increase as the National Endowment for the Arts slowly fades into oblivion.
Organizations like the National Association of Artists' Organizations (NAAO), Visual AIDS, the National Campaign for Freedom of Expression and numerous state art councils are among Arts Wire's 600 members. But arts administrators aren't Arts Wire's only constituency. Artist-users with more down-to-earth needs can also scour grant deadlines, news items, and job opportunities. (The newsgroup alt.arts.nomad is also a handy source of up-to-date arts info.) I particularly enjoyed a look at the Artists' Conference, which provides a place for art makers to post messages on topics ranging from the practical (dealing with commercial galleries) to the sublimely soulful (recalling teachers, mentors, and influences). Arts Wire is also the site of a few artists' "homepages"--the introductory texts and graphics that open Web documents and are often merely expanded resumes and slide sheets. Photo-conceptualist Jeff Gates applied his wry sensibility to his site-as-self portrait. State of the art graphics and autobiographical text-and-photo pieces embellish his mini-memoir in the rhetorical style of Spalding Gray. (Another amusing work by Gates, Everyone Has A Twin, is visible at http://www.tmn.com.0h/community/jgates/home.html).
Apr. 23: Virtual Community
The New York Times ran a piece today about the late futurist and computer networking specialist Tom Mandel, who went on-line with his fatal, five-month long struggle with lung cancer. The current buzzword for describing such ongoing electronic intercourse is "virtual community." The newfound ubiquity of the term "community"--as in the art community, the gay community, or the Latino community--is the most telling indicator of its increasing scarcity in American life.
Perhaps the single most surprising feature of electronic society is its sociability. Wolfgang Staehle noted that he used to meet the denizens of The Thing at Odeon, the Tribeca restaurant and art-world watering hole, now he meets them on line. Non-virtual electronic gatherings are ubiquitous as well. Echo hosts frequent readings at downtown Manhattan performance spaces and old-fashioned mixers at clubs and bars. I attended one packed and smoky Echo gathering at the downtown Art Bar which was entirely unremarkable save for a conversation with a Wall Street broker who'd skipped work that day to write an anti-censorship screed that he'd already posted to a newsgroup. Commercial service providers' motives for fostering such get-togethers come into play, of course, but it would be a mistake to underestimate the desire for connectedness that is literally embodied in the technology of computer networking.
May 15: The Electronic (Art) Subculture
I returned from a week away today to find numerous e-mail messages about an on-line conference called "Technoshamanism: Reality or Nonsense?" Artist-organizers Jill Scott (in Karlsruhe, Germany) and Joseph Nechvatal (in Paris) provided provocative introductory materials: "Terence McKenna, a contemporary philosopher, believes that technology is becoming a substitute for these kinds of ancient rituals [liberation of the mind through incantations, trance dancing, drugs] which were once evident in many nomadic cultures....Are we entering an era of Technoshamanism?" Prior to the event, potential participants were asked to contribute their own concerns. Writer Curtis Lang, for instance, evoked the problem of anonymity on the Internet, suggesting that the conference consider the question of "the virtual persona and the Trickster archetype" that's accompanied the proliferation of new telecommunications technology. "Technoshamanism" utilized a MOO-format comparable to BioInformatica's virtual space, but I failed to access it as the conference's final hour dawned. The wrong TelNet address, perhaps? Happily some commentary will be published on line by TightRope Digital Magazine (http://www.phil.uni-sb.de/tightrope.html), one of the few art publications on the Net that specifically addresses electronic artworks. (The more academic Leonardo Electronic Almanac--at http://www.mitpress.mit.edu/Leonardo/home.html--is another.)
The "Technoshamanism" conference is a forceful reminder that there are several art worlds that exist apart from the commercial gallery and museum "mainstream." The electronic art world and the public art world are two of these ghetto realms. (Adjectives that modify art--like public or feminist-- always signify reduced status.) Year after year, the electronic art world's premier exhibition-event since 1979, Ars Electronica (http://www.ars.co.at/ars) in Linz, Austria, goes virtually unnoticed by the American art media. $20,000 in prize money was awarded to this year's trio of winners in the World Wide Web category. First prize went to a large team of Canadian artists that confabulated a "game" called Idea Futures (visible at the URL above). To vastly oversimplify, anyone who wants to play Idea Futures is given virtual money to invest in--that is, bet on--technological breakthroughs that might yield a profitable "investment" portfolio. "Investors" can discuss the wisdom of backing particular technologies with other "investors" through e-mail. Welcome to the literal marketplace of ideas.
June 13: Art Star
"Jenny Holzer live on America On Line," blared the computer-screen announcement for an on-line chat with the renowned artist tonight. I opted to monitor the discussion on line, although I'd also been invited to the real event at the @Cafe in the East Village, which was being held to celebrate Holzer's new work Please Change Beliefs, located on a new site for electronic art called ada 'web (http://adaweb.com.) (One can contribute aphorisms to Holzer's largely repurposed work on the web;, or take in Securityland, a more compelling project by surveillance artist Julia Scher.) Getting art stars like Holzer to work on the Web is perhaps the most attention grabbing--albeit not necessarily the most aesthetically satisfying--way to generate interest in works on the Net.
Alas, the chat session on AOL was ludicrous. Holzer wasn't really fast enough on her fingers to enlarge on the often simplistic questions posed to her. She probably had no idea of how the technology undermined her well-intentioned responses either. On-line audience members saw not only her remarks on their computer screens, but those of a dozen fellow audience members (virtually) seated in the same (virtual) row in America On Line's (virtual) auditorium known as the Odeon or "the People Connection." The on-screen chat I saw from my "row" consisted primarily of Beavis and Butthead-style remarks supplied by audience members who understood neither Holzer nor her art.
But the technology, as a young houseguest watching with me remarked, is "awesome." In any case, no more than 70 subscribers were simultaneously logged on during the session. (AOL thoughtfully provides this info at the top of your screen). I had naively assumed there would be thousands. Perhaps the promise of "niche" programming--something for everybody--that cable television once seemed to offer, will be fulfilled on the Internet.
June 15: Incident in Switzerland
Over the next few days, I received numerous e-mail messages about a symposium and exhibition called "Incident" to be staged in the 15th-century Belluard fortress in Fribourg, Switzerland, during the first weekend of July. This event is slated to bring together artists and scientists to discuss parapsychology, artificial intellence, visionary religious experience and UFOs. The scheduled keynote speakers include Jacques Vallee, astrophysicist and UFO authority, and light-and-space artist James Turrell, who plans to create site-specific works in the Belluard's marvelous nooks and crannies. Numerous other artists including Ulrike Rosenbach, Kathleen Rogers, and Homer Flynn (of the Residents) are also presenting work and/or speaking. Not only does this program intend to explore essential connections between art, science, and religion--rather than pursuing a trendy, cultural-studies m.o.--it also seems to join the concerns of the art world and the electronic art world. Unfortunately, I can't even consider attending because I'll be en route to California to teach. But I'm sure I'll be able to read the conference procedings on line.
June 20: Post-Script
Will the Internet revolutionize art production? By the end of the season, it remains unclear whether the (mainstream) art world will soon embrace on-line art. On one hand, virtuality seems to have little place in a system predicated on materiality. On the other, conceptualist and neo-conceptualist approaches are again driving contemporary art. This will encourage the creation of works especially suited for on-line distribution. (Likewise, the theorization of the precedent-setting role of 70s, conceptual- and media art will help.)
Ultimately, however, non-art-world forces will fuel the push toward on-line art. The imminent ubiquity of on-line capacity in upscale American households will offer information-age artists audiences that are simply too large to ignore. Nor is the second generation of art-school graduates raised on television and ignorant of the modernist abyss that once separated high art and popular culture likely to ignore this phenomenon. Coupled with the Malthusian dilemma of a burgeoning number of artists facing a diminishing art market, the handwriting on the studio wall gets much clearer.
Contemporary artists have long attempted to shake up audiences with non-traditional formats such as earthworks, performances, and video art that seem far less digestible than on-line art. But all to no avail. The art world is an eco-system that has proved, over the course of the 20th century, to be remarkably adaptable. As the millennium approaches, the current onslaught of bits and bytes may be just the tonic it needs.
[Sidebar] Getting Around
The boom in art activity on the Internet has largely taken place on the World Wide Web (WWW). Its hypertext technology allows users to click on a delineated word- or image "hotspot" in one document to link it to another document--a sound, graphic, or text file--located anywhere on the Internet. The Web's recent success derives from the development of the user-friendly, point-and-click-based, graphical interfaces of the software needed for Web navigation, which are known as browsers. The poineering development of a graphical Web browser took place at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois and culminated in the release of the Web browser Mosaic, in January, 1993. (Today Mosaic has been eclipsed by the Netscape browser.)
But at the moment, "surfing" the Internet is like gallery-going in Soho with no guide. The compilation and indexing of information is a rapidly emerging, cyber growth industry. A dozen or so museum indexes or lists already exist. The most complete is the Virtual Library's Museum Pages (http://www.comlab.ox.ac.uk/archive/other/museums.html), which is subdivided into lists from the US, the UK, and the World. Its definition of museums is quite broad and includes university galleries and the Getty's remarkable AHIP (Art History Information Program), which facilitates middle-of-the-night bibliographical searches. World Wide Web Arts Resources (http://www.cgrg.ohio-state.edu/Newark/galleries.html) indexes institutional and non-institutional offerings. Its staggering range extends from Frida Kahlo and Christo/Jean-Claude, to Harold Edgerton's On-Line Photo Gallery and the remarkable Fluxus site featuring live-art gems like a warbling Yoko Ono (http://anansi.panix.com:80/fluxus/).
Numerous search "engines" or key word searches also exist. Three giants of the field--Lycos, WebCrawler, and InfoSeek--are available by clicking on the Net Search button of Netscape, the current Web browser or navigational software of choice. My favorite is the wonderfully named Web Crawler (http://webcrawler.com). While searching for Laurie Anderson's sites, I misspelled her name Laure Anderson and pulled up a female body builder's home page. Correctly spelled, Laurie Anderson elicited 78 document-citations, most of them by fans who have cited the performance artist on their sites. More sophisticated search engines are no doubt under development, but the Web's hypertext technology characteristically yields deliriously Surrealistic reults.
Net surfing is also invariably frustrating. During a meandering New York Public Library-sponsored conversation between cyberpunk author William Gibson and artificial intelligence expert Pamela McCorduck on May 11, the latter laughingly complained: "I am always disappointed by the technology. I've spent 30 years saying to engineers, 'Is that all this can do?'" Gibson retorted, "If I'd known what I know now when writing Neuromancer, the technology would never have worked so well." In fact, when one is on line, systems inevitably and inexplicably fail: a network goes down, an e-mail file crashes, a Web site is unreachable because too many other computer users have already accessed it, or because long distance lines are overwhelmed by caller-traffic. A bit of advice: On the East Coast, Internet access is much faster in the morning, before Californians have gone on line.