Art of the Network
- the first decade of net.art

Notes for presentataion at the International Conference on Archiving Web Resources.

Melinda Rackham

No use without permission

It is impossible to imagine life today without the internet and its emergent networked culture. Online we read the latest news as it happens, check the weather, browse new research, book planes and hotels, go internet dating, pay bills, play games, or look at our friends and families websites or blogs.

Today I am looking at a slice of this parallel universe – net.art which refects the cultural, social and political issues of the users who inhabit this domain. I will talk about three distinct stages in networked art (showing some of the massive range of networked art forms online, focusing on Australian work):

Adoption -how existing art forms have moved onto the internet :
Adaptation - how the net itself has symbiosis and evolution of net art ;and
- the issues involved in the preservation and/or migration or these art works.

It is easy to see why artists were drawn to the net. When Marc Andresson’s Netscape Web Browser was introduced in 1994 opened up new frontier of space unmediated by the art museum. Unlike previous browsers it promised aesthetic control over embedding graphics and sound into pages of easily navigated text. It was such a leap forward that Tim Burners-Lee the creator of HyperText Transfer Protocol (HTTP), HyperText Markup Language (HTML), hated Netscape, as he feared the “visually appealing web was becoming frivolous”, split from its original “serious” intention, and “would lead to destructive competition that would create proprietary Web products that could destroy the open nature of the Web” [1] .

On the net artists could retain complete control of their content, they could not be censored, and they could be instantly connected to a global audience. Already existing art forms such as drawing, poetry, video, animation, radio and the theory surrounding them moved to the net, adopting the unique aesthetic of chunky pixelated low resolution images, low bit sound, and rhythmic feel of download art:

eg: Enrique Radigales (Spain) - http://www.idealword.org
At first glance the mouse drawings of Idealword .org are just a deliciously reformatted version of the everyday work environment , with banal subject matter as portraits of other office workers and seminar attendees, or line drawing of nudes and major works from art history.

But when we look at the source code the jumbled and illegible horizontal blocks of text which add perspective and composition to the drawings can be read . Revealed beneath the surface are weird and wonderful (often Spanish) texts - exerts from Microsoft Word Readmes, psychology texts, tedious lists or law documents. Idealword plays with and text as image and the physicality of the net, telling a story and revealing new perspectives in a playful manner.

eg: Jenny Weight (Au) - http://www.idaspoetics.com.au/generative/generative.html
This shockwave generated poem puts the William Burroughs' cutup concept into the computer. But this is really just the newest version of 'combinatory literature' or permutational text ( poetry generated according to a strict mathematical or now programming rules) which has been around since the 4th century AD. These poems explore such contemporary subjects as the Refugee Detainment and Kyoto Protocol.

Flash Animation:
The cinematic genres like video and animation have moved smoothly to their new home, with chunky streaming video become more popular as bandwidth increases.Low bandwidth vector graphic native to the net, has penetrated almost every corner of the web – from cute interactives, to advertisements and games. Flash works are now being used for television video clips and is shown at major festivals.

eg: Isobel Knowles (Au) - http://ik.rocks.it
ik.rocks it is an online gallery of apparently 'cute' digital works with an unexpectedly warped twist, made in shockwave and flash. This is a playful environment where stripped back interactive and pixel simplicity can be endlessly amusing.

Net Radio:
net radio was a perfect for the web, with its nonhierarchical communication between producers and listeners. net radio transcends national boundaries, you can listen to everything from the sound of Linux server code, to political content to people sharing their favorite playlist.

Distributed Theory:
Another aspect of online art practice is that theory and practice are intertwined. Artists share resources and ideas through online mailing lists like:

eg: –empyre- (Au) - http://www.subtle.net/empyre
this is an online space for the discussion of media and networked arts and cultural practice as it happens. It currently run by myself and 4 other facilitators in north America and Europe and is to eb archived by Cornell University . -empyre- invites new guests (local and international new media artists, theorists, curators and others) to discuss a theme on a changing monthly basis. This way no one group or opinion can ever dominate the list. This month’s theme is art artificial –life art, or alife art, last month was online art and the US election.


Net.art has also evolved in symbiosis with the parameters and the possibilities of the Web environment itself. The online context has influenced artists creative process. Forms have Mutated, and new and hybrid practices have emerged. The web itself as a living organism supplies the raw data which is reformatted and recontextualised to become an artwork.

Browser Interventions:
eg: Mark Napier (USA) - http://www.potatoland.org/shredder/
Shredder reminds us that the web is a temporary media.
Is not a fixed publication, it is not solid and it is not permanent.
The web is an illusion based on conventions of HTML, so that when we break those conventions the whole legibility of the net disappears. Napier says:
“The Shredder presents this global structure as a chaotic, irrational, raucous collage. By altering the HTML code before the browser reads it, the Shredder appropriates the data of the web, transforming it into a parallel web. Content become abstraction. Text becomes graphics. Information becomes art.” [2]

eg: Tim Plaistead (Au) -http://www.boxc.net/media/
Surface Browser represents the experience of internet surfing as a deluge of images rather than as flat pages of text. The piece works on the level of the imagination rather than as functional data interface. Many net metaphors relate to water: web surfing, streaming media, data pipes, but the mediated experience is often far from fluid. Surface Browser turns the web into liquid space remapping the existing images of web sites into a water tunnel wghich carries you along.. the speed is controlled by a joystick.

Multi-user Virtual Reality and Game spaces:
are the largest genre of of online culture, with conservatively around 10 million users, Lineage (South Korea) alone has 4 million paying members. Second life (USA) illustrates that online and offline reality intersect when you can exchange money earned in the fantasy world for $US and other products available off-line.Artists are responding by performing inside game spaces, or authoring game modifications or their own games, or creating new theatrical and cinematic forms like avatar performance and machinima.

eg: Selectparks (Au) - http://www.acmi.net.au/acmipark.jsp
ACMIpark is not a game as such but a site-specific online multi-user extension of the ACMI media museum set in a luscious landscaped environment. The characters actually look like you or me (rather than silicon enhanced clones). You can explore the building and access some art works, teleport round the park, jump into the flow of the stream, fly off the bounce pads to get a birds-eye view of the world space. This is cultural gaming - where the object isn't to kill but to create your own art experience. Instead of shooting you throw dynamic light balls that have distinct sounds and a different effect on other players, and use your avatar's body movement to compose audio tracks in the interactive sound Rinks.

is another emergent form. These movies, or machine cinema, are captured inside altered game environments and edited into often ironic or humorous movies.

Tactical Media:
online works,art works designed to affect offline space.

eg: 0100101110101101.org/ (Slovenia) - http://www.nikeground.com/
Nikeplatz project involved setting up a site and an offline installation which made it appear that Karlsplatz in Vienna had been sold to Nike and they were renaming it Nikeplatz and erecting huge Swoosh sculpture. It was so convincing that it sparked national discussion about corporate acquisition of public assets. In 2001 at the Venice biennial this group also exhibited a computer virus as a piece of art -the 'biennale.py' project. The source code of the virus has been made public and spread on the opening day of the Biennial. The virus is still in the wild, according to Nortons.

Mixed Reality:
Blast Theory (UK) - http://www.canyouseemenow.co.uk/
Net.art also plays with its boundaries by creating art works when data captured from one space is transposed and revisualised in another location; or when the monitored interactions of both artists and users becomes the bio-input for an artwork.

Locative Media:
Networked.art has grown far beyond its origins in only a decade, expanding far too rapidly for me to cover today. New genres are constantly emerging as we and net.art become more and more mobile. Today we aren’t interacting with art in front of computer screens at desks, but in out the street, the park or the countryside on intimate screens. The combination of mobile devices like mobile phones and PDAs with locative technologies, supports experiences and social interaction that respond to a participant's physical location and context.


Collection (preservation and migration)

With so many forms how do cultural institutions decide what to archive ?Take for example blogs, the new hybrid literary form of net.art Do amateur, intimate style web sites reflect the era much more than professional artists blogs ?


eg: Miss Helen (Au) - http://www.spycore.net
Spycore.net is a personal blog which showcases the things Miss Helen makes an does, including, zines, knitting, crafts, flash movies. The site takes inspiration from fibre arts, with its use of textural ginghams and fabric samples for navigation. And gives us an insight into the everyday life of a girl in the western suburbs who likes knitting and her boyfriend.

eg: Damien Frost (Au) - http://www.objectnotfound.net
Object Not Found takes its name from the Error 404 "object not found" dead link message. This is an online archive of "lost" images ( literally discarded and found post cards and photos ) from the physical world. It is already a museum of everyday life where the viewer can glimpse a small part of other peoples lives, their lost dreams, loves and memories.

eg: Peter Murphy (AU) -VR Panorama Blog -http://www.mediavr.com/blog/
Here 3d web technologies are combined with blogging to make a "panoramic vr" blog. Quicktime VR scenes and some text on Australian cultural happenings are uploaded to the site every few days. It enables us to immerse ourselves in the public cultural political and social life of our nation, actually getting the feeling of being at events we would otherwise have no knowledge of.

Which one would you keep, which is of most cultural value?The one with standard functions which are easiest to archive? the one with the highest quality pictures? one with the most intimate text? They give three very different picture of online culture today.

Speaking as both an artist and a curator it is extremely frustrating that our net.art work of the last decade, that is the early period of innovation and experimentation is decaying and disappearing before my eyes.

Code Art:
Artists who push the envelope often do it using java, javascript or the recently developed proce55ing, but these are not standard or easy to archive.

eg: Jimpunk ( France) - http://www.jimpunk.com/1n-0ut/
Jimpunk’s code weaves the experience fun quick art, which takes over your browser, makes you sit back and become a passenger.. powerless to stop it, a subject of you own computer. He accentuates the pixelated nature of the web, simple repeated graphic elements , and exhausts the chunky aesthetics of the interlaced giff. This is quiet mild and aesthetically pleasing compared to some other which are really scary and make you think you’ve just had a very nasty virus attack.

- Code changes
- Standards change.
For example in the mid/late 1990s many works experimented with DynamicHTML to create in-page animation before Flash rose to the prominence it has today. But DHTML is no longer widely supported, so many works from this era have ceased to function, and sit as jumbled static images that make no sense to the user.

- Work will look different on every computer.
-Some works no longer function because the hardware to run them has disappeared
.-Refresh rates of monitors change altering the look of a work. Early net art was made for low res smaller monitors and looks lost on current high res big screens.

-Works dependent on processor speed have to be altered to keep functioning properly -Connection speeds alter the unique rhythm of an internet art work. Even works like Shredder and Surface Browser which feeds on the code of the net will alter over time as the coding practice alters.

-eg- Glen Murphy (Au) -http://bodytag.org/compose4/
These pieces were all programmed in Java, and creation of more recent works was greatly aided by use of the Processing environment.

However java is not always x-platform and backwards compatible dispite its promise of code once, play forever. Doran Golan who has the worlds largest collection of privately owned net.art says the: “most common incompatibility is Java 1.2 with the current browsers. In general, a browser that does not function well with old html is Safari” [3]

One of my own works empyrean, http://www.subtle.net/empyrean a multi-user VRML world build using lot of open source software and an java multi-user server applet has decayed as it needs an antiquated (last century) Netscape 4.5 browser to ensure it has the access to the correct java libraries to function in its complete multi-user state.

Other work has been lost because it was never archived in the first place. I worked on a project in 1995 in conjunction with the Beijing International Womens conference. We taught ourselves html from mailing lists, put the show up with artwork from 50 Australian women. It was ground breaking for 1995. A few years later the new head of the Art department wanted a fresh web site and it was trashed from the university server without back up.

Autonomous.org who were running BBS art sites where people engaged in collaborative art and text projects in 1993-94 couldn’t afford extra hard drives for their server, so if a hard drive died, the art went with it. So some of Australia’s first internet art has been irretrievably lost. Doing this paper I was looking for some other shows from 1995 and 1996 which are no longer online.

- Whose responsibility is it to maintain and update works in the public domain and where does this end? is it the artist who doesn’t get paid for it?
- Or the archive who does it with public monies?-
- Should online artists making video documentation of their work but with the interactivity is gone?

-They could all be migrated to new formats? but that would mean if hard/software changes then the work simply wont function again in a few years again.. leading to endless updating.
-If we migrate the works to new formats. how would that affect work like Radigales where discovering the code is also a part of the work?

-What time slice do you preserve, when a net-art work is generatively and dynamically evolving in conjunction with the net or captured form current databases?
-Do you archive every version of constantly shifting soft and hardware standards?
-How do you decide between truly innovative works which break all the standards or easy to archive works which may be more stable for longer periods?


There are no easy or right answers to these questions, however I am very excited that the challenge of networked art preservation is being taken up . This intention of maintaining our internets cultural heritage, means that in years to come people will be able to authentically immerse themselves in today’s fledgling art of the network.




[1] Griffin, Scott. No date. “Internet Pioneers.” http://www.ibiblio.org/pioneers/

[2] Napier quoted from Shredder site, available http://www.potatoland.org/shredder/

[3] Golan, Doran , private email, 26 October 2004. Computer Fine Arts can be found at http://www.computerfinearts.com

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