0. just so you know

In June 2003 I wrote my BA degree paper (Department of Journalism and Media studies, Faculty of Social Science, Masaryk's University, Brno) and as there is just a few people interested in the topic I had chosen, I wanted my work to be availible to a wider audience... That of course means an english version. But because I'm far far away from being able to translate the whole paper (50+ pages), after all I decided to make an abstract, a shorter version. Here it is, hope you enjoy it and maybe you find it useful... In case of any questions, ideas, whatever - feel free to contact me. Write to adamm -AT- skylined -DOT- org or visit my webpage.

1. Introduction

Ten years ago, Internet was known just to a few IT professionals and it was hardly imagined, that it will gain a crucial role in the civilization of early 21st century.
This shift affected one and every sphere of our lives, of course including fine arts too. New possibilities have appeared, new methods, digitalization, interactivity and sharing now being the to-date keywords. Many artists created their on-line portfolios, galleries and museums provide virtual tours. In my work I concentrated upon a completely new way of creating (and even re-thinking) art, using the internet as an exhibition place, technique, structure and content at once. So called net art.
In the first part I'd like to present the history, classification, evolution of this new phenomenon; with a special focus on hypertext as an example of convergence between the world of technology and the world of art and social science. In the later part I will present and discuss five particular projects, each of them being a specific example of different trends in net art.

2. Definition and Terminology

At first it would be actually very useful to define the term "net art". But it turns out as one of the most difficult questions. It's due to short time since the forming of net art as a specific genre and moreover, there's a discussion going on even among the artists themselves. Nevertheless it's important to distinct between "net art" and "art on the net" - the other category comprehends also of thousands of pages and servers that only presents 'classical' art, in it's digital conversion.
Net art then means every piece created within the net, where connection is crucial for the project. There are also voices stating every single piece somehow connected with net is net art (so Gibson's books can be thus claimed as net art). There are of course many possible criteria. Then we have also the term "net.art" (net dot art), which is related to a movement, a group of interconnected artist and their work. As Steve Dietz put it: ""net art" is the more generic term we use to identify work for which the network is a necessary and sufficient condition, and "net.art" is the term we use to in association with the artists more or less self-identified with it."

3. History

There are many possible beginnings: some of them older than hundred years. Presented in project From Wagner to Virtual Reality, the story begins with Gesamtkunstwerk, going through the futurists, video-art, happenings or mail-art. First real on-line projects began to appear around 1994, sometimes as a conversion of hypertext projects developed in a different environment (e.g. Grammatron). More and more projects emerged, a community was raised around mailing lists and webs like nettime, 7-11, rhizome and others. Also first exhibitions in reputable galleries and museums were held (Ars Electronica in Austria, MOMA in San Francisco, Whitney Bienale in NY to mention just a few).

4. Classification

Most of the projects could be called "web-projects", but still we can find lot of exceptions. Categorization is thus merely subjective, but could be as follows:

  1. Alternative browsers, applications
  2. Hypertext novels, storytelling projects
  3. Dadaistic structures / montages
  4. Activism, hacking
  5. Projects focusing on code as a subject and object at once
  6. Interactive projects
  7. Misinformation projects
  8. Personal pages

5. Art and Technology: Looking for the new Unity

As in my view, the strict border between art and craft is a matter of last 200 years, we have to deal with a romantic concept of "Author", which was later put in question, as early, as in the beginning of 20th century. In Avant-garde movement we can often find a call for a new unity. Once it's in Dadaism (claiming they rather produce art, not create), or in Futurism where technology receives a major acknowledgement. More and more the technology has been dependent on new means of communication technology and digitalization. So far, net art is the last step towards the unity. Its dominant qualities have roots in both realms: the world of IT and science, and the world of critical theory and fine arts. Here the previously, very isolated points of view merge. What are the distinctive qualities of net art?
Integration - multimediality: combining all type of artistic expression and media is typical for our culture today, but it has undergone a longtime development.
Interactivity - this comes out more from the IT industry. We can mention e.g. the famous 1968 Fall Joint Computer Conference, where graphical GUI and computer mouse (among others) were presented. But meanwhile steps toward the same goal were made by John Cage or Andy Warhol - the consumer was put in a position of co-creator of an artistic piece, using randomising processes.
Virtualization and question of identity - now the process and result too are often generated and manipulated by the viewer. Who is the author and who is the audience? Also other problems are raised - within the virtual worlds you can re-arrange your own identity in many ways. The borders between personal and social sphere, between here and there, local and global are in vain.
Digitalization and variability - on one hand you can easily copy without losing the quality of the original (as Walter Benjamin would remark: that's the furthest point you can reach when destroying the aura of an artistic object), on the other hand, everything is out of date in the very moment of creation (Lunenfeld's "nostalgia for the future").

6. Hypertext

One of the most important concepts for (not only) net art is the idea of hypertext. I chose it for a closer examination. It's not a very new one, as we can talk of hypertext in many different cases, some of them being indeed 'classical'. It's the Bible, cabala, Joyce's Ulysses. We used to stick the modern history of hypertext together with computers. It's of course true, starting with Vannevar Bush in 1945, leading to the World Wide Web in 1991. But there we meet lot of ideas and concepts rooting in critical theory, post-modern philosophy and deconstructionism. G. Landow thinks of internet as of a practical result based on Derrida, Barthes and Foucault due to its intertextuality, decentralization and demassification.

7. Analysis of particular Net Art projects

7.1. Grammatron

Although it's one of the oldest projects (with its first version released in 1993, not as a webpage, but using Storyspace interface), it's one of the most complex and interesting hypertext novels, or labyrinths if you prefer. It's a piece of art, where very diverse contexts meet. Cyberpunk, cabala, sex, reflections on the role of the author - everything has a particular place. As for the technologies used, one has to remember the date the project was developed. Based primarily on text, the graphics and music are lacking a bit compared to today standards.
The main character, Abe Golam, presents his story, which the audience can share with him. There are thousands of possible combinations of how to combine the single webpages into the whole story. Though the storyline stays quite compact: Abe Golam and his best apprentice (and lover), Cynthia Kitchen, got through difficulties caused by trans-national companies and in the end they attempt to create a new, completely virtual 'Digital Being', living in 'Genesis Rising' environment, being cut from the outside 'meat-space'. The single webpage contains tiny bits of the complex story (as there's more than 750 pages). There are situations when totally random sequences appear, but these are used rather as a way how to escape out of side plots, or retrospective parts.
Combination of different language codes (from official, elite ones, to computer underground) and contexts can be highlighted as a distinctive quality of Grammatron. Together with its theoretical background (comprehensive essay 'Hypertextual consciousness' written using the same technique) it remains a unique attempt, though it's rather a hard one to understand, demanding full concentration.

7.2. Superbad

Whereas Grammatron is concentrated upon text, Superbad could be called a collage for the internet era. Even the text is used in this way. Being one of the oldest and most respected net art projects, it actually began as a game. Ben Benjamin, the author, put a huge effort since the very beginning into an attempt to create a website, which is playful, thought not simple or user-friendly in the usual manner. There are many layers, thus you can simply enjoy colourful graphics (ranging in style from 60's ads to sci-fi motives), crazy Java games and animations or funny stories. But there's much more. A witty parody to company websites, hidden messages (being only visible in the source code), or even lot of hidden pages, accessible only from the prompt. Here even a single webpage can qualify as a piece of art, but the whole thing is more than just a gallery.
You can learn a lot about breaking the casual user habits, decentralization and deconstruction, though sometimes it makes you wonder, whether the allusions to the outside world (set of pages reminding of classical minimalist art of the 60's) are only a coincidence or made with a purpose. Some of the jokes describe the alienation of the computer world. For example so called 'dialogue window' which infact is rather a 'monologue' window.
Superbad may (because of its form) at first evoke pop-art, but the criticism and irony set the context of the 90's. Still very amusing, with very professionally crafted pages and many interesting ideas it remains the cream of the top, though most of its content was created in between 1995-1998.

7.3. Jodi

Because nowadays you can't see much of the famous Jodi project on their webpage directly, I've used its copy located on 0100101110101101.org, which reflects the state of the project as in 1999.
As with Superbad, you can't find anything about the authors or the meaning of project on Jodi's website. This leads (together with their controversial performance and an often use of randomizing techniques) to a wide range of possible interpretations of their work. Since 1995 they belong to most respected and influential personalities on the net.art scene. Maybe they are far ahead and so for a common person their art seems to be dull and meaningless. Misunderstanding could be often a purpose: they claim they want to break the rules, and apply the code itself as a meaning of art. Error as a method of showing the other side of technology. Another examples from their websites are pages that actually only look chaotic on the first view - but it's because the message itself is in the source code (ASCI art). Computer aesthetics leaps back to early 90's when the 'digital utopia' was still in play. Though they use usually just very simple graphics and rather text itself, there's no text to be read: Saul Albert calls it 'pixellated text' - text becomes visuals itself in a very same manner as in Kolar's collages. This goes along with negation of another common rule: webpage divided into background and foreground part. Also the so famous interactivity of netart is put in question by suppressing reader's ability to see some of the characters or by collecting information about the visitors without asking them for a permission.
In last years Jodi have decided to move their effort in a new field: so called software art. We might take their re-coding of famous game Quake as an example (Untitled Game), also OSS, the most bizarre operating system (or rather a shell pretending to be a OS) ever. All in all, Jodi projects tend to conceptualism; the aesthetic aspect isn't very important.

7.4. Praystation

Praystation is a one man project. The webdesigner behind is Joshua Davis, a living example that well-paid webdesigners might create artistic projects and push the boundaries. He uses Macromedia Flash for most of his work, but in a very different way than the rest of 'trendy' webdesigners use to. We can talk about net dot art no more: Davis is a member of a new generation, which Lev Manovich typically calls 'generation Flash'. It doesn't really matter whether they use the Macromedia program or not - the community is bound by the same aesthetic feeling: Vector graphics, large areas in one color, soft design, often bringing back the modernism and minimalism influences. Clean and clear - this might well be their motto - and it's in a opposition to post-modern mess of Jodi, Superbad or Grammatron. Infotainment goes lovely with them. Of course this separates the net art and webdesigner communities - it's not only a different way of self-expression, but a whole point of view on society, art and also political and socio-economic aspects of their work. Also the open-source is losing with Flash, as you aren't able to see the source code.
But Joshua Davis can't be taken as a typical example: he's halfway between both of the communities. Though you can't see nowadays all of his works on-line, he has managed to use new technologies in a very original way, usually showing the way of developing his new concepts in simple steps. Still he recalls the typical Flash features: smooth graphics, loops and ease both in look of the page and the user-friendliness. Sometimes he has been able to create completely abstract art, and with his work he has influenced lot of webdesigners.

7.5. Young-hae Chang Heavy Industries

Their projects can be taken as a way of showing possibilities of a medium by using it for a completely different purpose. YCHI create something we could call an automatic text - but as in film subtitles, with music playing an important role. Their are no pictures, just blinking, rapidly moving text (which is actually very hard to read). No interactivity, no loops, usually only in black and white. It is in question whether such an artistic piece may be qualified as net art, but the authors themselves think of internet as a text medium; thus their project - according to them - shows the core. It's hard to compare it to anything else: it reminds us of music videos - but the text is the main point. Very emotive language, stories that varies a lot, jazz music and often a critical appeal (for example concerning the Korean society, role of women or the political influence of major corporations). If the beatniks had automatic writing, we can call YHCE pieces as 'automatic reading', the effect is almost hypnotic. Still, the text is visible in the source code, so you can read it afterwards.

8. Net art in Czech republic and Slovakia

In 1998 the first net art piece has appeared, a labyrinth called mesto.html (mesto means city). The author, Markéta Baňková became respected in the international context, especially with Nycmap.com. Otherwise, there's not much to say about net art in Czech republic. The very few attempts grew up from academic sphere, rather than artistic. Meanwhile a fluent webdesigner community was raised around projects like Isolate or Jsem.cz. At least a server concerned with net art was established in Slovakia. Message.sk and its founder, Zdeno Hlinka, helped a lot to create a platform for studying and exploring net art.

9. Conclusion

In my work I tried to sum up to-date history and context of net art, although it's still a very fresh form of fine art, without defined boundaries. Five featured projects should have showed a variety of styles and techniques in the net art.
The international community (as in most cases nor artist's nor viewer's nationality is important) plays its part in what we call 'remix culture'. The interactivity and virtualization putting us in a brand new world of earlier unexpected possibilities. The avant-garde of now, the net dot art community, was acknowledged by official galleries - and thus destroyed. The bigger influence the webdesigner community gets, the more possible is that the fresh blood will come from their center. Still it's extremely hard to predict the future of the movement or possible ways of its development. I would like my work to help the net art community especially in Czech republic as we lack behind other countries and the artists are not acknowledged or they are rather misunderstood.