Art in the age of ones and zeros: Internet art
Art has always been fundamentally intertwined with technology. New techniques and materials have constantly allowed artists to innovate and create new types of works. Our series, which kicked off with examinations of "datamoshing", ASCII art, and BioArt, looks at the impact of digital technologies on art and illustrates how artists are creating entirely new forms of art using these modern tools. In this instalment we examine the weird, boundary-pushing world of internet art.
Internet art (commonly referred to by its practitioners as net art or net.art) is easily the strangest, most ephemeral field we've delved into so far in this series. It is ostensibly a form of art that can be defined as work that is primarily distributed through the internet, but that is oversimplifying things. Internet art is art that is inextricably linked to the internet, be it in the form of a strange website or a virus designed to spread through networks in a particular way.
Art critic Rachel Greene dates the inception of internet art as around 1993, with the advent of the graphical world wide web. And much of the 1990s can be seen as the golden age of internet art, a time where artists embraced this new frontier. One writer estimated that in in 1995 as much as 8 percent of all web sites were produced by artists, giving the early web a gonzo-like identity that is still felt to this very day.
One of the most definitive early net art pieces was by a duo named Jodi.org. The work was called wwwwwwwww.jodi.org and still lives at that domain to this very day. Clicking through to the web page brings up a series of incomprehensible symbols. Inquisitive viewers may click into the page's source information and discover the real work – some clever ASCII drawings hidden in the code of the page. The artwork subversively reverses the general experience of navigating the internet, making the page code the artistic product while the site's front page is merely a random reflection of the work's true intent.
Around the turn of the century as the internet became less the domain of mad creatives and more under the thumb of big business, the face of net art began to change. The Dada absurdism inherent in the internet had already started to normalize and many original net art pieces began to disappear.
An organization called Rhizome arose in the late 1990s. Originally designed to be a platform for new media art, it quickly become the most prominent advocate for the preservation of net art. Ultimately, Rhizome became connected with the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York and in 2016 acquired a US$200,000 grant to start the Net Art Anthology, a two-year online exhibition dedicated to preserving and restaging 100 key artworks from the history of net art.
Over the last 25 years net art has taken many forms. Italian subversive net art duo Eva and Franco Mattes (aka http://0100101110101101.org) have pushed the mold in often confronting directions. From a piece where they created a computer virus designed to spread as widely around the world as possible, to No Fun, a frightening display where they simulated a suicide in front of a webcam and fed it into a Chatroulette-style cam service, filming the responses of their targets.
Rafael Rozendaal has made a practice of selling webpages in the same way one would sell a piece of art on canvas., challenging the notion that net art cannot be commercialized. He creates singular websites and sells them with attached domains. Even the Art Website Sales Contract is a strange bit of legal art in and of itself. Apparently Rozendaal has sold over two dozen of these websites for $4,900 a piece, setting a fascinating precedent for commodifying digital art.
Jon Rafman is a Canadian net artist whose most prominent work is an ongoing project entitled 9-Eyes. Essentially the work is a Tumblr page where Rafman collects still images he finds on Google Street View. The work has a fascinating curatorial quality as Rafman captures an astounding variety of human moments, ranging from the beautiful to the horrifying. By recontextualizing these randomly captured images he manages to compose a body of work that is essentially machine generated.
As with most accelerated cultural movements in the 21st century there are some who argue that net art has already receded into the annals of history, now replaced with post internet art.
The post internet art theorists argue that the internet has simply become another node for established artists and large corporate entities to build their brands. In many regards they are absolutely correct. Powerhouses like Google and Autodesk have set up creative departments that regularly churn out innovative, if vanilla-flavored, net art-styled work.
There are still plenty of fascinating weirdo fringes working in the realm of net art, though. The old thrill of clicking through to something genuinely strange or confounding still lives on in the spirit of many artists working in the medium. Artists like Jonas Lund and Michael Manning for example, are creating gonzo net art websites for fans to stumble in and out of.
Check out our gallery for a bizarro trip through the strange world of internet art.