Sunday, May 11, 2008

Notes on Internet Art From An Historical Perspective

Handwritten notes from the artist's introduction to the afternoon dialogue at Mediakunst 2.0:
What does it mean it mean to be a media artist today? Is it really necessary to make distinctions between Internet and web and net art and live A/V or VJ performance art and where does narrative and the creative potential we all have within ourselves to invent fictional personas in and out of social networking spaces fit into the picture?

These will be some of the questions that we ask throughout the day, questions that invite us to reconsider the early history and development of new media practices that engage with the Internet as both a compositional medium and as well as an exhibition or publishing or distribution medium. There will also be questions that take into account the many different forms of media art that are still in the process of finding their foothold in what we still, out of habit, call "the contemporary" – but also questions about how these media art forms that become contemporary are not only co-dependent on technologies and protocols that for some are seamlessly interwoven into the fabric of our everyday life, but that are also in some way triggered by the unconscious creative potential that resides in all of us. In other words, if our collective co-dependency on new media technologies situates most art of today in the shadow (or light) of a growing prosthetic aesthetics, then is it possible that what makes media art today contemporary has more to do with the fact that it materializes from the creative forces of contemporary artists and has less to do with the technologies that help digitally process the work in progress. That is to say, what is more important to contemporary art practice, the creative unconscious as media generator or emergent technologies as tools to help us process the work we're making? The answer, it seems, is self-evident in the question. But that does not necessarily mean that the contemporary media artists who invent these new forms of art are cognizant of what appears to be that fact. ("An intense experience is an aesthetic fact," says Whitehead).

In this sense I might also wonder aloud "How does what is contemporary in media art somehow issue forth, that is to say come from what is actually post-contemporary -- something that the artists themselves are not yet certain they are creating but that is then, later, after the fact, sometimes days after the fact or years or decades after the fact, recontextualized as what the art world tags contemporary or even – and this is particularly illogical -- modern?" Because if there is one thing I can say as one of the early interdisciplinary artists to experiment with the Internet as an artistic medium as well as publishing / exhibition medium for the distribution of my own style of art/writing and the art/writing of my colleagues that I want to publish and curate along the way, it's that in the beginning we never really imagined ourselves to be much more than conceptual performers experimenting with our practice in what was then a new network publishing environment facilitated by the developments in the online culture.

To talk about Internet art in an historical context is then to talk about art history too and yet as an artist whose own artworks and art writings are somehow part of this art history I cannot help but think that being part of art history as a so-called Internet artist is itself a kind of fiction, one that is made-up from scratch and, as such, is an historical fiction that then becomes part of the larger art practice I am still engaged in. Perhaps this is what, from an artist's perspective, making art history is partly about, that is, creatively positioning ones place in the ongoing fiction that is art history so as to keep their own story as an early Internet artist alive in collective memory and, keeping this in mind, you will see how my version of Internet art history is different than any so-called art historian's or new media theorist's version of art history or, for that matter, any other Internet artist's version of art history. Why is that? Why is my fictional version of our shared art history different than yours and yours different than mine even as we collide and mix in the same social space here in ____, together, alive with the creative potential of maintaining our network connection so that we may collaboratively alter the art historical context we create our lives in?

One reason is because we all tell different stories and are still in the process of inventing our personas. The narrative that informs our reading of the world is only partly informed by what we ourselves read or watch or listen to or even interact with when participating in social networking spaces both on and offline. Perhaps more important than all of the interaction we have with the source material everywhere around us is what we do with it, how we manipulate it, recontextualize it to make art, to elaborate on a theory, to build an argument, or to develop a personal narrative.

That part of my own story that takes into account the emergence of Internet art from an historical perspective is a personal narrative that is at once fictional and autobiographical, or what I like to call pseudo-autobiographical. By pseudo- autobiographical I mean that I use the experiential data of my everyday life as source material to remix into my creative and critical media projects so that I am at once telling my own story while at the same time inventing my life as an artist who is working/living/playing within a social/networking universe of creative potential.

That's why in my recent book, META/DATA: A Digital Poetics, I have different sections called Spontaneous Theories, Distributed Fictions, Academic Remixes, and Net Dialogues. At a certain point in ones ongoing story, the fictions we invent, the theories we improvise, the dialogues we engage in, and most importantly the physical relationships we intersubjectively jam with in unrealtime, start to blend into each other and out of these remixes of what some still traditionally call our "real life" and the specific identities we associate with them, start melting into something more like an "unreal life" populated by the many (digital flux) personas we spontaneously become. In this way, it's like turning your ongoing performance art project into a Life Style Practice that feeds into your continuous creative output that then feeds back into your Life Style Practice.

Think of it as a surf-sample-manipulate Creativity feedback loop. This is much more complicated than online role-playing. Perhaps this is no longer role-playing at all as much as it is embodying a performance that you yourself have no choice to become because it's a part that's totally made for you and made by you. It's like what the jazz great Miles Davis once said when he told someone: "Sometimes you have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself."

Which reminds me of something another jazz great, Ornette Coleman, recently said in an interview in the Guardian. Coleman was asked about his own life as a performer and he said: "I didn't know that you had to learn to play – I thought you had to play to play."

That's what it was like in the beginning times of making art on the Internet. There was no training at university; there was no pre-existing model of what it meant to be a net artist. It was not something you could take a course in or teach yourself by buying the latest copy of Net Artist in A Box with a CD and manual (although some net artists did eventually put themselves in a box and now I wonder where are their fictional versions of art history going to be archived?).

No, back in the early days of net art, you just had to play to play. To make art on the net the same way that you would, say, make history. In Derek Jarman's 1977 British film Jubilee, one of the characters, Amyl Nitrate, says, "When I am not making history, I write it." But I would take it further and say that we can make art history and write it and perform it all at the same time. This is what we mean by the term Life Style Practice (LSP).

Now, whereas I know this idea of "making history" vis-à-vis an open source lifestyle that "plays to play" is not going to happen to everyone who decides that they want to find a way to blur the distinction between their art and their life, and that there is in fact a kind of danger in being unnecessarily idealistic or even opportunistic about how one imagines themselves becoming an artist, especially since we then risk commodifying the life of the artist as something one might aspire to unintentionally creating unrealistic expectations that could then backfire and lead to great frustration, all I can do is share my stories and artwork with you and hope that they have some bits of data that you might then find relevant to sample from and remix into your ongoing story.

For me it's like I have no choice because of the way I approach my art practice first and foremost as a WRITER. A multi-media writer, that is, one who approaches all forms of media art from the perspective of someone who turns to the art (act) of writing as the most useful technology to employ when experimenting in the creation of new media forms. The computer, the network, digital cameras, mobile phones, using my video iPod for stereo sound recordings, all of these technologies are just variations of a writing instrument that I always turn to make things.

Coming to the Internet as a writer was, for me, easy. It was 1992. There was no graphical user interface for the WWW. There was no streaming audio, no mp3, no Flash, certainly no Web 2.0 (there was no 1.0 nor even a beta-version). So this meant that there was a complete blank slate. A blank canvas with lots of invisible baggage behind the scenes not the least of which was that the Internet itself, the way the net created this hypertextually distributed environment for me to experiment with, really existed in the first place as a military technology to keep information flowing during times of nuclear war. OK, but still a blank canvas to begin experimenting with. Very primitive text-based interfaces that soon gave way to a graphical user interface like the beta-version of Mosaic, the pre-Netscape, pre-Explorer, pre-Safari, pre-Firefox browser. Can you imagine the Internet without a Graphical User Interface? I can, because that was my net reality when I started working on my first serious work of Internet art, GRAMMATRON.

The beta-version of GRAMMATRON was made in 1993-1996 and finally released in 1997. The first document I opened to start the project was April 3, 1993. The beta-version of Mosaic, a Graphical User Interface (GUI) web browser was still days away. What could I have been thinking?

An interviewer recently asked me: What is GRAMMATRON?

I answered that GRAMMATRON is many things at once. It’s one of the earliest and more elaborate works of Internet art created exclusively for the Web as a way to track the developments of Web culture in a networked-narrative environment. I was especially interested in how some of the vaporware language that was coming out of the growing new media scene could be used against itself, to rub and/or remix alternative discourses together, everything from cyberpunk, dialectical materialism, and California ideology, to experimental narrative riffs from the likes of James Joyce, Arno Schmidt, and Jean-Luc Godard, to name a few.

Then there is the Cabala: the old scripture, the metacommentary, the Book of Creation, and the Golem myth. In many ways, GRAMMATRON is a retelling of the Golem myth remixed with narratological/rhetorical effects sampled from the alternative narratives and discourses mentioned earlier. I also was very conscious that I wanted to experiment with many of the evolving technological features that the Web could offer me—features that I would never have reason to consider when writing my novels. So there are time-based metatags, Javascript-encoded cookies that create alternative and/or random linking structures, some very detailed and labor-intensive animated gifs, and an original digital audio soundtrack, among other things.

It was released to a lot of unintended media hoopla in 1997 and was eventually selected for the Whitney Biennial of American Art in 2000, but by 2001, some mainstream art magazine out of New York casually referred to the work in passing as ancient.

The ancient GRAMMATRON. Already four years old and ready for the status of ruins.

There was a lesson to be learned there.

"You can't have the future every day," Geert Lovink told an interviewer on Alt-X back in 1994 or 1995: "It's always already over with and we just missed it."

And I would add that I'm still missing it.

Missing it like I never missed anything before in my life.

Where did it go?

Maybe it's because we are always creating these so-called contemporary media art works on Internet time.

"The world runs on Internet time," said Andy Grove, the former CEO of Intel.

The early Internet artists were, in many ways, ahead of their time (or as the French poet and filmmaker Jean Cocteau once said, "would appear to be ahead of their time, for it is really the time that is behind the work."). But now that has all changed. Net Art 2.0 like Web 2.0 is embedded in the practices and rituals of everyday life. You can't be a net artist today without taking into account where the impetus for turning the net into an artistic instrument came from. Is it possible that the players in the early history of net art anticipated the socially interconnected "second lives" of the new generation of net artists for whom the digital is but an extension of their body's functionality as it navigates the network culture? Is it really that linear? Does linear development automatically suggest progressive movement? Could it be regressive? Could it be stagnant? Turbo-charged?

I'm not one to usually quote a theorist like Jean Baudrillard, but I'll take exception today and remind you of something he once said, that is "[t]he image no longer even has time to become an image."

I would like to remix that and say that net art never had enough time to become net art but that Net Art 2.0 is more in sync with its time. This may be the reason why so much of the artwork being created by next generation net artists is less avant (ahead of its time) and more pop (in its time) whereas in 1997, it was the other way around.

How soon before the work falls behind the time?

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