We Must Now All Become Net Artists to Survive

Alexei Shulgin, Desktop Is (1997)

With the mass migration to the Internet we see unfolding in the wake of the Coronavirus, I find it timely to take a trip back in time to the extraordinarily creative era of the net art movement, which exploded in the wake of the birth of the World Wide Web. Grand old vintage works such as Alexei Shulgin’s Desktop Is (1997) conveyed very early on how the personal space of the physical desktop was transitioning to the virtual. It is here, in the storied histories of net art, where you will the discover a profound crystallization of the key paradigms of life on the network: perhaps a recipe for how we all need to become net artists to preserve our social connections, humor, creativity, and sanity in this horrific time of social distancing.

Alexei Shulgin, Desktop Is (1997)

It was in the glory years, the mid/late 1990s just after the birth of the Web, when net art was the talk of the media art town. In just five short years, a relatively small group of experimental digital artists were breaking new ground in the unexplored terrain of the Web as a new artistic medium. It was a heady time indeed. Why? Because net art ushered in radical new paradigms for the creation, distribution, and experience of art. One of the earliest pioneers was Douglas Davis, who had already made a name for himself as a writer, journalist, and satellite performance artist, who launched the World’s Longest Collaborative Sentence in 1994. Davis mischievously created a distributed, online running sentence that invited stream-of-consciousness viewer participants to submit their obtuse, run-on poeticisms: a kind of global wordplay cum exquisite corpse.

Douglas Davis, Wor’d’s Longest Collaborative Sentence (1994)

This was followed by the artist/hackers Joan Heemskerk & Dirk Paesmans (Jodi.org), the enfants terrible who became an international phenomenon in 1995 without any gallery or museum representation. They defiantly eschewed artworld support, launching their mashup of Web fragments & html code from their own private server. This may seem fairly routine by 2020 standards when so many artists promote themselves online, but when Jodi.org and many other experimental artists began distributing their work in the mid to late 1990s, they intentionally circumvented the usual contemporary art trappings to hone a raw, unfiltered artistic energy. Net art became the most avant-medium of electronic art to come along since video art in the late 1960s.

Jodi.org, 100cc/hqx/i902.html (c 1995-1999)

In 1999, Joel Slayton, director of the CADRE Media Lab at San Jose State University – a hotspot for the emerging net art movement where Jodi.org had studied – invited the renowned media curator David Ross to give a talk for the Bay Area media arts community. David was at the time the director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, who came down to San Jose for a think tank session to discuss the new paradigms of the Web with a group of highly engaged artists, engineers, and media scholars who were deeply entrenched in the net art movement.

David Ross

He shared his recent research which detailed what he referred to as the “21 Distinctive Qualities of Net.art.” It is important to remember that at this moment in time, the Web as a mass medium was only five years old, so it was all very new and full of artistic potential. The lecture outlined the new paradigms, bringing into question what Web-specific art offered that couldn’t be achieved in any other medium. So I have outlined a few of the “qualities” that Ross discussed, which may seem quite familiar to us now, but were at the time radical in their implication for transforming the way we engage socially and politically in the experience of art.

  1. Authority shifts between reader and writer: how that critical line of being a writer and being a reader is blurred, eliminated.
  2. Net.art is based on an economy of abundance: the internet offers relative freedom and low cost once you have access to the tools of production and distribution.
  3. Shifting of identities: malleability of identity on the web, which is so easily falsified, manipulated or acknowledged, and the constructions that develop within this anonymity.
  4. Transactional & non-hierarchical: net art is inherently an interactive medium, decentralized, creating distributed & dispersed lines of communication.
  5. Inherently global: the net is by nature a medium that extends to all corners of the world.
  6. Inspires the creation of a corporate entity: artists are able to cluster, organize, create their own entities, spaces, worlds.
  7. Anarchic: net art is used by artists who liberate the space, who declare absolute freedom in their control of the space.
Mark Napier, Riot (1999)

If net art in its early formation catalyzed artists to radicalize art making in a mass medium that was brand new, fertile domain for breaking the rules of art, perhaps a refresh of this creative energy can help guide us today. Dark periods in history have always been a driving force for new artistic thought, let us see what unfolds on the Internet at a time when we must be net artists to hold the world together and survive in this new age of social distancing.