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Jessica Foote essay, 16 March 2003

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Net Art: A New Presence in Virtual and Actual Museums

In the previous chapters we have discussed how the museum is using its virtual presence to extend itself to new audiences around the world. We have looked at ways the traditional role of the museum is evolving as a result of these opening frontiers. The same egalitarian forces that allow small and large museums to equally draw audiences into their virtual spaces also allows artists new opportunities for exhibiting their work outside the traditional formats of museums and physical gallery acceptances.

It is largely because of this need for a non-traditional outlet that early Internet art has its origins. Berin Golonu, editor of Artweek, describes the evolution of Net art writing, “Six or seven years ago, Net art emerged as the latest embodiment, or more accurately, the disembodiment, of a conceptual art practice that successfully circumvented the art market by eliminating the physicality of an art object. It was believed that Net-based projects living on the web could not be valued, displayed, or sold by the creators or disseminators of “good taste” (galleries and curators) as they saw fit.” Many of these artworks were created with activist intentions, speaking to an audience outside the confinements of those traditional venues of “good taste.” This freedom allowed for creative and authentic voices, producing art that was not motivated by thoughts of what would sell and show in the traditional art world. Sarah Smiley, creator of the Virtual Beret project explains, “Unfettered by credentials and appearances, people are being very creative, completely unselfconsciously.”

To the surprise of many artists, Net art has become recognized, as well as collected, by museums more quickly than any other type of new art form in the history of museums. This turn of events has left both artists and museums confused about their new roles; Net artists often find themselves creating art for specific museum audiences and spaces instead of the more general audience of the web, and museums find themselves attempting to exhibit virtual art within the confines of a physical space. In addition, there are new and complicated questions that arise concerning the storage, ownership and preservation of art that often does not have a physical presence.

Before we discuss the curatorial and exhibition concerns Net Art presents to virtual and physical museums, it is worth looking more closely at what defines “Net Art” so that we can understand its place in these venues. For although “Internet Art” or the abbreviated “Net art” are now common jargon for most people in the new media and contemporary art fields, I have found that using this term loosely still confuses many people, including many artists. Even for those who understand what Net Art is, it still is worth defining its many forms so as to fully understand its nature and its place within this new hierarchy of the art world. As Net Artist Ken Goldburg says, “As soon as you talk about Net Art you have to ask, what does that mean? What’s at stake by calling it Net art? You’re attaching “art” onto it as distinct from craft. We’re not talking about well-crafted sites, we’re saying something else. This is a sub-category of sites, which is aspiring at least to be art. You have to go back to your question then of what do we mean by art and that’s very slippery and hard to define and obviously those criteria shift over time. I think part of it is that this is really a question for curators who apply a sophisticated analysis in determining what are the important issues and how are these works addressing them. But it’s hard. Sometimes there are deeper ideas that we’re not ready to recognize and a lot of work gets overlooked.” Goldburg, like others, also advocates breaking down Net Art into smaller, more descriptive categories, for there are many diverse types of art that are all under the umbrella term of Net Art.

Some Net Art responds to the “new public space” of the web. These artworks take the idea of space on the Internet as a means of extending community space to the online realm, often with the goal of sharing public artworks with an even larger global community. This is done in various ways. For example, Xavier Cortada, a painter and muralist, began to use online space for Master-Peace 2000, a retrospective of the millennium’s history through murals. In addition to working with Miami high school students in person, he set up a web-cam in his studio and invited students to participate through an online chat room and was able to work with collaborators online. Art crimes ( or is another example of online public art. The site was begun by Susan Farrell when she posted photos of graffiti found in Atlanta and Prague, and has expanded to include graffiti from locations and countries around the world, allowing visitors to upload their pictures of graffiti. This example is particularly poignant, as it demonstrates the way that virtual spaces can exhibit collections that physical public spaces would be unable and often unwilling to sponsor. Szyhalski Ding, a professor at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and a public net artist explains, “The Internet is a public space; it’s just a much more populated and busier public space. It has it’s own rhythm and logic. It’s wonderful.”

The Internet is an effective medium for collaboration and group collaboration pieces are a category of Net Art that make use of this quality. Douglas Davis’1994 piece The World's First Collaborative Sentence at the Whitney museum is an early example of this collaboration, as visitors continued to add to the story without ending the sentence. Marek Walczak and Martin Mattenberg’s Apartment is another example of a group created work. Visitors create their own “apartment” within a city of other apartments built by others, by typing in words or sentences. The words create rooms within the apartment that becomes larger and more complex with each word that is added to it. Eventually, it evolves into a 3D structure that can be navigated to accompanying music, and becomes a part of a larger “city” created by visitors. Another example of collaborative Net Art is ICONOBLOC, an example which has both a virtual and physical presence. Created by Ben Wheatley, ICONOBLOC ( has the goal of creating the world’s largest sculpture by creating a block that interacts with other people’s blocks according to the answers you give to daily e-mails that ask simple abstract questions. The result can be viewed online as well as printed on a desktop printer. “In this particular project, the notion of authorship disappears, as every subscriber has a certain degree of input on the global work.”

E-mail Art is another variety of Net art. The non- profit London gallery, The Centre of Attention, sends an e-mail artwork to subscribers each week for by artists such as Jenny Holzer and Sylvie Fleury. The 2,500 subscribers were able to experience this art through their home computers instead of the usual public venues. Andy Goldsworthy has used a similar process in conjunction with his show at the Cheryl Haines Gallery; he creates ephemeral artworks at home each day, photographs them and e-mails the image to the gallery as well as to those individuals on his e-mail list.

By nature, the Internet is interactive, and Net Art is often created with the intention of this personal with the artwork. George Fifield, curator at the Decordova Museum and Director of Boston Cyberarts writes, “Interactivity is the great question of this newest art form. What form of interactivity will most engage the audience and provide a lasting esthetic experience- emotional, rich, and satisfying? After centuries of linear narrative and the painted square, artists are looking at ways that the art itself can engage with the viewer and modify the artistic experience.”

Still other types of Net art are built in conjunction with installation elements and can only be viewed within the gallery. Often these types of installations use robotics in a physical space controlled by elements of an online virtual element. Other times the online portion is reinforced by other imagery in the installation.

Clearly, when using the term Internet art, there are many types of art that all are all defined by and use the Net as a medium. Net Artist Ken Goldberg says that it is time to start placing works of Net art into sub-categories. He explains, “It’s not enough to just say it’s Net art. There’s Net art that has to do with the formal qualities of the Net itself; there’s also net art that has to do with anti-corporate activism; and there’s net art (like what I’m interested in) that interfaces with things that are not on the net, like robots and cameras.” Ben Wheatly, creator of Iconoblock affirms, “Internet-based art is quite academic right now. It’s a matter of time until there are artists doing this kind of work more professionally. Everything will change with the new generation of artists who have grown up with the web.”

That being the case, how we display this burgeoning force in the art world is still a matter of debate. High profile museums such as SFMOMA and its online Net Art exhibit “010101: Art in Technological Times”, the Whitney Museum’s Artport, and the Walker Art Center demonstrate that Net art is already a real presence in the museum, and that these institutions are using a variety of methods for display. At the Digital Independence 2001 conference, the consensus seemed to be that museums and galleries still have not found a way to properly host net-based work. As Cook and Graham point out, “Museums take seriously their remit to provide access to new forms of art, but most people don’t like to sit at computers (machines they associate with information retrieval) when they are in the reflective mood that a gallery space was designed to evoke.”

The San Francisco Museum of Modern art sponsored one of the first online shows of Net Art, “010101: Art in Technological Times,” choosing to display the work in virtual space only. The virtual space was created with the attempt to reference the “grandiosity” of the physical museum. This design requires substantial time to download the software necessary to view the projects and then the projects themselves are hidden inside a graphically complex interface. Benjamin Weil, curator of the show, explained the sites’ design as an architectural metaphor for the SFMOMA building designed by Mario Botta. He explained that in the same way one has to navigate the physical space of the museum in order to see the work hanging in the galleries, visitors would similarly need to maneuver through the virtual halls, virtual walls and doorways of the Web site in order to view the projects on-line, creating a link between the virtual and physical spaces. However, although he chose to display 010101 as an online exhibit only, Benjamin Weil, is not dogmatic about this means of virtual-only presentation, saying that the one thing that the museum can offer is a ‘time-slot’ for our hopeful (if often unfulfilled) intention to ‘look at that later.’ In contrast to this position, Jon Ippolito, curator of new media at the Solomon Guggenheim Museum says that “taking a train and standing in line to see digital art ‘would be the complete perversion of what this work is all about.”

BangBang by Natalie Jeremienko displayed in the show “Telematic Connections: The Virtual Embrace” at the San Francisco Art Institute in 2001 demonstrates another means of display. BangBang shows live footage from video cameras placed in areas of political conflict around the world: (East Timor, Los Angeles, Kosovo, South Africa) the footage is displayed on a website as well as on video monitors surrounding the computer access in the gallery itself. Berin Golonu writes “I am in agreement with the artists- the gallery displays of the networked projects were admittedly disappointing. The online projects were displayed on a single computer terminal in a darkened gallery, with a video projection enlarging the monitor display on a gallery wall for the benefit of a larger audience. If they wanted to interact with the online projects however, visitors had to wait their turn for the computer while others waiting in line looked on impatiently. The experience was far inferior to the process of accessing the projects in a more private manner, such as through one’s own computer at home.”

What is the alternative to waiting in line at a computer terminal to see Net art in the museum? Should it be viewed standing or sitting? Should it be viewed alone in a darkened room or in the context of other artwork? These are questions that curators often grapple with for installation art and now must face to an even greater degree with Net artworks, particularly as Net Art is often created independently of needing a physical display space. There is certainly no easy answer to these display concerns. As Graham and Cook warn, “The rigor of the physical also extends to the problems of installation in conventional galleries. The tendency of light and sound to leak often leads to a series of grim boxes and an aesthetic that is dark, loud, and electronically over-stimulating.” For small museums without adequate equipment, resources and technological expertise, these problems are compounded still further.

Due to the very specialized needs of Net art exhibition, some museums are being built solely for the purpose of its collection and display. Eyebeam in New York is one of the only institutions in the United States that is devoted to the collection and display of internet-based art works and computer art. Eyebeam’s mission statement, listed on their website is as follows: “To initiate, present, support, and preserve artworks created with computers and other digital equipment; To expand the public's appreciation of new media art through education programs, exhibitions, and equipment access; To expand and improve artists' and the public's access to electronic, graphic, network, and moving image arts; To research and develop new technologies that will catalyze the creation of these artworks.”

It is interesting to note that Eyebeam does not have any of their collection online; the emphasis is entirely on visiting the physical gallery space to see these works. In fact, Eyebeam is in the process of building a $90 million building scheduled to open in 2006. The new building will have a museum of art and technology, artist-in-residence studios, an education center, multi-media classrooms as well as a state-of-the-art theater and digital archive. John S. Johnson, Eyebeam’s executive director, said that he wanted to create “a new kind of institution that’s part think tank, that’s heavily involved in art production and that also happens to exhibit work.”

With similar goals to Eyebeam, MIT had plans for a Center for Arts and Invention to be housed in a new $120 million facility in Cambridge. Designed by Fumihiko Maki, the space would consist of two rooftop theaters, atrium for media art exhibitions, spaces for exhibition and experimental theater. It was scheduled to open 2005, although at this time plans have been cancelled due to lack of funding.

Not everyone agrees upon the importance of building physical structures to house virtual art. As Maxwell L. Anderson, director of the Whitney Museum of American Art says, “It’s such a slippery proposition to build bricks and mortar for bytes” He argues that perpetual advances in technology make it almost impossible to build a structure that would accommodate all possibilities. In addition, he does not support separating digital-art from traditional arts, saying, “It’s probably not the most fruitful thing to start segregating art-making practices by medium again. Ghettoizing would be the result. Instead, we want those artistic experiences to be seen in conjunction with others from the past because that’s the best way to appreciate them.”
Under the leadership of Anderson it is no surprise that the Whitney museum places the focus of their net art collection on their online component, Artport. Artport is one of the most developed online Net Art collections, with a continuous progression of new commissioned works on display. Artport is described on its Website as “the Whitney Museum's portal to net art and digital arts, and an online gallery space for commissioned net art projects.” The site consists of five major areas:
· The archive of "gate pages," which function as portals to net artists' works. Each month, an artist is invited to present their work in the form of a gate page with links to the artist's site and most important projects.
· The "commissions" area, which presents original net art projects commissioned by the Whitney Museum.
· The "exhibitions" space, which provides access to and information about current and past net art and digital arts exhibitions at the Whitney.
· The "resources" archive, which links to galleries, networks and museums on the Web; past net art exhibitions at venues worldwide; Web publications relating to net art and digital arts; as well as new media festivals. This archive is constantly evolving as new organizations and resources are added.
· The "collection" area, which archives the works of net art and digital art in the Whitney Museum's holdings.
The greatest strength to the Whitney Museum’s site is their attempt to include resources as well as the commissioned art. Too many museums are racing to place net art online without thinking carefully about the kind of contextual information that is needed to understand this art. They seem to forget that many visitors have never seen this type of art and that these visitors will often become confused and alienated if they don’t have additional resources available to further reinforce what they see. Although the Whitney museum is one of the few to make some resources available, they must still work harder to give background and in essence, legitimacy to work that may be viewed suspiciously by visitors who have not yet experienced Net Art. I found it interesting that most survey participants who went to the Whitney’s Artport site had few comments to make; most seemed either uncertain about what they had just experienced, or they were uncomfortable with it. One survey participant commented, “I thought the work presented was pretentious and boring.”

This issue of education is one main reason I feel that Net Art should not only be in an online venue, but in the physical space as well. Although I have discussed in great length how online educational components can enrich the actual visit to the museum, the interaction that occurs with students, teachers and museum educators within the space of the museum is critical. Particularly in the case of contemporary art, discussion is essential in order to fully understand the ideas behind the art.

In the case of a new art form such as Net art, to use the virtual space as the only means of presentation would be to avoid the problem and essentially neglect the physical museum space. How we display it within this traditional space without loosing site of the idea that net art was created to be activist and outside the traditional spaces of society is a challenge. However, as Steve Dietz of the Walker Art Museum says, “We are at a place when we can leave it up to the artist to decide where they want their work situated. I believe in a multiplicity of places to display net-based work. Different contexts can add different meanings.”

In his work The Virtual Museum, artist Jeffrey Shaw presents an abstract solution to the merger of the virtual and physical worlds. He describes a chair in which the visitor sits with a headpiece that responds to each small head and eye movement. In this virtual situation, the visitor transports himself out of the chair, seeing the installation represented and then explores each gallery of the museum, while his physical self remains sitting in the chair. This “freedom” allows him to view the either art alone or with others and interact with it in more meaningful ways. Shaw writes; “Now with the mechanisms of the new digital technology, the artwork can become itself a simulation of reality- an immaterial digital structure encompassing synthetic spaces which we can literally enter. Here the viewer is no longer consumer in a mausoleum of objects; rather he/she is traveler and discoverer in a latent space of sensual information, whose aesthetics are embodied both in the coordinates of its immaterial form and in the scenarios of its interactivity manifest form. In this temporal dimension the interactive artwork is each time restructured and reembodied by the activity of its viewers.” Although Shaw’s Virtual Museum may seem extreme, there is little doubt that Net art will dramatically challenge the ways in which museums present art in both their physical and virtual structures.

Draft version