Monday, January 7, 2008

What Is (still) so New about Net Art? Florian Cramer

Nov. 3, 2004


A comparison of traditional digital art and newer net art along the
examples of Jeffrey Shaw's ``Legible City'' and

What is wew about Net Art?

Net art could be technically described as the conjunction of two
practices, digital art and networked art. Neither of them was new per se.

Digital art has its own tradition since the 1940s when computers were
invented and, for example, the John Whitney brothers made abstract films
with computer graphics [no pictures available], John Cage and Lejaren
Hiller composed algorithmic computer music, and Brion Gysin and Theo Lutz
computed algorithmic poems on computers.

Networked art itself has a history independent from computing and computer
networks: Futurism, Dada and Surrealism already were international
networks; networking also became a topic of art in Fluxus, the New York
Correspondence School of Ray Johnson and Mail Art.


So what is different then about Net art since the 1990s in comparison to
computer art since the 1940s and networked art since the 1920s and 1960s?
In comparison to Mail Art, the difference is clear. Mail Art used analog
technology, like photocopiers, rubber stamps, newspaper collage and the
postal network to copy and distribute itself. That necessarily limited its
reproduction. It worked with originals as opposed to copies, material
objects as opposed to data streams. And its reproduction and distribution
was much more significantly limited (due to having to pay postage and
limited analog copy generations). When ``Festivals of Plagiarism'' were
celebrated by mail artists, the plagiarism was rather metaphorical because
the technology wasn't there yet for large-scale clone reproduction and
distribution of work (such as in peer-to-peer file exchange networks).


* Lewis Carroll, Innuendo by Xexoxial Endarchy: Limited material
quality, no access to same institutions / spaces as plagiarized work
* vs. Yes Men, vs. same symbolic hierarchy/space,
equality of technical means, infinite reproduction and collaboration
through automated tools: Reamweaver

Difference between Internet-based net art and older analog networked art
is clear, what about the difference between previous digital art and My examples: Jeffrey Shaw, jodi.

Jeffrey Shaw, The Legible City

Developed in 1989-1991, permanently installed at ZKM media arts center in
Karlsruhe, Germany. Interactive installation, or game: Abstract 3D
representations of cities of New York, Amsterdam and Karlsruhe. Spectator
sits on a bicycle and cycles through the cities. The cityscapes are made
up of letters and words, based on writing by Shaw's artistic collaborator
Dirk Groeneveld.


Description: Alternative reading interface. Immersive / virtual reality 3D
space, seemingly intuitive navigation (through bicycle).

Typical for the idea of digital art as interactive, virtual reality
simulations, high-tech, installation-based.

``Legible City'' has been called, again and again, a seminal work of
digital art. I quote from a critical essay on net literature and net
poetry by the German philologist and critic Stephan Porombka:

Nothing that was written for the computer in the 90s could match an
installation like Jeffrey Shaw's ``Legible City'' - neither in its
level of technology, nor in its level of concept. After all, Shaw had
used a several ten thousand dollar-worth Silicon Graphics Crimson
computer to achieve the right effects. Only with such a machine it
could be communicated to spectators that their own activities were
equalized to the movement of the digital picture on the screen.{1}

I entirely disagree with this opinion. The ``Legible city'' is a
technology gimmick, at best a design study for alternative user
interfaces. Its title brings up associations of Campanella, universally
valid depiction of knowledge and science on the walls of the utopian
``City of the sun.'' Just as Campanella's utopia is naive, so is Shaw's if
it was intended to be one. It is not, as critics wrote, liberating the
letter like concrete poetry. Concrete poetry and Marinetti's ``parole in
libertà''were about liberating type and language from their previous
typographic and grammatical constraints. Shaw's system howere is
restraining as it forces letters from their abstract-symbolic space of the
page into the artificial anthropomorphic space of the city. It's not
taking apart the letter and reinventing it from scratch, but puts letters
into a pseudo-interactive human kitsch world, comparable to letters in
Victorian children's books:

Images: Alphabet fabric, alphabet locomotive

- Nothing is be criticized in these toys and the children's literature
tradition of grotesque alphabets. Shaw's installation however suffers from
the fact that it does not think of itself in this tradition, as a
grotesque tech toy, takes itself seriously as a hightech ``interactive''
art work. I quote from Jeffrey Shaw's project page:

Travelling through these cities of words is consequently a journey of
reading; choosing the path one takes is a choice of texts as well as
their spontaneous juxtapositions and conjunctions of meaning.

The text doesn't reflect that these so-called ``spontaneous juxtapositions
and conjunctions'' are not spontaneous at all, but only exist within the
set of possible combinations within the software. There is no possibility,
for example, that a word appears that was not pre-inscribed into the
software, and no conjunction can be made that falls out of Euclidian space
constraints of the visual simulation. So it's an illusion of interactivity
which this piece sells, just like most works of so-called interactive art
- none of which even remotely match up to the interactivity and
spontaneousness of performance art, for example.

Shaw further writers:

The handlebar and pedals of the interface bicycle give the viewer
interactive control over direction and speed of travel. The physical
effort of cycling in the real world is gratuitously transposed into
the virtual environment, affirming a conjunction of the active body in
the virtual domain.

Of course the anthropomorphism of the interface is a fake. It is a
trompe-l'oeuil because the work does not present itself as something
programmed, as an artificial behavioral system, but really thinks that its
restrained, dumbed-down concept of interactivity leads to an interaction
of bodies and the ``virtual domain''. Which, of course, is utter bullshit.

If one compares ``The Legible City'' to the alphabetic toys, it becomes
obvious that the have

* a much richer interactivity, because they don't force their players
into a restrained brick world, but on the contrary allow players to
integrate their bricks into their own world[
* an infinitly more humble and humorous understanding of their own
limitations at the same time, simply by calling themselves toys.

Since ``The Legible City'' obviously are not aware of their own
limitations and contradictions in concept - quite in opposition to what
Porombka find in the piece -, they are a naive piece of art. (And one, if
this remark is allowed, nobody would take seriously as contemporary art
except those in the ghetto of ``media art''.)

Jodi is the joint project of Dutch-Belgian net artist Joan
Hermskerk and Dirk Paesmans, form whom jodi is an acronym. If one opens
the site in a web browser, it doesn't present itself as - superficially -
accessible as ``The Legible City'', but makes a hostile takeover of the
user's browser:

(Demonstration OSS)

It is a hack, and punk-like aesthetic and technological hijacking. But
this simple hack alone provides enough fuel and insight to reflect it as
an antithesis to an ``interactive art'' aesthetics as represented by the
``Legible City'': There is no simulation of beautiful, anthropomorphic
surface, no cozy virtual reality city and no bike, but the pure alien
techno aesthetics of software as such. It does not require
multi-ten-thousand-dollar high tech, but is low tech running on any
computer. The whole source code of the web pages takes up less than 10
Kilobyte, i.e. has the average size of a short E-Mail note and works
without problems over a slow modem connection. It promises no false
human-machine interactivity, but ultimately shows how interactivity is a
scam, a reduction of users to clicking slaves. It does not create
pseudo-realistic images and doing so does neither limit the imagination of
the viewers, nor force them into a merry prison of an artificially
restrained pseudo-world.

At the same time, it is much closer to a true concept of interactivity
because it forces computer users to quit their point-and-click
interactions and think up a solution outside the box - shutting down
computer for example, or perhaps even throwing it out the window. It is,
for the first time, a computer art whether the machine is not conceived of
as a transparent tool, a black box existing outside the perceivable work
itself, but where the computer, its contingency of codes and crashing
operating system software themselves make up the aesthetics. Needless to
mention how ironic and humorous this understanding of the computer is. For
the first time, the computer and its software is being treated as material
itself, not as a device that processes material (like computer-generated
music or computer-rendered graphics).

If Shaw's work is naive, jodi's work could be called, in a terminology
borrowed from Friedrich Schiller, ``sentimentalist''. What Schiller
described in his late 18th century essay on ``Naive and Sentimentalist
Poetry'' was an aesthetic clash of classical and modern art: Classical
artworks, Greek tragedies for example, rested in themselves, had a unity
and smoothness of form, whereas modern art had lost its unity, and in the
desperate attempt of regaining it, ended up internally broken, reflecting,
ironic, like Shakespeare's Hamlet.

The ``OSS'' start page of alone brings up these issues. The rest
of the web site has to be found via World Wide Web search engines, or
critical writing about which in turn pointed to its sections
hidden from the front page. It is another refusal of presenting a smooth,
pseudo-simple interface. It also locates jodi's art in the net, since
visitors of the site have do their own investigative networking to find
the site in the first place, thus becoming true interactors with the art.
With the piece, the site refuses to stand only for
itself, but identifies itself as part of a larger artistic and cultural
network. Consequently, this idea has been adopted, plagiarized and
transformed by other net art workers:


More peripheral in jodis work are their poetry-like code writings which
they typically post to mailing lists and set off a whole net art genre of

[Projection untitled game / war.c]

Code becomes a ready-made artwork here. It is no longer something hidden
from the actual artwork, like in the ``Legible City'', but being pulled
out from inside. What previously was a hidden and unresolved contradiction
between textual programming and an illusionist surface is now becoming the
center of a new aesthetics. Software and code for the first time in the
history of electronic arts become an artistic material. Unlike in earlier
computer arts, artists do not construct it from scratch in a laboratory
work approach, but they take the abundance of code ``out there'' on any
personal computer and floating in the Internet, and treat it like Dadaist
and Pop art painters treated the found objects in their collages.

The aesthetic effects of course are similar, disruption, anarchy and
noise. But how is jodi's noise different from the noise and randomness in
previous avant-garde arts? The difference lies in the media and in the
rhetoric. In Dada poetry, Hans Arp's chance painting and John Cage's
random music, randomness occurs structurally within a work, not in its
transmission. Even where doesn't randomize its own
transmission by unstable addressing schemes, it reads and behaves as if it
contained intact data disturbed only by faulty net transmission or
computer crashes; but in reality, the line noise is mocked up within the
data itself. Unlike Nam June Paik's visual noise manipulations of TV sets
in the 1960s, jodi's disturbance is not done in hardware with only partly
predictable results, but is a clever simulation of unpredictability done
in software.

ANd while the chance poetics of Cage and Fluxus conceived of disturbance
and randomness as means of radical freedom, their implication is much more
ambivalent in jodi's work. They inspire and liberate the viewers'
imagination all the while locking it into deception, mazes and dead-ends.
The naive Cagean ontology of chance is replaced with a tricky rhetoric of
simultaneous anarchy and entrapment, a neo-baroque conceit and discordia
concors of surface chaos with inscribed discipline and vice versa.


I hope to have made a point why net art as it was co-invented by jodi was
different and more sophisticated than previous computer art. Digital net
art also differs from the pre-digital net art like Mail Art because I
think it has simply produced better art. Mail Art was largely a harmless
rehash of Fluxus collage aesthetics, without the edge and radical
implications of the former. [...]

Older digital art vs. net art

installation | performance
high tech | low tech
constructivism | eclecticism
artistic naivite | artistic sophistication

Net art vs. Mail Art:

aesthetic rehash | aesthetic experimentation
appeasing | confrontational
only community-oriented | artistic + community-



{1} Nichts, was in den 90ern für den Computer geschrieben wurde, konnte
sich mit einer Installation messen lassen, wie sie etwa Jeffrey Shaw mit
Legible City realisiert hatte - technologisch nicht und auch nicht
konzeptionell. Immerhin hatte Shaw einen mehrere zehntausend Mark teuren
Silicon Graphics Crimson Computer eingesetzt, um die richtigen Effekte zu
erzielen. Nur mit einem solchen Gerät ließ sich dem Rezipienten
vermitteln, dass die eigene Aktivität mit der Bewegung des digitalen
Bildes auf der Leinwand gleichgeschaltet war.

above fopied fromL

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