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<nettime> NEW WRITING: Net response -- Arts culture, tissue culture and
mez breeze on Tue, 4 Jan 2005 04:19:06 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> NEW WRITING: Net response -- Arts culture, tissue culture and autonomy

NEW WRITING: Net response -- Arts culture, tissue culture and autonomy
BY: Molly Hankwitz


One of the most promising and exciting aspects of Net art and its networked 
culture is that it, more than other media is continually morphing. It has 
close proximity to technocultural change and is incorporated or exploited or 
extrapolated upon as part of this change. Tools, names, processes and 
knowledge evolve with new media technologies like painting does with oil 
paint, or film and sculpture with celluloid or clay. The artistic will to 
improve, manipulate and expand upon "materials" is found all the time in net 
art. It is simply an electronic art form, carrying with it all the materials 
and mythologies bound up with being electronic. The artists push and create 
the net; many might argue that definitions of net art must be expanded to 
include communications law activists, programmers, and software engineers.

But artists produce culture, which is distinguished as ‘art’, and which is 
separated by judgement from commercial and industrial art forms. Yet it is 
also a net art history to acknowledge that between the product and the 
cultural manifestation of artwork is multidirectional collaboration that 
goes into producing the work. New media art work, net art and networked 
culture has a long history of such creative effort that has been discussed 
widely and whole areas of electronic art publication and production are 
devoted to fostering collaboration between scientists and artists or 
engineers and artists; dancers, musicians, sound artists and computer hacks. 
The net, thus is a widely inscribed, shape-shifting, responsive architecture 
in which artists intentionally play with its flexing characteristics and 
abundant aesthetics reinventing them through many means such as 'community' 
'continuity' and 'distribution.'

But what is a net artist? Is it someone like ]mez[ only, who has dedicated 
her life to creating an online persona as an artist and her own net.language 
to promote her work? Or is a net artist anyone who does something for 
purposes of creativity, on the net? Or is a net artist someone who is 
recognized by arts and cultural institutions?

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly where net art falls. There are 
techno-artists, net artists, online artists, communication designers and 
artists, online performers, and so forth. One area that this author feels is 
contributing to a blurring of net art with networked communication, for 
example, or with 'independent media' and media arts is in the area of ‘open 

We are currently witnessing widespread proliferation of *free* 
open-publishing softwares from 'blog' servers to 'wiki' and more. 
Photoblogs, travel and personal blogs abound on artists’ sites and in 
virtual communities on the net. Artists who are painters or photographers 
are using online means to produce regular evidence of their travels and 
their work. Other artists are programming new search engines and creating 
entire narrative-element sites. Entire cultures of publishing on and off 
line are cropping up around the use of readily available open-publishing 
softwares to which “anyone” can contribute and some theorists write of major 
changes in media production, audiences and consumption as a result of this 

Moreover, companies such as Google and Yahoo are providing space for 
artworks and specialist search functions, expanding through their 
consumer-base and providing for the flourishing of cultures around their 
companies tools. Open publishing, once an "open source" concept reserved for 
anarchy and techno-utopia has been trundled into an "anyone can do it" 
practice with many commercial open publishing softwares becoming available. 
Wikipedia encyclopaedia, a rich information source, allows anyone to start a 
topical web page and that page in turn can be edited by anyone else. The 
concept of online collaboration as a typical web-based practice is key to 
this form of exchange. "Anyone" publishing is a democratic idea, but it may 
well also be simply an amelioration of net art practices into the everyday 
rendering them a function of the banal; no longer interesting or 
provocative, but soft and pluralistic.

Commercialisation of softwares means necessarily a mainstreaming of 'idea' 
as more and more ‘non-artists’ become absorbed into the jelly-like mass of 
the world wide web, believing there are participating in something real. 
What is 'open' about something simply more available? The public commons, 
which includes net art cultures does not necessarily benefit from increased 
capitalization on and commercialisation of its processes. Such ‘open’ 
conversation is also more inconsequential, a naïve acritical noise, fluff 
and manipulation, in the interests of whom? Aesthetics of databasing, 
theorized initially by Lev Manovich as a productive creative counterpart to 
avant-garde film, have rightly evolved into robust cultural critique of 
search engines and emerging database technologies in terms of their 
taxonomic biases in the structuring of information and its flows. The 
question is how can we, if we can, construct and imagine "autonomy", in an 
age of mass amalgamation of ideas, IP, and information? In this phase of the 
Internet, do we need to continue to consider critical difference and 
autonomy and what it means? Of course, we do, is the answer. Otherwise we 
allow fundamental issues about who controls the net.waves and real interests 
behind these debates to be obscured.

New York-based cultural critic, McKenzie Wark writes in his recent book, "A 
Hacker Manifesto" that we are living in a time of gross commodification of 
information. Is the current interest among techno-artists in 'automation' 
and 'robotics' any indicator that what was at one time thought to be 'human' 
is now thought to be 'machine'? Is it a response to the 
over-industrialization of digital media? A numbing out? If corporate gentech 
has anything to say about it, the answer is "yes."

The ability of Australian bioengineering artists Oron Catts, Ionat Zurr and 
Guy Ben-Ary of the Tissue Culture & Art Project (http://www.tca.uwa.edu.au/) 
and the Pigs Wings Project in which the already fictionalised object of 
'pigs wings' are hand-crafted in flesh-form from pigs ears cells or in which 
a miniature leather coat is created out of mouse ear cells in 'Victimless 
Leather', provide a fascinating position on bioengineering and its place in 
culture at large. These works look at the sorts of fears and imagination 
biotech engenders. Earlier in the bio-art history, performer/engineer 
Stelarc's prosthetic fantasies of second arms and ears and Patricia 
Piccinini's notorious digital photographs of infant-like bioengineered 
critters contextualized this strand of cyberart as sinister, macabre, and 
other worldly, playing directly off fear of the unknown. Their very strong 
work commented on cultural fictions/non-fictions and the prevalence of 
science fiction while subverting technodeterminist narratives and declaring, 
in a sense, a permanent crossover between science and art. Humour and 
aesthetic beauty of 'tissue' were the medium.
Other interpretations may well describe this art as more a response to the 
imagination of work and the vast hype and desensitisation surrounding 
autocratic, technoscientific imaging. Stelarc and Piccinini endeavour to be 
funny and horrific, while they are pointing to real horrors -- the complete 
collusion of culture with nature to the point of a third – nature, one 
neither human nor machine.

While new technologies are being developed for almost every field of human 
endeavour from agriculture to human reproduction, weapons manufacturers and 
the surveillance society drive much of their future. Good and evil “uses” 
are played out in liberal philosophy and advertising while bioengineering 
art deterministically appropriates the techniques and materials of science, 
much as Da Vinci did, to say “art is cultural and creative”; these are the 
objects of its imagination. Human and machine, if not linked directly in the 
flesh, are at least linked in an imagination of the flesh. Pigs’ wings are 
hypothetical after all, just as the process of cloning or organ replacement 
through tissue once was. Is bioengineering art then, in part, an effort to 
reinvent cyber communications through a radical surrealism? Are its images 
and ideas created to cut through dominant knowledge and culture, tap the 
pseudo-scientific mythologies in popular culture, which crop up, and crack 
technoscience’s hold on discovery? How similar is this culture hacking to 
the work of database theorists examining how knowledge is surfed and 
systematized? Moreover, where has it crossed into net art?

Part of the ‘pigs wings’ critique is that it places the hand of God in our 
ability to construct the “real” out of ordinary folklore and, secondly, it 
begs citizens’ participation in bioengineering culture. The possibility that 
pigs can fly becomes almost real if not also absurd; if the flesh they are 
made of is real, however manufactured and it resonates with the 
biotechnology work of Steve Kurtz and the Critical Art Ensemble, which tied 
them up with the FBI. By bringing the processes of GMO food testing into the 
ordinary household through easily and legally obtained tools, a 
high-concept, low-tech critique of corporate power over our bodies is 
expressed. What appears “real” fact in the corporate spectacle – that only 
scientists can manipulate food or that pigs can fly – is rendered an absurd 
political fiction. And flesh is and will be the contested terrain of the 
21st century arts and sciences just as it and its use and representation is 
historically the contested terrain of lawmakers, moralists and politicians. 
The propensity for younger artists, in particular, to play with automation 
and generative processes, processes which exclude the hand of the artist 
very often and in which the perfunctory role of machines is central, may 
well be about the body and its changing role in everyday life, medicine and 
genetics. By giving up to the machines, there is an abdication of authorial 
presence; there is an abdication of time. We have produced the human genome 
project and Adam can be downloaded. How, then will net artists deal with the 
body, the networks and the changing role of the machine with its ever 
miniaturizing, invasive and, even edible presence in our lives?

--spraypaint.attractors = doll.functioning

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