Date sent: Thu, 17 Oct 1996 15:35:29 +0100

Art in the electronic networks

Andreas Broeckmann, V2_Organisation Rotterdam

In the past twelve months we have witnessed the transformation of the electronic networks from the second to a third generation of users. The first generation were those researchers and students who had access to the networks since the 1970s through the universities or similar institutions, the military, and the hackers who broke into the networks illegally to make the information that circulated there public, and in order to reveal security flaws in the system. Since the mid-1980s, the Internet was gradually opened up for more general use by the academic community, but it thus also became available to social and political groups which began to use it in their work and public campaigns, and for more or less private communication. These users formed the second generation, still a rather elite group with access privileges, and a small enough community to maintain a certain code of conduct termed ‘netiquette’, to develop certain rules and communication routines which gave them a definite feeling of being part of an in-crowd.

The third generation starts to emerge with the popularisation of the networks in the early 90s, the American ‘Wired’ magazine first comes out in 1993, almost simultaneous with the arrival of the World Wide Web protocol. Since then, the number of Internet users has grown at exuberant rates, and 1995 can probably be ticked off as the year when the second generation gets swamped by the third. This growth affords the emergence of the Net as not only a more widely accessible and more commercial space, but also as a much more disparate social arena which is more hierarchically structured and in a way less open due to the dominance of the passive interfaces geared at the consumption of images and services, rather than at individual agency. Although the opportunities for this have not gone away, the dominant trend in network development has not gone in the rather anarchic and diverse direction of the second generation, but towards the ideological and cultural pattern which we have grown familiar with in post-Second World War Western culture. This development need not be decried, it may be seen as a form of normalisation, but it should make us cautious as to the actual creative potentials and opportunities which networks have to offer.

network aesthetics

I would like to begin by reaffirming the notion of ‘aesthetics’ as a theme in the critical discourse about art. Aesthetics has, especially through the modernist understanding of it, taken on a rather formalist connotation. Even if, in the modernist discourse, it did not necessarily point to beauty or sublimity any more, it still related strongly to formal artistic principles and was directly connected to the notion of the autonomy of art. As that modernist conception receeds, and we regain an understanding of art that shows it in dialogue and dependent interrelation with science, technological and social developments, and as historically determined, we also need to re-evaluate the attitude from which particular artistic decisions emerge, and the impact that they may have. What follows is an enquiry into the aesthetics of contemporary art which has ethical, political, as well as formal and subjective dimensions. It asks for the position, the vector or trajectory which particular works or groups of works are taking.

We are here concerned with only a very limited domain even within media art, i.e. art using electronic networks, and it will have to be seen whether there are repercussions from this discussion for other fields of media art. The following can therefore be read as an attempt at making suggestions towards what we might call network aesthetics. I believe that it will continue to make sense to speak of an aesthetics only in relation to human experience which is grounded in sensory experience. The human body is a necessary interface for aesthetic experiences. And although the apparitions and representations offered by the telematic machines seem to become ever more refined and fantastic, the human body can only adapt to these developments in a limited way, and it can probably only bear a certain degree of ‘constructivism’.

On the other hand, the electronic networks form a new public space with political, commercial and cultural dimensions, and it will be important for artists and media activists to claim part of this new space for independent, non-commercial activities. We are currently still in a transitional period, and the way that the networks will look depends to some degree on the way in which we use and develop them. We should not be too optimistic, the global bandwidth are currently being sold away to commercial companies and there will, similar as in the history of television, only be limited possibilities for artists and independent producers to make use of the facilities that are there. But still, we will have to continue to learn to understand the Net as a productive machine, and to use it in multiple and creative ways.

I would like to suggest three key parameters of artistic activity on and with the electronic networks: collective creativity, in/dependent agency, and interpersonal communication. I will briefly introduce these three concepts and then discuss them in relation to a number of net art projects which I believe are exemplary. It will have to be seen whether these concepts are actually useful and sufficient, or whether further categories will have to be developed for an adequate analysis of such projects.

collective creativity

The electronic networks display temporal and spatial properties which are very different from those of the physical world, which means that the forms of interaction and creative possibilities for artists are also different from those of, say, painters or video artist. Most importantly, the digital domain offers a non-linear environment in which space and time are experienced as dislodged: spatio-temporal parameters actually have to be programmed into them as part of the interface through which humans can engage with the digital data flows. This means, that time and space are flexible dimensions, they can be ‘bent’, speeded up, and fully individualised.

This new environment encourages the development of collective forms of working, in groups of known individuals as well as in anonymous networks, where the deterritorialisation of traditional creative structures allows for a certain degree of heterogeneity, instability and irritation, and offers an opportunity to the productivity of difference. Two examples of how net art projects can work with the notion of collective creativity are the Renga and AIDS Quilt projects. Renga started by a Japanese artist putting a digitally designed image on a network and asking other people to download a copy of that image, alter it on their own computer, and then send the variation back to the same site. Thus a huge tableau of images was created that, though it started from a single point, allowed for endless creative multiplication. The AIDS Quilt project was devised to solve a practical problem: the US American initiative by activists to make a large quilt that would commemorate the people who had died of AIDS and to which anybody could contribute his own articulated patch, had grown so much that it became impossible to move it physically. Therefore, a digitised representation of the quilt was put on the Internet where people can now still add their contributions to this monument.

Thus, sites on the networks can be designed as collective, translocal workspaces. They allow for the collective realisation of projects between different artists, designers, programmers, as well as non-professional network users, a model which takes the creative process away from the single-author concept as in traditional art, and towards the more collaborative models as we know them from film and the performing arts. Furthermore, the inclusion of true interactivity into art projects - which means that the system is actually affected and changed by the input of the agent - implies the delegation of creative work and decision making to the user or visitor who used to be called the ‘beholder’. Artistic intention appears to get replaced by a more engineerial approach that aims at providing a tool for the creativity and expressivity of others, whose input is not only tolerated but becomes a vital part of the artwork.

in/dependent agency

Beside the delegation of agency to the visitor/user we also see projects in which decisions about the creative process are delegated to the computer itself, or to more or less intelligent software agents, sometimes also called knowbots. They can actively organise certain data which they collect and arrange according to the rules given to them. Furthermore, there are computer agents which learn from the results of their own activities, from their environment, or from other agents.

For artists, such computer agents pose the challenge of dealing with systems that will take definitive decisions in processes that are non-intuitive and unintentional, both of which are crucial categories in the modern understanding of art. Such questions are posed by the Tierra project started by Tom Ray, which tests the disciplinary boundaries between informatics and biology. Ray devised small, simple pieces of computer code which, according to him, act like artificial organisms and which exist in a digital environment like the Internet where they can move around, kill each other, but also procreate and thus develop new, more complex and more viable artificial life forms. Thus, a kind of evolutionary process is set off among these organisms which may lead to as yet unimaginable forms of ‘digital life’. The project is interesting for the electronic arts community because it pinpoints the critical relation between human and machine, between human agency and the ability to set off self-generative processes which no longer depend on human intervention.

As an aestetic category, in/dependent agency relates to projects which use artificial intelligence or artificial life - or simulations thereof - that appear to determine the agency of the telematic machine independently from human intervention. It is arguable, whether this can actually be described as a form of autonomy, or whether the fact that the agency is still programmed by humans makes it ‘dependent’. An important feature, however, of such projects is that the machine agency, which is represented as being independent, is itself aestheticised, which means that an aesthetic quality or surplus is derived from the impression of an independently acting machine.

interpersonal communication

Electronic mail played, from the early days of the Net, an important role as a communication medium for informal exchanges among the science community, a role which it continued to have throughout the first and second generation of Net users. Many people from the art community had their first introduction through one of the local networks, like bulletin board systems (BBS), which were a simple way for small local groups to connect, exchange information, and discuss useful and useless matters. The Internet continues to have as one of its main tasks to enable or enhance the communication between real people with real bodies. This is an important point to make, because some of the futurologists’ visions seem to imply that we will soon all exist in Cyberspace as subjectless avatars, rather than as people in the world who sometimes go online. The Net forms a channel for the communication between people, bridging the period between the times when we are not together in the same place. It also connects people who will never meet, and some participants of discussion groups have gone on record describing how the real-life meetings with their online discussion partners and friends were more than disappointing. Yet, there remains a strong desire for people to have such meetings, and I have a feeling that the quality of real-life, physical encounters will not go away so long as our bodies are the desiring machines that they are.

What we find in the art world are quite a number of projects that reflect on the conditions of online interpersonal communication by simply connecting people, by representing their lives and personalities, or by enhancing, radicalising, disrupting, problematising the context and forms in which such communication takes place. Examples of projects which deal with specific types of communication are, for instance, the Core War betting area on the West Bank Industries site which provides an interface for people interested in a specific game done via the networks to observe, communicate and play. Similarly, Idea Futures offers a large area of communicative interaction between people interested in particular social, political or scientific ideas. The Siberian Deal project by Kathy Rae Huffman and Eva Wohlgemuth started off as an actual journey which they undertook to Siberia in the autumn of 1995. During that trip, they were meeting people who they had gotten in contact with through e-mail and with whom they exchanged and shared goods as well as stories and experiences. The artists stayed in e-mail contact with people in Europe, and they sent images and travel reports which were immediately loaded onto the Web. The real-life communication with the people they were seeking contact with, the online communication with friends, and the impersonalised communication with an indistinct Web audience were constituent parts of the project. Afterwards, the full documentation of the trip was put on the Web, including video and sound files and a full travel report, links were made to the institutions which Huffman and Wohlgemuth visited and which are online, and visitors of the site were invited to continue the conversation about the results of the project. The Web site thus now functions as a permanent base for a cultural and personal exchange between people, especially between Siberia and the rest of the online world.

Net art projects

To ask what it is that artists are doing on the electronic networks is, by now, an impossibly broad question. It’s almost as though you were asking what is happening in the international art gallery scene where you have independent and commercial galleries, painters and sculptors, conceptual and performance artists of every denomination. I have chosen to talk about a small selection of works that may give an idea of the range of possibilities there are, and maybe also of some of the limitations. I will look at several World Wide Web sites and discuss them in relation to the categories just outlined.

All of the projects I am mentioning are conceptually and aesthetically so complex that I cannot describe them in any satisfying way. They very often demand close attention, you have to spend time with them and try to understand the different features and layers in order to form an informed opinion about any of these works. An attitude which the ‘zapp, click and run’ culture of the Web does not encourage but which is often vital to experience the wealth - or the poverty - of a certain project. For people who access the Internet through relatively slow modems and telephone connections, this can be a serious problem. Despite all necessary scepticism however, technical developments like JAVA or VRML which will allow for yet unknown forms of interaction will continue to keep artists on their toes, looking at ever new possibilities. In relation to, for instance, the aspect of collective creativity, three-dimensional virtual environments which can function as shared working spaces, open up a completely different, translocal way of developing ideas and designs together. Such possibilities inspire many artists involved in the field of media art to work in close collaboration with programmers, or to learn to programme certain programmes and particular applications themselves.

Daniela Alina Plewe’s project Muser's Service has been online on the World Wide Web since November 1995. It is a computer-based network structure of concepts and associations which are interlinked through a great variety of logical operations. The user can add new concepts to the meshworked data base, specify their properties and define the links between new or already existing concepts. The initial input by the artist and by earlier users is progressively extended, and the Service now represents a complex structure which the user can draw on for a computer aided musing session.

A request to the Service is supported by a simple interface which asks the user to make the necessary choices: what is the start concept (e.g. civilisation), what is the goal (e.g. passion), and what are the preferred methods of association (e.g. conjunction, disjunction, identity, similarity, rhyme, convention).The computer processes this request and, after a few seconds, comes up with a text that represents one possible trace through the network structure of concepts and qualified links. The resulting text is based on a simple, dislodged syntax and offers a series of predictable as well as surprising conjunctions of concepts that it passes through along the selected track.

The Muser’s Service uses the network as a form of access and as a tool for creating a transpersonal associative structure. It is therefore wedded to the notion of collective creativity as well as to that of in/dependent computer agency. The computer records and organises information about associations in a pre-programmed way that is not controllable by the user, though his or her input crucially contributes to the actual conformation of the meshwork of concepts. The Muser’s Service produces an output that is, at the same time, the result of an algorithmic operation, and based on the intuitive contributions by the collective of users.

A similar collusion of machine and human agency on the one hand, and collective creativity on the other, is articulated by Seiko Mikami’s Molecular Clinic, a project which asks the users to collect artificial molecules from a website that displays them in a virtual environment of large visual and ‘organic’ complexity. Together with the molecules, each user can download software which allows for the deliberate manipulation of the collected molecules. As the molecules are rereleased into the virtual environment, they begin to behave in a new way according to the properties newly acquired through the manipulation, creating new forms and artificial ‘organic’ configurations.

The British project Technosphere has a comparable approach to the relation between human and machine interaction, but adds a strong dimension of social interaction and personal commitment which does not play a role in Molecular Clinic. Technosphere offers users the possibility to create little virtual beast which are equipped with certain pseudo-biological properties and which is, after having been created and tagged with the creator’s e-mail address, released into a virtual environment where it will start to interact with other virtual beasties. The interaction in this artificial ecosphere cannot be influenced by the user, but is determined by algorithms that simulate functions like eating, mating and procreating, hunting and fleeing, killing and dying.

As a special feature, the beasties send e-mail messages to their human creators whenever significant things in their ‘lives’ happen, like when they have ‘sex’, when they give birth to off-spring, or when they get killed. The project is still under development, and the Technosphere team hope that they can launch the new version later in 1996, when users should also be able to pick up snapshots of the beasties in their natural habitat, or contribute to the designing of the virtual habitat. The apparent success of Technosphere seems to be directly related to the fact that, through the means of the e-mail messages, users actually maintain a continuous and almost emotional tie with their beastie, and thus with the project.

The installation work Dialogue With The Knowbotic South of the Cologne-based artists group Knowbotic Research+cF assembles information about Antarctica, available from networked computer sites, by means of knowbots, i.e. dynamic interfaces in computer-based networks. In the physical installation of DWTKS, the collected information is visualised and made accessible by a variety of media: a head-set which allows the visitor to navigate through a virtual information space and access the represented data files; a large projection screen on which the collected information is represented in the form of 'clouds' of pixels; a temperature zone that translates data from meteorological stations in Antarctica into streams of conditioned air; light pads on the floor or hanging from the ceiling which indicate the current temperature streams in selected icebergs as recorded by measuring stations. Thus, the knowbots "facilitate sensory experiences of yet vague events in data landscapes."

In projects like DWTKS, Muser’s Service or Technosphere, machine agency itself becomes aestheticised, and the slight irritation they cause in the user about the computer doing something that is ‘out of human control’ determines to a large degree the experiential impact of these works. From a theoretical point of view it is interesting that aesthetical production here seems no longer dependent on human intention or goal-orientation. It is arguable, how consequential this is being done, and how much of the artistic intention now goes into the choice of the spatial and interfacial metaphors, or into the tools that permit the interaction between user and artificial environment.

This question is highly apparent in the Crossings project that Stacey Spiegel and Rodney Hoinkes presented in the Rotterdam Harbour Simulator in November 1995. Using the 360 degree virtual environment of the Harbour Simulator, they constructed the representation of a three-dimensional world which was intended as a visualisation or spatial metaphor for the World Wide Web. Standing of the platform of the Simulator with a group of people, one was navigating through a virtual space in which one could visit selected Web sites by guiding the virtual ship into their representations. The result was a highly evocative, almost sublime experience of something that could hardly be grasped: standing in a physical space and navigating through a virtual space that took you to real websites containing digital information to which you had to relate not only on a computer screen, but in an immersive surrounding. The reference in this work, as in some of the others, to the notion of the sublime may not be an accident. Whereas in 18th- and 19th-century romantic landscape painting effects of the sublime were used to express the problematic relationship between humans and nature, ultimately an experience of alienation, this might now be transposed to the unresolved relation between humans and their technical tools and environments.

A project that sets out to investigate anthropological questions about the prosthetic function of technology in natural environments is the Egg of the Internet by the artists’ group Netband. The idea is to build a robotic installation in which a real egg can be hatched, and in which the chicken that comes out of the egg can be brought up and looked after mechanically. The robotic installation can only be controlled through the Internet where users get various opportunities to interface and communicate with the chicken. The project poses the question not only whether it is technically possible to build a fully automated, remotely controlled environment for a living being, but also, and more crucially, what the relation between the living being and the machine will be, what mediated agency is, and whether a sense of responsibility will emerge in the users who are actually responsible for the survival and well-being of the chicken.

The question might be asked whether such projects should be described as ‘art’, or whether they fall under some other category. I find this question irrelevant in so far as it seeks to affirm a dividing line between art and non-art. It’s impossible to discuss this question at length here, but my take on it would be that net art projects allow for new kinds of experiences which have particular aesthetic qualities. To question and design new forms of interpersonal communication on the Net and in real life thus becomes an important feature both of the regular network traffic, as well as of particular art projects. The relation between the real world and the digital domain, the mediation among people, as well as that between humans and machines, are among the primary questions that art projects using the Internet are tackling at the moment. A lot of effort is put into understanding and developing this new mediatic environment, and it can only be hoped that art projects like the ones I mentioned, just like the many, often more radical ones I did not talk about here, will help to keep diversity and heterogeneity as two of the main characteristics of the electronic networks.


AIDS Quilt:
Idea Futures:
Siberian Deal:
Muser’s Service:
Molecular Clinic:
Egg of the Internet:
Next 5 Minutes:
Tactical Media / New Media Ecology:

Rotterdam, 17 October 1996