Calin Dan on Fri, 2 May 1997 01:29:25 +0200 (MET DST)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> art in the nettimes etc.

art in the nettimes. some mess-media common places. statement for a flat

"Net-art", a default concept that could be seen coming on the floor since
the advent of www, is an indicator for some other, more resistant topics.

1. {The ghetto of appropriation.} In a simplified overview, the art of the
last 2 decades spanned from (video-; to video installation-; to computer-;
to CD ROM-; to internet-) ART. Whatever new media tool gets public is not
only immediately assimilated as procedure and path for artistic activities
but becomes protocol and compulsory label for the (state of the) art
discourses and the aural events connected to them.
This restlessness can be speculated upon as representing either an increase
of integration dynamic, or a symptom of content neurosis. Anyway, it gives
a sense of isolation that became retrospectively quite obvious. After the
euphoria of the schism between (old- and new-) media arts, a long process
of failed integration is consistent with the history of the art events in
the last decades. The slow convergence between institutions, initiatives
and artists coming from both sides of the imagined fall are not
compensating for a crisis which is so simple that it can hide under that
little absurd sentence: there is *new* art and there is *old* art. Isn't

2. {The seek for legitimacy.} a) From the part of the new media themselves,
in a >natural< translation of the technological experiment towards
consumerism. (In that case we approach new media as immanent entities with
a logic of their own; or, more likely, as corporate initiatives highly
controlled in the process of development/dissemination.)
b) From that segment of the art generators/moderators
(artists/curators/theoreticians) looking for a promotional niche where
rules have not been imposed (yet).
c) From the art system itself, in a period when all systems (politics,
economy, communication, social security, job policies, capital,
environment, family, name it) are confronted with the issue of image
d) From those entrepreneurs who still believe that business is helped by a
well moderated art commitment.

3. {Revitalization through compromise.} The mechanism of historical change,
labeled until recently as progress, is assimilating the innovations through
compromise, fact which annoys the innovative spirits. For that reason maybe
every new item in the stream of modern escalation has, beyond inventors
(initiators) and developers, its own prophets: for keeping pure the flame
of the new.
Unfortunately, as soon as the *new* becomes public property it is used
precisely in order to revitalize the *old*, and not necessarily in order to
displace it. A compromise which can bring change if it is negotiated
properly. Or bring just some more frustrated prophets pointing at another
failure of the pure in front of the rich.
This is, I guess, the level on which we can contemplate >net art< at this

4. {Social currency and moral token.} From those who are not satisfied by
the assimilation of commodities or by the criticism of commodification, a
new type of activism was born, not to be found before the raise of media as
a template of art production.
Mixing media criticism, social skepticism, technological skill and
aesthetic will, this activism is structured on the image of its favorite
tool - the computer - whose interfaces and connectivity are replicated in a
mixture of speed, presence, designed language and behavior, in a
convergence of entertaining and calculation, in programmed discontinuity,
and in a pragmatic perception of the modern mythologies. An activism
consistent with the idea of aesthetic coherence, which brings back the
decadent image of the >dandy<, so well married with the >data<, as we know.

5. *Net is not art.* What could be dangerous in this mixture is precisely
the way it addresses both issues of art and social responsibility. When a
tactical (media) activist says that *net is art*, my memory jumps back to a
previous experience we had in the 70s' and 80s' communist Europe.
>Resistance through art< was then a slogan legitimating a special position
>of artists who were truly believing that isolation into a specific medium
>was vouching for political dissidence. The complementary trend was to
>force the acceptance of active cultural dissidents as artistic authorities
>(in the "inner" circles of the art world). The two situations are
>interchangeable in the sense that they both consider political engagement
>and artistic status as bonuses.
When everything has political implications and/or artistic value, the
initial sense of both commitments becomes diluted and therefore vulnerable
to manipulations.
I am not trying here to level a historical experience that many
cannot check upon with developments just occurring under our eyes. But the
recent past has to be used because it offers ready made commonplaces to
contemplate and avoid, if necessary. Or not.

Denying publicly the art >system< in favor of media activism is trendy and
it confirms the fascination that art keeps radiating in those times of
mess-media. Otherwise, why make public issues (therefore conceptual
objects) from decisions which belong to the private ("I am no more an
artist/curator, etc."), if not for teasing (via negative
self-advertisement) the curiosity of a field which seems to have lost any?

6. {Looped rejection.} There is an interesting compression of meanings in
the attitudes of those who reject the art >system<, respectively the art
("art is dead"), and those - quite many - who claim "artistry" for other
domains, extraneous to the art as sensed historically.
a) Art and art system become one entity, with interchangeable weaknesses.
Perceiving art's future only within the prospective of its promotional
infrastructure is an abuse which speaks about the failure of art to
redesign its public beyond consumerism and the failure of consumerism to
socialize art beyond commercial integration.
b) The identification between domain and system opens the door for confused
attitudes of reclamation in the key "art is (design/media/media design)",
which prove for the effective contamination of the general mentalities - so
far that consumerism is denied from a consumerist point of view. Which
could be interesting if not just hypocrite.

The reason for this loop rejection-lust stays in the schizophrenic relation
that society at large (still) seems to have with money. Although belonging
to a system, art is somehow a gratuitous activity, a noble trade, with no
apparent relation to currency. By claiming artistry, other domains try to
achieve qualities that art itself is denied lately: responsibility,
disinterest, social efficiency. The profit should be there also, for the
complete satisfaction, but coming somehow spontaneously, as a reward for
the understanding of what art really means, and for >extending< its

7. {Loss of legitimacy.} >Net art< speaks (again) for the expectations
risen by the new tools in an era when technology plays the role of
ideology. And of the weakness of ideologies themselves in fulfilling one of
the most basic needs - legitimacy.
After religion, art seemed to loose its quality to legitimate human
activities beyond the range of the aesthetic. But still, like religion
itself, art became an instrument for organizing the dynamic of closed
communities who stay as referential for more extended (and therefore more
discrete) games of power.
>Art is dead< and >net is art< are two symmetric attitudes whose polemic
>values have to be appreciated "cum grano salis". But the development of
>internet is not a fresh issue, and basically new media are not necessarily
>new. Therefore maybe the euphoric statements, the holistic visions and the
>pessimistic evaluations are corners that could be cut more drastically on
>the base of historic experience, for getting into more matter-of-factly
>estimates of the usefulness and dangers confronting the art in the

8. {The parenthesis of the >new<.} There is a danger shadowing all topics
starting with the domain name *new*: If there is any hope for the new media
arts to get long term confirmation, it might come precisely from the fact
that new media themselves deal with old issues. The trouble is that since
novelty is something that keeps the momentum, there must be something wrong
with getting old. At least that is the rule of social contract at the
In the mean time, an increasing eagerness to seek for legitimacy in the
history of media, or even further in the history of culture and religions
is an operation which might help defining some areas of reflection for the
newest art - the net one.

i. #From video out.# Compared to recent experiences, net art is less
instrumental in displaying big amounts of data and less able to sustain
visual environments beyond the user-to-screen relation.
(Comment: Video art launched the costly adventure of v.-installation
precisely - among other reasons - because the user-to-screen paradigm
seemed to be not enough competitive in the mess-media ambient.)
It has potentially higher rates of distribution, on the horizontal vectors
of the web. It also involves a higher risk of dissipation, due to the
specificity of the same medium.
(Comment: video art aimed to enter the vertical hierarchy of museums, and
succeeded; only to realize how meager an audience they bring, despite the
acquisition of status symbol. Remain the video festivals and distribution
initiatives, something of the dimension of a large news group.)
The capacity of the machines is paramount in displaying the information,
and the lack of consistency in their systems, power etc. make the net an
unpredictable medium, from the hosting server on.
ii. #Learning to be old.# Net art might be a domain assuming as a program
some techniques of nomadism. Random appearances, tactical disappearance,
low resolution, ubiquity, distrust of historic values (posterity,
stability, economic growth), data pessimism (bury the information, save
your discourse for a rainy day), strategies of destruction (symbolic
viruses), etc.
Question: If the >web< is a floating graveyard, what is the format of the
funeral monuments? ASCII? QTVR?
iii. #Fighting the mess-media.# Net art might put at work the frugal side
of net tools for countering the excesses of today's visual environment.
Therefore, to be non-visual (or with a diminished visual emphasize), remote
(limited audience), private (relying on personal narratives, local
imperatives, communal mythologies).
(Comment: The bad news come when we remember the modest impact of
conceptual art, community TV etc.)
Mainstream media shouldn't be competed on a lesser ground. The problem with
art (*any* art) is that it has no proper means to define a ground out of
reach for the mainstream media. The position of media arts (*any*, net art
included, I'm sorry) is worsened in that sense by the vicious shareware
situation (same tools, different goals).
Question: How many >surfers< and how many readers are using the www
interfaces? This in the prospective of a content based net art.
iiii. #Net quality.# Being able to replace the zapping of the 80s with
something different than the >surfing< of the 90s; maybe with a
reinstallation of the minimal intensity of contemplation which in lesser
times was named revelation or religious feeling.

9. *Statement for a flat interactivity*. The (new-) screen mentality
developing in the track of the www adds some extra confirmation to evidence
accumulated during the short but by now tormented history of the moving
image. Precisely to the facts that: a) cinema was not a plug in for the
Renaissance optical cube; and b) the moving images did not increase the
meaning of tri-dimensionality. From film to TV to computer, the visual
language didn't mark an "evolution", but spiraled back towards a
(meta/pre)historic flatness.

The shocking window opened by the Lumière brothers' first movie projection
in the wall of a cabaret theater was already containing the prophecy of
flatness: light, movement and prospective cannot change a steaming engine
or a traveling happy bourgeois family into something different. What
maintained active for decades the hypnotic force of cinema is the revival
of an old theatrical recipe: how to install a ritual atmosphere by working
the illusion of depth with the help of controlled light and multi-layered
flatness. That was actually how the medieval "misterium mysticum"
performances were staged; that is the way theaters were build from the
baroque times until the 19 century - with layers of flat decorum propelled
with invisible cranes, wheels and ropes, in a scenario of interactivity
where the button could be a word, a gesture, the sound of an instrument.
All under the supreme rule of light control.

What ruined the hypnosis and revealed the flatness of the procedure was the
interference of uncontrolled light. (Dominant light is actually one of the
embarrassments of modernism, introduced by Copernicus with his perception
of the universe. The ecumenism of electricity, defined otherwise as >the
4th dimension<, is another one.) The installation of more casual moving
image devices in our domestic decorum abolished the miracle of light
effects, but enhanced flatness as an obvious quality of information.

TV broadcast, video games, web pages with hyper-text structures prove
precisely the opposite of what is commonly assumed at this moment. We are
definitely not in the way to capture the 3d in the box of our display
monitors, or to build an electronic/digital equivalent of the theatrical
vision (from light cube to light tube, if I may; here has to be mentioned
another embarrassing heresy of modernism - the optical prospective as
settled in the 15 century by L. B. Alberti). But we might be close to
achieve the goal underlining the image making process for millennia: a
synthesis of the meaningful flatness of representation with the symbolic
depth of movement.
We might also have an opportunity to finally acknowledge a consistent
although remote fascination for the flatness of the images, even when
Flatness is a dangerous component of reality, as far as it is not assumed
as such. Art history can be red as a history of failures due to the
oppression of flatness. Let's say.

The Magdalenian hunters scribbling the walls of the European caves, or the
nomads painting the rocks at Tassili have an understanding for the
emergencies of mental perception and a knowledge of the ways to fulfill
them. In times of magic relation with the environment, a flattened
representation is both an instrument of control and a carrier of superior
powers. By flattening the essential aspects of his surrounding (animals to
hunt, enemies to defeat), the "pre-historic" painter doesn't operate a
reduction, since by that way he can capture a spiritual dynamic via a
frozen movement.
The eye does not perceive the movement of the buffalo. The drawing does.
And by that it makes obvious another level of the real, the hidden faces of
a world otherwise perceived boldly, like a container filled with hostile
events. Mapping that container pushes in view the movements and the vectors
which give sense to this world. In other words, the world is eventually
flat, and dynamic. And therefore meaningful.

3d is predictable, therefore oppressive and limiting. 3d is like
censorship. While flatness is comprehensive in a way which gives room to
the imagination for building other dimensions too.

Later on in time, the refinement of representation still keeps for a while
the dialectic approach to flatness. Where the Egyptian painting gives a
prospective, it does so precisely in order to capture the movement, to
suggest the vibration of the monumental form, and not in order to play with
illusions of volume and masses. In those times, human and animal are still
homologue categories - floating shapes in a shamanic flux which unifies the
energies of cosmos.

Flatness was magic - 3d is ideology. When sculpture became a public
entertainment, allowing the pedestrians to turn around carved figures, the
bond to the domain of magic understanding was displaced by the veil of
misunderstandings, instrumental for the political power to keep a grip on
reality. This process begun roughly in the Roman times, and it had a simple
mechanics: making the real look unreal if compared to the powerful illusion
of prospective. Before that, the sculptures were confined to the
architecture of the temple, altar, mountain. Sometimes they were even
impossible to be viewed. They were concepts. And concepts move in the thin
air of flatness.

The taking off point for any good interactive situation is to assume the
flatness of the screen as an evidence that cannot be transcended just by
illusionist procedures; like the flatness of the Earth cannot be denied
just by satellite photography technologies. As far as our daily trade
proves, we live on a flat planet and we look at flat surfaces where flat
shapes happen to move. Interactivity cannot and does not have to go further
than the flatness of data which allows information to achieve beyond-the-3d
performances. Two dimensions + movement = Multi-dimensional content. The
formal aspects of such a process are undefinable, but the requirements are
there - on the net: the poverty of the tools, the emphasize on
transmission, the fluidity of the connections. A return to older visions
might be possible via net art. Or not.

The true virtual reality is the one which goes further than the third
dimension, keeping at the same time a flat vision, which is the vision of
(f)light . The VR we know now is just the cyber equivalent of the bourgeois
realism, a fascinating kitsch defined by basic similarities, effective and
addictive because it cuts down any chance for the uncontrolled to burst in
our hyper controlled environments. VR and 3d are the sedatives who keep the
undisturbed life consumers from becoming life critics.

Therefore, we must be cautious with a theoretical heritage who states that
"escaping [...] flatland is the essential task of envisioning
information"[1], and look into more obsolete experiences like the history
of the collage [2], or the stage writings of Schlemmer [3]. Envisioning
information means precisely capturing its essence - which is flat speed.

10. The image of the modern artist was forged during the Italian
Renaissance through a dispute which engaged for about one hundred years
some of the most outstanding personalities of the Quattro- and Cinquecento.
It was the dispute between the Liberal Arts (Ars Liberalis) and Mechanic
Arts (Ars Mechanicae).
The division, based on statements of the antique philosophy (mainly Plato)
was quantified in the Middle Age, when human activities have been
classified into superior and inferior "arts". The superior arts, emanating
*only* from the spirit, and therefore "Liberal" were: Grammar, Rhetoric,
Logic (the so called Trivium), respectively Geometry, Arithmetic, Music,
Astronomy (Quadrivium). The "inferior" ones were all activities involving
the mechanics of the body or of the machines, no matter what the purpose of
the application was. That is how architecture, painting and sculpture, the
main domains of the visual creativity were nevertheless - mechanic arts.
All this was encoding an old prejudice about the superiority of theory over
practice, intellectual over physical (work), invention over execution,
illusion over representation, concepts over objects etc. etc. And mirrors
eventually top to bottom social structures, divided in masters and serfs,
noblemen and artisans, gods and mortals.

The Renaissance succeeded in changing the status quo by including the
visual arts among the other "liberal" activities, and therefore giving a
chance to an integrated model of creativity, where the sensorial and
theoretical levels could become convergent. [4] The failure of this model
came precisely through the institutions meant to promote it, who enhanced
the economic aspect of the mutation at the disadvantage of the spiritual
ones. The liberation from the manufacturing circuit of
production-gratification never occurred, in fact. It was just hidden behind
the screen of academic institutions who enhanced the gap between manual
work and intellectual satisfaction, instead of erasing it. Socially
speaking, the artists remained what they were before - artisans, but
loosing in their new ambition schemes the niche reserved to them
previously, for a floating situation where individualism prevailed, without
being necessarily a solution.

What we experience in the nettimes is another attempt to integrate visual
and conceptual (iconic and discursive) models in a unique flow of data.
Another attempt to modify the status quo of creativity by going beyond the
"mechanics" of expression. And the danger remains the same - that the
institutions which have to work out this change will fail the expectations
invested in them. That the social needs are again to far to be reached via
theoretic restlessness. That the digital priests will remain artisans, this
time >digital artisans< (the concept of Richard Barbrook).

The internet is seen now in many ways: as a social model, a
psycho-metaphor, a religious interface, a cult, a communal tool etc., etc.
It is also, more and more, a play field for cloning the real world in a
flattened un-reality. But this time a *truly flat* one, with no metaphysics
whatsoever. Therefore the idea of net art comes on a ground virtually
polluted by all the failures and prejudices which make
art-of-the-real-world so outdated. If this can be changed is a suspended
question, but a challenging one, no doubt about it.
Happy Doomsday!
                                                                Cãlin Dan


[1] Edward R. Tufte - "Envisioning Information", Cheshire, Connecticut,
1990, p.12; an otherwise excellent book about quantifying information in
visual contexts.
[2] A fresh approach to the subject in Dorothea Dietrich, "The Collages of
Kurt Schwitters. Tradition and Innovation", Cambridge University Press,
[3] For instance, Oskar Schlemmer, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Farkas Molnar, "The
Theater of the Bauhaus" (editor Walter Gropius), London, 1979.
[4] More about this anachronistic topic in Anthony Blunt, "Artistic Theory
in Italy 1450-1600", Oxford, 1940.

#  distributed via nettime-l : no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a closed moderated mailinglist for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: and "info nettime" in the msg body
#  URL:  contact: