Josephine Bosma on Tue, 9 Feb 1999 00:08:16 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> net art article by Tilman Baumgaertel

The following text is a rough translation of an article by
Tilman Baumgaertel in the online magazine Telepolis. The translation
might not be pretty, but at least you will get the drift.

original article (in german):


"I am currently interested in the clash and dialogue between the
conceptual art mafia and the media art mafia", says media theorician
Geert Lovink in an interview which appeared in the latest issue of
the german art magazine "Texte zur Kunst" (TZK) from Cologne. It is
hardly possible to be more concise about the conflict - and the
'tribal' thinking - which informs the new issue of this magazine:
mafia against mafia.

"Texte zur Kunst" can be considered as an offical organ of
the "conceptual art mafia" (Lovink), and has in this respect helped
the break through of some neo-conceptual artists, just as it has
(re)placed artists of the "classic" conceptual school in an art
historical context.

There is a good reason for the fact that both camps, media art and
neo-conceptaul art - watch each other with just as much suspicion as
(secret) interest. Because as Lovink says, there are "dozens of
connections" between the two schools: while the devision between
conceptual art and media art was not an issue yet with Dada or the
situationists, the schism started with Fluxus. After this a certain
group has worked distinctively along the path of technology, and out
of this the genre of Media/Video and Electronic Art developed... And
now young curators from the contemporary art department struggle with
the fact they know nothing about computers and networks, while at
the same time they wonder where this gap is coming from in the first
place." What makes matters worse, says Lovink, "is the fact that more
and more artists start to work with computers - despite repeated
warnings from Cologne, Vienna and New York... Will there be a gangwar?
Or interesting coalitions?" With their latest issue ZTK is pretty
clear about it: gangwar! The empire strikes back!

As Video- and Computer Art are by now to be perceived as historical
genres, the magazine TZK decides to come down hard upon the relatively
new genre of internet art (also known as net art,, art on the
internet) as the most recent manifestation of artistic practice within
"new media". Some of the objections, which then are used against net art,
are well-known. They are always warmed up when artists dare - against
the technophobic atmosphere within the artscene - to use a new
medium. One can summarize these objections like this:

1. Working with new media turns the artists more or less automatically
into useful idiots for hardware producers. Aesthetics and artistic ideas
move to the background compared with the capability to cope with the
relevant technologies.

2. Just because artists work with new technologies, this does not mean
their work is new or innovative.

3. The assertion that media art or net art (key word: hypertext) is
a form of interaction or that this form of art makes the audience
a participant/co-creator of the work is a myth. Indeed with an
oilpainting the recipiant is also the co-producer of the meaning
of the artwork.

4. And on top of this, these people presume they are part of some
avantgarde, while the idea of an avantgarde is historically not
sustainable anymore anyway.

Some of these arguments are historicaly outdated in the case of net art,
while others depend on false assumptions. When artists feel like it,
they can of course ignore new technologies like the internet. This
however isolates them from a large, constantly growing part of a
potential audience for contemporary art in Western Europe and the
United States. The fact that Net-/Media-/Computer Art uses these new
technologies, does not mean it is automatically an avantgarde - which
nobody has really claimed in a long time anymore anyway. The claim
which is put forward in an article by Isabelle Graw (the editor of TZK),
that journalistic or artistic pleas for net art constantly predict a
"hype" or "boom", is absolutely untrue. On the contrary: as a regular
reporter from this somewhat marginal sphere of the artworld I am always
surprised  about the fact, that so little net artists take this alledged
pioneer-role, something which would discredit them in their own scene

Interestingly this avantgarde-position is exactly what is called for
in another part of this article. Following another tired pattern of
argumentation ("nothing new, all seen before"), Graw criticizes some
net art projects as new versions of concepts from the 80's such as
"subversion, fake, surveillance, transgression, service, corporate
identity", and refers specifically to Rachel Bakers' "Clubcard"
project. Funny enough Graw attributes this project to Bakers'
artistic alter ego Trina Mould (Rachel Baker works mostly under her
own name, the alter ego has its own identity and is used for specific
actions. JB).

Apart form the fact that Rachel Baker should get a kick out of the fact
that finally someone fell for her pseudonym, this example shows that
concepts of subversion and fake functions slightly different on the
internet then they did in projects in the 80's, to which Graw
compares them  - before concluding both wiseacreously and venomously:
"Maybe it is the right of every young artist to draw on well-known,
by now out-dated models, without having to take relevant discussions
and developments into account."

Maybe it is the right of an art critic to mercylessly bash projects
he or she did not understand, and even with more vigor because of it.
The problem with this kind of art criticism lies not so much in its
inability for precise observations. The problem lies rather in the
implicit concept of art history, which in itself appears anachronistic.

In the brand of art history 'according to ZTK' the good old concept of
the avantgarde continues to exist undamaged and indisputed, despite
several decades of postmodernism. One could describe this concept like
this: artists invent in certain times, that are for convenience's sake
easily named with period titles, the world completely anew. After these
new art movements have been around for some time, they are put into the
arsenal of art history, where they are well stored, and where, in a
backroom of the ZTK editorial offices, they are - with the correct
periodic specifications- inscribed in large leatherbound volumes by
Cistercienser monks. By this time out there in the galleries and museums
a new generation of artists is already inventing new artistic concepts
and methods. (That this never-ending cycle of complete innovation in art
continues to function, is obvious after a visit to any group show of
contemporary art.)

Contrary to this, for the generation of artists that operates on the
internet, this classical concept of avantgarde seems to have become
questionable (which probably explains why there have been so few
announcements of a "new art" on the net).

This does not mean that net art only recycles previously invented
artistic ideas on a new technical platform. Take, for instance the
numerous pseudo-businesses, which two years ago have been something
of a sub-genre in net art: though they were - consciously or
subconsciously - in effect not too different from 80's-style "business
art", there is something Graw in her simplistic criticism fails to see.
These internet projects have developed a completely different - and
global - persuasiveness that by far exceeds the crediblity of art
projects, where the artist buys himself a suit and a tie and claims to
represent a company. The continuous play with digital fact and fiction
is a re-occurring theme on the internet - which is not just proved by
the fact that Isabelle Graw fell for Rachel Bakers pseudonym. As net art
in its first phase was mostly occupied with genuine, media specific
properties of the internet, there was some logic to the fact that these
net fakes became a reoccuring motive in net art. (Rachel Bakers
"Clubcard" project dealt with other topics too, because it was also
concerned with the manipulation of search engines.)

Now on to another reproach, that is being formulated in TZK towards
net art: the "myth of interactivity". The idea that playing around
with a joystick, a mouse or clicking on a webpage is a form of
interactivity stems from the past - from computer art of the 70's and
80's to be precise. In fact a lot of contemporary net art works are a
criticism of this quite simple assumption. Many net artists have
made critical or renouncing remarks on the subject of interactivity.

Also the claim that net art without question adopts conditions,
which are forced upon it by the hardware and software industry is not
correct. These technical paradigms are on the contrary constantly
used as themes and as targets for criticism, like the many browser
designed by artists or Paul Garrins "" project show. But
to acknowlege that one would have to know these projects in the first
place - and that much research was appearantly too much for
"Texte zur Kunst". This lack of research then also leads to the fact
that net art is reduced to art which is comfortably consumed through
the WorldWideWeb.

What could be relevant about all the net art projects in the long run
in terms of art historicy, nobody knows... and, so what? Would that be
exiting at all? What interests me as netuser and -journalist about
net art is its status as experimental lab for the internet. In the
early, formative years of the internet as a massmedium artists have
used the net for purposes, which it was not not designed for, but which
were nevertheless valid and interesting. These early experiments - that
were admittedly sometimes hard to grasp for "net newbies" -  are
now in TZK cooked up as THE final manifestation.

But a lot of what is now criticized in TZK are just that:
experiments. The high art view of net art which is formulated
here, ignores one of its genuine qualities: namely the
notion that everybody can be an artist on the internet - if they
have a computer, a modem and internet access, that is. To reduce the
large number of very different projects and works to "net art as such"
and than bash it as a very doubious enterprise - yet also an
interesting example of how one type of mafia projects its own reality
onto another one.

Isabelle Graw, the editor of "Texte zur Kunst", finishes her essay -
which is filled with numerous false facts - with the following
remarkable conclusion: "Because net art operates in a medium that is
its own context, an important property of art lost: the fact that it is
both artistic signification and social set up... (With net art one
deals) with a phenomenon, wherein first of all the traditional art
context is avoided and secondly the difference between artwork and
context is liquidated."

Smells like Adorno, doesn't it? In plain words this means: net art
can't be art at all, because it doesn't happen in an art context, but
on the internet. With this kind of argument one could of course put down
any art practice, that at some point tried to leave the white cube of
the gallery: Graffiti, Mail Art, Radio- and Soundworks, Land Art,
Happenings, Performance and actions in the public space, artists'
television... and come to think about, most of what was of interest
in modernist art after 1945.

What is exiting about net art is that it operates in a relatively new
territory, in which rules and standards are not defined clearly yet, and
where some works can - hopefully - cause irritation and confusion to
unprepared observers. That such a situation also threatens the hegemony
of the critic is understood quite well by Isabelle Graw. Maybe that's
why her article doesn't give the internet adresses of any of the art
works - otherwise people might actually look at them and judge for

But apart form that, it is not true that net art has systematically
avoided the art world, as the net art section of the last Documenta
proved. It is closer to the truth to say that the traditional art
scene out of habit excludes artists who experiment with new media -
the same way it excludes artists that are not from Western Europe or
North America, for example. At the same time artists have of course
played with the fact that they operate at the same time within and
ouside of the art context - something which to my knowledge is not
against the law and has given all participants a lot of pleasure.
Knowing a little bit about how this type of polarized in-out-thinking
works, it makes sense that TZK now bashes net art. And that net art
strikes back with the same polemic means. Which is what this article
does. It doesn't exactly starts the dialogue that Lovink
asked for. But, well... so-rry!

Tilman Baumgärtel

Texte zur Kunst, Heft 32 (Dezember 1998), 25 Mark

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