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Nam June Paik, Global Groove, 1973
Courtesy: Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York

Conceptual Blind Spots

by Caitlin Jones

The history of contemporary art is being written by, to a large extent, Conceptual Art and its legacy. While no doubt essential to any reading of contemporary artistic practice, the conceptual project is only able to tell part of the story. To engage with our increasingly digital, diffuse and distributed culture and the art it produces Caitlin Jones looks beyond this mainstream. Towards the histories of photography, film, video and the Internet which, rich with stories of dematerialization and critique of their own, exert significant influence on the art of our time.


Reading the January/February 2013 issue of frieze I was struck by a quip from frieze contributing editor Tom Morton as part of his “New Year’s Quiz”: “’Digital Media Artists’ from the 1990s—long confined to the art-world Siberia of teaching positions in unfashionable former polytechnics—being hurriedly reappraised as forerunners of ‘Post Internet Art’”.1 No doubt intended as satire (or simple snark), Morton’s prediction touched a nerve nonetheless. Perhaps because it came on the heels of another somewhat controversial article, Claire Bishop’s “Digital Divide” from Artforum’s 50th Anniversary issue. “While many artists use digital technology”, Bishop asks in her text, “how many really confront the question of what it means to think, see, and filter affect through the digital? How many thematize this, or reflect deeply on how we experience, and are altered by, the digitization of our existence?”2 An excellent question, especially in a mainstream art magazine, long loath to wade into issues of art and technology. But then a funny thing happens; she dismisses the very group of artists who would illuminate her query as functioning only within “a specialized field of its own: [one that] rarely overlaps with the mainstream art world”. Bishop’s article clearly states that it is only concerned with the “mainstream” (the world of blue chip galleries and Venice Biennials), and Morton surely makes his prediction with tongue in cheek, but what they both expose is the window through which mainstream orients itself—a window increasingly framed entirely by Conceptual Art and its successors.

Conceptualism, and the inquiry and dematerialization it has inspired, has dominated art discourse since the 1960s. Once representative of a radical break from the mainstream, conceptualism and its legacy have become a normalizing, almost a legitimizing force in contemporary art production. While undeniably essential to any reading of the art of our time, digital or otherwise, conceptualism however is only able to tell part of the story. To engage with our increasingly digital, diffuse and distributed culture and the work it produces, we must widen our gaze to the dreaded “polytechnic Siberia”, to the “specialized field” of the “digital media artist”, and to the multiple histories of the moving image and art and technology—histories rife with tales of dematerialization and critical evaluation. To suggest that we could begin to understand art that reflects our current existence without doing this reveals a debilitating blind spot.


EXPANDED CINEMA

To decipher “post-internet” or the “digital divide”, however we speak about works that have the internet and digital technology in their makeup, we can turn to the rise of avant-garde film and video practices during the mid 1960s. The eruption of experimentation within the film world during this period was labeled by legendary filmmaker Jonas Mekas as the era of “expanded cinema”. In a 1966 New York Times article “So What Happens After Happenings?”, another figure in New York’s burgeoning film scene, John Brockman, describes expanded cinema as “a world in which film is not just a movie, but an Experience, an Event, an Environment”.3 Author and theorist Gene Youngblood in his 1970 book “Expanded Cinema” further expanded this expansion to include “the intermedia network of cinema, television, radio, magazines, books, and newspapers... that carries the messages of the social organism”. 4

This ethos of expansion took countless forms. At The Center for Media Studies at the University of Buffalo (a department with shades of the “polytechnic”) structuralist filmmakers like Hollis Frampton, Paul Sharrits and Tony Conrad created work that emphasized the material nature of film itself and the apparatus of its capture and presentation. In Conrad’s circa 1975 “Bowed Film” the structuralist bent was augmented by performance. With the 16mm film attached to his head, Conrad “played” his film with a violin bow. The audio and the performance was presented to the audience, the film played only for him. This interdisciplinary conflation of music, performance and moving images, also evident in the work of artists like Laurie Anderson and Joan Jonas, is at the heart of understanding how media challenge their own specificities and limitations.
Video visionary Nam June Paik, who broadcast work on television, created video sculptures, and imagined a future in which video images would be transmitted through space by lasers. It was also the era of Bruce Nauman, John Baldessari and Vito Acconci, whose studio-based works, while deeply embedded in Conceptual Art’s origin story, were enabled by the advent of new portable video technology. Expanded cinema was wide reaching, pushing a medium from the specificity of a single site (the theatre, the television, etc) into a multi-faceted, multi-site medium, much like the expanse of work we currently see engendered by the Internet.


Tony Conrad, Bowed Film, 1974
Courtesy: Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne, and Greene Naftali Gallery, New York



EXPANDED INTERNET

The term “post-Internet” was first coined by artist Marisa Olson in a 2008 interview to describe her own practice, and it caught on as a way to define work that, while not necessarily existing on the web, references the Internet in some manner. To me this “post” (i.e. “after”) reads as an apology of sorts—an apology for its medium-specificity which positions these practices squarely in a Conceptual Art frame. To do so removes any traces of the radical, technical and significant nature of early Internet Art. It disavows generations of Internet artists, many of whom deliberately chose to work outside of the mainstream, and others who have always worked across “expanded” forms.

When we talk about early Internet Art (or net.art) we are most often referring to the work of an international, ad hoc collective of artists including Heath Bunting, Vuk Cosic, Jodi.org, Olia Lialina and Alexei Shulgin—a diverse community connected only through online networks and brief meetings at festivals. Politically, geographically and theoretically isolated from the mainstream contemporary art world, these artists saw the Internet as a radical new form that had the potential to expose their work to a broad audience.

Jodi.org, while not well-known in the “mainstream”, are perhaps the most celebrated and influential of these artists. In one of their most notable early works, Jodi.org (Dutch artists Joan Heemskerk and Dirk Paesmas) created a work that purposely exposed the underlying structure of the web and the use of html code. The “wwwwwwwww.jodi.org” (1993) page appears as a black background with green, and seemingly random, alphanumeric code. Activate the “View Source” function (a relic of our html past that allows people to read and share the code used to build a page), however, and you see that lines of code constitute an image, a detailed diagram of a bomb. Deeply connected to conceptual issues of language and knowledge systems, JODI continues to work in a way that disrupts our use of technology, exploiting hard to find bugs and glitches, constantly forcing viewers into conflict with the systems on which they are increasingly dependent.

Another artist who emerged from this early period is the Russian born Olia Lialina. Her work My Boyfriend Came Back from the War (1996)5 is an interactive narrative set against the background of the 1990s Balkan crisis (concurrent with the rise of the www). Formerly a filmmaker, Lialina used the primary organizing structure of the early web, frames, to build a story that was as much about the current socio-political environment as it was about the web itself. Lialina, now a professor at Stuttgart’s Merz Akademie (yet another polytechnic) remains a key figure in any discussion of contemporary web-related practice. Her work Net Art Generations6 (2007-2012) offers a succinct trajectory of creative practice on the web.
“Net art can be divided into more than just two generations like old and new or 1.0 and 2.0. There are at least three plus one more.
The 1st – Artists working with the Internet as a new medium, coming from other backgrounds, like film, performance, conceptualism, activism, whatever.
The 2nd – Studied JODI at university:
The Last – Net artists active in between dot.com crash and web 2.0 rise.
The 3rd – Artists working with the www as mass medium, not new medium. (04 June 12: If I’m not mistaken a misleading “post-Internet” term used for this now)”
Since the era of “The 1st”, artists working online have experimented with physical manifestations their work, moving online work off. In a 2006 online article “On and Off: The Expanding Domain of Internet Art” I referred to the work of a number of artists such as Jodi.org and emerging (at the time) artists like Cory Arcangel and Paper Rad—all of whom were translating the Internet and digital forms into physical space. “Not only do unsolicited projects, discussions, and publications proliferate on the web”, I wrote, “but over the past year the aesthetics, structures, and cast of characters that make up the Internet art scene have significantly infiltrated the New York galleries and ‘blue chip collections’... Art of the Internet is in some ways becoming art that is based on the Internet.”7


Olia Lialina & Dragan Espenschied, Olia’s and Dragan’s comparative History of classic animated Gifs and Glitter Graphics, 2007
Courtesy: the artist



DISPERSION AND DISTRIBUTION

Seth Price’s “Dispersion” is an influential and oft-quoted essay on the circulation of content in contemporary society. With the work itself appearing in multiple versions (pdf and sculpture for example), Price embeds “Dispersion” in the domain of conceptualism: “today it seems that most of the work in the international art system positions itself as Conceptual to some degree, yielding the Conceptual painter, the DJ and Conceptual artist or the Conceptual web artist”8. Price, who previously worked in the pioneering video distribution center Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), is clearly aware that his primary argument about distribution and dispersion can be just as easily positioned in an earlier, more technologically engaged discussion. According to Price, “Distributed Media can be defined as social information circulating in theoretically unlimited quantities in the common market, stored or accessed via portable devices such as books and magazines, records and compact discs, videotapes and DVDs, personal computers and data diskettes”, which echoes Nam June Paik’s 1970 essay “Global Groove and the Video Common Market”. In this essay, and the single channel video work Global Groove, Paik imagines the free trade of video images. Liberated from network holdings, studio libraries and repressive copyright, the Video Common Market would “strip the hieratic monism of TV culture and promote the free flow of video information through an inexpensive barter system or convenient free market”.9 Both Paik’s and Price’s systems of image re-distribution run as central themes in contemporary art production, and particularly in Internet-based practice.

An important example is the work of Berlin-based artist Oliver Laric. Versions (2009 -2012, ongoing), which exists online and in multiple gallery iterations, is comprised of manifold sculpture, digital stills and video.10 It is an ongoing meditation on the open-ended nature of images in an era when any image can be copied, retouched, and recirculated. Inspired in part by the missile launch photographs doctored by the Iranian government in 2008, Versions follows a trail of image manipulation from Iran through Disney, to hard-core pornography and classical Greek sculpture. While Laric clearly relishes his easy access to a dizzying amount of visual sources, a situation Paik could have only dreamed of, Laric’s treatment of his subject has very little of Paik’s liberating and utopian spirit. Versions and subsequent works by Laric, while celebratory of their abundance, bring to light the exploitative potential of this wild west of image accumulation.


Oliver Laric, Versions, 2012
Courtesy: the artist, Tanya Leighton Gallery, Berlin, and Seventeen Gallery, London



VERNACULAR FORMS

Petra Cortright is an American artist of a generation raised with the Internet. Born in 1986, Cortright’s work is a meditation on our digital environment precisely because her environment is almost entirely digital. In an early self portrait vvebcam (2007) we see Cortright sitting in front of her computer, the bluish glow of the monitor reflecting off of her inexpressive face.11 As clip art of pizza slices and animated gifs float past, she watches us watching her, a scenario repeated in abundance on YouTube in which countless other young women (and men) sit in their bedrooms performing for their webcams. Distributed via the means of its production, vvebcam (like other works by Cortright) draws attention to how we use the Internet in the present. Unlike earlier generations, she’s not deconstructing code, she’s not hacking the system—she’s using the system as is, with its filters, its presets, its language and its vernacular forms.

This idea of a web vernacular, the common tropes and language that appear in online culture, is another consistent theme for artists working with the Internet. In Olia Lialina’s online essay “A Vernacular Web” (2005, with 2007 and 2010 follow-ups) she explores the clip art, starry backgrounds and “under construction” signs of the early days of the web, too often dismissed as kitsch.12 Lialina mourns for an era before Facebook, when users of the web would create their own webpages with animated gifs and rainbow gradients, when users were more consciously engaged with their life online. In the 2007 version of “A Vernacular Web” she asks the question “how does the web look now, when it’s no longer seen as the technology of the future, when it’s intertwined with our daily lives and filled by people who are not excited by the mere fact of its existence?” Cortright’s work provides an answer for Lialina, just as Lialina’s work gives us a frame from which to view the work of a digital native such as Cortright. Her work, with its sloppy spelling, raunchy keywords and template-based form, is unencumbered by deep technical knowledge, and this in and of itself makes it some of the most compelling work of this period.


Petra Cortright, VVEBCAM, 2007
Courtesy: the artist



TECHNO-SKEPTICS

In 2012 at the annual techno-celebratory conference DLD (Digital Life Design) a panel of “post-Internet” artists (included Cory Arcangel and Oliver Laric) was convened by Hans Ulrich Obrist and titled “Ways Beyond the Internet” (again, to suggest that the only way to understand Internet Art now is to look beyond it somehow). In his brief presentation, the artist Daniel Keller of the duo AIDS 3D put their hybrid Internet/Sculpture practice squarely in the “post-Internet” techno-skeptic category. Before introducing their work, Keller stated “There’s a sort of myth that the Internet is this immaterial virtual place, and a lot of early net.art embraced that; but the Internet isn’t virtual, it’s a real network connecting real people, it takes real material that takes a lot of energy to produce... your animated gifs, they run on burnt coal. And your computers, they’re built by slaves”.13 This critical stance, evidenced by much of AIDS 3D’s sculptural practice, is an important one; but in the suggestion that early Internet art was unaware of its less than utopian context, Keller is utterly incorrect.

Even while they recognized the freedoms of working online, early Internet artists, many of whom came of age during the Balkan crisis and the fall of Communism, saw the web as a potentially insidious forum (it was, after all the brainchild of the RAND Corporation and the Pentagon). Artist and writer Matthew Fuller wrote to the “nettime” email list (an online hub for much early Internet Art production and discussion) in 1995 an indictment of the naïve embrace of the Internet as a revolutionary medium:

To: nettime@is.in-berlin.de Subject: SPEW
From: Matthew Fuller
Date: Wed, 8 Nov 1995 23:00:39

A second in the life of the Internet. Thousands of people across the globe are indulging in furious bouts of lobotomized libidinal typing. Islamic astrologers, office bombers and terrorist wannabes announce their glorious intentions to the world; fuckers of vacuum cleaners are exchanging tips on new models; the private security firm Group Four are checking up on U.K. environmental activists via their very own GreenNet account.”14

JODI’s ongoing project is clearly to subvert any inklings of techno-utopianism by making our experience of their work as trying as possible; Jonah Brucker-Cohen’s 2001 project Crank the Web is comprised of a physical hand crank attached to a computer, and privileges labor over capital in order to gain access to the web. Alex Galloway and Radical Software Group’s much celebrated work Carnivore (2001) used the FBI’s own packet sniffing software (software used to search the contents of email and other electronic communication) as a way to create a myriad of projects both online and off.15 This skepticism has been a part of web-based practice from the outset. It is not “post” or “beyond” to be critical of digital technology; it has been a crucial part of the practice since its inception.
This mad dash through the territory of the digital media artist is not intended as a defensive strategy, rather as an expansive one. Conceptual Art is a giant, no doubt, but it’s not holding everything else on its shoulders; it’s sharing the weight with a broad range of influences. Influences that due to our increasingly digital and accessible world have never been easier to research and access. While writing this essay I was able to move from Bishop’s Art Forum article to the nettime’s extensive archive with a simple Google search. I watched Tony Conrad perform a version of Bowed Film just as easily as I could watch Petra Cortright stare out at me from her webcam. Our new reality levels the playing field. It’s time our scholarship and criticism did so too.




1) Tom Morton, “New Year Quiz”, frieze, Issue 152, January/February 2013
2) Claire Bishop, Digital Divide”, Artforum, Volume 51. No 1. September 2012
3) Elenor Lester “So What Happens After Happenings”, New York Times, Sunday September 4th, 1966 (http://www.brockman.com/press/1966.09.04.NYT.html - accessed 03/15/2013)
4) Gene Youngblood. Expanded Cinema, EP Dutton: 1970 (available in its entirety online at http://www.vasulka.org/Kitchen/PDF_ExpandedCinema/ExpandedCinema.html - accessed 03/15/2013)
5) http://www.teleportacia.org/war/
6) http://art.teleportacia.org/observation/net_art_generations/
7) Caitlin Jones, “On and Off: The Expanding Domain of Internet Art”, New York Foundation for the Arts, 2006 (http://www.nyfa.org/level3.asp?id=449&fid=6&sid=17-accessed 03/15/2013)
8) Seth Price, “Dispersion”, 2002, (www.distributedhistory.com/Dispersion2008.pdf - accessed 03/15/2013)
9) Nam June Paik, “Global Groove and the Video Common Market”, Nam June Paik: Videa ‘n’ Videology 1959-1973. Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse. NY. 1974
10) http://oliverlaric.com/versions.htm, http://oliverlaric.com/vvversions.htm, http://oliverlaric.com/versions2012.htm (all accessed 03/15/2013)
11) http://rhizome.org/artbase/artwork/53474/ (accessed 03/15/2013)
12) http://art.teleportacia.org/observation/vernacular/ (accessed 03/15/2013)
13) Video of this panel is available at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lt75A8vZwdI (accessed on 03/15/2013)
14) The complete nettime archive is available at: http://www.nettime.org/archives.php
15) http://r-s-g.org/carnivore/ (accessed 03/15/2013)
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