AS MUSE: NET ART & THE MARKET
In 1999, net artist Valery Grancher sold his piece Longitude 38 to the Cartier Foundation for $5,000. This sale, widely held to be the highest sum yet raised for a net artwork, is proof positive that net art's putative evasion of the maws of commercialisation is at an end. The conversion of art into information, a process which finds its roots in 1960s and '70s conceptual art, has traditionally provided a foil to the principles of art's market and institutions which rely on the uniqueness and objecthood of art to support structures of ownership and evaluation. But in an era when information increasingly provides the basis for economies, the means of production and the paradigm for investment, art's status as information can no longer be held to provide any inherent resistance to its own commercialisation. Here it will be argued that net art's relationship to information, whose earliest instantiations after 1994 cleaved to an understanding of its deterritorialising and decommodifying potentialities, has become increasingly ambivalent. Net art's status as information entails a similar set of contradictions that attach to readings of the Internet in which it is held to imbue both mechanisms of specular power, control and free market capitalism as well as freedom of speech, direct democracy and identity redefinition. As art seeks to outwit and evade commercialisation it has, ironically, come increasingly to rely upon strategies of advertising and marketing. Art's conversion into information has led it both towards and away from commercialisation as its infinite replicability breaks with traditional conditions of ownership as well as simultaneously playing into the hands of the information economy. In this article net art's relationship to the market will be examined through the implications of one of information's chief attributes - mutability.
In her essay Virtual Bodies and Flickering Signifiers, N. Katherine Hayles formulates a fundamental characteristic of the information age: the shift from both a representational and material economy of presence and absence to one of pattern and randomness. Drawing on the linguistics of Lacan and techno-cultural theory of Kittler, she links the phenomenon of the signifier's uncoupling from its signified to the informational revolution in the means of production. Lacan used the term 'floating signifier' to indicate the double lack at the heart of language, the absence of signifieds as things-in-themselves and the absence of any stable relationship between signifieds and signifiers. Further, signifieds are understood as existing only in so far as they are produced by the signifier and as an ungraspable flow beneath a network of signifiers whose operations entail difference, slippage and displacement. The behaviour or information, argue Kittler and Hayles, has undergone a parallel development. Before the advent of IT, information storage depended on a stable 'material substrate' (books, the typewriter, the mark on the page) which is not only a form of information transmission and storage in one, but which also "incorporates [it's] encodings in durable material substrate". In the case of IT, magnetic or electronic encodings can be easily erased and rewritten as information becomes increasingly separate and non-proportional to its carrier. Information theory, it should be added, holds information to be conceptually distinct from the markers that embody it. The change in relationship between signal and materiality that occurs in IT has fundamentally altered the relationship of the signified to the signifier by creating what Hayles terms 'flickering signifiers' which are "characterised by their tendency toward unexpected metamorphoses, attenuations and dispersions" . It is then reasonable to state that IT has concentrated the behavioural characteristics of information and that this behaviour has a cultural effect.
Early net art sought to identify itself with this slippery quality of information which both facilitates the destabilisation of the signifier itself and the related uncoupling of identity from its material substrate (the human body, physical space, being in time etc.). Hayles and Kittler's proposal that the pattern/randomness paradigm has gradually gained dominance is borne out by the phenomenon of net art in general, and perhaps most idealistically interpreted in its early instantiations. Taking advantage of the hyperlinked structure of the Internet, the artworks which ensued shortly after the introduction of the graphical browser interface to the World Wide Web in 1994, were characterised by a nomadism which is both redolent of and dependent upon the movement of information packets within a network. Alexei Shulgin's Desktop Is, 1997, Heath Bunting's Own, Be Owned or Remain Invisible,1997, and Rachel Baker's TM Clubcard, 1997, all employ hyperlinks between data stored on separate servers. This harnessing of information's flux and mobility was used strategically to flit the viewer in and out of corporate webspace, to put them in an indeterminate relationship to the author (one jumps between artist and corporate designed space) and to a point of origin; we are left asking where the work begins and ends and whether, when we move out into the web at large, we are still within the bounds of the artwork. Information's replicability, its availability to redeployment and especially to being purloined, were used by these artists to dissolve the naturalness of ownership (a one-to-one relationship between owner and owned) as well as the status of the (data)object as such. These artworks create feed-back loops between corporate and private space which is entirely dependent on the dissolution of information's oneness with its material substrate and the predominance of pattern and randomness.
Early net art identified the informational instability which businesses were so sucessfully deploying (the ease with which behaviour is converted into data commodities inside the network) as a corporate Achilles heal. Heath Bunting's work Own, Be Owned or Remain Invisible took a review written about him in Wire UK magazine by the journalist James Flint, and linked nearly every word to the corporate generic Top Level Domain '.com'. Thus a sentence such as, "His CV (bored teen and home computer hacker in 80s Stevenage, fly poster, graffiti artist and radio pirate in Bristol...).." would convert into URLs such as 'www.bored.com', 'www.teen.com' and 'www.pirate.com'. Although the corresponding URL may or may not exist or have become obsolete subsequent to the date of the work's making, Own, Be Owned tangibly manifests the collapse of individual into commercial identities. Here, one might say, the signifier flickers between its designation of a private individual and a what Arthur Kroker and Michael A. Weinstein have called the 'encrypted flesh' of the data body. But as the title reveals, ownership can be turned around in the hyperlinked context of the Internet; in this scenario the viewer can enter the corporate site 'www.bored.com' through Bunting's interface thus simulating the artist's ownership of the corporate data object. In this early net artwork, the artist makes use of the dissolution of identity within informatics to rupture the representational power of commercial interest. In this new system of relations, the commercial representation has been subordinated to an (albeit commercial representation of) the individual; when its powers of communication are directed at a simulated individual (the journalistic construct) instead of a real one, a hall of mirrors effect is triggered which forbids the fulfilment of commercial interests. In this classic deployment of Situationist detournement, the artist is able to recuperate his own identity from the simulacral remains of its commercialisation through a sequencing of information not the proffering of an authentic self. Representation's status as information has created a high level of mobility in which the referent is neither present nor absent, but patterned and unstable.
In the 1960s and '70s conceptual art also made use of information and communication systems for ends which are different but related to those of net art. Their interest in the dematerialisation of the art object was predicated on a mistrust of materiality which was identified as the primary realm of capitalist operations. Working against the backdrop of the Vietnam war - one of the most viscous expressions of Western democracy's desire to protect the interest of capital at any and every cost - this largely U.S. based movement selected the slippery realm of the idea as a site of resistance to the voraciousness of post-war commodification. In 1967, Sol LeWitt declared: "When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art." Note that even at this high-point of ideational romanticism, the idea was marked by its role within the cycle of production. Importantly, however, through a certain 'mechanisation', production was uncoupled from the notion of the artist's touch. For similar reasons information in the form of lists, diagrams, measurements, and numerical systems started to be introduced into artworks; such 'banal' signifiers of consensual rationality were deployed to upset the boundaries separating art (understood as an expression of the individual, idiosyncratic self) and life. Previously, and here one need only think about the paintings of Jackson Pollock, touch - the opposite of a standardised unit of information - had operated as a cipher of individuality and creative genius; accordingly the point of reification was the point of sale. As a strategy of resistance, works such as Yoko Ono's early Fluxus pieces posit scenarios - in the form of instructions - in which the pursuit of reification is poetically cast as impossible or destructive: "'Take the sound of the stone ageing' (Tape Piece 1, autumn, 1963); 'Take the sound of the room breathing: at dawn, in the morning, in the evening, before dawn...Bottle the smell of the room at that particular hour as well' (Tape Piece II, autumn, 1963); 'Use your blood to paint, keep painting until you faint (a). Keep painting until you die (b)' (spring, 1960)"
Art on the eve of the information technological revolution was still operating within the presence/absence paradigm. Ideas and information - two centrally important constituents of conceptual art - were perceived as existing independently of their material substrate, or better, information was perceived as belonging to the (platonic) realm of the idea. Their 'perfunctory' reification spelled a sort of fixity or immutability which was a consequence of the analogue nature of the storage media. Conceptual art of '60s and '70s often relied on typed and printed text, audio tape, photography, film, video and Xerox copy to preserve the ephemeral event or to store the idea for an action that might be performed at some unspecified future date.
Writing in the 'postface' to her 1973 book, Six Years: The Dematerialisation of the Art Object, Lucy Lippard remarked: "Hopes that 'conceptual art' would be able to avoid the general commercialisation, the destructively 'progressive' approach of modernism were for the most part unfounded. It seemed in 1969...that no one, not even a public greedy for novelty, would actually pay money, or much of it, for a Xerox sheet referring to an event past or never directly perceived, a group of photographs documenting an ephemeral situation or condition, a project for work never to be completed, words spoken but not recorded; it seemed that these artists would therefore be forcibly freed from the tyranny of a commodity status and market-orientation." From this list one gets a sense of how separate the actual artwork (the idea, the action, the spoken word) was perceived as being from its capture, and therefore the surprise with which artists watched as these second order documentations of their work started to gain a commodity value of their own. If we compare this notion to the perception and operations of net art - for which not only is the medium far more pointedly the message, but also for which its reification does not imply stasis - we can apprehend quite how different these two historical moments are. In short, for conceptual artists of the '60s and '70s the information economy had not yet become a reality and hence ideas and information could remain sites of resistance to commodification so long as they remained unreified (which artists inevitably failed to achieve).
A feature of conceptual art that more closely anticipates the practices of net art is the interest which artists and curators took in harnessing the portability of the work and the increasingly cheap and available technologies of reproduction and communication to accelerate its distribution, bypass art world structures, forge closer and alternative networks between artists and break through the parochialism of art practice to create a real internationalism. The informationalisation of art was seen as a prerequisite to its transmission through presence/absence based media (speech, documents carried in suitcases, letters, phone calls etc.) Information and communication were intimately linked attributes of art's dematerialisation and the attendant desire to route around the dominated field of art practice. Artists were looking to take mediation into their own hands. As curator Seth Siegelaub explained, in 1967: "Communication relates to art three ways: (1) Artists knowing what other artists are doing. (2) The art community knowing what artists are doing. (3) The world knowing what artists are doing... It's my concern to make it known to multitudes."
Early net artworks such as Alexei Shulgin's Refresh project displayed a similar wish to connect up individuals (there was no stipulation that they be artists) from around the world. Primarily using mailing lists - one of the Internet's key community building devices - Shulgin sent out invitations to participate in a collective artwork. Participants had simply to build a webpage that would act as an interface. The webpage, once built, was then incorporated into a 'refresh loop' - this involves inserting a command into the HTML code which instructs the page to be refreshed after 10 seconds and then substitutes the first downloaded file for the next in a chain of files, usually stored on different servers. The effect is a flickering chain of downloading webpages, all designed by different individuals and groups, more often of interest in combination than in isolation. It functions as a snap-shot of a community of enthusiasts and artists at a particular period in the Internet's development. Shulgin describes the project on its homepage as: " poetic - exploring instability, unpredictability, flow of electrons, feeling the universe, exstasy [sic] of true joint creativity, hopping through space, countries, cultures, languages, genders, colours, shapes and sizes ..."
At least as significant as the collaborative art projects such as Shulgin's Refresh are the dedicated media arts mailing lists and bulletin boards such as Syndicate, Rhizome, 7-11 and The Thing, which have knitted communities together, driven the development of new media art discourse and often constituted a site of communications art in themselves. In an important respect, these electronic communities provided net art with its earliest support system (a site of meeting, representation and debate) in the absence of interest from the established art community. One of the earliest Internet-based, dedicated forums was Wolfgang Staehle's electronic Bulletin Board called The Thing, set up in 1991 and run on a computer in his basement in New York City. In Staehle's words, it was "a forum making a direct exchange of ideas and positions between a closed community possible. Promotional material was not approved. The main focus was to exchange opinions and ideas." In the early days of community-forging mailing lists and newsgroups the understanding was that participants contribute their ideas 'for free'. In subsequent years, however, the notion that this exchange of ideas might have occurred in the absence of self-interest or beyond the commercial sphere has been persuasively rejected in Ghosh and Barbrook's discussions of the gift economy. The theory of the gift economy or cooking pot market as it's also known, posits a system of asymmetrical exchanges in which participants freely contribute gifts to a forum (e.g. a piece of perl script, an argument, a list of recommendations) and, due to the number of participants, receive disproportionately greater amount in return. Despite their attempts to cast the Internet as the site of a radical alternative to the commodity-exchange relations which structure capitalism, Ghosh and Barbrook both agree that the gift economy is buoyed up by the conversion of reputations earned online into job contracts or, in our case, exhibition opportunities etc. offline. Acknowledging that it is beyond the scope of this article to sufficiently analyse the relationship of the so-called gift economy to the capitalist economy per se, it is possible to identify a shift in the nature of the information in the last years. A shift which certainly suggests that the gift economy model could well have been a brief moment of pioneering camaraderie that receded as soon as the culture itself became stable enough to tolerate competitiveness.
In the days before online culture had developed its present cache, the rule of thumb was "you own your own words" and this seemed to produce little controversy. However, increasingly art mailing lists such as Rhizome (run by Rhizome Communications Inc., a not-for-profit private company) in step with non-art mailing lists such as the Net criticism list Nettime (with their largely university educated participants) have come to view such specialist debates as a valuable commodity. In the absence of any other such in-depth documentation of Internet culture, the texts generated by these mailing lists act as crucial historical sources. Rhizome's founder Mike Tribe commented: "I agree that Nettime and Rhizome are, in effect, writing histories of this moment, and that our editorial practices thus have long-range consequences." Nettime has already brought out it's first publication Read Me: ASCII Culture and the Revenge of Knowledge, The Thing has been attempting to auction off its old interface and content through the online auction house E-bay, and subscribers to Rhizome are required to comply with terms and conditions which grant Rhizome Communications Inc. "the non-exclusive, worldwide, perpetual, royalty-free right to reproduce, modify, edit, publish... [etc.etc.]"
The point at which co-operative efforts are converted into commodities, regardless of whether they are used to create profit or to provide capital funding for not-for-profit institutions, marks an important shift in the entire ICT arts context. One of the effects is to highlight the material disparities which exist between the online cultural participants. In this putatively international community, a U.S company's decision to convert a 'gift' given, say, by a Bulgarian artist into a commodity for sale is an unavoidably divisive action no matter how strong the arguments concerning the intended redistribution of proceeds may be. Furthermore, the recent perception of the information exchanged on specialist mailing lists as cultural commodities inflects the nature of the information itself. In the case of art mailing lists, the community of participants is increasingly perceived as an audience and conduit for information relay rather than partners in dialogue. As the participants, often through the support structure of these online communities, ascend to positions of power within the international art system, the discursive quality of the lists tends to diminish as self-promotional material such as exhibition announcements increases. Far from the gift economy guaranteeing, across the board, an increased return on investment, some people really do get more out of the system than others.
In seeking an alternative to existing institutionalised structures of display, discourse and exchange, net artists have created a new object for those self-same institutions to territorialise as well as creating new institutional structures within the Internet itself. This development, which hinges on a 'flickering' relationship between online and offline activities and protagonists, can be said to mimic the signifier's relationship to the signified described by Hayles in her analysis of the informational paradigmatic shift. The online sphere of operations floats like a signifier above a set of relations (institutions, national economies, physical communities, events etc.) which act as their dislocated referent. The net art community seems to be marked by two divergent tendencies; on the one hand the will to map online onto offline art worlds and, on the other, to see the dislocation as crucial to the conceptual and institutional development of net art.
An example of the pitfalls in the rapprochement approach was net art's unsuccessful inclusion in the prominent DocumentaX exhibition in Kassel, 1997. Hidden away between the cafe, lecture hall and bookshop in the basement of the Documenta Halle, the exhibits were barely distinguishable from the other recreational alternatives to viewing 'actual art'. In an interview given during the show, the art duo Jodi described how net art's existence in computer space afforded it low status in the physical space of the gallery. Net artworks were stored on local hard-drives thus robbing them of their proper Internet-specific status, and set in a space insultingly reminiscent of an office: "All the different works disappear in the set-up by one guy who deals with the real space. The real space is of course much more powerful than all these networks. When you are viewing the work you are in the real space. If you only do your work on the net, you become a fragment of the local situation and you can easily become manipulated in any direction." Jodi also spoke disparagingly of their artists' fee: "In total we got DM1200. It is a clear example of exploitation. Which artist would move his ass for this amount of money?" Here is a case of net artists losing out by trying to collapse the informational signifier (net art per se) into its non-equivalent real world referent (museum art).
Surprisingly perhaps, and despite the partly understandable incompetence of the 'art world proper' to deal with net art and the general lack of will to seriously commit to a genre which lacks the endorsement of wider market interest, the majority of net artists prefer to cultivate than to kill institutional relations. Shulgin, much of whose work is concerned with escaping the 'cliche' of identity and harnessing the nomadic movement of information, has stressed the need to prevent art from slipping into a form of pure communication and the usefulness of the art context: "... some people say that we should get rid of the very notion of art and that we have to do something that is not related to the art system, etc. I think it's not possible at all, especially on the net because of the hyperlink system. Whatever you do it can be put into an art context and can be linked to art institutions, sites related to art. And if we get rid of that word 'art', what shall we have then? How shall we identify ourselves and how shall we find contacts and how shall we create a context?" Another prominent net artist, Vuk Cosic, has also remarked on the necessity of the established art system's involvement with net art without which it might as well be invisible: "... how do you think you got your first Sex Pistol's record? Because they didn't want to sell it to you?" Invisibility is considered to be the price of disengagement from the efficiency of the art machine with its conspicuous architectural edifices, its army of partisan employees, its control over art's narrativisation and its strategic publicity offensives.
Lialina, net artist and founder of the first artist-run online gallery
Teleportacia, insists on the necessity of creating a third alternative
to what she considers a dichotomous deadlock between, on the one hand,
the belief that 'net art should not be sold' and, on the other, the institutional
will to simply annex net art to established systems of archivisation and
ownership - "a heritage to forget" as Lialina puts it. In her
article Cheap.Art she discusses how the classical anti-institutionalism
of the former position was "mostly welcomed by real galleries and
institutions" in 1998, and criticises the
In the last few years, long established arts institutions such as the Walker Arts Centre in Minneapolis, the (increasingly global) Guggenheim Museum, the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco and the ICA in London, have been setting up online galleries and programming exhibitions which seek to legitimise the genre through contextualisation, discourse and ownership. Their multifarious strategies of ownership range from simply creating lists of links to existing net art projects on other servers, to buying exclusive or non-exclusive rights to display artworks, to commissioning net artists to make site-specific works for their 'virtual galleries'. An example of the latter is the Walker Art Centre's recent commission of Lisa Jevbratt to create a new component to her series The Stilmann Projects, for their site, for which she was paid an artists fee of $1,000. The institutions' attempts to find a way to render net art amenable to the criteria of ownership encounter two perennial problems. The first is the ease with which files can be mirrored or copied often without causing any perceivable alteration to the work itself, and the second is the impossibility of designating a discrete art object in the case of hyperlinked artworks. The information economy is at odds with a classical model of ownership in which possession of the individual and/or unique object guaranteed exclusive power over its use. Currencies themselves have long since been cut loose of the gold standard; a shift which definitively conceded the preeminence of transactional speed and patterning of investment over the presence/absence of its golden referent. Within e-commerce, the patterns of consumption are often valued above the commodity's ability to command a certain price. The traditional art establishment's frustrations concerning the display and ownership of net art are deeply entwined with their inability to abandon the correlation between ownership, materiality and uniqueness; a correlation from which their institutional logic, power, and revenue-generating capacities still flow. In a repeat of preceding struggles to maintain control over video works, traditional institutions are struggling to impose the paradigm of presence/absence onto a condition defined by pattern/randomness. Despite Lialina's comment that the anti-commodifying rhetoric of some net artists is easily assimilated by institutions - which on the level of content is certainly true - art as information does present inherent resistance to the traditional logic of its ownership.
With astute and comical understanding of this predicament, M.River and T.Whid's Visual-Text Art Venue makes the absence of the material art object and physical gallery space the focus of their online gallery. In their mission statement they explain: "The focus of the venue is contemporary text-based artwork which is composed only of ideas and words. No fonts, no design, no paper, no materials, no actual physical objects are essential to the work the V-TAV will show." Their decision to include only text is a means of emphasising the condition of absence; working within the theoretical context of poststructuralism with its designation of the signifier's severance from the signified, the word has all but become a symbol of lack. The interface of the gallery is also constructed linguistically; using plain courier font on a white background, the two 'gallerists' describe a tour through the imaginary gallery and treat the textual artworks as though they were physical objects. The old world dealer becomes a figure of ridicule: "T. Whid (slapping knee and laughing) Whew ... almost dropped my very large glass monocle, ahem ..." Alongside their examination of the absence of a material substrate for their gallery-as-artwork, they also invert the hierarchy of uniqueness over reproducibility. In their Sales Department 'artifacts' (i.e. computer print-outs) signed by the artist are valued at $50, whereas the price of full copyright is too expensive to be specified. V-TAV's parody of the traditional centrality of the presence/absence paradigm effects its conversion into a referent within the latticed structure of online representation. But this new informational order is marked perhaps more by a nostalgia for the absence of presence than a wholehearted collusion with the system of pattern/randomness.
Ljubljana 2000 - Banner.art Competition, launched in early June '99, is
an example of a net based institutional critique which attempts not only
to use commodification's extension into immateriality as the primary conceptual
condition for the work itself but also as an opportunity to develop new
economic models for artists. The organisers of the competition, Teo Spiller
and Brian Goldfarb, explain the rules thus: "Work must incorporate
at least one money-earning mechanism, such as the hosting of a commercial
banner or other economic scheme to prostitute their work ... the jury
will base its decision
Where the point of reification was conceived in conceptual art as the point of sale and relegated to a 'perfunctory' realisation of the idea, in net art - where reification has come to mean informationalistion - it was initially harnessed to take advantage of the flickering relationship between representation and territorialisation. In other words, early net art identified an insecurity opened up in the absence of a one-to-one relationship between information and its material substrate on the Internet. A corporate home-page, for example, does not own the space it resides in the way its high street outlet does. In a situation where control over material objects and space has been replaced, as a defining characteristic of power, by the control over attention and representation, early net artists understood the value of reification quite differently. For them, the point of reification had become the point of intervention and leverage; no longer to be mistrusted but actively deployed. At this juncture, it is worth just briefly observing that the order of representation designated 'immaterial' or 'virtual' is anything but devoid of physicality. Alongside the more obvious physicality of the computer's dependency on the flow of electrons, ocean spanning axial cables and so forth is the no less crucial or physical faculty of sight. In this sense then, we must take 'immateriality' to be a very imperfect description of the ontological status of an HTML page and its reception. In light of this consideration it is possible to say that some of the signature attributes of conceptual art which were enmeshed in its will to immateriality (speed, communication, resistance to the forces of institutionalistion etc.) were realised at the level of reification as information on the Internet.
Net artists of the recent past however have faced certain problems also experienced by conceptual artists, namely, how to stay visible, how to prevent an institutional take-over and how to support oneself? Obsolescence, once prized as an inherent condition of ICT by net artists, is increasingly being viewed as a problem as the genre moves out of its early construction period into one of historical consolidation. As with the history of the words you no longer own on mailing lists, the initial passion ignited by the novelty of the Internet and its renegade status from the powers that be (which prevailed despite the widespread knowledge of its military-industrial origins) has incrementally given way to a recognition of the high cultural status that it has achieved. Its inclusion in prestigious international events like DocumentaX and the trend for established art centres to stake their claims to its history testify to this process. In a reciprocal move, non-commercial discursive exchange on the Net has started to be commodified and develop into a site of marketing, while information-based marketing has started to provide the model and subject of net art. (In June 1999, artist Jeff Gates attempted to sell his individual demographics at the online auction house E-bay, commenting: "What's stopping us from selling our own information?") Not only has commerce started to occupy the symbolic space formerly laid claim to by art, but art, in an analogous gesture to pop art, has started to mimic the strategies of commercialisation in dataspace. This new mercenary gusto which has entered net art, far from predicating itself upon its putatively autonomous status - "a circumference which closes it off from actuality" as Adorno and Horkeimer put it, and l'art pour l'art imbued - converts this status into capital and uses it to deliver audiences to corporate content or convert individuals into data sets. Art has become transactional, its most core identity wrung through a process of quantification.
this bleak picture can, perhaps paradoxically, also be ameliorated by
applying another of Adorno and Horkeimer's characterisations of art, namely
its deployement of shamanic mimesis. They have argued that the representational