Alex Galloway, editor and director of technology at Rhizome, a nonprofit organization presenting new media art, was invited to give a lecture during la Biennale de Montréal 2000, on October, 27th, 2000.

The transcription of his conference follows.


 

Net.Work: 5 Years of Internet Art
by Alex Galloway

I am from Rhizome.org which is a non-profit arts organization focused on digital art. It was started in 1996 by Mark Tribe. I got on board a few months after that and we have been working together ever since then. For the most part, it is completely Internet-based. We have a small event series in New York (that will be travelling around in other cities) but most of the work we do is on the Internet. We have a set of resources for artists and anyone who is interested in digital and new media arts. We have have a set of email lists that people can use to find out information about the new media arts community. They can post questions, they can read news, they can post announcements. We also have a website where some of the information that has come though the email list is filtered and posted on the website like a magazine. Thus, if you are not interested in the email, you may come and look at the website, reading it just like any normal web magazine. We have a second section which is called the ArtBase. The Artbase is an online archive of internet art. We have 150 projects in the ArtBase right now. The goal is for the ArtBase to be a library or an open archive of internet art, comprehensive in scope, to have many different types of projects. There isn't a very strict curatorial limitation on who can get in. It isn't like a museum collection, but rather more like a library. Rhizome is totally free. We have almost 5000 subscribers from all round the world. Over 75 different countries are represented. I encourage anyone of you to subscribe to Rhizome. It is a fun, easy way to stay in touch with the new media art community.

Today, I am going to show the type of creative work that is going on at Rhizome. And then also talk about internet art in general and describe what I see as two main movements that have happened over the last 5 years in Internet art.

So what you see now are the Rhizome Splash pages. When you first go to Rhizome, you are given one of 20 different Splash pages chosen at random. Each Splash page is a piece of Internet art, a small example of what the artist can do. This is by a New York artist named David Crawford who makes animations. This is a Splash page from the European group named JODI, a duo. They have an aggressive style, as you can see here, which uses a lot of computer code, flashing lights, and so on. They are interested in looking at the points where the computers break down. This is another example by another New York artist named Praystation. Praystation made this interface. It starts simply with the letters R-H-I-Z-O-M-E. You can move the letters back and forth, you can create different combination of letters. You can coalesce all the letters into the word "Rhizome," allowing you to click through. Or, if you disorganize them, then there is no open link and you can't click through. These are just a few examples of the Splash pages that we have. It is a nice overview of what some artists have been doing in the last few years.

This is the Rhizome Fresh page. There are lots of different articles that are archived. We have almost 2000 texts, some of them are very small, some of them are longer. They have been collecting in the archive since 1996. You can look through the chronology of new media art and follow the history of it. What we quickly realized however is that this interface is very text heavy. We wanted to discover a more creative way of looking through the database. If you read a single article, you may not realize that there are almost 2000 other texts you might also be interested in. Thus, we developed various ways of browsing the archive. For example, you can follow some of the keywords to view other texts that share that same keyword. Here I choose "robot" and a whole series of other texts will appear that have to do with that keyword.

But we were still not very satisfied with this text-based way of browsing through the archive. So, we initiated a series which is called "alt.interface", where we commission artists to create "interface art" using the database and all the texts and art projects contained within it. This results in a sort of creative visual interface. I will show you the first project in this series called StarryNight which was created by me, my partner Mark Tribe, and a Java programmer named Martin Wattenberg. The idea behind StarryNight is simple. You have a night sky with stars in it; each one of the stars has a direct correspondence with one of the texts that is in the archive. If I click on a star, I can read the text that it corresponds to. Each of the stars have different intensities. We keep track of how many times people have read each individual text. Thus, the brightness of the star corresponds to how many times the text has been read over the history of Rhizome. In this way, the bright stars are articles that have been read hundreds of times and the very dim ones have only been read maybe twenty or thirty times. So instantly you can see what's going on in the database. Let's say you want to get the highlights, well then you might want to read the very bright stars. Or if you want to poke around in the back corners of the database, you can read the very dim stars. There is a final component to the interface. You notice as I drag the mouse over these stars, various keywords pop up. Each text is indexed by keywords, the keywords described the topic of the article. For example, this star right here has been indexed with the keywords "internet," "public space," "privacy space," and "email." This one over here has its own set of keywords. If you select one of the keywords from the list, then the artwork will draw a constellation which connects all the texts together that share that same keyword. So you can use the constellation to follow your interest through the database. This is how we created a visual technique for browsing through the database.

The second interface in the "alt.interface" series is called Spiral, created by Martin Wattenberg. Spiral is a similar idea that also uses stars but instead of going by keyword as the primary criteria for determining how the interface works, it goes by date. It is arranged in a timeline. You see all the articles chronologically over the history of the organization, arranged in a spiral shape. Again, you may click on a star and read it like a normal article. You can also travel forward and backward in time, following the chronology of the community and the texts that people have produced. The spiral is organized into strands, different "fingers" corresponding to different categories. Thus, all the interviews are in one strand, all the theoretical articles are in another strand, all the announcements are in another, and so on.

These are just some of the ways in which we are trying to develop visual or artistic interfaces for the database. I want to show you something else now which is brand new. It hasn't been shown in public yet so you are the first to see it. (You will notice that the work I have been talking about today all has to do with one particular theme: the network. I am interested in how artists are able to render the network in a work of art--the same way a painter can render a landscape on a canvas, or a sculptor can render a physical form, or a musician can render a feeling. In many ways, internet art is about the ability to render the network. Today I will be trying to describe how that works.) The Rhizome website is currently being redesigned. We hired a German graphic design company called Surface, and we told them we needed a new color scheme, a new logo, etc. The logo they created is a work of art. I want to show it to you because it is an interesting example of what's called "generative" artwork. Generative artwork simply means a piece of art is new every time it is viewed, generated from scratch. What you have here is a star shape which has four different colors in it and each color has different lengths of lines. The position of the lines is generated afresh every time you go to the website. Each color stands for a different person anywhere on the world who is looking at the website right at this second. This logo uses only the four most recent people. Each network IP address (which is a unique number for each user almost like a digital fingerprint) is converted into a star shape. I'll show you how it works. This page shows the four different sections of the star dissected up into different colors. These are the four users. What happens is that we take the numbers and convert them into degrees in a circle, thus determining the displacement of each line on the circular arc. The lengths proceed consecutively--small, medium, large, extra large. The first number in the IP address is the shortest, and so on. The colors are determined by summing all four numbers in the IP address and comparing the sum to a special color table containing 10 different numbered colors. Every time someone new visits the website the logo is different. This is just one example of what is called generative artwork. I think Rhizome may be the first organization to have a generative logo.

The most recent project in the interface series is called Every Image. Every Image is a screen saver, which means you leave it on your computer, when you go home, it pops up. It runs when you are not there. And when you come back and touch your mouse or keyboard, it goes away. Every Image is very simple. It gives a slide show. It cycles through all the images that are in the Rhizome archive and it shows a sentence or two from the articles. It also filters the images, creating a consistent color scheme, and crops the images using a specific aspect ratio. Finally, it blows up the images, distorting them, and making the pixels visible. All the images in Every Image are from the Rhizome archive. Every article in the archive is illustrated with a thumbnail image. We have a couple hundred of them in the database. Every Image draws from this reservoir at random.

Next I want to talk about Internet art in general. It's not a very old history but I will try to show that how, in the past five years, there are two main types of Internet art. The first one which I want to talk about is what has been termed "net.art." Net.art is written with a dot in between the words, sort of like a Web address. It describes an early phase in Internet art, one that focused on text. It is not necessarily very painterly or esthetically pretty, but rather is focused on the aesthetic of the computer itself. That is one school I want to talk about. The other school is more focused on a commercial genres like video games and software.

The net.art movement is defined by bandwidth limitations. By that I mean a lot of things, including having to wait while your modem dials up and having to wait for things to download, and being limited by the type of computer you have. Maybe you only have a black and white monitor. Maybe you don't have a color monitor. Maybe you have to pay a lot for your phone service. These are all limitations that impose restrictions on the artist, yet they are restrictions through which the artist can be creative. Every art medium has its own limitations and I think the bandwidth limitation is the most important one for the net.art school. These limitations are net.art's rhyme and meter.

As I suggested, the second school, characterized more by software and other commercial genres, has its own limitations. It has to work within the world of the video game or the world of commercial software.

There is a German journalist, Tilman Baumgaertel, who recently observed: "It is the end of an era. The first formative period of net culture seems to be over." He is referring to a series of years, from around 1994 and 1995, when the first visual browsers came into play on the Internet, and ending in around 1998. Those are the four years when net art, "net-dot-art" in particular, was invented--many original ideas were explored then, and different creative possibilities were figured out. Through the limitations of bandwidth and access to computers, those conflicts become the subject of the work in many cases and I will show how that works in a minute. The technical limitations, instead of being a problem for these artists become an opportunity for creative work.

Let me move now to a specific artwork which Sylvie Parent has included in the show. I want you to watch closely as the artwork appears on the screen. So this is an artwork called Will-n-testament by a Russian artist named Olia Lialina. You see here that this is her will. It lists all her digital possessions--email addresses, works of art she has created, websites she has created. They are all listed here. She says who they are going to be given to after she dies. It is the official will for her digital possessions. You can see the corrections that she has made over time, they are words that are marked in blue and new names are added. You can actually go through each one, click on the names, go to that digital possession and view it. In some reasons, it is very public. It is intimate because it is a will but it is also public because anyone can view it from anywhere in the world via the Internet.

What I wanted to highlight about this piece however is something different. You noticed when it loaded it loaded in a very peculiar way. It loaded very slowly (and it would load much more slowly if I were at home on my modem connection). The letters sort of appear out of nowhere, they come up in a very random pattern. The way she achieved this effect was by actually creating very small images for each letter of the alphabet. Instead of just typing the letter "a" she created an image of that letter. For every letter of the alphabet, she created a special image of that letter. Images take much longer to download on the Internet than text does. She purposefully slowed down the time that it takes for the piece to appear. Instead of having the bandwidth limitations be a problem, she is bringing it to the front, and foregrounding the whole process of downloading (access, bandwidth, and so on). I interpret this as one way that the actual network itself is brought into the art project. By that I mean, the process of waiting is an experience that we have of the network itself.

Now, I am going to show another piece by an artist named Heath Bunting. This is another example of what I am calling "net-dot-art," the style which started around 1995 or 1996. (Actually almost all of the artists who have been working in that style have stopped making internet art in that style. We are at a point now, where we can almost look at it historically as a self-contained school, a period or phase.) This is a piece, which is gone by different names, but is known most commonly as readme (http://www.irational.org/_readme.html). The phrase "read me" is very common in the computer world. If you download something new, there often is a file connected to it named "read me," a collection of notes which you can read first. Bunting uses this vocabulary to make this piece. What we have here is a piece of text. The content is unimportant. Each one of these words is a link. You can see that he took each word in the text and created a link composed of "www" plus that word plus ".com." It doesn't matter what the word is. For example, he took the word "but" and made www.but.com. "Asking" becomes www.asking.com. He is not particularly interested if a web page exists that has that name, (which incidentally, these days, they pretty much do exist because every word is English, and other languages, has been bought up at this point).

Similar to the way that Olia Lialina brought the network itself into her artwork, here Bunting is bringing the whole idea of the network right into the piece. At the same time the reverse is also happening--for there really isn't any artwork. The artwork is just links to other places that may or may not exist. So, as a work of Internet art, this piece is an aesthetization of the network itself.

I want to mention one other thing about Heath Bunting. In November 1998, he was at a conference at the Kunstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin for a presentation. He has gained a reputation as being somewhat unconventional, a misfit. Reportedly he has no possessions. He owns one set of clothes which he wears. He owns a CD-ROM which he wears around his neck on a chain. The CD-ROM is supposed to contain all of his possessions. There were also rumors that, after rejecting the New York/European art world, he was trying to get his artwork funded by rogue states, such as Cuba. He was trying to embellish his reputation, in that way. When he was in Berlin at that conference, he wanted to present some artwork, he typed in an address into his browser and waited for the piece to load. He continued to talk about his other work, looking at the screen and waiting for the piece to load. But the page "timed out" and returned an error message. Bunting tried again, but after a minute or two, the browser returned the same error message. He feigned embarrassment and concluded its presentation. What may or may not have been clear to the audience was that this was actually a performance he was doing. There were no internet pages at these addresses. They were non existent works of art. He was trying to show that these moments of failure can be a place where artistic activity can happen. This is a very extreme case--perhaps the only example of an artist creating art that doesn't exist. But in a sense, it does exist but only in a very unusual place, right up there, at the top of your browser, only in that address, in the time that you wait and you experience the failure of the page to load. I consider Heath's work and Olia Lialina's work to be two examples of this net-dot-art school, which as I suggest, has bandwidth as its primarily esthetic limitation.

I am going to show two more artists before I wrap up. The first one is JODI, who I showed you a second ago. They have a Splash page in the Rhizome collection. They are one of the most well known net art groups. They have been around for a long time, longer than Rhizome has been around. For my money, they are the best. They make great work. Their work looks a lot like this, very focused on code. What you see here is the code that should be invisible, behind the web page, but it is actually brought out and put right in front on the web page. I want to show a piece of theirs that is called SOD. It is a video game. This is an example of the second school that I am suggesting is more defined by commercial limitations. Not that JODI is a commercial organization, but that the world of video gaming is a commercial genre. Next year the video game industry will surpass even Hollywood in terms of profits. It is an extremely profitable entertainment industry. Now we see artist moving to that genre.

So this is a piece called SOD, built using the Castle Wolfenstein video game engine. Some of you may have played it before. JODI created another interface for it that you see here. You will see when you actually play the game, it is not at all what you expect. I am not very good at it. So you can move around. All the walls have been replaced by these shapes you see. That is an enemy you can fire at. This is a door I can open. You can win or loose. Enemies can meet you and attack you. The artists are working within the constraints of the commercial genre. But they completely transformed it. This is totally foreign to what most video games look like. JODI made also a different piece called CTRL-SPACE. (I think it was made at the C3 center in Budapest.) And they also made another piece which is called OSS, which is another example of them working within the genre of software. OSS mimics an operating system. You load it and it completely takes over your entire computer. All the menus, the movement of the mouse, all the icons are in complete disarray. Your operating system becomes a bad nightmare. But even the operating system itself is a commercial genre. JODI has done a lot of work in this area.

The last artwork I want to show is from a group called Etoy, which some of you may have heard of. They are an Austrian group. They probably have received the most press than any other Internet artist for a number of reasons. First they were given a prestigious prize in 1996 which gave them international recognition and most recently they engaged in a global project called the Toywar which is what I am going to show you today. But let me say a few things about their organization. They are an art organization but they also operate as a corporation. Again this is a commercial genre of artmaking. What you see here is a stock chart which is showing the value of Etoy over a period of time. You can actually buy shares in Etoy. It is not a legal commodity in countries like the US, but in Austria, it is considered like being on the stock market. You can buy shares and they will give you a certificate. They wear suits, they have a very corporate aesthetic. These are different events in their history. This is the Ars Electronica prize here. This is an event they did in San Francisco. What happened is that a year ago, the toy retailer which goes by the name Etoys.com (with an "s" at the end), found out about Etoy and sued them over the name. They claimed that there was conflict between "Etoys" and "Etoy," even if there is a slight spelling difference. They didn't want kids accidentally going to the Etoy website thinking that it was Etoys. They wanted to protect their trademark. Even though Etoy is Austrian and Etoys is American, they filed in American court and filed an injunction against the use of the Etoy name and Etoy was taken off the Internet pending a court proceeding.

Obviously the art world was irritated by this. The American company had come along much later and it was very clear that Etoy had their name much earlier than Etoys. And even if they didn't, they were so different anyway, so who really cares. But instead of just dealing with the dispute through the court system, Etoy created a whole art project based on this legal battle and called it the Toywar. I have an image of the Toywar which you can see here. Toywar is a game. It is an online platform for many different people to use, a type of multi-user game. The players are part of a huge battlefield that you see here. This is the Tokyo battlefield. The players can fight against Etoys. The players have their own characters, their own incomes. If they work hard, they can receive Etoy share options. They will also decide what is going on, what the next step will be. Because the shareholders will decide whether or not to sell the name "Etoy." (Etoys offered to buy the name "Etoy" for half a million dollars and they refused.) You see different battlefields, Tokyo, London. If you sign up you, you receive your own character, depicted by these little Lego figures here (something which spawned another round of legal troubles for the artist group). You have your own name, you get your email, there are announcements that go out over the network. The battlefield itself is a very complex self-contained system. The battlefield has its own actors, its own heroes. If you didn't take care of your character, it will die or it would lose life points and would see a coffin on the battlefield in place of your own character. You can go home and come back the next day and your character would still be there.

The goal of this art game was to reduce the stock price of Etoys as much as possible. In the first week or two, about a year ago, the stock price of Etoys decrease on the NASDAQ market by over 50% and continued to go down. It might have been a lucky moment for Toywar because it was a moment in history when lots of Internet companies were loosing value on the stock market. But in reality the Toywar created a massive media campaign against the company. So, this is an interesting example because on the one hand, you have an art organization which itself is very corporate. They think of themselves as a corporation. They have their own corporate efficiency and energy. But they would rather give up than sell their name. Their corporate name was their complete artistic identity so they felt obligated to wage this battle. All their energy was inverted and directed at another commercial entity.

What I want to suggest is that during the Toywar which lasted a month or so, art making changed a great deal. A whole new set of creative or artistic options opened up. The whole idea of reducing someone's stock value on a commercial commodities market became a possible condition for art making. Yes, we have seen Yves Klein throw gold dust into the Seine. Yes, we have seen money itself brought into the art making process, but not in this way before.

 

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