Transitional Notes on Cyber Art
In ‘Your Place or Mine? Locating Digital Art’ (Parallax, 1999), Darren Tofts suggest that the relationship between digital art and the museum is a problematic one, insisting that ‘the very nature of digital art as an interactive, rather than contemplative form, doesn’t sit well in the gallery (30). For Tofts this problem is firstly political, orientated by the increasing corporatisation of the art world, on the one hand, and by ‘cyberculture’s disavowal of privacy, institutional hegemony and diminution of public space’ on the other. But Tofts also identifies environmental problems which may intervene to affect the way in which digital art is experienced not only in the museum space, but in any ‘public’ space. This in turn raises questions about the validity of any straightforward distinctions between public and private space as such. For Tofts, the difficulties associated with the ‘public, competitive context’ of a museum are exacerbated in relation to interactive, digital art in ways that do not easily stand comparison with other contemporary artforms (most of which are in fact premised on their relationship to the museum).
One fairly recent effort to counter the perception that digital — or, more specifically, Net-based – art, does not belong in a museum environment has been Net_Condition, an exhibition staged at the Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie (ZKM) in Karlsruhe, Germany (September 1999 – February 2000), featuring Internet-based artwork by over one hundred artists, ranging from the anonymous anti-corporatist collective ®TMark, to Japan’s pioneering network artist Masaki Fujihati. This exhibition, billed as the first major museum show of Internet Art, was the brainchild of ZKM’s director Peter Weibel, and combined a real-space installation of works in the gallery’s premises with an online site. While the on-site exhibition more or less attempted to gear the environment to the medium, it nevertheless resulted in translating Net art into a series of site-specific installation pieces – an approach which is appealing only up to a point, especially when environmental ambience and spectacle gain the upper hand over the work itself. Among the various viewer prostheses available to museum-goers was a ‘Net.Art Browser’ (a giant, sliding flat-panel screen that moved across a twenty metre wall), and a range of ‘antique’ computers on which patrons were able to search the Web. By contrast, the exhibition’s online sight (at http://www.zkm.de) highlighted the Web’s efficient curatorial powers, raising again the question of how museum space can be viewed as relevant to Internet-based art (although it also suggests points of interactivity between the two environments).
Douglas Davis’ The World’s First Collaborative Sentence (included as part of the ZKM’s online exhibition) posed this question in an even more direct fashion. Davis’ project has the (ironic) distinction of being the first Web-based artwork to be acquired by a major museum (the Whitney, in 1995). Ironic because, launched on the Internet in 1994, The World’s First Collaborative Sentence is a constantly growing multimedia document. After its launch, Davis transferred aesthetic responsibility for the project’s content to the readers, who subsequently became collaborators in a textual genetic process by adding new texts, images or sounds of their own. According to the exhibition’s curators, the question of the author is annulled. Where everything that is written is stored ‘and can be re-used by other writers, what emerge are unauthorised, i.e. authorless texts that are written, as it were, while being read’. Not only does Davis’ work pose questions about authority, but also of copyright and ownership. But how does a museum, like the Whitney, ‘maintain’ acquisitions such as The World’s First Collaborative Sentence?
In a similar vein, November 6, 2000 saw the eighth New York Digital Salon opening in Manhattan with the work of nearly eighty artists from fourteen countries on display. Digital Salon 2000’s format has been expanded to include videos, computer animations, performances and Websites – with the full show planned to tour Europe and Asia early this year. It is anticipated that future Forums will also feature digital audio and music, in response to the increased use of audio and music in interactive Websites and performances, but the real-space, real-time nature of the exhibition will be retained into the foreseeable future. The organisers have noted that several major gallery exhibitions are also including digital Web-based art, most notably the 2000 Whitney Biennial. But while the New York Digital Salon may have a claim to a certain prestige as far as events on the art circuit calendar are concerned, there is little to distinguish it from the types of grand Salons of Paris at the turn of the last century, officiating over the emerging trends in art in a more or less rigidly delineated space. There is perhaps no more complete an endorsement of Tofts’s views on the cyberart-gallery interface than this.
Having said that, however, one of the show pieces of the 1999 Forum, deserves some particular consideration in this respect. A (self?) cannibalising Web interface, Collage Machine is currently on view and accessible at mrl.nyu.edu/collageMachine. The Collage Machine, based at the Media Research Lab at New York University, is described by its designer Andruid Kerne as an ‘agent of Web recombination’. Kerne’s working practice is defined in terms of ‘interface ecology’. For Kerne: ‘Interfaces are the multidimensional border zones through which the interdependent relationships of people, activities, codes, components, and systems are constituted. Interface ecology investigates the dynamic interactions of media, cultures, and disciplines that flow through interfaces’ (www.andruid.com).
Taking its lead from the work of John Cage and Max Ernst, The Collage Machine employs ‘structural chance procedures’ to create ‘aesthetic’ assemblages recontextualising found objects. The Collage Machine crawls the Web, downloading sites; it breaks each page down into media elements – images and text. Over time these elements stream into a collage. This is then actively re-arranged by the viewer, and the program responds to these interactions by evolving a model informed by the viewer’s interests (selection and placement).
Kerne describes this as the principle of ‘interface ecology’, and the global environment of its search capacity – with its emphasis on the material nature of Website desiderata (in many senses of the word) – seems in fact to re-describe and comment upon the global-material environment of the Salon itself: as both fixed and transitional, digital and tactile, etc. Left to run unattended, the Collage Machine will generate a ceaseless, boundless assemblage of text and images: a re-processed archive in flux and yet bound to its material objects. The Collage Machine elevates the paracitation of metasearch engines to a level of substitutability which ‘collapses the information fetishism of politWeb idiocracy and situates technological interactivity as the basic underpinning of res publica’. In this way the implications of Tofts’s argument in ‘Locating Digital Art’, in the context of the ongoing erosion of public-private binary determinations, is more than simply political. The question that arises is what ‘the political’ means when the technological is no longer seen to be in its service, as either instrument or paradigm, but instead describes its fundamental condition.
Tofts, D. (1999) Parallax: essays on art, culture and technology. Sydney: Interface.
Louis Armand lectures on cultural theory and art history at Charles University and at the University of New York, Prague, the Czech Republic.