“As the hardwares and softwares of computers give us new capabilities… we have to learn to feel with them. If we can’t feel with them, they are only dumb metal claws. Therefore, the vistas of digital art are only as wide as our potential to grasp those possibilities with full human expressiveness.”
— Jim Andrews, “Why I Am A Net Artist”, 2011
In the autumn of 2014, following six months of heated online debates about the nature of digital creativity, a group of young “culture phreaks” from around the world met in London for the first time. Our goal? To convene the Mozilla Festival’s first-ever Art and Culture Track, and explore through direct practice the ways that net(worked) art and open technologies might re-combine to empower. 48 hours later, a community had been born, or perhaps re-born — one defined as much by its uninitiated as by its veterans.
This is the story of #ARTOFWEB, a strange experiment from the Internet that took flight in its own creative contradictions. This article is a sprawling piece separated into 6 chapters, an attempt to contextualize something that remains difficult to define. I might be a tad biased, but I also think it‘s worthwhile to make a cup of something hot, and read it until the end. This is because its words and images build up to our ultimate aim — a proposition.
Chapter 1: Some byte-based context.
The #ARTOFWEB story starts, quite fittingly, with the web itself. As an Internet connection becomes increasingly ubiquitous around the world, more and more web users have unprecedented opportunities to transition from experiencing the web as consumers (viewing Facebook, watching a TV show, buying a book on Amazon) to experiencing it as creators, merging code, creativity and networks to build surprising new interventions...
In the open technology field, however, we worry that these liberatory potentials can be unevenly distributed based on unequal access to socioeconomic, geographic, technological and linguistic resources.
This is why organisations around the world like the Electronic Frontier Foundation in the US, La Quadrature du Net in France, the Open Knowledge Foundation in the UK, Open Media in Canada, Creative Commons and Mozilla work to educate and protect the equitable use of such technologies globally. It’s why I work with Hive Learning Networks to help produce hands-on digital opportunities for youth in cities around the world, from Vancouver to Ahmedabad. And it’s why groups like these come together at events like the Mozilla Festival every year to gather with others interested in building more participation, understanding and user-focused control into Internet life, discussing community-curated topics ranging from open science to privacy, and from mobile development to governance.
Chapter 2: Net.art is dead, long live net.art!
It can be also argued that these kinds of concerns mobilized a group of artists, makers and thinkers around a term called “net.art” in the early 1990s.
The term itself was coined in 1995 by Slovenia’s Vuk Ćosić, who famously got his inspiration for it from the postmodern experience of opening an email made up only of “conjoined phrases bungled by a technical glitch, within a morass of alphanumeric jun”. It has since been used to define the critical movement that emerged in the 1990s when artists started to use the Internet itself as a creative medium to explore strange convergences of media, technoculture and code — producing a “non art-art.” In these new spaces, egos, institutions and other traditional trappings of contemporary art were seen as erroneous. “This jumbling, sampling, splicing, recombinant activity is based on… a state in which there is neither any ‘pure’ original content at the beginning, nor any ‘pure product’ down the line,” explained net.art pioneer Mark Amerika in 1996. Early net.art works such as the Mongrel collective’s “Heritage Gold” software, Heath Bunting’s “King’s Cross Phone-In” and the I/O/D collective’s “Web Stalker” were seen not only as art but also as discourse, critiquing the profit-based superstructures that had already started to characterize web citizenship.
The like-minded term “net(worked) art” could be seen as coming out of a similar tradition, but with an even greater emphasis on the networking of the machines that surrounded the artist’s practice. “The common thread associating these diverse media is [perhaps] not the manner of their production, but rather the dynamic way in which they are distributed throughout artist networks. Emphasizing communication, networked artists have attempted to subvert conventional systems of exchange while also maintaining an intimacy of expression,” Jeanne Marie Kusina wrote in 2005.
These early net.art communities were rich, their message boards and listserves bubbling with enthusiastic discussion about tactical medias, hacking and creativity.
However, by the early 2000s, many of net.art’s founders had started to say publicly that the movement had “become dead", citing the mainstreaming and depoliticization of net.art’s cachet, its creators having themselves been “brought into the institutional fold” (Rachel Greene), its modalities of agency and activism diluted by hegemonies beyond artist control (Lane Relyea). Prosthetic Knowledge wrote on Rhizome in 2013 that the term was “close to becoming a retronym”, citing Marshall McLuhan’s theories in the Medium is the Massage to identify a widely-held belief amongst net.artists that the increasing ubiquitousness of available medias and practices across the web had caused a familiar blurring of boundaries, a non-newness of “new”.
And then, just when everyone had agreed on its death, the movement re-awoke.
Stuttering back to life, against all odds, the radical, founding net.art discussion lists continued to be populated. The early creative chaos of the movement started to be seen again as a generation of strange and peevish interventions were made by those calling themselves networked creatives, algoravers, LOL-tool makers, e-occupiers, dataflow-ers, circuit-benders, and glitch artists — and those attempting to call themselves nothing at all.
Indeed, in a 2010 interview in Mexico City with Damián Peralta, artist Olia Lialina explained her belief that the theorized “death” of net.art can be seen as a positive metamorphosis, a “placing of the methods of artmaking itself back into the hands of a larger people.” EyeBeam, Rhizome, F.A.T Labs, Mozilla and others (including, perhaps ominously, Google) have long been interested in these potentials. In the last few years, however, things seem to have sped up.
In 2013, a joint initiative by EyeBeam and the Mozilla Foundation called Open(Art) brought together a group of fellows to explore emergent intersections between creativity and open technologies. In the same year, Webmaker allowed us to host a cohort of fellows whose work could “promote web learning through hands-on exploration.” Also in 2014, SPACE, with the help of #ARTOFWEB co-curator Paula le Dieu, held another of its visionary open calls “looking for original, groundbreaking ideas that exist on the Internet.” On creative networks like the Open Design and Hardware Network, Wikimedia Commons and the original net.art communities themselves, we discussed the potentialities of such re-combinations of art, theory and activism — and how they might manifest when those who don’t already identify as artists, creatives or makers are asked to explore these concepts in their own unique ways.
We wondered something: What might a people-focused movement of networked, creative digital exploration look like in the setting of a 2014 Internet?
Chapter 3: A chaotic kind of homage.
From its onset, the #ARTOFWEB community was built around these kinds of ideas, inspired by early net.art manifestos and the myriad experiences that came after them. We hypothesized that, on a 2014 Internet, given the right tools, context and encouragement, anyone could see themselves as creative. Full stop. Not creative for the mechanisms of capitalism. Not creative to sell advertisements, or to consume the products of a company. Creative for the unadulterated, messy joy of artistic collaboration.
To put these theories into action, we had concocted a crazy kind of experiment—and thanks to the innumerable kindnesses of Mozilla Festival organisers Michelle Thorne, Misty Availa and Sarah Allen, we had a space. What would happen, we wondered, if we released a public Call for Submissions centred on the experience of a “living gallery” that would be alive for 48 hours — a place where every single exhibit would exist as an invitation for participants to roll their sleeves up and create, hand-in-hand with the artists and machines themselves? Combined with a series of equally generative workshops facilitated by a diverse set of organizations, from Creative Commons to Rhizome, the Internet Archive to the TATE Britain, and Aalto University to Europeana, we hoped the end result would be a new manifestation of networked art, built in the image of a creative public.
The whole thing was an audacious sort of idea, and we worried about a lack of submissions. However, thanks to a series of tweets and shares of our clumsily hacked-together webpage by respected projects like Prosthetic Knowledge, we received an overwhelming number of eccentric, critical and fascinating submissions, many of them heavily participatory, from a proposal by a young avant-garde “human-user-selfie” artist to a project reinterpreting Facebook identities through sound via ‘data shadow’ puppetry to a ‘symboloskopy experiment in attributing ethics to symbols’.
As we gathered the final 40 artists and facilitators together for the first time at the Mozilla Festival’s introductory plenaries, we realized something.
Our group looked like the weird kid in the family — the kind of urchin who wears Doc Martens to her sister’s wedding.
A facilitator laughingly referred to us as the festival’s “art freaks”, and the leaders of the event’s other 12 tracks all chuckled pityingly. But we had printed 600 guerrilla minizines, we had an inspiring bunch of interdisclipinary artists and facilitators flying in from all over the world, and — as a friendly data scientist kindly put it — we had “a whole lot of heart”.
Chapter 4: The kind of place where everyone is creative, not just the artists.
Undaunted by the odds, a group of new friends, interested volunteers and kind passersby quickly convened en masse to help us fold the zines, create colourful gallery decorations and scrawl “EVERYONE IS CREATIVE” on the walls. This kind of unexpected synchronosity and openness is one of the most wonderful characteristics of Mozilla Festival and other nontraditional tech gatherings like it — and this year, we were especially lucky. So we set up the gallery’s ten generative exhibits with their artists, turned on an excellent customized net.art mix created by Allison Hauser, put videos by media mashup tricksters Wreck and Salvage on the projectors, woke up the various machines and bots, and waited. Most of all, we worried.
What if no one came? What if no one wanted to take a risk, and create?
And then, miraculously, people started to trickle in. A lawyer. Some students. An office administrator. A group of product designers. A group of parents. Teenagers who had heard they could doodle. A set of data hackers. Soon the gallery and its surrounding workshop spaces were buzzing with activity. Best of all, each art exhibit was being actively generated not only by its original artist, but also by a diverse set of participants — all creating together in a chaotic and joyous array of colours, sounds and conversations.
Indeed, from Michelle Gay's Exquisite Corpse-style association of digital identities to a digital “Serendipidoodle” ad-lib experiment facilitated by Hawaiian educator Amy Burvall, and from a robot programming exhibit that saw “bots co-creating art with humans” by Forrest Oliphant, Gabriela Thumé and Vilson Vieira from North Carolina and São Paulo to “When we awoke to our folly”, an alternate-reality scavenger hunt exploring Internet sovereignty through across the web by the University of Toronto’s ginger coons, there was much to keep a newly-creative mind occupied.
Meanwhile, a Parapara installation by Japan’s Kenya Niino, Noriatsu Kudo and Daisuke Akatsuka streamed collaborative, user-created drawings onto the centre of a live under-the-sea environment.
A set of highly attended interactive culture skill-share sessions lead by Saana Marttila, James Morley, Kati Hyyppä, Christina Holm and Luca Damiani from Finland’s Aalto University, Europeana, Spild Af Tid and the TATE showed aspiring culture hackers how to reinterpret open cultural works using free remix tools, microcontrollers and “culture cams”. The Internet Archive’s Tracey Jaquith showed how to build APIs that reinterpret lesser-used web medias. Jo Pugh from the UK National Archives showed his group how to reinterpret archival data for creative uses, while Rhizome’s Scott Meisburger faciliated a practice-based engagement through the history of net.art. Manufactura Independente’s Ricardo Lafuente and Ana Isabel Carvalho created a Minecraft font with participants, completed in a record-breaking few hours. As sessions completed, their facilitators slumped down in the gallery with exhaustion.
“There was just so much we ended up wanting to create together, and so little time to do it. I must say I really didn’t expect all of this,” a Dutch academic told us, shaking his head in awe.
Chapter 5: When a bot comes alive, what does it become?
As we pulled down the projectors and closed up the machines, we convened the final results with surprise. 1,000 visitors to the gallery in 48 hours. 30 new public domain gifs. 12 skill-share workshops, some of them day-long. 10 generative art exhibits, one exquisite corpse of many parts, hundreds of excited kids, a Minecraft fontface. A series of unexpected collaborations between machine, creator and curator. Paintings created by a troupe of drawing bots. 10 artists who stayed in the gallery space for both days, far longer than the 2 “office hours” they had signed up for, co-creating with participants and excitedly planning future projects with new collaborators.
Later, as the #ARTOFWEB cohort continued to discuss their experiences online, we realised that somewhere along the way, the original vision — a rethinking of the term “networked art” — had taken flight and become something else. Something built in the image of the artists and publics who had joined us, and then reflected in each of their myriad perspectives. Perhaps it was the moment in time. Or the setting of a festival focused on community-rooted uses of technology. Or maybe just the people. Whatever it was, the enmeshing of art, theory and code had awoken something.
In between all the discussions, crayons, codebases, fonts, microcontrollers, digital medias, GIFs and bots, a real, fleshy movement had emerged in its own right.
Perhaps that flourishing diversity of perspectives is best illustrated in the words of #ARTOFWEB participants themselves. To provide an introductory activity for those entering the gallery space, I filled a small table with Post Its and markers, asking the question “What is networked art to you?” Here are some of the answers. You’ll find they are as conflicting and colourful as this entire post — and, on a larger scale, the fledgling movement (or, perhaps, re-movement) we are all trying to describe here in the first place.
Chapter 6: An open ending, with [❤]
In an attempt to conclude the story of a thing that is still itself being born, our experiment in net.art (re)interpretation has been both unexpected and inspiring. Starting with a series of increasingly heated web discussions a couple of call-outs, and the connections built at the Mozilla Festival’s first #ARTOFWEB track, and continuing in the many-networked collaborations, projects, creations and contradictory ideas its cohort and their colleagues, conspirators and adversaries continue to facilitate across the web, we are happy to provide proof of life through this modest work.
We may not agree on the exact manifestations of these kinds of critical, cooperative and creative energies in 2015 — but we do agree on one thing.
We learned in London that the original rebellious read/write spirit of early net.art movements is alive and well. It lives in all of us netizens, somewhere deep within, a festering fire fanned with each unsanctioned manipulation of our private data, each time we log in to Facebook and each time we realise our Internet usage has been unjustly throttled. It is waiting to be drawn out in interactive settings that empower participants to build and to create.
And it’s up to each of us to facilitate the new opportunities that help make it happen. Here’s to stirring up the shit, and finding new and even crazier ways to rebel, empower, build, re-make and convene this year— together.
Subscript: An invitation.
If this article has left you feeling even a little inspired, we would love to get you involved with #ARTOFWEB as the community plans its next steps. You can get started by joining the public discussion list and saying hello.
To discuss further, members are proposing hands-on workshops at Theorizing the Web in New York, Chaos Communication Camp in Germany, and Libre Graphics Meeting in Toronto. They would love collaborators.
You can also get in touch with other members of the community — and tell us what we missed here from your own experiences—using the hashtag #ARTOFWEB on Twitter. In the meantime, we’ll post updates from other community happenings as they come on our webpage. We’ll see you there.