Hello, World: Let’s (re)make networked art.

Kat Braybrooke
Jan 13, 2015 · 13 min read

Reflections from the Mozilla Festival’s first #ARTOFWEB community on the radical potentials of open, cooperative practices of [and by] the web.

Also, an invitation.

“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

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...

Young makers print out ideas of themselves and paste them onto an Exquisite Corpse. Exhibit: Michelle Gay. Images: #ARTOFWEB.

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.

Mozilla Festival 2014. Image credit: Mozilla EU.

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 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.

Screenshot of exhibit A Description of the Equator and Some OtherLands. Artists Felix S. Huber, Philip Pocock, Udo Noll and Florian Wenz, 1998.
Screenshot of exhibit Net.art is dead, long live net.art. Artcontext.0rg, 2000.

These early net.art communities were rich, their message boards and listserves bubbling with enthusiastic discussion about tactical medias, hacking and creativity.

And then, just when everyone had agreed on its death, the movement re-awoke.

An “e-occupation” of DAZED Magazine by Stephen Fortune (2013), inspired by “Occupy the Internet”, a project of Free Art and Technology (F.A.T.) Labs..
Glitch-pixel artist MAX CAPACITY was one of the Webmaker Fellows asked to explore creative learning with open tools. as seen in the remixable piece “TV People: Bad News for Bumtown” (2013).

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?

The TATE Digital Learning’s Luca Damiani explains how to remix or “re-curate” the gallery’s website using open digital collections. Image: #ARTOFWEB.

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 unofficial tagline of the public #ARTOFWEB call.
A very early #ARTOFWEB meeting on Google Hangouts, which we immediately “broke” when we hit 20+ participants.

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.

This kind Mozfest volunteer offered to man our welcome table, fielding many a query about the nature of the group’s work.
Another valiant group of volunteers settled in help fold, cut and build 600 #ARTOFWEB minizines.

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?

Exploring the art of shared web narratives through Serendipidoodle, an exhibit by educator Amy Burvall.
“Bots co-creating art with humans”, an exhibit built by the Turtle Bot project.
An #ARTOFWEB participant dances with a set of 30 open culture GIFs.

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.

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.

#ARTOFWEB gallery mix by selfie artist @alliself.
Facilitators lead participants through the process of redesigning cultural heritage items with microcontrollers.
Young artist Joelle Fleurantin sets up her interactive storytelling exhibit, “Threadbare”.

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.

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.

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.

    Kat Braybrooke

    Written by

    Maker, curator, spacewolf. Doctoral researcher working with @SussexHumsLab and @Tate. Co-founder @ODandH. Alum @Mozilla @OKFN. → http://codekat.net