By Marie Chatel
The web has an immense influence on our daily life and the social relationships we construct, making undeniable the importance of internet culture and its associated artistic creations. With Rhizome launching its utmost exhibition The Art Happens Here at the New Museum — showcasing 16 artworks of the 100 online pieces it organized and restored in the past two years — the place of network media is more present than ever on the curatorial scene. But what again are the central concepts and hotly-debated topics underlying art on the internet?
Net Art sounds like a short and trendy way of referring to internet art which is not false but inaccurate as the term is more encompassing relating to “network art,” something which artists started exploring in the late 1970s with the appearance of the end-user information system Videotex or what the French referred to as Minitel. As artist Eduardo Kac explains, “There’s a general misperception when we talk about online culture. Everyone is so obsessed with the internet, but to me, it’s a historical phenomenon. It will be superseded by other networks in the future.” In Reabracadabra (1985), for example, Kac used pre-internet telecommunications as a medium to share poems and explore the limits of language. With the sole word “abracadabra” he draws attention to the actual working of the communication network.
Regarding internet art, we refer to net art when describing the art produced during the nineties or what we call “Web 1.0.” that is the period concerned with static web pages and no user interface. But as curator and writer Omar Kholeif claims, “increased change also means that certain aspects of culture become rapidly outdated” and “net art today sound hopelessly antiquated, clunky, uncool.” Oops, then what is contemporary? Post-internet Art and New Aesthetics.
In 2006, Marisa Olson coined the term “Post-internet art” and its sister phrase “art after the internet” to distinguish what stands outside the internet since she worked with online content as raw material for later production offline. For instance, while in the 1990s artist Olia Lialina was concerned with developing an artistic language fit to the internet, by the mid-2000s she had turned her focus to curating the content that circulates online, recognizing what artists and others produce as equally relevant to cultural production.
In spite of this, the use of the word “post-” changed and now doesn’t ask for a clear demarcation between a before and an after but rather points out to a gradual, technological transition towards Web 2.0. The rise of dynamic interfaces where users can share content in real-time — think blogs and social networking sites like Facebook (2004), Twitter (2006), and more importantly YouTube (2006) and the release of the first iPhone in 2007 — resulted in the omnipresence of internet. According to Michael Connor, “the artist, even art itself, is assumed to be fully immersed in network culture and is no longer quite able to assume the position of an observer.” The main difference thus lies in the position of the artist himself which in the later form not only witness acts but engages with the web just as any other participant of this community would.
Conspicuously, in Web 2.0, “outside” the internet does not exist anymore, which makes for interesting questionings on the all-embracing capacity of post-internet art. In the essay Contra-internet aesthetics, artist and curator Zach Blas criticizes the term “post-internet” as an “empty descriptor” inducing “saturation” and “(pseudo)totalization,” a dilution of militancy which shows through in the insufficient variations in wording for expressing transgressive, political and subcultural discourses on the internet and digitally. As he frames it, “Is “post-” not more of a stylistic convenience that evinces a blind spot, an inability to account for the present in specificity and singularity? Is it not a shorthand for what could be called an impasse to think the contemporary?”
The phrase New Aesthetics gained momentum in 2012 and refers to the merging of the virtual and the physical as a result of the internet and the spread of digital technology. Although aesthetics usually refers to an object’s visual outlook, here its inventor James Bridle, an academic specialized in Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence, wished to bring attention to the systems underlying artistic productions. By asking how artworks came to be and how they will evolve Bridle shows the partial understanding we get of these pieces through screenshots, video sequences, and other incomplete representations of processes. Mostly, New Aesthetics reviews the network itself, its rhizomatic structure, and modes of functioning — a technological apparatus that will become increasingly important to apprehend the arts.