Sunday, April 1, 2012

In which I am a grouch about panels on net art

LINK to AFC comment thread where I lose my shit - who is behind this? Why? What do collectors in Dubai want with net art? Why is Constant Dullaart the representative of the community? How did the audience respond? Why does everyone think that archiving a website or web content is akin to videotaping or photographing a performance? Isn't it the perception that matters over the material? If you can replicate the perception exactly, why worry?

In the debate, Marius Watz hedges with the common complaint about net art/artists being undefinable. I can't speak for Watz, but generally the complaints I see like his are all on Mr. Moody's 14 definitions of WTF a net artist is. (here's #14) I disagree with Tom and Marius because I think that by proposing a definition you can establish methods of evaluation. Here's my stab at a broad definition of the genre:
Net art is either artwork produced for web-based consumption with an implicit awareness of the culture and power structures that govern its dissemination, or physical artwork produced with a more explicit awareness of the same in mind, or a combination thereof.
It seems to me that intentionality is key here - self-awareness, awareness of the qualities of the Internet. Anything implying a lack of understanding while billing itself as art is untrustworthy and patronizing. If it's not intended to be net art, it's outsider art or just a really funny website. If you feel otherwise, comment here and I'll duke it out with you, but be prepared to provide examples.

One last link before I go to keep this on-task: The Idiocrats by Alexander Provan, a gentleman mentioned in the panel as arguing against non-Internet-aware net art.  I'm not familiar with Triple Canopy yet, so if you know more please chime in.


  1. Duncan, thanks for the mention but where did I say a net artist was undefinable? My list was in response to someone complaining about "net artists" who didn't define what those might be. As for your definition, I think it fails your own test of saying "a good new media idea is one that can be explained to someone at a bar."

  2. Adding: I only skimmed that AFC thread. I tuned out when saw the words "Dubai" and "Constant Dullaart."
    Just looking at it now, since you've joined me and Marius Watz at the hip. Hmmm, he says "Net art - yet another art genre less definable than pornography." Well, I don't agree with that on two levels: that art can't be defined and that pornography needs to be defined.

  3. Tom, you seemed to take your own list seriously when we were discussing Jennifer Chan's essay: It seems like you think that I'm conflating you and Watz. I was saying that your list was comprehensive in the face of both his response and most discussions I've had along the same lines. Following up on the thread, Watz says he meant his statement "ironically," which I don't really understand. I can polish the definition a little more, sure. Maybe I should keep a running list of my own tenets, it is difficult to keep them all at hand. :P

  4. I take my list very seriously! Saying there is no consensus on what "net art" is isn't the same as saying it's undefinable. You are wanting an all-purpose one sentence definition and that's why your sentence is cumbersome with clauses and alternatives. The "wtf" list is meant to be read together to show how variegated the topic is. At any one time you might want to argue that one item on the list is more important than another. My own preference is probably "#8. A shamanic presence who is doing something disturbing and art-like on the internet" but many peers seem to give tremendous weight to "9. Someone who has had online expression covered by a prominent 'art and technology' website."
    You definitely are conflating me and Watz with the sentence "I disagree with Tom and Marius because I think that by proposing a definition you can establish methods of evaluation." That's not fair if he's just being flip and ironic while I *have* proposed methods of evaluation.

  5. I'll rescind my conflation because I've been interpreting your WTF post as a statement along the lines of "it's impossible to figure out what a net artist is, don't even try" as opposed to "net artists are a varied bunch." It reads that way to me because some of the entries, particularly #13, make the whole task seem like a joke/futile effort as opposed to an honest attempt to describe and evaluate.

    Let's call the definition a very rough draft on its way towards the bar version. Is it so bad to want a sentence? I understand that there are many facets to the term, but I want to be able to put them into some sort of context at the bar as well.

  6. #13 ties back into the introductory sentence of the post. Sorry to explain my own joke but the list is in response to someone slinging around the term "net art" and how much he hates it, when in fact his resentment is that he is an even better net artist who has never gotten props (while at the same time thinking it's OK to be ignorant of all the other reasons people claim for being net artists). The analysis of 14 possible "net arts" isn't the same as saying "it's all just like porn," so your rescind is appreciated.

    As for your uni-definition, I think it's a step back from where you were with your analysis of net art camps a while back. Those camps aren't definitive but provide good poles for argument. Now you seem to want to collapse them into a definition that sounds (to my ears) very Camp One.

  7. I respect where both parties are coming from. Duncan is attempting, in this article, to make a proper definition of net art whereas Tom listed several possible scenarios where someone could be considered a net artist.

    In my opinion, simple definitions are elegant and respectable. The best definition for net art would not restrict itself to anyone's intentions or a kind of technology.

    I'm more familiar with biology, so some examples from a different field. Biology is the study of life. Evolution is a change in allele frequency in a population over time. Alleles are alternative versions of a gene. Genes are the fundamental units of heredity. I don't have to look any of these up because they're simple, commanding, and general enough to be resistant to nitpickers.

    One can certainly divide net art into camps, genres, flavors, etc. However, for maximum effect, I would broadly and simply define net art first. The work has already been done for us. It's difficult to cite who first wrote it here, but even wikipedia begins with such a definition: "[Net art] is a form of digital artwork distributed via the Internet." This definition isn't perfect, but it's very good at what it does.

    Net artists, simply defined, create net art. Intentionally or not.

  8. To continue the biological analogy, the Wikipedia definition is like saying a brain cell is a "cell located in the brain." Besides merely repeating the term, it wouldn't cover my scenario No. 10: "someone who works primarily offline, e.g. a painter showing in galleries, who creates a digital presence through exhaustive documentation." It also wouldn't cover performative types of artworks that don't involve "distribution" or are primarily behavioral rather than "digital."
    Art is not science: taxonomies and one-sentence propositions can be helpful but they can also muddy understanding.
    "Distributed via the internet" is something I could say about work that I know is circulating but can an artist say "my work is distributed via the internet"? What if no one links to it or shares it? Is it failed net art or is it even art, since it doesn't meet the "distribution" criterion? Painters don't say they make arrangements of colored pigments "that are distributed through the gallery system" - that presumes too much.
    Is one visit from the Googlebot "distribution"?
    The best definition of net art is probably the one I dislike the most: "online expressions that exist and have meaning as 'art' within a discursive system comprised of academic 'media' departments and 'art & technology' websites." While accurate it is hugely limiting.