Unstuffed

The AFC’s program compels Kevin Murray to consider the future of art on the net

“We no longer have galleries, we have art portals.” Mmm, it doesn’t quite have the elegance of McKenzie Wark’s aphorism “we no longer have roots, we have aerials,” but it does point to a future for art in the era of the internet.

The term ‘portal’ is used today to refer to information nodes—such as Yahoo, Netscape, and Wired—which provide ‘on-ramps’ to the internet. On a less grand scale, the art world has begun to accommodate itself within this new architecture. A number of these art portals have opened in Australia, such as Screenarts (http://www.screenarts.net.au – expired), Screen Network (http://www.sna.net.au/) and the Australian Film Commission’s ‘exhibition’ of net art, stuff-art (http://www.stuff-art.net.au – expired). Criticism is new to this medium, so we need to do some ground work.

These domain names provide the online equivalent of traditional physical spaces such as galleries. Where does the gallery model stop? Curators, catalogues, openings, reviews, sales, even exhibitions—how many of these fit through a modem? While it is more efficient to minimise infrastructure, do we forgo aesthetics in the process? Do we end up with just a ‘bunch of stuff’?

There are 2 obstacles in casting a critical eye over net art. First, the fixed medium of print is by its very nature alien to the fluid medium of the internet. Today, the liveliest response to net art comes not from magazines, but mailing lists such as net-time, rhizome or locally recode. In these lists we find an abundance of artist interviews and theoretical arguments in the new mode of ‘net criticism’, which is political rather than aesthetic in concern.

To abide by email, though, is to limit criticism to a live event—without durable record. Without the inertia of print, there is less opportunity for the medium to acquire a history. Without a history, there is little chance for the evolution of an argument, and greater stress on work of immediate sensation.

The second obstacle to criticism is more pervasive. In a ‘post-critical’ environment, it is difficult to locate oneself in the neutral position required by conventional criticism. Today, most of what passes for criticism is mere advocacy. Artists and their friends form the core voice for promoting sites and articulating their meaning. This arrangement suits work with a political edge, though it often fails to locate itself within a broader field of practice. Newspapers with their indentured critics provide some guarantee of independence, though the specialised role of the critic is increasingly challenged by client-friendly editors.

Let’s see what can be done. One reasonably neutral act of criticism is classification. Provisionally, we can identity three genres of net art: boxes, windows and hives. Box-sites offer stand-alone electronic versions of readymade art forms, with combinations of image, text and sound. Though the classic WaxWeb (http://jefferson.village.virginia.edu/wax/) was partly developed in moo-space, its final version is readily packaged as a stand-alone CD-ROM. Window-sites attempt to work within a medium that is specific to the internet. Sites by Heath Bunting (http://www.irational.org/_readme.html – expired) and jodi (http://www.jodi.org) champion transparency as a means of undermining the commodification of information. And finally, hive-sites make art from contributions by visitors—artists are the beekeepers and visitors are their bees. Persistent Data Interface (http://www-crca.ucsd.edu/~pdc/ – expired) demonstrates what a rich mixture can be creamed off visitor confessions.

These 3 genres represent different horizons for web art. Box-sites use the web as a means of delivering ready-made material. The critical strategy of window-sites is to expose the medium by which the information is conveyed. And hive-sites attempt to dissolve the role of individual artist-creator for the collective consciousness of web users. With this provisional classification, we have the basis for some kind of critical judgment. How well do these genres realise the possibilities of net art?

The 8 works for stuff-art are mostly box-sites. Like watercolour for painting, web for CD-ROM enforces limits on multimedia and rewards elegant economies. How does this reduction affect content? The 6 stand-alone pieces in stuff-art range from comic to epic. John and Mark Lycette’s Illustrated Alphabet is a line-drawing animation of whimsical violence. A more complex interactive is Leisl Hilhouse and Simon Klaebe’s Harrowing Hell, which takes visitors on several journeys to hell. In content, it could be compared to Cosmology of Kyoto, but leans towards cheesy in character types. Mindflux’s enigmatically titled EN_T presents a fly whose leg can be twitched to scroll randomly through testimonies of paranoia. Wordstuffs by Hazel Smith, Greg White and Roger Dean contains abstract hypertext about ‘body’ and ‘city’, but also includes a java-based cluster of works that can be jerked and rattled. And a tromp l’oeil window-site is provided by Alex Davies’ Subcutaneous: one element invites registration for a chat session that turns out to be pre-scripted, regardless of visitor input. This deviousness makes up for the otherwise predictable content. Though mostly deft uses of Shockwave, these 5 pieces seem slight in content.

Against the comic trend is Andrew Garton’s Ausländer Micro, which tells an epic tale of a refugee who finds himself as much without sanctuary in the afterlife as he did in war-torn Europe. The depth of this tale stretches the bandwidth of stuff-art, though Garton develops some clever tricks for keeping our attention. Animated graphics in the top frame offer opportunities for manipulation and roll-over icons move text focus between libretto and story.

Though Ausländer Micro deserves praise for effort, the small screen seems too slight a medium for its operatic themes of war and death. Unlike the proscenium arch that frames stage and big screen, the monitor is still wedded to the everyday concerns of the desk. In the end, a tragic theme may be more convincingly developed through a mundane path, such as one of the many mortality indexes online (eg http://www.austunity.com.au/cgi-bin/morcalc.cgi – expired).

The 2 remaining sites draw outside themselves for content. The screen for Gary Zebington’s Repossessed is crowded with quasi-scientific graphics that suggest ‘deep programming.’ The visitor submits a word for ‘sacrifice’, which is then recast into a dialogue. For example, ‘Bone’ becomes ‘What does bone-ly? Under antiquity.’ External sites can be drawn into this information feed. The coding skills used in this construction are quite impressive, but the results suggest a clumsy machine intelligence, rather than the omnipotent digital consciousness promised by the opening graphics.

Finally, Mark Simpson’s Ephemera Engine provides a window of search terms, web cams and real audio grabs from unnamed locations. Transmission is occasionally interrupted by questions such as “Do you sometimes feel you are somewhere else?” As suggested by its title, Ephemera Engine dissolves eventually into a kind of mindless traffic-watching.

The works in stuff-art demonstrate technical creativity, but struggle to find a content that is both meaningful and appropriate to the online environment. What can be done? From the artists, opportunities for genuine visitor participation might be helpful. From the Australian Film Commission, it’s worth considering to what extent its mock title ‘stuff-art’ helped form the kinds of works it harvested. Though perhaps prompted by the Stuffit Mac program used to compress files, broader connotations of the title have a bearing on how the site is approached.

At first glance, the use of the word ‘stuff’ seems to cater for the neo-Neanderthal consumer—the kind appealed to by companies like Iomega (‘Because it’s your stuff’) and Pepsi (‘Get stuff’). This reduction of the world to mere substance seems hardly a promising framework for a new artform.

Yet there may be a more serious aesthetic embedded in this vernacular term. Implicit in ‘stuff’ is a modernist attitude to meaning as material, in the way that Jackson Pollock used paint not as a language but as mud. This accords with the modernist quest to strip the world of its pre-existing forms and confront things in their raw state—‘get stuff’. Is modernism a good starting point for net art? Yes, the modernist quest is a useful rite of initiation for any new art form, helping to define it separately from others. But then it needs to move to expressive possibilities which extend beyond self-definition. The ability of hive-sites to tap collective experience provides one way ahead.

Like much Australian net art, stuff-art shows great promise, but we might hope that something with more conceptual bite evolves out of the primordial stuff online. The emerging hybrid artist-curator-apiarist may eventually lead the way. Get honey!

stuff-art, Australian Film Commission, online at http://www.stuff-art.com.au [expired]

RealTime issue #27 Oct-Nov 1998 pg. 21

© Kevin Murray; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 1998
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