Net art and the argument for critical decompression


Dear Editors
In the introduction to his review of the Australian Film Commission’s exhibition stuff-art (RealTime 27, “Unstuffed”, page 21), Kevin Murray aims to set up a way of thinking about and writing about net-art. Criticism, he claims, is new to this medium “so we need to do some ground work.” I agree. The questions he sets out are useful ones. In thinking through the problem, he ponders on the limits of applying a gallery model of exhibitions, curators and reviews to net-art. He then asks, how in a post-critical environment do we cast a critical eye over net-art? “(D)o we forgo aesthetics in the process? Do we end up with just a bunch of stuff?”

How can we decompress this ‘stuff’ so that we can develop a dialogue with it? Murray’s response is a curious one. Having questioned the value of the ‘traditional’ gallery model as a basis for structuring net-art, Murray looks to the ‘tradition’ of conventional criticism as a place to start thinking about what ‘criticism’ might look like in this new environment. He bemoans the loss of “objectivity” claiming that much of what passes as criticism is often partisan—an act of advocacy that champions the political and ignores the aesthetic. In such an environment, he argues, “it is difficult to locate oneself in the neutral position required by conventional criticism.” He continues: “newspapers and their indentured critics provide some guarantee of independence.” This astounds me. Since when have indentured critics provided any guarantee of independence? Can an act of criticism ever be neutral? Having cut my teeth on Donna Haraway’s critique of ‘objective’ knowledge and her work on situated knowledges, I find Murray’s pre-occupation with ‘neutrality’ and ‘objectivity’ mystifying. No act of criticism is neutral, not even an act of classification. I think he has missed the point and the opportunity.

I would argue that the architecture of the internet provides an opportunity to think differently about what criticism may become, what form it may take and who may speak. Instead of a single voice, there is the possibility for a multiplicity of voices to contribute to a critical dialogue. First we need a space and secondly we need the critical tools to promote such a dialogue.

It strikes me that the bee-hive provides the ideal virtual space for the development of a dialogic model of criticism. It allows for multiple voices, the juxtaposition of image and word and the development of a history of net-art. New software packages, such as The Virtual Gallery being developed by Jillian Duffield at The University of Queensland, mean we are no longer limited to mailing lists or the fixed medium of print. There aren’t obstacles. There is potential.

The question of the tools of criticism, is a more complex one. Murray’s ‘neutral’ act of classification may be a starting point, but what do you do once you have categorised sites into box sites/windows and beehive sites? Murray’s ‘critique’ of stuff.art demonstrates the limits of the categorisation process. Having established that the 8 works for stuff.art are mostly box sites, he proceeds to focus on content and only superficially deal with the way the works operate. For example in discussing Gary Zebington’s Repossessed, what does it mean when Murray claims “(t)he 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”? What is impressive? What is clumsy? What does he mean by “omnipotent digital consciousness”? On what authority and with what tools can he make these judgements? Murray ends up sounding like the omnipotent indentured art critic of newspaper fame. He doesn’t open up dialogue. He passes judgement and there is no transparency.

I agree with Kevin Murray that since criticism is new to net-art, we do need to do ground work, but I don’t think we need to look over our shoulders. Art criticism needs to take a different trajectory. The sites and spaces are in place, but now the task is to develop sets of tools that will allow for a dialogic criticism, not a monologic one. I believe the question is how to decompress stuff, not compress it.
Barbara Bolt
Sunshine Coast University
November 22

Kevin Murray replies:

Dear Editors
I am grateful to Barbara Bolt for airing my prejudices, which I am happy to defend. The crux of her argument seems to be that my review of stuff.art maintains traditional assumptions of criticism. She implies that I view critics as independent arbiters of aesthetic value. I admit that this is an outmoded concept. However, in the case of web-art I think there’s a use in applying an anachronistic framework—a kind of critical ‘mis-reading’ if you will.

Criticism native to the web is proceeding as we speak. Your inbox is now filling up with email from various lists announcing new sites and appending theoretical expositions. Anyone can participate and any subject is permissible. Despite this abundance, it will be rare to find in these mailing lists the traditional currency of superlatives, like the ‘impressive’ and ‘clumsy’ that was spotted in my review. I honestly don’t think I could fully explain exactly what I mean by these labels. Evaluative criticism has a kind of mystique that invites readers to examine their own responses to the work. If I seem out of touch with how others feel about these sites, in ways that aren’t interesting (I rarely agree with Adrian Martin’s evaluations of film, but appreciate where he is coming from) then I hope my critical capital will decline to the point that I am no longer read, or invited to respond.

While an arbitrary system, the point of categorising the stuff.art works as ‘box-sites’ was to point out the inherent formalism in the way the competition was set up. It would take a different kind of program to encourage ‘hive-sites’ and ‘window-sites’ that were mere containers of material coming from elsewhere. The worth of these sites is difficult to predict in advance of their life online. Yet it is these forms that seem to hold most promise for net art.

The funding and official support for new media is currently hugely out of proportion to the kind of critical culture that has developed around it. Apart from RealTime, there is virtually nothing in print that takes a regular interest in the way Australian artists are using new technologies. Perhaps a few subjective, idiosyncratic and biased comments might help address that imbalance.
Kevin Murray

RealTime issue #28 Dec-Jan 1998 pg. 18

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

1 December 1998