CAITLIN JONES: Your work exists in multiple formats: as an object and as installation, but also as pure code that you freely distribute over the internet. Now that you’re starting to sell work in the art market, what does this multiplicity mean to a collector or an institution that buys it? Is it something that you think about? Do you really care?
CORY ARCANGEL: Not really. [Laughs] It just means it’s better, right? That the work will exist in all these different worlds, that it is circulating in all these other forms—and, especially valuable, it will be circulating on the internet. So you know eight trillion more people are going to know what the project is—and they’ve actually been able to see it [not just a photo of it]. Which, for me, was the whole point in the first place.
—From an unpublished interview between the author and subject, July 6, 2005, Electronic Arts Intermix, New York, N.Y.
In 1997, eighty years after Marcel Duchamp deposited a signed urinal at the New York Society of Independent Artists and called it art, a number of artists who used the internet as their preferred medium were invited to participate in documenta, a major art exhibition held every five years in Kassel, Germany. Renowned for its controversial subject matter and its willingness to embrace new art forms, documenta seemed an ideal venue for what was then called net.art. These net.artists—an international, ad hoc collective of web art practitioners including Heath Bunting (UK), Vuk Cosic (Slovenia), jodi.org (Netherlands), Olia Lialina (Russia) and Alexei Shulgin (Russia)—were a community connected only through online networks and brief meetings at festivals.1
Politically and geographically isolated from the mainstream contemporary art market, these artists, particularly those from Eastern Europe and Russia, also saw the internet as a practical way to expose their work to a broad audience. In his 1993 essay elucidating the “utopian,” “revolutionary,” “equalizing,” “democratic” fervor inspired by the emergence of the internet, science fiction writer and internet-era sage Bruce Sterling observed, “Why do people want to be ‘on the Internet?’ One of the main reasons is simple freedom. The Internet is a rare example of a true, modern, functional anarchy. There is no ‘Internet Inc.’ There are no official censors, no bosses, no board of directors, no stockholders. In principle, any node can speak as a peer to any other node, as long as it obeys the rules of the TCP/IP protocols, which are strictly technical, not social or political.”2 Likewise, there was no “Art World Inc.,” no galleries or museums or collectors; no preconceived notions about what constituted art and no entrenched systems of validation. Like Duchamp’s urinal, what would soon become known as “web art” or “internet art” and the broader moniker, “new media art,” posed a challenge not only to the arbitrary line between art and nonart, but it also questioned the necessity of the institutions established to contain and present art—namely, museums and galleries—as well as the primacy of the artist in the creative process.
One of the earliest examples of web art was uploaded to the internet in 1994, when Heath Bunting posted the number of every telephone booth in London’s Kings Cross Station on his website (now accessible at http://www.irational.org/cybercafe/xrel.html). Bunting asked visitors to his site to call the numbers at random and engage anyone who answered in conversation. Bunting’s “happening”—which randomly connected hundreds of internet users to hundreds of London commuters—was one of the first creative demonstrations of the number of people who could be reached through the internet, and the sort of grassroots participation the internet might engender. Olia Lialina’s 1996 work My Boyfriend Came Back from the War (http://www.teleportacia.org/
war/war.html) is considered a major work from what she sardonically describes as the “heroic” period of internet art. Making use of the limits of early web browser technology and HTML, Lialina constructed a haunting work about war and love that is both personal and political. Starting with the line “My boyfriend came back from the war. After dinner they left us alone,” viewers can click on the black-and-white images and text, navigating their own way through the narrative via a system of multiplying frames.
Numerous loosely affiliated organizations began exploring the artistic and creative potential of the web as early as 1991. Among them was The THING, a bulletin board service (BBS) or discussion list focused on contemporary art and cultural theory.3 Reveling in the outsider status of internet art, Wolfgang Staehle, an artist and founder of The THING, stated in an online interview with internet art critic and theorist Tilman Baumgaertel, “I thought it was absurd to criticize the art distribution institutions within those same institutions. That’s like simply rearranging the furniture… I think one of the reasons The Thing worked was that the traditional art distribution network truly didn’t notice it at all. There was also the thrill of being able to feel like a small conspiratorial band.”
Which is not to say that these artists subscribed to the utopian visions cited by Sterling, whose own writings express ambivalence toward this prophecy. Even while they recognized the freedoms of working online, these artists, many of whom came of age during the Balkan crisis and the fall of Communism, still saw the web as a potentially insidious forum (it was, after all the brainchild of the RAND Corporation and the Pentagon). Artist and writer Matthew Fuller wrote to the “nettime” mailing list an indictment of the naïve embrace of the internet as a revolutionary medium:
From: Matthew Fuller
Date: Wed, 8 Nov 1995 23:00:39
A second in the life of the internet. Thousands of people across the globe are indulging in furious bouts of lobotomized libidinal typing. Islamic astrologers, office bombers and terrorist wannabes announce their glorious intentions to the world; fuckers of vacuum cleaners are exchanging tips on new models; the private security firm Group Four are checking up on U.K. environmental activists via their very own GreenNet account; statistics flagellants are giving it some; and say this was a few weeks before U.S. intervention in Haiti according to Time magazine, we could see amongst the leech fanciers and bridge players whiling away the idle hours, CIA PsyOps teams taking part in the virtual community by sending ominous email messages to some members of Haiti’s oligarchy who had personal computers.
Early works often reflected this combination of fascination and distrust. In 1995, jodi.org (Joan Heemskerk and Dirk Paesmas) created a work that purposely exposed the underlying structure of the web and the language (HTML) commonly used to code it. To further explain: the menu bar of any web browser offers a “View Source” function, which enables the much debated culture of openness that allowed people to learn, share, or steal (depending on whom you talk to) any webpage and its content. The artists’ “wwwwwwwww.jodi.org” page appears as a black background studded with green, and seemingly random, alphanumeric code. Activate the “View Source” function, however, and see that the lines of code constitute an image—a detailed diagram of a bomb.
Despite their healthy suspicion of the internet (their chosen display medium) and their near-derision of galleries and museum systems, some net.artists and other non-net.art-affiliated artists working on the web agreed to participate in the 1997 documenta (known as documenta X). The show promised to embrace the web as both a didactic space (providing supporting material for the artists working in painting, sculpture, and video), as well as a space for the artists to create art specifically for the web. The curators made the works accessible online through the documenta website, but the works were also physically installed in what were referred to as “office spaces” (as if the cubicle context were the only one in which people could relate to a computer), in contrast to the neutral white-cube gallery spaces other artists in the exhibition were offered.
And soon the collaboration between the art world and this conspiratorial band began, perhaps predictably, to sour. The curators planned to remove the work from the internet at the close of documenta X and download it to a purchasable CD-ROM—thus dooming projects predicated on theories of total accessibility to a narrowly accessible fate. In protest to what was perceived as the curators’ inability to comprehend the essential nature of web art, Vuk Cosic, exploiting the web’s potential for “illegal copying,” cloned the entire documenta X website and uploaded it to a different server. Cosic’s site, Documenta Done (1997), is still available on a Slovenian art lab’s website (http://www.ljudmila.org/~vuk/dx), ensuring these works continue to be accessible, free of charge and without any institutional backing, eight years after the close of documenta X.
When compared to the work of these artists, Duchamp’s “revolutionary” gesture of plunking a urinal in a gallery might appear, especially at a century’s remove, like so much pointless furniture rearranging. Once a blasphemous statement against taste within the high church of Art, Fountain has now assumed a place in the art world as prestigious as any painting by Picasso or Matisse. A 1964 replica of Fountain now sits on a pedestal at the Museum of Modern Art, and another sold at auction for more than $1.7 million in 1999.4 If we follow the logic of artists like Staehle, Duchamp’s critique of the system happened within the system—a urinal is an object. It can be touched; it can be signed; it can be purchased; it can be owned. As a result, Duchamp’s radical message was easily co-opted and repossessed by a world that values not only the ratification and making of high culture, but also the making of money. Web artists who privilege open-source systems have provided perhaps the greatest historical challenge to the art world’s voracious cultural and commercial impulses—in part because many web artists straddle these systems (one closed, based on ownership, authorship, and monetary value; the other open, based on open source systems, community, and, if you will, “cultural value”), and are deviously conversant in the languages of both—so much so that they have managed to foil even the attempted foilers, adding level of ironic commentary to level of ironic commentary and playfully mocking any closed-system attempts at conferring value.
For example, in 1979, Sherrie Levine rephotographed Walker Evans’s iconic images from an exhibition catalogue and titled her series After Walker Evans. At the time a powerful comment on notions of authorship and originality, Levine’s copyrighted photographs became hot commodities in the market while the original Evans photos remained public domain and were available to anyone who wants to order them from the Library of Congress. In 2001 the internet artist Michael Mandiberg created the website www.aftersherrielevine.com (he also has www.afterwalkerevans.com) in which he has scanned the same images from the Evans exhibition catalog and made them freely available to download and print. Each print comes with its own certificate of authenticity that the “owner” can print out and sign. To quote Mandiberg himself, “This is an explicit strategy to create a physical object with cultural value but with little or no economic value.” All of which raises the following questions: why would an artist want to create a system in which his art has no economic value? How does a system outside the system become viable if the main means of cultural and financial viability (ownership) is intentionally thwarted? Will the revolutionary impulse seem watered-down if internet artists start to work inside both the closed and the open systems simultaneously? And is it inevitable that one day internet art will appear, to future generations, like a lot of pointless rearranging of furniture?
OUTER SPACE: A THUMBNAIL HISTORY ON THE EMERGING FORCE OF AURALESS ART
Numerous projects and artists through the years have sought to shake up the insularity and pomp of art world conventions—with varying degrees of effectiveness. Even more than Duchamp’s Fountain, the invention of photography leveled a profound and radical challenge to the market systems of the art world. “Earlier much futile thought had been devoted to the question of whether photography was art. The primary question—whether the very invention of photography had transformed the entire nature of art—was not raised.”5 This quote comes from what is among the most often cited writings in media art history—“The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” by the German philosopher Walter Benjamin. In this essay, Benjamin uses the medium of photography to float his historic definition of the essential nature of art—its “aura.”6 This aura, described as the intangible quality that imbues the object with its unique and original character, becomes weakened by a photograph’s capacity to be readily and identically reproduced.
Despite its auralessness, photography has managed to achieve great status in the art world, its aura returning with the market designation of “vintage” prints, limited editions, and inventive mounting techniques—all attempts to render the reproducible unreproducible. Alfred Stieglitz, photographer and founder of the famed photography journal Camera Notes, opened Gallery 291 (originally called The Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession) on 5th Ave. in New York in 1905, one of the first art galleries in North America to exhibit photography. Stieglitz played a central role in raising the profile of photography in high-art circles while remaining devoted to the qualities of the medium that liberated it from preciousness. He clearly stated his feelings in a catalogue preface to a later exhibition of his own work: “My ideal is to achieve the ability to produce numberless prints from each negative, prints all significantly alive, yet indistinguishably alike, and to be able to circulate them at a price no higher than that of a popular magazine or even a daily paper.”7
A similar spirit of inclusion sparked the advent of video art, sixty years after Stieglitz first opened the doors to Gallery 291. In the mid-1960s, Sony debuted a portable video camera, the Porta Pak, enabling the cheap, simple, and easy production of moving images. Artists such as Nam June Paik, Steina and Woody Vasulka, and Bill Viola quickly gravitated toward this newly accessible medium. In addition to a technology, however, these artists were also adopting an ideology—they envisioned artist’s television stations and independent distribution networks, free from the constraints of traditional broadcasting and art gallery systems. As Bill Viola stated in a recent New York Times article about the collection of video art, “The dream we had was art that couldn’t be sold, but broadcast on television.”
TV as a Creative Medium, a seminal 1969 exhibition of video art held at the Howard Wise Gallery, exposed the New York art world to an approach that combined kinetic sculpture, user interaction, and moving images. Nam June Paik’s 1963 piece Participation TV (previously shown in Germany) featured a television monitor whose image viewers could modulate by speaking into a microphone wired to the picture tube. Ira Schneider and Frank Gillette’s Wipe Cycle (1969) synthesized similar sculptural and interactive elements. Nine televisions and a closed-circuit camera displayed a revolving cycle of live images (from the camera) and broadcast television, making the viewers (filmed as they emerged from the elevator into the gallery) as much a part of the video landscape as the images on their television sets. Despite the significant impact of his show, Wise felt limited by the structures of the gallery system; he closed his gallery in 1970 and in an open letter to the art world explained his reasons: “[Artists] are focusing their energies on works of such scope that these can only be hinted at here in the Gallery, and cannot be shown or realized here. These artists are going out of the Gallery into the environment, the sky, the ocean, even outer space.”
In 1971, Wise established an organization that would come to epitomize this early era of video art production—Electronic Arts Intermix. Wise articulated his vision for EAI and the social and artistic function of video, enthusiastically predicting the transformation of mainstream television:
The dinosaur may yet succumb to the mouse. Many new developments augur well for the independent video-artist producer. The new, light-weight, low-cost portable can produce programs of broadcast quality. Theoretically at least, the producer is now capable of producing programs that may be broadcast, but actually the system remains closed to him. New developments particularly pertinent to cable TV portend a plethora of new channels and means of dissemination that will offer new opportunities for innovative programming, thus enhancing the chances of the artist to participate in the system.
Fueled by this same fervor, the North American broadcast landscape (changed by the introduction of cable TV, and the steady expansion of public access television and the Public Broadcasting System throughout the 1950s and ’60s) devoted a significant amount of resources to artists’ projects and community-based programming. In 1969 WGBH in Boston commissioned a number of artists, including Paik, to create works for broadcast. The resulting program, The Medium Is the Medium, is the earliest example of the collaboration between public television and the emerging medium of video art. From 1973 to 1984, WNET in New York ran The TV Lab, which provided the same access and support for the works of Viola, Gary Hill, and Mary Lucier. In 1973, with the help of both WGBH and WNET, Paik created one of the most famous video works of the 1970s, Global Groove, a montage of commercial images, Korean folk dancers, and footage of Allen Ginsberg playing the tamblas—prefaced by a voice-over that forecasts: “This is a glimpse of a video landscape of tomorrow, when you will be able to switch to any TV station on the earth, and TV Guide will be as fat as the Manhattan telephone book.”8
Numerous artist and social collectives used video to promote social awareness and activism. Video collectives and distribution centers sprung up across North America: Video Data Bank in Chicago, V-Tape in Toronto, and Ant Farm in San Francisco are only a few examples of successful collective structures. (Europe had a similar movement.) Artists from two of these active video collectives—the New York–based Raindance Collective and Videofreex—published the journal Radical Software from 1970 to 1974 that supported a lively critical discourse about video’s potential as a social and artistic tool. Speaking to a new generation of art makers, Radical Software, which published authors such as Gene Youngblood and Buckminster Fuller, covered a range of topics including art theory, equipment reviews, political and social commentary, and user-friendly tips on how to install a video production studio in the back of your Volkswagen bus.9
Not only did the medium of video pose a philosophical provocation to the structures that contained art; like photography, it challenged the supremacy of these institutions built on ideas of what was original and unique.10 Also threatened by irrelevance was the much savored and romanticized notion of artistic genius. New media made a potential artist of any person wielding a video camera. So if the aura of the art object was challenged by these technical innovations, so too was the cultural aura of the artist, a threat that created another stumbling block to the acceptance of these media by critics and hallowed institutions.11
But the ever practical art world gallery system fought to negotiate its own relationship with the emerging medium. In 1972–73 Leo Castelli and Sonnabend (two of New York’s most successful commercial galleries) joined forces to distribute video art (at this point referred to as “artist videotapes,” an implicit categorization indicating they were the dalliances of artists like Bruce Nauman, John Baldessari, and Richard Serra, who were otherwise making more “serious” Conceptual work). Soon the limited editions and certificates created to facilitate the commodification of photography and Conceptual art were also employed for video. Other attempts to recoup object value loss included artists signing VHS tapes and DVDs, a practice almost quaint in its dogged application of art world conventions to new media practices.
Eventually—in response to the pressures of the galleries, the pressures of the marketplace, the pressures of the entrenched sense of validation offered by museums and collectors, or merely the natural evolution of a grassroots movement into the mainstream—Video Art begat Video Installation. Inevitably with this begetting (an embrace of the very strictures Wise rejected in 1970 after curating TV as Creative Medium), some of the exuberance of video’s open access became overshadowed; given an installation’s multiple projections and complicated sculptural elements, video needed a gallery or museum context in order to be viewed. Subsequently, video artists working today aren’t using video as their medium because they want to be free from the constraints of the market system; they use video because it’s a prevalent tool as viable as any other art commodity. Despite its initially confounding presence, contemporary video art is currently enjoying massive success, though not in the ways envisioned by Wise and his contemporaries. As David Ross, longtime curator of video art and onetime director of both the Whitney and the SFMOMA, said, “As Allen Kaprow has termed it, artists were producing old wine in new bottles.” Ross also points out a slightly more defeatist reason for why the broad vision of video art was never realized: “Let’s not forget that most video art was incredibly boring, dreadfully underproduced, if intentionally or not, as if in a way to reframe Andy Warhol’s Empire as an action drama, which in a way it was.”12
Electronic Arts Intermix, initially founded as an antidote to the gallery system, today enjoys a fruitful relationship with these institutions while still providing affordable access and support to a broader community of artists and collectors. And although the dinosaur did not necessarily succumb to the mouse in the ways envisioned by Wise and his contemporaries, thirty years later the internet has occupied the void left by the promise of television.
THE BIRTH OF THE NET ARTIST: NET ART FOR SALE
CAITLIN JONES: Did you ever think, “I’m going to move to New York and be an artist?”
CORY ARCANGEL: Well, I moved to New York after graduating from college really because my parents sold their house in Buffalo. I didn’t really come to New York to be an artist; it was more like I got here and then I found out what a gallery really was, and so then I thought, “Well, I make videos; I should contact some of these gallery people.” And that’s what I did, and so the whole thing was more of an accident.
CJ: How did you make contacts?
CA: Right when I got here
I went to a video game and music night that was at a tiny little gallery in Chinatown. And
I just went there and said “I do this—I would like to have a show.” And the curator said, “Bring by your portfolio,” and
I did, and she gave me a show.
And then I slowly learned about other places and other galleries. But I honestly didn’t know what a New York gallery was until I came here.
CJ: But you guys [Cory and his collaborators BEIGE—Paul B. Davis, Joseph Beuckman, and Joseph Bonn] were making art in college, right?
CA: Yeah, but not with any real artistic intent—we were just screwing off and then putting things on the internet. The contemporary art world was no part of the dialogue. We had a record label that we created through the internet, and so everything else went up there, too. The “art” just came when I moved to New York.
On the day of our interview, the twenty-seven-year-old Cory Arcangel, a self-described nerd in both body and spirit, wears a “Codewarrior” T-shirt and a blazer with a Netscape logo embroidered on the lapel. Super Mario Clouds (2002), his hack of the iconic Nintendo game Super Mario Bros., has garnered him a great deal of attention from art collectors, websurfers, and gaming enthusiasts alike. By removing the computer chip from the game cartridge, Arcangel is able to reprogram the original Mario code and then reinsert it into the original cartridge. The result of this intervention is a minimalist game environment—no iconic Mario figure in red coveralls, no coin-generating brick blocks, and no poisonous mushrooms—all that remains are the puffy white clouds gently drifting across a clear blue sky.
Super Mario Clouds can be seen in a number of environments. In the gallery, it exists as an installation—the Nintendo computer, the actual hacked game cartridge that supports the code, and multiple projectors that beam the moving image onto the surrounding walls. What makes Super Mario Clouds different from your average Whitney Biennial video installation, however, is that fact that it also thrives in an online “home brew” computer culture—composed of an assortment of gamers and hackers devoted to the open-source methods of software development and creativity. These people—Arcangel is one of them—are happy to discuss and share, among other things, software modifications, the latest video game emulators, and ways to hack into the Domino’s Pizza delivery system. While you can buy Super Mario Clouds13 from the Team gallery in Chelsea for thousands of dollars, you can also go to Arcangel’s website (http://
www.beigerecords.com/cory/21c/21c.html) and download a copy to run on your own computer. Better yet, you can study the step-by-step instructions to learn how to make your own version:
I only modify the program chip, and I leave the graphic chip from the original game intact. Therefore since I do not touch the graphics from the original cartridge, the clouds you see are the actual factory soldered clouds that come on the Mario cartridge. There is no generation loss, and no “copying” because I did not even have to make a copy. Wasss up.
Enabled by Arcangel’s “help files,” other artists have remade Super Mario Clouds into, among other things, a Game Boy version, a screen saver, and a DVD. Arcangel himself, who despite his seemingly antitraditionalist bent wanted to “make things people could hang on their wall,” printed a large edition of Clouds posters that he sold through his website for $19.95.
While many artists made art on the web as a deliberate stand against art commodification, others, like Arcangel, have embraced the commercial opportunities offered by the web. In the ten years since its creation, net.art member Lialina’s My Boyfriend Came Back from the War has grown into a much larger entity, which she now calls The Last Real Net Art Museum (http://myboyfriendcamebackfromth.ewar.ru). Like the multiple variations based on Arcangel’s Super Mario Clouds, The Last Real Net Art Museum is a collection of works by other artists based on Lialina’s original—a series of paintings, a T-shirt, a video game, a PowerPoint presentation, a blog, and numerous other iterations are now linked to My Boyfriend. Lialina et al’s Last Real Net Art Museum, like Arcangel’s, straddles the line between ephemeral and object, between open and closed systems.
In fact, when Lialina launched Art Teleportacia (http://art.teleportacia.org) in 1998—what she called The First Real Net Art Gallery—her goal was to sell net art. The first exhibition, Miniatures of the Heroic Period, consisted of a single page: self-consciously artspeaky descriptions of the works, and price tags ranging from $1,000 to $2,000 were affixed to objects consisting solely of code and a domain name, and could be viewed for no cost by anyone with a computer and an internet connection. In an interview with Baumgaertel, Lialina denied internet art isn’t a commodity:
“I personally have never said in any interview or presentation that the internet is my long-awaited freedom from the art institutions.”14 Her assumption was that the marketplace would provide her with at least one person for whom the idea of owning something would outweigh the fact that he didn’t need to own it to see it, and that his possession would continue to be public even after the private sale. Although arguably tongue-in-cheek, Lialina’s web gallery questioned the possibility of distribution and reception of works lacking physical attributes, and gauged the reaction of a net culture that directly opposed the art market. The lack of reaction, on the part of the net.art scene as well as that of the market, answers those questions. Although a few articles were written about this disinterest (one in the New York Times and a few in media art magazines and online journals), its discussion raised about as few hackles as it sold artworks.15
While the late 1990s and early ’00s found museums around the world rushing to acquire internet art for their collections (including the Guggenheim, the Tate, the Walker, and the Whitney), the enthusiasm proved short-lived. The dot-com bust, combined with market indifference, resulted in a dramatic cooling-off, with a number of the new media curators and programs actually dropped from major institutions altogether.16 This reversal could have indicated a larger dismissal on the part of the closed art world, in which art on the internet is still regarded as hype, derivative, and part of a boom. Writer Isabelle Graw leveled similar charges in her attack on web art, published in the highly respected conceptual art magazine Texte zur Kunst in 1998. Baumgaertel responded to Graw with the article “Mafia Versus Mafia: About Tribal Wars Between Conceptual Art and Net Art,” in which he stated, “The high-art view of net art which is formulated here ignores one of its genuine qualities: namely the notion that everybody can be an artist on the internet—if they have a computer, a modem, and internet access, that is. To reduce the large number of very different projects and works to “net art as such,” and then trash it, is a very dubious enterprise.”17 But “net art per se” suffered a number of major blows from the institutionalized art world.
Even so, a number of New York galleries—including bitforms and Postmasters Gallery—persist in trying to sell network-based art to the consumer market.18 Tom Vanderbilt’s article “The King of Digital Art,” a profile about bitforms owner Steven Sacks, which appeared in September’s Wired magazine, celebrates Sacks’s ambition to “turn high-tech into a hot commodity,” while asking “whether Americans are ready to hang screens on their wall that don’t get HBO.” Regardless, just as with the development of the more object-oriented “video installation,” so too with the new media art installation as artists figure out how to engage these two conflicting streams of production. While some might see this gentrification as yet another watering-down of a revolutionary impulse, the work of artists like Arcangel and Lialina point to another possibility: that the best position by which to critique the closed system is by incorporating it into a more open practice.
The promise of commercial and institutional success, however, is bittersweet to some. In a recent email to curator Sarah Cook, Cosic wrote about the launch of his new art project, File Extinguisher (file-extinguisher.com), at London’s Institute of Contemporary Art, and the changed climate for web art. “It was different when work used to appear as attachments to Heath or as links for jodi or as follow-ups to mail with Alexei. It was about collective discovery and glorious, nearly amorous, rivalry. This time I felt like some career artist running blindly hoping that the noise is the fast lane and not the whistles of the crowd…. Something like that (sorry for going poetic).”
Cosic, who has participated in such elite art world standbys as the Venice Biennale and the Vienna Kunsthalle, also issues this mea culpa: “I am not only attacking some abstract artworld setup I was born into but also spelling out the mistake I have very much helped propagate with my own actions. To me, it is not enough to notice this shift from community to audience, but I also need to share the guilt. This is one important dimension; maybe it’s some ancient Euro-jewish thing…”
Of course, it’s not just the market that instigates this commodification; new media artists want to earn a living, and many, like video installation artists before them, are moving toward the two- or three- (or six-) pronged approach to art making—the website for free, and the installation or objects for sale. While closed systems offer obvious benefits, open systems offer the arguable benefit of exposing more people to more product. Couldn’t the goal be, as Arcangel suggests at the top of this essay, to create something whose online accessibility lends it an intangible value? New media art’s growing pains resemble those of photography, video, and Duchamp’s urinal, and expose the ambivalent underbelly of all revolutionary art movements: the shameful compulsion to be accepted into the commercial market to prove an artist’s success.
In mid-September, Cory Arcangel uploaded to his website the file for another one of his Nintendo-based works, Japanese Driving Game (2005), a racing-game environment with all cars and obstacles removed and just the road in front of you—the ultimate road-trip movie. As he did with Clouds, Arcangel’s offering “for a limited time only” a run of Japanese Driving Game posters for $19.95 apiece.
CtlnJns (4:51:03 PM): so, i notice you have posters for sale again.
rudytardy (4:51:47 PM): i made 500!
CtlnJns (4:52:23 PM): what was the reason you started making those again? is it it because you want your friends to be able to “own” an original cory arcangel?
rudytardy (4:54:29 PM): yeah, well at the time i wanted to try to make something for people’s walls, and i had had terrible luck
making limited edition silkscreens… they would end up unsold under my bed
rudytardy (4:55:02 PM): so i figured, well, as long as i am gonna make then, i should make them so people can have them…
rudytardy (4:55:17 PM): 19.95$ seems like a good way to go…
rudytardy (4:55:30 PM): plus, my internet audience is totally different from my art audience
CtlnJns (4:57:59 PM): so then, there’s the market that will pay thousands of dollars for something. then there’s this other audience that wants to screw around and make it themselves, and maybe there’s a third audience, that doesn’t really want to make their own mario clouds or japanese drving game, but wants to have a 19.95$ poster on their wall. i guess i’m in the third category.
rudytardy (4:59:19 PM): yeah, i had a kid order the poster using his dad’s credit card. that’s awesome!
rudytardy (4:59:32 PM): he was 14 or something
Arcangel’s decidedly casual approach to art making is enhanced by a long history of intense negotiations between the object, the market, and the creative impulse in general. With technology often serving as the catalyst for expansion, our conceptions of art will continue to be challenged. As in the past, thanks to urinals, photographs, and videos, so too will the internet create more space within and without the art world for work to be produced and received. Still, what might be the most radical subversion of the dominant art-world economy yet is this emergence of a multiplicity of economies, with art for free, for barter, or for sale—as long as your dad will let you charge $19.95 to his credit card.
1 The term net.art was first used by Vuk Cosic, who had organized an actual physical meeting of these artists, who predominantly communicated via email, at a conference titled Net.art per se. The name that came to identify the group was apparently the result of a random computer glitch.
2 Sterling, Bruce. “A Short History of the Internet,” The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Feb. 1993.
3 Other virtual and social platforms, such as the nettime mailing list and Rhizome.org, supported a growing community of artists, posting emails and distributing digital artworks, enabling an inspired output of thought and activity.
4 Both of these Fountains were part of an edition of eight, cast according to the artist’s 1964 specifications.
5 Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Illuminations. English translation 1969, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Inc. Schocken Books: New York, NY.
6 His dialogue isolates what he refers to as the aura of art as “the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced.”
7 Phillips, Christopher. “The Judgment Seat of Photography.” October 22 (Fall 1982).
8 Global Groove and many of the works from this period are available at Electronic Arts Intermix.
9 The entire run of Radical Software is available online at www.radicalsoftware.org.
10 A technical aside: a work of video art is simply a video signal on a tape. Early analog video technology is termed lossy—meaning that with every successive copy there is a noticeable degradation in quality. Analog technologies still had some claim to the construction of an original—the photograph has the negative, from which successive prints are made, and video has a master copy, from which further copies are struck. The negative and the master thus have more value than their offspring. Digital video formats released by Sony in the 1990s changed this condition completely, as they allowed for perfect reproduction. Video is now simply a piece of code—a string of ones and zeros that, unlike its analog parent, is wholly duplicable. Enabling the production of infinite clones with no discernible value hierarchy thus renders original a meaningless term.
11 As though to intensify this anxiety, every Apple computer now arrives in its box with editing software already installed, inviting users to create and share their own work. In a move to either reestablish the myth of the heroic artist or forever grind it into the democratizing muck of the equal opportunity media age, esteemed New York gallery owner Jeffery Deitch is currently at work on a reality TV show called Art Star.
12 From a lecture by David Ross at San Jose State University, 1999.
13 Super Mario Clouds was an edition of five, and every piece has been sold.
14 Tilman Baumgaertel’s site, http://www.thing. de/tilman/tilman.htm, links to these interviews and many other of his projects and writings.
15 Actually Lialina sold her own work If You Want to Clean Your Screen (1998) to the web design and art collective Entropy8Zuper! (images of the transaction can be seen at http://art.teleportacia.org/office/clients).
16 The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minn., boasted a world-renowned and vanguard new media art department under the curatorial direction of Steve Dietz. In 2003, the Walker dropped the department, the renowned curator, and his staff from their program, citing budgetary constraints.
17 Telepolis, 14.04.1999 http://www.heise.de/ tp/r4/artikel/3/3362/1.html
18 Which raises the question: who are these collectors? Some of them are the same ones who had the foresight to buy the work of Cindy Sherman when the rest of the art world thought there would be no market for contemporary photography; others are involved in the technology industry and are comfortable with immateriality and ephemerality of digital technology in general, and the notion of hanging a screen on a wall to display software art does not seem at all incongruous to them.
In recognition of the collaborative process of my writing, the thoughts and ideas articulated are the result of conversations and lectures of friends and colleagues including but not limited to: Kris Cohen, Sarah Cook, Alison Craighead, Steve Dietz, John G. Hanhardt, Jon Ippolito, Heidi Julavits, Christiane Paul, Keith Romer, and Maria-Christina Villasenor.