Contemporary art Fairs Books Switzerland

Internet art fails to click

Examining the legacy of online art since 1990

Aram Bartholl, Map, 2006-10, a series of public works of art based on the red markers used in Google Maps. Photo: courtesy the artist, DAM gallery & xpo gallery

The internet was born as a utopian dream, and Marshall McLuhan was its first oracle. The Canadian media theorist died ten years before the World Wide Web was invented in 1990, but his prophecies were still alive and well, and had apparently reached full maturity. In 1964, he foretold of a world reduced in size to a “global village”, where communication would no longer radiate outward from the centre to the periphery. Monologue would make way for dialogue, and the provinces would finally have their say. The city itself, that ancient forum for commerce and rhetoric, would “appear quaint and odd, like archaic forms already overlaid with new patterns of culture”.

The internet has imprinted these new patterns, with their wide range of small conversations, in the public consciousness. Today, people can go online to trade baking recipes or air political grievances, and no single conversation dominates. The terrain is a libertarian’s fantasy, where free exchange and local problems can be discussed openly by interested parties with little intrusion from outsiders. Terrorists take to the internet for the same reason that Hot Rod enthusiasts do: because they can easily find others with the same regional interest.

Yet provincialism has its problems, and art suffers most from its ill effects. Artists have been making work on the internet for more than 20 years, but it is scarcely seen outside of small circles. It is virtually nonexistent in galleries and museums, and is seldom for sale at auction. Because the work operates at the margins of the art world, it lies in the suburbs of cultural conversation. Few artists break into the mainstream, and those who do rarely take the internet as their primary interest—Seth Price is a good example.

Sometimes, the content of the work encourages its marginalisation. Much of it is unsettling, which puts off audiences that are easily upset. Nick Crowe’s film Discrete Packets, 2000, takes viewers on a journey with a character named Bob Taylor as he searches for his missing daughter while trudging through the internet’s seedy underbelly. “Hope she’s dead” is one of the emails Bob gets.

But even work that is not haunting receives little attention. The art historian Julian Stallabrass is among those who have suggested that this has to do with the art’s political radicalism. In an article in Net Pioneers 1.0: Context­ualizing Early Net-Based Art (ed. Dieter Daniels et al; published 2010), he says that internet art is “dangerous” to capitalism, the art market, academic institutions and the financial elite because it is unpredictable and cannot be controlled.

It’s a quaint idea and it assumes a lot of internet art. The claim pegs its hopes to the idea that the work has been important enough to put pressure on real political situations, which has hardly been the case. This art does not have to be forcefully relegated from the canon by cranky academics and conniving collectors, as Stallabrass may have it. Those groups genuinely could not care less. At best, his point is an activist’s empty dream; at worst, it’s a serious delusion.

The authors of Art and the Internet are not as bold as Stallabrass, and make smaller claims. Domenico Quaranta makes the most interesting one: that internet art may carry the seeds of a new avant-garde because it demands a new narrative model, beyond traditional art historical ones, to explain its development. But even that claim is speculative, and it relies on the idea that internet art deserves serious and sustained attention. That does not seem to be the case yet.

The problem with the book, as with internet art, is that no one has recognised the aesthetic problems of provincial conversation. Work by artists who turn inward to have hushed talks with a small coterie about local problems will have little effect on culture at large. McLuhan’s global village may have its merits, but the cultural celebration of marginalism in art is not one of them.

Art and the Internet, Joanne McNeil et al, Black Dog Publishing, 240pp, £19.95/$29.95 (pb)

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