We=Link: Sideways, an exhibition about the art net, last Avant-garde of the twentieth century
Last exhibition I visited in Shanghai awakened my interest and reflections about that phenomenon of the artistic exploration and action which is largely dubbed as net art. Appearing in the early ’90s with the advent of the internet, net art went through an uncontrolled flourishing period of prolific experimental, creative and critical engagement with the emergent new-media-fueled economy and its cultural and social ramifications. By 1997 the institutional acknowledgement of the once peripheral art practice along with the commodification of the internet made net art seem, according to art historian Dieter Daniels, to have “reached a dead end or turning point.” The web had turned into a distributional and promotional channel propagated by art of all forms and kinds.
The aim of the exhibition We=Link: Sideways is to chart the evolution of the network-based art since that moment of “dead end” to uncover the variegated developments, diverse strategies, critical positions and aesthetic experiments after the crash of the dot.com bubble.
It is held at Chronus Art Center (CAC), the China's first nonprofit art organization dedicated to the presentation, research and scholarship of media art, established in 2013. We=Link: Sideways features twenty-two works by twenty-eight artists and artist collectives, from the pioneers of net art to millennials. The works on display and online span three decades of net art practice, from the first internet-era artwork of The Thing BBS in 1991, an early type of online forum focusing on contemporary art and cultural theory, to the most current production continuing to evolve.
The overall exhibition, from the projects’ selection to the space and display design, is highly minimalistic to strongly represent the evanescence of the digital, to speak the language of codes and data streaming. The walls have been transformed into big screen where strings of codes, links and encrypted messages of relevant art projects are printed or projected. The space genuinely conveys the aesthetic and the language of the internet related world, both in terms of hardware and software technologies. The narrative made through a dialogue between the last trends and phenomena of the web and the old-fashioned devices of the 90’s is intriguing and authentically representing the nostalgic and nerdish spirit of the net actors and amateurs.
The exhibition also includes a rare collection of artifacts of early Chinese internet culture during its formative years of the late 1990s and early 2000s to shed light on its forgotten story. This collection is part of the project “People's computing", which, in turn, is an offline extension of the online museum project called “Computer museum in the web”, realized by the artist Zhou Pengan in 2020. Computer museum in the web is an online museum designed for Chinese readers. Based on modern web technologies, it provides browser-based emulators with no configuration required and users can play with many different historic computer operating environments and featured applications.
One of the first project you meet on display is about a specific interaction/function of the network, the emailing lists. They have become important means of maintaining ties within groups, relaying important information among peers or collaborators, and forging a sense of community that transcends all national and cultural boundaries. The project is titled BumpList: An Email Community for the Determined, by Jonah Brucker-Cohen and Mike Bennett. BumpList functions like a standard, public listserv, but adds the constraints of limited membership (only 6 people could subscribe at once) and the urgency of forcing people to re-subscribe if they get bumped and want to continue the conversations, discussions, arguments in which they are engaged.
A representative project from the 90’s is net.art generator by Cornelia Sollfrank, realised in 1999. It is a computer program that collects and recombines material from the Internet to create a new image. The WWW-interface requires the user to enter a title which then functions as the search term, and to enter an author’s name. The generated images are stored online in an archive from where results can be downloaded and printed.
A recent project, which combines reflections about the net and the art’s world, is Derivatives, made by Paolo Cirio in 2019. This series is composed of over a hundred thousand images and records of artworks appropriated from Sotheby's auctions to turn them into further financial derivatives. Cirio overlayed the auction prices over the images works and sells them as digital artworks on the website Art-Derivatives.com for a fraction of the value set at the auctions. The project aims to subvert the art market with its own logic. As a form of institutional critique, Derivatives reflects on the speculative value of images in the representation of art as a financial instrument. The aesthetics of art is often judged by the inflated prices and, in this work, the images are seen through their financial qualities rather than their visual features and artistic merits.
In 2020, the artist Everest Pipkin created Lacework, originally commissioned by The Photographers’ Gallery of London. Using algorithms that stretch time and add details to images, Lacework creates a series of hallucinatory slow-motion vignettes from the videos of everyday actions that form MIT’s Moments in Time Dataset. The Moments in Time Dataset was developed in 2018 to recognize and understand different actions in video by automated systems. It contains one million 3 second videos scraped websites like YouTube and Tumblr, each tagged with a single verb like asking, resting, snowing or praying.
Another very recent project, still ongoing, is Wind Verification, started by GUO Cheng in 2020. Wind Verification is a research project based on the anthropological field of social media networks in the context of mass surveillance, which attempts to reproduce the observable but invisible object - wind - in the videos uploaded by social network users in an indoor physical space. The entire installation consists of a flag, a fan set, a screen and a control system in an attempt to recreate the state of the wind in the digital footage in the physical world. Besides showing the emergence and popularity of short video social platforms such as TikTok and Kwai, it is also a metaphor for the current era: the digital reality is becoming true reality.
Speaking about the net, obviously there is also a project dealing with the current Pandemic situation when the digital is the main protagonist of our life. It is a performance in two parts, called Later Date by Lauren Lee McCarthy. The first part takes place during the lockdown and social distancing, when she invites some people to chat online and imagine together a future meeting. Where they’ll go, what they’ll say, what they’ll do. This future script will be saved. One day, when we are allowed again, the same people will receive an email with this script and a request to meet as planned. This will be part two of the performance.
This exhibition has represented, to me, a discovery of relevant actions and projects of net art which opened my eyes on the complexity and the radical provocative attitude of this form of art, which really deserve to be considered as the last Avant-Garde of the 20th century. A net art project is always a political act and quite often an attack and it deals with many delicate topics, from the evolution and role of the artworld’s market to the power of misinformation and social media.
I think we should be grateful to this form of art for helping our society to build awareness and rules about the web and its tools and to question all the tangible and practical effects of the cyber world in our daily life.