The German artist Kurt Schwitters, whose aesthetic practice before World War Two was eventually developed into a creative methodology he would come to refer to exclusively as "Merz," conceptualized a compositional space where "the material is as unessential as myself. The only essential thing is giving form. Because the material is unessential, I use any material the picture demands." He believed that by harmonizing different types of materials among themselves, that an artist could move beyond what was for him, in 1920, "mere oil painting."
Along with other early 20th century artists like Marcel Duchamp, Jean Tinguely and the Italian Futurists led by Marinetti, Schwitters took the realm of visual art to what we would now have to call a hyperbolic level of abstraction, one that would reinvestigate the complex nature of creating unusual forms out of the detritus of what was then the beating heart of a technologically-enhanced industrial culture. When one looks back at his Merz architecture, for example, or Tinguely's self-destructing machines, Marinetti's typographical pyrotechnics, and Duchamp's appropriation of readymade objects awaiting the individual artist's instinctive selection and pseudonymous signature, we are reminded of how odd it must have seemed to the average spectator or reader of that day.
And yet since so much of our mainstream and alternative art today is being developed with software application programs that encourage the liberal usage of these same modernistic devices (particularly sampling, collage, technological gimmickry and other "engineered" behaviors), we tend to forget that what we are doing is not necessarily all that new and that if we're looking for deep structural changes in the art work of today as opposed to even ten or twenty years ago, then we're more likely to find these changes in the mediums through which contemporary art gets distributed and how the emerging network culture radically transforms the way in which we participate in the dual worlds of art-making and art-appreciating. We might go so far as to say that the contemporary art world, once confined exclusively to the continuous exhibition of various art works and installations in physical space, will need to start radically re-evaluating its ability to maintain social relevance while branding its cultural imprint on the screenal spaces connected via the Net.
Back in 1993, when I was composing my Avant-Pop manifesto in which I acknowledged the contemporary digital artist's dual lineage to both the avant-garde art and writing movements of the early parts of this century and the wild explosion of electronic pop culture in the latter part of the century, I asked this important question:"What would the Futurists do with an information superhighway?"
I asked the question in a rhetorical way, that is, I assumed that the Futurists and other artists such as the Dadaists and certainly the Situationists, would have immediately begun experimenting with whatever forms of expression the new media offered. They would have, as software engineers like to say, "pushed the envelope," both technologically and conceptually. Today though I'm asking a different question:
"How are the artists of our time going to respond to the rapidly changing aesthetic, political and economic realities presented to our contemporary society with the advent of global computer networking systems and the growing influence of the multi-national corporations that preside over these systems' technological development?"
I've decided to use this column, Amerika On-Line, as an venue to think through many of these important issues facing artists at the turn of the millennium while at the same time focusing attention on some of the present-day projects already developing in cyberspace. The best way to get in touch with what is happening on-line is, of course, to surf around the Web and see if indeed anything is being developed on the Web that could be considered linked to this historical epoch we can now look back and call 20th Century Art while simultaneously asking how what is being developed out on the WWW differs from the once-outrageous works of our modern forebears. And before I review my first art-web site, I'd like to raise one more question (maybe I've been reading too much Walter Benjamin lately), that is, "is there a new modus operandi evolving for the contemporary artist as a result of the growth of international attention placed on the World Wide Web, or is this just an excuse to shift the momentum of technologically-driven late-capitalism toward what ends up being an even more conservative political apparatus that mindlessly absorbs whatever creative 'merz' our commercial culture chooses to place value on?"
In trying to come up with some answers, my first stop on this tour in search of emerging digital art is a site called Plexus. Plexus has an eye-catching home-page that's constructed with a dark background layered with barely readable text on top of it. The text, besides repeatedly naming the title Plexus, also lists the names of its artist participants which one would probably read were it not for the fast color-changing flash-text flushed toward the right of the screen that completely captures your attention. The flashing words are elliptical yet inviting: ONLY CONNECT. The subtlety with which the navigator is made aware of their only known option, that is, to click on the ONLY CONNECT digital wink, prepares the way for entry into what you might call an online curatorial network, one that also poses as a publishing site of considerable content.
The Plexus network consists of a variety of sub-sections called, among other things, Artists, Tracts, Gallery, Chalkboard, and Artlab. Clicking on Artists the navigator is presented with the names of 25 artists and has the option of either clicking on one of the artist's names or another button that will launch what they call "the automatic slide-show." Clicking on random names reveals that most of what is collected in this space are photo-gifs of exhibitions or elaborate installations that have taken place in physical spaces and are being repurposed on the web with small images representing the events from which they sprung (options exist to get larger versions of the same images). One example of such a listing is Wenda Gu's "Untitled" with its installation of "multi-racial hair."
Although the documents of these physical installations piqued my curiosity and made me wish I had enough time and money to travel all over the literal art-world so as to see the actual works themselves, I was becoming disappointed that there were no web-based projects coming out of this group at this time. But then I clicked on John F. Simon Jr. whose work not only featured some innovative environmental scribbling of a computer-art variety but also had a link to one of his projects on the Adaweb site, a site which I had forgotten about and knew, now that I was clicking there, I would have to write about in a future column.
Clicking off Plexus and penetrating the Adaweb site brought me to Simon's ALTER STATS: The Condition of the Web Observer which he refers to as a Self-Modifying Web Self-Visualization or, An Experiment to Journal the Effect of the Observer on the Image Observed. When one scrolls down the page past a list of server data that is automatically registered upon your arrival so as to inform the navigator of the protocol-path they have taken to get to this work, they are informed
"ALTER STATS creates images based on your interaction. When you request the ALTER STATS pages, a unique image is computed and returned to your browser.
By requesting the page, computing a new image and altering the statistical database, you modify the image that future observers will see."
And so one simply clicks on the word OBSERVE and they are immediately brought to a new screen that looks like a scientific visualization graphing your observation in relation to the other 2000-plus observations that have come before you. This is as far as you're taken as there are no longer any other links to explore in relation to this particular project.
Meanwhile, the departure from Plexus into Adaweb has definitely opened things up and now it's time to decide whether to go back to Plexus and see just what the Artlab and Tracts sections have to offer or change our location box and see what's on the home-page of Adaweb. One is still tempted to say that it's the interconnectedness of the Net itself and our ability as cyborg-travelers to choose our own paths toward creative discovery that is the true new art form and that the future of all value in both the art world and the commercial world that will inevitably support it will be tied up in an evolving logic of links and attention-span, the latter being the most precious of all present-day commodities.
Something about the Plexus entry point, the ONLY CONNECT flash-text that quietly manipulated my interest in the entire project, brought me to the back button where I decided to skip the "automated slide-show" for now and make my way back to the contents page where I now clicked on Artlab.
Artlab was what I had been looking for the first time I had entered the site and what I found there changed my whole opinion of the Artists section I had recently surfed through as I now saw that the curators of Plexus were attempting to bridge gaps or potential connections between the physical gallery scene and the virtual art scene. Artlab is a retinal treat and points toward what I see as the most important develop in the visual art scene in a long time, that is, the collaboration of many artists located at various sites around the world using advanced digital technologies to spontaneously evolve a compositional network that can, and often does, invite participation from other net-navigators all over the matrix (as Duchamp and Bueys and many others have suggested, aren't we all capable of becoming artists?). True, the availability of high-technology toys and accessibility to the Net is still a major issue and one that can't be ignored until we have everybody who wants to be on-line adequately connected, but the participants in what the Artlab calls the Floating Point Unit have dreamed up an interesting amalgam of animated images, critical texts, sound-files and out-of-control toolbars that immediately call into question the formal constructions of the various interfaces that present themselves to the growing network audience.
The project, in a blatant nod to Deleuze and Guattari, is called Body Without Organs and as a digital installation enables both high-bandwidth and low-bandwidth versions. I chose the high bandwidth version which features RealAudio by Morgan Garwood as well as various self-reflexive animations that play off our "trained perceptions," the ones where we tend to look through the ugly interface designs of most net-software programs so as to not have to focus on their banal aesthetic of function over form. Here we see the ever-changing tool-bars and icons converging in what becomes a confluence of choreographed chaos, the various horizontal bars and user-friendly buttons thrown into techno-morphic discontinuity the way we think of De Kooning doing the same sort of thing with the biomorphic dismemberment of body parts in his Woman series. The difference here, of course, is that De Kooning had a way (like Pollack and other contemporaries) to turn the violent massacre into a gorgeous fetish (David Cronenberg does this too, especially in his latest film CRASH) whereas the mundane bodies without organs flashing on the screen in this particular node of the network are as ugly and useless as can be -- and that, one gathers, is exactly the artist's point.
Clicking through the Bodies Without Organs installation you'll also find a radio dialogue with the maddening presence of Antonin Artaud, a series of disfigured interfaces juxtaposed with appropriated text from the Critical Arts Ensemble's Electronic Disturbances, and The Virtual Laboratory where, using some basic html and advanced graphical imagery, you'll find some of the most exciting animated gifs yet created on the Web, work which uses the decidedly un-three-dimensional-space of the typical web page in ways that suggest the inevitable near-term leap into more elaborate VRML worlds.
The Tracts section is subdivided into three areas: Criticism, Poetry and Theory. The Criticism section has three essays, two of them by Robert C. Morgan including one on Nam June Paik and another on the "end of the art world where Morgan claims that "what is commonly called the 'art-world' today is less a community of creative people than a detached network of subscribers whose existence depends on a set of precise taxonomical divisions." Since I'm presently focusing my critical eye on looking for some connectivity between the digital art world and the physical art world which most 20th century art has depended on for its distribution and dialogue, I was hoping to see more hypertextual or Java-esque optic revolutions going on in this rhetorical space so as to further blur the distinctions between creative and critical discourses but, alas, this sort of thing was not to be found. Morgan Garwood's "Psychoactive Ingredients" did suggest that the integration of the visual with the theoretical in an interactive format was indeed possible and that a more hypertextual rendering of the various projects being developed here could add to its potential aesthetic appeal. One idea would be to take the loose threads of the Tracts section and integrate them into the other, more elaborate publication they produce at Plexus called REVIEW.
Next time out we'll look to see what role, if any, narrative art plays in the evolution of the Net and if there is any great potential for visual and narrative artists to converge in what's becoming a rapidly de-centralized art world.
Mark Amerika (mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Director of The Alt-X Online Publishing Network as well as the author many books including The Kafka
Chronicles (http://www.altx.com/kafka.html) and Sexual Blood