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Net Pioneers 1.0Contextualizing Early Net-Based Art

Dieter Daniels / Gunther Reisinger
(excerpt, 5-8)
© Dieter Daniels / Gunther Reisinger, Sternberg Press

Net art is seen as an archaeology of the future, drawing on the past (especially of modernism) and producing a complex interaction of unrealized past potential and Utopian futures... (01)
Julian Stallabrass
This is a book about media art history, and against that background it takes a new, interdisciplinary look at the historical, social, and economic dynamics of our contemporary, networked society.

Giving a potted history of Net-based art may seem to present no diffi culty: The hype around Net-based art began in the early 1990s, before the Internet had become a commodity. It developed in skeptical parallel to the rise and decline of the new economy. In 1997, documenta X featured Net art. Around the same time, major museums in the US started online art commissions or virtual showcases. (02) The fi rst (and last) retrospective exhibition, “netconditon,” was held in 1999. (03) Several books published in the fi rst years of the new millennium give overviews of the practice and theory of this art. (04) But since then, this particular chapter of art history appears to have closed. The fi nal indication that Net-based art was not to become another genre in the contemporary art canon was perhaps the discontinuance of the “Net vision” category in the Prix Ars Electronica 2007. (05)

But why does this chapter of art history appear to end so suddenly? Is it that the idea of Net-based art (also known as Internet art, Net art, Net.art, and Web-based art) involving itself in a revolutionary spirit in a networked society failed? One might equally well argue that it was far too successful simply to become another media-art genre. Looking today at the social, aesthetic, and conceptual approaches of the early 1990s presented in this book, it is clear that most of them have in fact come true, if in ways other than intended.

They materialized, but without establishing a new art genre, and they resisted the typical process of commodifi cation met with in art institutions. What happened instead was that some of the initial ideas took shape in everyday socio-technological living conditions. The two major utopias of the modernist avant-garde of the 1920s and the 1960s are that art anticipates the future and that art transforms, or is transformed, into life. The history of Net-based art would seem to indicate that it fulfi lled both of these utopias and, as an artistic exercise confi ned to the art world, rendered itself obsolete.

Early Net-based art, however, is significant mostly from the viewpoint of the history of ideas. For the most part, the fi gures and artworks of the time have been eclipsed. Current public awareness does not extend to the “Net pioneers” themselves, who entered neither the narrative of an emerging network society nor the canon of art history. Not just fame is at stake here, but also the material (and digital) evidence of one of the most exciting artistic phenomena of the fi nal decade of the twentieth century. Even if future art historians change their minds and, as with Dada or Marcel Duchamp, decide to rediscover this art fi fty years after the event, there will not be much of it left. Neither museums, universities, libraries, nor media archives consider themselves responsible for or capable of caring for this part of the cultural digital heritage by archiving, documenting, or maintaining Net-based art and its contexts. The constantly changing online technology and socio-economic environment ensure that it is as diffi cult to develop a methodology of preservation as for all of digital art. That these early instances of Net-based art never entered the art market (and in fact successfully opposed it) is also partially responsible for the lack of research in the fi eld: their apparent lack of monetary value does not argue for the necessity of these works' survival.

The historical importance of the early Net-based artworks presented here as evidence of a pivotal moment in digital culture, and of a paradigm shift in media society in general, goes far beyond art history. Yet the framework of art history alone can provide the basis for understanding the context, ideas, and concepts behind the works. They were created in response to a specifi c setting in the art world of the early 1990s. A historical view must therefore maintain this context, although the works are also signifi cant in that they simultaneously testify to the development of the socio-technical media. The research approach developed at the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute Media.Art. Research over a period of three years has focused on developing a documentary archive and contextualization methodology, for which a range of case studies was selected. While this does not solve the problem of the survival of Net-based art, it does aspire to set an example and to instill a consciousness of the responsibility we owe these fragile and ephemeral “monuments” of our media society.

This book is thus a part of the art-historical research project titled “netpioneers 1.0.” The essays published here are in part the result of a conference organized by the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute Media.Art.Research Linz on the occasion of Ars Electronica 2007, and in part refl ect new approaches that have since been developed. The contributions cover a wide variety of topics, ranging from art-scholarly methodological debate (Bentkowska-Kafel, Kuni); source-critical analysis (Reisinger); archiving, exhibition, and analytical practice (Ernst, London, Paul, Sakrowski) to media-philosophical aspects (Ries) and technical and artistic innovations (Daniels).

To begin with, the signifi cance of art-based or media-critical Internet platforms (THE THING New York, THE THING Vienna and Public Netbase) that were instrumental in facilitating the establishment and media-immanent discussion of early Net artworks are addressed. In line with the genuinely archival character of these frameworks, a predominantly source-based scientifi c approach was chosen. For research purposes and for the textual contributions, both primary and secondary sources were fi rst made digitally accessible, thus facilitating an overview of hitherto scattered archival materials.

01 Julian Stallabrass, Internet Art: The Online Clash of Culture and Commerce (London: Tate Publishing, 2003), 48.
02 See the text by Christiane Paul in this volume.
03 The exhibition “net_condition” was a distributed exhibition in Graz, Barcelona, Tokyo, and Karlsruhe. See net_condition: art and global media, ed. Timothey Druckrey and Peter Weibel (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001).
04 e.g. Julian Stallabrass, see n. 1; Rachel Greene, Internet Art (London: Thames & Hudson, 2004); Tilman Baumgärtel, [net.art]: Materialien zur Netzkunst (Nürnberg: Verlag für Moderne Kunst, 1999), and [net.art 2.0]: Neue Materialien zur Netzkunst (Nürnberg: Verlag für Moderne Kunst, 2001).
05 The defi nition-shifts in the Prix Ars Electronica category of Net-based art are a short history in their own right: 1995 –1996 World WideWeb, 1997–2000.net, 2001–2003 Net Vision / Net Excellence, 2004 –2006 Net Vision.

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