Intermedia Art

New Media, Sound and Performance

Human, all too Posthuman? Net Art and its Critics  2000

Josephine Berry

As Net Art has begun to shrug off its ghetto character and step into the revealing light of mainstream culture, it finds itself increasingly subject to accusations of institutional complicity, technophilia, neo-liberal social engineering, even racism. When Net Art first emerged in the early 90s, it was often identified as a defiant art form which targeted the nepotism, materialism and aesthetic conformity of the gallery/museum/publishing power complex. It was hailed as an 'art glasnost' which, for the first time since the cold war, was forging a truly international art movement. Thanks to the efforts of the extravagantly wealthy patron George Soros and his Open Society Foundation, which set up a string of new media labs throughout Eastern Europe, artists living in the post-communist bloc were at last able to participate in international (pace: North American and Western European) art discourse. As the Russian Net artist Alexei Shulgin put it, recollecting life before the Internet, 'When I was just an artist living in Moscow, whatever I did has always been labeled as "eastern", "Russian", whatever'. The globality of the net, its disregard for geographical distance and national boundaries, apparently made it possible for anyone, anywhere to become a (net) artist with a potentially massive audience with no need of institutional endorsement. The 'immaterial' nature of the medium and the ease of maintaining anonymity within it, helped fuel dreams of an identity unconstrained by corporeality - the disembodied utopia of the posthuman. For all these reasons and others, Net Art was celebrated as a radically democratising art form; the ultimately horizontal plane on which everyone could be an artist, and identity could become another material of creative experiment.

Despite the obvious crassness of writing about 'Net Art' as if it were a singular entity - a trait as present in early eulogies as in its more recent denunciations - there are undeniably common themes and tendencies which emerge collectively at certain points in time. The trick is to recognise these without reducing the whole field of practice to a handful of axioms and stereotypes. Surely one of the most important potentials of information networks is precisely their ability to cultivate myriad currents of thought and activity which challenge the monologism of state/corporate culture. But conversely, the lightning speed of information flow also creates sudden mass convergences of thought, interest or activity. In just such a convergence, Net Art has recently come in for a many sided attack on the basis of its reputed negation of the specifics of embodied and site-related subjectivity or identity. Although the post-colonialist and feminist mailing list, Undercurrents, established this February by Irina Aristahrkova, Maria Fernandez, Coco Fusco and Faith Wilding has been a fulcrum of this critique, the same issue seems to be cropping up all over the place. In this round of their Emerging Artists/Emergent Medium Net Art commissions, for instance, the Walker Art Gallery which prides itself as being on the cutting-edge of net culture, will be selecting artists' whose proposals explore the difference between so-called McGlobalization and the 'translocal'. Even the big instituions are jumping on the situated identity bandwagon! So what is this debate and why is Net Art, rather than art per se, being so singled out for attack?

It seems that the crux of this problem lies in the technology itself and the highly esoteric consequences of medium-specific investigations. Indeed, just as the self-referentiality of modernist painting and sculpture met with its deconstruction and rejection in the 1960s and early 70s with social, political and contextual concerns of Fluxus, Performance and Conceptual art, so too is Net Art's supposed 'techno-formalist' variant undergoing heavy critique. In some ways, this critique is connected to a wider rejection of posthumanism and its insistence on the indistinction between humans and machines, animals and humans and, perhaps most crucially, the physical and the non-physical. Spearheaded by Donna Haraway and her pioneering mid '80s text 'The Cyborg Manifesto', posthumanists claimed that, contrary to customary Leftist critiques, identity within techno-scientific societies is not becoming more rigidly dualistic but rather undergoing a general disintegration of its unitary forms due to developments such as biotechnological engineering, computer science, quantum physics and chaos theory. Within the crucible of a techno-scientifically driven identity meltdown, the opportunity had supposedly arisen for the wholesale reinvention of identity - both threatening and liberatory by turns. This would be a world without gender, race, 'oedipal narratives', even embodiment. Net artists in the early '90s often combined an avant-garde rejection of the author's individuality and originality with the possibilities provided by computer mediated communication (CMC) to generate anonymous, parodic, shared, multiple and inauthentic identities. In other words, the possibility of being 'whoever you want to be' in cyberspace combined with the ongoing deconstructions of authentic identity endemic to postmodern culture. Likewise, the viewer's boundaries were radically reconceived in early Net Art, now understood as prosthetically extended via personal computers and networks. As the Dutch/Belgium art duo Jodi remarked: 'When a viewer looks at our work, we are inside his computer... And we are honoured to be in somebody's computer.'. So, despite the wide gulf separating net artists from the most extreme proponents of a crude posthumanism (such as the West Coast 'Extropians' who believed that identity could be downloaded into cyberspace, the flesh jettisoned and immortality attained), the radical insertion of computer technology into the heart of identity, and hence the aesthetic experience, certainly aligns them very strongly with posthumanism.

It is this radical insertion which is viewed by many critics as problematic even dangerous due to its unbalanced optimism. In the preface to her recent book The Bodies That Were Not Ours, artist and theorist Coco Fusco expands the term 'digital divide' to refer to an inequality far deeper and more historically ingrained than the mere question of access:

While western artists and posthumanists celebrate the open-ended possibilities of boundary confusion, the majority of the world's population encounters them more as violations, in the form of the toxic side-effects from working on electronic assembly lines, salvaging parts from the computer scrap dumped in the third world and the worsening conditions of casualised labour and migratory capital within CMC-accelerated globalisation.

In light of these everyday horrors, it is tempting to dismiss the medium-specific investigations of net artists as excessively formalist or as perhaps unwittingly supportive of the agenda of neo-liberal globalisation. The first accusation is perhaps easier to reject than the second. Where one might legitimately argue that the self-referentiality of Greenbergian modernism created a quasi-spiritualist transcendence and/or evasion of the massive, global fallout of the post-war situation, it is harder to argue the same of Net Art. Even if one were to ignore the countless artworks that address the social dimensions of information technology head-on and merely focused on the handful of works which play with the materiality of code and the aesthetic and behavioural conventions of Graphic User Interfaces in a highly abstract way, one would be hard pushed to sustain this position. This is because paint and canvas during the 1940s and '50s represented anything but the revolutionary medium that CMC did in the 1990s. Unlike the age old medium of paint on canvas, the unfathomable productive power of information technology and its electronic networks were transforming the world before most people were even able to grasp their most basic processes. To investigate the insidious representational conventions of a handful of standard interfaces or to reveal the hidden layers of programming beneath the smooth face of software packages was not, therefore, a purely aesthetic gesture (if there ever could be such a thing). By redeploying functionality (such as Olia Lialina's use of the location bar to load poetic text in Agatha Appears, Jodi's relocation of low-level programming languages such as C++ or Basic into the high-level browser window, or Alexei Shulgin's initiation of the Form Art Competition in which people created abstract, interactive patterns using standard form interfaces and buttons), artists created a sense of the malleability of the technology, its openness to invention, alteration, and non-utilitarian ends. Works such as these imply that the huge productive power of the internet, whose transformation from an enthusiast's domain to the engine of the 'new economy' was being engineered throughout the '90s, is nevertheless still up for grabs. They provide an important counter to the depressing spectacle of the net's colonialist takeover by Microsoft & Co for corporate ends - yet another example of social wealth appropriated by private hands.

But Fusco's point about the obfuscation of the real digital divide still seems pressing. Even if one considers the info-political nature of a work such as's project Life_Sharing, in which the Italian art collective made their entire hard-drive accessible via their website as a gesture of defiance in the face of escalating electronic surveillance and associated paranoia, the concerns and gestures involved remain highly abstract. If the politics of information's production, circulation, access and control is a central concern for many net artists, the medium-specific nature of their artworks often push them outside the frame of many people's experience and understanding. For instance, it is not hard to grasp the fact that we are living in an increasingly surveilled society, and yet for those uninitiated in the operations of the Web or the codified territory of open source or free software, a brief trip to's website would doubtless yield little insight. Although Conceptual art has long posed the dilemma of the viewer's required initiation into art history and aesthetic theory in order to equate its often quotidian materials and gestures with art, there is no doubt that Net Art often makes even greater demands of its viewers. Not only is a familiarity with conceptualism essential, but so is a familiarity with the protocols of the Net. Beyond this, the viewer also needs the requisite PC operating system, software and plug-ins etc. to be able to view much of the work in the first place. In this sense the implied viewer of Net Art is nearly always the privileged western subject even if the subject matter is explicitly its excluded other, as in Heath Bunting's project BorderXing Guide, now viewable as part of the Tate's new Net commissions.

But to condemn Net Art on this basis would be an unfair admonishment. The weaker defense against this judgment is that Net Art is hardly very different from a great deal of so-called Postmodern art and culture which operates the truism of post-industrial culture's ultra-mediated hyperreality - a cultural experience by no means shared across the unequally developed globe. One must ask if, merely by virtue of its explicit use of information technology, Net Art is any more blinkered from the realities of global experience than most of the exhibits in western contemporary art spaces. But the stronger defense of Net Art to accusations that it covers over the true inequities of real, embodied, experience around the globe is that such accusations conversely imply identities and experiences reducible to the molar determinants of nationality, gender, class and race. They claim to speak on behalf of various groups and in so doing distort and reduce lived experience to a set of formulas, in much the same way that politicians do within representational democracies. If anything, net artists' material investigation of the unruly, mutagenic quality of information networks comes closer to grasping the irreducible nature of identity within the irreducibly complex strata of global social existence. As sociologist Tiziana Terranova has recently pointed out, the shift from old to new media, or from the 'Set' to the 'Net' is indicative of a conflict between two different types of cultural force, 'the culture of representation and the spectacle and the culture of participation and virtuality'. Terranova, in line with writers such as Negri and Hardt, also argues that the Net materialises the 'non-representational' nature of social reality through its ability to network together a vast spectrum of divergent ideas into a collective assemblage or 'general intellect'. Looked at in this light, it is possible to conclude that Net Art's simultaneous failing and achievement is that it avoids the vicarious representation of techno-industrial globalisation, its hugely divergent experience, in favour of a more open-ended investigation of the material conditions of social possibilities. In this respect, Net Art explores 'virtuality' in its true sense; not the drift of disembodied avatars through computer-generated space, but the convergence of social and technological forces in a constantly unfolding horizon of possibility.

Josephine Berry is the Deputy Editor of 'Mute'