Network Art and the Networked Gallery 2006
Net art has always had an awkward relationship with museums in general and with Tate in particular. It cannot be properly incorporated into the gallery. It does not fit into the kind of spaces, both actual and conceptual, that the gallery traditionally makes available for works of art, understood as static, unitary objects, intended for passive contemplation by the viewer. Even video art, having once been a practice involving a forceful critique of mass media, is now largely devoted to the production of exactly such art objects that are easily subsumed within the gallery walls. Net art, by contrast, has failed, for the moment at least, to make whatever adjustments are needed to make it a gallery-friendly practice. Courageous attempts to bring such work into the gallery, such as Julian Stallabrass' Art and Money Online at Tate Britain in 2001, have not been successful, at least in the terms by which success is judged within the art world. This is also true of attempts to engage with net art at galleries such as the Whitney and the Walker in the United States, or at festivals such as the Venice Biennale or Documenta. Despite such attempts, as far the mainstream art world is concerned net art remains a marginalised and largely invisible activity, of little concern.
At the same time net art cannot be completely ignored. Even if it cannot be fully incorporated into the gallery it cannot also be entirely excluded. Thus it enjoys a curiously ambiguous position, neither properly inside nor outside the gallery, but somewhere on the edge. This is made evident by the fact that the one place net art does thrive in galleries is on their websites. Good examples of this are the Whitney's Artport, curated by Christiane Paul and, of course, the net art commissions on the Tate website. This is partly a reflection of the nature of the work, which is designed to exist on the same networks as the museum websites. But the existence of these sites and the presence of network art on them, indicates that something interesting is happening to our conception of the gallery as a cultural space. for which such art is perhaps a symptom.
The existence of net art on the Tate or Whitney websites begs the question about the relation between such sites and the institutions they represent. Is the Tate website part of the gallery or is it something separate that merely advertises the gallery's activities and holdings, like a brochure or catalogue? Or is it something like a frame on a work of art, supplementary to the work in question, and also necessary for it to be recognised as art? In fact, as far as Tate is concerned, the answer is straightforward (or at least appears to be). The website is the sixth Tate site, after Tates Britain, Modern, St Ives, Liverpool and Tate Store. The implications of the decision to regard the Website as of equal status to the physical sites is far more momentous than it might appear at first, especially in ontological terms, even if, at first, it would seem simply to confirm the widely held, if problematic, idea that electronic networks are a kind of virtual space, different to but analogous to our physical material space.
Such a characterisation of networks in terms of space is problematic in that the metaphorical traffic only appears to flow one way and its full implications are often not considered. If virtual networks can be thought of in terms of physical space, then physical space must also be considered in terms of virtual networks. It is simply not possible to expand our conception of space and site to encompass such networks, without, at the same time, altering our very understanding of what words like space and site mean. This in turn has profound implications for our understanding of 'the gallery' as a space, and for what kinds of things that 'space' might be able to incorporate. Our current understanding of the gallery as a physical space or of works of art as physical objects that fit in that space is already profoundly inadequate.
Interestingly is the Tate, or, rather, 'Tate' that has, unwittingly perhaps, demonstrated this. With the opening of Tate Modern in 2000, 'Tate' ceased to be simply an art gallery with a couple of satellite branches in the west and the north. Instead of the centralised organisational structure the use of the term 'satellite' implies, it became something more like a 'distributed network', with multiple connections between the various sites, virtual and physical. It is of course the idea of the distributed network, first proposed by RAND researcher Paul Baran in the mid-1960s, that helped computer researchers in that period conceive of the structure of the ARPANet, the forerunner to the Internet. In many ways becoming such a network was only practically possible with the increasing ubiquity of networked communications, including the Internet, email and the World Wide Web. Indeed the last is not simply an adjunct to the rest, or even a 'sixth site; it is the 'place' where all the other sites are brought together, the only place where Tate can be seen to exist as a single entity, as well as making possible the commissioning and display of net art.
In becoming a network Tate ceased to be primarily a physical entity, a building, and became instead a sign or brand that could be applied to different places, processes and activities. In this it mirrors the paradigmatic post-industrial company, for which the means and location of actual production are less important than the sustaining of the brand. This is reflected in the fact that Tate has expanded its remit far beyond the normal conception of the gallery's role, even if as far as most people are concerned its primary business is still physically displaying works of art. Much of what it now does is closer to the kind of activities traditionally associated with schools, art schools, universities, or institutions such as the Institute for Contemporary Arts; lectures, seminars, webcasts, publications, on-line forums and so on In a sense, like the paradigmatic post-industrial company, Tate is transforming itself from an institution concerned primarily with things to one concerned with information and knowledge.
This all puts Tate's net art commissions in a different light. Rather than a marginal form of art practice shoved to the edges, they are central to the new conception of Tate as a networked, virtual institution. In this they can be regarded as a symptom of massive cultural shifts, brought about in part at least by technological developments such as the Internet and the World Wide Web. These shifts are already radically changing how we think about the gallery as an institution, about art as a practice and as a form of cultural expression, and, quite possibly, about many other aspects of our social and cultural existence.
Charlie Gere is a new media theorist and historian, currently based at Lancaster University. He is author the of 'Digital Culture' (Reaktion, 2002).