Art meet Net, Net meet Art 2000
Log on to the Tate website and behind the first window opened up in your browser you'll find another, its double. You're not on the receiving end of an information service about the galleries, but in the middle of a work of art. Harwood, a member of the artists' group Mongrel, has copied the official website, and switched its contents. If you're reading this essay however, you're coming via the 'contextualised' route in which a paid know-it-all expatiates on these newly commissioned works.
Artwork has been made via computer networks since they have been around. In the nineteen sixties, this meant using the private networks held by corporations and universities. From the eighties, bulletin board systems such as the Thing network1 - which still run today - running over into the Internet and later via the World Wide Web provided a widely exploited realm for production, communication and invention for artists and many others.
Throughout this time, such work was only occasionally and tangentially covered by institutions. The net is a tricky space for organisations oriented around neatly provenanced objects locked into standard issue art modes. Although in the last few years several major museums worldwide have showcased this area of work, it remains at that showcase level - like painting by chimpanzees. Although this is the first new medium since video, the art punditocracy reassured themselves that they could safely wait a hundred years until the nets, like film, became a respectable art form.
The action goes on independently. Artists set up web-sites and circulate the information via the net. Mailing lists and news services have grown up to link the information to people2. When galleries and museums are used, it's mainly as an adjunct to a process that is already ongoing. They provide legitimation, a range of vocabularies, theoretical tools for thinking through and making work, and importantly, access to other audiences and participants. It's this, from the artist's point of view that makes them worth dealing with. On one level then, it's equivalent to dance music makers licensing some of their tracks to majors and publishing others independently. But it's not just an alliance between traders. There's a certain kind of utopian opportunism that dovetails nicely with the technology. This, on the one hand allows artists a greater realm of manouevre. (Mongrel for instance usually create a triangular relation of circulation for their work between art structures; cultures of the net; and the social, familial and community networks that they operate in. This allows them to avoid being pinned down in any one domain, but also usefully to create ways of making the contexts in which they operate strange to themselves.) On the other hand, it finds in the nets a way to initiate or take part in a process of producing clusters of data, of signs, but not pretend or even hope to have any determining control over their outcome: data can be moved and data can be mutated.
At the same time though, it's not an uncomplicated story. Something happened a few months before Tate Modern opened its doors on Bankside. Round the corner, a space run by artists and others, that was one of the richest nodes of net-culture in London, Backspace3, had its doors closed by bailiffs. The owners of Winchester Wharf have more money to make from the local property 'boom'. Boom suggests a blow-out, a bit of excitement, but it's simply the story of the removal of access to land, of places to live, work and socialise from people in the city. This is a story stuck on repeat. On the other side of the water from a gutted Backspace, the city's financial double rather prefers to see itself mirrored in a furnace of symbolic power. Connected? Just a story of one thing closing, and something else opening up...
The last year or so in the UK saw an enormous amount of investment in internet-related companies. It clicked rather loudly that you could stick a website in front of a warehouse instead of a chain of distributors and retailers. A seperate venture from this one even sees the Tate shortly joining forces with MOMA New York for an online retail site. Suddenly, at the same time, the work of artists using the web seems ripe for an initial public offering.
The Tate itself has had little previous connection to this area of work. As an institution, it has only recently come to accommodate photography or video: the focus is firmly on visually pleasurable, minutely disciplined, singular and valuable objects. What is interesting therefore is not simply that it has chosen to begin an involvement now. For culture-bunkers, the decision must be made to collect now or face the possibility of archival lack. This is of course only a possibility, there is much art in the collection of the Tate to which public memory is effectively repressed, which exceeds what is retrospectively in favour: kinetic art anyone? What is interesting is exactly how the Tate has gone about beginning to establish an involvement with artists working in this area. According to the sociologist Jean Baudrillard, "...the fixed reserve of the museum is necessary for the functioning of the sign exchange of paintings. Museums often play the role of banker in the political economy of paintings."4 The Tate demonstrably follows this function of the art museum. But crucially, in coming to some accommodation with the nets it has had to abandon the gold standard that its reserve is founded upon. Individual authorship; good provenance of works; uniqueness of objects; the 'autonomy' of art; are all usurped by the artists, groups and processes producing the most suggestive work on the web. (Coupled of course is a tidy range of technological obstacles to the prolonged collection, archiving and storage of networked material.) The gold standard which the Tate calculates will suffice for now, is that of the distinguished ouevre of the artists commissioned for this series. But here's the rub: those who pull the best work off on the web are usually equally as bent on pulling the rug from underneath themselves.
It is in finding room for their web-site to be cack-handed, damning, unpredictable and full of bad memories in the way that it has with Harwood's appropriation of the site that the Tate succeeds, possibly as the first institution of its kind to do so, to begin to deal with work on the web more on its own terms than those of the museum. Whilst this success is quite probably attributable to a confidence that art cannot produce any trauma in the gallery's smooth public presentation of itself, it is a fortuitous beginning that will hopefully be made more of. JODI, the inventively bugged-out producers of sites and downloadables such as 4045, OSS6 and SOD7 once claimed that, "Net.artists live on the web". For artists working via the nets to now involve museums as one of the media systems through which their work circulates what is crucial is, alongside the avoidance of being simply nailed down by the spotlight, to attempt to establish, not a comfy mode of living for the museum on the networks, but a series of prototypes for and chances at something other and more mongrel than both.
Both of these varied systems as they intermesh are interrogable along the lines of their forms of sociability, degrees of openness to use and participation, insistence on particular representational protocols, expression or obfustication of technological materiality, capacities for reading and re-writing of underlying schemas, and so on. It is to what extent at each moment of their permutations they are unable to provide grounds for generalisation - to demand close attention - and at the same time provide new visions for the reconfiguration of the networks and the museum and what might already be coming after them that they can be considered useful and, back to JODI, alive.
1 The Thing is at www.thing.net There are many other related sites of interest, usually interlinked in some circuitous way. Try setting off from here.
3 Backspace remains fully functional as a server at www.backspace.org and has produced a number of offspring projects also accessible through this address
4 Baudrillard, 'For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign', trans. Charles Levin, Telos Press 1981