On the Whitney Biennial Net Art Panel Discussion, 2002

Christiane asked the artists why connectivity is an important element:
  • Klima: Data is a resource that brings life to the work, it makes it dynamic
  • Napier: Because of the human component, multiple people interacting in a space to create a question. Connectivity brings people together under a specific context.
  • Kanarek: the Internet as a means of distribution, the dissemination of narrative and the ability of users to modify the World of Awe.
  • Lovejoy: To bring people together in the sense of community. Allowing people to build communities that we tend to be loosing by sharing stories.
  • Flanagan: To explore our personal relation with the computer in the context of a globally connected system

An audience member asked why not present your work through commercial application?

  • Napier: I tried two companies, but they both failed
  • Klima: the art world is commercial, it is a market which I am targeting, and I have sold EARTH three times.
  • On: A British tabloid asked me if I would build a They Rule version for them, presenting the wealthiest of Britain, I said No.

(As I have not attended the Whitney Biennial, nor have I given each available net project a full investigation, I will focus the following report entirely upon the 2002 Whitney Biennial Net Art Panel Discussion held Friday March 8th at the New School’s Tishman Auditorium.)

Upon entering the auditorium, I suffered flash backs of the pointless, self-promotional Eyebeam panel discussion held at Tishman early into the winter, which largely expounded 90’s rhetoric of Internet utopianism. I reminded myself that these panels are always a gamble and if it’s bad I can quietly walk out. This time, there was no need to walk out. Overall the discussion was well organized (with the exception of John Klima’s EARTH crashing one of the presentation lap tops), the speakers were concise, thoughtful, even jovial and best of all no one tried to take center stage.

Christiane Paul, the current curator of New Media Arts at the Whitney introduced the net art selection as an attempt to merely give an impression of the vast forms that net art may take as well as represent a few of the themes that have emerged: data visualization and mapping, database aesthetics, gaming paradigms, agent technology, community and nomadic devices. Then she went on to introduce the artist sitting across the stage: James Buckhouse, Yael Kanarek, Margot Lovejoy with Hal Eager, Josh On, Mark Napier, Lisa Jevbratt, John Klima, Benjamin Fry, Mary Flanagan. The only missing artist was Robert Nideffer, however, Christiane did an excellent job of presenting his MUD project, PROXY. Each artist then briefly presented her/his project; followed by a discussion kicked off by Christiane asking the artists about the importance of connectivity in their individual works. The discussion then extended to questions from the audience.

One commonality amongst the projects is that each one presents a neat package. Though they may all contain or even be composed by dynamic data, the visual format and representation is polished (this to my estimation is the curse of institutional museums that renders them incapable of presenting something truly experimental or innovative). Secondly, amongst the projects there is an absence of critical thought with social relevance that is with the exception of Josh On’s They Rule. Mary Flanagan’s [collection], touches upon current issues of privacy in the networked public domain, however she seems more enamored with the computer as a personal space turned out. The lack of art with social constituency, again, reflects the conservative character of the Whitney, an unfortunate shortcoming in relation to net art.

Four of the nine projects included, Mark Napier’s Riot, Lisa Jevbratt’s 1:1, John Klima’s EARTH, and Benjamin Fry’s Valence, all had a similar undercurrent ­ that of learning how to paint with data. Perhaps, this is what Christiane means by data visualization, if so data visualization in art falls far short in comparison to robotics and other applied fields. According to such a definition of data visualization, net art merely emulates traditional mediums, primarily painting and illustration, only using data rather than paint and graphite to produce nifty visuals that may change in real time. Fortunately, to other artists and curators, data visualization contains much more potent and applied social significance.

Perhaps visually the most seductive project, one that I can’t wait to see at the Whitney, is Klima’s EARTH, which grabs satellite data to render a 3D representation of our planet. However, the project is no more than that, a nearly real time 3D illustration of earth, pretty high-end eye candy. And Klima has no qualms about this, he created EARTH for the art market and has sold 3 sets of the project, to this end he is a representational painter.

Napier wondered what a riot would look like on-line after watching squatters being evicted from a building in the Lower East Side, so he built Riot. As Napier stated “I like data the most when it makes no sense.”

In 1:1, Lisa Jevbratt strove to create a database of all the websites in the world that was in 1999, and from this database create abstract representations. When a year later, she discovered that most of the websites in her database were obsolete she began a second database. She uses both databases to create clusters of colors that are abstract graphs or mappings of inactive versus active IP addresses. I just kept wondering why anyone would spend one’s time doing this.

One selection that I’m troubled by, is Fry’s Valence. When there are so many critical bio-tech projects out there, why choose a trivial illustration, a visual mapping engaged in disinformation. Why not select a project that is at once informational and aesthetically strong in dealing with bio technologies, even specifically with the genome. It’s not as if there’s any lack of internationally recognized artists to choose from: Natalie Jeremijenko, the Critical Art Ensemble, Paul Vanouse… Once again the goal was apparently to present a nicely polished visual product rather than critical and relevant work. Apparently visual representation was a stronger component in the net art selection than information which one would think is at the core of net art.

On the other hand, sitting just a few chairs over from Fry was Josh On, who was silent through most of the discussion, making occasional amusing remarks. Like Valence, On’s They Rule engages in illustrating information, however They Rule takes on a proactive, political agenda by mapping the insular world of the wealthy elite. As On states: “They Rule is a political cartoon, a satire that turns data into information… Data should reveal things about people to people.” They Rule allows viewers/users to create “representations of data that are important and pertinent.” The site also invites the user to gather greater information on the distribution of capital from linked web sources.

The two most interesting discussions related to traditional themes of art being explored by new technologies, came from James Buckhouse and Mary Flanagan. Buckhouse, Holly Brubach, and a handful of others collaborated to create Tap, a project that makes use of data transfer through PDA’s to teach a couple of animated characters how to dance. As Buckhouse stated, “Tap investigates the use of public space to create Digital Public Art that retains personal experience,” this may be the very nature of digital content in a networked society ­ data that is at once highly personal and public. As Buckhouse puts it, Tap investigates ephemeral questions of “learning, practice and exchange ­ the transfer of data and transfer of understanding.” I would, however, question how much transfer of understanding really goes on with a little dancing figure on a PDA.

I look forward to critical and subversive projects being enacted via PDAs.

In a very different manner Flanagan tackles the same private/public duality of data as her [collection] software, explores and maps user’s experience with her/his computer, to reveal one’s past patterns of computer use. Once installed, [collection] scans and grabs bits and pieces of one’s data, such as email or pics. If the user’s computer is connected, the material is sampled and spliced with others’ content on [collection]’s server. Flanagan points out that she further underlines the concept of personal computer use as a potentially collective experience through her installation at the Whitney, having used a table as a projection screen that allows viewers to walk about while viewing [collection].

One audience member, questioned the site of the Whitney Museum to present net art, work that is more comfortably seen at home on one's computer. Kristiane acknowledged that it is a difficult challenge, but one that must be taken on to represent net art along side of other forms of art making. Following a clarification to distinguish between browser art and other net art forms, the artists to whom the question pertained played it safe. For example, Kanarek stated that she learned a great deal from working with the museum, though she didn't explain what it was that she learned. None of the artists stated what I was hoping to hear, "Lay off, would you skip the opportunity to show at the Whitney Biennial?!"

Although, for the most part, Margaret Lovejoy’s highly essentialist rhetoric of authenticity and community building sent shivers down my spine, it was Lovejoy’s statement that “meaningful art will last, whether object or net art” that was a nice closing statement for the panel discussion. Indeed as net art is embraced by cultural institutions, it is these institutions that will historicize current net art, simply because they have the means to do so. Overtime, it may be the more relevant institutionalized projects that will remain documented, while others will eventually disappear.

Ricardo Miranda Zuñiga, 2002