Looking for Art in All the Wrong Places

Joline Blais and Jon Ippolito

Originally published as Joline Blais and Jon Ippolito, "Looking for art in all the wrong places," TAKEOVER: Who's doing the art of tomorrow? (Linz: Ars Electronica, 2001).


A scientist lets a population of interbreeding computer viruses loose on a network of hard drives, and they evolve into a complex ecosystem. A hacker bent on demonstrating the futility of copyrighting computer programs buries forbidden code in an image and posts it on the U.S. Copyright Office Web site. Online activists channel money through the Internet to a group that switches Barbie's voicebox with G.I.Joe's, so that unsuspecting girls buy a Barbie that barks "Commence firing" instead of cooing "Let's go shopping." These acts of creativity are emerging from outside the artworld.

Why has the art world played such a miniscule part in the tremendous burst of Internet-enabled creativity of the last decade? Michael Kimmelman writes in the New York Times that there is no interesting art happening online; students who want to make Web sites join Design instead of Art departments; and you can count on the fingers of one hand the museum curators who've heard of Tierra, DeCSS art, or ®™mark. What has kept the art world out of the loop?

There are many factors, but the most fundamental is laziness. Not the physical kind-there are plenty of curators who jet back and forth from Kwangju to Kassel, studiously trolling for biennale wunderkinder and art school stars-in-training. No, what's holding the art world back is a philosophical laziness: a disinterest in, or worse, a refusal to rethink definitions of the "art" that many spend so much of their time trying to scare up.

Refusing to define art is not just easier than the alternative - it also has an intellectual pedigree. Marcel Duchamp let the art world off the hook when he transformed a store-bought item into art simply by plunking it on a pedestal next to bronze sculptures and oil paintings. To be sure, Duchamp may have meant to poke fun at the arbitrary line that divides art from non-art, but since his death those museumified bicycle wheels and bottle racks have slyly transformed from a critique of the art world's solipsism into a justification for it. If art is merely what fits under an art gallery shingle or museum lintel, then curators and critics can afford to be lazy.

In theory this contextual definition of art may sound open-minded and pluralistic, but in practice it has excluded a remarkable variety of creative activities whose distributed nature has kept them outside the art world's sacred circle. Most of them don't look like art. Many are not made by people who call themselves artists. And even if curators tried to squeeze them into a white cube, the act of uprooting these works from their own context - the Internet - would drain them of the links, literal and figurative, that made them interesting in the first place.

If curators want to find the sparks of emerging creativity, they'll have to step outside their habitual gallery openings and studio visits, launch their browsers or e-mail clients, and engage in a kind of viewing and interaction destined to change their very notions of what constitutes art. But viewing with an open mind does not mean abandoning rigor. What follows is a first charting of some of the emerging stars of this new kind of art practice, an attempt not only to discern new genres, but also to articulate a set of symptoms by which we might begin to recognize new spaces opened up by art on the Internet.

For each genre, we'll look at one work from inside and one from outside the art world.


Writers since Augustine have used events in their own lives as inspiration for new forms of narrative, but never before has a technology like telecommunications automatically rendered such autobiographic details in a form that can be witnessed instantaneously across the globe. In projects such as Life Sharing, privacy has become a commodity to be traded for artistic capital. But is the simple act of setting up a videocamera to record your most quotidian acts an act of art? [Jennicam] If not, how much secondary elaboration is necessary for the viewer's experience of this "autobotography" to transcend mere voyeurism?

And what kinds of data constitute the narrative of a life? Clearly, the Jason Pettus diaries constitute an autobiographical statement, but what about his excerpts from other peoples' novels? Videos of poetry slams? Mission statements for a conference he plans to direct? Reviews about his work from Artbyte magazine? What happens to the genre when the raw data that once served as autobiographic fodder become fit for the work of autobiography itself?

Clearly, these autobotographies fail to fulfill our pre-Internet concepts of subjectivity, authorship and audience. Their merit as art, however, might be linked to just how uncomfortable they make us about our sense of self, and to how many new ways of "being" in the world - virtual or material - they offer.

Encoded Muse

Some of the most renowned online artists seem to have taken to heart Cornelia Solfrank's dictum, "Why make art when you can have a machine do it for you?" John Simon's Every Icon systematically generates every possible 32x32 pixel image. Mary Flanagan's Phage plumbs the computer's unconscious by calling forth random texts, sounds, and images stored in nooks and crannies of the user's hard drive.

Many of these experiments in software-as-art embody the "procedural" aesthetic Judson Rosebush espoused in 1989. In his view, the goal of computer art is to create the greatest richness and meaning from the fewest lines of programming code. But if this is the yardstick for aesthetic success, how do we judge the merit of these works against such remarkable achievements of the scientific community as the Mandelbrot set, whose single-line formula generates an astounding wealth of complex iterable shapes. If intent defines art, then what do we make of the invention of a geometer bent on modelling nature? Or must that intent be ironic, as in jodi.org's dysfunctional code or Simon's failed promise to bring you every conceivable image. Must software be insincere to qualify as art?

Visual Poetics

The originality of the artist has been a vexing issue for as long as creative practice has been centered in the individual. Can Shakespeare be considered original if the plots of his history plays derive from Plutarch? Was Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel original if the creation story had already seen enough versions in text and paint as to be cliched? The welding of familiar themes into the service of new technologies has been one way to test the capabilities of the new while maintaining ties with tradition. One example of this marriage of old and new is hypertext.

Second-generation hypertext, like Shelley Jackson's Patchwork Girl and Judd Morrissey's The Jew's Daughter, explores the advantages of screen over codex by using visual and auditory elements for storytelling purposes. A work like Simon Biggs' Great Wall of China goes further, manipulating found text at the level of words. And Pete Everett's New Typography goes even further, atomizing the very pixels of literature. Could it be that Everett's experiments in digital typography are better qualified as avant-garde art than the illustrated hypertexts we've come to expect from electronic literature? After all, The New Typography redefines reading not at the level of paragraphs and sentences, but at the level of words and letters.

Or does Everett's work merely point the way to an art form that does not yet exist? In which canse, why can't such pointers themselves qualify as art? In works such as Biggs and Everett's, the genre of electronic literature is literally breaking down.

Reweaving Community

Some of the most venerable sites for online creativity have been outside of the Web itself. Since the early 1990s, artists and theoreticians have been posting text-based criticism and projects to electronic bulletin boards and e-mail listservers and participating in multi-user text environments such as MUDs and MOOs. The participants in these improvisational communities have invented playful and unpredictable ways to blend subjectivities, from spoofing each other's e-mail accounts to swapping identities on a virtual stage to selling their avatars on eBay. With the legacy of creativity so transitory and the personal identity of the participants in so much flux, however, what can these spontaneous online performances legitimately contribute to art as an accountable history of artists and movements? Like much Internet art, these works suggest that it may be possible to have art without an author. To account for these forms of creativity may require an alternative to the traditional view of art history as a progression from movement to movement with a stable sense of whose work is being built upon and whose work is being transgressed.

Or perhaps it is the shapers of these communities--the law-givers or interface designers--who are the artists. If that is true, does it make a difference whether the community in question is composed of artists or stock brokers? [Tribe v. Sack] If we claim that only the shapers of art communities can be artists, then we are caught in the same trap of circular reasoning that Duchamp's readymades demonstrated: trying to define art by its proximity to itself.

Designing Politics

When software designers and political activists meet, the results are difficult to categorize. ®™mark, an online clearinghouse that channels money and resources to people with subversive ideas, has sponsored hacks of gender-biased computer games, posted bogus Web sites that pretend to represent American presidential candidates, and sent ersatz representatives of the World Trade Organization to spout imperialist ideas at international conferences. Subterfuges like ®™mark's are more carefully targeted than pranks but less solemn than political campaigns or underground movements. Yet they are not exactly political art in the tradition of Gericault or Picasso either, since rather than representing issues in an art context ®™mark actually intervenes in the real world, garnering attention from CNN and the WTO.

Ultimately what defines "hacktivism" is less a particular political stance or mode of representation so much as the use of the global telecommunications infrastructure to subvert the very governmental and corporate interests that created the infrastructure to begin with. By this definition, both rtmark and CSS should qualify as art. But because rtmark and CSS straddles so many categories, it may be difficult to judge its aesthetic merit or long-term relevance. Should its success or failure be measured by the degree to which it actually debilitates global capital? By the share of media attention it achieves? By the artists' ability to wrest their talent away from corporate use to corporate critique? Clearly, these hacktivist practices give us pause to think about uses and abuses of power in our culture, but they also give us the means of acting on that reflection. If art can be judged by its ability to make us rethink our position in the world, how do we judge work that not only makes us think, but enables and encourages us to act?

Re-mapping the Internet

The challenge of picturing cyberspace has attracted people with various ambitions. Some, like artist collaborative I/O/D, aim for the more artistic goal of providing their viewers with a glimpse of the pageless Web outside of the page-based metaphor defined by commercial Internet browsers. Others, like researcher Bill Cheswick of the industry think-tank Bell Labs, aim for the scientific goal of understanding how the Internet re-organizes itself to route around damage. Yet the maps produced by both projects are stunningly beautiful and seem to yield up secrets of the Internet's structure just by being looked at. I/O/D's palette is more restrained and the work is regularly cited in online exhibitions and art-based listservers while Cheswick's colorful design appeals more to popular taste and is little-known outside of a narrow community of telecommunications researchers. Like all good art, both kinds of maps do not merely reflect the world as it exists, but rather create the worlds - geographical, religious, political - we inhabit. As end products, is there any reason to consider one art and the other not?

Spawning Artificial Life

No one would mis-shelve Mary Wolstoncraft Shelley's Frankenstein under Science rather than Literature, yet present-day research into synthetic organisms by Karl Sims and Tom Ray more often appears in science publications than art magazines or museums. Given that imitating nature has always been a goal of art, from Aristotle to Photorealism, how do we account for this confusion? Of the two, Sims has been more recognized in the art world--including an exhibition at the Pompidou Center in Paris--thanks to the fitness functions he employs. [running, swimming, looking like art] The algorithmic creatures in Ray's virtual bestiary Tierra reproduce, compete for resources, and evolve according to natural selection - in short, do almost everything that organic creatures do. And yet they are virtual beings. But why doesn't Ray's work catch the art world's eye? Because he crossed the line from art to biology by actually trying to achieve life, rather than merely representing it? Or because he hasn't added an artificial "fudge factor" to make his ecosystem look like art?

Implosion, Dispersal, or Redefinition

In closing, we'd like to look at three possible destinies for art.

Will the edge of art expand to encompass these rival endeavors-or will it collapse under their weight, reducing the scope of art's influence to an esoteric trade in fetishized artifacts? Some argue that the art world is right to reject the rival forms of creativity birthed by new technologies, and hence to retreat to the traditional mediums and mechanisms of validation, from oil paint to auction houses. In relying on an outmoded model of creativity, however, artists and art professionals risk being left in the dust of stellar achievements in other fields.

Others insist that the fires of artistic creativity are spent and that we should abandon the category of art altogether, a future that Bruce Sterling envisions in his novel Holy FireAn unfortunate consequence of this reaction is the loss of occasions for deep listening or contemplation-a practice that in an age of information overload is critical to free thinking. But neither theories of implosion nor dispersal account for the radical transformations ushered in by digital technologies. What we are witnessing is not implosion or dispersal of art, but rather a seismic instability along the edge between art and non-art. To come to terms with this volatility, our definition of art must accommodate examples of artlike creativity spawned in disciplines with no direct relationship to art history or the art market. As implied by the genres surveyed above, such a definition might downplay such traditional faculties as condensing meaning, establishing an author, and touching an audience in favor of new capacities like connecting resources, distributing authorship, and creating a community.

There is a hitch. For this redefinition to be rigorous, however, we must cast an unprejudiced eye not only on creativity outside of the museum's white walls, but also on creativity within them. For every scientist whose research fits a revised definition of art, there may be an oil painter whose work no longer qualifies. Rejecting a contextual definition in favor of a functional one also means jettisoning décor, commodity speculation, and self-promotion masquerading as art - whether they sit comfortably within a Duchampian frame or not.

Recent generations of art critics, curators, and philosophers have lost the ability to decide whether something is art by looking at it - and forgotten the insights and rigor that come from such case-by-case evaluation. Instead they've been rubber-stamping the self-serving validation mechanisms of galleries and auction houses, with the unfortunate consequence that, for the first time in centuries, more creativity is happening outside the art world than within it. It is time for the art world to reject Duchamp's sidestepping of the question of what art can and should be - and to look outside of its own backyard to find the answer.