Cross Talk
Artbyte (New York) 2, no. 6 (March-April 2000), pp. 24-25
Jon Ippolito

Does the art world really "get" the Internet?

To thumb through the pages of this magazine, you'd think that the art world was especially hip to Internet culture. It's true that artists were among the first to colonize cyberspace; in 1995 8% of Web sites were produced by artists, and this growing cyber-avant-garde has remained at the leading edge ever since. Unfortunately, there's a big gap between Internet art afficionados and their offline brethren. Pick up the January 2000 issue of ArtNews and you'll find a 15-page cover article on art in cyberspace--without a single mention of art made for the Internet. For the typical artist, curator, or collector, "online art" means the scanned-in oil paintings hawked at NextMonet or I suppose that's no worse than the editors of Time magazine on the eve of the millennium choosing an online book retailer as Man of the Year--but then again that's like saluting Henry Ford because he found a more efficient way to deliver buggy whips.

It's tempting to blame this technological myopia on studio and art history degree programs for not including electronic media in their curricula. But a lot of artists using electronic media don't "get" the Internet either. Most of the video and computer-driven installations in museums these days employ expensive projectors and top-of-the-line computers to surround the viewer with sublime vistas or dazzling effects. Online artists, on the other hand, cannot possibly aspire to the sensory immersion of cinema or the processing power of Silicon Graphics, because their work has to squeeze through the 14.4 kbs modem of a dairy farmer sitting at his 386 in Iowa City. Sure, Bill Gates claims we'll all soon have wall-sized Internet projections and T1s in our living rooms--but until we do, the constraint on bandwidth can actually work to the advantage of Internet artists, encouraging them to strive for distributed content rather than linear narrative and for conceptual elegance rather than theatrical overkill. Making successful art for the Internet isn't just a matter of learning the right tools, but also of learning the right attitude.

The first major exhibition to probe the uncomfortable intersection between the culture of the Internet and that of the installation was Net_Condition, held concurrently at the ZKM/Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany, Steirischer Herbst in Graz, Austria, MECAD in Barcelona, and the InterCommunication Center in Tokyo this past fall. ZKM offered visitors two ways to browse Web projects: via the familiar mouse-and-keyboard interface at PCs clustered on tables; or via a "Net.Art Browser" created by Jeffrey Shaw, artist and director of ZKM's Institute for Visual Media. To use the Net.Art Browser, viewers activated a remote keyboard to drive a digital whiteboard back-and-forth along a horizontal track attached to the wall. At each station along this track, a different artist's Web project appeared on the whiteboard; viewers were free to navigate within each site or move along the track to select another project. Benjamin Weil, co-founder of ”da'web, curated the selection of sites on view, which included projects by such Internet artists as Vuk Cosic, Vivian Selbo, and Alexei Shulgin.

Ironically, the high-tech acumen and sense of theater that make Shaw a virtuoso of computer-driven installations served at ZKM to underscore the differences between the installation-building and Web-weaving mindsets. Visitors using the Net.Art Browser were treated to wall-mounted images at museum scale but were constrained to wait for one site after another to appear in a linear sequence. Visitors using the regular PCs, meanwhile, had to put up with the same 17-inch screen already sitting on their desks at home, but could visit any Web site inside or outside of the exhibition in whatever order they wished. Indeed, some of the visitors at PCs seemed to be spending more time checking their e-mail than checking out the artworks whose urls were printed on the mousepads. Yet even this "misuse" of the conventional interface was in some ways consistent with the anarchic spirit of today's Internet artists; one artist in the show, Andy Deck, speculated that they might have been e-mailing their friends to report on the show.

Is it possible to reconcile the culture clash between installation and Internet, or will the overproduced interfaces of Knowbotic Research and the homespun HTML of Olia Lialina always feel miles apart no matter how close you place them on the museum floor? In this case as in so many others, the key to a problem in new media lies buried in older media. Immediately following the story about online art auctions in the millennial issue of ArtNews is a preview of The Worlds of Nam June Paik on view at the Guggenheim this spring. The retrospective's curator, John G. Hanhardt, included in the show a reconstructed 1963 installation Entit Random Access, which in a curious way was the Net.Art Browser of its day. Of course, Paik built Random Access two decades before TCP/IP and three before Mosaic--but then Paik has made a career of being ahead of his time. He co-developed the first video synthesizer in 1970, coined the term "electronic superhighway" in 1976, and VJ'd a live global videocast in 1984, which he did the old-fashioned way--via satellite. (Not to mention that anyone who has ever seen one of his videotapes knows where MTV got the idea of rapid-fire video editing.) In 1963 the closest thing to creating art for the Web was writing electronic music for 1/4-inch magnetic tape. The Korean-born Paik had studied 20th-century music in Japan and Germany, but it was a revelatory meeting with American composer John Cage in 1958 that opened his mind to the possibilities of combining music, performance, and electronics. For his first solo show at a gallery in Wuppertal, Germany, Paik tacked fifty-odd strips of prerecorded audiotape to the wall and invited visitors to run a handheld playback head wired to speakers along the strips at whatever speed or direction they desired. Unlike the installations on view at Net_Condition, there was no high-tech interface hiding the workings of Random Access from the viewer; on the contrary, Paik exposed the guts of a tape player to his viewers, offering them a hands-on feeling (quite literally) for how audio technology worked and what it was capable of. While even the most advanced reel-to-reel player of the day presumed the listener would want to hear a piece of music from beginning to end, Random Access showed that a linear medium could be sliced up and scattered across a spatial expanse.

The title of Paik's first show, Exposition of Music--Electronic Television, hinted that Paik did not intend to treat other linear media with any more reverence than he had shown for music. As a matter of fact, the exhibition included a roomful of topsy-turvy televisions whose signals could be perturbed, simply by applying a magnet or crossing some wires, to make straight lines, dancing points of light, or endlessly looping geometries. And this "George Washington" of video art (as fellow video pioneer Frank Gillette dubbed him) has gone on to challenge prevailing notions about the linearity of video ever since. As Paik declared in a 1980 article published in Artforum,

{INDENT}The only reason why videotape is so boring and television so bad is that they are time-based information. Human beings have not really learned how to structure time-based information in recording and retrieval very well, because it is new. No one says that the Encyclopedia Britannica is boring, although it has lots of information, because you can go to any page of the encyclopedia, to A or B or C or M or X, whereas when you watch videotapes or television, you have to go A, B, C, D, E, F, G. While the comparison is simple, the difference is very big. That is why the book is alive and will be alive until electronic information conquers the random access problem.{END INDENT}

Twenty years after Paik wrote these words (and thirty-seven after he tacked audiotape on the wall), electronic information, in the form of the World Wide Web, has finally conquered the random access problem. Now we can only wait for installation artists to do the same.

More information on Net_Condition and The Worlds of Nam June Paik can be found at and