The Unbearable Connectedness of Everything
"net_condition" is an exhibition about making art in an online universe
First things first - net_condition is not an exhibition about net art it'san exhibition about making art in an 'online universe'. Ignoring theofficial rhetoric for just a moment, one could say that it's an exhibitionabout how to overcome the unbearable contradiction of trying to exhibit netart whilst demonstrating the requisite sensitivity to its values.
One ofthe residing feelings one gets from this show is of extreme institutionaldiscomfort intermittently broken by a kind of rebel yell affirming itsright to exist. In so far as net art has inflicted such a schizophrenicidentity crisis on its adversary, and despite the mist of guiltyembarrassment hovering around many artworks, it can be said to havefulfilled its own objectives in the exact moment that it becomes extinct.Or if not extinct, then simply something else. Net_condition provides thegenre with a death-or-rebirth style conundrum which could have been liftedright out of a Cronenberg movie.
But bludgeoning net art with its erstwhile utopian aspirations has becomeas automated as the spasmodic twitches of rigor mortis, and to dwell on itwould mean ignoring the more interesting sides of net_condition'sgargantuan scope and spectacle. Although the show has what appear to befranchises at AVL ART GATE/steirischer herbst in Graz, the InterCommunication Center in Tokyoand the Media Centre d'Art i Disseny in Barcelona, judging by the relativelists of artists' names the exhibition at the Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie in Karlsruhe easily comprises its most significantportion.
The scale of the venue alone is a material fact that sends themind reeling off into giddy speculations over the immense cultural powerthat the media arts have accrued. Standing in its vast atrium, staring whoknows how many husndreds of feet skywards, one knows that the words'marginality' and 'media art' have been irrevocably severed But thisinterior also provides the backdrop for an important demonstration: theenumeration of the sheer volume of net art and net-cultural projects thathave been made over the past five years or so.
If ZKM teaches us one thingabout the 'net_condition', it's about that strange distortion by which thecornucopia of projects are collapsed together, like the planes of a fan,into the deceptive singularity of the browser. Seeing the scores ofprojects all displayed on their own computers may have been a 'sin' againstthe network principle itself but it certainly gave those many hours ofartistic labour a reality. Also, laying the n-dimensionality of data out inthis classical way created an interesting topographical relationshipbetween the exhibits. Where normally one would approach different netartworks through hyperlinks, search engines or inputting a URL, here onehad to physically move to view them. This translation of virtual spacinginto physical space had the interesting effect of making thoserelationships more stark. Individual works became inflected by an autonomyand difference which can at times be obscured by the totalising environmentof the Net. The recession of the Net itself allowed other features of thework to become more conspicuous.
Staying with this theme for just a moment longer, the translation ofnon-spatial data into physical distance also found its analogue in thehistoricisation of net art. (One should briefly note that only net art perse and not art about networks was selected for this kind of treatment -another hint at the not-so-well suppressed heart of the show). In a mediumwhich is constitutionally loath to divulge its own history or offer up itscollective body as a specimen to the theorist's scalpel, net art's historyis ordinarily obscured by its tendency to remain on the temporallyundifferentiated surface of the Net. Although certain traits like the earlyuse of 'plain.html' as opposed to later software applications like Flashunquestionably date a piece of net art, all vintages appear anew every timeyou download them onto your browser.
Performing a history on the genre isno mean feat, and to attempt it is often to play the fall guy to net art'shappy prankster. The historian in question would have to be someone alreadyinoculated against this brand of deception and able to add their ownpranksterish spin to the process of historicisation. Benjamin Weil -founder of the curated online space ada-web - would seem to be the perfectman for the job. Certainly, one can only hope that the Net.Art Browser,which he conceived in collaboration with artist Jeffrey Shaw, is meant assome kind of a joke. The broswer is a hugely oversized liquid crystalscreen which rolls along tracks, controlled by a cordless and unwieldykeyboard, stopping and loading files as it coincides with URLs written onthe wall in letraset. This denaturing of the browsing experience into oneof public and inept performance, as opposed to a private and habitualpractice, certainly mocks the clumsy distortions of the historical process.Again, the introduction of physical space into the virtual spatiality ofthe genre - the screen trundling along the tracks - harnessed physicalspace to gain critical leverage. Could this be an argument in favour of theinstitution's role in displaying online artwork?
It is exactly here that we stumble on the central problem of the show: thecontradictory process of decontextualising the 'online universe' ornetworked reality or whatever in order to explain and explore it. Thepremise of the net_condition, as outlined by the chief curator Peter Weibel(lesser curatorial mortals of the Karlsruhe component are Walter van derCruijsen, Golo Föllmer, Johannes Goebel, Matthias Osterwold, Jeffrey Shawand Hans-Peter Schwarz) is the shift from the dependence on materiality totemporality.
For example, as the brochure informs us: "A new global economyemerges, which is no longer based on products, but on time". Funny thenthat this show relied so heavily on filling a huge physical expanse withindividual objects all locked into their own time scales. But the realpoint here is more the issue of how the referent 'online universe' can berepresented through a mere, though nonetheless astonishing, range of 100artworks. The term 'networks' has nearly become a cipher for saying'everything' with the proviso that 'everything' be framed by technology.
Net_condition attempted to reflect this holistic connectedness - in whichthe curators frankly acknowledge that to pluck out the thread called art isto pull with it a whole tangled trail of associated social, cultural,technical and political relations - through an overly inclusive selectionof works rather than a system which might better reflect the show'spremise. The idea of 'connectivity' starts to resemble the Lauryn Hilltrack 'Everything is Everything' and becomes as unwieldy as its pantheisticcorrelate 'everything is political'. In so many ways this felt like theattempt to create a Borgesian map for a territory which was impossiblylarge, and which ended up looking like a pocket handkerchief dropped in thefoothills of the Himalayas.
To this criticism the gripe can also be added that too many of these workswere very literally damaged by their severance from the Net. A good exampleof this was the offline presentation of Mikro e.V's website which isprimarily an audio archive and which didn't have a functioning Real AudioPlayer on board. Its offline status gave the viewer no chance to downloadone for themselves. This disabling of the viewer, whose role in thereconceptualisation of art as an open and endlessly incomplete system is socentral, should not have been so crassly overlooked in a show of thisnature. Another example of viewer disablement was a purely atmospheric bankof historical computers running old operating systems and games softwarewhich one was not allowed to touch. In this respect the show, and to manyextents the exhibits themselves, seemed to have to unhook the networked orinteractive nature of things in order to prove to us that this crazynetwork thing is really 'out of control'.
This irony is worth a mention but nothing more. Certainly no one isexpecting either the art or the exhibition to be one and the same as itsnetworked referent, and these kinds of deliberate distortions are crucialto revealing those tendencies which shelter behind 'technology neutrality'.The artworks in net_condition often used restricted systems to analyse therestrictiveness of the system per se.
Bernd Diemer's brilliant, ramblinginstallation esc to begin hooked the viewers into deceptively harmlessinterrelationships through their use of the computers and telephones in abanal looking office space. Using the friendly interface of networkedcomputer games, monitors for gauging electrical activity and basic, AIdialogue programmes, one could track the behaviour of other visitors.
Mongrel's Natural Selection search engine delves the darker sides of'direct democracy' as it invites the user to input racist search termswhich reveal the extent of abusive and discriminating websites - anotherform of social observation whose benign aims would seem to legitimise itsmeans. Knowbotic Research's 10_dencies/lavoro immateriale and thecollaborative project H|U|M|B|O|T by Daniel Burckhardt, Roberto Cabot,gruppo A12, Jürgen Enge, Udo Noll, Philip Pocock, Wolfgang Staehle, FlorianWenz and Birgit Wiens both used electronic networks, literally andmetaphorically, as a kind of common language to unify temporally,culturally and physically disparate phenomena. Jordan Crandall's Drive,Track#3 applied the low-grade green and black video footage with which webecame so accustomed during the Gulf War and Kosovo Conflict to a computergenerated drawing of ZKM itself. In ways far too numerous to elaborate, thenotion of a networked globe was taken apart by the artworks on show enoughto shift the debate away from ponderous hand-wringing over theimpossibility of artistic intervention .
But in a move as contrary and unpredictable as the behaviour of networksthemselves, it was often the works which were most emphatically rooted inmateriality that offered the sharpest perspective on the 'condition'. TheRedundant Technology Initiative's installation, although admittedly notdeviating from its tried and tested formula, took apart scrapped computersand arranged their insides in purely aesthetic formations. The technology,once robbed of its functionality, was bizarrely more tangible and for thatreason empowering than the mystifications of so many other exhibits. Thishinted at the flip side to the eternally gothic speculations over thecomplexity and globality of our world; the fact that these rhetorics oftenleave the individual overwhelmed and disempowered. This debilitation of theindividuals must be serving somebody's purposes.
The other overtly materialwork was Blank & Jeron, Natalie Bookchin and Alexej Shulgin's Introductionto Net Art; a row of stone tablets in which the many more than 10commandments of net art were inscribed. Apart from their satyrisation oftheir own cynical manipulation of the avant-garde label and rapid fireexecution of some founding tenets and techniques of net art, the tabletshighlight the rampant dogmatism of cyber culture. Both these works undidthe notion of network culture's unpredictable, flexible and reactivestructures through figuring its monolithic characteristics in supposedlydumb matter. To conclude, they revealed that everything is not onlyeverything, but everything can also really be 'something' and thatsomething is far older than the millennial frenzy over 'online universes'will allow. Perhaps one need go no further than ZKM's atrium to have such arevelation.http://www.heise.de/tp/artikel/3/3433/
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