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's an exhibition about making art in an 'online universe'. Ignoring the official rhetoric for just a moment, one could say that it's an exhibition about how to overcome the unbearable contradiction of trying to exhibit net art whilst demonstrating the requisite sensitivity to its values.
One of the residing feelings one gets from this show is of extreme institutional discomfort intermittently broken by a kind of rebel yell affirming its right to exist. In so far as net art has inflicted such a schizophrenic identity crisis on its adversary, and despite the mist of guilty embarrassment hovering around many artworks, it can be said to have fulfilled its own objectives in the exact moment that it becomes extinct. Or if not extinct, then simply something else. Net_condition provides the genre with a death-or-rebirth style conundrum which could have been lifted right out of a Cronenberg movie.
But bludgeoning net art with its erstwhile utopian aspirations has become as automated as the spasmodic twitches of rigor mortis, and to dwell on it would mean ignoring the more interesting sides of net_condition's gargantuan scope and spectacle. Although the show has what appear to be franchises at AVL ART GATE/steirischer herbst in Graz, the InterCommunication Center in Tokyo and the Media Centre d'Art i Disseny in Barcelona, judging by the relative lists of artists' names the exhibition at the Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie in Karlsruhe easily comprises its most significant portion.
The scale of the venue alone is a material fact that sends the mind reeling off into giddy speculations over the immense cultural power that the media arts have accrued. Standing in its vast atrium, staring who knows how many husndreds of feet skywards, one knows that the words 'marginality' and 'media art' have been irrevocably severed But this interior also provides the backdrop for an important demonstration: the enumeration of the sheer volume of net art and net-cultural projects that have been made over the past five years or so.
If ZKM teaches us one thing about the 'net_condition', it's about that strange distortion by which the cornucopia of projects are collapsed together, like the planes of a fan, into the deceptive singularity of the browser. Seeing the scores of projects all displayed on their own computers may have been a 'sin' against the network principle itself but it certainly gave those many hours of artistic labour a reality. Also, laying the n-dimensionality of data out in this classical way created an interesting topographical relationship between the exhibits. Where normally one would approach different net artworks through hyperlinks, search engines or inputting a URL, here one had to physically move to view them. This translation of virtual spacing into physical space had the interesting effect of making those relationships more stark. Individual works became inflected by an autonomy and difference which can at times be obscured by the totalising environment of the Net. The recession of the Net itself allowed other features of the work to become more conspicuous.
Staying with this theme for just a moment longer, the translation of non-spatial data into physical distance also found its analogue in the historicisation of net art. (One should briefly note that only net art per se 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 medium which is constitutionally loath to divulge its own history or offer up its collective body as a specimen to the theorist's scalpel, net art's history is ordinarily obscured by its tendency to remain on the temporally undifferentiated surface of the Net. Although certain traits like the early use of 'plain.html' as opposed to later software applications like Flash unquestionably date a piece of net art, all vintages appear anew every time you download them onto your browser.
Performing a history on the genre is no mean feat, and to attempt it is often to play the fall guy to net art's happy prankster. The historian in question would have to be someone already inoculated against this brand of deception and able to add their own pranksterish spin to the process of historicisation. Benjamin Weil - founder of the curated online space ada-web - would seem to be the perfect man for the job. Certainly, one can only hope that the Net.Art Browser, which he conceived in collaboration with artist Jeffrey Shaw, is meant as some kind of a joke. The broswer is a hugely oversized liquid crystal screen which rolls along tracks, controlled by a cordless and unwieldy keyboard, stopping and loading files as it coincides with URLs written on the wall in letraset. This denaturing of the browsing experience into one of public and inept performance, as opposed to a private and habitual practice, certainly mocks the clumsy distortions of the historical process. Again, the introduction of physical space into the virtual spatiality of the genre - the screen trundling along the tracks - harnessed physical space to gain critical leverage. Could this be an argument in favour of the institution's role in displaying online artwork?
It is exactly here that we stumble on the central problem of the show: the contradictory process of decontextualising the 'online universe' or networked reality or whatever in order to explain and explore it. The premise of the net_condition, as outlined by the chief curator Peter Weibel (lesser curatorial mortals of the Karlsruhe component are Walter van der Cruijsen, Golo Föllmer, Johannes Goebel, Matthias Osterwold, Jeffrey Shaw and Hans-Peter Schwarz) is the shift from the dependence on materiality to temporality.
For example, as the brochure informs us: "A new global economy emerges, which is no longer based on products, but on time". Funny then that this show relied so heavily on filling a huge physical expanse with individual objects all locked into their own time scales. But the real point here is more the issue of how the referent 'online universe' can be represented through a mere, though nonetheless astonishing, range of 100 artworks. 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 which the curators frankly acknowledge that to pluck out the thread called art is to pull with it a whole tangled trail of associated social, cultural, technical and political relations - through an overly inclusive selection of works rather than a system which might better reflect the show's premise. The idea of 'connectivity' starts to resemble the Lauryn Hill track 'Everything is Everything' and becomes as unwieldy as its pantheistic correlate 'everything is political'. In so many ways this felt like the attempt to create a Borgesian map for a territory which was impossibly large, and which ended up looking like a pocket handkerchief dropped in the foothills of the Himalayas.
To this criticism the gripe can also be added that too many of these works were very literally damaged by their severance from the Net. A good example of this was the offline presentation of Mikro e.V's website which is primarily an audio archive and which didn't have a functioning Real Audio Player on board. Its offline status gave the viewer no chance to download one for themselves. This disabling of the viewer, whose role in the reconceptualisation of art as an open and endlessly incomplete system is so central, should not have been so crassly overlooked in a show of this nature. Another example of viewer disablement was a purely atmospheric bank of historical computers running old operating systems and games software which one was not allowed to touch. In this respect the show, and to many extents the exhibits themselves, seemed to have to unhook the networked or interactive nature of things in order to prove to us that this crazy network thing is really 'out of control'.
This irony is worth a mention but nothing more. Certainly no one is expecting either the art or the exhibition to be one and the same as its networked referent, and these kinds of deliberate distortions are crucial to revealing those tendencies which shelter behind 'technology neutrality'. The artworks in net_condition often used restricted systems to analyse the restrictiveness of the system per se.
Bernd Diemer's brilliant, rambling installation esc to begin hooked the viewers into deceptively harmless interrelationships through their use of the computers and telephones in a banal looking office space. Using the friendly interface of networked computer games, monitors for gauging electrical activity and basic, AI dialogue 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 terms which reveal the extent of abusive and discriminating websites - another form of social observation whose benign aims would seem to legitimise its means. Knowbotic Research's 10_dencies/lavoro immateriale and the collaborative project H|U|M|B|O|T by Daniel Burckhardt, Roberto Cabot, gruppo A12, Jürgen Enge, Udo Noll, Philip Pocock, Wolfgang Staehle, Florian Wenz and Birgit Wiens both used electronic networks, literally and metaphorically, 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 we became so accustomed during the Gulf War and Kosovo Conflict to a computer generated drawing of ZKM itself. In ways far too numerous to elaborate, the notion of a networked globe was taken apart by the artworks on show enough to shift the debate away from ponderous hand-wringing over the impossibility of artistic intervention .
But in a move as contrary and unpredictable as the behaviour of networks themselves, it was often the works which were most emphatically rooted in materiality that offered the sharpest perspective on the 'condition'. The Redundant Technology Initiative's installation, although admittedly not deviating from its tried and tested formula, took apart scrapped computers and arranged their insides in purely aesthetic formations. The technology, once robbed of its functionality, was bizarrely more tangible and for that reason empowering than the mystifications of so many other exhibits. This hinted at the flip side to the eternally gothic speculations over the complexity and globality of our world; the fact that these rhetorics often leave the individual overwhelmed and disempowered. This debilitation of the individuals must be serving somebody's purposes.
The other overtly material work was Blank & Jeron, Natalie Bookchin and Alexej Shulgin's Introduction to Net Art; a row of stone tablets in which the many more than 10 commandments of net art were inscribed. Apart from their satyrisation of their own cynical manipulation of the avant-garde label and rapid fire execution of some founding tenets and techniques of net art, the tablets highlight the rampant dogmatism of cyber culture. Both these works undid the notion of network culture's unpredictable, flexible and reactive structures through figuring its monolithic characteristics in supposedly dumb matter. To conclude, they revealed that everything is not only everything, but everything can also really be 'something' and that something 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 a revelation.