Internet Art Haute Couture

A Question of Price

The Russian artist Olia Lialina launched the first gallery for internet art, which is actually aiming at selling the pieces. Tilman Baumgärtel talked with the Muscovite artist about "Art.Teleportacia".

: Why would anybody pay for a Net art work that s/he can see anytime on the Internet without charge?

Lialina: First, not all these "anybodies" have the same motivations and preferences. For Mr. A, it's enough to look at the art, and for Mr. B, it's important to own it. Art.Teleportacia gallery is aimed at Mr. B.

Second, after any Net art work is sold, its owner can control access to it. Art.Teleportacia offers some new ways to sell and to buy an artwork. For example, to keep it online at the original location in order to prove that the work is really an original. Or he can conceal them from the public.

But the beauty of Net art, the aspect of it that was initially applauded, was precisely that the artists themselves can control the distribution of their art works. In the interviews I've done with artists about art on the Internet, this comes up again and again: Finally, we have a way to distribute our art without the intervention of museums, collectors, curators, etc. Why give up this freedom now?

Lialina: I, personally, have never said in any interview or presentation that the Internet is my long awaited freedom from the art institutions. I never was connected to the art system. I was not an artist before I became a Net artist. May be that's why I -- from the very beginning -- concentrated on other things such as Internet languages, structures, metaphors and so on.

But at the same time, the idea that Net art must be free from real world art institutions is very dear to me because in terms of their values, Net art is just one of the computer arts. I just don't think that the right way to demonstrate freedom is to travel from one media event to another with presentations about independence. It's better to develop an independent system.

For me, to "give up freedom" would be to go the way of a lot of critics, artists and activists earning money and making a career out of constantly stating that Net art has no monetary value. That's not fun from the start. Article after article, conference after conference, they want to convince me that what I'm doing costs nothing. Why should I agree? Also, you, I and others still "have a way to distribute our art without the intervention of museums, collectors, curators, etc." Art.Teleportacia can't stop this process; it's simply not our aim.

So is Art.Teleportacia an art project that is meant to raise questions about these issues? Or is it meant to be a serious and lasting institution that will proceed to sell Net art?

Lialina: I would say it's more critical than an art project, that it's an investigation and an analysis of the situation and opinions about the subject. For example, we created a section, office/banner, not only for practical reasons, but also to get feedback in the form of banners which can express attitudes toward the gallery and show possible ways of its promotion other than words. The same with FAQ, Btw, Expert Word and other pages. Besides their straight, client-oriented functions, they reflect the state of the site and its processes. The gallery is meant as an experiment which can lead to a lasting structure.

So what is your role in this? Curator? Owner? Gallerist?

Lialina: At this moment I'm a sort of scientist who is trying out an unknown vaccine by using it on herself. It might save humankind, or it just might kill a person. But in any case, it is a step forward in my investigations, a new turn. And I don't really make the gallery alone; but in the interest of experiment, the other names are hidden.

Are you getting a cut of the royalties if anything is sold?

Lialina: Sure.

In Germany, there used to be "Produzentengallerie" (producer's galleries, collectives of artists that ran a gallery together to sell their works). Is there anything like that in Russia?

Lialina: I'm afraid not.

So what are the examples that you are looking at for Art.Teleportacia?

Lialina: I like your example. It could be a structure to work towards. But the first reaction to the gallery from most artists is, "Why not?" -- not more.

But don't you feel that you are limiting Net art - with all its different approaches and protocols -- to "Web art," which always seemed to be the most commodifiable part of Net art to begin with. All the experiments, for example, that have been done with MOOs, MUDs, CuSeeMe, etc., are excluded from your gallery.

Lialina: Art.Teleportacia is only some weeks old. We are just now making our first exhibition. You draw conclusions too quickly about what is or will be excluded. Time will tell. I personally am absolutely against limiting Net art to Web art or browser art because the browser is only one of many applications which are used by Net artists. Net art works can include different technologies. And these that you have named are not even the most radical.

How did you set the prices? A thousand dollars seems like a lot of money.

Lialina: There are cheap paintings and painters and expensive ones -- the same with Net artists. I don't think that $1,900 for Heath Bunting's readme.html is too much.

How will it work practically? If a customer buys a piece to put it on his site, will you send him a disk with the data or upload it on his server?

Lialina: I don't know yet, but both are possible.

How does he know that he has an "original" and that there aren't any copies on other servers left?

Lialina: Art.Teleportacia provides a special certification proprietary system which ensures that the artwork you have purchased is the original. For example, one simple way to prove that an artwork is an original is the URL in the location bar. It is included as an important part of the performance of the artwork. One can copy HTML code and the images of a simple Net project, but the URL can't be doubled.

This is what we are really after -- not the removal of files from their original space, but to control access to them. Plus, the copyright advantages. The original location is an important part of an art work. It has its historical sense and it is simply more prestigious.

Another possibility: If both sides agree, that art work can move to another server. Its new address is announced as the only one where the original can be found. Others are copies which are used illegally, or are fakes. A few trials would be enough to stop it.

But! One can legally buy a copy as well. And it can be much cheaper. In fact, I see a lot of interesting situations and precedents which could take place.

Think of Net artists like Jodi that you have also in your collection. I think they keep everything on their site, even the stuff that they've done for other sites. Do you think they would be willing to lose any one part of their site, which, as a whole, seems to be a Gesamtkunstwerk ?

Lialina: I think that for such artists as Jodi or Superbad it's really more reasonable to sell the whole server, not just parts of it. But it's not a question of principal, just a question of price. If the whole server is one artwork, why sell parts of it? But if they wish to sell even single pages -- why not?

How about maintenance? If a piece doesn't "work," will you provide technical assistance?

Lialina: Depends on the contract. Generally, I think that real answers for a lot of your questions will be found only after the gallery is up and running for a while, when it exists for more than art circles. Right now, I am only talking about my assumptions and expectations. The first client, his or her desires and ambitions, will be a point in old discussions, and beginning of new wars.

Olia Lialinas' "My boyfriend came back from the war" is exhibited in Telepolis-Netspace. (Tilman Baumgärtel)