The Net as canvas

Web art is being included in this year's Whitney Biennial, but will the museum's validation make it any easier to buy, sell or even define Internet art?

Published March 15, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

When Mark Amerika was 14, he was working at a dog track in Miami, developing prints in the photo-finish lab; school was what he did when he wasn't "circulating in this underworld of gambling and loan sharking," as he puts it. By the time he made it to New York -- via the University of Florida and UCLA's film school -- his radical outlook on life and love of the seedy underbelly had landed him an obscure place in the artist subculture: He was a bike messenger in Manhattan, with business cards that titled him a "freelance courier artist" and the beginnings of a philosophical novel about his experiences in hand.

Ten years, several zines and a few experimental novels later, 39-year-old Amerika is finally surfacing in the mainstream art world -- via the Internet. As one of nine Internet artists included in the Whitney Museum of American Art's 2000 Biennial Exhibition, opening next week in New York, his work is being lauded as a seminal example of an emerging medium. His first hypertext novel-cum-interactive art experiment, Grammatron, will be shown alongside everything from a Web-controlled Ouija board to a Java applet that displays all possible variations on a pattern of black and white dots.

Is it pixelated garbage, or is it art? Net art is starting to battle the same question that every experimental art form faces as it enters the mainstream. (We'll leave the answer to future art historians.) As Net art begins to leak into galleries, the artists are tackling the traditional difficulties of introducing a new, technology-based medium to the world of dealers and collectors. When you're working with a cold medium dominated by dot-coms and commerce, how do you convince the technophobic art world that your oeuvre is more than just a fancy home page? And how does an artist earn a living when his work is online, digitally reproducible and therefore free to the viewing public?

"People just keep asking me whether the inclusion of Internet art in the Biennial validates Net art," sighs Ben Benjamin, the creator of and one of the artists included in the Whitney show. "I say that it's already valid -- what I think it does, it makes it look more valid to the art crowd. So all of a sudden because it's in a museum it's not crap anymore?"

The 70th biannual Biennial exhibition, generally considered the definitive survey of new contemporary art in America, will include over 200 works from 97 different artists. Covering film, video, sculpture, painting, photography and installations, the works will most likely range from the shocking to the serene to the simply horrible. Almost 10 percent of the work shown will be from artists who describe themselves as "Internet artists," using the medium of HTML as their primary outlet. Although Net art is by no means a new concept -- creative minds have been fiddling with code and graphics since the days of Mosaic and ASCII art -- it's certainly the first time that the much-disparaged medium has been so prominently included alongside the more traditional arts.

The works were selected by a team of six curators, none of whom had prior expertise in Internet art. Larry Rinder, director of the California College of Arts and Crafts Institute for Exhibitions and Public Programs in San Francisco, had never even looked at Net art before his assignment; set on his task, he had high-speed Net access installed and spent the next few weeks huddled in front of his computer, surfing the Web. "I knew there was Net art being made and it was our collective responsibility as curators to research it and find out what's out there," he explains. Although his expectations going in were low, he says he came away surprised by what he found: "I was not aware of the scope [of Net art] and when I entered into this process I was not as impressed as when I finished."

The Net artists who will be exhibiting in the Biennial range from the mischievous collective @rtmark, which runs an online brokerage for anti-corporate pranks, such as inserting anti-Nike leaflets in athletic shoes on store shelves; to Annette Weintraub, whose virtual VRML tour of New York's Broadway examines the chaotic and seedy sides of that famous street; to author Darcy Steinke, who's "Blind Spot" interactive narrative innovatively uses windows to tell the story of a woman
terrified by the rooms around her. These works will be exhibited in an online gallery, as well as being screened at the museum itself -- on work stations placed around the museum, and projected on walls. One collective called fakeshop, which creates disturbing online soundscapes, will perform "live" during the show (exactly what this means isn't very clear).

In fact, the works by these authors are so varied that it's hard to define exactly what Internet art is -- except, perhaps, that they all use a medium known best for sports scores and e-commerce as the backbone of their art. Much like video artists and photographers before them, Net artists are claiming what is often seen as a commercial medium as their turf; and, as a result, are having a more difficult time convincing the world that yes, that strange home page they built is an artwork in its own right. Many artists are instead having to support their art habits with jobs as Web designers and site consultants -- after all, their abilities with HTML and Shockwave Flash are extremely valuable in the networked economy. While they wait for the world to value Internet art as highly as painting or sculpture (or photography or video installations) they've got to find a way to pay the bills.

Mark Amerika had a zine called Black Ice and two experimental novels under his belt -- "The Kafka Chronicles" and "Sexual Blood" -- when he decided, in 1993, that his latest book was best suited for the newly emerging online medium. Grammatron, an abstract text narrative about artists in a cyberspace-like environment, with a series of images and sounds as backdrop, developed over the course of four years; when it finally launched in 1997, some lauded it as the first example of "hypertext fiction" and others dismissed it as experimental literary garbage.

"It didn't get picked up by the literary scene in the most positive ways," admits Amerika. To his surprise, he says, "it ended up that the art world found it kind of interesting and attractive as new media art." And, as a result, Amerika picked up some notoriety in the slowly burgeoning digital art world as one of the pioneers of Net art. His online zine Alt-X became a center for experimental online writing and art; and although the National Endowment for the Arts didn't offer to support his work, he picked up a grant from the Australian Art Council. Last June, Amerika produced a project for the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis called phon:e:me, an audio soundscape with Shockwave animations that riffs off the concept of phonemes. A few months later, the Whitney Biennial curators approached him; for the show, he will be exhibiting "Grammatron."

Ironically, only three years after it launched, "Grammatron" feels like a relic. Its relatively simplistic hypertext-and-gifs format recalls the early days of the Web. Says Amerika, "You're becoming obsolete in a flash. How do you show a project created for Netscape 3.0 six years from now?" But, he points out, "Video art had to deal with that too, had a hard time and now it's the trendy art form in all the hip galleries."

These days, Amerika lives a quiet life in Boulder, Colo., playing with a local band and spending his time making art. Amerika is one of the fortunate few to already be making a living off his digital artwork: "It's been surprisingly easy. I'm having to turn a lot of work away now," he says. He's producing three to four pieces a year for collectors, as well as consulting with Web sites looking for conceptual art pieces or content advice.

As he's worked online, he says he's observed a bizarre merging of commercial and non-commercial art and design, making it easier for artists like himself to survive -- and even become famous -- by the merits of their Web sites. "The dot-com mania is more than ever strictly focused on profiteering. All of a sudden the skills you have are more valuable than you ever imagined them to be," he explains.

Survival as a digital artist, he believes, means learning how to play the same game the dot-coms play -- you're competing for attention, after all, with millions of other beautiful, bizarre and utilitarian Web sites, both commercial and noncommercial. "The more attention you get on your site, the more you're branding it, and therefore as an artist you're doing the same thing that Yahoo or Amazon does. The only difference is that you're branding yourself as an artist, not as a company."

Other Net artists are coming to the same conclusion. The infamous Swiss art collective Etoy, in the most obvious example, recently held a public stock offering; shares in their collective have raised over $400,000 and the stock price is rising along with the groups notoriety. @rtmark has a similar scheme: the group puts together "mutual funds" which link "investors" who donate time, skills or money together for anti-corporate pranks; one of the groups' most famous exploits included switching the voice boxes of GI Joe and Barbie dolls sitting on the shelves in toy stores.

These creative schemes are being adopted partly out of necessity. Grants are rare for Net artists, and the traditional artist route of selling commissioned works to collectors and museums is even more daunting. If your Web site is online, free and public (and, therefore, available for anyone to copy at their will) why would someone pay a small fortune to "own" it?

In the first half of this century, the cultural theorist Walter Benjamin argued that mechanically reproducible art like photography gets divorced from its "aura," and devalued by the art-seeking public. On the Net, this is played out to the extreme -- not only is the work reproducible, but anyone with a browser and a little Net know-how can make a perfect copy of their own.

Some artists, like Amerika, are instead attempting to produce stand-alone digital works that can be sold to collectors. Biennial artist Lew Baldwin, creator of the site Redsmoke is producing CD-ROMs of his work, which he hopes to sell at the exhibition. It's not a particularly lucrative way to make money, he admits, so he's also pondering other strategies: selling molded-plastic objects, for example, that interact with a computer via infrared signals and control images on the screen, or even selling the computers that he's used to work on as art pieces in their own right. "I could just do some shit on it and then auction it off somewhere. Sell the hard drive," he laughs, only semi-serious.

"Up to now the Net's been a free space to do what you want, that's why it's amazing. It's a big public space to show work; whereas in the art world most gallery openings are private and just a handful of people can see it," Baldwin points out. "It's a Catch 22 -- you don't want to send the original people away or turn them off by charging [money to view the art], but at the same time you want to make money."

But Baldwin, a lanky blond with a whimsical sense of humor, also has a lucrative second career as a Web designer. Baldwin, a Texas native, grew up "wanting to be the second Andy Warhol," but after studying film and video at the Art Institute of Chicago, settled for a job as a temp answering phone calls at Apple Computer. Heading to San Francisco in 1993, he landed a job as a Web designer in a then tiny high-tech start-up called CNet (employee No. 11). After a year there, he turned to freelance projects, producing CD-ROMs for local design companies and TV broadcast design and animation. Today, he lives in Los Angeles and makes most of his money off clients like Oxygen Media; expensive projects like these allow him to spend almost half his time working on his art projects.

Redsmoke, which will be shown at the Biennial, is Baldwin's primary Web site and art space. It began as a side-project during his years in San Francisco and since evolved into a permanent "work in progress" -- a constantly mutating collage of overlayed images, sounds, and Flash animations, often jarring and occasionally cute. Buried within the maze of pages is an episodic and abstract cartoon called the Platters, which he describes as "soft, furry fuzzy things mixed with harsh reality."

The Biennial will be Baldwin's first exposure to the world of discriminating art critics and collectors, and although he says he's looking forward to talking to dealers about his work, he's not so sure that he wants to get immersed in that world. "[The Net] is changing everything -- I don't even know if you can compare it to the structure of the traditional art world," he says. "I don't want to get caught up with the money aspect of this at all, and that's the first thing on a dealers mind."

In fact, one common refrain among the Biennial's Net artists is a complete lack of attention to the traditional art world of museums and critics. Most Net artists say that they've long sensed that their work wasn't highly regarded by many art critics, but didn't really give a damn. In fact, some -- like Ben Benjamin, creator of Superbad -- never really thought of their work as art in the first place. As Benjamin puts it, "I didn't really start thinking of Superbad as art until the art people started finding it."

Benjamin, 29, also arrived at digital art via a career in Web design. Although he'd studied psychology at Earlham University in Indiana, some design classes helped him land a job at CNet in the early 1990s (where, coincidentally, he briefly worked with Baldwin). As he puts it, "I always wanted to be an artist but didn't think it was practical, so I took some extra classes in graphic design and got a job. I've been doing graphic design ever since."

Despite his inclusion in the Biennial, being a newfound Net artist still isn't "practical"; which is why Benjamin still works as a Web designer. Currently, he's living outside Kyoto, Japan, working on Web projects for Nippon Telegraph and Telephone; over the years, he's toiled as a freelance Web designer, making enough money from clients like E! Online, Third Age, @Home to ensure four-day workweeks and enough time to work on Superbad.

Superbad, which began as an experimental staging ground where Benjamin tested out technical and graphical problems for his commercial Web work, has evolved into a maze of pop imagery. The site, which changes almost daily, is full of images culled from Japanese pop culture, interactive games and mathematically driven designs that change when you click on them. Animated pictures of Japanese businessman lead to an anime-style cartoon which lead to Benjamin's latest grocery bill, and on to an abstract pattern of dots.

The site already boasts 2,500-3,000 visitors a day, but after four years, it has yet to earn a cent. "I would love it if someone wanted to pay me to do something like Superbad, but I've never thought of it as an option. I can't commodify Superbad -- it'll never be bought or sold," he says.

But even if digital artists are still sorting out the business model for their work, the outlook for their notoriety is increasingly optimistic. The Biennial will, most likely, give many of these artists a higher profile in the art world; and other museums, like the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, are displaying and commissioning shows from a number of upcoming Net artists. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is not only purchasing digital art works for its collection and exhibiting them online, but has hired a new media curator and is offering a prize for online art and a series of panels discussing the impact of the digital media. Matthew Mirapaul is regularly covering digital art for the New York Times; and, one by one, prominent galleries in New York and San Francisco are including digital art in their exhibits.

"I really think it's the most interesting art scene going right now, there's a lot happening," says Amerika, who says he's looking forward to forcing the art world to finally sit down and listen to him explain what Net art really is. "This Whitney exhibit gives it legitimatization in an institutional context. It's time to educate museum goers about the form."

By Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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