Feature - 23 Apr 2014
Essays by Josephine Bosma and Stefan Heidenreich chart the beginnings of the Net art movement and the importance of Berlin in connecting net activism with the burgeoning artistic networks of the time – both on- and offline
When the Internet started to boom in the mid 1990s, so did its exploration by artists. Artists had used international computer networks since the early 1980s1 but the new, semi-public space of the Internet created a whole new playing field; the technology became readily available for many more artists to use. What followed was a time of experimentation that continues to this day. Not everything that was tried succeeded and not all that was said made sense. But these early experiments laid the foundation for understanding art in the context of the Internet, then and now.
To speak of a ’local net art scene’ in the 1990s is an oxymoron. Nevertheless it is possible to describe something of a German scene. Early online art platforms here were Bionic, started in 1989 by artists padeluun and Rena Tangens, and The Thing, initiated by artist Wolfgang Staehle in 1991, which in its heyday had nodes in 12 countries. Both used pre-Web technology: the Bulletin Board System, in Germany called Mailbox. In an interview Staehle explains what triggered The Thing was a simple need for communication: ‘we wanted to create the possibility of a continuous discussion across a specific time and a specific distance.’2 Bionic evolved from a series of hacker events and, according to Tangens, was created to control one’s own network space free from nosy system administrators.3 New network technologies offered the opportunity to create these spaces.
The DIY, hands-on approach of these nascent networks was part of a developing criticism of the hype surrounding the Internet. Across Europe events were organized to discuss the emerging new media. The Wetware Convention, organized in 1991 in Amsterdam by Dutch media theorist Geert Lovink, was one of them. Wetware presented a darkly humorous view of the fast approaching digital age, and predicted the human body would be the weakest link in the new technological networks, as Lovink explained, ‘the nickname “wetware” is an homage to the do-it-yourselfer who tries to make the best of things but always forgets the instructions.’4
Lovink’s joke is a subtle hint at the rise of the amateur developer, who was not always interested in following instructions. In the early years of the Internet ‘amateur’ public initiatives were vital for a non-commercial culture to develop online. The introduction of the first graphic browsers, allowing you to click through the World Wide Web, created a number of online cultural platforms. Most also had a physical site where people could share skills and knowledge face to face. Artists ran many of these spaces. From the Amsterdam De Digitale Stad and the Berlin Internationale Stadt to Public Netbase in Vienna, Ljudmila in Ljubljana, among others, media labs and media cafés were the physical nodes in a burgeoning Net art field.
What primarily connected these nodes was a mailing list called Nettime.5 Berlin artist Pit Schultz started it with Lovink – who visited Berlin regularly – in 1995 during the 46th Venice Biennale.6 Nettime aimed to counter the technology hype represented by Wired magazine – in Nettime’s early years Schultz called Wired ‘the Prawda of the Net,’ which ‘forces the emergence of dissident thought’.7 Nettime was created as the bottom-up European response to Wired’s sanctification of Silicon Valley. The project gave a huge boost to online art exchanges. Suddenly people from Tokyo, Sydney, Moscow, London and New York, many of whom had never met in person, were connected on a daily basis: collaborations developed, relationships started, flame wars ensued and many initiatives were born.
The list was initially meant as a forum for ‘net criticism’, and in 1996, when Pit Schultz was preparing a project in Berlin with artists he had met online, the term ‘net.art’ was born. One of the artists involved in the project – shown as part of the New Media exhibition Files curated by Oliver Schwarz at the Bunker in Berlin later that year – was Vuk Cósic. Cósic realized the potential of the term, and organized an informal net.art meeting in June ’96 in an ice-cream parlour in Trieste, Italy. Schultz forwarded the short manifesto that was written at this meeting to Nettime, and the net.art meme took off.
The German curator Andreas Broeckmann was the first to write about net.art, again on Nettime. Working for the Rotterdam based media art institution V2, Broeckmann was involved with organizing the second and third editions of Next 5 Minutes (N5M), a festival for ‘tactical media’ that involved artists and activists from many parts of the world. In 1996, N5M2 (held in Amsterdam and Rotterdam; N5M3 took place in Amsterdam) brought together many artists who had first met each other through Nettime. Broeckmann’s essay triggered a heated debate about the shape and specificity of art on the Net. This debate – which can still be found in the nettime.org archives – continued for years, and spilled over to other mailing lists and online art platforms, such as Rhizome.
Launched in early 1996 by the young American artist Mark Tribe – who lived in Berlin around the time Nettime started – Rhizome existed at first primarily as a mailing list. Tribe declared his project a social sculpture. Unlike Nettime, which covered a broad scope of topics, Rhizome was dedicated entirely to art and the Net. Though Tribe moved to New York a few months after its founding and took Rhizome with him, throughout the 1990s most of the content on the list remained European. Net art debates that were based in a cultural environment different from New York’s acted as a springboard for a generation of US artists, for whom the ‘dissident’ approach of networks was a relatively alien concept.
It was in Europe where a strong and diverse Net art scene developed early through the combination of on- and offline meetings, enabled by the geographical proximity of its participants, and a more experimental cultural environment than we found in the US. It is only in the last few years that the American art world seems to have awoken. Ironically, due to an emphasis on easily marketable, object-based works in the field of Post-Internet art. In the Europe of the ’90s the focus for artists was mostly on trying new modes of communication, developing critical ideas, and exploring every aspect of the network. Here, to this day, Net art is more performative and time-based, and has a strong connection to the conceptual art experiments with new media of the 1960s and ’70s. In the case of Berlin, the exceptional political and cultural situation of the city after the fall of the Wall made it an especially attractive place for experimentation, which is why it has been home to influential figures in Net art history such as Pit Schultz and Andreas Broeckmann.
The influence that the Internet has on art and the effects of networking seems to depend, at least in part, on local context. There is no single formula for building networks, or for how to use them. Though the Internet has redefined much of our cultural landscape, existing cultural environments and their issues have not disappeared. Artists have clashed with mailing list moderators and system operators over the shape and content of their work; cultural institutions that move online do not lose their authority. From the artist’s perspective, art on the Internet is a somewhat similar situation to that of other forms of public art – with similar possibilities and vulnerabilities.
Now that the Internet has been revealed as a surveillance space rather than an open space, moving offline may seem a dramatic gesture but in the ’90s, before Wi-Fi and smart phones, offline was the primary state of being. Today’s strategies of finding weaknesses or poetic potential in commercial structures such as Facebook are a continuation of earlier critical artistic practices. It is as if we’ve stepped through a mirror and history is repeating itself in reverse. This time around though, there is no more going offline completely because the Net is now part of us.
That said we are not back to square one. Digital networks have created additional spaces of negotiation, instability and possibility for art and culture; they are here to stay. Whether it is on the level of art criticism, curatorial practices or art making itself we are faced with having to redefine borders anew. What is good or bad art, who can claim authority, or what defines art at all are not new questions. They will however resound ever louder in the radically changing, all-pervasive media-cultural landscape we live in.
This is where Wetware comes back in. Was Geert Lovink right, back in 1991, when he claimed humans would become the weakest links in the new networks? The question is: which kinds of humans was he referring to? Someone still develops the software we use, and this development is carefully designed. Automatons have replaced much of our decision-making. Bots have replaced human moderators; filters define much of what we see. Their implementation may not necessarily be a sign of human weakness. It may well demonstrate the chokehold of conservatism.
The period between 1993 and 2013, the beginning and end of the World Wide Web, spans roughly one generation. During this time, the Internet allowed the World Wide Web to develop from niche technology into ubiquitous tool. The first graphic web browser was introduced in 1993. Prior to this, only text was publishable online – no pictures, no sound. The Internet was for scientists, programmers and nerds. Now it’s 2014 and the World Wide Web is over – at least the utopian bubble of free and unobstructed communication is. Instead it has been transformed into an exhaustively-mined network of social control and surveillance.
These dates bookending the history of the World Wide Web mark the moments when art and the Internet intersected. Berlin played a role at both these junctures. Not that the city ever was a dominant force: as far as the Web is concerned, Berlin has always been on the periphery – more like a ‘minor’ location, in the sense of Gilles Deleuze’s ‘minor literature.’ It distinguishes itself as political and collective, as a place that speaks from the viewpoint of an unincorporated fringe. In this way, Berlin is, and always has been, a place that grants the relationship between art and Internet its own ‘minor’ insight.
Those who grew up before 1993 spent their youth in a world of radio broadcasts, landlines, turntables and print media. There were few television stations, all with fixed schedules, and music came in the form of discs and tapes. Public opinion was shaped almost exclusively by whatever was circulated in print and broadcast media. Today it’s difficult to even envisage an environment so lacking in instant communication possibilities. But the certainties of the present are deceiving. Our current technology will surely be similarly marvelled at by those living in whatever future lies ahead.
When we reflect today on the relationship between art and the Internet 20 years ago, we instinctively apply our own contemporaneous viewpoint. We forget that the World Wide Web as we know it today simply did not exist then. I can remember sitting with Pit Schultz in front of a then very new Apple Macintosh Classic in the rooms of Botschaft e.V. (an interdisciplinary group formed in May 1990), located in a house occupied by artists and filmmakers in Berlin Mitte, loading our first compressed image onto a file server in order to view it in the photo software Mosaic which had just been released. That the Net was to catalyze a media revolution as radical as the fall of the Wall was far from obvious then. Not because the advances weren’t visible, but because technology and media weren’t part of the conventional historical perspective focusing on grand political events. What’s more, even an expressed focus on the history of media proved ineffective. In 1993 Friedrich Kittler was assigned to teach media science and theory at Berlin’s Humboldt University. Lamentably, the Internet was as good as ignored in the syllabus. Only the computer was hailed as a harbinger of progress – much was expected of simulators and virtual worlds, nothing of the Internet.
Today the Web is ubiquitous. A good half of our existence is manifested in data that is hoarded by corporations and divvied up by a few select members of quasi-monopolies. It wasn’t impossible to imagine, even before Edward Snowden’s disclosures, that all possible data has been furtively fed into a sinister machine of political control. But the amenities of the Web are simply too seductive for us to pay this much heed.
Something that is omnipresent can easily become overlooked. As the Internet fades from the spectrum of our attention, it is simply assumed as a given. It’s exactly this aspect that the often misunderstood term ‘Post-Internet’ seeks to describe. We live according to the Web, without having to constantly assure ourselves of it – we no longer think of the Internet when we reach for it.
The Net altered the modus operandi and rituals of the art world long ago and with little fuss. Pictures of exhibitions and art works now circulate online, are shared via social media and are in part created, installed and photographed for this very reason even before the opening. However, even what is known as Post-Internet art cannot entirely forgo some sort of sculptural presence in an exhibition space. In fact, if the group show Speculations on Anonymous Materials in the Fridericianum in Kassel (2013–14) depicted anything, then it was the powerful physical presence of Post-Internet art, which is not easily communicated online. Most artists associated with the Post-Internet tag, despite their love of high-tech materials, choose to work with traditional media and forms (video, sculpture, installations, etc.). The Web has become a form of white noise layered beneath all artistic endeavours. It provides only the frame of reference and is no longer used as a genuine medium – in stark contrast to early Net art.
For an artist in 1993, the Internet represented a new and wide horizon, obscured by a thick fog, of course, muddling any foresight into the future. In the art world, there were two paths that led away from the then pejoratively named realm of ‘Art art’, i.e. the art shown in institutions and galleries. This exemplifies another difference between 1993 and the Post-Internet art scene of today. The latter is, from the very beginning, closely tied to gallerists, curators and the art market. For early Net artists, the nascent Internet represented a bastion of counterculture, not a launching pad for a career in the art world. This attitude reaches as far back as the roots of the hacker movement in California, where hippie and high-tech first joined as one.
So-called ‘New Media art’ was a place to start. Well-represented in Germany in the early 1990s, New Media reached its first zenith of institutionalization with the founding of the Centre for Art and Media (ZKM) in Karlsruhe in 1989 and the Academy of Media Arts (KHM) in Cologne in 1990. Net artists, however, never achieved a similar institutional breakthrough, even though many in the community hoped to repeat the dubious success of New Media art. The ingress to funding streams and institutions remained blocked. Not until 1999, when net_condition was shown at ZKM in Karlsruhe, was Net art ever exhibited in a New Media museum. Even for those involved there were serious doubts whether claiming the label ‘art’ for Net activities was actually helpful, as it seemed to imply an orientation towards a cultural niche rather than society at large.
Berlin in the 1990s was – as it is today – a place where the social scenes of Net activism and visual art could potentially collide. Botschaft e.V. was one of the key nodes around which Net-based projects formed. In 1993, the experimental communication environment ‘Handshake’ was created by Barbara Aselmeier, Joachim Blank, Armin Haase and Karl Heinz Jeron; two years later, it was transformed into the online community ‘Internationale Stadt’. Another collaboration that was to prove fruitful developed between Pit Schultz, part of Botschaft, and Amsterdam-based theorist Geert Lovink, who had caused uproar with his book Der Datendandy (Data Dandy, written with Arjen Mulder as Agentur Bilwet and published in Germany in 1994). The book positioned the figure of a hedonistic programmer-bohemian in opposition to the usual technology assessments still wedded to critical theory – even if Lovink and Schultz soon re-relativized this with their notion of ‘Netzkritik’ (net critique).
The first meeting of activists interested in the Web took place in 1994 in the rural Spessart region of southern Germany, in the studio of artist Andreas Rohrbach. This was followed by a second, larger meeting at the 46th Venice Biennale in 1995 – not on part of the official programme, but a side event called ‘Club Berlin at Teatro Malibran’, intended to showcase the new German capital’s club scene. The net activists partied at night and, during the day, conceived of a mailing list called ‘Nettime’. Nettime created a forum for many Net artists, such as Heath Bunting, Vuk Cósic, Olia Lialina and Alexej Shulgin. The following year, Schultz organized the first presentation of Net art in Berlin, as part of the New Media exhibition Files, curated by Oliver Schwarz at Bunker, a club specializing in Gabba, an early style of techno from Rotterdam.
The Net art scene kept its distance from the official art scene, a distance that was mutually observed. Catherine David’s showcase of a number of web-based Net art projects at the documenta X in 1997 (with works by amongst others Heath Bunting, Jodi.org, and Marko Peljhan) was the only interaction between the two factions for quite some time. Almost none of the early Net artists achieved any real access to galleries or established art markets.
Even two decades later, little has changed – especially in Berlin. The realms of the Internet and art continue to intersect occasionally and then go their separate ways. International media, including The Economist, gush about Berlin being a start-up Mecca. Many of the hacker protagonists of Wikileaks and NSA revelations fame are withdrawing from the anglophone world into the relative safety of Berlin, including Internet activist Jacob Appelbaum and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, whom Edward Snowden first contacted in January 2013 when searching for suitable distributors of his NSA data. And all this in addition to the substantial contingent of Post-Internet artists who also make their home in the city.
Yet these different scenes barely overlap. Each community is better connected to the rest of the world than with those in the wider circles of Berlin. One is more likely to speak with New York, Rio or San Francisco than to expand beyond the boundaries of a tight-knit cluster. There are, of course, a few exceptions – like when Simon Denny exhibited his artistic interpretations of the Berlin start-up scene at Galerie Buchholz. Or in the case of artist Trevor Paglen, whose work is familiar to hackers and artists alike. But otherwise, non-association is the rule.
And this is where we may observe the difference between time before the Internet and the time after. The ’90s Net art scene gelled around a number of events, all exploring Net culture and open to the public, at which important actors of all backgrounds could rub shoulders. While today’s thorough digitization has allowed friends and communities to stay connected across the globe, it has also transformed the city into a place of erratic, contingent encounters.
Translated by Yana Vierboom
1 The first online art platform was Artex, run by Robert Adrian X, started in 1980. It was used to organize several projects, including Roy Ascott’s La Plissure du Texte in 1983
2 Translated from German. Tilman Baumgärtel, interview with Wolfgang Staehle. [net.art] Materialien zur Netzkunst (Nürnberg: Verlag für Moderne Kunst Nürnberg, 1999). Print version: p. 57
3 Ibid. p. 41
4 Adilkno’s Wetware text, posted on Nettime 17 June 1996, and available in its archive. Adilkno was a collective of Dutch writers founded by Geert Lovink. The name stands for the Foundation for the Advancement of Illegal Knowledge
5 Nettime still exists though most of the nodes have closed due to the rise of the number of Internet providers
6 The Nettime archive is still online at http://www.nettime.org
7 Introduction to ZKP3 (eds. Thomas Bass, Geert Lovink, Diana McCarthy & Pit Schultz), a Nettime publication created for Metaforum3 in Budapest in 1996, p. 6
First published in Issue 14