Web Art and Art History

Autor: Joanne Lalonde
Idioma: Inglés
Fecha de Publicación: 17/06/2006
Tipo de publicación: Texto


Web Art is an emerging, polymorphous phenomenon. I choose and prefer the term  “web art” over that of “net art”, which can be confused with other forms of network art that do not use the web (mail art, faxes, etc.).

We don’t have yet the historical distance needed to classify, judge and categorize these works. Neither do we have an overall idea of the corpus involved. Art History, therefore, documents this phenomenon alongside its very development.

Rather than proposing categories or exhaustive classifications (typologies), I suggest working with small interpretative  models (for example identity and narcissistic temptation, activism, rituals) which shed a complementary light on artistic activity.

Categories, Indexation, Typologies and Vocabulary

The categorization, indexation, typological classification, and the vocabulary present a great challenge. A common reflex in art history is that of typological classification. The short history of web art (1995-2005) hasn’t been spared. In fact, several authors (Bureaud 1998, Bookchnin and Shulgin 1999, Wilson 2002) have proposed a series of general categories that allow for a first grouping of the ever growing material constituting works of art designed to circulate on the web.

Among these we can distinguish types as various as “e-mail art”, “form art”, private diaries, travel logs, fabrication of false identities and hoaxes, streaming, representations of sexual images, collaborations of telepresence and other interactive and relational communication media, search engines, activism, use of internet’s own code as well as that of its interfaces as symbolic form, “browser art”, “on-line software art” This list is far from exhaustive, and these first categories just as far from being exclusive.

Often these works call upon many of the strategies described above, and even resist classification and identification. So much so, that we have come to adopt the following tautology: a work of hypermedia art is one that claims to be so.

Another key element is the widespread presence of written texts or spoken words in these works. The notion of writing  is here heterogeneous, comprising texts, images and sounds. It isn’t always easy  to distinguish art from literature. (http://www.yhchang.com/SAMSUNG_ESPANOLA.html).

I work in collaboration with Laboratoire NT2 of UQAM which has a current project consisting in indexing, describing and archiving literary and artistic sites. The elements of classification are the following: nature of the site, types of interactivity, format, content. http://www.labo-nt2.uqam.ca/

Identity: Portrait, Self-portrait, Self-representation, Autofiction, Mythography and Post-Human  tendency.

New narrative identities and the figure of the double abound in web art. Since 1995, cybernauts have seen the creation of several fictional personalities to which they have become attached, among them the highly emblematic www.mouchette.org . What do these characters have to say? What do these fictional accounts tell us?

In media arts history, the interest in self-representation is pervasive. The arrival of various technologies on the market created the conditions to explore, in a different framework, the complex natures of subjectivity and of identity. Self discovery, measuring oneself with the world through the web, the video camera  or simply a still camera, has been, and is still, among the constant concerns of artists. Be it through an obsession with self portraits, the fabrication of a fictional alter ego, or a mythography, these representations, conveyed through media arts thanks to realistic descriptive images, highlighting their effet de réel, install a particular relationship with the spectator, making him aware of his own condition as existential subject, but also of his status as cultural subject.

A considerable part of hypermedia art production follows this trend. Several pieces openly develop new narrative identities, use new representation strategies, or figures of the double. In fact, the web favourizes the spread of hoaxes of all kinds: multiple personalities, disorders, «marketing/merchandising/commercialising the body», personal diaries where fiction and reality intermingle.

In the age of the post modern condition and of the tragic subject, extended between the multiple investigations of the self, the web appears today as the place where identities are more than ever dynamic and variable: identities of the subject, but also of media infrastructure and of genres. It’s the reign of mythography, a visual or literary script of the fantasmic projection of a subject, allowing him to multiply his identities, where the proposals are very often subversive and where they suggest, as far as the most daring are concerned, a critical redefinition of our convictions.

Representations of intimacy, of everyday life (i.e. Nadine Norman http://www.jesuisdisponibleetvous.com/content.html and Mi corazon es de latex  http://corazondelatex.cl/), and the will  to integrate the spectator in the development of the piece are, without a doubt, great obsessions of web art.

This idea of displaying everyday life isn’t new to media arts; we have only to think of the narrative video productions of the 1970’s (for example Lisa Steele, Birthday suit – with Scars and Defects, 1974) which tried to break the public/private dichotomy by elevating everyday experiences and making them works of art .

In this category, the context may be very ordinary, such as the streaming broadcasts of the self in representation one can find on the web (webcam artists), and to which cybernauts have a 24hr access, and which present a fictional everyday reality. Jenny Cam and Anacam (www.anacam.com) are the most widely known. Other pieces, such as Situations 4x , Heidi Tikka (http://www.frame-fund.fi/aom/tikka/artwork-3.shtml), choose to confront different everyday realities, showing the life of three Finnish families, as short anthropological chronicles revealing, through their everyday lives, family ties, but also their differences or other variations on the nuclear family theme.

I think this phenomenon be understood as a reaction to this post human tendency (paradigm),
-Post human art exhibits images of men, women or animals transformed numerically, or in actual fact thanks to technology- some would say post humanistic, that dissolves the subject into the algorithms of machines. It’s been close to a century that the field of art has called into question the artist. He is neither an inspired genius, an autonomous creator, nor a virtuoso; he can scarcely be polemical. The post human having taken away his last parcel of humanity, it becomes tempting to exhibit ostentatiously the private or intimate sphere as an ersatz of the subject.

Rituals in Web Art, Ritual as “Analyser” of the Contemporary.

Another research avenue is to consider pieces of web art as new rituals. The rituals are variable, they can be sacred or profane, secular or commonplace. They can instigate sporadic behaviours that characterize “certain members of a given culture”. These are therefore variable ceremonies.

Among the oft mentioned functions of rituals (Maisonneuve, 1988), aside from those of mediation with the divine, and the communicative and regulatory functions, we find the function of “control of the instability, or temporary, nature of things”, and a reassurance against Angst.

Let’s return for a moment to the concept of ritual as symbolic action, as an act of representation. Rodrigo Diaz Cruz2 suggests a reading of ritual as a defining ceremony, that represents the identity of a group, its cohesion, its unity.

« C’est au travers de ces cérémonies que les groupes se définissent tels qu’ils sont, affichent la manière dont ils se conçoivent eux-mêmes et, finalement, montrent la manière par laquelle ils désirent être vus par l’autre.  La cérémonie définitionnelle est utilisée dans des endroits où le peuple souffre d’une crise d’invisibilité, de marginalité ou d’inégalité, de mépris ou quand il lutte contre une autre société dominante.  La cérémonie constitue aussi une espèce de drame symbolique… »(p.411).

I’d like to make a short digression concerning ritual responses to inequalities, by referring to social iniquities concerning gender or sexual orientation, subjects that also interest me but that I wont go into deeply now . I will simply point out that this may offer a first answer to the question I am often asked about the very feminist hue of hypermedia works that often present figures contesting  male universalization, heterocentrism and capitalism.

I’ll immediately present a few definitional ceremonies exploited by web art (these are interpretation clues, and not the proposal of an exhaustive classification) that are often reiterated.

1. The first would be that of designation / self designation, that is, to represent an identity through language or a sign, to give oneself an identity through a name and a body fabricated for and by the (computer) screen.

I spoke earlier of Nadine Norman; the works of Martine Neddam Mouchette and David Still (http://davidstill.org/) are further canonical examples of web mythographies. Another reference would be Annie Abrahams’ I Only Have My Name , 1998 (http://www.bram.org/ident/irc.htm)
, which questions the impact of language on web identity.

I include in this category those works that attest to and confirm the status of the artist, such as in the piece I’m a Net Artist (Rebel Art 2003, http://www.area3.net/barcelona/gluebalize/index_light.htm), where the web’s autoreferentiality becomes the main character of this short “hypermedia clip”. The piece touches on the question of the artist’s identity, but it is rather the web’s identity that is concerned. It is the same with Euh-project Scrollbrowser (http://www.project-euh.com/), once again a very reflexive piece, that offers itself as a parody of the web.

This self-reflexive dimension is omnipresent in web art, the artist insists on his status as artist, the spectator is returned to his receptive position, the web exhibits its devices: a modernist temptation that I consider mostly as an attempt at autoregulation where the reduplication of images and of formats guide the spectator through his processes. Often, playful or ironic characteristics add a touch of sparkle to these works.

Last segment of the staged identity, that of the position of the spectator, and the effects of his relation to the screen. Here the spectrum is wide, it includes works displaying boredom or addiction, as in Now Here/nowhere , Lowe, Brighid, 2003, (http://www.e-2.org/commissions_nowhere.html), where phrases focusing on boredom, and the wait in front of the screen go by without any ambiant sounds, which amplifies the sensation of boredom; or Addiction , 2003, (http://wowm.org/addiction/addiction/dynamicdrive/addiction.htm), which announces right off the bat, “How much are we addicted? Addiction to art / addiction to net”, obviously evoking the dependency on new forms of technological representations, and the web as authority figure.

2. A second definitional ceremony would be that of the transformation. We are here in a logic of appropriation, in line with body art and performance art (Stelarc, Orlan). I discuss the transformation of the main character into another character. These categories  I am presenting can be added up.

Certain pieces will transform the main character into an illusionary character, or into an object, in line with post human images that wish to free themselves from the biological determinism. Cyborgs and other human and animal hybrid forms, i.e. centaurs or mermaids, are recurring but we also find fetish characters, women/objects, robots, mangas and others.

3. The third ritual ceremony is that of the staging (“mise en scène” or putting on display) of every day life mentioned earlier.

If some representations of everyday life are trite, others are quite incongruous, dissonant, extraordinary. I am thinking notably of two sites, Crying While Eating, Nozkowski, Casimir and Daniel Engber, 2005 (http://www.cryingwhileeating.com/), composed of several videos of people crying while they are eating, and to which the cybernaut can participate by sending his own video, and Daily Dancer (http://dailydancer.com/) where the “hero”, a rather banal character, presents, three times a week a video where he dances compulsively in his living room, or at times has guests dancing. Again, cybernauts can send their own dancing videos.

The streaming format isn’t the only format of this more or less spectacular display of one’s privacy, the video format persists, we find many clips on the web, but also private diaries, photo albums or other blog type confessions.

Web Activism, Political Actions, Feminist Actions, Hacking / Cracking

This final section is on web activism, political or feminist actions which were seen cursorily in the section on ritual.

Through its democratic aspect and with its easy access, the web has given artists a platform and an alternate network for circulating works, outside of institutions, thus allowing more spontaneous and  “anarchistic” actions. We can see manifestos and political writings, as recurrent literary forms, multiply.

We also find several infiltration practices (i.e. to infiltrate an institutional or commercial site in order to leave a foreign or dissonant element), infiltration that we can also observe with certain feminist artists, who try to exploit cybernauts’ interest in pornographic sites. Their success is due mainly to two elements: the sexual content and the non stop transmission.

Cup Cake (http://sugarandspice.org/ ) recruits its spectators through its fetishist exchange site to which she contributes relatively tame images, but which are inspired by the conventional pornographic iconography. Natasha Meritt, in Digital Diaries (www.digital-diaries.com/ ), as well as Tamara Faith Berger and her Nursex project (http://drivedrive.com/nursex/thirdeyewound.html ), also integrate in their work a critical use of  pornographic representation codes. To deconstruct the codes of pornography, to thwart spectator expectations, to provoke boredom rather than climax, such are a few of these works’ strategies.

Several artistic communities have, since 1995, stressed the lack of structures or support for the circulation of works in their countries. These artists say they have benefited from the openness of the web, they have seen in it a great opportunity for artistic emancipation ( for example Bosnian women in the ‘90s, Eastern European artists).


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Cruz, R.D. .« L’exploration de la distance : idôlatries, superstitions, résistances rituelles » dans Les formes de reconnaissance de l’autre en question, 2004, Presses Universitaires de Perpignan, Ben Naoum, Ahmed dir.pub.
Lalonde, J,  Cabinet web des curiosités Archée_cybermensuel. 2004,  http://archee.qc.ca.
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