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Netzkunst. Net.art. Web art. Media art. Ascii Art. Computer art. Web-specific art. Network art. The Net as an artistic medium. Art and technology. Art and communication. Arte en Red ...

Question 1
What is net art?

Question 2
What are the origins of net art?

Question 3
Who does it with whom?

Question 4
What is net art actually about?

Question 5
Where does net art stand and where is it going?

Question 1. What is net art?

A short definition: Net art is a form of art which uses internet as the medium. Examples include: a website as artistic project, a mailing list, a java-applet, a MOO, an act of 'electronic disobedience', a browser application, a search engine...

This definition is restricted to the 'material' of the work of art, just like video art can be defined on the basis of the medium and the physical elements that it consists of. This is not sufficient, though - what turns an artefact into art? Here reflection on and meaning of the work comes into play; a video fragment is called art in the light of its context, its meaning and as a part of the overall story-line; often video art formulates implicitly, sometimes even literally, a reflection of criticism around the medium itself and the images that is generated, thus the medium is often used metaphorically. The same applies to net art - the most interesting net projects are a form of visual or conceptual net criticism, and play for example with the way in which information on the net is structured (network architecture, memes, junctions, connections, anti-hierarchic structures), or with the way in which one communicates, discusses and does business.

Question 2. Where does net art come from?

Strictly spoken the evolution of net art runs parallel with the origin of the internet; the boom of the World Wide Web around 1994 was a big boost for the development of both. Net art suddenly became visible for a wider audience and was able to strongly manifest itself visually - say promote itself.

Conceptually the roots of internet art can be traced back to the wider context of digital art, which - especially until the beginning of the '90s - was an obscure form of art thriving only within the confined circle of institutes and festivals (e.g. the Ars Electronica Festival has existed since 1979, while the Documenta exhibition didn't put computer art on its agenda until 1997.)

In addition to its clear technological inspiration, in terms of ideology net art can also be linked to artistic currents like mail art, pop art, conceptual art and the postmodern 'currents' that evolved from it. Although not many artists have direct links with the mail art movement, the analogy is clear - also in net art the boundaries between the artist and the audience are fading, and in some cases lead to greater involvement, or 'interactivity'. As in mail art, net art revolves around small communities of 'insiders' - the art functions as the social cement of an artistic or cultural community.

Especially on the web we find art which, either clearly or hidden, simulates advertising or comments on it. The major part of the content offered via the web is commercially based or serves as promotion for individuals, groups, institutes - just as in pop art the commenting from a aesthetical point of view on, or criticising ads and consumption patterns are an important theme.

Net art and conceptual art have the dematerialisation of the art object in common, and postmodern themes and concepts are of course omnipresent (see further).

For social background to net art, reference can be made to the cultural groups that have been active on the net for a long time, plus hacker communities and 'nerds' in the academic world.

Question 3. Who does it with whom?

Nationality, cultural background, gender or even personal identity are fading definitions. net art is pre-eminently an international phenomenon (except for maybe the explicitly local projects), artists co-operate more and more, works of art originate via discussions and can often not be attributed to one individual, and it is even possible that virtual characters profile themselves as artists, or that artists hide behind a hermetic mechanical identity. The role of the audience slowly shifts from spectator to participant, from user to creator - although, that's what is generally said about it. This theory is often not correct, although participation is growing in a lot of projects.

Question 4. What is net art actually about?

The themes that are explored in net art often run parallel with discussions in postmodern philosophy and net criticism. Regular subjects are technology (of course), the city, public and private space, gender, activism, information transfer and communication models, infowar, commercialisation and liberalism, the relationship between the human body and machines (cyborgs), artificial intelligence and biotechnology.

Question 5. Where does net art stand and where is it going?

Net art is primarily net-bound - many projects have their own public, a limited group of insiders that is closely involved with the project and only participates and discusses via that same net. Some groups consider this to be positive and interesting, others see it as a necessary evil - to present net art in the context of a museum or gallery is far more difficult.

Since 1994 a host of virtual galleries have appeared on the www; some have built up a strong reputation, most of them exist only in digital form. More and more existing museums, galleries and cultural institutes try to present net art in a physical, tangible way; often the displayed works conceptually have an undeniable physical component. If this is not the case, the presentation becomes problematic.

It is to be expected that both polarities within net art (the purely 'digital' and the 'physical' pole) will profile stronger in the future, and that museums will have to put more effort into giving net art a place in their collection, and that pure 'virtual' net art might become completely marginalised (which would be a great pity, by the way), or on the other hand might enjoy a radical revival. Combinations of both poles are innumerable.

It is clear that art involving technology in this way, presents the 'traditional' art world with a big challenge; it puts existing exhibition concepts to the test, and demands new skills from the curators and the public - being digitally educated and having a 'critical mind' for technology.

Extra links to exhibitions and information about net art:



































About this text

This net art FAQ was written as an introduction to internet-based art for the conference Art en ligne, art en réseau, art en mouvement ("Art online, art on the net, art in motion") in the Musée Royal de Mariemont, Morlanwelz, Belgium, on 6 March 1999. This conference was organized by the museum staff, Patrice Riemens and myself. Check the (partly) archived website of this conference at http://web.archive.org/web/*/http://simsim.rug.ac.be/mariemont/

Invited speakers were

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Sandra Fauconnier . Last update 27.01.2005 12:13

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