Olia Lialina

Olia Lialina discusses visibility and network portraiture on the World Wide Web

Olia Lialina, Hosted, 2020, network performance (screen capture).

Pioneering Net artist Olia Lialina was one of the first to make work for networked browsers and she’s one of the few from that first wave to persist. She not only offers metacommentary on the evolving conditions of the World Wide Web, but also consistently speaks and writes about its vernacular iconography and the social conditions created by its content, protocols, and devices. Lialina maintains her own archive of Geocities pages, can recount the art history of sparkly star gifs, and is herself a noted “animated gif model.” Her current show, “Best Effort Network,” is up at arebyte Gallery, London, through May 30 and can also be viewed online.

I WASN’T AN ARTIST BEFORE THE INTERNET. I’d studied journalism and film criticism, and cofounded the Cine Fantom Film Club in Moscow. We had screenings and self-made publications, and I started to make the website for our club in 1995. I got so immersed in this work, I didn’t want to write about films anymore. I wanted to work with HTML and create films online. At that moment, I didn’t think of what I was doing in terms of making art online but in terms of “Netfilms.” I wanted to tell a story for the browser alone. This was how I came to make My Boyfriend Came Back From The War, 1996, a graphic portrayal of a dramatic conversation between two people reunited after war, in the form of multiple webpages featuring grainy black-and-white gifs.

Olia Lialina, Animated GIF Models, 2005, animated GIFs.

Between 1999 and 2005, I was making a lot of art that paid tribute to beginner websites. So I was collecting animated gifs of the first generation, writing about them, and using them in my works, such as “Online Newspapers,” 2004–2018, and Some Universe, 2002. I was trying to bring amateur internet culture to light because, even then, it was always in the shadow of e-commerce and the success stories of new browsers, services, and the great men behind them. There was also this false rumor that the gifs in “My Boyfriend Came Back From The War” were the first on the internet, and I later came to be known as an “Animated Gif Model” when I began intentionally distributing images of myself on the web. My aim was to share good gifs that other people could use on their own webpages. These were little images of me that I worked hard to make perfect. They weren’t jumping or stumbling like some gifs, but looping continuously, with the background perfectly trimmed and transparent. I think that’s the most interesting and vital thing about the gif: not the animation, but the transparency. That’s what gives them their ability to be distributed.

I trained myself as a gif model. This was simply a matter of convenience: I knew how to move best so that it was easiest to loop the gif. But there is no other reason that it’s me in the image. Distributing pictures of myself online wasn’t about my specific identity. The gifs weren’t part of an art project; they weren’t for exhibition. I simply injected myself where I could into free animated gif collections for designers and web users. I also intended to make a countermovement to the way online imagery was starting to be distributed at that time, as the culture shifted toward attention-seeking memes and away from the integration of images as a design element of a webpage.

My newest work, Hosted, 2020, is a sequence of seventy frames depicting me swimming. Each image has been uploaded to a different host, ranging from Tinder to Google Drive to Nextcloud. Though I began with HD images of the same size for every frame, the various platforms distorted the appearance of my movements in accordance with their own policies and restrictions. Viewers watch Hosted by individually opening each frame in separate browser tabs and rapidly closing them, as if they are moving through a flipbook. What might have been a more fluid gif in this case becomes a more variable stream of images.

I’m also showing what could be called “network portraits” because they may look like images of me, but they really illustrate the way networks function. I always show the URL in my work. What happens in the location bar of the browser is more important than what happens in the window. For instance, in Summer, 2013, you will see me swinging through twenty-six different servers maintained by other artists and friends, as their addresses change. There is currently push within the tech industry to stop people from seeing the system architecture of the World Wide Web or distinguishing between what’s inside and outside the browser. For instance, so many things are presented on apps now instead of websites, even though apps are just websites in “kiosk mode.” I really think it’s a crime because web browsers are the most empowering medium that we’ve ever had. That’s why I insist on making them visible.

My new exhibition is called “Best Effort Network,” after one of the works in the show (Best Effort Network, 2015/2020). This titular projection will be installed at the arebyte Gallery, but the work is also simultaneously live in the Open Data Institute (also in London) and at the Haus der elektronischen Künste (House of electronic Arts) in Basel. In it, I’m riding a merry-go-round, perpetually spinning but sometimes disappearing and returning. You can come to the gallery or open the address in your browser and I’ll jump away from arebyte’s screen and appear on yours. If someone else opens the same URL for the site in a different location, I will appear there, but I can only be in one place on the internet, only in one browser, only on one computer at a time. If there are many people trying to look at me at the moment, they’ll have to wait longer. I was always intrigued by the fact that there are so many packets of data constantly traveling through the network, and that each one bounces around many times until it reaches its destination. And if it doesn’t—because things go wrong all the time—what we don’t see is that it either keeps bouncing as it’s being re-sent, or disappears. All this happens so fast that we very seldom notice all these delays. This work is a way to visualize them.