PRINT September 1995

Q & A


THE ELUSIVE AND PROTEAN entity known as the Internet is straining to be more things to more people with every passing moment, and it is now metamorphosing into a gallery space as well. In New York this summer, the Dia Center for the Arts, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Museum of Modern Art all inaugurated spaces on-line, to promote exhibitions and to exhibit artwork created for the Internet. At this writing, Digitalogue, a gallery devoted exclusively to digital art, was scheduled to open in Santa Monica in September. New York companies called Tractor and Artix are helping artists, galleries, and museums with life on-line, and the Microsoft Corporation plans a contemporary-art program for its new on-line network. “It’s like the Wild West,” says MoMA’s Barbara London.

Questions about art and cyberspace persist, however: will artists and institutions on the Internet be playing to an audience whose highest word of praise is “cool”? How will artists respond to the restrictions—physical, esthetic, social, not to mention financial—of a high-cyber diet? Don’t Americans eat poorly enough as it is?

I can’t spend more than five minutes on the Internet. The Alternative Biennial, the Internet’s answer to the Whitney Biennial, was the most reactionary art you’ve ever seen—surrealist, Renaissance-looking pictures. [But] I also find it hard either to be a supercritic saying there’s nothing on the Internet, or to take this other side that says the Internet is utopia. To me, it’s just there.

Our Fantastic Prayers project, by Tony Oursler, Stephen Vitiello, and Constance DeJong, was on the Internet and was a performance at Dia as well. It was about the naïve space of Arcadia, where these teenagers look around with no sense of anything but the present. That’s what the Internet is like—this bizarre utopian Arcadia. I saw the figure that DeJong played, the voice of memory, as potentially interrupting the Arcadia of the Internet with deeper and darker concerns. The Internet is clearly becoming a distribution and merchandising device. I’m coming from a nonprofit, and my perspective is to prove there’s a value in not charging for everything—especially on the Internet, where, once commercial enterprises are up and running, it doesn’t cost anything extra to broadcast other nonprofit programs. The infrastructure should stay as free as possible.

DAVID ROSS (DIRECTOR, WHITNEY MUSEUM): For me it’s very encouraging that the Internet is such an accurate reflection of the world, in that it’s mostly dreck. Every once in a while you find something interesting, and even more rarely you find something extraordinary—sort of like video in the early ’70s.

It’s our job to let the public know there are artists out there making work that can be seen with no social pressure—you don’t have to walk around a museum and maybe feel you don't know what’s going on. You can visit it, like it or not, and leave. And if you like it you can explore further. There’s a certain booklike aspect in the privacy of the experience. It loses some of the social experience of looking at art, but there’s something gained in the intimacy. Vito Acconci, in his early work, talked about the seductive power of television; I haven’t seen anyone explore that aspect of the Internet yet, but I’m sure someone will.

STACY HORN (FOUNDER, ECHO CYBERSALON): Artists on the Net are making the same mistakes the early television people got into when they made TV look like theater: they’re treating the Net like an archival medium. In fact it’s more dynamic than that. This may sound like heresy, but it's hard for me to go to galleries and museums because they seem so lifeless by comparison. The Net has tremendous potential as a medium for artistic expression, but people haven’t begun to realize it.

RONALD JONES (ARTIST): I’m creating Web sites to complement my exhibitions in Berlin, Atlanta, and New York. What we typically see on the Internet is handicapped by a limited scope. Dumping video online represents a failure of the imagination, and a failure to appreciate the Internet’s potential. It’s an old solution to a new problem. Inevitably, works of art and exhibitions will evolve into forms otherwise unavailable except on-line.

Only 20 percent of the world’s population owns a phone—that allows us to estimate how accessible this stuff really is. Nevertheless, many of my students at Yale possess a fundamental appreciation of culture as being delivered via the computer, in the same way that my generation understood that television was a primary source of our culture. While we tend to think of museums and galleries as fountainheads of culture, they also include computers and the Internet.

TONY OURSLER (ARTIST): I found working on the Internet interesting because the technology is so basic. It was a little like going back to the ’70s, when conceptual art was a low-tech affair. It separates everything out—the video, the photographs, and the text. The simplicity is really quite heartening. Other computer hype, like virtual reality, is so complicated, but the Internet really lets you get back to basics and to ideas. Maybe at some point you’ll have real-time, 3D images in virtual reality. But fancy f/x stuff like morphing and flying through “cyberspace” isn't going to happen soon. That’s better left to Hollywood. The Net is home.

WOLFGANG STAEHLE (ARTIST; FOUNDER, THE THING CYBERSALON): It's a question of whether the gallery system can keep the predominant position it had in the ’80s. I see a shift where it will become more attractive to work in the digital realm. Most of the artists we’re working with pursue a double-pronged strategy, still showing in galleries and using the Internet to get publicity.

Unlike the institutional art system, the Internet has a decentralized structure. Anything goes. And of course you get crap, and the issue becomes how to filter the crap out. We take the model that's been working all along: we filter and curate. My idea is to have a vacillating system, so things can happen fluidly and new talents can emerge.

MICHAEL HEIZER (ARTIST): I’d be surprised to see major art emerge through the use of a computer. I’m an esthetic producer—what I do is simple expression, and I have no fear it will cease to be eternal. To me, the only artists are esthetic artists—painters and sculptors. What you’re talking about is kinetic art. I think computers are great for getting paperwork done.

The funny thing with progress is there’s always a retrograde movement that accompanies it. I read in Forbes magazine that the biggest growth industry right now is gardening.

R. U. SIRIUS (COFOUNDER, MONDO 2000 MAGAZINE; AUTHOR, CYBERPUNK HANDBOOK: THE REAL CYBERPUNK FAKE BOOK): The problem is waiting three minutes to download a picture that has less quality than what’s in your magazine shop. But if the quality improves, it’ll be a great thing for a virtual walk-through of an exhibition. Obviously certain kinds of art can’t be done on-line, but as technology progresses, painting might be better appreciated there. Still, unless an exhibition was planned for the medium, it would be sort of an advertisement for what's out there, a generic McDonald’s version.

GREGORY ULMER (ENGLISH PROFESSOR, AUTHOR): Educators come to me and ask, What can we do to make our schooling electronic? I tell them, The quickest way is to teach art across the curriculum. You have to liberate art from its museumified ghetto and use it to organize information in all fields. The way information is becoming organized is esthetic, not analytic. Now that scientists are recognizing this, the formal properties of how information is displayed on the screen are as important as the data itself.

There are contradictory forces in the arts now. There’s that ivory-tower gallery system, but there’s also a tendency to avoid being a commodity and to be a practice instead. The avant-garde’s function is to say, Here’s something everyone can do, and it doesn't require training. That’s the part of this that interests me.

KEITH SEWARD (WRITER, PRODUCER OF CD-ROM MAGAZINE BLAM!): My partner Eric Swenson and I were kicked off the on-line network Echo because of the esthetic we were propagating on our site, Necro Enema Amalgamated. They actually put us on trial. After we got kicked off, we went to a meeting of Echo users in a bar, and it was the most depressing, pathetic group of people. I thought, Why did I spend all this time fucking with these people? I feel pretty cynical, not about the technology but about the people using it. But I’m also hopeful—down the road, interesting content will be out there.

NANCY BURSON (ARTIST): My husband and collaborator David Kramlich is a computer scientist who works on identification and aging programs for law enforcement, and he writes my software. We hold a patent on what is considered to be the original “morphing” software. I don’t have any relationship to computers outside of that, and I’ve never had an interest in using the Internet, so I don’t really know much about it. I do think it could be a terrific tool for people outside cities like New York to get access to art. So far, though, the only art I’ve seen on the Internet is like a CD-ROM, which isn’t truly interactive. Our work, like the Age Machine or the Anomaly Machine, shows the viewer 25 years older, or how he or she would look with a facial deformity. Both are completely interactive, which is much different from watching a CD-ROM. A CD-ROM is like being in a book; our stuff is like being in a video.

TIMOTHY BLUM (ART DEALER, OPENING DIGITALOGUE GALLERY, SANTA MONICA): There’s a lot of resistance to the Internet, but there’s always resistance to things that cause change. The art world can to an extent pave the way for different ways of looking at things, but it’s also pretty conservative. I mean, there’s still a distaste toward video in the art world, and in my opinion there’s also an antiintellectual movement now toward pure, estheticized, beautiful objects, which is disturbing. I think, and not necessarily as an advocate, that the Internet is almost the ideal social sculpture. It’s so egalitarian—anybody can use it.

David Colman is a writer who lives in New York. He will be contributing this column regularly to Artforum. and he also writes regularly on art for Vogue.