New York

Maciej Wisniewski


In 1999, Maciej Wisniewski launched his digital-art career with Netomat, a browser that rewires our access to—and hence our perception of—the Internet by circumventing the structures currently used to organize online information. We typically navigate the Net as if it were a series of self-contained sites connected by hypertext links. With Netomat we encounter its contents as an endless, uninterrupted flow, existing in a single virtual space. First presented at Postmasters and featured in the Whitney Museum’s 2001 exhibition “Data Dynamics,” Netomat is also the basis of Wisniewski’s two new multimedia installations.

For 3 seconds in the memory of the internet, 2002, Wisniewski randomly selected three moments in time (December 10, 1989, 00:41:45 GMT; April 14,1994, 20:00:00 GMT; and August 2, 2001, 14:53:59 GMT), each representing a decade in the Internet’s history. He then used Netomat to access data that was written or modified at these moments and for some reason had never been removed from the server. The mass of information was displayed in the darkened front gallery via three live feeds. Content culled from 1989 and 1994, running in long, thin strips across the top of two large rectangular thresholds, consisted mainly of e-mail messages sent by techie insiders. The shifting array of image and text created in 2001 (overwhelmingly commercial in nature) graced the room’s rear wall. The metaphorical implications of this setup are fairly clear: Viewers moved through the Internet’s past into its present and, as they approached the back gallery, toward its future.

As Wisniewski sees it, the future of the Internet lies in the fulfillment of its original, utopian promise: unrestricted access to information. In the back room Netomatheque, 2001, invited viewers to lounge on a sofa in a cozy, living room–like environment (complete with electric fireplace) and speak directly to the Internet, using a telephone conveniently located on a coffee table. Conversing with the Net, it turned out, meant issuing a one-word command (the system can recognize some two thousand topics) and watching as a wall projection changed according to the results of the “search.” Netomat atomizes information, loosening it from its location within a particular site and presenting it in a streaming collage of overlapping images, texts, and sounds—a process described in an accompanying wall text as one that takes the viewer “on a journey deep into the Internet’s subconscious.”

Invoking the unconscious (for which “subconscious” is a common misnomer) to extol the virtues of Netomat seems a bit off the mark. It suggests that Web pages and links are agents of repression whose elimination would enable the Net's expression of its “true desire.” But the unconscious can never be freed from repression; its very existence stems from primary repression. Similarly, while Netomat organizes data differently from Netscape or Internet Explorer, it’s still an interface—one way of accessing the Internet, not the revelation of its inner truth. This, indeed, is the lesson of 3 seconds in the memory of the internet. Although the analogy between the operations of a computer server and the human faculty of memory implied by its title is problematic, the work itself serves as a reminder that despite the Net’s spatialized structure it is also a historical entity. Wisniewski’s installation encourages viewers to reflect on the fact that our conception of the Internet is rooted in historical conventions that are—and will always be—subject to change.

Margaret Sundell