sub fiction - Internet

Root Event

3. Werkleitz Biennale 1998 sub fiction
sub fiction - Internet

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“The truth about the Internet. You click on some word or another and don’t know what happens, but you don’t know if what happens happens because you hit upon one of these words or would have happened anyway if you had pressed Enter.”
Karl Heinz Jeron

Over the past two years, the Internet has gained acceptance as an integral part of society. The tool used by Internet art projects in the early 1990s was the functional possibilities of non-localized communication. Particularly in the pre-commercial Net era, artists opposed to the traditional art business and anxious to justify the “Internet” as their sphere of work developed network applications leading to projects that tended, unfortunately, to be affirmative rather than critical. Foremost in these early projects was ?Internet technology” as opposed to the communication of new contents. Not infrequently, the new tools developed for these projects delivered cost-free inspiration for improvements of the existing technology. Thus, artists also belonged to a new technological elite (?virtual class”) linked by a common quest for the New – but artists, unlike the technocrats, were naive enough to believe in the utopia of a better, more just world based on improved and democratic media. The more pressure the industry brought to bear in its determination to radically commercialize the network, the more difficult it became for artists working with the Internet to explain their commitment. When ?context-based” art was becoming established at the beginning of the 1990s, artists’ interest was roused by the anarchic infancy of an Internet possessing, at least in part, democratic decision-making structures in its Newsgroups, its own Netiquette, self-organizing forms and clearly defined communities.

Latter-day gold prospectors, by contrast, saw these structures as the testing ground for the neo-liberal tendencies that would underpin a global information economy. Both groups rejected (as they do still) the nation state as the upholder of an authority of political control. Anarchic computer freaks and conservative politicians were united in the belief that ?free citizens should have freedom of travel in “Cyberspace”, although it goes without saying that the interests motivating either group were wholly dissimilar. Interesting artists who are working in or with the Internet or who are working with new technologies on principle are aware of this inconsistency and so mostly choose, beyond left/right and black/white, a way between excessive affirmation and criticism with ironical highlights. The artists develop an economy of attention by, on the one hand being a “part” of the Internet to learn its way of function, and on the other hand taking a detached position to see the Internet in the context of its environment. Those artists who are working with new technologies have to question their tools as their development goes on and on. Producing art in the Internet is therefore a “never-ending, temporary phenomenon”. Therefore, artistic Internet projects are always mirroring a certain period by reacting on current developments or by topping and so anticipating them but without compulsorily having to correspond to the spirit of the times.

In light of the developments from the early 1990s onward, it is now impossible to think of the mass media without the Internet, the medium deployed and advanced by its own pioneers. If one accepts that the analysis of social realities can be a subject of contemporary art, then the Internet, a perceptible constituent of society, is a legitimate field of artistic activity.

Artists working on and with the Internet face the same necessities of business and distribution as artists working in other media. Attempts have been started to set up artist-produced context systems in the form of art and culture servers dedicated to developing distribution structures (“self promotion”) that will allow artists to extend their control to the mediation of their products. In a similar vein, mailing lists with a action-based arts background have become quasi-media operating within the Internet, and represent a distribution system clearly separated from the traditional arts and media business. Still conforming to the mythology of the emergent Internet in their appearance, the lists seem to be more democratically organized, but their function is no different from the classical dissemination systems for art and culture. While the number of participants in these projects, which are built up around general discourse relating to the Internet, media and the arts, is often impressive, the language problem (English), as well as the challenge of having to articulate through text, are almost insurmountable hurdles for many potential contributors, meaning exclusion is automatically generated in a different way. These realigned limitations of access give the lie to the assertion that deploying the Internet per se effects democratization. Artists’ forums on the Internet are important because they have become international communication environments in which artists can promote themselves and their views. Art doesn’t happen there, even if a discussion about art can be art; these forums seldom produce or address visual-æsthetic practices in the way of the WWW.

By incorporating socio-political practices into art, the Net activism of the mailing lists basically adheres to the interventionist principles of context art. It is a case of something being carried forwarded by a new medium, but not genuinely expanded – unless the technical possibilities inherent to the Internet, as opposed to the art, are seen as an addition.

Unlike context systems and mailing-lists, individual netartists or groups in the net operate without having to take into account the visitors on the Websites or the limits of the medium. “Service” is the last thing on their minds. The Internet as a new medium is the tool of artistic projects. Often it has less to do with the Internet itself and more with the desires, hopes and aversions which a networked world arouses among so many people. Here the permanent online existence of a future communication society is now being put to the test catchwords like dislocation, identity, truth, belief, reality, territory which have become popular by way of the net are being taken up by net artists and often radically processed. Here it is not so much a matter of the clarification of such terms as it is a matter of artistic interventions leading to confusions among virtual visitors.

Netart does not have a tight visual language. It behaves rather like a chameleon. It is caught up in a constant process, reacting quickly and sensitively to changes. Netart itself may be short-lived too. For the Internet is a medium which is continuously in movement. Never before in history has the way of a medium from the time of implementation to the massive dissemination been so short as in the case of the Internet.

If one observes the visual appearance of a lot of conventional Websites somewhat more exactly over a longer period of time one may ascertain a “state of the art” in the design. What is conspicuous, for example, are the smoothed, shadowy icons and images. The underlain shadows suggest that the user is being produced on the monitor by way of the shadows and that it is the user who is beaming instead of the monitor. There is a series of other such creative features that recur on a number of Websites. One seldom sees deliberate deviations, for most of the Websites are trying to sell products, and exotic interface ideas should not keep from “clicking”. Netartists as researchers of perception are free enough to look after such phenomena. Everything that allows an escape from the young, but tediously styled WWW is experimented with, from the Websites in black and white to the complete abandonment of design. Netartists are investigating the conventions of the net and its virtual visitors by exceeding them. Even the hypertext inherent in the WWW is contextualized. Many dispense with hyperlinks right from the start, others use them in such an exaggerated way that any orientation is lost.

So-called “fake” projects are also very popular. Netartists try to park themselves with them in other art territories without being exposed. For that they copy creative elements of a particular communication context and transfer them to their own projects. Products are offered that can never possibly exist, services are promised which no one can possibly keep. Lying is therefore explicitly allowed. In this way believers, unsuspecting surfers can become a component of a netart project. Through such projects, fundamental questions are raised about truth, the credibility of the exchange of information in a media-dominated society. Netartists are experimenting with the belief in the progress of techno culture and are working with its material – information and communication. They are using metaphors from the real world, pseudo-individualizing software and playing with the vanity of their virtual visitors.

The work of arts presented in the Internet within the framework of sub fiction are mainly dealing with æsthetic, social, and political phenomenons set by new technologies in general and by the Internet in particular. They are no real ?communication projects”, but by the topics chosen they inspire further discourses. The central themes are aspects of communication and perception of the age of information realised in an artistic way. It’s true that they are part of the WWW data but their approach as regards content let them appear as alien element (“virus”) there.

The projects of Amy Alexander, Bettina Lockemann and Heath Bunting are dealing with the technique of Livesources in a different way. Livesource cameras promise to broadcast liv(f)e pictures via the net. Since the beginning of the WWW Livesources have been fascinating to the viewers: The feeling to be present elsewhere via the screen. Not via TV program but to be on different places simultaneously, of one’s own free will, with the own control center, the browser on the familiar screen. Amy Alexander, Bettina Lockemann and Heath Bunting are using this fascination in a very different way for realising their projects.

Do we watch Livesources in the net because we are really interested in the place shown? What is it that is provided to us? How do we know if something is real? What tells us that we are really voyeurs of another place? Which impression does one get when having a look at such pictures in the Internet? What is really true and what is unreal untrue? Why do we need Livesources?

In Amy Alexander’s project “The Multi-Cultural Recycler” you can ?tap” several Livesources to generate a multi-layer picture out of the different Livesources. The artist uses the Livesources as data material to automatically generate pictures with an own æsthetic. Then the personified pictures can be stored in an online gallery. Amy Alexander first snatches the pictures from their context and then, after they have been recycled, gives them back to the public by putting them on her Website with links to the sources and the ones who have chosen the pictures. There the roles are reversed: The visitors of the “Multi-Cultural Recycler” are no longer “curators” but “artists”, the Livesource developers are just data providers.

Whereas Bettina Lockemann’s project pretends to be a Livesource itself, namely the “First Livesource in eastern Germany” and it isn’t even a Livesource, but in regular intervals there are loaden from the hard disk prepared pictures showing a view on the city of Leipzig. The pictures are prepared, that means for example that, in the second sequence, a scyscraper has three floors more than in the first sequence. In this project, the attentive observer has good chances to see through the fake. However, when having a look at the guestbook, this doesn’t seem to be the case. On the contrary – Internet surfer mostly kindly thank for this “great service”. Bettina Lockemann has made links on this project on relevant Livesource lists and so it has become the ?Queen of quotas” of a whole college server. Furthermore it is interesting that the name of the project “First Livesource of eastern Germany” is at the same time true and untrue. In 1996 when the project started in the net there hasn’t been a “real” Livesource project in eastern Germany. With her project Bettina Lockemann insistently picks out as a central theme the truth of information in the Internet as warning example against the constructions of reality of the beginning of the age of information.

Heath Bunting’s project “A World Wide Watch – Closed Circuit Television” is of hardly unsurpassable cynism. The first part of the title ?A World Wide Watch” is a derivation of the name of the medium he is working with: “World Wide Web”. He uses four Livesources from different Websites to put them together on his Website. These Livesources are pictures of four places of different towns and countries. The places are located in districts with – according to Heath Bunting – a high crime rate. The visiting Internet surfers are told to send a fax via WWW form to the local police office in case of watching a crime. What at first sight seems to be a funny idea insistently shows the dark side of a police state. Heath Bunting refers, amongst other things, to the fact that in England many public places are observed by the police with the help of video cameras. In Heath Bunting’s project this fact gains another quality as any Internet surfer sitting in the living room can become a “Blockwart” (political district warden) and a police accomplice by controlling the district via the Internet. This project is a fake and Heath Bunting doesn’t even try to cover up this fact in a second step: if one fills out the WWW form, one gets a list of observations made by former visitors but no feedback from the local police.

The works by Joan Heemskerk & Dirk Paesmans, Holger Friese, and Matthew Fuller are dealing with the “screens” and the characteristics of the Internet browsers in a very different way. They radically play with the visual expectations and habits of the user when “entering” the Internet. They all directly or indirectly point to the fact that what we see in the WWW mustn’t look like it is. The phenomenon is known by everybody who is working with technologies: the tools, whether it is the computer, the operating system or the Internet browser, are decisively influencing the pictures depicted. Thus, the artistic reflection on the tools, and what will be created with them and how it will be perceived by the viewers plays an important role for artistic Internet projects. The meanwhile legendary project “JODI” by Joan Heemskerk & Dirk Paesmans was one of the first with wich the artists tried to plumb the limits of what can be depicted with the Internet tools given. Joan Heemskerk & Dirk Paesmans exactly stick to the steadily developing standards of the WWW languages HTML and Javascript. They go to the limits of HTML with the aim to æstheticize the “crash”. They almost always fall back on the world of the ASCII code in the eighties or they bring back an error message from the operating system to the screens of the viewers. On the Web pages of Joan Heemskerk & Dirk Paesmans the Internet surfers again and again will be confronted with the common inadequacy of their computers which causes fun and irritation both at the same time. For “JODI” it isn’t necessary to be capable of reading and writing. The visitors get what they secretly always wanted from the WWW: not remaining and reading or viewing but clicking and clicking again and again. The WWW – often called World Wide Waiting – is accelerated by “JODI” and is able to match the pace of TV clips. And when one doesn’t click then something is blinking or there will be a refresh and a new page will be loaden automatically.

Unlike “JODI” the project ?Unendlich, fast …” by Holger Friese provokes by its radical reduction. When searching for the relieving hyperlink the visitor is accustomed to, one just won’t strike it lucky. One has to scroll through a blue page of several meters and with a lot of patience and luck one will find a small heap of characters lying around: an infinity symbol which has been transcribed by Holger Friese from a postscript file. Holger Friese’s work simply breaks the context WWW, causes curiosity and the will to “solve the problem of how to get further”. The reward for the time taken is sparse however and this can be judged as an attack on the visitors.

The WWW browser “I/O/D 4: The Web Stalker” by Matthew Fuller, Colin Green, and Simon Pope tries to pull the browser problem out by the root. Since several years there has been going on the so-called Browser War in the WWW. Microsoft with the “Internet Explorer” and Netscape’s “Navigator” are fighting for the favour of the Internet users, what also means that they fight for the decisive influence on the Internet market. Though it is true that the ?HTML” language is standardized, both companies always try to be ahead by integrating new features beyond the international agreement. Agreement on standards though prevents the Internet from being splittet. The “Web Stalker” is a new browser that has been developed by artists and net users. It sticks to the standard HTML but intentionally offers another point of view on the content of Websites. The “Web Stalker” urgently shows that the interpretation of a technical code and its visual interpretation can vary strongly. Especially in times when the æsthetics of WWW sites is influencing the screendesign of other media and applications people ask themselves what would happen if each Internet surfer used the “Web Stalker”. This also leads to the question to what extent technical tools per se determine the configuration of contents.

How far Barbara Strebel’s hypertext “Towards a CDTD critic” is fictitious is just one of the questions this work raises. The text deals with the networked communication technologies in an ironic way as a kind of syndrome – arranged like a medicine’s instruction leaflet. With the help of links on several Websites which contents often have nothing in common a homogeneous context is created with the text. When having a first look at Barbara Strebel’s project one might get the impression that it is a data sheet of a pharmaceuticals company. Normally one is accustomed to recognize, classify and analyse information given in the WWW at first sight; but this is reduced to absurdum in this project. The reader/Internet surfer in a subversive way is put to the test by the ?cryptic” text in connection with a ?clear” structuring – the same is valid for the URLs linked by the artist. Those namely can be found, with the help of search machines, on the hypertext’s URL. With ?Towards a CDTD critic” Barbara Strebel uses the Internet as tool and at the same time as material for an ironic reflection of it.