Net Art && Cultures: HyperLinks
Watch my intro on How To / Why Make Internet Art for an introduction to the theoretical framework we'll be using to approach our subject matter throughout this course. If you haven't already, make sure to review the syllabus and watch my video on it (both of which are linked on the homepage) and answer the survey questions I sent to the entire class via email.
Act I: Internet Ecology
life will be happier for the on-line individual because the people with whom one interacts most strongly will be selected more by commonality of interests and goals than by accidents of proximity
J.C.R. Licklider && Robert W. Taylor. 1968.
In 1968, when the first two computers came online and before “online” meant anything to anyone, two of the Internet’s creators wrote, “life will be happier for the online individual because the people with whom one interacts most strongly will be selected more by commonality of interests and goals than by accidents of proximity.” In 1973 email was the “killer app”; today it’s social media. From BBSs (Bulletin Board Systems) of the 1980s to subreddits today, the Internet has always been about community.
In 1997, Michael and Ronda Hauben wrote that, "a new world of connections between people—either privately, from individual to individual, or publicly, from individuals to the collective mass of many on the Net—is possible. The old model of distribution of information from the central Network Broadcasting Company is being questions and challenged. The top-down model of information being distributed by a few for mass consumption is no longer the only news. Netnews brings the power of the report to the Netizen. People now have the ability to broadcast their observations or questions around the world and have other people respond. The computer networks form a new grassroots connection that allows excluded sections of society to have a voice. This new medium is unprecedented." At the time, this was meant to feel utopian, today 20 years later, amid the onslaught of mis/disinformation we're facing, it reads almost dystopian.
Does the Internet help bring the world together, to "consider everyone as [our] compatriot" (Hauben) in a "global village" (Marshall McLuhan)? Or is it splitting us apart into warring tribes, each living in our own virtual realities? Does the Internet's decentralized nature challenge conventional control structures and give the power to the people? Or could the further dismantling of the old hierarchical information systems lead to chaos, confusion and the end of democracy?
WTF is the Internet?
The Internet's "anarchy" may seem strange or even unnatural, but it makes a certain deep and basic sense. It's rather like the "anarchy" of the English language. Nobody rents English, and nobody owns English. As an English-speaking person, it's up to you to learn how to speak English properly and make whatever use you please of it. Otherwise, everybody just sort of pitches in, and somehow the thing evolves on its own, and somehow turns out workable. And interesting. Fascinating, even. Though a lot of people earn their living from using and exploiting and teaching English, "English" as an institution is public property, a public good. Much the same goes for the Internet.
The Internet is often described as a "cloud", an amorphous entity that is everywhere and nowhere at the same time. This sort of magical thinking does us a disservice as artists. If we hope to make meaningful work with the Internet that also speaks to living in a world mediated by the Internet, it would help if we knew what it really was.
The Internet is actually a very real, very physical thing. You can touch it, you can smell it, it has a "delicious old odor" as Leonard Kleinrock put it. The Internet exists in time and space, and came into existence at specific time[s] and place[s]. Maybe it started in "deep military secrecy" within a "Cold War think-tank" as science fiction writer Bruce Sterling writes in his "Short History of the Internet". Or maybe "ground zero" for the "birth place of the Internet" was actually a dingy university classroom in California, as filmmaker Werner Herzog narrates in his existential documentary "Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World." Or maybe it didn't happen in the United States at all? Maybe it started in a British Laboratory? Or maybe a French Laboratory?
Where did the Internet come from? When was it created? Who created it? And, perhaps most importantly, Why? To answer these questions...
What is the Internet, literally, physically. Where is the Internet? What's it made of, how does it work? To answer these questions...
Here's my video with the Internet Travelogue notes and information on how to access our class BBS.
In 1945, an American engineer/inventor/thinker named Vannevar Bush wrote an article in the Atlantic entitled, “As We May Think,” where he described a theoretical machine for storing and retrieving information based on associations (which he argued would be more akin to the way we think than the way information was typically organized in catalogs, categories, libraries, etc) he called it the “memex.” This article influenced lots of radically minded engineers and futurists who followed including an experimental writer and filmmaker turned software designer Ted Nelson. Who, in the late 1960s, coined the term “hypertext” and created one of the first applications with linked documents, Xanadu.
Despite hypertext's (and hypermedia's) potential for revolutionizing media, most software designers in the years that followed "imitated the conventional media of the past" as Ted Nelson put it, "paper documents (.doc, .pdf), phonograph record tacks (.mp3s, .wav) and sequential movies (.mov, .mp4), Why?!", that is until a British scientist (and his collaborators Nicola Pellow and Robert Cailliau) created the World Wide Web, a globally distributed and open hypermedia platform built on top of the globally distributed infrastructure of the Internet.
But is today's web living up to it's full hypermedia potential? Or have we regressed back into "imitating the conventional media of the past"? Where do we draw the line between conventional/traditional media and hypermedia? Which characteristics of the media you consume today (Netflix, podcats, TikTok, Twitch, etc) resemble those of hypermedia and which of traditional media? To help you answer these questions:
- Watch the PBS digital studio's Crash Course Computer Science episode on "the World Wide Web"
- If you'd like a technical (though high level) review of some the information from last week Crash Course also has a video on Computer Networks and the Internet.
- Then Watch my video on the Browser, the type of application that brings the Web to life. Then watch my short side video to that on "how/why we do history" as artists.
- Then watch Douglas Adamn's 1990 documentary "Hyperland" about the hypermedia scene at it's peak, just before the explosion of the World Wide Web.
For a deeper dive into the Hypermedia of the 90's check out this episode of Computer Chronicles (1987) on the "Hypercard" program, as well as this emulated archived version of Amanda Goodenough's early hypermedia work "Indigo Gets Out" (referenced in the documentary).
- Then explore (at your own pace) some of these Hypermedia examples:
Act II: Internet Cultures
Cyberpunk and Virtual Reality
Like the word 'cyberspace', the term 'virtual reality' (VR) is now commonly used for any space created by or accessible through computers, ranging from the 3D world of a game to the Internet as an alternate 'virtual' reality constructed by a vast networked communication space.
Christiane Paul (Curator of New Media Arts at the Whitney Museum of American Art)
Initially a genre of dystopian science fiction novels, Cyberpunk grew into a counter-cultural movement of punk academics, hackers and artists. The artistic outputs of this community came in various different forms books, music, fashion and of course digital/computer art, most noticeably early experiments in virtual reality. In the 1980s and early 90s, as the Internet was growing and the Web was just around the corner cyberpunks imagined a future run by multinational corporations with powerful AIs, where everyone would "jack into the Matrix", the immersive 3D cyberspace they predicted the Internet would become. Today we don't plug cables into our brain and enter immersive 3D worlds when we wake up in the morning, but in some sense we do live in a virtual reality (consider our remote class this semester for example). In what ways is our present world like those imagined by the cyberpunks, in what ways is it different? What can we learn about our current moment by looking at it through the vector views of this dystopian futurist past.
to answer these questions complete the netnet.studio lessons Orientation, Cyberspace and Creating a Scene in that order. All of the videos and readings (including plenty of deep dives) as well as the VR coding tutorial are embedded in these tutorials. As explained in class, these lessons are an experiment in remote learning, as a backup I have my more conventional class notes available here (specifically the "Basic Introduction" and "Animation" sections).
Next week everyone is expected to meet with their groups at 9AM in their preferred (synchronous) meeting contexts (ex Discord, Jitsi, etc) to share their A-Frame experiments and feedback with each other.
Net.art stood for communications and grpahics, email, texts and images, referring to and merging into one another; it was artists, enthusiasts, and technoculture critics trading ideas, sustaining one another's interest through ongoing dialogue. Net.art meant online detournments, discourse instead of singular texts or images, defined more by links, e-mails, and exchanges than by any "optical" aesthetic. Whatever images of net.art projects grace these pages, beware that, seen out of their native HTML, out of their networked, social habitats, they are the net.art equivalents of animals in zoos
Read Web Work: A History of Internet Art (Artforum, 2000) by Rachel Greene (author of the book Internet Art). Look up the works and artists mentioned (many of the pieces discussed are still online) to experience them in their "native HTML" as Greene puts it. Consider what discovering the Internet via the Web must have felt like to these artists in the early 90s, why do you think they would have gotten excited about it? What sort of potential did they see in the Web? Do you think this potential is still with us today?
After reading the article, we'll take a closer look at one of the pieces mentioned in the essay, King's Cross Phone In (1994) by Heath Bunting, "In this work, the web was used to transform a commuter hub, King's Cross train station (London), into a venue for social and musical spectacles." (Greene). In doing so we'll also learn the core concepts of HTML (from the perspective of Internet art). I've prepared a netnet tutorial, which you can access in 3 different ways:
net.art hacktivism (HTML tutorial #1)
net.art formalism (HTML tutorial #2)
If you get through the above tutorial fairly quickly and are looking to dive a little deeper, I've prepared some additional notes and tutorials for you to jump ahead with.
Post-Internet was a term coined by Marisa Olson initially to describe the activity taking place in a collaborative art blog she co-founded called Nasty Nets (2006-2012) but quickly evolved to describe art that was generally "Internet aware"
"Nasty Nets was both a notable experiment in collaborative posting as artistic practice and an important record of materials collected at the moment of the web’s transition to centralized platforms."
(Rhizome Net Art Anthology)
In the generation that followed the net.art movement, Internet artists were, "no longer [...] strapped with the heavy burden of representing the medium itself" (Olson). For "surf clubs" like Nasty Nets and Spirit Surfers (2008-present), "the internet [was] less a novelty and more a banality."
The start of the decennium saw artists, like those in the NEEN (2000-2004) "movement", bring art world sensibilities to the Internet and likewise, towards the end of the decade, artists like Jayson Musson aka Hennessy Youngman (2010-2012), bring Internet sensibilities to the art world.
Take a look at work produced by Internet art collectives formed in this period, specifically Rafaël Rozendaal (NEEN), F.A.T. Lab (2007-2015) and Deep Lab (2014-present). How are these works/practices "Internet aware"? Regardless of whether or not the work itself engages with the Internet as a medium, how is the Internet (as a broader cultural phenomenon) present in the themes, aesthetics and social dynamics of these works? How do we see this "Internet awareness" reflected in the way these artists think about their practice?
After watching those videos, start participating in the class "Surf Club". The goal of our surf club will be to collect Internet artifacts that reflect a 2020 "post-Internet" (details here)
Cascading Style Sheets, or CSS, was a language introduced to the Web in the mid 90s for the purpose of separating a webpage's "form" or "presentation" from it's "structure" or "content". Initially it handled things like layout, color changes and typography, but today in the era of CSS3, it has evolved to become a much more expressive language capable of creating interactive effects and animations. In the web-development world, there are creative coders that like to challenge themselves and inspire each other to push CSS to its limits and produce playful works of "CSS Art"
If you’ve ever seen ASCII art — those popular computer pictures formed from text and symbols on your keyboard — then you’ve seen how computer code can be used to create art. Believe it or not, we’ve come so far in the way that sophisticated computer languages can interpret commands that we can now use them to create stunning illustrations — like the ones developer Diana A. Smith creates.
Aja Romano (Vox.com)
Complete the introductory CSS tutorial and then peruse my curated list of "CSS Art" pieces to draw some inspiration before experimenting with your own CSS compositions. Though CSS's primary purpose is to control a pages layout and general style, for these first CSS sketches I want you to experiment with what CSS can do rather than what CSS is for. Take a look at this full list of CSS properteris on the Mozilla Developer Network and try playing with some you've never used before. Like CSS artists, try to push CSS to its limits!
CSS Art + CSS Basics
The Joy of CSS Art
video (CSS Art: behind the source code)
Shoshana Zuboff on surveillance capitalism a documentary by VPRO. From the description: "Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff wrote a monumental book about the new economic order that is alarming. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, reveals how the biggest tech companies deal with our data. How do we regain control of our data? What is surveillance capitalism? In this documentary, Zuboff takes the lid off Google and Facebook and reveals a merciless form of capitalism in which no natural resources, but the citizen itself, serves as a raw material. How can citizens regain control of their data?"
Surya Mattu is an imaginative software developer and a curious internet explorer. As an artist his work playfully critisizes data hungry surveillance tech (for example his piece Unfit Bits or Skylift) and have been shown at major venues like The Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Museum of Art & Design, The Whitney Museum, V&A Museum and Bitforms Gallery. As a data journalist he's produced amazing tools for dissecting the systems of surveillance capitalism like his most recent project for the Markup called Blacklight, or the Pulizer Prize finalist Machine Bias, a series he worked on at ProPublica. As a scholar/researcher he's worked at major institutions like Bell Labs, Data & Society, and the MIT Media Lab.
personal pages: then && now
At the same time that (the comparatively small group of) net.artists were creating their iconic works of Internet art, the rest of the web was also being (predominantly) created by amateurs known as "netizens": the non-professional, curious and creative users of the early web. Though they "made fun" of these "amateurs" at the time, today net.artists Olia Lialina and Dragan Espenschied find immense value in this early web and work to preserve it. Watch this video by Quartz where Lialina and Espenschied discuss their motivation behind this work. While they clearly find the (now retro) aesthetic interesting, their investment in this era of the Internet is about much more. Why do they think it's important to preserve these sites? What do they feel has been lost in our present era of Squarespace and Instagram?
GeoCities might be dead, but its spirit is still very much alive in various corners of the Internet, for example, Digital gardens (read it), "side projects" produced by web designers and developers who create "individualized, creative sites that eschew the one-size-fits-all look and feel of social media". In his 2009 essay on Internet surf clubs, Commodify Your Consumption: Tactical Surfing / Wakes of Resistance (optional reading), Curt Cloninger argues that...
The danger of MySpace and YouTube is not the threat that they may wind up archiving and owning all the 'content' I produce, or that they are currently getting rich off the content I produce, but that they control the parameters within which I produce 'my original' content.
The early web is an example of what the Internet looked like when 'the parameters' within which netizens produced their web sites were fairly open and unopinionated, before the era of social media, where a handful of surveillance capitalist platforms replaced the blank canvas of a geocities pages with the restricted parameters of online profiles. What would a contemporary online presence look like if it were unrestricted by these parameters? The "digital gardens" discussed in the MIT Technology Review article is one answer to that question. Like web designer Melanie Richards' pages for example, Highlights a digital home for all the time's she highlights text in a book she's reading, or Melanie’s Bucket List a collection of places she has/has-yet to visit, or Good Things "a personal compilation of good sensory things in life."
Web Design: CSS Layout