Net Art in the WildDecember 4, 2013
Art viewers have long relied on context and written texts to fully understand and appreciate works of art. Audiences who meet conceptual and minimalist works with the reaction, “Well, I could do that,” fail to understand that context, concept, and history are vitally important to the meaning of contemporary artwork. Stripping them away can inhibit the artwork’s legibility and be highly disorienting to its audience. While such a reaction has been commonplace ever since Marcel Duchamp called a urinal a work of art, Internet-based artworks have been subject to this decontextualization at a faster rate and often to a more complete degree than physical artworks.
Lacking the traditional grounding of a physical space, net-based artworks can be found without a contextual frame. Furthermore, net-based artworks can be effortlessly taken out of their original context into new arenas, to be read by entirely different audiences.1 This unmooring that the digital space allows has greatly amplified issues of readership, legibility, and audience, which have already long been present in contemporary art.2
How has a weakened context changed net-based art practices?
Online art can be completely decontextualized from an art context or the original artist’s intent, which raises interesting questions for the creator and critic alike. How has a weakened context changed net-based art practices? How can art criticism understand this new audience, and its importance to the work? These situations can offer exciting opportunities or uncomfortable and odd clashes of different cultures.3
Again, conceptual and minimalist art relies on a certain audience and context to be understood and valued as critically relevant. Net-based artists are making art that similarly relies on this contextualization while putting it online in a manner that can be easily copied, lending it to discovery by new audiences. While URL-specific sites may resist this, images and videos can now be scattered across the web with little control from their creators.4 This is a double-edged sword; many more people can see the work, yet the larger audience doesn’t necessarily possess the same understanding and appreciation of the work. A group of net-based artists calling themselves Young Internet-Based Artists, or YIBAs, are looking to capitalize on this feature of the web.5
While much has been written about “exciting new,” and “radical” shifts that technology and the Internet have offered, we must remember to contextualize and historicize these phenomena. The deteriorating context of files within the digital space is a result of the ease of sharing, number of publications, and audience size. Yet publications, large audiences, and easy dissemination were around well before the Internet and prompted important cultural clashes in the past. The scandal surrounding Piss Christ (1987), a photograph by Andres Serrano, is a quintessential example of art reaching an accidental audience.6
The US senators Alfonse D'Amato and Jesse Helms were outraged by Piss Christ and that Serrano had received money from the taxpayer-funded National Endowment for the Arts. Serrano and others involved with the piece received death threats over the controversy. In Melbourne, Australia, a print of Piss Christ was heavily damaged at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1997 after the city’s Catholic archbishop failed to prevent its exhibition. Another print was destroyed at the Collection Lambert, a contemporary museum in France. Although impossible to prove, had images of Piss Christ never left museum and gallery walls, it is doubtful that the work would have been met with such ire; indeed, the angry US senators admitted to never having seen the work in person.
So what is new about net-based artworks and the legibility and readership of such works? As the social web rapidly expands with image-sharing platforms like Instagram and Tumblr, images can become more easily removed from their original context. Simultaneously, media platforms such as blogs, vlogs, podcasts, and other online publications proliferate at a stunning speed. While many of these are filling niche markets that TV and radio have largely failed to cover, many online publications are catch-alls. Gawker, Huffington Post, Thought Catalog and many more websites put all of culture on an even playing field for tens of thousands of readers. In this vibrant and overloaded media ecology, ideas and images are much more likely to become viral, and the likelihood for art to be decontextualized has increased as well.
It is within this context that Anthony Antonellis’s piece, Net Art Implant (2013), became, like Serrano’s Piss Christ, the subject of great controversy. Net Art Implant is a relatively benign performance work consisting of a digital chip surgically implanted in the artist’s hand. The digital chip is embedded in glass and contains a file, which can be read and downloaded by a smart-phone, causing the participant’s phone to play the artist’s signature animated GIF. This GIF is especially important to Antonellis’s work as it’s his website favicon, or bookmark icon.
This is an inversion of traditional art production
Not only does the chip produce Antonellis’s website favicon, the artist is working on an app to both read and write to the chip. This would allow Antonellis to curate works into his hand, thereby extending the networked nature of his practice more completely into his physical presence. As technology continues to permeate our culture, Antonellis is readily embracing it, and its potential for new art production and platforms.
Antonellis is a YIBA, meaning he has embraced the Internet as the primary network for production, consumption, presentation, distribution, and conversation about his work. While Antonellis and other YIBAs still seek the validation (mostly financially and professionally) that comes with physical art shows, they understand those shows as merely one node of a work’s life, of which there are many online. This is an inversion of traditional art production.
Net Art Implant tests the away from keyboard versus online distinction that most YIBAs see as a false dichotomy. YIBAs have embedded their lives and their art practices online, and a digital chip inside one’s hand that can play a GIF file is not much different from a credit card that can access your money at any ATM. Our lives have an enmeshed digital layer, and a GIF-playing hand is a logical next step.
The online publication Animal was responsible for documenting the process behind Net Art Implant and initially broke the story. Given Animal’s wide readership and the professional documentation of the surgery, the visceral and weird story had more potential to become viral. Perhaps if Antonellis had only published the documentation on his personal blog, which has a smaller following of a specific kind of audience, the surprising responses that ensued would probably have never occurred.
Given the contemporary art world’s relative comfort with both the extent of our digital interactions as well as masochistic performance art, it’s no shock that Net Art Implant was met with a relatively quiet response from the art community. Although Net Art Implant remained understood as an artwork, publications like Wired, CNET, Extreme Tech, and Fox News quickly picked up the story, removing Net Art Implant from an art context and placing it in cyborg, body modification, and tech-porn settings - much of which implied, “look at this crazy thing that a weird artist did.”7
Remixing, conversations, and reblogs all become a part of the production cycle of any nominally successful networked artwork.
Net Art Implant’s severance from its original meaning and audience was complete when right-wing Christian blogs picked up the story. Likely emerging from the coverage by Fox News, a series of online articles, comments, and discussions attacked the merit of Antonellis and his actions, which many Christians took to be the mark of the beast. While these discussions at times mention that Antonellis is an artist, that fact likely serves as insufficient rationale in these forums for his doing the work of the devil. Antonellis’s identity went from performing net-based artist to weird-tech artist to satanist in a matter of days.
Traditionally, cultural producers go to great pains to control their messages and their brands. Although in many ways YIBAs are very cognizant of marketing their work, they are no longer so concerned with controlling the message. Traditionally, a viewer’s scribbling on a painting would be considered destruction of the artist’s work, yet for YIBAs, this is a meme, and the fact that a viewer liked it enough to copy and alter it is a compliment. Remixing, conversations, and reblogs all become a part of the production cycle of any nominally successful networked artwork.
Yet how should artists and critics understand this new context? What does success or failure look like there? For YIBAs, one sense of failure is nobody commenting on, sharing, Facebook-“liking,” or writing about the work. Brad Troemel, an art critic, net-based artist, and art professor writes for DIS Magazine:
Posting work to the Internet with no social network readily in place is synonymous with the riddle “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” For young artists on the Internet the answer to the forest question is “no” – their work will easily go unnoticed, making their participation as a social actor an a priori necessity to contextualizing what they do as art.8
So while a networked understanding of net-based art is a necessity, Net Art Implant takes the issue deeper because it leapfrogged into an entirely different social network. The question is not about if the work happened but what actually happened. While the piece did go viral, produced many conversations and debates, and received a ton of press, given the new readings of the work, was it a failure?
A real problem embedded within the response to Net Art Implant is that it came from a community that cannot clearly serve or inhibit Antonellis’s career. The Christian fundamentalists are certainly not buying Antonellis’s work, and the platforms discussing his “mark of the beast” are well outside of the arts press. So although the story went viral, there is no traditional way for Antonellis to advance his career via that large audience and dialogue. However, Antonellis wisely understood the adage that any press is good press and sought to incorporate this accidental audience into his practice for his original audience.
This clash of disparate audiences and readings of Net Art Implant caused Antonellis to launch a complementary Tumblr artwork, But I Feel Great (2013). Documenting the negative commentary that erupted around Net Art Implant, But I Feel Great captures as much of the accidental audience’s reactions to Net Art Implant as possible. True to YIBA practice, the original work became an iterative and conversational process, which is still unfolding. In one way, Antonellis’s work had failed to be read by the audience he had intended for Net Art Implant, yet through But I Feel Great he used those mistaken readings as creative fodder and marketing, helping to increase the viewership of his works and create a more complex piece for his original audience.
Antonellis wisely decided to incorporate the unintended reactions into his practice by relying on social media as a platform for conversation and easy documentation. Instead of fighting to control his message, Antonellis used the viral nature of the work as revealing commentary on the original work’s message. Net Art Implant became a piece with self-generating marketing material and gained an entirely new readership. Given Antonellis’s deft ability at incorporating the Christian responses more art-world viewers flocked to both works.
Net-based artists are increasingly less able to choose a specific audience and therefore the reading of their work
One reason why Antonellis’s capture of the accidental responses was so successful is because the responses were at odds with the original piece’s goals. What better addition to a work embracing technological reliance and immersion than the voices of those communities in complete opposition to such technological advancement? As performances pieces are seen mostly through their documentation, why shouldn’t artists include commentary on their work as part of that documentation? Under this rubric, any commentary becomes part of the work; their expressions of confusion and disdain reveal the complexity of our culture. What began as a one-sided and whole-hearted embrace of technology became a social dialogue with many voices.
This is where YIBAs’ practices have deftly incorporated aspects of the Internet that could be understood as limitations or disadvantages. The accidental audiences, mistaken readings of works, commentary, and remixing are welcomed. The rise of the social web has become a breeding ground for this new, iterative production/consumption of artwork that Net Art Implant and But I Feel Fine encapsulate.
Net-based artists are increasingly less able to choose a specific audience and therefore the reading of their work. Antonellis and YIBAs understand that they can reject mistaken readings and ignore accidental audiences or embrace them as par for the course. Antonellis launched Net Art Implant into a diverse population, not a homogenized gallery, and it went viral in a way he never intended. Instead of fighting or ignoring these responses, Antonellis incorporated them into a new work, greatly complicating and enriching the original work. This was a good marketing move that ultimately benefited the work and his practice. YIBAs will increasingly experience similar disruptions to what Antonellis encountered; his experience serves as a testament for one way to benefit from it.