Simon Biggs on Fri, 17 Mar 2000 01:40:15 +0100 (CET)

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[Nettime-bold] Re: <nettime> crush: a response to crash

It was really a joy to read the text below. Sorry to copy all of it, but it
is all relevant really.

A pleasure to read such a critique of the apparent maturation of net art as
museums ("they") get their sticky fingers all over "our" pure practice.

What museums and similar kinds of institutions love about net art is that
it is so textual. Most content on the web is text. So much of that content
is not primary material but secondary or even tertiary critique, analysis
or myth (eg: the text below). Museums love this. Museums work with texts,
not objects. The net is doing their job for them. The text below might have
been written by a junior museum curator or recent graduate looking for such
a job. If museums can save on labour and expect the artists to supply their
work ready critiqued then they are laughing. Museums hated video art but
love net art. They are adopting the net far quicker than fact
most museums still refuse to recognise video art at all (ask Barbara London
or Kathy Rae Huffman, who have worked in that area for many years with
little joy). The museum does not fear the net at all, as suggested below.
The opposite is true, they hate the screen. Steve Dietz's only sin (other
than organising Sins of Change) is to recognise early on the above.

Mind you, any half decent work of art is beyond any form of analytical
critique, at least for the next 15 minutes.

>CRUSH: a response to CRASH: UC Berkeley Symposium on Critical and
>Historical Issues in Net Art
>What follows is a response to the recent Crash symposium at UC Berkeley.
>The symposium consisted primarily of three events:  A Lecture by Steve
>Dietz held on Wednesday February 16th, a presentation of artists works on
>Friday February 18th, and finally a discussion entitled The Critics
>Respond that took place on Saturday the 19th.  This review focuses
>primarily on The Critics Respond.  Many of the quotations are from memory,
>as wasnt able to come up with the $40 for tape
>recordings of the proceedings.  We believe that the spirit (if not the
>exact phrasing) of our quotations is accurate, and welcome any appropriate
>For a full explanation of the scheduling of the event see:
>Having missed the day of artists presentations on Friday, the stage for
>The Critics Respond was set for by Steve Dietzs
>Wednesday lecture entitled Signal or Noise: The Network Museum.  This
>lecture adequately presented the struggle that an institutional
>representative has when confronted with a medium that defies
>objectification and commodification to the extreme.  How does the
>institution respectfully embrace this non-object called net art?  How does
>the museum incorporate the greater museum known as the internet?  If the
>artist already has a venue, what purpose does the museum serve for this
>type of art?  In the view of, these questions were all
>presented in one form or another.  Mr. Dietzs broad answer to these
>questions was telling. The museum must embrace net art or be relegated to
>the position of the museum of the 20th century Mr. Dietzs subsequent
>preoccupations with the 21st century in no way contradicted this
>Net artists appeared throughout these discussions as prey to the
>institution.  It became clear that the institution or at least the
>institutional mind, fears that the net artist may put them out of business
>by offering art that exists outside of the confines of the museum or by
>publishing theory and criticism from outside of the walls of the
>university.  When discussion might have been better focused on the
>concerns of the community of artists and net-art theorists, the
>conversation constantly found itself bogged down by old and tired
>definitions of art, and lame attempts to conform net art to these same
>definitions and paradigms.  It should have been no surprise when SFMOMA
>curator David Ross, somewhat uncomfortably distracted attention from his
>use of the phrase paradigmatic shift.  The phrase was uttered, it had to
>be.  Net art offers, and nearly requires a paradigmatic shift, yet many of
>the participants in this symposium spent so much of their energy bemoaning
>the fact that net art does not fit into any predefined paradigm.  Or they
>were heard to announce false differentiations between traditional art
>practice and net art practice.  Even in the midst of somewhat informed
>discussion of browser based art, all talk seemed to focus on critique of
>the interface, as if it were photography or painting.
>A most disturbing example of a discussion of false distinctions was
>Charles Altieris pronouncement that deep and moving were adjectives that
>could not be used to describe net art.  This statement alone could give
>rise to hours of discussion for most of the editorial staff at
>, but theres more.  As an alternative to these adjectives
>Mr. Altieri proposed that the panel discuss how to formulate a language of
>praise for net art.  Somehow Mr. Altieri failed to understand that net
>artists find ways to praise one anothers work all the time.  Perhaps the
>real problem for Mr. Altieri and those who took up his cause is that these
>same artists are not beating down the doors of the museum demanding the
>praise of traditional art criticism.  Are we to believe that net art is
>somehow devalued by Mr. Altieris inability to succinctly praise it?
>And so.... the entire morning session on Saturday was spent discussing how
>to develop this "language of praise" for net art.  How do we differentiate
>praise from hype? (Lunenfeld)  Why should we care about net art? (Dietz)
>How can the net artist create art that is like a cake that you can eat and
>enjoy and have still be there? (Failing)
>This last question was typical of the florid arguments attempting to fit
>net art into a predefined paradigm of art practice.  In response to this
>question, Anne Wagner quite appropriately reminded us that not all art is
>about satiety or pleasure, that Patricia Failings concerns about how net
>artists should create work of the have your cake and eat it too variety
>might have little to do with what NET art needs to do, and more to do with
>what Ms. Failing, perhaps mistakenly, thinks ALL art should do.
>Far too often this floundering distraction took hold of the entire panel.
>Too often the panelists became mired in questions of what the speakers
>definition of art was, or how the speaker might be able to discuss net art
>in more traditional terms.  Hal Foster seemed to lead the charge for this
>latter way of thinking most vocally.  With an air of frustration Foster
>asked about net arts modalities and their order...referring to visual,
>textual, linear, and narrative modalities as examples.  While elements of
>these questions have their place in this discourse their presentation was
>diminished by Mr. Fosters early admission of a lack of respect, concern,
>and understanding for net art.  This admission, in the end, did not serve
>Mr. Foster very well..  In the end he sounded like a smart student that
>hadnt done his homework.  He came up with some interesting approaches, but
>got bogged down by any attempt at fleshing out details.
>Fosters line of questioning was valuable in that it revealed the
>difficulty of recognizing the distinctive aspects of the medium for one
>who does not understand the very basic nature of the network.  When Foster
>referred to the dominance of the screen in net art, he revealed yet
>another central misconception in many of the panelists arguments.  It was
>all too clear that many on the panel saw the network and the interface as
>a united entity.  There was no discussion of discussion of
>the visual on the screen being merely an interface to a network project
>that is quite invisible.  The problem, clearly was that many panelists
>were seeing the image on the screen as the work, and wanting to critique
>the screen as one would critique other visual media.  Here we would like
>to interject, that if the institution would like to work with the net
>artist, it should at least learn to understand the subtleties of the
>medium.  The distinction between network and browser is not even a
>particularly subtle distinction.
>The myopic preoccupation with the browser seemed to be most prominently
>voiced by designer Peter Lunenfeld, whose long winded monologues on hype
>and hyperdriven media quickly grew tiresome.  In his argument that
>pornography on the net has somehow mutated us into a society looking for
>one extended come shot, we at conceptualart. org were led to think that
>individuals find on the net what they are looking for.  If Mr. Lunenfeld
>is really disturbed by this one continuous orgasm, perhaps he should visit
>the outrageously popular where prurient interest are
>most assuredly indulged, but not a single bodily fluid is spilled (on
>It seemed far too easy for Mr. Lunenfeld to argue that the network is all
>about commercial branding and speed using thumb-candy video games like
>Tomb Raider as an example.  By pointing his critical eye toward games that
>are moving more and more into the realm of thumb candy, Mr. Lunenfeld
>indulged another myth of the effects of a network on society: the
>uncontrollable acceleration of culture.  Should we decide that discussing
>video games is valuable to this discussion, Mr. Lunenfelds comments still
>sound ill informed at best. In this case we point Mr. Lunenfeld to the
>popularity of computer strategy games like Warcraft, StarCraft, Comand and
>Conquer, Civilization, Myth, and even Pokemon.  These games are more
>reminiscent of the Avalon Hill board games of the 80s than the Sonic the
>Hedgehog thumb candy Mr. Lunenfeld is so attracted to.  Likewise these
>games are networkable, allowing users to play with and against one
>another, in a new and complex version of chess in the park.  For
>crissakes, even Doom and Quake owe a large portion of their appeal to an
>increased level of resource management and strategy. Rephrasing our
>previous concern, individuals find in technology what they are looking
>Mr. Lunenfelds preoccupation with the commercial in his discussion of
>culture might have served to add to the discussion if it were not for his
>apparent distrust of and distaste for art in favor of design.  In response
>to one audience members question about the differences between art and
>design practice, Mr. Lunenfeld began a diatribe about trying to teach
>design to artists who resisted a professional ethic.  Given that Mr.
>Lunenfeld did not give any specifics, we are left to believe he is
>complaining about not being able to break the will of artists that have an
>interest in challenging corporate interests through personally expressive
>design.  Is Mr. Lunenfeld afraid that the artists in his design classes
>might embarrass him by working for one of his favorite sponsors without
>displaying the appropriate professional ethic.  Mr. Lunenfelds
>pronouncements that somehow the popularity of Laura Kroft of Tomb Raider
>fame provides an important model for artistic production seemed to us, in
>our most generous of moods, overzealous.  Once again the arguments here
>were less about understanding what net art is, and more about the
>participant giving voice to their own cultural preoccupations.
>Mr. Lunenfelds commercial focus brings up several related issues.  In the
>context of Steve Dietzs presentation on Wednesday night of the Walker Art
>Centers Art Entertainment Network (, Mr.
>Lunenfelds arguments take on a new and perhaps less benevolent sheen.  By
>presenting the museum as equivalent to a portal site (like Yahoo) as Art
>Entertainment Network does.....By contextualizing artistic expression as
>entertainment arent we also limiting arts possibilities?  By using
>corporate success as our benchmark are we similarly limiting arts
>possibilities?  If a work of art is not entertaining ... does that mean it
>is not good art?  If a work of art is not attractive, can it be appealing
>on another level?  If a work of art is not marketable should it still be
>supported by the art establishment?  As institutions begin to depend on
>corporate sponsorship to fund their forays into the world of digital
> the high tech gadgetry worth the sacrifices in expression that
>might be required to maintain that support?  If we define art as
>entertainment and pleasure, we pave the way for an overwhelming influx of
>the inoffensive and boring.  Once again we are reminded of the gravity of
>Anne Wagners statement that not all art is about satiety or pleasure.
>Most prominently in opposition to the browser-deep, popular culture
>critique were Victoria Vesna and Fabian Wagmeister.  Mr. Wagmeister and
>Ms. Vesna both took up the cause of site specificity on the internet.  In
>fact, Ms. Vesna began what we took to be a quite compelling discussion of
>site specificity...referring to the development of Hans Haackes work as it
>moved into the milieu of the museum, and how it began to address political
>concerns surrounding the museum.  We were quite interested.  Regardless of
>the organizers initial intent, the moderator chose to firmly silence Ms.
>Vesna for allegedly rambling off topic.  This might have been a less
>egregious error on the part of the moderator had he not later allowed Mr.
>Lunenfeld to overrule an attempt to quiet him in the midst of one of his
>off-topic hype/hyper/orgasmatronic/thumb candy rants.
>Net art and browser art do not have to be the same thing, and this
>symposium had every potential to provide a point of departure from the
>browser based discussion that was informed in no small part by Berkeleys
>proximity to so many of Amerca's highest tech dot com enterprises. In the
>interest of being entertaining or inoffensive or....whatever ... the
>symposium indulged all flights into the realm of the visual.  From 10 AM
>to 3:30PM any specific references to the network were generally speaking
>passed over.  Was this perhaps because the museum does not feel equipped
>to evaluate the network?  And the final half hour of the day,
>starting around 3:30pm....Lev Manovich announced that net art is about the
>signal. Video art ushered in the development of an art form that could
>move away from the object and into the realm of the signal, and now we
>have a medium that many artists are working in that doesn't even present
>itself on a tradable tape. Net art is pure signal. No wonder the
>institution gets in such a muddle when it sets up a symposium about net
>art and tries to make it conform to their preconceived notions of what art
>is.  You cannot frame a signal.  Of course designers dont want to talk
>about the artistic possibilities of the network.  Formatting the signal
>has no anolog to the printed page outside of the browser.  Thank you for
>the clarity, Mr. Manovich.
>In all of this madness and floundering, we of course chose a couple of
>favorites, specifically Anne Wagner and Lev Manovich.  Thank the heavens
>for Lev Manovich.  Shortly before Mr. Manovichs prepared remarks, a few
>audience members,Shawn Brixey, and a few other panelists (remember there
>were nearly 20 of them)  managed to at least address the motivations of
>corporate support for digital equipment in art departments, acknowledging
>that these interests were not always purely philanthropic. As the last
>presenter in this muddle of participants (all on stage simultaneously) Lev
>Manovich reminded all in attendance that the assembled American and
>presumably Silicon Valley -hip crowd were lagging behind the rest of the
>world in their discussions of the philosophical and cultural implications
>of the network. Most notably, he mentioned the Soros Foundation funded
>efforts in new media throughout Eastern Europe, and the fact that many of
>the desultory threads presenting themselves during the days conversation
>had long since been visited in these countries, where support for artistic
>endeavors in technology is more common and less corporate.
>At this point we began to twitch in our seats as we began to realize the
>depths of the detrimental effects of this Silicon Valley dot com boom.
>For the near term, all of the great artistic minds are being herded into
>these corporate venues... learning a professional ethic, and contributing,
>through neglect, to an institutional ignorance of the non-commodity value
>of art forms that are non-visual and non-objectified.  And why shouldnt
>that be the case, after this symposium, we suggest that the digital media
>student at Berkeley might be inclined to adopt the following line of
>reasoning:  Because I have learned to program Perl and javascript and have
>constructed digital interfaces, should I exercise those skills in an art
>world that is still flummoxed by questions of how it can praise me, and
>why it should care about what I do?  Or should I put those skills to use
>in the corporate arena, where praise is plentiful in the form of money?
>Why should I explore the uniqueness of the medium when there is no support
>for it?  I can make drop shadowed, roll-over laden web sites with
>Photoshop and HTML, and there is plenty of praise and support for that.
>Anne Wagner, as an art historian who was not an insider to net art
>debates, did her homework, and was prepared to talk visually of limited
>palettes, and conceptually of the myths that inform peoples approaches to
>new technology.  She quite powerfully made reference to the myths required
>for the net artist to begin work:  novelty, ubiquity, and freedom.
>Indeed, a discussion of the mythical nature of these assumptions.... that
>somehow the novelty of a new technology can create a new and interesting
>art form, that computing is ubiquitous(if that were true perhaps the
>symposium members would have been generally better informed), that the
>process of creating on the computer somehow allows for greater
>freedom...would have been more to the heart of things, but debating these
>points would have required that more of the panelists had at least a
>cursory understanding of the technology behind the work.  By referring to
>the creation of art as a means of figuring a dream of an alternative to
>consensus reality, Ms. Wagner gives the encouragement to
>agree that art can and should figure these alternatives, and that work
>which attempts to imitate its corporate counterparts works against this
>project.  Ms. Wagners comments were a series of treats offered to all in
>attendance, but (unfortunately) rarely taken up for further exploration.
>In evaluating what was supported and what rejected or overlooked in the
>course of this symposium, we begin to wonder if the point of the symposium
>was to try to convince net artists to make work that the institution can
>embrace.  I t was curious seeing the large number of hands that went up in
>the audience when a panelist asked to see how many audience members
>considered themselves net artists.  It was also curious that these
>audience members were not allowed more opportunities for questioning and
>commentary.  In the end it began to sound like all of this intellectual
>floundering was the critics way of telling the attendant net artists and
>theorists This stuff is too hard.  In silencing Victoria Vesna, as well as
>neglecting the audience, the symposium organizers also suggested that
>allowing those who practice in the medium to contribute would only confuse
>the panelists more.  Our response to these attitudes at
>is as follows, The institutions....the museums, the universities, the
>galleries .... must figure out how to understand the intricacies of the
>network if they want to understand and embrace net art ...  As for the
>implications of not understanding or embracing net art, we will leave that
>for history to decide.

Simon Biggs
London GB

Professor of Research (Fine Art)
Art and Design Research Centre
School of Cultural Studies
Sheffield Hallam University
Sheffield, UK

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