Unlike many professions, there are a great number of people within the art world who could give a shit about the Internet. Regular readers will know that I generally find this annoying, as I feel the avant-garde should at least attempt to be current. This sort of thing can create problems for artists who are making work in the medium because the people who understand it best are often the sixteen year nerds who spend 18 hours a day in front of a computer, as opposed to art world professionals who are responsible for the evaluation of art.
Now, you don't have to spend this kind of time on a desktop to understand most net art, but let's be honest, it certainly helps. A good deal of net aesthetics are developed through the understanding how web pages and tools work (since design and functionality are one and the same), so while knowing how to make these things isn’t always necessary, you do need to have some experience using them. Simply employing Google from time to time does not create a savvy Internet user.
Since user experience makes a significant difference in our understanding of work being made, even those who make art that is supposed to be accessible often only succeed within the web community. The majority of artists I know have only a vague understanding of what YouTube and MySpace are used for, and so the Guthrie Lonergan piece MySpace Intro Playlist, a curatorial project that consists of 20 MySpace intro videos inspires the same questions video art has posed to the viewer for years, “Why am I watching this?” To be honest, even as someone who uses these tools on a regular basis, I still have problems figuring out what to do with this piece. It is a cabinet of curiosities I feel I’d rather see on blogger Jason Kottke's remaindered links, than to have it exist on the more aggrandized Rhizome Timeshares page (Update: Readers who feel they fit into the “I don’t get New Media crowd” must follow the Kottke link and Rhizome link or the above point will be unintelligible.)
If you are still wondering why net art isn't a total piece of shit, never fear I’m coming to that now. First, keep in mind that you've probably been right about most of what you have seen. 90% of anything is crap, so you can rest assured, you have undoubtedly been looking at a lot of it. Second, remember that like any other medium, viewing requires familiarity with the web, so you may not get much out of the work without spending more time with it. Third, most net artists don't concern themselves with beauty or the sublime, so if that's what you are looking for in art it's no surprise you haven't found it. There simply isn’t that much work being made with these concerns in mind.
I think we all like to believe we are well past the days where Greenbergian modernist philosophies dominate the art world, but it would seem that the inherent timelessness of beauty is something that never really gets dismissed. And maybe it shouldn't. The challenge for net artists (if they chose to make it so), is to come up with something that not only bridges the user gap, but will remain relevant for longer than six months. I’m not saying we should all go out and make pretty art, I’m just observing that beauty is a tried and true method of dealing with issues of longevity.
The net artist who decides to care about the lifespan of a piece, like anyone else in the field, has a tough job ahead of them. There are many ways of approaching this problem, and probably the most difficult is to go about creating the sublime. New Media artists Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin, have achieved this in Listening Post (2002), which is why, to my mind, they provide one of the most sound arguments for why net art doesn't suck. Interestingly, it is also a rare example of net art that has effectively moved off the Internet. What is Listening Post? The artists tell us best:
Listening Post is an art installation that culls text fragments in real time from thousands of unrestricted Internet chat rooms, bulletin boards and other public forums. The texts are read (or sung) by a voice synthesizer, and simultaneously displayed across a suspended grid of more than two hundred small electronic screens.
Unfortunately, the quick time samples which provide the fullest documentation of the project have been removed from their site due to a high volume of traffic, but even the stills demonstrate that the piece creates a tangible experience of the collective consciousness on the Internet. People talk about Internet communities and voices all the time, but user experience rarely allows us to visualize the totality of human interaction on the web. This project is a documentation of largely inconsequential moments that as a whole create something larger. And, like any truly sublime experience it is not something that is quantifiable. It is in this case however, something to be shared – after all the experience itself is the documentation of that exchange.