In 2006, the reflection that net art used to be about technology was made during Rhizome’s Net Aesthetics 2.0 panel discussion. Three years later, The New York Times runs a report by Alice Pfieffer describing hacking, subverting and critiquing software as a global movement. What happened over the course of three years that so significantly brought hacking culture back into the fold?
For one thing, history isn’t quite as linear as I’ve painted it above. Though art about technology wasn’t a dominant concern in 2006, there were artists working in this vein. For the most part, these were artists such as the two person collective Jodi, who began creating websites with the appearance of fucking up one’s browser in the mid 90’s. A couple years after 2006, those in the net art community aren’t only hackers and software subverters. For example, the well known net artist Petra Cortright hosts several new landscape drawings on her website, which primarily focuses on building a net specific aesthetic sensibility.
In other words, net art practice is more diverse than a New York Times Special Report will likely convey. The artist collective BEIGE, the two person collaborative team and net art pioneers Jodi are worth mentioning in the context of hackers. Their early web pages appeared to make user browsers code only, which brought their work to the attention of larger audiences. In the 90’s it was still possible for innovative artists without huge financial backers to be nominated for the Webby Awards. When they won the arts category, they gave a then famous five-word acceptance speech exclaiming, “Ugly corporate sons of bitches!”
Pfieffer’s focus tends towards different artists, citing YouTube and Google as the inspiration for current net art, and going on to discuss glitch art. Paul Pieroni of SEVENTEEN Gallery aptly describes glitch art as “the aesthetization of a computer fault.” Though unlike the article suggests, as he defines it, the practice doesn’t begin with BEIGE. Joseph Nechvatal “unleashed” computer viruses on images as early as 1992-3 — a rather trite concept, but certainly one that marks an earlier work made in that vein. Additionally, in an email exchange yesterday morning, artist Tom Moody told me musicians helped bring glitch to the forefront as a term of artistic practice in the late 90’s: “A group or producer called Oval in Germany scratched CDs and used digital errors.” He adds in the comments, “I think artists started referring to what they did as “glitch” art after it was in more widespread use as a musical genre name.”
Paul B. Davis, Critical Space Headgear, 2009
Probably the most interesting work to come out of Datamoshing — a developed form of glitch art pixelizing video frames — isn’t discussed in the article. Frustrated with the fact that his disintegrating videos began with the flawed premise that pop culture content didn’t matter, artist Paul B. Davis put together “Define Your Terms” for SEVENTEEN Gallery — a show interrogating Internet use and ephemera. Of my favorite works in the exhibition, Critical Space Headgear (a collaboration with Liam Fogerty) takes video from a head mounted camera and runs it through a system that overlays text onto a live video image seen through goggles. “What does this tell me that isn’t already obvious?” asks Critical Text Mode. The text appears over the center of the images a user sees while surfing and concisely describes the question users should be asking. The second mode, YouTube Emulation, overlays the YouTube logo in the bottom right hand corner of the image before sending the new video image back to the viewing goggles. Notably, it is not easy to figure out how to direct one’s gaze while wearing the head gear. I have yet to try the piece out myself, but I would expect this would force awareness upon a type of viewing we typically take for granted.
Of all the work by artists critiquing software and developing aesthetics inspired by youtube and google, to my mind, this show best demonstrates the kind of criticality Pfeiffer describes. While the Times article may only aim to provide a superficial survey of hacker net art made over the last nine years, readers might be better served if a few holes in the telling of that history were patched up.