The Decentralization of Art on The Internet: An Imagined History

by Paddy Johnson on January 18, 2011 · 21 comments Opinion

Eddo Stern, Installation view, 2007, Postmasters

Artist Brad Troemel would be better served if he simply wrote the manifesto he’s got in him, rather than trying to defend a bunch of radical ideas by fabricating net history. It’s an irresponsible practice and likely to mislead readers unfamiliar with the topic.

So just what is the artist going on about? It’s rather long winded, but after 4,000 words tracking the progression of decentralization on the web (which as Michael Manning points out on his own blog never began that way in the first place), he finally gets to his belief: a super-sized art community full of anonymous self-reflective art makers will move the medium forward. This is a little wide-eyed Utopic for my taste but that’s fine. I don’t believe Ad Reinhardt’s claims for the superiority of black painting either, but I recognize that he made a lot of good art as a result.  But Reinhardt never produced a text producing false histories nor did he refuse to discuss his work. To date, 491, the host site of Troemel’s essay has accepted no comments or trackbacks to comments challenging the history he’s presented UPDATE: A link to Manning’s post is on 491 now. My bad.

I’m not going to bother trying to discuss the essay there, but I did go to the trouble of annotating the historical timeline adeptly identified by Manning as a “90's utopia disrupted by a web 2.0 capitalist regime, which paved the way for a group of elitist artists seeking institutional recognition via surf clubs, and which was finally brought down by the populist Tumblr using Internet artist”. My notes and corrections below.


-Artists became distrustful of technology due to the use of cybernetics in Vietnam. Thankfully in 1994 Netscape ushered in a new age of love for tech, as well as the wide use of anonymous handles (yay!). These claims all seem exaggerated but for the creation of avatars. Certainly, the idea that Vietnam cast a negative light on the desire of American artists to use technology is suspect –Andrea Rosen has hosted multiple exhibitions showcasing kinetic abstraction from 20’s through the 70’s and I’ve not once read about a shift in attitude during the 50’s. Martha Schwendener, a noted historian and critic suggests the field was seen as the “wave of the future”. It’s unclear why this “history” is included, since it’s a debatable point never defended. It also does not support Troemel’s description of 90’s anonymous exchange as “the joyous impossibility of determining who were the digitized voices communicating with each other.” Please. That joy was called fear. At that time everyone I knew was worried that giving up your identity on the net would land you on a serial killer list.

– Avatar use in the 90’s correlates to an interest in truer selves. As Manning indicates Troemel does a reasonable job citing artists who fit under this hood, but for @RTMark, an activist group specializing in corporate espionage not deeper self knowledge.

– After 9/11 the web shifts to from anonymous handles to full names. This is because the profit model of the web works best when people’s income class can be identified and their buying habits tracked. Troemel’s chronology is off here. As noted by Tom Moody previously, warblogging era blogs and art blogs tended to have names such Newsgrist, Media Whores Online, Iconodual. Notably, Art Fag City was founded in 2005, initially under the pseudonym fagette. This name is still in use on delicious (for however long that network lasts).  Manning observes a number of unmentioned methods of distribution, including Nettime and The THING going on to remark that these too suffered from the exclusivity issues Troemel later describes as plaguing surf clubs. (Moody also fingers the exclusivity of 90’s websites like Mouchette). Also from Manning: “The 90's artists which are referenced have specific reasons for creating virtual identities, aside from simply being provided the opportunity (not to mention the multitudes of artists making work under their 'inherited identities' (BuntingShulgin,Cosic etc).”


-The 21st Century ushers in Internet art as a valid artistic form and social media platforms gain new importance (Friendster, Myspace, Facebook). Rhizome joins the New Museum in 2003 and “cannonizes and ongoing institution position for internet-related art” If not overstating the importance of Rhizome’s affiliation with the museum, Troemel certainly draws an inaccurate picture of the organization’s new found influence. Rhizome was a much smaller non-profit at the time, arguably working in the shadows of Eyebeam, (then under the guidance of Research and Development director Jonah Peretti Buzzfeed founder, and Huffington Post co-founder).  Certainly the organization deserves more than a nod in this chronology, particularly given that Eyebeam’s technologist Michael Frumin developed the reblogging technology  now used by tumblr. Also it merits mentioning that a mere reblog from Rhizome does not institutional creditation make.

Troemel on surf clubs: A litany of errors

  • -Surf clubs take cues from major social networking sites at the time. Troemel describes surf clubs as if they were all the same. Nasty Nets was a response by artists frustrated with the pictureless limitations of the social networking site Delicious, but Double Happiness specifically took its cues from the outside world. Spirit Surfers boon and wake draws its language from the fine art world proper. (Surf clubs for beginners here)
  • -In-house surf club trends were “highly influential” to other artists, as seen here on an emerging internet artist website [link via Troemel]. This is a debatable point. They influenced a small number of net artists, but save for the DVD produced for The New Museum — a show organized by an employee of the institution who was also a club member — surf clubs had no exhibitions at major New York museums or galleries. The Venice Biennale is later erroneously identified by Troemel as a venue for the clubs, likely because he makes little distinction between the work of surf club members and their posts.
  • -Communicating publicly is a distinction between surfclubs and their “forerunners”, who used email and personal websites. This is wrong. Plenty of public conversation was going on prior to surf clubs, it just wasn’t as image heavy. Rhizome’s discussion threads, Tom Moody’s comment section on his blog, and use of Delicious all hosted robust public conversations.
  • -Surf clubs were art specific (ish) and excluded the riff-raff for the sake of efficiency. Again, not true. Although there was internal debate at the time, as Tom Moody points out there was some ambigiousness over whether Nasty Nets was posting art (the end conclusion: mostly it isn’t). The club was exclusive, but this wasn’t the rule. By contrast, Double Happiness, seemed more like an art school band than an elite club, since all of them went to school together. In yet another permuation of clubs, Spirit Surfers founder Kevin Bewersdorf told me in response to a show I’ve been organizing, “It is not an ambition of mine to bring SS to a gallery space, so I don’t have any input on how these posts could be displayed.  Neither is it an ambition of mine to keep SS out of gallery spaces, so do whatever!” Note: It is well documented by both Manning and Moody that Troemel’s emphasis on “qualified [surf club] members” as described by Nasty Nets founder Guthrie Lonergan distorts its original meaning. The term was used in jest.

-Habermas’ ideas of a public sphere “turn” on a continual expansion of people participating in a dialogue. The same expanding numbers can be seen within a community of net artists (yay!). I think this interpretation of Habermas’ ideas is challenged (everyone talking at once can make agency impossible), but as Manning points out, so is Troemel’s belief that net art was ever centralized to begin with. “Throughout the 90's distribution and production was clearly fragmented as represented by the global network of artists, e-mail lists and famous traveling conferences which many artists flocked to like a pilgrimage to finally get f2f meetings with their peers.

-Enter Web 2.0/Social Networks!!! Young artists can’t get into surf clubs (or more likely don’t know about them and never tried). They use a variety of tools now at their disposal while surf clubs have become relics of yesteryear (yay!). Troemel never explicitly says surf clubs are dead, though that seems to be the implication — “emerging artists leave behind centralized structure of the surf club and its barriers to membership”. He then cites a number of tools, blogger, tumblr, and RSS feeds amongst them as though they are new. Only tumblr was founded (semi) recently.

-To link a work on delicious is “to like this” to link on Tumblr is “to be that”. This sounds smart but grossly overstates the use of most tumblrs. Sure they are a means of constructing identity, but not even tumblr removes the need to click through images to see them properly. Probably a better argument could be made of tagging on facebook (tag your work with your name as opposed to your face) but even there, users not only have to deal with how they chose to label themselves, but how others tag them. I don’t see why identity should be so closely tied to how much a viewer can see without having to click through for a more complete picture.

-Anonymized art is the highest honor bestowed on an artist (yay!) because it means it’s been highly circulated. This is only a half truth, since as Tomorrow Museum’s Joanne McNeil notes, crediting is something many of us do out of habit, but don’t bother as much now because there are so many different places to come by the same sources. Anonymity is a result of ubiquity of images as much as it is traffic on any individual reproduction. Troemel will afford any accolade he can to un-authored work though if it means furthering his manifesto.


-Decentralization in web 2.0 (yay!)! As mentioned earlier, this isn’t exactly a change.

-Tumblr artists: Quit letting surf clubs influence you! Seeing as how many young net artists I meet don’t know anything about these clubs the need for this call to arms seems a bit of stretch.

-Requisite quote from Alex Galloway’s Protocol. Not really sure what the relevance of Galloway’s thoughts on Protocol is here. It has the appearance of quote used only to lend authority to the author.

-Let’s strive for giant sized anonymous, self reflective art making community/giant, anonymous surf club in the form of tumblr. In other words, Troemel champions his former blog The Jogging and its community. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, this would be a fine sentiment were it not presented as though there was a pre-existing historical lineage building towards the creation of his UNNAMED blog. I think it’s dishonest and unbecoming of the artist.


anna January 19, 2011 at 2:40 am

seems like the ‘mistakes’ brad made are not mistakes as such… or at least they’re not fundamental enough to totally throw off the more general arc of his narrative.
writing history is necessarily interpretive. it seems okay to me and even par for the course that brad wrote this with his MO in mind. why would he do otherwise? i don’t think he is trying to pass his history off as all-inclusive or objective. he is writing from a particular place, which all writers must. it is impossible to stand outside of the tradition when you are indeed deeply entrenched in it–and this especially goes for traditions that are still happening and being shaped by discourse.
although i think it’s really valuable that we’re now able to critique history as it’s being written, we should bear in mind that something is always lost in the record.

Anonymous January 19, 2011 at 3:36 am

But the arch of his narrative is as Manning aptly describes, a “90’s utopia disrupted by a web 2.0 capitalist regime, which paved the way for a group of elitist artists seeking institutional recognition via surf clubs, and which was finally brought down by the populist Tumblr using Internet artist.” That’s more than “interpretive history” it’s entirely false.

Fourninetyone January 19, 2011 at 4:09 am

“To date, 491, the host site of Troemel’s essay has accepted no comments or trackbacks to comments challenging the history he’s presented.”
On the contrary – the only comment we received that challenges Troemel’s text has been posted in the comments section.

Anonymous January 19, 2011 at 4:31 am

I’ll fix the post. I saw Tom’s post saying his comment hadn’t been approved nor Michael Mannings and only noticed Parker’s comment.

Michael Manning January 19, 2011 at 4:55 am

Re: Anna

I think you are quite correct in assuming he wrote his interpretation of the events. Perhaps he wasn’t trying to pass it off as objective and I focused on that too much. Whether you call it interpretive, subjective, false, or whatever you like, I simply disagree with him on a fundamental level re: his MO.

Re: 491 Etc.

491, particularly Bret Schneider have been very helpful in posting my comment. Any drama was result of a miscommunication.

tom moody January 19, 2011 at 4:04 pm

A link to Manning’s essay appears in 491’s comments–not the essay itself.

Anonymous January 19, 2011 at 4:13 pm

Not sure what the comment issue is really but it’s too bad. I think it would be better if it were approved obviously, along with all the trackbacks. It seems weird that mine appear and Tom’s don’t.

tom moody January 19, 2011 at 4:50 pm

You mean Bret’s?

Anonymous January 19, 2011 at 4:54 pm

– ?

tom moody January 19, 2011 at 4:58 pm

My comment to 491, asking where Manning’s essay was, got published eventually, after Manning’s link appeared in the 491 comments.

tom moody January 19, 2011 at 4:20 pm

The interesting questions are (i) if or how the ironically-named “surf clubs” changed visual practice on the Web (e.g., through the process of near-real-time semiotic play described by Marcin Ramocki in a more credible essay) and (ii) whether Tumblr and Dump have altered or merely accelerated that process. Troemel distorts the “exclusivity” of the clubs because that is the only real difference he can see between the clubs and Tumblr. A better essay is still waiting to be written on these topics.

Anonymous January 19, 2011 at 4:29 pm

Those are the real questions, but I don’t think Troemel began with the intention of addressing them. This is a manifesto posing as academic research. He needs to dump the latter.

tom moody January 19, 2011 at 4:53 pm

Agreed. The footnotes are an anachronism in web writing but they lend an air of objectivity. Even when a note doesn’t stand for the proposition stated in the essay.

Ben Yameen January 20, 2011 at 2:19 am

If my calculations are correct, Brad Troemel was not even a teenager in 2000. Surely this would be a disadvantage for writing about the cultural history of the 1990s…

tom moody January 20, 2011 at 10:28 pm

Well, historians don’t have to live in the time they write about, but peer-reviewed articles are generally fact-checked. Still thinking about Anna’s near-instant response to Paddy’s list of errors and mutations in the essay. It’s like the spouse of a serial killer who says “Yes he did kill ten people, but that doesn’t affect the narrative arc that he’s basically a good person. The dead people didn’t like being murdered but it’s all subjective.”

Jennifer Chan January 21, 2011 at 8:58 pm

He is a utopian, and it’s the world view of the Internet from Chicago/California. It’s taken me a while to join their conversation and all this was done by friending their friends’ friends, and then the net artists themselves on Facebook.
Maybe this is something we need in a “doomed [commercialized/regulated] Internet” time. I agree however that he’s not living that history and also not the first to claim the Internet is liberal and decentralizing institutional gatekeeping power (ya whatever, net artists started their own and the aesthetics promoted on these anonymous domain name sites-the gradients, the bad photoshop, the 3D- are equally exclusive and refined conventions now part of net art made mainly from the US and Europe.

Well, I guess I’m an emerging artist and I use the Internet for self-promotion, or something.
I got a twitter and a tumblr just to lurk all these dudes using tumblr. It’s fascinating but I admit the “esoteric content” is indicates aesthetic exclusivity more than inclusiveness, but what he’s talking about seems to be happening on a global level in terms of cosmopolitan hipsterization of image-making and posting…

Walter Latimer January 21, 2011 at 10:28 pm

The main problem with Troemel’s history of art on the internet is its inability to place itself within the context of history of art in general. Much like the developments of photography and video art, net art is just another new medium to explore for contemporary artists. He focuses almost exclusively on art about the net art, the internet, or net culture, and fails to acknowledge both its impact on real-life and real-life’s impact on it (save the 9/11 and subsequent legislation reference, which is a bit too easy). While there has and always will be a place for art about art (whether we like it or not), Troemel seems to be implying that net art about the net is the only type of net art with any sort of validity. This also seems to be why it is so difficult to place his definition of Internet Art into the context of art history, because it is a critique of something that is still inadequately defined.

What Brad Troemel and others in the same school of thought have going for them is a strong understanding of formalist net art about itself, which is in a way fantastic. However, it does not appear to me that Troemel is properly defining “art on the internet” as a whole. His piece would seem much more appropriate if it had been titled “From Clubs to Affinity: The Decentralization of Art ABOUT the Internet”, as well as if it had edited out some of its grandiose claims. It is a strong piece, he was just a bit ambitious in his approach.

Anonymous January 22, 2011 at 3:37 am

Yes, but there are also historians who specialize in 17th century art, who were not even born. No having experienced the time is probably crutch, but not enough to excuse this many factual errors.

MWILLIAMSON January 23, 2011 at 6:56 pm

Does anyone remember “skateboarding is not a crime” stickers. Do they still make those? This kind of reminds me of them.

Matthew January 23, 2011 at 7:17 pm

I believe this image illustrates my point.

tom moody February 26, 2011 at 5:31 pm

Replying to Walter Latimer’s “What Brad Troemel and others in the same school of thought have going for them is a strong understanding of formalist net art about itself, which is in a way fantastic.”

I think the point of Paddy’s post is that Troemel’s school is the “school of Brad Troemel”–no one else particularly shares these beliefs because the essay is a manifesto for his own activities disguised as an objective assessment of others’.

That said, I don’t believe the surf club activities described in the Marcin Ramocki essay linked to above constitute “formalist net art about itself,” anymore than the science of linguistics is only concerned with the interplay of signs. There is always a connection to, and a concern about, the world these signs represent. When a web 2.0 artist talks, jokes, or makes art about art (or politiics or science) expressed in internet terms–i.e., reduced to jpegs and YouTubes–a comparison to the underlying “signifieds” of physical reality and history–their original meanings–is usually part of the equation. Not always, but with the better work.

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