Is net art as democratic as it thinks it is, and does it matter? Although Internet-based art may be more immediately “available” than your average masterwork, the viewer's relationship to net art is still governed by principles of physical interaction. In order to better gauge the current direction of net art, it seems we should be able to anticipate its future by looking at prior artwork that relied on a similar existence and mode of interaction.
This line of reasoning was what led me to the kinetic artists of the mid-20th century. According to most canon accounts of art history, kinetic art from the 1950s through the 1970s was focused on capturing the essence of motion, often demonstrating motion with changing light. Most kineticists, though, would consider this a mere surface appraisal. To paraphrase Matko Mestrovic, founder of the loose but influential “New Tendencies” movement in 1961, kinetic art of this period used motion – virtual or real – to provoke a visceral response within the spectator. The art was not to be found in the object, but in the artwork-spectator relationship and the changes in that relationship through time.
One of the great struggles of net artists today happens to have been the driving question for kinetic art: How do you best give form to an essentially immaterial experience? As enticing as Speed Shows, projection installations, and digital prints can be, each translation of the original work brings its own nuances to the table. Unless the artist is careful, sometimes a translation of a digital or immaterial work can destroy the original qualities that made it worthwhile. Not only did the kineticists learn to balance form in their own way, but they also grappled with many debates which we might have thought were initially provoked by the invention of the web. There are two major parallels between mid-century kinetic art and contemporary net art: that both movements are defined based on the physical limitations of their forms, and that both movements are not considered canon. Unfortunately, the latter point means that documentation about kinetic art is limited, especially online; I will do my best to provide links as I can.
What do I mean by “democratic art?” Typically, artists have referred to “democratic” imagery as that which seeks to stand outside of cultural interpretations, e.g. abstraction. The idea of medium as democratic, on the other hand, comes from the Constructivists, who worked specifically in industrial materials such as sheet metal and enamel paint as a sign of solidarity with the proletariat. By democratic art, I mean artwork created with both of these definitions in mind. All notable parties involved in mid-century kinetic art professed the same goal – to use modern technology and non-art materials to create aesthetic experiences free from the constraints of art history but steeped in contemporary existence. In this way, the kinetic artists were formalists, as they believed that the impact of their work was influenced by their use of materials.
In comparison, many net artists will often speak on AFC and elsewhere about the nature of the web as essentially democratic – anyone can log on with the proper hardware and software and begin browsing or even creating webpages! The physical or digital accessibility of a work alone, though, doesn't necessarily make for a successful aesthetic experience. This is clear when we look at bad net art today, but it was equally clear to visitors of the zany mod installations of the Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel (GRAV): a sandbox without a purpose is not a strong enough interaction. What eventually determined how history remembered the kineticists was the response of their intended audience – the general public – to their “democratic” content. Art historian Frank Popper admits in his 1968 survey “Origins and Development of Kinetic Art” that “The attempt to bring kinetic art out of the galleries and to make it accessible to the spectator without any need for a preliminary move on his part has made only limited progress.” (191) Though their goal was to create artwork that responded to the concept of mass communication and interaction, the movement often found its successes limited to gallery walls and the halls of academia.
Not all parties associated with kinetic art were willing to accept this fate. Rather than agreeing to public whim as truth, some kineticists, such as Frank J. Malina, sought to sustain and grow the movement through increased communication and documentation. Malina's greatest contribution to our record of the movement was the kinetic art magazine Leonardo, which he used to distribute articles submitted by fellow artists and interested amateur scientists. What makes Leonardo especially radical and fascinating in a contemporary context was the atypical depth of the content. Many of the articles not only include images of artwork but also contain blueprints, chemical recipes for liquid lightshows, and early programming flowcharts for brainwave-reactive sculptures. This was as open source as you could get in 1968 without joining a commune. Multiples were a common topic, as the kineticists would often discover simple variations on their work produced vastly different visual effects. Malina himself offered handy tips for building your own Lumidynes, kinetic constructions that were his primary output. (This may have arisen from a sense of obligation: Malina saw his work as derived from Thomas Wilfred’s Lumia boxes, developed in the 1920s.)
Malina notes in his instructions that “It is not difficult to produce interesting visual phenomena but to develop a skill for producing a controlled expression of the artist’s intention is another matter.” This advice is still relevant today. Where the kineticists layered and rearranged common materials and technology of the day to produce unexpected results, net artists often “curate” images and text from the web in order to illustrate undercurrents in culture. Should we critique a tumblr in a similar light as a collage or assemblage? Very possibly.
Questions that remain:
- Since kinetic artists produced physical objects that demonstrated immaterial forms but were unsuccessful in bringing their work to the public eye, should net artists be skeptical of physical translations of their work?
- In what way does the Internet change the equation for net artists?
- Why do we not see net artists explicitly sharing their techniques?
- If immaterial artwork with a physical form fails to be “democratic,” what new techniques should net artists pursue instead?