Analytic Table of Contents

5.3 "Think locally, act globally"—a conundrum for web.art

Marc Voge inverts the wellknown activist slogan in his Introduction to a 2000-2001 Korean exhibit of web art (Voge, 2000) to argue that for Web artists, publishing to the Web is acting globally, but as artists they are much better off grounding their work in the locale where they can be themselves rather than having to fashion a Self for the modern world. In particular, he argues in another article with his collaborator Chang young-hai (Chang and Voge, 2001), artists would do well to engage issues and events of their society as morally concerned members of it, an engagement that is not at all furthered by publication on the Web (as opposed to local galleries and museums, or bookstores). However, evoking or alluding to the local can present problems of intelligibility globally, beginning with language and going on to local history and custom, cultural assumptions and practices, and so on. As Voge and Chang (who work together to form Young-hae Chang Heavy Industries "YHCHI") say in an interview with Thom Swiss, "It's pretty obvious that the "tone" or "voice" of Internet literature is more distant and difficult to "locate" than traditional writing. Mere book packaging tells a lot about the book and the author; browser packaging is generic." However, in the best Modernist tradition, they decline to supply such information, which might lead to reading of their work as biography: "Distance, homelessness, anonymity, and insignificance are all part of the Internet literary voice, and we welcome them." In particular, this degree of anonymity allows them to deal with political and social issues without reducing their work to propaganda and position-taking. And indeed they seem to speak for other Web artists on this point. In this section, we will look at three Korean web artists, each of whom takes up political and social issues in contemporary Korea and each of whom deals with the local/global problem in a different way. These net.artists (Park keoung-il, No jae-oun, and Young-hae Chang Heavy Industries) make Macromedia Director and Flash™ sites. Flash movies are scripted and monosequential, and so are not hypertext, but more resemble film in their reliance on juxtaposition in the transitions (filmic montage) from one page to another. There is, you may be sure, no authoritative voice-over or Artist's Statement, though we occasionally do find a curator's note.

screen cap

Figure 5.20
Screen capture from Park kyeong-il's "Serenade" at www.plexus.org/lab.

Park kyeong-il

Park kyeong-il (or kyung-il) is a painter who has taken up Flash and has exhibited two major pieces on the Web, "Serenade" (at www.plexus.org/kipark) and "HELLOBook" (at www.blindsound.com and its own URL www.hellobook.org). "Serenade" comes with a curatorial brief description informing us that it is "An ironic portrait of post-war Korean culture - its uneasy absorption of American iconography, its endemic tension of impending military conflict, and its embrace of the future." It is hard to miss the Coke bottle that eventually explodes and the Statue of Liberty, and certain zany tone is set by Monty-Pythonesque flying of objects into and out of frame and sound effects, but the majority of the "iconography" is, like Figure 5.20, deeply Korean, and the occasional bits of text that show up do not help me to unpack the code, being in Korean. (The curatorial notes say they are of political import and a English translation will be provided "eventually.") There is for example a bit of Korean displayed (though not very visible in the thumbnail) over the top of the arch. This appears when the pile of fruit immediately beneath the child's right hand is moused over. Other objects in the scene are hot as well, but what this tableux means and what it is doing in its context are quite opaque to me. Sometimes general principles of contrast and sequence seem to apply, as when a scene begins with a man in a traditional kat (horsehair hat) is viewing the moon, a jetliner roars across his view, the moon turns into a spaceman's helmet and flies toward us and the man, who sinks out of sight, and then a seated figure flies up and to the moon (a traditional "man-in-the-moon", or what?). But more often the images are too topical and culture-laden for me to figure out. I only assume a Korean viewer would recognize and appreciate them immediately.

"HELLOBook" is a collection of 10 sequences ("movies") built upon the basic image of a book with pages that turn to disclose small images and bits of text, a fair amount of which is English, though the Korean is (probably) as or more important. Much of the thought is Buddhist and is a challenge to any language.

There is nothing arcane, however, about the tenth book ("HELLOWar") which is also a contribution to the global anti-war Wartime Project (offline.area3.net/wartime/). HELLOWar sustains the image of the book, though this time the book is closed and resting on its spine. It's title is English Lessons, and the whole site consists of two pages: on the first, the title (verso) and a somewhat mangled quotation from Milton on concern for clarity of language as the source of strength and security in a nation; on the second page, verso is a list of ten bugle calls (Reveille, To Arms, To Horse, Charge, etc.) and recto is the single instruction "listen and repeat." The bugle calls each trigger a sound clip playing the call. It is a deft if oblique way of saying militarism is now what the US trusts in and teaches. All you need to know to read that is to have seen a couple of cowboy movies.

Figure 5.21
No jae-oun: Zoomed out image Baudrillard in Seoul

No jae-oun

No jae-oun (vimalaki.net)has developed a distinctive style which relies very little on language and even less on Korean iconography and allusions. When the sound track includes spoken Korean, a translation into English is provided on screen. The audio component of the sites usually sets up a Western frame at quite a cultural and conceptual distance from the visually-presented material—what feels like ironic juxtaposition. The visual part uses the zooming and panning controls of Flash as an affordance which slowly scans a single image, creating the impression of movement as it zooms in on certains things, then back, then over. The music is all Western and ranges from honky-tonk piano and Harry Belafonte singing Jamaican Farewell to Debussy's Claire de Lune. This last piece is the sound track for "Baudrillard in Seoul", which otherwise consists of the image of Figure 5.21 scanned and zoomed in the fashion described, giving plenty of time to think what might be thought about the appearance of the theorist of the simulacrum on a TV talk show in Seoul.

Figure 5.22
No jae-oun: 3 Open Up:
Factory (2002)

Some of these pieces, as well as some of Jae-oun's stills, seem to raise the contemplation of incongruity beyond polemic to the level of art itself, though some have a clear political bearing. The pieces of "3 Open Up" take up a meeting of the G8 in Okinawa, a fire in the DMZ, and a visit by South Korean dignitaries to North Korea, during which they are taken on a flight over the nearby farmlands. The last of these is one large image, their aerial view of the landscape, which is panned and zoomed as they look at each of the four building complexes. We hear the conversation of host and guests, in Korean, as they look, with English translation at the bottom of the screen. The various buildings are described as a pig farm and collective chicken farm, with the South Korean visitors noticing things and receiving explanations. On screen, however, the buildings are silently identified as a missile assembly plant, launch pad, etc. We cannot tell, however, whether the point is the gullibility of the South Korean officials or their complicity in acts of diplomatic fiction.

Figure 5.23
Patrick Mboma
Hero of Cameroon

For the record, it should be noted that one piece at vimalaki.net is not ironic, as far as I am able to tell. "Patrick Mboma, Hero of Cameroon" consists of the fullscreen display of Figure 5.23, which consists of Mboma's image as if projected in Seoul's World Cup Stadium (I think; there is a caption...in Korean) while the Cameroon national anthem plays and a yellow star moves across the tri-colored bar.

Young-hae Chang Heavy Industries

The most prolific and recognized of these Korean Flash authors is the combination of Chang young-hai and Marc Voge, writing as Young-hae Chang Heavy Industries. Winners of a Webby award for Art in 2001, they exhibit at various international festivals. Part of their award-winning originality arises from a refusal of much of what their medium (Flash) affords: "It's a simple technique that shuns interactivity, graphics, photos, illustrations, banners, colors, and all but the Monaco font . . . ." (Swiss, 2002) As they say, it combines text with jazz, presenting the text one or a few words at a time very fast, usually with large black on white letters. They make their movies as 12 fps, so the movie is divided into 85 ms intervals, and some of the words are flashed at less than half a second, so that one reads in a hyperattentive state and the text can synchronize with the jazz to a very high degree. The text seems very uptempo even when the jazz is cool and bluesy. Each piece is almost exactly as long as the jazz track and the text almost seems lyrics for the jazz score. Each of the two dozen pieces currently listed on the YHCHI home page is in English, but half of them have Korean translations, and there are a few tranlations also into Japanese, Chinese, Spanish, French, and German. (Chang young-hae is herself a translator, but says that the translations into languages other than English, Korean, and French are the work of friends.) The tracks are chosen from an excellent set of late 50s, early 60s albums (Max Roach, Duke Jordan, Art Blakey, Sonny Rollins, Duke Ellington, Theolonius Monk). The music—and the blues—have already gone global.

Figure 5.24
Lead to "Cunnilingus in Korea"

Most of the pieces are monologue (with some dialogue) and are set in various domestic or urban spaces (cocktail lounges, underground Seoul, Paris streets) and evoke the failed dreams and sexual tensions of those places. More to our purpose are the ones that deal with tensions between N and S Korea, a very polemicized space indeed. Figure 5.24 is a screen capture from the lead to "Cunnilingus in North Korea," (2003) a message purportedly from the "dear leader" and intended to extol the superior quality of life in North Korea, specifically, the total sexual equality achieved in N. Korea through making men responsive to their wives' desires for prolonged oral stimulation. The text parodies the hard ideological sell with claims that no regime, Korean or otherwise, is ever likely to make. The music also has words: it is a piece of blues ("C-line Woman") sung by Nina Simone celebrating a sexually powerful woman ("wiggle, wiggle, turn like a cat,/ wink at a man and he wink back")—not at all on the same order as the proclamations of the dear leader. YHCHI works much the same mix of the political/sexual language in "The Struggle Continues," (2000) which presumably alludes to the struggle to build socialism (opening slogan: All Power to the People), here modulates into sexual liberation and bare stark naked love with everyone at all times, except of course with bankers riding in black limosines and a few other class enemies and victims of bourgeois morality (music is "A Night in Tunisia" by Dizzie Gillespie and F. Paparelli, played by Sonny Rollins et al). In these pieces, both the marxist political discourse and sexual liberation seem equally lunatic, though sexual liberation is imaginatively triumphant. (It triggers personal/historical memories of People's Park, Berkeley, 1969.) A similar linkage occurs in "Samsung Means: To Come" (2000), where the narrator describes surrendering to the overwhelming power of the Samsung logo and experiencing multiple orgasms in her mother-in-law's kitchen ("Caravan" and "Money Jungle"— Duke Ellington et al.). The energy of the drum beats and flashing of the perfectly synced, marginally legible text is quite extraordinary, full of surprises, and as some viewers say, mesmerizing. Others speak of headaches and epileptic seizures.

Hysteria and violence seem always ready to break out in this flashing, and they sometimes do. In a recent piece, "Operation Nukorea" the soft, sad music cannot offset or contain the much too timely topic of an imagined rocket and gas attack on Seoul from N. Korea in response to a US preemptive strike against N. Korean nuclear facilities. The text is simply a methodical description of the slaughter of 38% of Korea's population in and around Seoul, the stink of the corpses and so on. Breughel comes to mind rather than Guernica, though as with all of YHCHI's work, there are no images save those induced by the flashing words.

In the exhibit introduction cited above, Marc Voge discusses the problem of political art and praises Chang young-hai for her artfulness and prudence in walking the tight rope. We commonly do think of works of art as controlled by their makers with some assistance perhaps from their publishers and critics, but another perspective is possible and attractive for Web art, which often is usually self-published, as is the case with YHCHI. Such work increasingly finds its viewers through blogs and news group listings and such hybrids as MetaFilter (a "community blog"). Someone posts a link and commendation to the web art and others comment on the art after they have viewed it. These comments can be criticism or requests for clarification and relevant information, comments on other comments, and so on. Reading the postings on an active blog like MetaFilter, one does have the impression of a community negotiating a response to the work, and I would suggest that we see in such blogs a force beyond that of the individual author that is even more powerful than the reviewing of professional, institution-based critics which it replaces. I will illustrate by examining the MetaFilter community discusssions of two of the pieces we have just discussed. (MetaFilter has discussed YHCHI's works ten times in years 2001-2003).

Both "Operation Nukorea" and "Cunnilingus" attracted extensive comments when offered for the attention of the group. "Nukorea" attracted 54 posts from 22 people (a good number living in NorthEast Asia) on April 18, 2003. Several people offered brief critical comments (positive and negative) about the piece, but the number of postings was swelled by degeneration into a flame war over the politics of the piece and the mentality of the posters and their politics. No one seemed to find its meaning problematic or its tone ironic. One posting says,

well I'm convinced...I didn't realize those north koreans were such beasts.

and I love the chain reactions of exploding cars....I'm surprised we don't see that more often during interstate pile-ups...
posted by jacobsee at 11:36 AM PST on April 19

I personally find it shocking that anyone would change their opinion of a nation because of a piece of fiction. The second line, though, offers the possibility that for this reader, North Korea is a fiction too. For Jacobsee, the site is very effective propaganda and nothing more.

"Cunnilingus" attracted 42 posts November 6, 2003; some of these were unimpressed "don't get it" responses. Others seemed to have missed the point or gone off on amused tangents trying to replicate the tone of the piece. Someone posted a picture of the beloved leader and another some gossip about him and a sexy Japanese magician. But they also identify the jazz track and provide solid information about it. The main substantive complaint was that some screens are a bit too explicit for viewing in the office, which is where a good number of these folks seem to do serious viewing. This is an almost ideal profile of response, with the the brighter and more knowledgeable assisting the dimmer and no one is attacked for incorrigible obtuseness. These pages record two days in the life of this particular group of people with similar interests.

Looking more broadly, as of January 2002, Google lists over 2900 pages with "Young-hae Chang," 726 with "Cunnilingus in North Korea," 216 with "Samsung means: to come", on down to "Nukorea" and some of the lesser-known works with about 20. Some of these are formal reviews, but most are blogs, and they exhibit the same range of understanding and enthusiasm found in the one-day samples of MetaFilter postings. Taken all in all, it is indeed a global audience (though almost entirely Anglophone) and it lets the artists (and others) know how their pages are working. One of the posters in the flame war even posted an apology to Chang young-hae for spoiling what was meant as celebration of her work. If anything, the "distance, homelessness, ambiguity, and insignificance" YHCHI emphatically embrace as the conditions of web.art are for them in danger of being lost.

It would be tempting to suppose that YHCHI reach a wide and enthusiastic global audience because they rather miraculously communicate rich and subtle perspectives on the complex issues of the day—and that without supposedly more universal images. Doubts about this conclusion should be begin to curl through the mind when one considers that on any given viewing, some words and meanings are missed, as if one were listening to a rock band. The music is jazz, but the lyrics, though silent, are rock. Like rock, YHCHI excites and pleases people with varying degrees and kinds of understanding ranging from "Kim Il-Jong is a monster" and "the commodification of sex is evil" to accounts of the "patriotic" songs blaring from loudspeakers everywhere in the Pyongyang subway system and Samsung as one of the five chaebol—this last provided by Chang and Tove when they uncharacteristically dropped the modernist mask and discussed the political context of art in S. Korea. Perhaps what work of this kind needs to trigger is not understanding, but the desire for understanding: "there is more to know here in the context for this piece."

Conclusion: net.art as art.art

When the Whitney Museum exhibited net.art in its 2000 Biennial and announced that it was embracing the medium, its first new medium in 25 years, some kind of turning point had been reached. And in July 2001, the Guggenheim Museum opened a Virtual Museum branch which can only be viewed on the Web. The Web now has Beehive its little ezines for new work (The Beehive and The Cauldron and Net), ezines that commission work (turbulence) and ezines for digital culture (AltX, Telepolis, CTheory), databases of art, criticism, and interviews (Rhizome, CIAC, Switch), international exhibitions and competitions (trAce/Alt-X, ASCI, Leonardo/ISAST, Ars Electronica, Electronic Literature Organization), museum support (Walker Art Museum, alternative museum, Dia Center, and the Guggenheim) with exhibitions and archives. (All of these can be found through most search engines.) One has the sense that colonization is at work.

In addition, the Web retains its own more indigenous modes of circulation as well. Individuals compile long lists of good net.art links (almost always unannotated or even categorized); individual weblogs with an interest in net.art are becoming effective ways to circulate work and attract viewers. Web rings are voluntary associations where the bar, if there is one at all, is set very low; linking to one or more may seem an act of desperation, but in fact some have gained useful visibility for their work and even begun a climb up the ladder of recognition (as it now seems to be). And the SITO archive of self-nominated artists can provide valuable exposure and information, as it did for Harlan Wallach and Cecil Touchon. In all of these you have to trust your own judgment, of course. Similarly, you can gather a good bit of context on someone from the search engines. To a very considerable degree, they supply the sort of information galleries and museums furnish in placards, audio tours, and exhibit catalogs.

It appears clear that the vision held by some Web artists of a new beginning and a new world of artistic making, exchange, and viewing is utopian and that there will be more deserters as museums and ezines and contests offer more traditional options for Web artists—more bankable recognition and visibility, as it were. What is emerging is a mixed system, wherein net.artists may choose to pursue the prizes and visibility or may take the route of essentially sponsorship by oneself, one's network of kindred spirits, or a collective and still find viewers able to grasp and enjoy what they are doing. In any case, nobody is going to get rich doing net.art.

The problem no one has solved, however, is how to supply the archival function of museums and libraries. We can find and view a reproduction of a painting by Rembrandt from four and a half centuries ago; it is very uncertain whether we can view a site put up four and a half years ago. Even the Guggenheim Museum, having displayed the Brandon project prominently for longer than the announced time, took it off line and placed it in an inaccessible archive, exercising what looks for all the world like a proprietary right. This is quite a departure from the usual Web practice of archiving "back issues" but leaving them on line. Only the Walker Art Gallery in Minneapolis has shown concern for the winking out of classic works. To them be the glory and the terabytes. It is possible to retrieve pages from the Internet Archive via the Wayback Machine, but the delays there have been so long that viewing a site like Brandon is impossible. The data for 11 billion pages is there, they say, and perhaps one day it will be more accessible. The world-wide 24/7 accessibility of web pages is one of the greatest attractions of Web publication, but weighing heavily in the other side of the scale is emphemerality on the order of the Sunday comics page. There will be no classics, no canon, no paragons to be endlessly revisited and emulated, and the absence of those things is the greatest limit on how seriously one can take Web art.