Figure 5.13
Early, satisfied purchasers of net.art

5.2 Net.art

Net.art, by which is meant art written in HTML (and now, optionally, in Macromedia Flash) and exhibited for the first time on the Web, is in many ways the antithesis of museum-gallery art: it has no originals; in many cases its maker's name is a pseudonym; it is accessible from anywhere on the Web; it is rarely dated and it rarely restricts reproduction and duplication under copyright legislation. It is always on exhibit, but it may disappear one day without a trace. In the world of art objects, it is an anti-commodity, and it is hard to imagine how anyone could profit from its sale. Nonetheless, Olia Lialina offered several works for sale at her site art.teleportacia.org and set off an extended discussion on the nettime newsgroup where her chief antagonist and advocate of unrestricted circulation of all net.art was one Luther Blisset (not his real name). She herself sold a piece to a web artist couple, and a few other sales on EBay have been reported, one for $52.50. The only way to make money directly from net.art is to win a contest with a sizable purse, although museums and galleries are commissioning work these days. But of course at these points the museum and gallery system is moving to annex this originally wild and rebellious territory.

Net.art is a bit like a sidewalk art show, except that pieces are on display 24/7 everywhere, not just on a Saturday in Soho. The pieces are unvetted for quality and there is no sequence or order to their display. Jon Ippolito, now the Creator of Media Arts at the Guggenheim and Juror of ASCI Digital 2000 competition, speaks of the "direct and anonymous access enabled by the Internet" as a challenge to artists:

To juror this show I was only given a list of urls, and it was refreshing to judge projects only by the art works themselves without the artist's reputation and standard bearers mediating for me. That being said, the direct and anonymous access enabled by the Internet obliges its artists to craft their own visual or rhetorical frames for their work--and some artists are better at this than others.

Frames of course are what the museum and gallery system put around works of art: in the case of digital art, they are presumably wholly metaphorical, but they remain special, interpretive and value-conferring pieces of context. From the artist's point of view, this direct access to an unprepared public can be quite dismaying: what does she have to say that "everyone" can understand and care about? What can one refer to as common experience? One could avoid the whole question by doing "abstract" or nonrepresentational art, and indeed, net.artists have won prizes doing that, but, not avoiding the issues, we will focus on net.art that represents the experiences of people.


One common though endlessly varied experience is growing up, and many classic and prize-winning sites are first person narrations of coming to awareness or coming out. What a great re-use for family snapshots! Here is a quick sample, including several that we have already looked at on point of technique:

  • Joseph Squier's famous pieces at The Place incline in this direction, especially "Life With Father" (1994).

  • Carmin Karasic's "With Liberty and Justice for All" (1998) also deals significantly with her father and the world and experiences he provided her as she grew up Black in America.

  • Liz Miller's "Moles" (1999) uses the visual "maculae" on her body as links to experiences in her unfolding sexuality (parents again). It is almost a continuation and updating of Shelley Jackson's "thebody" (1997).

  • Shu Lea Cheang's piece Brandon (1998-99)is also in the 3rd person mode and of this group is the most public, as it focuses on the murder of Brandon/Teena, an event which received considerable media coverage. We will look at Brandon in relation to other treatments below.
  • Caitlin Fisher, These Waves of Girls" (2001) is a pastiche of remembered images and incidents from the childhood and adolescence of the fictional narrator Tracey who grows up liking girls.

These sites lay claim to public and social significance as well as personal interest by viewing the struggle to form an identity as a struggle against forces such as racism, and homophobia, and practices such as abuse and molestation. These social practices and attitudes are very widespread, if not universal.


A second major vein of common experience worked in net.art is mass marketing and mass media: such things as McDonald's™, Coca-Cola™, and Barbie™, and such practices as filling out questionnaires, and the network news and such media blockbuster events as the death of Diana Spencer. Here the net.artist's task is not to frame and convey enough context to make personal or private matters Web-worthy, but find a place in a sea of print, footage, and sites and to re-use what is already wildly overcoded. I will mention only a few examples:

  • Mark Napier's famous "Distorted Barbie/$arbie" (1996/99) site has struck a wide and deep responsive chord in America at least; it is one of quite a number of sites built upon the famous doll, some of which have closed down under pressure from Mattel Corp. One of the closed ones by retired foreign service officer Dean Brown (An Incomplete History of Art) features Barbies posing in dozens of the famous paintings of the West (we saw his exposé of Manet's "Lunch in the Woods" in 4.x).

  • Gashgirl/DollYoko/Francesca da Rimini and Andi Freeman took on the public mourning for Diana Spencer in what is either an act of genius or desperation. We looked at its image chains at the end of Chapter One and we will look at it more closely in relation to the mass of contexts surrounding it below.


The one vein of common experience that almost all users of the Web have and that is unique to the new medium is experiences of the medium itself. Under this heading can be collected:

  • works based on real and fictional email (such as several of the works of Tina LaPorta and Rob Wittig,

  • on using a desktop computer and technology run wild (absurd.org)

  • Peter Luining's PC Click Club (1995-2000)

    (<TITLE>pc ClickClub</TITLE> <META name="description" content="clickclub (pc version) now with over 100 pages of webgadgets, toys & fun">
    <META name="keywords" content="peter, luining, experimental, time, antiweb, art, obscure, web, kunst, net, art">)
  • and as we have seen, cyberporn (XXX)

Perhaps the widest ranging piece is Jim Clarage's "Dada Net Circus" (1996?): it touches on network TV, video porn, and a retelling of Faust (Faust receives unlimited Net access from Mephisto in return for the usual). It also interrogates the viewer "What do you do when you surf the Web?" For all of these, the basic context required is some familiarity with the Web, and in the case of Dada Net Circus, with a number of the popular media (familiarity with Faust helps too, along with Rocco Siffredi and La Ciccolina). We will focus on absurd.org below. As we work through each of these examples, we will begin with what one might be able to figure out without having read anything either about the site or its contents. Then we will look at what the site supplies in the way of context, and finally what the site looks like in relation to other web sites and to the whole culture.

5.2.1 Brandon:

Conveniently for our analysis, Shu Lea Cheang's (and others') site Brandon (1997-99) forks on the splash page into "context" and "no context" modes. At the left is the splash page. Although it is not apparent, there are two links here: if you click on the ISOTYPE figure (which on line is an animation morphing from small to large and with/without skirt) you go to a grid of small images that appear and change when you mouse over or click them. Eventually you leave this page to go to other pages heavy with images. Entering in this fashion, you have no textual orientation or frame to help you sort out or interpret what seems a barrage of incomplete images. The images at times seem to go together with adjacent ones and to be produced by slicing some larger ones. One may click or "paint" with the mouse to attempt to "solve" the puzzle, but nothing remains where it is very long. After a few stretches of clicking and moving, it may become clear how to click so as to stabilize the image and how to "reveal" a stable ("underlying"?) collage, but just as one is about to finish doing so, the deck is shuffled and a second 4x5 matrix of images is dealt out.

This second page has a title "Bigdoll_Oldenburg" and loads with a popup window offering you a chance to contribute an image of your own which will be added to the stack. We are then to understand that the images in this grid are contributed by other viewers and were not made or selected by the artist, although some culling of the contributions likely goes on. One can in fact contribute images which do appear in the grid (at least for a while) and at the time of writing, people are still contributing regularly. These images also change with mouse-overs and disappear with clicks, and the same clicking technique will fix the same final collage (which has not been contributed). Clicking the final piece triggers a jump to a new, vertically scrolling page with a yellow median strip and various images along the road, some of which are links to other clusters of pages- -all text, all image, or mixed. As the page scrolls, little windows open from time to time directing the viewer to take pictured pills. These links take you in quite a number of different directions, including brief pieces on other famous transsexuals and a truly horrifying pair of windows, in one of which we hear sirens and read lines from Brandon's police report on his rape and in the other we scan murder and autopsy photographs with a magnifier.

The Oldenburg page is one of a growing number of works that solicit contributions and additions from viewers, which contributions become part of the work. There are a number of satire pages, for example The Mysterious Winking Jesus, which have provoked a staggering number of responses, all of which are then attached to the page. Another site, Happier Days (adaweb.walkerart.org/context/hd/), presents sets of images and invites contributions of narratives woven around them. It too still receives contributions though it long ago gave up awarding prizes for the best stories or changing the picture set. (It is part of the Adaweb archive at the Walker Art Gallery.) The contributions, by the bye, are of varying weight and quality; by no means are all in English. There is even a large, lasting, and well-exhibited site (Collected Visions- -cvisions.cat.nyu.edu/) that asks for contributions of text around other people's snapshots stored in a database, or around one's own snapshots which one also submits. But the Oldenburg version of the Big Doll interface is the first time I know of when images alone are solicited in response to an entire web site, image intensive as it is. Some people I know (my students, for example) find this page chaotic, irrelevant, and pointless, but the images do constitute responses to Brandon and the relevance can be discerned in many instances. And in any case, the page changes over time.

final state of Bigdoll Interfaces: Shu Lea Cheang: Brandon (1997-9)

If the viewer clicks on the text on the lower part of the splash screen, however, she gets the full museum treatment of explanatory texts, history of the work, credits, outline of subparts. We learn that the site has four "interfaces," the first grid being called the "Big Doll Interface: recombinant social body" and that it randomly loads its images from a bank of 50. The recombinant metaphor likens the image pieces to genes that can splice together to form other strings. The final collage (at left) combines bits of the several image sets into a single emblem of the artificial and modified body complete with an anatomical drawing of a penis hanging next to the leg. The chains suggest the keychain-wallet arrangement worn by some men; where the chain and rings touches the rear-view mirror at the center top it looks like an identity bracelet. Sandwiched in the array is the curving road sign which is the dominating central image, one of flowing life force, albeit not straight-arrow. "Recombinant" is for me a key word in putting this flood of images together.

We learn on the credits page that the scrolling highway is the second interface ("Roadtrip") and that two more were planned, though they do not seem to have worked out exactly as announced. These also are linked to the Roadtrip interface. This page contains in one sentence the only information in the entire, very large site about Brandon Teena and his murder:

Brandon/Teena Brandon of Falls City, Nebraska, a (wo)man who loved women. Brandon at age 21, was sexually assaulted (Christmas Eve, 1993) and seven days later murdered (New Year's Eve, 1993) by two local guys who learned that he was anatomically female but living as a man.

The roadtrip page itself does, however, include a link to the Altavista search engine with search word Teena Brandon, though it makes you read the results (currently 379,000 of them) through a tiny slit of a window. This is a strong image of distance between this work and the "stuff" that an unrestricted Web search will turn up.

The third interface, "MOOPLAY Interface: rescrambled narrative," is built up out of the texts of three guest artists who contributed a piece of narrative for the project (Pat Cadigan, Lawrence Chua, and Francesca da Rimini). Their continuous narratives can be found on an explanatory page. Fragments of these narratives are interwoven in three different colors and are "rescrambled" when the viewer clicks on certain links which declare a name change for the speaker. In one option, the viewers are supposed to also be connected to a chat board, but I have not seen this in operation with anyone else logged on. This appears to be the textual equivalent of the fragmented and changing matrix of images. In fact, they say that (sort of): "The ever re-combinant streams of narratives provide a texual[sic] social space to review gender - coded chat environments on the net."

The fourth interface is linked to the No Passing sign on the highway and is based on Foucault's discussion of the panopticon. It presents a circular prison with twelve cells, each of which opens a page with a brief profile of someone imprisoned for gender transgressions.

When we look beyond the site to other similar sites, we can start by sending Shu Lea Cheang's own name to the search engine, and with looking her invited artists in the same place. We learn, for example, that she has collaborated with Lawrence Chua on another website (HoME: www.ntticc.or.jp/HoME) and that she has been working on a porn scifi movie in Japan since Brandon. We can read interviews with her and with Lawrence Chua. We can similarly pursue the third invited artist Francesca da Rimini/GashGirl/DollYoko and Pat Cadigan. Each of their interests and concerns provide context for what is after all a collective writing project.

The site also will bring to mind various other net.art sites both in terms of content and in terms of form. One could compare the use of the mutating matrix splash page in other sites such as ctrlaltdel's PC Click Club (www.xs4all.nl/~real/pcrec1.htm)(1995-2000) or Vivian Selbo's Vertical Blanking Interval (adaweb.walkerart.org/project/selbo/)(1996); this comparison would suggest certain subtle differences in the expressive weight of the Bigdoll Interface.

Finally, looking at the widest context, we could follow the suggestion of the AltaVista window and put Teena Brandon in to Google. We would quickly discover several things from this:

  • We can learn a good bit more about the details of Brandon's life and murder, about the crime and the bringing of the perpetrators to justice, and the way these things were written up at the time.
  • We can learn about other uses of the Brandon material in the media:
    • a relatively early (January 1995) piece in Playboy by Erik Konigsberg,
    • an unsympathetic piece in the New York by John Gregory Dunne (Jan. 13, 1997),
    • a slightly fictionalized novel by Dinitia Smith The Illusionist (1997),
    • a documentary movie (The Brandon Teena story- -1998), a true crime book by Aphrodite Jones (All She Wanted: The Teena Brandon Story- -1996)
    • a thinly fictionalized popular movie based on it of the same name (1999).
    • A 20/20 segment by Jami Floyd (Feb 10, 2000)
  • You can also find out which of these are still available in print or DVD. All of these have been reviewed in pieces available on line.
  • The actors and directors have been interviewed, the opinions of experts solicited- -all on line.
  • Finally, we can discover that there are individual popular pages of rage, mourning and commemoration on gay, lesbian, and transsexual sites, and on personal sites on angelfire and geocities. Some of these are even joined in a Site Ring with several members. (A site ring is like a webring, but it is not owned by Yahoo. This one is owned by Bravenet Web Services.) Some of these sites link brandon.guggenheim.org as a tribute to Teena Brandon.

The rest of the web offers various terms for Shu Lea Cheang's site. The HotBot search engine goes along with "tribute," but Yahoo more circumspectly refers to it as "an online exhibit inspired by the death of Teena Brandon," and Slate even more cautiously simply quotes a couple of the site's own lines:

deploys Brandon into cyberspace through multi-layered narratives and images whose trajectory leads to issues of crime and punishment in the cross-section between real and virtual space.

What makes Slate cautious, I think, is that Brandon is quite unlike any of the other tributes or memorials. It completely eschews psychology, plot, or connected narrative and thus does not invite identification with Brandon or any other figure in a dramatic action. This does not mean it is abstract, for it includes certain grisly and degrading images and moments that are largely omitted in the popular accounts and it takes you visually and textually farther into gender bending activities and adornments than most sites. Its difference measures the distance of high and low culture on the Web, and it establishes that distance by traditional High Modernist techniques of juxtaposition of fragments and elision of interpretive text. In the aggregate, the popular and media sites do a great deal of evaluating and assigning of fault, and one appreciates the obliqueness of Brandon and the muteness of images. It must be acknowledged, however, that this strategy risks losing the viewer who is unable to supply the orienting background information. In the case of Brandon, viewers who click only the morphing figure on the splash page and do not realize there is a second link pointed to the credits page, may pick away a bit at the puzzle of the Bigdoll interface and then simply wander off.


Figure 5.14
A threaded image in Caitlin Fisher's These Waves of Girls

These Waves of Girls

Caitlin Fisher's large, prize-winning work, "These Waves of Girls," evokes the experiences inside and outside of school of the narrator Tracey, a "bad cat" (as one teacher calls her), who experiments with other girls long before she begins to call herself lesbian. It is highly hypertextual and densely cross-linked, and linked as well by repeated images, but since it does not tell one story but many, the hypertext does not disrupt the story telling, though it does disrupt any master narrative of causation or development, there being on Fisher's view nothing anomalous or aberrant to explain. Indeed, cruelty and baffled desire are as much themes as kissings and touchings, but my female students inform me that this all is more or less in the realm of their experience. Most of the action described is as reassuringly ordinary as it gets: being in school with teachers and recess, bicycle riding, going to camp, hanging out with your friends, playing party games. Somehow, filtered through the interface, it is not boring or mundane but exciting and universal.

Figure 5.15
Manipulable Flash image from These Waves

This transformation is largely the work of Fisher's visual language for memory. The images, which are a complete mix of digitally modified photographs, drawings, and manipulable flash images (such as ones with magnifying glasses, or which distort/ripple as you touch them with the cursor), number well over two hundred, and they are recycled at different sizes as well. Making the images of remembered childhood blurry, as Fisher does, follows a long standing tradition (found, for example, in Squier's piece), but in that tradition they are usually also gray (or sepia toned), whereas Fisher punches up the saturation of the colors and rotates their palates in denaturalizing ways. She also pushes some to the point of pixelation and the ghosts of excessive jpg compression. She inverts palates and applies "water-color" and "oil-painting" filters. She also crops many images so tightly that the effect is sometimes more of glimpsing than seeing. We have not the distance even to see things whole, much less to see them in perspective. Moreover, the general setup of the screen is a set of frames with a central viewing window and wide margin frames with a "menu" style list of main topic links in the left margin frame which open in the central window. These frames also have a common or similar background images, thus providing a literal frame or context for the central window. The this framing context is so strong that one view a page and think it similar in theme and treatment to one one has already seen when in fact it is identical to the one one has already seen. And of course the recurrent images, in different scales and locations, also function as "links" to the other pages where they occur. The material in These Waves of Girls is presented as if remembered, or, at least, remembered by a graphic artist.


Figure 5.16
Section of Zombie Princess, top page collage

Princess Zombie

When I first saw "Princess Zombie" by Gashgirl/DollYoko/Francesca da Rimini and Andi Freeman I did not quite understand its harshness, which begins with the title and the image on the top page identifying the Prince of Wales and sons walking in the funeral cortege with the gangsters in Quentin Tarantino's hyper violent Reservoir Dogs. Partly, I was context-deficient, since I was one of the 12 -15 people in the world that did not follow the "coverage" of the death and funeral of Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales. It is a relatively small site, consisting of about 20 pages with two broken links and a link to a much larger site by Gashgirl (www.thing.net/dollyoko/riverboy.htm) which explores some of the same themes touched on in "Princess Zombie." There no top or menu page, and the majority of links are from hot spots in imagemaps, so there is not much navigational guidance to be had on the site. Most of the imagemap pages offer two choices, one of which takes you to a straight sequence of five text pages, so that it is possible to experience "Princess Zombie" mainly as a written commentary on the public mourning for Princess Diana. If you avoid going into the text sequence for a while (and there is very little indication of whether or how to do this), you see a series of images which develop the zombie theme, including the "becoming zombie" of the mourners of such an insubstantial, unvital person (or so I read the sequence, which is pushed along with only a few phrases). The language of site is harsh, the images are (some of them) harsh, and the links between them frequently require clicking on eyeballs or lips. And after this analysis of the form and content of the site, I still did not grasp the motivation for its harshness.


The needed pieces of context came to me in stages. An article recently appeared in College English on memorial and tribute websites as a form of unsponsored popular writing. It focussed on the sites for Diana, which Helmers reports, numbered over 200 at their height. This outpouring was part of the public mourning for Diana unprecedented in scale in all media. Helmers cites a number of collections of articles on the mourning which analyze and account for this phenomenon, explaining the left, right and center, high and low, of it as cultural criticism scurried to catch up to Tony Blair and the media. Some of the pieces dealt with personal indifference, or contempt and repugnance, and feelings of need to resist the apparently well-nigh universal paroxysms of sentimentality as the People mourned the death of their Princess, the Queen of Hearts. Jean Baudrillard even wrote a song for inclusion in Mandy Merck's collection. Helmer's article also profiles a number of memorial and "tribute" sites from among the 200--this too I was unaware of, though "Zombie" invites this connection to context by terminating the straight text run with a link to Yahoo, search term princess_diana. This search term immediately takes you to as much relevant context for this site as you please.

Figure 5.17
Photomontage from Zombie Princess

If one spends some time with these books and articles, even the most oblivious person can see why Gashgirl is moved to construct her own counter site. A final bit of context helps to focus the picture, however: there is on Andi Freeman's site (though not Gashgirl's) a brief note that "Zombie" was composed in the week after the death of Diana and in response to "the media mayhem and public grief that followed her." So the site does not have the Web tributes in its sights and is act of resistance that unfolds day to day, which perhaps accounts for its alternations between attempts to construct an analytic interpretive frame or frames and lyrical evocations of humiliation, and fury, and the sense of being a ghost in one's own life. (The photomontage images convey this superbly.)


Figure 5.18
Thumbnail of (older) absurd.org top screen

absurd.org

The site at www.absurd.org comes with a log that shows which of its parts were added in each year from the end of December 1996 until the end of 1999, about 10 or 12 a year. The author (or authors) claims to be a Martian and even provides pictures of himself and his family. Whoever they are, they are flashy coders, pushing Javascript and Java in dramatic and original ways, though they are happy as well to provide "toys" and even a typomatic program to help learn typing. Several concerns run through these pages:

1. There is a defense of a certain vision of the Web against commercialization and ignoring of standards in the "browser war."

2. There is an extensive polemic against image heavy web design that has little regard for text and a counter-aesthetic ("design annihilation") proclaimed of destruction and assault on the viewer; some of this is reminiscent of Dada anti-art proclamations and activities. (It is linked by the dadamonster site— www.angelfire.com/zine/dadamonster/dadamonster.html)

3. There are the personal issues of addiction (to email and to information) and loss of control over the machine because of unruly and pernicious programs. Indeed, you enter the site by experiencing a "core meltdown" in which dozens of windows big and small running scripted processes pop open and overrun the screen. (Some very similar browser-run-wild effects without the text and message of absurd can also been found at www.fakeshop.org.) Even the little java drawing programs provided simulate artificial life in taking a "seed" from the viewer and then running on their own. Throughout the site, extensive amounts of text are "corrupted" typographically as in the sample at the left, and modulate in and out of technobabble and rant.

4. It is full of cyborg imagery which develops the fear of becoming part machine as we pursue our addiction; the imagery is pervasive and sometimes very large, strong, and, shall we say, not pleasant. The cyborg faces are particularly unsettling and reminiscent of certain heads testifying to the transformative power of technology by Georg Grosz (e.g. "Remember Uncle Ernst, The Unhappy Inventor"), Raoul Hausmann, and Max Ernst. The images are complemented by little narratives of the machines taking over the world, the man with no head who wheeled a computer around behind him, and the like.

5. There are a couple of swipes taken at popular culture as represented by the SPXCE girls and robot mall Santa Clauses, in which it is again in question whether these robots are what await us or whether they have already arrived.

Figure 5.19
Absurd: 2-4-7.99

These are recognizably the hopes and fears that swirled around "the Internet" as its scale and impact became evident in the later half of the last decade, nowhere more intensely than among the coders, the volunteer vanguard of the new medium. With the displays of ingenious coding, no one can call www.absurd.org anti-technology--that is not a battle it would even think of waging. The genie is out of the bottle, but it clearly is neither particularly friendly or under very much control. The prevailing mode of the site is dystopic sci-fi, and there are pages (especially in "The Web is Dead" section)that are more than touched with nostalgia for the good old days when individual pages could introduce and summarize and assess "The Web."

In one sense, finding the relevant context for this and other sites on Web life should not be hard, since most viewers on the Web (except "newbies") would have some relevant experiences nearly daily, and any moderately reflective person who had worked on the Web and shared in its discourses (as for example LISTS and newsgroups) would catch the direction fairly readily. And yet the www.absurd.org site that is about the Web and life on and through the Web seems to have eluded Web-based commentators. AltaVista finds around 1250 links to the page in "Spanish and English" pages, though "pages in all languages" gives another 700; most simply list the site, or call it "weird" or "totally absurd." Indeed, it was nominated for a Webby award in 1999 in the category Weird, which, the German net.art site DKM says, at least openly proclaims its lack of understanding ("da wird das Unverständnis wenigstens offen proklamiert"). Yann Bernal, writing in Le Monde Interactif acknowledges that he is left in some perplexity, principally because he has difficulty making out the drift of the text, but at least concludes that it is not really as absurd as its name suggests. There is also a Russian commentary, probably very thoughtful, that I cannot read. Even Rhizome is without words, providing only a link.

To assist us in the study of the site's reception, it includes a digest of email responses ("Quotarium 1 & 2"). These reveal such a sustained level of ignorance and naivete that one suspects they have been fabricated, especially since the writers are unidentified. They mix hyperbolic praise with trivia about the page and provide no models whatsoever of anyone trying to response seriously to the site. The pages function like a cement block around the neck of the earnest semiotician. They may in fact be satirizing the "Tell me what you think" guestbook pages that are largely pleasant, appreciative, and inane.