This article will take you on a journey through the history of Net.Art. Let’s have a look at the definition and origins of it first.

Net art, or Internet art, is describing the work made in the 1990s through the early 2000s that uses the Internet as a primary medium. As the popularization of web browsing in the 1990s was booming, artists began to circumvent traditional modes of display in institutional art settings by creating interactive, interconnected viewing experiences. Often used interchangeably with “new media art”, also known as “Digital Art”.

Digital Art is a general category for works created using digital technology, whether in the form of tangible hardware, such as computer monitors or electronics, or software, such as graphics editors, websites, and programming languages. It is also sometimes called “computer art” or “new media art”. From works of early computer art like Hiroshi Kawano’s algorithmic interpretations of Piet Mondrian’s iconic gridded paintings, to programming and digital printing in the 1960s, to Cory Arcangel’s hacked Nintendo cartridge generating “Super Mario Clouds” (2002), digital art exists in a constant state of flux as technology continues to advance and transform.

Cory Arcangel – Super Mario Clouds – 2002

Coming back to Net Art, early precursors of the net.art movement include the international fluxus (Nam June Paik) and avant-pop (Mark Amerika) movements. The avant-pop movement particularly became widely recognized in Internet circles from 1993, largely via the popular Alt-X site. The artists were mainly using web browsers, developer codes, scripts, search engines, and various other online tools. Notable artists and collectives associated with this movement include Natalie Bookchin, Heath Bunting, Jodi (or jodi.org), Olia LialinaEva and Franco Mattes (or 0100101110101101.org), Evan RothAlexei Shulgin, and UBERMORGEN.COM. 


From the very beginning, net.artists had huge ambitions.

For much of net.art’s brief history, its practitioners have been self-consciously staking out their collective goals and ideals, exploiting the characteristics peculiar to the Internet, like immediacy and immateriality, for example. E-mail, the dominant mode of communication among and within net.art communities, enabled anyone who was wired to communicate on equal ground, across international boundaries, every day. This was a major important factor for those talking about net.art in the mid- and late ’90s. 

The collective goal of everyone involved was to build an equitable community in which art was conspicuously present in one’s everyday activities. In the years between 1994 and 1998, when many of the art-oriented communities formed, the Internet allowed net.artists to work and talk independently of any bureaucracy or art-world institution without being marginalized or deprived of community. The online atmosphere was very vivid, and there was an eager audience for net.art, including the subscribers to mailing lists like Rhizome (www.rhizome.org), Syndicate (www.v2.nl/syndicate), a list focused on Eastern European politics and culture; and Nettime (www.nettime.org), a politically and theoretically oriented platform that has been important to many in the technoculture intelligentsia.

Comparing net.artists with Surrealists and Situationists, net.artists had from the beginning an urge for publishing manifestos and firing off polemics, which were often made available through publications such as Nettime’s ZKP Series (www.nettime.org/pub.html) and Read_me, which refers to the instructions one consults after installing software.

Net Art at the Whitney Museum, 2018

Perhaps much of the energy being poured into art and communications was released by the broad political changes taking place in Europe in the mid-’90s, just as net.art was beginning to take shape.

Alongside booming net.community’s relative enlightenment, cyberfeminism turned out to be a big issue of interest. There was a flame war when Anne de Haan’s e-manifesto “The Vagina Is the Boss on the Internet” was posted to Nettime in June 1996. Those who cared about cyberfeminism were told by list moderators to take the discussion elsewhere, to women’s platforms like the Old Boys Network.

A Russian “femail” net.artist Olia Lialina, continued to publish highly elegant projects, out-programming many of her male peers and winning regular commissions and awards. My Boyfriend Came Back From the War, for example, is a filmic narrative of a fated romance. Lialina’s work, which often takes an interest in physical beauty and personal aspects of romantic relationships, distinguishing her from other net.artists, has recently explored, variously, legal documents, art dealing, and the address bar of browsers. “War,” which made use of basic “frame” programming, was discussed by Lev Manovich, an art-history professor at the University of California, San Diego, in “Behind the Screen,” an insightful essay about various influences of the work of Russian net.artists. Manovich notes that the visual legacy of screens, parallel montage, and frames is rethought in “War.” Visitors to Lialina’s site are encouraged to experiment, creating frames within frames and new combinations of text and image. We could argue that My Boyfriend Came Back From the War is an update of Eisenstein’s theories of montage within the confines of the Web browser.

Olia Lialina’s My Boyfriend Came Back From The War, presented in 2016 on the occasion of its 20th anniversary, exhibited using emulation and legacy hardware

Net.art was originally conceived as an alternative social field where art and everyday life were merged. However, now net.art may seem threatened by its own success—that is, likely to give in to its own increasing institutionalization. But at the same time, it is important to keep in mind the Internet’s capacity for hosting and inspiring politicized, “hacktivist” artwork. As the Net moves toward convergence with television, new strategies are needed more than ever to maneuver freely, sovereignly, through an increasingly factitious, total-media environment. 

It is extremely interesting to observe the comeback, the evolution of Net.art these days. It seems to have shifted closer to the 3D realms of work as well as tight “collaborations” with AI. Multiple net.artists nowadays try to deconstruct traditional forms of Net.art and approach it from a new perspective. Building interactive websites and cross-media online experiences, web-performances and web-installations and more. These are just a few examples of what so called neo-net.art can and will offer in the future.

Text by olha.korovina

Cover picture by Evan Roth – Internet Landscapes: Sweden

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