SAN DIEGO UNION TRIBUNE
Art for the Web — it’s a visual, visceral experience
PAM DIXON’s column on arts and technology appears the first Sunday of each month.
This is the first “New Media” column, a monthly feature that covers the increasingly vital intersection between art and technology.
With so much shouting about technology, some people have simply turned down the volume on the whole subject. And that’s a shame — because, as a result, some important but quieter technology-related movements have slipped by, largely unnoticed.
One of those movements is the notion of art — yes, real art — created specifically for the Web. It’s not a trend that generates scads of headlines, but it should. Other than being fascinating in its own right, art created for the Web is transitioning from an oddity to a bona-fide part of the art world.
Popularly known as “net.art,” art created specifically for the Web has been around since about 1995. Net.art does not mean that a painting by Picasso or Rembrandt has been scanned in and put up on a Web site. Net.art also does not refer to a Web site with artsy graphics. This art is much more.
True net.art is a highly sophisticated use of the Web as a primary medium to communicate a fully developed artistic concept. Net.art is actually difficult to locate because of its rarity. Some major sites include jodi.org and the collections at Beyond Interface and Rhizome.org. The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the Guggenheim and the Museum of Modern Art in New York also have significant online net.art galleries
. But a warning: When you experience net.art for the first time, don’t be surprised if it takes your breath away. The best works transform your computer monitor into patterns and sounds that can shock and delight you, making you deeply understand the difference between a Web page and a work of Web art.
Like traditional studio art, there isn’t just one “type” of net.art. It takes on many forms. Some works are visually oriented, others are concept pieces.
Annette Weintraub’s “Pedestrian” is an immersive visual experience that tosses you (virtually speaking) onto the streets of New York City. It enfolds you into her poetic world.
“When I did my first Web piece, I thought of it as a storytelling work,” said Weintraub, a professor of art at the City College of New York and a traditionally trained visual artist.
“I made it simple and accessible,” she said. “I was amazed at the written responses from people — I got long and thoughtful e-mail; it made me palpably aware of my audience. Now I think of the pieces more in terms of film or fiction writing.”
Ken Goldberg’s “In Memento Mori” is a conceptual work that explores the relationship between technology and reality by hooking up active seismographs to generate images to the Web. The live images look like white comets zigzagging across a black screen.
“What I’ve been interested in since the beginning is in finding some way of going beyond the screen,” said Goldberg, an engineering professor at the University of California Berkeley. His work is not a visually beautiful piece of net.art, but the ideas behind it are fascinating.
And “jodi.org,” which just won the 1999 Webby award for best art site, investigates the limits of technology by tearing it apart right in front of you in a smart-alecky, brilliant way. The work makes you question your fundamental notions about using technology, not to mention the health of your computer screen.
“Net.art is a very established concept now,” said Lev Manovich, assistant professor of visual art at UCSD and a highly regarded international expert in new media. Manovich pinpoints the age of net.art at about four years old, and cites its global development as one of its most remarkable facets.
“It is developing on a very serious level both in Europe and the United States,” Manovich said.
“Net.art is the first international art movement that includes Eastern Europe and the Soviet artists,” agreed Peter Lunenfeld, director of the Institute for Technology and Aesthetics at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.
While it may seem like a small deal to have a truly global art medium developing, just put it in historical perspective. Think of the famously distinctive regional art that bears the stamp of a specific geography and culture: Egyptian art, Greek and Roman architecture, French impressionistic painting, Chinese scroll painting. Now imagine the regional flair missing. It’s too soon to tell what art that’s blended from the four corners of the world will bring to culture, but whatever it is, it will be new.
While the medium may be global, Southern California has become a significant net.art talent incubator. A graduate of UCSD’s fine-arts program, Mark Tribe is the creator of Rhizome.org, an internationally known online hub for new media. Manovich is cited by major museum curators as “the” person to talk to about net.art. And the University of Southern California, along with UCLA and the Art Center College of Design, boasts high-profile new-media programs that foster this type of art.
But why Southern California?
“From San Diego to Santa Barbara, there are important new-media communities with great strengths,” said Lunenfeld. Southern California boasts a rich intersection of the high-tech, bio-tech, entertainment and arts communities; it’s an environment particularly conducive to growing net.art talent.
“New media (or computer) design may be different from new-media art, but new-media artists are partly reliant on a mechanism, an apparatus for the creative idiom,” said Lunenfeld.
The same computer techniques that commercial designers invent are often taken up by the net.art community and employed for completely different purposes. Lunenfeld cites an innovative computer interface created for a high-tech company. It allowed computer users to have 148 fill-in-the-blank boxes open onto a screen seamlessly.
“That interface can now be used for entirely new artistic purposes,” Lunenfeld said.
Because of the Web’s accessibility, net.art is often displayed in ad-hoc online exhibitions, rather than more formal museum settings. That practice created a credibility gap up until last year, when several major museums officially added online net.art works to their permanent collections.
“It was very significant that in 1998, the Walker Art Center acquired a major piece of net.art,” said Manovich, referring to a large work called “ada’web.” “This helps legitimize the medium,” he said.
” `Gallery 9′ is our online gallery,” said Steve Dietz, director of New Media Initiatives at the Walker Art Center. “It has two components; the projects commissioned specifically for the Walker and for the Web, and the Digital Arts Study Collection.” (The Digital Arts Study Collection includes ada’web and the stunning Beyond Interface site.)
Dietz, who is one of only a handful of museum-based online curators in the world, said that in choosing the art for the museum, he simply tried to create what he called “a snapshot of what was happening.”
There is a general consensus that Dietz’s approach is the only sane one to take. Net.art is viable at this point, but it’s still experiencing plenty of growing pains. And it has its detractors. Deciphering which artworks will be the “big masterpieces” is beyond anyone’s scope right now — it’s just too early to know what is going to stick.
“We don’t need to worry about whether something is a masterpiece right now,” said Manovich. “We should simply look at what is here, right now.”
A map for ‘Net explorers
Here are some “net.art” resources:
Guggenheim Virtual Museum http://www.guggenheim.org/
Walker Art Center http://www.walkerart.org/
Beyond Interface http://www.archimuse.com/mw98/beyond –interface/ (Annette Weintraub, Ken Goldberg works located here.)
Ada’Web http://adaweb.walkerart.org/ Gallery 9 http://www.walkerart.org/gallery9/
Museum of Modern Art (New York) http://www.moma.org/
Jodi www.jodi.o rg
Ars Electronica http://www.aec.at/
Adversarial Collaborations http://www.three.org/
Lev Manovich’s home page http://jupiter.ucsd.edu/~manovich/home.ht ml