Net Gains

As interactive, computer-based artworks are collected and commissioned, are they losing their edge or gaining an audience?.

Somewhere between the arts of Oceania and the Bonnards and Vuillards at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a pimp in a blue suit pulls out a gun. Soon after, a man with a red carnation in his lapel shoots at a flickering shadow. All the gunplay in the Met is part of Jennifer and Kevin McCoy’s installation Every Shot, Every Episode (2001)—a collection of 275 video CDs that indexes “every gunshot,” “every stakeout,” “every drug use,” “every lawyer,” “every laugh,” from the 1970s TV show Starsky and Hutch.


A screen still from the nonrepeating images embedded in Channels, 2002, by John F. Simon, Jr.
Courtesy Sandra Gering Gallery

The $12,000 work—composed of a tiny monitor and player inside a wall-mounted metal suitcase—is one of the Met’s latest new-media acquisitions. “One of the main subjects of photography, from Fox Talbot through the Bechers, is the idea of the archive,” explains Douglas Eklund, the photography-department research associate in charge of rotating the installation’s CDs. The McCoys’ piece “elaborates on these older themes but carries them into our new digital world,” he says.

The arrival of digital art at the Met signals a general acceptance of the genre by established institutions. For artists working with databases, like the McCoys, or for those creating Internet-based pieces, such acceptance brings money and mainstream recognition. It was only this spring that the McCoys had their first solo show at New York’s Postmasters Gallery, and they are already exhibiting at the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio (through February 23). But with acceptance comes some compromise. The Met, for example, has enclosed Every Shotin a Plexiglas case. “We’ve shown it open,” says Kevin McCoy, “but they say since the mummies are off limits, this is off limits.” While viewers previously were able to choose the discs, now curators do.

The very existence of a market for digital work, with pieces priced as high as $150,000, is creating conflict among practitioners in a medium that was, until recently, a proud part of the artistic fringe. The ability to “objectify” digital art and make it as palpable, and salable, as a sculpture or painting is raising questions as to whether a genre based on the community-focused ethics of open-source computer programmers has lost the edge that made it exciting in the first place. “Open-source” means that the code that makes the computer or program run is available somewhere (for instance, under the “view source” menu option in a browser) within the software for anyone to read, copy, or improve upon. It is part and parcel of the “gift economy” that emerged online in the early 1990s. This informal, online, free exchange of everything—from software and expertise to opinions and music—ultimately gave rise to Napster, Linux (an operating system like Windows but whose source code is available to anyone), and many Net artists.

One of the first Net artists to have a gallery was John F. Simon, Jr. (Sandra Gering has represented him since 1994). He has also offered his work for sale online, encouraging visitors to his Web site,, to pay $20 for a downloadable copy of Every Icon (1997). Simon believes the code he writes is as personal as a painterly gesture on canvas, and he tries to make it as accessible to collectors. Pieces such as Color Panel v.1.0 (1999) or Swarms(2002), on carefully designed monitors that are removed from the bulky casing of desktop models, sell best, at prices ranging from $5,000 to $20,000. Simon thinks their appeal lies in part in their looking like paintings. “I tried for a long time to sell work on the Internet—just as software,” he explains, “but it’s not as commercially successful. Somehow having it encapsulated as an object makes a difference.”

Following a solo show at SITE Santa Fe last spring, he has been finishing a large commission for the University of Iowa’s new medical-research building and participating in shows in New Orleans; Ridgefield, Connecticut; Malmí¶, Sweden; and Seoul. The Iowa piece (titled Channels) covers a long wall in a hallway with a series of bright, laser-cut Formica tiles in shapes generated by a computer program. Six four-foot-high plasma monitors set into the tiles show constantly changing abstract images. The effect is of a Mondrian in motion—if Mondrian were from Malibu.

Another sculptural, networked piece that has received attention is Eduardo Kac’s Genesis (1999), a room-size installation consisting of bioluminescent bacteria, inside each of which is a gene that the artist fabricated by translating a sentence from the Bible into the language of DNA. The piece is connected to the Internet, where viewers can watch and respond online as the bacteria grow and mutate. Kac’s Chicago gallerist, Julia Friedman, has priced it at $150,000. A related piece, the pair of carved-granite Encryption Stones(2001), sold for $13,000. As with performance art, much new-media work is collected in the associated photographs and other forms of documentation that can be put on a wall.

Today, online artworks are being produced in versions suitable to hang in a gallery or home, and the source code is kept private. Or networked pieces that once depended on anyone’s being able to access them online might now be on a password-protected server, with a limited number of people buying the right to access the work. The computer-savvy artists who are able to sell work or get commissions are a select bunch that includes Simon, Mark Napier, John Klima, Yael Kanarek, Martin Wattenberg, and Golan Levin. Their ability to profit from their work, however marginally, has ignited a debate framed in the terms of community (shared, freely available work) versus capitalism (for sale).

“It happened to me and a bunch of people I know,” says Net-art pioneer Vuk Cosic. “We switched to festivals and events where we were commissioned, and the work suffered. It became less a way of talking about new ways of doing art.” Two or three years ago, digital artists suddenly found themselves invited to participate in the Venice Biennale, the Whitney Biennial, and Documenta, and were able to get commissions from such institutions as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center, New York’s Eyebeam Atelier,, the New Museum in New York, and the just-opened New Center for Art and Technology in Cleveland.

The Belgrade-born Cosic (who now lives in Ljubljana, Slovenia), along with British artist Heath Bunting, Russians Alexei Shulgin and Olia Lialina, and the Barcelona-based Belgian-and-Dutch duo Jodi, among others, are credited with having established and promoted Net art as a distinct genre around 1995. Jodi created work that would crash or take over users’ browsers, demonstrating the artistic potential of software bugs, while Cosic advanced a fertile subgenre called ASCII art. He uses the retro look produced by ASCII (a standard text format that can be read by any computer) to doctor all sorts of pictures, including portraits and airport signs. Cosic had the prescience to label these artists’ work as being from the “heroic period,” a term that has become a part of the lexicon for Net art.

“Heroic” here refers both to an epic time in the past and to the “revolution speak” associated with ea
rly Net art and interactive new-media installations. Online, the idea was, everyone could access art independent of institutions or curators, and user input would help create the art. In 1998 New York–based Mark Napier uploaded Shredder, an alternative browser that tore up the visuals and code of any Web sites entered into it; the collective RTMark posted satiric PowerPoint presentations on its Web site and encouraged users to invest in “funds” (such as MIRR: distribute mirrors to activists in Genoa) that were ultimately social interventions they would perform; and Austrian Gebhard Sengmí¼ller invented VinylVideo, a useless technology that plays moving images from records, with “sales” encouraged through an online infomercial. Charging people for such experiences was generally disdained, but in the case of VinylVideo, where the kit costs ten times more than a good VCR, the sales pitch was included ironically as part of the overall concept.

Pointing to the difficulty of promoting oneself while remaining an underground provocateur, Lialina also developed, in 1998, “the world’s first Net-art gallery,”, which she has described as being “a forum for all these ideas about owning, buying, and selling Net art.” She priced the few works available there at $2,000. The team entropy8zuper! (Michaí«l Samyn and Auriea Harvey) bought Lialina’s If You Want to Clean Your Screen for their online gallery, documenting the sale itself as a work of art. They say about their purchase, “It’s corporate art. We are a corporation, so we buy art. The most important reason is that we hope it lifts the morale of the corporate troops in their day-to-day struggles and maybe even inspires them to make the corporation even greater”—deliberately satirizing the aspirations of big, art-buying multinationals. Samyn and Harvey, who earn money as designers, say they choose not to market their own online narratives (such as skinonskinonskin, which chronicles their meeting, in love e-mails embedded in pop-up browser windows, as well as in music and whispers). They did receive, however, a $12,000 commission from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2001 for Eden.Garden 1.1. As they explain it, the business of selling their art is too restrictive. Echoing earlier avant-garde proclamations, they say, “We consciously refuse to differentiate between work and play, between personal and public, between art and design, between business relationships and love, between life online and offline.”

“The heroic period of Net art was, by default, very near the philosophy of open source,” says Cosic, who had long conversations in the mid-1990s with Shulgin, Bunting, and others about Futurism, Situationism, and other manifesto-based movements of the 20th century. “Even though we never gave ourselves the fatal label of avant-garde, we were quite aware of what we were doing,” he adds. Cosic announced his “retirement” from publicly making art two and a half years ago, he says, “at a moment when Net art stopped being about inventing and keeping some community going and became much more a career option.”

So what’s wrong with that? other artists wonder. “There’s the political stance that software should be free or something. I have to pay rent,” says Simon. He adds, “I don’t think people value things they get for free, and that bothers me.” He does make his source code available for some works, but for others, “it would be like giving away the negatives,” he says, comparing it to photography. “It’s a struggle because you want the code to be appreciated in text form, but you need to protect it.” Like Simon, Napier points out, “In the long run, I’m interested in people putting these things in their homes.” And he must still work as a programmer to make money when commissions are thin. For years he put his art on his Web site,; now he is also represented by Bitforms, a year-old Chelsea gallery that shows only new-media artists.

At his exhibition there last winter Napier debuted The Waiting Room, an interactive piece that purposely limits the number of people who can access it to 50 collectors. A large screen displayed orange and blue circles and swirls that shifted as people at three computers manipulated the images in different directions. After the show, only buyers of $1,000 shares (there are five to date) could manipulate the artwork, for which Napier has set basic parameters, including colors and shapes, and for which he maintains the closed Web site. He restricted the number of users, he explains, “to get outside the browser”—that is, not to be limited by the visual possibilities within Netscape Navigator or Internet Explorer—and “to eliminate the noise of 1,000 users a day”—which is what his site receives at a minimum.

The debate over “selling out” distracts from other issues, says Napier, who continues to create publicly accessible work, such as NetFlag. It was commissioned by the Guggenheim Museum and debuted at last February. “This is a new kind of esthetic, really particular to Internet and software,” he says. “I’m looking at what happens when people are brought together through an artwork—it brings up questions of control, authority, ownership, and of community, cooperation, and sharing.” The Waiting Roomgets at the heart of what distinguishes digital art: software sets up parameters, but within that, user input determines the experience. Nevertheless, the venerable tradition of art as social provocation—as in the 1920s with Duchamp and the Dadaists and later online in the 1990s—refuses to die. In fact, Jon Ippolito, an associate curator at the Guggenheim, thinks all art should be free. To that end, he founded a program this September at the University of Maine in Orono called “Still Water,” the first project of which is the Open Art Network. This would establish and promote standards for “open architecture,” as he puts it, among media artists who want others to be able to access their art—or even copy it—at no cost. “The fundamental premise of the Open Art Network is that it’s based in community,” he notes. “It comes from artists, and it works with artists.” And as to how an artist is supposed to pay for food, shelter, and the odd bottle of wine, Ippolito answers: get a day job or get a grant.

The Open Art Network would gather like-minded creators who want to make their code transparent and comprehensible to others and who could defer their copyrights until later in their life—or after it—to a museum or other third party. The project is modeled on broader proposals, such as the Creative Commons developed by Stanford University law professor Lawrence Lessig. The commons, like the old New England town green, is a public place where anyone can store resources—files for software, music, or art—and draw on those of others. Since current law specifies that a work, once it’s created and fixed, is automatically protected under copyright, alternative licensing is necessary for those who want to grant copying rights to others. For digital art, “the ethical problem can’t be extricated from the esthetic one,” Ippolito says, echoing Cosic’s sentiments. “It’s not just color and form, it’s the esthetics of community.”

Ippolito was galvanized into action by recent legal efforts to expand copyright protection to a degree that would make creating much digital work difficult. “There are already laws on the books that are in contradiction to what artists are creating using digital sampling and manipulation,” he says. “The entire apparatus of copyright has gone from short-term special conditions
to long-term default
onditions.” Works like Napier’s Shredderor Jodi’s, each of which reconfigures existing Web sites and their features within the work, could conceivably be illegal, Ippolito points out. The 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act already “contains special provisions not to tinker with code,” he says. And while works by artists such as Jodi or the McCoys (who also make Net pieces and post their works online) may fall within fair-use provisions, Wendy Selzer, an attorney and a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, adds that by virtue of being visible online, they are more likely to be found and challenged.

Moreover, to make digital art have value for collectors, editions are usually limited and the source code sequestered, as with photography or video. So, for Ippolito, developing a commercial market for digital art is like extending the reach of copyright: a public resource is being limited for the prosperity of a few. But, he says, the licensing model could be turned around to benefit digital artists, who could specify that a work is free for noncommercial uses but not for some others, the way stock photographers do. Steve Dietz, the Walker’s director of new-media initiatives, thinks artists should be able to spurn the market as well as engage in it. “For one project, it may be rabidly open source and for another, you’re interested in playing with ideas of a market economy and you want to go with that,” he says. “I think it’s reasonable for self-defined versions of Net art to be on a par with other art that people pay money for.” At the same time, it’s a challenge for institutions such as his own, he explains, “to make sure that artists have alternatives to the market.” Ippolito himself tempers his “free art” argument only slightly. “I wouldn’t want a dictatorial regime of openness. But how transgressive are you if you are following in the wake of Microsoft?”

To sell their work, digital artists are indeed making adjustments, from creating specially designed frames for monitors, to allowing museums to put a case around an interactive work. But museums, galleries, and collectors are in turn accommodating the demands made by these works. The Whitney, for one, has already created limited licenses for some Net-art works, which gives it the right to present them online and in the museum, according to its director Maxwell Anderson. For Net art, “collectors usually own the source code and host it on their server,” Anderson points out. “Having it accessible under the institution’s domain name certainly signifies ownership. But perhaps it is more important to support the creation of the work and preserve it than ’own’ it.”

Carly Berwick is a senior editor of ARTnews.

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