A Net Art Pioneer Evolves With the Digital Age: Rhizome Turns 20

From email list to web recorder, the organization is leading the fight to conserve our lives online

Petra Cortright, VVEBCAM (still), 2007. COURTESY RHIZOME

Petra Cortright, VVEBCAM (still), 2007.


Five years ago, Rhizome, the New York–based nonprofit that has devoted itself since the mid-’90s to the promotion, and later to the preservation, of digital art, took up a cause: the deletion of a video by YouTube.

The video itself is inoffensive. A young woman stares impassively at the screen as various cheesy animations pop up—pizzas, lightning bolts, hearts, ice cream cones, kittens. Artist Petra Cortright made the piece in 2007 when she was a student at Parsons in New York; she had just bought a $20 webcam, and was experimenting with its software. When she posted the piece to YouTube she attached tags from an SEO list she’d come across. Some were banal—san francisco, diego, jose, taco bell, border patrol, mcdonalds, KFC, trans fat; others weren’t—tits, vagina, sex, nude, boobs.

As a result of having those tags, over the next four years, Cortright’s video got some 60,000 views and numerous comments, many along the lines of “I can’t believe I just wasted two minutes of my life watching this.” A number of viewers were disappointed that the video didn’t match how it was tagged. “They would comment, ‘I thought this was going to be a sex tape of Britney Spears,’ or something,” Cortright told me by phone from her studio in Los Angeles. So she started commenting right back at them about this video and the dozens of others she made in the late 2000s in what she calls a “trolly” voice. “Some of the stuff I said to people I can’t even say out loud,” she said. “Just super offensive. I got very interested in the vernacular of YouTube, and the way people talked to each other.”

Cortright, who is now a celebrated artist with gallery and museum shows behind her, didn’t initially intend that video to be an artwork. “I was so concerned with making the work,” she said, “that I didn’t give a shit whether it was in a gallery or anything like that. I was not even on that planet of thinking.” But by the time it had lived on YouTube for a while, it became one. She called it VVEBCAM. Today, it is considered to be among the first artworks to use YouTube—and social media, in general—as a medium. It doesn’t show up in more than a handful of academic papers and even fewer exhibitions, but it has achieved legendary status in certain circles. The piece consisted of not just the video itself but its surrounding elements—comments, views ticker, and the other trappings of YouTube. It was as married to its social-media setting as Richard Serra insisted his site-specific sculpture Tilted Arc (1981) was to the Federal Plaza in downtown Manhattan.

“So many net artists, at the time these works are being made, don’t even consider them as pieces,” she said. “I can definitely say that about [VVEBCAM].”

Petra Cortright's VVEBCAM (2007), as archived on Rhizome's ArtBase. COURTESY RHIZOME

Petra Cortright’s VVEBCAM (2007), as archived on Rhizome’s ArtBase.


And then, in December 2011, it disappeared. YouTube seemingly sided with Cortright’s critics, citing a violation of its community guidelines, specifically its “policy against spam, scams, and commercially deceptive content,” as the deleted-video notice read. It was, as Cortright would later characterize it, YouTube’s “shift to cracking down on content.” Cortright appealed the removal to the streaming service on the basis of VVEBCAM’s being an artwork, but was denied.

Cortright emailed Rhizome about the situation. Within two days of the video’s deletion, the organization had added Cortright’s original video file, which was still on her hard drive, to its ArtBase, a collection started in 1999 to combat the disappearance of web-based artworks that was happening even then. Today, the ArtBase comprises more than 2,000 works, which are freely accessible on the Rhizome website.

Rhizome’s archival version of VVEBCAM sought to approximate the appearance of its presentation on YouTube, giving it the look of the service’s video player. But there was no way to retrieve all those comments, never mind fully re-create the YouTube interface, complete with a snowballing view count. The frustrating case of VVEBCAM pushed something forward that the team at Rhizome had been considering: What if there had been a way for Cortright to record what she was doing online? What if artists could preserve the VVEBCAMs of the future themselves?

Ironically for a field so young, net art, new media art, post-internet art, born-digital art—or whatever you’d like to call artwork that is dependent on, engages with, or is influenced by digital technologies, networks, and the social and cultural practices that surround these infrastructures—has a legacy problem. Imagine being a painter trying to explain to a younger artist how influenced you’d been by certain works of de Kooning, but there was no longer any way to experience those works. “When I started working in net art,” said Rhizome’s artistic director, Michael Connor, who first learned of Rhizome at a bar around 1999 from an early staffer there, “I would meet people who had been in the field a bit longer and they had this sense of pain that they would share about works they had really loved and wanted to explain to me, but they couldn’t very easily convey why they were important, because the work wasn’t accessible.”

Rhizome's executive director Zachary Kaplan and founder Mark Tribe. MADISON MCGAW, BFA.COM/COURTESY RHIZOME

Rhizome’s executive director Zachary Kaplan and founder Mark Tribe.


Rhizome turned 20 this year, but there is a saying among its inner circle that it’s older than the Metropolitan Museum of Art in internet years. There’s a certain logic to this. Because the web runs on novelty, Web 1.0—the term used to describe the early days of the internet when it was closer to a document-delivery system made up of static web pages—can sometimes seem more distant than the 19th century. Last December, on the eve of Rhizome’s anniversary, it received one hell of a present in the form of a $600,000, two-year Mellon grant—the largest grant it had ever received—to continue developing a tool called Webrecorder that could revolutionize the way online artworks are preserved for future audiences.

It’s a big step for an organization that has in some ways eluded definition, mainly because it has deftly adapted to the rapidly changing pace of technology and the internet. Rhizome has been called a lot of things over the years. The first mention of Rhizome in the press, in October 1996, in the Life section of USA Today, said, “the site bills itself as part search engine, part art forum.” Specifically, Rhizome’s founder, artist Mark Tribe, thought of it as Artforum meets Altavista, a search engine of yore. In 1998, in an article in CyberTimes, a section of the New York Times that was then on the web, Matthew Mirapaul referred to it as “an internet locus for freewheeling discussions about new media art.” By 2003, the Times described it as “an internet site where digital artists can exhibit their online projects and crow about their status as art-world outsiders.”

Rhizome’s current executive director Zachary Kaplan prefers to call it “the leading contemporary art and technology institution or early born-digital art institution.” Ben Fino-Radin, the organization’s former digital conservator (now a media conservator at MoMA) describes it as “a rather amorphous institution, which is almost an oxymoron. It’s an institution on the internet”—for a certain subset of the art-tech world, at least—“but in the real world it’s something much cooler than that. There was this moment of transition from being this kind of based-out-of-a-loft, crusty, cyber-punky thing to, now, something affiliated with a museum.” (Rhizome is now an “affiliate in residence” at the New Museum in New York.) Like the medium to which it has dedicated itself, Rhizome had for so long worked outside the system. At a certain point, it moved in.

Rhizome's homepage in December 1996, as archived by the Wayback Machine. COURTESY MARK TRIBE

Rhizome’s homepage (then rhizome.com) in December 1996, as archived by the Wayback Machine.


Rhizome began life in Germany, in 1996, as an email list. Tribe, an American and then 29, was living in Berlin after getting his MFA, and was making what he has variously called “relational art projects” and “art events.” He’d created his first website in the summer of 1994, while in grad school at the University of California, San Diego. “I loved it,” he said. “I really connected with the medium in a way that I hadn’t with other new media forms.”

In Berlin, where he moved in 1995, Tribe had a day job as a web designer at a company called Pixelpark. In June of that year, Tribe and a group of artists drove overnight in a van to the Ars Electronica festival in Linz, Austria. With the theme “Welcome to the Wired World,” the event looked at how “cyber culture is expanding into data highways.” Among the speakers were Tim Berners-Lee, the English computer scientist who invented the World Wide Web in 1989, and the American art collective Critical Art Ensemble. “Who will be the hitchhikers and hijackers of the information superhighways?” the symposium’s description read. “Surfing in digital data net-worlds will facilitate new forms of social interaction.”

Back in Berlin, Tribe started thinking about how he could facilitate idea sharing between artists outside the insular world of museums and galleries without the need to travel to these festivals. “It occurred to me that using the internet we could create a more bottom-up, grassroots scenario in which artists could talk freely with one another, a kind of meritocratic environment where the most interesting and relevant work and ideas would filter up,” Tribe told me in his studio, a tidy space in Long Island City. It was an idea that was in the air in the net art community, which was still a very small milieu, with a significant portion of its thinkers and creators based in Eastern Europe. Tribe set up an email list, and named it after a term from Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus, one of the only books he had brought with him to Berlin. “It just seemed like the perfect name to capture that idea of a grassroots network that would flip the logic of Artforum on its head.” He checked to see if the domain name was free and quickly registered it.

What Tribe was doing wasn’t exactly new. Other organizations across the world had started creating online venues for net art. There was The Thing, which German artist Wolfgang Staehle launched as a bulletin board system in New York and Cologne in 1991, and subsequently turned into a site for art and dialogue. There was äda’web, started in 1994 as a kind of outgrowth of The Thing, and dedicated to commissioning artists like Jenny Holzer and Lawrence Weiner to do online projects. Set up in 1995, Nettime, also a mailing list, prided itself on its fierce independence and positioned itself against the idea of using the internet as a free-market platform, a stance promulgated by Wired magazine.

What would eventually set Rhizome apart from these sites and its other early competitors was its archive, the ArtBase. From the beginning, Tribe was interested in creating an archive. He knew the internet would expand exponentially, and that trying to cover it comprehensively with a set of dedicated staff writers and curators was unrealistic. He wanted to understand and create a record of the online landscape. Initially, that meant archiving the conversations that were happening across the email lists “to see what people at that time were saying about [net art]. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to go back to the Cabaret Voltaire and listen in on those conversations that Tristan Tzara and Hugo Ball were having about this thing they were calling Dada,” Tribe told me. “It just seemed like if you were trying to create an online community it was almost like an online community waiting to happen.” The archival version of the list functioned on an early form of metadata structure, the information that is embedded in every form of digital content and is now a web standard, that Tribe and his team had devised. Rhizome was set up to host an online conversation and, at the same time, record it.

After launching Rhizome, Tribe moved back to the States in 1996 and ran the site as a for-profit out of an office in New York. A sister company Tribe had founded shortly thereafter called StockObjects was footing the bill, having received around $3 million from angel investors. (Tribe had pitched Rhizome to them as a magazine for new media artists, with StockObjects being a stock library populated with clip-like art to be created by the artists in the Rhizome community.)

It was around this time that Rhizome started to become more than just an email list and website, helping foster a burgeoning community both on- and offline with a growing editorial arm that sought to provide context and support for digital-based art. Tribe hired Rachel Greene, who emailed him after sitting in on one of his pitches at a publishing house, as editorial director. Greene and Tribe commissioned artists to create new works, which the site hosted as splash pages, and planned exhibitions both on the website and in museums. Rhizome was, as Greene put it, “a publication and an arts advocacy organization and a social system,” all at once.

Alex Galloway and Mark Tribe in the Rhizome offices on Mercer Street, September 2001. COURTESY MARK TRIBE

Alex Galloway and Mark Tribe in the Rhizome offices on Mercer Street, September 2001.


In 1998, concerned that there would be pressure from investors to turn Rhizome into a commercial magazine or fold it entirely, Tribe spun it off as a nonprofit. Already, some of the early net art sites had shut down, like äda’web, which was discontinued in early 1998 after coming under the umbrella of AOL. (It lives on as an archive in the collection of the Walker Art Center.) Tribe wanted to make sure Rhizome would survive.

That summer, the site went into a kind of unofficial hibernation. Tribe was still working at StockObjects, and Greene ran Rhizome with another employee, Alex Galloway, out of a small loft inside Postmasters Gallery, then in SoHo. Postmasters cofounder Magda Sawon, who mounted the earliest cited gallery exhibition of digital art, “Can You Digit?,” in 1996, was an early supporter of the art Rhizome championed. “When they were starting, the power was just in having this community because these people didn’t have any community, really, so it became this kind of magnetic place,” Sawon told me.

For Tribe, turning Rhizome into a nonprofit was lucky timing: In 2000, StockObjects, which hadn’t yet become profitable, folded, one of the many casualties of the dot-com bubble burst.

Rhizome’s early history tracks with what many consider the golden age of net art, roughly from 1993 to 2001. In 1996, Slovenian artist Vuk Cosić made his first net art work, Net.Art Per Se, a website that replicated CNN’s web interface but instead documented a conference that took place in Trieste, Italy, in May 1996, laying out the basic features of early net art. These were, as Rachel Greene describes them in Internet Art, her 2004 history on the subject, “a serious engagement with popular media, a belief in parody and appropriation, a skepticism toward commodified media information, and a sense of the interplay of art and life.”

Heath Bunting, a British activist who started the website and server irational.org in 1994, made his way through graffiti, telephone, and fax art, and community radio before arriving at the internet. “There’s only so much you can do with a pen and paper in the age of electronic media,” Bunting told me by phone from London. “So I started slowly clawing my way up through the history of electronic media and finally got on to the internet, so I could compete with mainstream narratives and nation-state institutions.” He would become known for combining analog and digital practices, making street art by tagging a URL throughout London and the U.K.—on sidewalks, in subway and train stations—at a time when the character sequences “http://” and “.org” would have been unfamiliar to the average passerby.

Bunting met Greene and Galloway at a conference in Berlin. “They were newcomers and talking about this new platform,” he said. “I was a bit skeptical because at the time we had kind of just escaped from platforms, like CompuServe or AOL. The internet was offering to overthrow these kinds of wall guarders.” At the time, in the early days of the web, most artists and technologists maintained their own servers to access the internet and host their websites and online projects.

Heath Bunting, _readme.html, 1998. COURTESY RHIZOME

Heath Bunting, _readme.html, 1998.


But Bunting took a liking to the Rhizome reps, and recognized the need for some support system behind what he was doing. In 1998, he made _readme.html, now seen as a seminal piece of early net art. “Part of the ethos of net art was to be quick and dirty, so I remember being on the train, and I had this idea. I met my friend and asked him if I could use his computer, and I made the work in about 20 minutes.” What he created was a basic web page displaying an article about him, with almost every word hyperlinked to a corresponding one-word URL. The piece was playing with identity and self-identity in terms of online representation. “That was a big concern at the time, with people talking about avatars and online identities. And I was trying to escape my minor celebrity, trying to find a way to give up the negative side of being well-known and disappear back into a local area, or the forest,” Bunting said. In essence, the work is similar to early spam, as each hyperlink directed the user to something practically nonsensical; Bunting had found a way to subvert online conventions by feeding into them.

And while Bunting was, perhaps unconsciously, committed to keeping this site up and running for the foreseeable future, other early net art works had started to disappear. The most oft-cited work in this case is Akke Wagenaar’s 1995 Hiroshima Project, which looked at the legacy of the Hiroshima bombing; it was presented at Ars Electronica that same year. (The original version went offline shortly thereafter, in early 1996.) It was in this context that Tribe began to think about the preservation of these web- and browser-based works. In 1999, with help from Galloway, who had become Rhizome’s lead developer, and Jennifer Crowe, an artist and curator, Tribe created the ArtBase, which has become the largest collection of historical and contemporary digital-based and born-digital artworks in the world. “A lot of the work that was being created was really ephemeral and not being preserved,” Tribe said. “We were talking about this stuff, but often the stuff was vanishing. Somebody could stop paying the bills on their internet hosting service and a systems administrator could delete art history with the click of a mouse. We wanted to give artists a place to put their work for safekeeping.”

In its original conception, the ArtBase was closer to a database with two ways of preserving works: cloned objects, in which artists would handover zip files of the original work to be hosted on rhizome.org; and linked objects, which would simply direct visitors to the still-accessible projects on their original domains. Tribe, Crowe, and Galloway came up with a taxonomic, metadatic structure—similar to what had been developed for the archive of the Rhizome email lists—for describing all the works in the ArtBase: title, artist, year of production, URL, technology and file type, and a short description.

At first, some artists were skeptical about giving work to Rhizome to preserve. Rhizome was American, and it had been a dot-com, for profit. Then there were other artists who just didn’t think preservation was part of the spirit of net art. From the beginning, Tribe wanted to ensure that the organization was not making a curatorial statement on what should be preserved in the archive. As long as a piece dealt with the internet in one way or another, it was added to the collection. (Rhizome has since ended this practice; today, additions to the ArtBase are by invitation only.)

Bunting’s _readme.html is now in Rhizome’s archive, but he can’t recall precisely how it got there. “We pioneers in the field weren’t angling for a career,” he said. “We didn’t have gallery representation, we didn’t have tenure at universities, we weren’t interested. We were just doing our stuff and living day to day.”

An archived announcement on rhizome.org. COURTESY MARK TRIBE

An archived announcement on rhizome.org.


Rhizome had just begun to archive net art as the heyday of the form drew to an end. Galloway himself wrote an essay called “net.art Year in Review: State of net.art 99” for the journal Switch. “Net-dot-art is dead,” he declared, noting net art’s inclusion in Documenta 10, in 1997, and the upcoming 2000 Whitney Biennial, as signifiers of its demise. “Net.art was the product of a particular technological constraint: low bandwidth. Net.art is low bandwidth through and through.…As computers and bandwidth improve, the primary physical reality that governed the aesthetic space of net.art begins to fall away.”

Rhizome, too, was changing. The organization had been fluctuating between being flush with grant money and on the verge of missing payroll. David Ross, then director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and a member of Rhizome’s board, suggested an institutional partnership to ease these financial woes, and he helped broker one between Rhizome and the New Museum in Lower Manhattan, where Tribe had previously organized a couple of shows in the museum’s Z Media Lounge, including a survey culled from the ArtBase. In September 2003, Rhizome became a kind of organization in residence at the New Museum. Having an affiliate dedicated to net art under the institutional umbrella of the New Museum further helped indoctrinate net art into the mainstream. Tribe took a seat on the museum’s board, and Lisa Phillips, the museum’s director, took a seat on Rhizome’s. Rhizome remained a separate entity, but Phillips invited the staff to meetings with the curatorial and education teams. Today, Rhizome’s offices are located within New Inc, an art-tech incubator run by the New Museum that occupies a floor of a building on the Bowery. The museum owns the building and will soon renovate it, but for the moment it looks nondescript by comparison with the gleaming, futuristic confection next door, which houses the museum’s galleries.

Tribe left not long after the arrangement with the museum was finalized, secure in Rhizome’s stability. (He is now chair of MFA Fine Arts at the School of Visual Arts in New York.) Greene replaced him as executive director but stepped down herself in 2005. Her replacement, Lauren Cornell, helped further incorporate Rhizome into the New Museum’s programming, elevating net art’s acceptance in the art world as a result.

When Cornell started, the world of online art had yet to recover from the dot-com crash. (It was around this time that exhibition spaces like the Z Media Lounge, and others at major New York museums that had cropped up around the new millennium, had started being quietly discontinued.) “I was at a point where I felt I had to make a case that this field was really different and exciting because there had been a larger withdrawal of support,” Cornell said.

Cory Arcangel, Lauren Cornell, and John Michael Boling at a Rhizome benefit. COURTESY LAUREN CORNELL

Cory Arcangel, Lauren Cornell, and John Michael Boling at a Rhizome benefit.


At the same time, a new generation of artists—like Cory Arcangel, Oliver Laric, and Jon Rafman—was showing, as Cornell put it in her introduction to Mass Effect, a recent anthology she co-edited about art that engages with the internet during the post-dot-com period, that “the future of net art would be the dispersion of the category’s legacy into a wide range of practices: open-source sharing, gallery installations, live performances, cinema screenings, talks, and publications.” In other words, these artists were still operating independently from the institutions that had failed to fold early net art into their exhibitions and programming.

In making Rhizome relevant to these emerging talents, “I did alienate maybe a few of the older, long-standing Rhizome members,” Cornell told me, “because I was really interested in expanding the reach of the organization. It was really a different point [from today]. Now there are a lot more organizations that support digital art, or post-internet art, or whatever you want to call it. When I came in 2005, there weren’t. There was just a void.” She invested more in the editorial and commissioning programs, and organized exhibitions that demonstrated how the field was changing. She also brought Rhizome’s online conversations into the real world with “Net Aesthetics 2.0,” a series of discussions in 2006, 2008, and 2013 where artists, curators, and technologists could discuss the changing field. And in 2009, she started, with the help of a few Rhizome board members, the annual Seven on Seven conference, which pairs seven artists with seven technologists for one-on-one collaborations. The conference, which wrapped up its eighth edition this past May, is perhaps what Rhizome is most well-known for in the wider art world, as it has generated well-publicized projects including artist Taryn Simon and computer programmer-cum-hacktivist Aaron Swartz’s Image Atlas (2012).

It was during Cornell’s tenure that Rhizome took major steps to improve the conservation of digital art. As the digital world expanded, it was also unwittingly erasing its past. Cornell appointed Ben Fido-Radin the organization’s first digital conservator. (“I think maybe I was the first person in the world with that title,” Fino-Radin said.) A big part of his job was searching existing web archives, like the Internet Archive and its Wayback Machine, and grabbing any content and re-adding them to the works on Rhizome’s servers.

The landscape in which Rhizome was operating had changed dramatically. “The internet was now not a new medium but a mass medium,” Cornell said. “A generation of artists had grown up using it, and it had become commonplace in many people’s lives. My role was to chart this shift.”

Amalia Ulman, Excellences & Perfections, 2014, as archived on Rhizome's ArtBase. COURTESY RHIZOME

Amalia Ulman, Excellences & Perfections, 2014, as archived on Rhizome’s ArtBase.


By the time Cornell stepped down from Rhizome in 2012—in order to take a curating job at the New Museum—there was a heightened interest in net art practices among institutions, galleries, and audiences. Other organizations had also sprung up around emerging digital art, including the magazine Triple Canopy, the collective DIS and their stock-image library, and the internet art–focused And/Or gallery.

“There was a real explosion of interest in net art practices and artists interested in technology, or working in the context of technology—the areas Rhizome worked in over the years,” said Heather Corcoran, Cornell’s successor. Rhizome’s new role in the field it helped popularize was unclear.

Rhizome had worked over the past 15 years to preserve digital works in the ArtBase after they had started disappearing, but now the organization started to take a preemptive approach, looking to create new technologies to address preservation problems as—and even before—they arise.

One of the current challenges in digital preservation is addressing how the web has evolved since it was originally conceived in 1989. Not only have social media and easy access to the internet wrought incredible change in our daily lives, but web pages have become dynamic feats of software that require real-time user interaction—something that would have been impossible back then, given the constraints of low bandwidth. The work Rhizome is trying to preserve is not a static set of documents. “We don’t think of anything we are conserving as a thing or a stable entity,” Dragan Espenschied, Rhizome’s current digital conservator, said. “Internet and network-based art is the most extreme type of artifact that you might want to archive, because many websites or projects that happen on the web have blurry borders. So you can’t quite define an objecthood. Some are changing all the time, so you can’t nail down a definitive version of the artwork.”

Within Rhizome, there were discussions about how to take on the current wave of internet art. The newest preservation challenges were coming from social media, where some of the most interesting works were popping up. “There really weren’t that many tools to save things from a site that the artist doesn’t own, like Instagram or another social media site,” Corcoran said. Unlike in the early days of the web, when artists maintained their own servers and wrote their own codes and scripts, many projects could no longer be handed over as zip files.

Espenschied was convinced that the best approach to create these digital, archival artifacts, what he terms “high-fidelity capturings,” was to have a proxy intercept and record the bytes of data that are transmitted from the servers of complex websites, like Facebook or Twitter, to a user’s browser, where they appear as clean, simple-looking web pages. This thinking, spurred by another web-based loss, this time in Facebook comments, led Espenschied to get in contact with developer Ilya Kreymer, who had worked on the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine and had created a project called pywb, that was still in its rough stages of development but was conceptually exactly what Rhizome was looking for.

Together, Espenschied and Kreymer produced a service now called Webrecorder, a tool that conserves video, audio, and complex Javascript found on most websites, including social media sites. (Webrecorder had a beta launch in April 2015, and was officially released in full to the public this August.) Espenschied in particular sought out new works and projects that could challenge their existing capturing practices. “Art is, in general, a very good field to test tools in,” Espenschied said, “because art has never followed the rules and this generates edge cases all the time.”

The index page for the early blog VVORK, as archived using Rhizome's Webrecorder. COURTESY RHIZOME

The index page for the early blog VVORK, as archived using Rhizome’s Webrecorder.


One of the first works to enter the ArtBase as a Webrecorder artifact—all 392.5 GB of it—was an entire website, VVORK, a pre-Tumblr image-and-video-heavy blog founded in 2006. The next step in Rhizome’s archival pursuits was to pull work off a major social media site. In early 2014, L.A.-based artist Amalia Ulman took on a persona to create Excellences & Perfections, the Instagram-based story, told over five months, of a girl who moves to Los Angeles and has an Instagram-perfect life. She detailed her travails, including breast augmentation, and racked up hundreds of followers, likes, and comments before revealing the whole project to be a performance, a work of fiction. Often regarded as one of the first major works to use Instagram and its community as a medium—much like Cortright’s VVEBCAM—it has been exhibited internationally within the past year. By October 2014, Rhizome had successfully archived Excellences & Perfections in its Instagram context. With YouTube, Instagram, and later, Twitter, solved, only one social-media giant remains: Facebook, with some 1.65 billion active daily users. While Webrecorder is somewhat functional with Facebook, the recordings are still not quite there. “Sometimes it works, sometimes it’s still too complex,” Espenschied said while giving me a tour of the Webrecorder software in Rhizome’s offices. “Facebook is kind of the Holy Grail of this.”

Rhizome may look like David to Facebook’s Goliath, but the organization has a survivor’s spirit. In terms of the original net art websites, it is the last one standing. And at least philosophically, social media has taken over the role that Rhizome played in the ’90s as an email list and in the 2000s, during the rise of blogs, when its posts drew numerous comments. “The web has changed,” said Kaplan, who became executive director last fall when Corcoran stepped down. Connor, Rhizome’s artistic director, has said the Rhizome of the past—even the recent past—was something like a social network before such a thing existed. Now the internet is, as Cornell and others would put it, a mass medium. The kinds of conversations that might once have taken place on Rhizome are now happening across Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. And whereas on Rhizome those conversations would be preserved, on those sites, wide swaths of information disappear regularly. Rhizome has become a kind of protector of data, trying to preserve the moment—and technological atmosphere—of the day, as it did when it was archiving email exchanges.

It’s easy to think of Rhizome, being based online, as ephemeral, but Kaplan thinks of it as the next in a line of great New York art institutions, starting with the Met and moving on through MoMA, the Whitney, and the New Museum. Rhizome started when net art did; as the internet evolved, so did Rhizome.

“It’s hard to step back and imagine what it was like back then. It was very different,” Rachel Greene, who is now an art adviser based in Seattle, said of her time at Rhizome. “None of us predicted the way technology was going to become such a force, in the same way that none of us predicted that the art economy was going to explode the way that it has and that wealth and inequality were going to increase so much. There are so many things that none of us anticipated. It seems like a naive time, in retrospect.” These days, she said, “my life motto is ‘spend as little time with technology as possible.’ ”

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