Despite a miserable, cold, rain-soaked evening last Thursday, the basement theater of the New Museum in New York was filled for the launch of Rhizome’s Net Art Anthology project, a two-year online exhibition that aims to chronicle a history of internet-based art from the 1980s all the way through the present era, archived in part using Rhizome’s Webrecorder tool. The strong rainy night turnout was not lost on Rhizome’s executive director, Zachary Kaplan, who lightheartedly commended the crowd’s “commitment to net art” in an opening statement.
Indeed, it was a night for the faithful. After a presentation on the new project from Rhizome staff, four speakers, who are all artists—Rhizome founder Mark Tribe, Franklin Furnace founder Martha Wilson, Electronic Disturbance Theater founder Ricardo Dominguez, and archivist Olia Lialina—made short presentations, focusing on net art from the heady mid-to-late 1990s. The evening ended with a panel moderated by Rhizome’s Michael Connor.
With a Clinton currently running for president, now seems like as good of a time as any to investigate the aesthetics of the ’90s. The first project to be archived by the Net Art Anthology is 1991’s A Cyberfeminist Manifesto for the 21st Century by the collective VNS Matrix, which feels at once retro and current—Rhizome’s assistant curator of net art, Aria Dean, pointed to Laboria Cubonik’s Xenofeminism: A Politics for Alienation as a recent work that exists in a similar spirit at the intersection of gender and technology.
Staying on the cyberpunk tip, Dominguez kicked off presentations with a video that featured a British voiceover artist and information about his group’s “digital sit-ins,” which it pioneered in the late-‘90s. (The term hacktivist was used.) During her turn, Wilson remarked that one of the early Franklin Furnace internet projects got 700 hits, which at the time was a thrilling bump up from 75 people in a small performance space. Tribe spoke on the early history of Rhizome (for a detailed accounting of Rhizome’s development, read Maximilíano Durón’s profile of the organization from this September), while Lialina, perhaps the artist most associated with contemporary net art, gave a speech that did a good job breaking down the mood of the times. (Lialina’s seminal 1996 piece My Boyfriend Came Back From the War hits the anthology on November 10.)
Internet art in the 1990s and early-2000s often had a confrontational, punk spirit that can at times feel removed from more recent developments in the form. During that era, Lialina said she thought there were many organizations doing things incorrectly, which her website Art.Teleportacia (described by Lialina as “the first real net art gallery”) aimed to remedy. Some of those things highlighted on her site: Rhizome, MoMA, Alta Vista, showing net art without URL location bars. A portion of the artist’s early work with the website was never saved, because at the time, Lialina said that her mind was in a zone where only the newest version matters.
No doubt, the ephemeral nature of content on the internet is an issue that has persisted and doesn’t seem likely to resolve itself any time soon. The same day as the Rhizome launch, the cult video-sharing service Vine announced that it was shutting down. Vine was a reliably ecstatic pocket within an often tedious social media landscape. The app’s end made me think of another social media network whose cultural importance and fall from grace remains a haunting presence in the history of digital culture: Myspace.
After the event, I went to speak with Rhizome’s preservation director, Dragan Espenschied, who was wearing a crisp button-down shirt that had on it a repeating pattern modeled after a Geocities notebook (part of Lialina’s “Webmaster Summer” collection of clothing), and asked about his attempts to archive internet art made on the platform, some of which will show up later in the Net Art Anthology.
“It got this revamping after Justin Timberlake got involved, and now it’s this fancy, really boring website,” he told me. “Before, the Myspace aesthetics were developed really by the users hacking the system and inserting the CSS where they shouldn’t be inserting it, and that became Myspace’s thing. So it’s really based around mistakes and errors and holes in the system,” he continued.
Although web archives scrubbed and made partial archives of Myspace sites since the beginning, Espenschied explained that because of those aforementioned intentional browser errors, a thorough archiving of Myspace is a challenge, to say the least. He pointed to “speculative restoration,” or rebuilding a page partially from memory, as one workaround. “That might be something hyper-real in the end, but the main thing in that case is that you recreate the affect,” he said. “It’s not about having every pixel at the same place as it used to be before, but it’s about that it just gets you in the same way that it did back then.”
In some ways, Myspace could be seen as the bridge between the aesthetically regimented social media landscape of today and some of the more-wily, now-outmoded forms of internet culture discussed at the New Museum. During the panel, Tribe recalled that, in it early days, internet art “kind of felt like a new avant-garde movement.” In an era after modernism, when everything had supposedly already been done, Tribe remarked that the internet gave artists actual new terrain to explore. He spoke of “a Star Trek kind of feeling” that permeated the ‘90s, and attempted to hum a bit of the Star Trek theme song. Then the night ended, and I walked back out into the rain.