The Working Condition
“Those who believe that the automobile is eternal are not thinking, even from a strictly technological standpoint, of other future forms of transportation. For example, certain models of one-man helicopters presently being tested by the US Army will probably have spread to the general public within twenty years”.
from: Situationist Theses on Traffic, #8 (Debord, 1959)
1. Independent artists’ spaces
Artists in this century have always created their own spaces, worlds, universes. They have created their own schools, movements, organisations. In the late 70s and early 80s many artists in West-Europe organised themselves in a more political way. In these times, there were many protests and people started to squat houses and buildings to find alternative ways of using these for living, working and education. At first, of course, these actions were criminalized by the authorities. Soon, artists started to use the form of critical protest and public action to occupy empty buildings, to create new environments for art and artists. In many westeuropean countries, particularly in Holland, Germany and Austria, these artists spaces have become an important factor in the production of art, public appearance of artists, and the exploration and development of new forms of art.
Parallel to this social development, more and more technical media have entered our world — video, computers, gameconsoles. For artists, communication and information technology, and more specificly the internet has revealed the kind of autonomy and independency that enables people, and artists, to act free, to freely create, express, and to explore and experiment with new forms of art. In this context, however, art is not any longer produced in more or less unique physical, material objects, but only exists if it is played back, performed on-line, connected, or rendered on a screen. Time-based art has another appearance in the public space. It cannot be simply attached on a wall, installed in a public hall, or on a public square. This art exists as called media. If it is embedded in an object or an installation, or used as part of a performance, then not this outer form but the electronic and cybernetic appearance is the actual work.
For many artists the internet is another possibility to reflect their position in a rapidly changing world. Most artists use the net for selfreflection or documentation. Still, only very few artists have access to technology and the required knowledge to apply these in order to create art. This an important condition, without this knowledge and the access to technology, it is very difficult to create art in an electronic space. this points also at another difficulty. It is an illusion to think that with more personal computers, phones and faxes, vcrs, tape- and diskdrives, people have more access to technology. This technology is applied and defined in products or services.
2. Conditions for working with the net
Since the artist not only has to produce art as an object, he also takes control over the image and the actual content. He even takes over its context — the where and how, when and why the work is positioned in the context of art. Any work of art cannot exist or be seen without an art context. Alone on an island, one might not be interested in art, since you cannot share experiences, ideas and perception with other people. In the Balinese language there is no word for art. On the sandy coast of Bali, every year craftsmen create phantastic sand sculptures washed away by the sea. Sometimes context is art.
By the mid nineties, most of the very few artists that had access to the internet had found their way into this worldwide communication network. Some argue that art has changed since the emergence of electronic media. Certainly, technology has affected art and art practice. But never before have artists so easily gotten access to technology. It is important to consider that many of the recent developments on the internet are not just the product of corporate industries or national research laboratories, but also the work of individuals and small collaborations. Net.art is not a product of art historians or museum directors, but again by individual artists and relatively small groups.
Over the last few years an incredible range of books, readers, syllabi, zines and other printed media have been published on the rise of the internet. However, only few have been publishing what we refer to as net.art. The new forms of art that come with technology still have to be described, not only from an art-historical perspective, but also within the context of media culture itself.
After the studio and the collaborative workspace, the medialab is the next stage which creates room for artistic activity. The medialab is however not an isolated atelier or studio, but a workspace that is connected through communication technology to networks and so to other medialabs. Not just for sharing technology and information, but also to be able to work together in a virtual workspace. There is no single format for such a place. The few labs presented here were, and are, also a human network, with several collaborations, meetings and exchanges. It is within these locations that net.art came into existence. Not art subdued to a curatorial plan, but art that is the outcome of network activity. The medialab is slowly turning into an artform; artists give up their private studios and establish such environments. As with the artist, the artform has turned into a set of parameters, that can be changed by the audience. The netbased artwork addresses to the intention and creativity of that audience. Net.art as a toolbox, an instrument for the user to make her or his own art.
No longer merely a production environment, even larger organisations, like C3, AEC, V2 and the ZKM, have created their own medialabs.
The Thing (www.thing.net)
One of the oldest strongholds for artists on the internet is The Thing, now home based in New York. The Thing started off as a network of bbs-systems, mainly in Germany. Since 1994 The Thing is an ISP homebased in New York City, a shared workspace and an internet-host supporting several systems and hosting various projects by artists. The Thing tries to balance the participation, service and artistic production in a smart way. It offers access, space and a forum to artists and critics to present their ideas, mainly their critique on art and exhibitions. Also, it holds a rich collection of ‘early’ works by artists experimenting with user interfaces and internet technology.
The Ljubljana Digital Media Lab, shortly known as Ljudmila, is a projectspace supported by the Soros Foundation in Ljubljana. It started in 1994 with a small group, that provided access and services for the local community. The activity was never limited by just working in the lab, but showed a large involvement in the Ljubljana public arts scene, festivals, exhibitions, parties. Next to websites and collaborative netprojects, Ljudmila is also facilitating multimedia and videoproduction and currently has over 500 dial-in users. Still, most users are artists and working for independent organisations.
Internationale Stadt Berlin (www.icf.de)
Almost parallel to The Digital City in Amsterdam, the Internationale Stadt Berlin was founded. For several years, in contrast to its dutch counterpart, at least by name, there was no institute behind this network. There was primarily a core group, active in the local Berlin scene, that invited collegues and friends to create a network, like a city with inhibitants. But as with Ljudmila, the network was mostly used by artists and those working in independent organisations. Internationale Stadt Berlin did dissappear as a central server, but in the context of the continuous building and construction activity of the city Berlin, the people of Internationale Stadt Berlin have just moved to other areas in town and have reorganised in multiple new artservers and workspaces.
Flying Desk (desk.org)
Flying Desk (or just simply Desk) was a workspace for artists, activists, critics, hackers and authors. The core group of this initiative met within De Digitale Stad (the digital city), Europe’s first virtual community. Until summer 1996, the workspace has hosted about one hundred people; the virtual workspace gave opportunities to several more. Desk was a model for many other medialabs since it intended not only to give space to artists to create their own work, but also hosted workshops, organised meetings and created on small scale alternate income for artists through work for third parties. Thus, the revenues have been spend almost entirely on the production of art and several services that supported artists, writers and programmers in their profession. The nettime and rhizome mailinglists started off here, Desk provided an alternate rootserver for the namespace domainssystem. Several artists created their first net.artworks on one of the machines of Desk. Now known as Desk Organization, one of the last free linux hosts on the internet.
4. global forums, the power of shared writing
Another powerful tool for artists and activists has been and still are mailinglists. Nettime is a very active and lively forum with more than sevenhundred participants, theoreticians, artists, activists and journalists, from all over the world. In 1995 the mailinglist was found after the very first zk meeting in June in Venice. Not only netbased, nettime has regularly organized meetings (ZK), until now just in Europe. The major topic or issue of the list and the ZK-meetings is net culture and net-criticism. Besides to thousands of postings and numerous gatherings, the list has also produced several readers, ZKP1, ZKP2, ZKP3, ZKMP321, a website and a book ‘Read Me’. ” is not just a mailing list but an effort to formulate an international, networked discourse that neither promotes a dominant euphoria (to sell products) nor continues the cynical pessimism, spread by journalists and intellectuals in the ‘old’ media who generalize about ‘new’ media with no clear understanding of their communication aspects. we have produced, and will continue to produce books, readers, and web sites in various languages so an ‘immanent’ net critique will circulate both on- and offline.” (excerpt from the nettime website*)
Another very lively forum for artists is the mailinglist 7-11; the name refers to a chain of us-supermarkets. This list holds a large collection of artistic expression, blunt cynical criticism. Its content varies from creative textbased art (ascii art) up to manipulated texts, redirected spam email, scrambled letters and crypto-anarchic messages. 7-11 was installed after a dispute at the 4th zkmp meeting in ljubljana, summer 1998. There, artists left the nettime list to create a forum with more emphasis on less doctrine, more art, less criticism. nettime was seen as an elite list for european formalists, american academists and global reference hunters.
Of course there are many others mailinglists, such as Rhizome, Syndicate and Xchange.
6. Future, objectives, speculation
Originally, what we called net.art was more of a movement and less of an artform. We, the artists using the internet, had found a way to reach another and much larger audience then through exhibits in museums and galleries. it also allowed and allows us to manipulate not just the image or the sound, but also any image, any sound. the net is a collection of ready mades.
“… Net.art can in no way be considered a systematic doctrone; it does however, constitute a school, and the activists who make up this school want to transform their www art works by returning to first principles with regard to online inspiration, just as themedia.artists – and many of the net.artists were at one time media.artists – returned to first principles with regard to interface composition.” (Cosic, Wagenaar: The Net.Artist, excerpt from Nettime ZKP 3.2.1, 1998)
If history makes all working models fail at a certain point, because technologies and societies are always changing, then we should consider other conditions that enable us to address issues, express our feelings or visualize the ideas about the world around us. The working_condition, refers to work, to both aspects of manual labour and exploitation, as well as to systems of administration and management. It is difficult in an arts context to talk about a or the working_condition, since the production of art has little to do with the classical paradigm of labour.
Labour and capital are classical factors which almost have been eliminated by the current economic, mostly financial and monetary factors. Labour is an expense, a cost factor. Information is the capital of the cypher age. Almost every good, product or service is converted into a set of codes as algorithms. This changes our environment dramatically: air, water and nutrition have been turned in commodities. The usage of these commodities are a cost factor, and are no longer part of a natural habitat, but part of a mechanism, a program which runs our society, manageable, accountable, controllable. This system also affects artistic practices and in some ways also the art itself. Artists have become partners of our postmodern societies, no longer outcasts, avantgarde or subcultural activists.
On the net, it is not exclusiveness that is required but compatibility. Can the art form be connected to, can I have access, can my computer system handle this kind of data. Can the other user’s computer display what my computer shows. As with language, not every phrase, sound or image can be understood by everyone else. This is conditioned by education, culture difference and by economic and political factors.
On a global scale, only a small minority can actually use technology, even fewer are able to create their own technology. This is almost a contradiction: technology allows us to communicate worldwide, practically open any library or visit any remote location, but it is still very exclusive, because it is complex, expensive, relatively rare, changes constantly and not every new technology is immediately available to all users, new technology does not alwas succeed, is not always the best choice, because profit prevails over quality. The final price tag is the sum of overhead, not the thing itself. The ecomomy is a adminstrative cypherspace and the actual trade is financial and monetary. Then what is left to do? If the threat is real and all intellectual property, like knowledge based code, is trade, then it will be extremely difficult to maintain within the current presets of standards, language and protocols. New definitions have to be written to create new freedom of information. If language is no longer free to use, to change and to improve, then it will hard to create new content, use what has been ignored, freely exchange ideas, opinions and meaning.
It is essential to preserve older information, concepts, formulas, plans, meanings, failures, architecture, code, to be able to understand things that later are no longer there. It is too naive to think that their essence will be embedded in new media, so there would be no need for preservation of things that no longer work and have nog longer any meaning. But, there will always be more people that make use of old, not new, hardware, systems and programms. In the recent years, there have been written so many standards, programs and machinecodes that currently are no longer in use nor even available anymore, although in idea or in functionality, they could add to the contemporary software, point at yet unaddressed possibilities. This the mind of Free Software and Open Source. These constructs allow to add, recreate and extend proven technology.
Telecommunication is not replacing how we communicated before, but tries to extend, improve the possibilities. The real-virtual-space is that of desire. Something that can be obtained but only by a few. For all others it is just the idea, the illusion or the dream. This is another threat. Open Source that is but another business plan or a marketing strategy contradicts the possibilities of an Open Source movement creating without limits. Independence and freedom to speak, to write and to exchange words, codes and expressions then is no longer a right but a scheme you can subscribe to. Artists and activists are required here.
Walter van der Cruijsen – December 1999
Published in in ‘net_condition: art in global media’, Peter Weibel und Tim Druckery (eds.), MITpress, 2001, ISBN026273138X