net.art was created, distributed and consumed on Internet and was mostly about the Internet. The genuine experience of net.art was early in the morning, with a cup of coffee, the old computer with a small blinking screen and a slow modem connection. It was completely independent from the art system and entered the white cubes as an exotic animal.
During the Internet boom in late ’90 net.art was exhibited in virtually every contemporary art museum in the world, but was very soon completely forgotten. As Julian Stallabrass states in the Very short introduction to contemporary art, such works can be copied perfectly from one machine to the next, and much of the code that makes them operate is open for viewing, copying, and rewriting. If the Net culture of sharing data threatens even those industries that have embraced industrial production methods, how much worse it looks for art that has not. Ownership in such circumstances means little, particularly because the ethos of Internet art tends to be more about dialogue than the production of finished works, let alone objects. Internet art does not challenge the production, ownership, and sale of art objects themselves, but it opens up a new realm in which artists produce immaterial works that can be viewed as art, and which can be free of dealers and the agendas of state institutions and corporations.
From the mid-1990s, with the rise of the web browser, the dematerialization of the art work – especially its weightless distribution over digital networks – has threatened the protected system of the arts. What is the market to make of a work that is reproducible with perfect accuracy, that can simultaneously exist on thousands of servers and millions of computers, and that can be cannibalized or modified by users? How can one buy, sell, or own such a portion of data? This is a situation, central to Marxist theory, in which modernization of the means of production comes into conflict with the relations of production. In digital art, the use of new technological means to make and distribute work comes into conflict with the craft-based practice, patronage, and elitism of the art world.
Artists made interventions in online space, alongside corporations that made concerted efforts to change the Internet from forum to mall. That commercial colonization has been a rich subject for Internet artists, who have produced many sharp and sophisticated pieces designed to draw the shopper up short. One of the most notorious was staged by the art corporation, etoy. Their Digital Hijack diverted surfers who had typed in keywords such as ‘Madonna’, ‘Porsche,’ and ‘Penthouse’ into a search engine, and clicked on etoy’s top-rated site, greeting them with the response: ‘Don’t fucking move. This is a digital hijack’, followed by the loading of an audio file about the plight of imprisoned hacker Kevin Mitnick, and the hijacking of the Internet by Netscape. Others – including Rachel Baker, with her examination of customer surveys, data mining, and loyalty cards – have come
into dispute with corporations using the copyright laws to suppress freedom of speech. Baker made a site promising Web users who registered for a Tesco loyalty card points as they surf, provided they filled in a registration form that asked questions such as ‘Do you often give your personal data to marketers?’ and ‘How much is your personal data worth to marketing agents?’ She rapidly received a letter from Tesco threatening an injunction and damage claims.
This form of art is indicative of a wider, extraordinary development: out of a renewed and virulent species of capitalism – at the point of its apparent triumph – there condensed from fragmented singleissue politics, a coherent movement of opposition. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri argue that this is no accident, for cooperative values emerge from the very change of the primary economies towards data processing, in which cooperation between users and producers can be a more important organizing force than investment capital. The result is ‘the potential for a kind of spontaneous and elementary communism’. The free software movement – based on just this global, voluntary cooperation protected by a hacked form of copyright law – is a challenge to the dominance of Microsoft and provides a striking example of such collective work in action.
Art on the Net clearly raises – more effectively than their vestigial treatment in the gallery – issues of dialogue and democracy. Here democracy is severed from the market, dialogue is rapid, borrowing is frequent, openness is part of the ethos, and there is a blurred line between makers and viewers. There are the beginnings of a sacrifice of the sovereign artist and solitary viewer in favour of communal participation and – that most necessary and elusive of qualities in art – meaningful and effective feedback.
Such useful works are not confined to the online world, though they can flourish there because corporate sponsorship and museum curatorship do not define what is seen.