CREATING SPACES: NET ART IN THE "REAL WORLD"
by Michelle Kasprzak
While computer users the world over were discovering the power of weblogs, wikis, and RSS, and online industries were facing boom and bust, net artists had already pushed the aesthetic and technical limits of the internet and experienced their own series of booms and busts -- from the high of net art's inclusion in museum exhibitions, developing a distinct critical discourse, and net artists being branded "Duchamp's ideal children", to debates about net art's death, and net art finding itself in and out of favour among new media practitioners. 1
Canadian artists have been at the forefront of creating net art throughout this turbulent history. They have not only produced significant works in the classical sense of this genre, but also frequently developed integrated works that blend online components with a range of other, longer-established artistic practices and general offline activity. These links between online and offline, net art and other forms, has proven to be one of net art's most consistent strengths in recent history, underpinning the critical complexity of the works and adding to the durability of these works over time.
Artist Wayne Dunkley sometimes characterises his work as "creating spaces", and with his work Removal and Degradation of the/a Black Male 2 he created an online space that also effectively interfaced with public space. Dunkley used a photographic image of his own face, slightly degraded by photocopying it, and postered over four hundred copies of this image in Toronto and Montreal. The image had either the article "the" or "a" followed by a blank under his face, inviting written responses on the posters from passersby. Later Dunkley rephotographed the posters, capturing the effects time and weather have had on them, as well as the captions provided by the public.
His work challenges and confronts us with our greatest fears, but also invites us to consider our hopes and aspiration. Through this work, we are confronted with the fact that despite hopes for a diverse and harmonious Canada, some members of the public would still scrawl blatantly racist epithets on a simple image of a human face. We are also welcomed into intimate moments in the lives of others, sharing hope in their stories of overcoming and acceptance.
Dunkley used his photographs, in combination with his skills as a storyteller, to develop the "books" on the Removal and Degradation of the/a Black Male website. Dunkley's act of naming the segments of the site as books deliberately leads us to focus on the narrative elements, cleverly drawing attention to the core of the work, despite the novelty of the technology he was using to deliver it. He combined this grounding in classic storytelling with use of the cutting edge tools of the web then: animation, graphic layouts and inviting the user to participate not just by clicking through but also by creating their own compositions of graphic elements.
Presaging the interweaving of personal voices that was to become the hallmark of the weblog revolution. Dunkley then invited users to contribute their own stories of otherness, of overcoming fear, and of the many facets of identity that define us. He added to the website, incorporating the stories of others and building on the style of the site. This work is a leading early example of using a creative action in public space as the bedrock upon which to build an interactive experience.
The work of Michelle Teran is also often concerned with interactions between public spaces and the web. Her early web-focused works consistently engaged with issues of connection over distance and the new possibilities for collaboration that the internet made possible. In AFK, a piece she produced collaboratively with Isabelle Jenniches, 3 Teran and Jenniches developed a series of assignments for each other, each centred around the presence of a webcam broadcasting public spaces to publicly-accessible websites. Drawing upon two rich histories in art -- performance for the camera (one recalls Bruce Naumann stamping in his studio in 1968) and instruction-based works (extensively explored and developed by the Fluxus movement), Teran and Jenniches assigned each other tasks to be performed and captured by the webcam as it broadcasted live. The performances themselves used as their material, often with great wit, the rapidly growing vocabulary of acronyms being used in internet chat rooms. The instructions, performance documentation, and a full glossary of chat room acronyms were gathered on a website for the project. AFK, the name of the work, stands for "Away From Keyboard", which cleverly sums up the entire nature of the piece they created.
On February 2, 2002, an assignment is issued to Jenniches: "Print your message on the biggest red balloon you can find. Early in the morning take the balloon down to the ocean. Pump air into it with each incoming wave. When the balloon is filled, give it to somebody to hold." Jenniches performs in front of the webcam for the "Good Clean Fun" surf shop in Cayucos, California, while Teran monitors her progress via the webcam's stream from her studio in Toronto. Despite high winds, Jenniches manages to fill the balloon, and with the help of a "friendly guy in a green jacket", she completes the action. She holds the balloon bearing the message A3 (Anytime, Anywhere, Anyplace) up to the camera until the balloon bursts.
The artists also resourcefully used some of the webcam infrastructure that was available to them to more deeply involve the public. Certain webcams used in their work were user-controllable, so that web users could queue for a fixed amount of time panning and zooming to develop their own view of the scene. Using a webcam in Ventura, California for the sixth performance in the series, Teran notes that she enjoys the "indirect intimacy" of sharing control over the camera with other invisible users, and she describes the pleasure inherent in changing her view of Jenniches as she performs. AFK allowed audiences to watch the performance happening live on any of the publicly-accessible webcam streams, or visit the project's website to see documentation, but it is this third option of interaction via the controllable webcams that added a rich layer of unpredictable audience interaction to the connection already happening over distance between Teran and Jenniches.
The Appearance Machine by Willy Le Maitre and Eric Rosenzveig 4 also used web streaming as a core component of the project. Colourful detritus slowly rotates on an enormous turntable in a studio space in New York City. Cameras are trained on this visually arresting installation, which are transmitting to the web. But rather than provide one shot of this scene, Le Maitre and Rosenzveig used algorithms based on Hollywood movies and music videos to control the editing of the footage of their installation in real time, as it was being transmitted to the web. The result is an eminently watchable and lyrical never ending movie, where one minute you may be captivated by a fluttering piece of ribbon, and the other, transfixed by the slow roll of a crumpled bit of paper.
The Appearance Machine built on the language and tools of filmmaking, but evolved it to the next level for the web: it was always on. Pneumatics, motors, fans, and other devices were controlled by several pieces of software working in harmony. Live video mixing was controlled by software and generated in real time for the stream. A complex system of internal interaction, feedback loops work in concert with edit decision lists and other data culled from films to control the ongoing cinematic display.
The Appearance Machine and its endless output of poetic, "accidental" cinematic moments are made more incredible and warmly funny by the materials that are the "stars" of the show: common garbage scavenged by the artists from around the studio containing the machine. The way in which the machine converts found rubbish into poetry can be found echoed in today's net art created by practitioners who take part in "surf clubs". 5 Surf clubbers find overlooked bits of beauty, irony and humour on the web, often in the form of animated GIFs, image files, or screen captures that they generate. These found treasures are then shared and commented on, with mythologies and stories being built around them. The Appearance Machine, several years earlier, performed much the same action, but with actual garbage, instead of the virtual detritus of the net.
If The Appearance Machine examined ways in which machines perform and used random detritus as material, Risa Horowitz's Melitzah 6 is nearly the opposite: an incredibly extensive vocal performance coupled with the dictionary, an ubiquitous and fundamental work of reference material. Melitzah is the Hebrew word meaning utterance: "an uninterrupted chain of spoken or written words not necessarily corresponding to a single or complete grammatical unit". The minimal aesthetics of the website are modest trappings for a complex piece that plumbs the depths of our relationship with language. Melitzah contains audio recordings of Horowitz's voice reading the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Type in any word that would appear in the Canadian Oxford Dictionary in the search box at the top of the page, and with each word accompanied by a waveform visualization of the sound of the word, as Horowitz says it.
As Horowitz states: "The waveforms are visual representations of the auditory, which are linguistic representations of the cognitive. Melitzah presents an empirically more accurate visual representation of the English language which is nonetheless illegible, thus making analogous the failures of everyday communication with the abstraction of language into waveform." Melitzah further probes the problems of language and the failure of communication by virtue of its presence on the web, as well. The global nature of the web, and the strong but slowly fading dominance of the English language as part of it makes Melitzah an undertaking that interjects a subtle Canadianness into the evolution of language as it is used in the ever-growing number of websites. Horowitz's choice of dictionary and her own Canadian accent as she reads the words out stakes out, in a typically understated Canadian way, a place for Canadian vocabulary and voice on the web.
The seeming infiniteness of the web is a particularly appropriate container for this impressively large archive of sound and image. The relationship that we have with the physical object that is at the heart of the project, the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, is one of being able to, at a glance, understand its scope by its size and heft. Melitzah's interface presents us with the very tip of the iceberg that was the task of reading and recording each word. By having the user search one word at a time, and view and listen to one word at a time rather than browse the entire dictionary in an indexical format, the immensity of Horowitz's task is made nearly invisible to the web user. Horowitz has made the full extent of the task more visible in the complete work: she created a set of 138 books representing her visual translations, and a recording of her voice that reads the words continuously. However, for web users, it seems appropriate that the true scope of her work requires dozens of searches to fully appreciate: it echoes the ways in which we learn to appreciate the wealth of information on the internet as we grow to rely on Google for answers to all life's questions.
Each of these works by Canadian net artists forms crucial links between everyday life and creative space, from Dunkley's posters, to Horowitz's use of the dictionary. As the ways in which net art is interpreted and incorporated into the artistic practices of today and of the future evolve, we should see a strengthening of these bonds between practices, rather than increased isolation. What forms and methods Canadian net artists use as they develop their work in the future remains to be seen, but history indicates that they will surely continue to form the vanguard.
1 : See Eryk Salvaggio, "Duchamp's Ideal Children's Children: Net.art's Brat Pack", April 2003:
2 : Wayne Dunkley, Removal and Degradation of the/a Black Male, Canada, 2001.
3 : Michelle Teran and Isabelle Jenniches, AFK, Canada, 2001-2002.
4 : Willy Le Maitre and Eric Rosenzveig,
The Appearance Machine, Canada, 1999-present.
5 : See Marcin Ramocki,
"Surfing Clubs: organized notes and comments", May 27, 2008:
6 : Risa Horowitz, Melitzah, Canada, 2000-2007.