Signe Pierce and Alli Coates, American Reflexxx (2013)
Two years ago, performance artist Signe Pierce and videographer Alli Coates staged a public intervention on the Myrtle Beach strip in South Carolina, a popular tourist spot. Concealing her face with a featureless mirrored mask, Pierce wore a tight blue mini dress and performed exaggerated, gyrating movements while walking through the streets at night through throngs of revelers. Coates did not intervene, instead passively recording the ensuing scene even as the safety of her partner was threatened. Earlier this year, the artists released a 14-minute "chopped and screwed" edit of the video on YouTube to an outpouring of public reaction. In the following conversation, Pierce discusses the work with writer and artist Alexis Anais Avedisian, Rhizome's spring Editorial Fellow.
I want to commend you for making a brave work that construes many related topics within current cyberfeminist discourses. To start, I felt your mirrored mask brought up parallels to privacy, in the sense that cultivated, crafted, and projected representations of the self are now rendered as trackable, malleable, and intended for public consumption. Feeling surveilled often intensifies our instinct to hide, yet every day we surrender our privacy to greater social, political, and economic forces.
Identity concealment poses a threatening question: is someone anonymous, possibly preconceived to be inauthentic, worthy of privacy? By putting on the mask, and claiming privacy through self-concealment, did your difference make you "less than human" in the eyes of the mob? As the "mob mentality" and its panic about your identity infringed upon your human rights, do you think that their fear was subconsciously related to a broader desire to be accessible and exposed on social media?
The nature of privacy during these still-early phases of the internet, and the notion of what's acceptable in terms of how we socially consume each other, is increasingly blurry. We've all been hanging out online for the past 8-10 years, and we've grown accustomed to feeling entitled to accessing other people's information. We watch each other on our various social media feeds as though we're TV, and in a sense, we are. We are the new TV. Through the scope of Facebook/Twitter/Snapchat/Instagram, our individual realities play out like TV shows. Our posts are little "episodes", and our likes, favs, and follower counts are essentially "ratings".
When I meet someone who doesn't have a Facebook or social media presence, a number of thoughts run through my mind:
Are they a luddite?
What do they know that I don't?
I wish I had the self-control and willpower to have authentic experiences without needing to broadcast my minutiae online.
I think by asking these questions, I get a sense of how the people reacting to me in American Reflexxx felt. Everyone was desperate to figure out why I would be doing something that they themselves wouldn't consider doing; because they can't see my face, they automatically assume that I'm hiding something.
Online identity is a strange condition, because even if we choose to broadcast our lives, it is just as easy to revert to anonymity when we're sitting behind our screens. You can exist online as an avatar or an anon, but to do it in real life reads as a threat. I think I instilled fear in people.
The fact that it required the mob to push me down and see my blood to know that I was "real" is terrifying, but I think one of the scariest aspects is that only one person dared to accuse my actions as possibly being "pretentious high art." No one else thought to consider asking if it was art, which reinforces why it we did it in the first place. Art needs to live and breathe in the places that need it the most.
Signe Pierce and Alli Coates, American Reflexxx (2013)
Performing this work in public meant ceasing that kind self-control you mentioned through individual social media maintenance and catalyzing vulnerability within areas impossible to provide self defense. It's interesting here to think more about anonymity and invisible audiences in relation to internet harassment. We often feel like direct participants when we come across harmful threads or are made spectators to it in our newsfeeds. Negative interactions carry the potential to trigger very real emotional responses through associations to lived experiences, however direct or indirect the threat. Do you see the prevalence of internet harassment as a signifier of real-world oppressions, as harmful as it can be in physical reality?
Perpetuation of hate is rooted in people's subjective insecurities, with Reflexxx becoming a lived example. People were hurling bottles at my head and throwing slurs left and right on the streets. It went beyond bullying, it was assault.
We spent some time poring through the various message boards and comment threads to see what kinds of conversations it was spawning. The general outcry was one of love: we got a lot of positive feedback and encouragement from all over the world, but it was really interesting to read the boards fixated on hate. It did feel similar to the mob scene all over again, only yes, people had the opportunity to bash me anonymously, to claim the role of a shielded, mediated aggressor. In this way anonymity can be detrimental.
Hatred on the internet creates a feedback loop. Whenever you perform in public you're relinquishing control of the situation to the environment that surrounds you. To me, the beauty of American Reflexxx is that all of the moments that make it so unique (the preacher, the comments, the "push") are the unchoreographed realities of harassment. I find reality to be the most inspiring, terrifying medium.
Signe Pierce and Alli Coates, American Reflexxx (2013)
You exhibited American Reflexxx in 2013, but waited some time before publishing it online. Were there any specific comment threads or reactions on YouTube that changed your relationship to the work, whether positive or negative?
We had debated the best way to handle its distribution, because we knew it was delicate material; there were a couple of different approaches we could have taken to its release. I think that waiting a year to put it online was overall a wise decision because our audience was much larger by the time it went up in April 2015, and the discourses that the film inspires have solidified more within the greater cultural zeitgeist.
More than anything, I've been motivated by all of the messages we've received from people telling us how much the performance meant to them. There are people who see the girl in the mirrored mask as a symbol for the oppression and hatred they've had to endure for being who they are. It's inspired me to think more about the ways that art can help others and how our work can serve to fuel conversations that need to be had.
At one point in the video, a voice emerges in a crowd of black teenagers — an urge not to "get arrested for the blonde girl" — alluding to extremely real phobias regarding race and sanctions of authority. Having made this work within the context of the American south, can you describe the importance of including instances of racial prejudice as a form of activism? How do these instances help to raise awareness about racial realities, in the wake of recent, horrific events?
To be completely honest, we don't know whose voice is saying that specific line. Her voice comes from off camera, and we also don't know who she's speaking to. I've always thought that comment spoke more towards the nature of men needing to be reminded not to view women as objects. It's "don't harass her so YOU don't get in trouble and go to jail…" not "don't harass her because she's a human being and not a sexual object who exists for your consumptive pleasure."
It's similar to the way that girls get sent home from high school for their shorts being too short. Rather than punishing and slut-shaming women, we should be educating men to stop viewing women as things to be consumed. We make up half of the population — we exist and have feelings and are entitled to our personhood. Dehumanization towards women happens every day, not just when we're provocatively dressed wearing a mask on the streets in an attempt to prove a point.
With regard to your original question, I'm a firm advocate of the power that we have as camera-carrying citizens in the promotion of unveiling civil injustices. This era is unlike any other: never before has the general population of a 1st-world country collectively carried cameras on their person. It's exciting and I think it comes with a responsibility to document and record injustices, to be aware and to speak up against police brutality.
Although the events that transpire in American Reflexxx are real and unstaged, what happened to me that night is not indicative of my own reality. I don't walk down the street every single day in a mask and stripper heels, I was wearing a costume and playing a character. The inherent privilege that I have as a biological white woman performing a provocative act like this is not lost on me. If I had been a trans woman of color performing this exact same piece, things almost certainly would've ended with even harsher consequences, possibly even fatality. To me, this is an important aspect in the aftermath of the performance and the conversations that surround it.
Signe Pierce and Alli Coates, American Reflexxx (2013)
There was speculation that you were being paid for the performance, which simultaneously reduced your activism to that of sex work and pornography. People questioning whether or not you were being paid might have been an attempt to find common ground, as if commodification is justifiable and relatable. However, as you mentioned, I do think your whiteness and projected heterosexuality became problematic because it reinforced an assumption that a cis white female body is more likely to produce a hetero-male valued commodity, in turn, producing a hetero male-specific "hero" fantasy that necessitates masculine protection and not fatal violence. We saw the most abject form of this in Charlestown, and it's important to note that the the "push" came from another white, cis woman, possibly subconsciously threatened by your ability to solicit male attention.
Throughout, men claimed their own emotional responses to an objectified female body as innately more important than a woman's individuality or independence. You identify your work as cyberfeminist, comparing your portrayed character to Donna Haraway's Cyborg Manifesto. But Haraway's cyborg renders as impersonal, a sort of throwback to an era when understanding and experiencing sentience within digital contexts was still unforeseen. How does early cyberfeminism continue to inform your practice, in light of current discourses on commodification, gender, and the more emotional connotations of social media?
I'm always inspired by reading about burgeoning concepts of identity in posthumanism before technology and the internet really hit. I love science fiction for this reason. Cyborg Manifesto was prophetic in its ability to succinctly describe an ideology that I and many of my friends relate to 30 years after it was written.
I am personally interested in the ways that women, or anyone who doesn't fit into the white male-driven patriarchy, for that matter, have been able to assert their voices in the age of the internet. We've been able to carve out our own hive where we can exchange ideas and aesthetics without being censored or discouraged by the powers that be. Everyone has an equal opportunity to take the mic, and it's creating a lot of necessary discourse about sexuality, race, class, etc.. There's still a lot of work to do, and perhaps I live in a bubble where I'm surrounded by progressive people, but I feel like feminism has come a long way in the past 5-10 years, and I think it's due much in part to the internet and the emotional relationships we build.
I'm curious as to what's next in terms of how we talk about and address gender. We immediately assign and assume people as male & female and, in a transgender world, the concept feels increasingly dated, binary, and exclusive.
It's becoming almost ironic to consider freedom of speech as a bedrock of America, when mainstream news reporting is still so fundamentally jaded and lacking in sincere brevity when compared with citizen-reporting. The reality experiment of American Reflexxx allowed for opinions to manifest themselves live, but the hate that ensued was much more evident of mainstream social conditioning, showing a definitive reluctance to adapt to more progressive ideologies.
Americans are supposedly taught to value individuality, but exhibiting difference proved to be dangerous in your work. As artists who "didn't intend to make a work about dehumanization, how does "being different" or even "being yourself" challenge American ideals of free speech?
Signe Pierce and Alli Coates, American Reflexxx (2013)
I honestly would not say that Americans are taught to value individuality, and that's a sad plight. The notion of the first amendment is one that would appear to commemorate freedom, but it often serves the opposite. It seems that freedom of speech is defended as a means of oppression, as evident in people fighting for their right to use hate speech or to wave the confederate flag. Being different is radical, and it absolutely challenges American ideals. It's pretty absurd that a media circus is prone to break out anytime someone in the public eye comes out as gay or identifies as trans.
My personal reaction to re-watching American Reflexxx is that the audience is trying very hard to seem cool to one another. In that situation, everyone knew that they were not the weakest link or the weirdest person present, and thus they were granted the power of commonality, one that they could all bond over. They're all walking and talking with this corny, affected braggadocio and being loud to make sure that everyone can hear how tough and funny they are when they're making fun of me. It's pretty clear though that they were terrified because they knew I knew something that they didn't. A lot of kids and teens have written us to say that it reminds them of their experiences at school. People fear and hate what they don't understand.
It starts and ends with education and tolerance. I know I'm preaching to the choir here, but it's true, and it's the biggest message we wanted people to take away from this film. They say that you should "never underestimate the kindness of strangers," and in response, I try to remember to "never forget your ability to be the kind stranger." It is our intention to prompt a reconsideration of how we treat each other, how we allow others to influence our own lives and behaviors, and how we have the right to flexxx some freedom of speech for good and not evil.
Follow Alexis on Twitter as @holyurl
Joel Fox for whitneybiennial.com, as seen in 2015 on Chrome for Mac. Photo: Heloise Cullen.
One story of whitneybiennial.com opens at the electronicOrphanage (EO) in Chinatown, Los Angeles. Founded in 2001 by artists Miltos Manetas and Mai Ueda, the now-defunct EO was once a small artist-run project space on Chung King Road, a pedestrian pathway dense with independent galleries and studios. Until its demise in 2004, the "Orphanage" remained a stark black cube, completely barren if not for a white screen where digital art was occasionally projected, typically when neighboring galleries hosted opening receptions over drinks. For the most part, the space was a kind of laboratory for a group of artists, curators, and critics with a shared interest in the computer and digital culture—the "Orphans." It was here, sometime in February 2002, that a plot to cybersquat the Whitney Biennial began to take shape. Or at least this is how Manetas, the project's architect, remembers it.
"Orphans" at the electronicOrphanage, Chinatown, LA (2001-2004). Source.
According to Manetas, the idea transpired from his exchange with art critic and fellow Orphan, Peter Lunenfeld. Less than a month away, the Whitney's 2002 Biennial was the focal point of their conversation, in particular the museum's heightened curatorial interest in emerging internet art forms. This seemingly ordinary chat eventually segued into an ambitious plan: to stage a net art show as an online foil to the 2002 Whitney Biennial. In time, the project developed into a full-on counter-exhibition, which would be hosted on the website whitneybiennial.com and installed IRL as a physical intervention, where a fleet of twenty-three U-Haul trucks, projecting artworks from the website, would blockade the Whitney Museum during the private opening reception of the Biennial.
The electronicOrphanage, (September 2001). Photograph by Peter Brinson. Source.
Like most Orphans at the EO, the works eventually displayed on whitneybiennial.com were predominantly identified with the currents known as Telic and Neen. Neen and Telic were closely related but distinct art brands, both devised in 2000 by the branding agency Lexicon at Manetas's request. In his elliptic explanation, "nature is Telic while miracles are Neen." Telic was more serious, more predictable, and readily identifiable; its aesthetics were firmly grounded in the capitalist market, its products were familiar and reproducible, at times channeled in commodities. Neen, on the other hand, was somewhat inexplicable, impossible to pin down, hard to recreate; it described a cathartic sensibility generative of creative epiphanies and breakthroughs: an artistic affect rather than a practice. While the definitions were fluid, at least one thing about the terms can be said with some certainty: by integrating networked technology with commercial design, Neen and Telic artists bridged many of the political and aesthetic chasms separating tactical media from proprietary software, net art from high-end fashion, and, ultimately perhaps, internet counter-cultures from consumer capitalism.
Cover of Manetas's book, Neen: New Art Movement (Edizioni Charta: Milano, 2006). Source.
Contrary to most net art trends of the 1990s and early 2000s, Neen and Telic involved an unabashed embrace of commercial technology and corporate culture—the former as a production tool, the latter as a conduit for political critique. More often than not, Neen artists produced deeply ambiguous works that, while branded like a pair of Calvin Klein jeans, were displayed as single-serving websites identified by Top-Level-Domain (TLD) websites hosting multimedia graphics inspired as much by video-games as by Prada and Balenciaga, frequently designed with Adobe Flash.
In one of the last installations at the space, the EO was transformed into a storefront where a phone number was projected onto a large screen, calling the number prompted a Neen artwork to appear on the storefront window. Source.
EO storefront screen displaying an artwork by Mike Calvert generated by anonymous phone calls. Source.
My research on whitneybiennial.com started last May, when I was asked by Michael Connor, Rhizome's Artistic Director, to work on a piece Nate Hitchcock had begun writing. Michael gave me Nate's notes and a response from Manetas himself, a generously offered personal narrative that—though it was rife with pleonasms and hyperboles—I first took at face value. In retrospect, however, this was a naïve assumption: not because Manetas shouldn't be trusted, but rather because I missed the work his story performed in the project. The more I read on whitneybiennial.com, the more I corresponded with curators and artists involved, the more variations on the history of whitneybiennial.com came forth. Eventually I came to see that this contested brand mythology surrounding whitneybiennial.com, oscillating between fact and fiction as it does, can be thought of as a crucial formal feature of the project. In the words of Benjamin Bratton, "It is in molesting the Reality Principle that [Manetas's] work takes the greatest pleasure." Because I share Bratton's sentiment, it is worth going into Manetas's story in detail.
Lev Manovich, thisismybeautifuldomainonedayiwillbegonebutitwillremain.com (2003). Part of the electronicOrphanage net art collection. Source.
A Strange History of whitneybiennial.com
According to Manetas, whitneybiennial.com resulted from a series of serendipitous events taking place between LA and NYC through the course of February 2002. During their conversation at the electronicOrphanage, Manetas told Lunenfeld of his dissatisfaction with the Whitney's selection of net art for the 2002 Biennial. His dismay appears to have been lodged in his perception that, by omitting Neen artists from the show, the museum had consequently failed to recognize it as an important and unique strain of web-based art at the time. Indeed, the artworks exhibited on whitneybiennial.com, most of which were designed with Flash, contrasted with the works featured in the Whitney's 2000 and 2002 Biennials, which were often more technically sophisticated. When Manetas proposed curating an online counter-show, Lunenfeld suggested hosting it on "whitneybiennial.com," which, surprisingly, was available at the time. In a matter of minutes, the domain was registered to Manetas and the project was on its way.
Later that month, Manetas emailed Lawrence Rinder, chief curator of the 2002 Biennial, with an overview of his ideas. He claims that no more than ten minutes went by before Rinder responded enthusiastically, expressing genuine interest in the project. The following morning Manetas was on a plane to New York City.
That day, Manetas met Rinder in the Whitney's iconic Breuer building on Madison and 75th. Looking out from his office window, Rinder drew Manetas's attention to an empty Chase Bank branch across the street: "I can help you to get permission to exhibit the internet art over there. You can install a few computers and monitors, maybe a projector."
After considering Rinder's proposal for a moment, Manetas remembers replying with a frenzied sort of politesse: "Thank you, but making a Salon des Refusés 2002 is not exactly our intention. We have our Space: it is the internet itself, larger and a lot more powerful than the Whitney." Looking through the same window in Rinder's office, Manetas saw a U-Haul truck parked opposite to the empty Chase branch and, within seconds, came up with an extravagant, off-the-cuff plan to stage his show as a public installation. "We are going to use 23 U-Haul trucks […] to surround your exhibition the day of the opening," he told Rinder. The U-Haul trucks would be transformed into large-scale, moving screens for the presentation of a selection of works, many by graphic designers, programmers, architects, and "Neenstars," curated by the likes of Alex Galloway, Lev Manovich, Marisa Olson, Patrick Lichty, and a host of other well-known figures in the net art world. As Manetas told Rinder that day: "The trucks will be looping around the Whitney tirelessly, each carrying a number of very special webpages."
While announcing his plan to disrupt the Whitney's show, Manetas recalls leering at Rinder's collection of "obsolete" printed matter cluttering the curator's office, issues upon issues of Artforum and Art in America, which he interpreted as physical placeholders for the Whitney's "antiquated" curatorial practice, tokens in the symbolic economy he was determined to defy. Before reaching for the door, likely with the allegorical magazines still in sight, Manetas turned to Rinder and said: "We consider webpages to be the real art of our days."
Miltos Manetas (2013). Source.
Lawrence Rinder (2013). Source.
The next day, Manetas describes being surprised by a wave of phone calls and emails that poured in from alarmed gallerists, curators, critics, and artist-friends, all counseling him against the U-Haul scheme. Matt Mirapaul, from the New York Times, allegedly fanned the flames by describing Manetas's installation as "the Internet against the Art System."
For Manetas, the U-Hauls were never the point. The real aim of the counter-Biennial was to circulate works that he deemed important and representative of a marginalized trend in early-2000s net art, without necessarily being "net.art per se." His take on net art was quite particular; romanticizing Adobe Flash as a "creative bomb," Manetas was convinced that new internet art practices were emerging. If artists working in Flash were perhaps more readily overlooked by the museum sector because their chosen tool was associated with commercial culture, then a similar attitude may have been reflected in the Whitney's casual disregard of the similarly debased .com domain. "In a sense," Manetas writes, "it was Whitney itself that commissioned me to make an anti-show online, by failing to register its own .com domain." This was commercial web aesthetics positioned as outsider art, long before they became the postinternet mainstream.
Screenshot from whitneybiennial.com (2003 version).
On Tuesday, March 5 at 7:00 PM, the 2002 Whitney Biennial opened its galleries to invited guests and members in the Upper East Side. Onsite, not a single Neen U-Haul truck marred the private reception's high art gleam. Online, however, the counter-Biennial held its ground (and still mostly does to this day, despite the occasional missing plug-in). The 2002 version of the site, designed by carbonatedjazz (aka Alexander Chen), featured HTML tables with thumbnails or embedded .swf files for each artists. The works could be opened in full screen from there, or sent to a "turntable" (created by Michael Rees) where they could be overlaid and, yes, remixed, in true early 2000s style. In 2003, a new version was created for a CD-ROM published by the Italian Magazine POSH; this version placed the work in a navigable museum-like environment. Both iterations are carefully considered classics of the online exhibition genre.
Whitneybiennial.com: History as Fable
Given the importance of branding to Manetas's practice, I reached out to a few other people involved in whitneybiennial.com to hear their stories. Quickly, the contradictions began to pile up. It is unclear, for instance, whether Manetas's encounter with Rinder, described with so much clarity and passion, was exactly as Manetas claims. At any rate, after I emailed Rinder asking about his exchange with Manetas, this is what he wrote back:
"None of that sounds familiar to me. I may very vaguely recall him saying something about a project with trucks but can't recall any details...I certainly did not contact the NYT." Larger screenshot.
Additionally, Patrick Lichty, a co-curator of whitneybiennial.com, says that Manetas contacted him about the project in December 2001. Meanwhile, Marisa Olson says she was invited to curate the show as early as November 2001; she was among the first curators invited to join the project and, in many respects, her recollection of whitneybiennial.com is an intriguing foil to Manetas's story. "U-Hauls were part of the initial plan—as described to me by Miltos," she recalls. "From the very first minute," she continues, "[Manetas] described [his project] as renting U-Hauls [...] and having the back doors open, then projecting work onto a screen. Miltos was especially obsessed with artists working in Flash animations. He wanted me to roundup Flash artists. Then the trucks were going to circle the block projecting the work during the opening." Per Olson, the project was already underway, with the Neen U-Hauls as its centerpiece, several months before the meetings with either Lunenfeld or Rinder were supposed to have taken place.
Pointing out these contradictions only serves to demonstrate that storytelling played a role in the project. If the history of whitneybiennial.com can be read as a kind of net art fable, that's certainly not because Manetas or anyone else involved was purposefully malign or disnohest, but because the project itself was, and remains, a performative internet fantasy. As Olson remarked:
"Yeah. It is all a performance for Miltos. ;)" Larger screenshot.
Much of what is critical, even "radical," about the project stems from its more playful and performative elements. In Manetas's own words, "when reality is not inspiring enough, you need to push it."
At the same time, though, when I asked Olson whether she thought of the project as a political intervention, she offered a pointed critique:
Maybe in its initial conception, but not considering what happened.... Here's what actually happened.... I busted my butt to reach out to 'Flash Artists' and get them excited to be part of this thing that was but wasn’t legit and was AT but not IN the Whitney Biennial. I promised them it would look the way they wanted and be handled professionally and be seen. And it was never seen. I was going to grad school in London at the time and couldn't be present at the opening. I started contacting Miltos for photos, feedback, etc. Artists on the ground in NYC started complaining to me that they never saw the trucks, artists abroad were sending me panic emails.
Miltos was at first unresponsive, then said it was too hard to get the trucks and projectors, then he said he never meant to do it at all. Given the order of responses, I felt like it was an excuse and he was just trying to sound punk and cool, but that could also be a performance of its own kind?
Meanwhile, I started hearing rumors and started wondering what was true, what was generated, what was spun, when the rumors were set into motion in the first place... I heard that I wasn't the only curator, but I never heard any other names or met anyone. I also heard that Miltos was in attendance inside the museum opening and that he had something like 5 guest passes (which is pretty baller) and that he was using them to sneak people in and out of the opening all night...
For me it was hard because I love providing access to ghettoized artists, but I felt pranked, the artists I invited were pissed at me (some for a long time) and I had no solid response, and in the end I felt a bit left out of the secret boys club.
Perhaps Manetas did not push reality quite far enough.
The Politics of Neen Aesthetics
As an intervention, whitneybiennial.com bears evident likeness to the tactics used by the Women's Art Committee (WAC) throughout the 1970s. The Committee sought to rectify the overwhelming predominance of male artists in the Whitney Annual by demanding that at least half of all artists in the exhibition be women. To this end, the group staged a series of artist demonstrations, sit-ins, and public installations—one of which was a slide show of feminist artworks projected on the Whitney's façade. Additionally, Manetas's counter-Biennial project draws on a similar, albeit more straightforwardly militant, online intervention against the Whitney Biennial by the collective RTMark. After being invited to exhibit their website in the inaugural net art section of the Whitney's 2000 Biennial, RTMark not only auctioned their invitation to the private reception on eBay (which went for $8,400), but also opened their online exhibition space, on whitney.org, to anyone who wished to have their website displayed in the Biennial's online gallery portal.
While whitneybiennial.com unequivocally draws on the institutional critiques staged by the WAC and RTMark, it is also categorically distinct from both. In fact, reading whitneybiennial.com with reference to the WAC and RTMark, or other similar art historical precedents, fails to convey what is particular to Manetas's intervetion, namely, its quintessentially "Neen" aesthetic. I find that in order to understand the political thrust of whitneybiennial.com, it is helpful to turn to the formal and conceptual elements that make it a Neen work of art, most notably, its ambiguous relation to postindustrial capital.
Building on Frederic Jameson's concept of the "double hermeneutic," which allows a work to be interpreted as both a reinforcement of and a challenge to asymmetries of power, Bill Nichols noted in 1988 that, to appreciate the political transformations in the modes of cultural production effected by cybernetic technology, cybernetics must be interpreted through a "double hermeneutic of suspicion and revelation." In other words, unveiling the political content of cybernetic art demands reading cybernetics in light of its "dominant tendency toward control" while appreciating, at the same time, its "latent potential toward collectivity." If, as Nichols suggests, a double hermeneutic is an indispensable tool for diagnosing the politics of artistic production within such dialectical systems as cybernetics or capitalism, then a similar ambivalent analytic framework should be no less useful for understanding the political matter of artworks created on the internet—whose deep-seated contradictions are numerous. Whatever the formal, technical, and conceptual merits or shortcomings of Neen art may be, its political efficacy finds its most biting expression in its ambivalent approach to the internet, one that is evinced in Neen's embrace of commercial design, proprietary technology, and corporate culture as fundamental components of online artistic production and critique.
From its very inception, Neen has been intimately and conspicuously interlaced with consumer capitalism. The term was in fact coined neither by art historians nor critics, but by Lexicon, a corporate branding firm responsible for creating many of the world's most famous brand names for such clients as Mercedes-Benz, Intel, and Apple, to name but a few. Combined, Lexicon's brands have generated over $350 billion in sales revenue since 1982. Given the company's financial success, it is hardly shocking that Lexicon charged $100,000 to re-brand contemporary net art, an amount paid in full by the Art Production Fund and venture capitalist Louis Marx Junior. More than merely coining the word Neen, Lexicon also identified the types of artistic dispositions that defined it. According to David Placek, Lexicon's CEO at the time, "'Neen' transcends art. It's more a state of mind than a form or school of art." Alongside "Neen," the company also coined the term "Telic" as a distinct yet related alternative to Neen. At the end of the day, however, it was Manetas's choice to purchase "Neen" as the "new name for art." To be sure, many of the mysteries surrounding whitneybiennial.com as well as the aesthetic specificities of Neen art are demystified by Lexicon's corporate philosophy: "The single most important value of a name is its storytelling ability." More importantly, a brand—be it Apple, Obama, or whitneybiennial.com—is only able to tell good stories if, and only if, it does three things: "Get their attention. Make it interesting. Tell them something new."
The term “Neen” was introduced in a conference held at the Gagosian Gallery in NYC on May 31, 2000. The panel comprised Yvonne Force (Neen project's producer), Manetas, Lunenfeld, David Placek (President of Lexicon Branding), J.C.Herz (writer and journalist), Steven Pinker (MIT Professor and writer), and Joseph Kosuth (artist). Source.
Since their nascent stages, then, both Neen and Telic were inextricably enmeshed in the logic of consumer capitalism, both aesthetically and conceptually. Expanding on Lexicon's initial definitions, Manetas notes that Telic "covers pretty much everything that has to do with technology, [...] all kinds of cool and not so cool design[s], such as the Apple Computer but also IBM and Microsoft, fashion [labels] such as Prada and Calvin Klein." "Nike," he continues, "is Telic-goes-to-the analyst, Adidas is classy Telic," and "Italian Vogue is a Telic Fashion Miracle." Neen, on the other hand, is a "frame of mind" created in large part by new media technology, mostly video games, computers, and the internet; it is closely associated with Adobe and finds its commodity equivalent in apparel designed by Nicolas Ghesquiere for the high-end fashion label, Balenciaga. As such, commercial design and fashion—rather than technology, coding, open source software, or more overtly political forms of cultural production—appear to be the central references in Manetas's own definition of the very artistic currents framing his project. As a result, and in its capacity as an online branded performance, whitneybiennial.com is, like Neen and Telic, conceptually, technically, and formally indebted to corporate culture: from its use of narrative as an advertising maneuver to its reliance on commercial software as a design tool.
Rafaël Rozendaal, Falling falling, (2011). Source.
Commenting on the splash caused by whitneybiennial.com, Patrick Lichty foregrounds an important aspect of Manetas's practice: his use of the internet as a means to appropriate the marketing strategies and aesthetics of corporate or institutional brands, recreating them within his work. In certain respects, Manetas's intervention in 2002 brings the more polemical aspects of Colin de Land's curatorial legacy in dialogue with net art. De Land's provocative, though always humorous, defiance of the art market and its gatekeepers, as well as his interest in the politics and aesthetics of corporate culture as a vehicle for sabotaging both art and capital, are particularly notable. Much like the electronicOrphanage, a meeting place and studio for Neen scenesters, de Land's SoHo gallery, American Fine Arts, was another space where artists associated with oppositional artistic movements converged through the course of the 1990s, an "art world laboratory, hangout, and refuge," according to Roberta Smith. Both de Land and Manetas consistently transformed their spaces into sites for art protests through installations that sought to challenge the commercialization of art and the bourgeois ritual of opening receptions; while the EO often projected net art on its large white screen as a “counter-opening” to receptions hosted by neighboring galleries, de Land allowed one artist to close his gallery for a month as a protest against the art market.
Brian McPeck, Lizzi Bougatsos, Spencer Sweeney, Souhi Lee, and Kembra Pfahler at de Land’s American Fine Arts (c May 2002). Source.
I found that reading whitneybiennial.com against the backdrop of Neen's political entanglements and anti-establishment references brings forth an alternative, and more compelling, answer to a pressing question: why the Whitney? If you recall from Manetas's story, one of his original explanations for targeting the Whitney was his dissatisfaction with its curatorial practice, more specifically, its selection of net artworks for the 2000 and 2002 Biennials. This is also how he justified the intervention to Olson back in 2001. "Miltos explained to me," Olson writes, "that he felt new media art and artists were being overlooked by the Whitney [...] and he wanted this project to raise visibility of these essentially 'outsider' artists by showing them outside of the museum into which they weren't being let in."
As most readers involved with net art since the early 1990s can attest, the Whitney was one of the pioneering American art institutions of its scale to support net artists and curators in a sustained way. The museum's early engagement with net art makes Manetas's choice to target the Whitney, as well as his dismay with its curatorial practice, all the more puzzling.
While its representation of net art practices was by no means comprehensive, the Whitney was, at that time, one of the few American museums seriously invested in bringing net art into its collection. Acquiring its first net art piece in 1995 (Douglas Davis's The World's First Collaborative Sentence), the Whitney was also among the first large-scale art museums to significantly incorporate such work into its curatorial program. In the year 2000, for instance, the Whitney devoted, for the first time in its history, an entire section of its Biennial show to net art. Two years on, in the 2002 Biennial, ten original artworks were exhibited online under the "net art" category, which was supplemented by a discussion panel, in collaboration with the "Netart Initiative," featuring all net artists in the exhibition. That same year the museum launched artport: its official portal to, and online gallery for, commissioned net art projects. Curated by Christiane Paul, the Whitney's adjunct curator of new media, artport was (as much then as it is now) the institution's central platform for the online exhibition and digital preservation of internet art.
Looking at whitneybiennial.com through the lens of Neen politics, though, the Whitney becomes less the target of Manetas's critique than its vehicle. The Whitney was an advertising vessel, chosen for its immeasurable value as a fine arts brand name and deployed as a means to establish Neen as a relevant, recognized, and accepted trend in contemporary art. Like a counter-cultural leech, Manetas capitalized on the institution's reputation, influence, and widespread popularity in order to promote his own curatorial agenda, while at the same time critiquing the institution's authority as an artworld sentry. In essence, what Manetas did to the Whitney in 2002, Art Club 2000 (under de Land's direction) had done to the Gap in 1993, Kenneth Aronson to Hell.com in 1995, and RTMark to GWBush.com in 1999. Like all these brands, "The Whitney Museum of American Art" and "The Whitney Biennial" were valuable brand names, which Manetas deployed strategically to, among other things, attract attention, publicity, and curiosity.
One common attack levelled against whitneybiennial.com is rooted in an interpretation of the Whitney as a target, rather than conduit, of Manetas's critique. Curt Cloninger expressed this position in 2004 as a response to Patrick Lichty: "My problem with this particular 'intervention' is that it doesn't really dis the Whitney." As such, Cloninger's "problem" seems to proceed from a misunderstanding of Manetas's goal, which was not to "dis" the Whitney, but to "use" it. Manetas took on the Whitney as a performative meditation on the institution's brand value, which he did by appropriating it from the outside, by cybersquatting the Whitney’s domain without the museum's consent. Cloninger concludes his own reading of whitneybiennial.com by arguing that RTMark's hack at the 2000 Biennial was a "much more focused and interesting conceptual tactic." This is yet another common move: to understand the political efficacy of whitneybiennial.com only in contrast to RTMark's intervention two years earlier. Even Matt Mirapaul of the NYT ended his piece on Manetas's counter-Biennial by crowning RTMark's project as "the most effective commentary on the museum world's Internet aspirations," whereby "an exclusive domain became a populist website." Indeed, one of the reasons why RTMark's project is seen as more "effective" (Mirapaul) or "focused and interesting" (Cloninger) than Manetas's appears to be, as Cloninger suggests, because the latter failed to be sufficiently critical of the Whitney. But, if the reaction of those targeted by institutional critiques are at all indicative of whether or not the project was "sufficiently critical" of its target, then it seems that the Whitney was as unaffected by Manetas as it was by RTMark. Maxwell L. Anderson, the Whitney's director and one of the Biennial curators back in 2000, welcomed RTMark's intervention, noting that "opening the site to submissions from the public is in accord with RTMark's concept, which is to provide an information brokerage—with limited liability—and public forum for Net activism." While I agree with Cloninger's and Mirapaul's praise for RTMark, I am not so much interested in assessing whitneybiennial.com as a more or less successful RTMark hack. What I am interested in is to think through the specific ways in which the formal and aesthetic (Neen-based) qualities of the project are fruitful avenues for reading whitneybiennial.com politically, in its own right.
Art Club 2000, Times Square/Gap Grunge 1 (1993). Source.
As finance and postindustrial capital overtook industrial manufacturing, the web provided companies with platforms—such as Top-Level Domain names—for enhancing their corporate branding strategies. The internet allowed brands to weave the use-value of their products as well as the lifestyle these commodities sustained into an accessible online narrative displayed in the company's website. With the advent of e-commerce websites, advertising and sales became evermore connected. Unsurprisingly, TLDs and Adobe Flash were key creative tools in online branding strategies. This new corporate aesthetic, where material commodities, previously displayed as physical merchandise in storefronts, became virtually represented online as immaterial objects, was evident as much in capital as in art, a reality for the Gap and the Whitney alike.
Manetas was early to realize how profoundly this shift would also reconfigure artists' practices and rewire art's attention economy. For Manetas, the transformative potential of the web as a site for artistic creation and exhibition are found in two of its offerings: liberty for the artist and exposure for the artwork. "The Internet," he argues, "is for visual artists a platform to do their thing without making compromises and to show the output to the whole world. It presents an opportunity to move freely and to introduce one's work without the interference of gallery-owners and curators."
Even after whitneybiennial.com, the practices of branding, storytelling, and performance continued to drive Manetas's artistic and curatorial endeavours. During the winter of 2002, he curated a group show titled Afterneen, featuring works by artists associated with Neen. The show opened at Casco Projects in Utrecht, The Netherlands on November 16, only to be mysteriously demolished two days later by what Manetas has called "a (digital) car crash."
Neen artworks from Manetas's "Afterneen" show at CASCO (November 16 - December 15, 2002). Source.
A Google image search for the show yields digital photographs of a derelict office space packed with torn chairs, broken computers, and destroyed electronic appliances, alongside Neen posters and a glass door reading "CASCO." Given the specter of mystery that continues to haunt this exhibition, it comes as no shock that Afterneen builds on similar branding, performative, and mythmaking aspects of whitneybiennial.com. It is worth noting that the word "Neen," a combination of “screen” and "new," means "exactly now" in Greek. Moreover, if written in caps, "NEEN" is both a palindrome and a mirror-word, readable in all directions, including backwards and upside-down. As a palindrome and mirror-word, "Neen" elicits the experience of multidirectional movement; as a word in the Greek language, it denotes the present. Thus, much like Manetas's performative fables, the meaning and form of the word "Neen" challenge the linearity and temporality of historical narrative, the idea that facts can be recovered from the past, the natural ordering of chronology, and so on. In a similar vein to the Whitney intervention, Afterneen dabbled in a liminal and tenuous ontological space, at the vanishing point where hearsay meets evidence, history meets myth, and the internet becomes real. Like the U-Haul scheme, Afterneen tested the extent to which an actual exhibition could exist and cease to exist online—be constructed and destroyed materially through web-based narratives—without having necessarily existed physically.
Photograph from the opening of "Afterneen" at CASCO on November 16, 2002. Evidence that the show took place physically? Source
Photograph of CASCO taken after the "digital car crash" (November 2002). Source.
Photograph of CASCO taken after the "digital car crash" (November 2002). Source.
Photograph of CASCO taken after the "digital car crash" (November 2002). Source.
The fact that Manetas and other Neen artists were never given the Whitney's seal of approval meant that whitneybiennial.com was faced with a considerable challenge: to show the art world that internet artworks made by graphic designers were just as valuable and relevant as those created by programmers and coders. Moreover, unlike RTMark and other net artists included in the 2000 and 2002 Biennials, artists involved with whitneybiennial.com did not necessarily adhere to particular tendencies and practices regnant among their contemporary net artists. While both Manetas and RTMark used web-specific tactics as a means to critique the asymmetries of power created and sustained by an institution such as the Whitney, only RTMark was able to deploy the cultural privilege of being affiliated with the Whitney brand name, since they were included in the Biennial. Manetas, on the other hand, was left to his own devices, having to appropriate the brand from the outside. It is no minor detail that, despite the movement's development within online cultures, Neen "is not 'net art,'" according to Manetas. In many ways then, if Manetas's intervention was in part meant to show the public and the Whitney that Neen art was an important and relevant web-based art form, he went about this goal by distancing Neen—technically, aesthetically, and conceptually—from net art. Perhaps the most evident distinction between whitneybiennial.com and other tactical interventions by net artists was in fact Manetas's characteristically "Neen" embrace of corporate culture, which, as I stress above, is evinced in his preference for proprietary over open source software, his fixation in fashion labels, his fascination with commercial design, and, above all, his ambivalent approach towards the internet and late capital, somewhere between suspicion and revelation, as Bill Nichols so elegantly put it.
As the Whitney opened its doors to a select audience on March 5, 2002, Manetas says he stood at the entrance of the Breuer Building (or, according to rumor, inside as an invited guest) consoling disappointed artists and onlookers, reassuring them that his U-Hauls were actually present, but they were invisible. Much like the invisible cubes in Gino De Dominicis's Second Resolution of Immortality (The Universe is Still), to whom whitneybiennial.com is dedicated, Manetas still holds that his U-Haul trucks were never meant to be seen, only heard as hearsay—as an entry in the probably meager annals of "net art oral history." But maybe Manetas's fable, fantastic as it was, had a more concrete effect than eliciting terror and curiosity. By inscribing an immaterial art form within the physical space of his narrative, Manetas's project is also a crude and mythological meditation on the source of an art form's influence and relevance, a commentary on the arbitrary value of physical objects in the context of an art world so profoundly organized by the financial and market-driven axioms of late capitalism. By foregrounding the extent to which an artwork's "importance" is often enmeshed in the art object's materiality as well as the physical space it inhabits, Manetas's project reminds us of an old yet invaluable story about art's uneasy relation to the commodity form, its profoundly fetishistic allure, as well as its insidious and ambivalent ties to capital.
Commenting on the intersection between the physical and digital spaces of exhibition, Manetas remembers the events that led to the actual destruction of his Afterneen show through yet another, even more surreal tale. As the show unfolded inside CASCO, Manetas claims, a car operated in part by a human driver and a computer parking system lost control as the human operator became distracted while "making out with a young woman." The unruly car then accelerated into the gallery space, destroying everything in its wake. In the aftermath of Afterneen, no material remnants from the alleged show survived, not even the servers used to host the interactive "NEENWORLD" were spared.
NEENWORLD, designed by Andreas Angelidakis, was a virtual-reality environment where members of the Neen movement could interact with each other online. Source.
Andreas Angelidakis and Miltos Manetas, Chelsea, created on ActiveWorlds platform (1998-2000). "Chelsea was a virtual city for art and architecture, a 3D community that included artists, curators, architects, institutions and galleries. It was a world that we put together with Miltos Manetas, to experience the new sense of space that the internet was providing. Architecturally the challenge was to design buildings on the spot and in a way that they downloaded fast, and registered on the short attention span of the internet user. This produced buildings based on the existing Active Worlds 3D library, buildings that could register as quickly as a logo." Source.
Upon receiving this news, Manetas describes feeling "surprisingly calm and even relieved." "From the beginning," he recounts, "destiny was showing us that the space of the internet, is not to be mixed carelessly with real space, that we can host the internet in real space." If there is any hope for the "materialization" of web-specific environments, Manetas notes, it most certainly does not lie in the material, ideological, political, and aesthetic domains of the "exhibition," as traditionally conceived by museums and galleries. For Manetas, "The essence of the web must be experienced on its native domain." Yet, despite Manetas's own take on the curatorial politics of net art, whitneybiennial.com was never exclusively exhibited online, the native environment of its artworks. Even if the U-Haul plot never materialized, Manetas managed to expand the medium of whitneybiennial.com, over all these years, from an online exhibition to a living brand lodged in a surreal net art fable.
All in all, the most adamant testament that whitneybiennial.com was a critical asset for net art practice is that, amidst its many physical, "real-world" fantasies of Upper East Side meetings, enlightening conversations at the electronicOrphanage, U-Haul Trucks, threatening intimations, whimisical outbursts, unscheduled bi-coastal flights, and so on, the internet was, and remains, the only "real" and "true" residue of the project. The liminality and uncertainty of the performance are thus checked by the historical certainty and ontological tangibility of the counter-Biennial artworks, which live on in Manetas's own TLD website: whitneybiennial.com.
The Whitney Museum artport has been an important institutional presence in net art and new media since its launch in 2002. Created and curated by Christiane Paul, artport features online commissions as well as documentation of new media artworks from the museum's exhibitions and collections. This year, artport as a whole was made an official part of the Whitney Museum collection; to mark this occasion, participating artist Marisa Olson interviewed Paul about the program's history and evolution over thirteen years.
Douglas Davis, image from The World's First Collaborative Sentence (1994).
Collections like artport are a rare and valuable window onto a field of practice that, in some senses, was borne out of not being taken seriously. From mid-80s Eastern European game crackers to late-90s net artists, the first people working online were often isolated, by default or design, and were certainly marginalized by the art world, where few curators knew of their existence and fewer took them seriously, advocated for them, or worked to theorize and articulate the art historical precedents and currents flowing through the work. Help me fast-forward to the beginning of this century at one of the most important international art museums. Many of the US museums that funded new media projects did so with dot-com infusions that dried-up after 2000. Artport officially launched in 2001; the same year, you curated a section devoted to net art in the Whitney Biennial. What was the behind-the-scenes sequence of events that led to artport's founding?
I think artport's inception was emblematic of a wave of interest in net art in the US around the turn of the century and in the early 2000s. This more committed involvement with the art form interestingly coincided with or came shortly after the dot com bubble, which inflated from 1997–2000, had its climax on March 10, 2000 when NASDAQ peaked, and burst pretty much the next day. Net art, however, remained a very active practice and started appearing on the radar of more US art institutions. To some extent, their interest may have been sparked by European exhibitions that had begun to respond to the effects of the web on artistic practice earlier on. In 1997, Documenta X had already included web projects (that year the Documenta website was also famously "stolen"—that is, copied and archived—by Vuk Cosic in the project Documenta: done) and Net Condition, which took place at ZKM in 1999/2000, further acknowledged the importance of art on the web.
US museums increasingly began to take notice. Steve Dietz, who had started the Walker Art Center's New Media Initiatives early on, in 1996, was curating the online art Gallery 9 and digital art study collection. Jon Ippolito, in his role as Associate Curator of Media Arts at the Guggenheim, was commissioning net art in the early 2000s and in 2002, Benjamin Weil, with Joseph Rosa, unveiled a new version of SFMOMA's E-space, which had been created in 2000. This was the institutional netscape in which I created artport in 2001, since I felt that the Whitney, which had for the first time included net art in its 2000 Biennial, also needed a portal to online art. The original artport was much more of a satellite site and less integrated into whitney.org than it is now. Artist Yael Kanarek redesigned the site not too long after its initial launch and created version 1.1. Artport in its early days was sponsored by a backend storage company in New Jersey, which was then bought by HP, so HP appeared as the official sponsor. I think it is notable that sponsorship at that point did not come from a new tech company but a brand name that presumably wanted to appear more cutting edge.
Lisa Jevbratt/C5, 1:1 (1999)
Can you discuss the different functions of artport as they have evolved over the years, ranging from commissioning works and gatepages to exhibitions and archiving? How have these functions come together, or how have they shifted?
It's a great question since the evolution and focus of artport mirror shifts in net art practice and in the cultural landscape of the web over time. Artport consists of several sections, at least one of which has become an archive. In the late '90s and early 2000s, splash pages—pop-up landing pages from which the users could move on to the main content of a site—were a trend, so artport's "Gatepages" were originally conceived as either splash pages to an artist's website or new online project, but occasionally became elaborate mini-projects in themselves. Needless to say, splash pages at some point vanished—among other factors, they fell victim to the increasing use of pop-up ads and the consequent resistance to them and default blocking of pop-ups in browsers—so the Gatepages section effectively became an archive of an outdated format. I quite like the Gatepages archive for precisely that reason—it is not only an archive of mini-projects created between March 2001 and February 2006, but also a testament to the cultural vernacular of web expression at a certain time. Some of that early language of the web has become folklore and experienced a comeback; it is fun, for example, to look at Wolfgang Staehle's artport Gatepage from 2001 and compare it to the retro-aesthetics homepage of a "postinternet" artist such as Petra Cortright.
The "Exhibitions" section of the site has also seen cultural changes. It is both an archive of the projects that were included in on-site exhibitions of net art (the 2000 and 2002 Biennials, which had net art sections, and Data Dynamics in 2001) and of the "CODeDOC" exhibition, which was purely online. Content aside, the "Commissions" section of artport has not changed that much and commissions will continue on an irregular and ongoing basis. I very much enjoyed the process of collaborating with Tate on three commissions in 2006: Golan Levin's The Dumpster, Marc Lafia's and Fang-Yu Lin's The Battle of Algiers, and Andy Deck's Screening Circle. It just made sense to join forces at the time, and I liked the idea of an institutional network behind the commissions. It would be nice to see more collaboration between institutions in networked space.
In 2009, we started a new ongoing commission series called "Sunrise/Sunset," which consists of net art projects that temporarily take over whitney.org only at the time of the sunrise and sunset, in New York City. Rafaël Rozendaal's Almost There launched on May 1, 2015. Occasionally, web visitors arrive at the site precisely at sunrise or sunset and then write us e-mails informing us that our website is "broken;" I like the idea of giving artists an opportunity to literally take over the (online) museum space. At some point, Sunrise/Sunset no doubt will be another mini-archive of a discontinued format, similar to the gatepages, but I also see these archives as snapshots of a moment in the life of the web.
Website of RTMark (1997-). Screenshot c. 2000.
In a sense, artport has grown up parallel to the maturing of net art into what is now a highly diverse field of practice. For instance, it began in those bubble days just prior to the backlash against the term "new media" that is reflected in Lev Manovich's 2001 use of the term "post-digital" (channeling Rosalind Krauss's "postmedium"), the 2003 Tate panel you were part of entitled "When New Media Was New," the Banff Centre show curated by Sarah Cook & Steve Dietz in 2005, "The Art Formerly Known As New Media," and subsequent uses of the term "postinternet." What shifts have you seen in net art since artport's founding, and how are they reflected in the collection?
You're right, net art has evolved and changed tremendously over the past fifteen years alone, and some have argued that it has ceased to exist—at least as the "pure," exclusively online work experienced on your home computer that we saw in the 1990s and early 2000s. I would agree with the latter part. Net art increasingly became networked art, for example by branching out onto mobile devices and becoming available as an app that might work in conjunction with an installation or other offline components etc. These changes are embedded in artport's evolution. Some of the projects featured on the site have become apps, for example Scott Snibbe's Tripolar or The Battle of Algiers. As I mentioned, artport from the beginning documented exhibitions of online or digital art in the Whitney's galleries, but it increasingly became an online gallery space for commissions of net art and new media art, featuring Scott Paterson's and Jennifer Crowe's Follow Through (2007), a performative tour of the Whitney's collection that was accessible on mobile devices, or Will Pappenheimer's AR project Proxy (2014). Social media platforms completely changed the web, and commissions such as Jonah Brucker-Cohen's and Katherine Moriwaki's America’s Got No Talent, a visualization of Twitter feeds for reality TV shows, reflect that change.
The practice of many, if not most, artists who work with the digital medium today is extremely hybrid. They may create online projects but they might also do object-based art, paintings or sculptures that are deeply informed by or use elements of the net or its "language," which is what the term postinternet tries to capture. I have issues with the term since it postulates a temporality that simply doesn't hold up—we are by no means "after" the internet—but it still captures a very real and important condition, a fusion of the material and immaterial that is different from anything we have seen before. The Internet of Things and James Bridle's New Aesthetic are both expressions of that. (Sadly I now frequently see postinternet used as a catchy term for art made by anyone born roughly after 1985 or for a sensibility characterized by an uncomplicated reverence for fame and success.) Artport no doubt will morph once again to incorporate aspects of what we now call postinternet practice while still being on, in, and beyond, rather than post, the net.
John F. Simon, Jr., Every Icon (1997). Screenshot of software-based artwork.
Before you came to the Whitney you earned your PhD at Düsseldorf University where you wrote about Herman Melville and Thomas Pynchon, then wrote a hypertext companion to TS Eliot's Wasteland in the mid-90s; around the same time, you were founding Intelligent Agent, which in its first iteration was a paper-based, full-color, highly intellectual, highly regarded publication on art and technology. How do you see your own transition from fiction to the poetry of code and towards the media arts? You also continue to be one of the most prolific and rigorous scholars in the field, balancing curating, art historical research, criticism and teaching. I know you never take vacations. What does the horizon look like for you?
The path that led me, along with many other people, into new media art was research into theories on hypertext and networked reading and writing which gained momentum in the late '80s. One of the side effects of my work on Intelligent Agent was that I was frequently asked by museums and curators to consult on curatorial practices for new media art. It finally came to a point where I realized that I might as well curate and organize those exhibitions myself. My background in literature is definitely directly connected to my interest in code as a form of creative writing and in digital storytelling: I teach a course on Experimental Narratives at The New School's School of Media Studies where I am a professor. I am very interested in the new kinds of materialities we see emerging right now as our physical environment is infused by digital technologies and starts "waving back at us." As to what's on the near horizon: continuing to build artport and the Whitney's media arts programming; and I will have exhibitions opening at Borusan Contemporary in Istanbul in September and at the Pratt Manhattan Gallery in December. And definitely more vacations.
After thirteen years in existence, artport has now been recognized with the status of a full-fledged collection, equal to painting or photography, within the Whitney Museum. Among other things, this endowed artport artists with the same legitimacy that the artists in the rest of the collection already had. (Indeed, it was fun watching everyone post their Lifetime Artist Membership cards on Facebook as they arrived in the mail and then seeing them all at the private opening of the museum's beautiful new building, finally feeling legit.) How would you describe the significance, within the Museum and within the international art community at large, of artport being recognized with this enhanced level of credence?
I think artport's new status as a special collection was a very important step for both the works featured on the site and the recognition of net art(ists) in general. The Whitney's curatorial team had in-depth discussions about how we would approach this relationship with the collection, which has significant ramifications for the ways in which we think about net art in institutional contexts.
There is a major difference between commissioning works and acquiring them for a collection. All of artport's projects were commissioned under non-exclusive licenses, meaning that the Whitney Museum has the right to exhibit them in perpetuity and hosts projects on its server, but that artists are still able to retain copies and show their works in exhibitions with a credit line stating that the respective piece was commissioned by the Whitney. The Whitney does not have exclusive ownership of artport projects, which brought up the question of whether we needed to officially acquire all of the pieces to bring them in to the collection. After discussions within the curatorial team, we decided that it does not make sense to "lock down" the works as acquisitions.
While I believe that net art can and should be collected—Rafaël Rozendaal's Art Website Sales Contract, for example, is a very sound model—acquisition didn't make sense for all of the artport projects. Many of the gatepages, for example, are artistic gestures that can easily be copied and appropriated by anyone. They are significant as artworks, but making claims for their exclusive ownership seemed like a violation of the characteristics of the net and the digital medium. We therefore chose to take a hybrid approach that makes artport an adjunct of the collection: all the works maintain their non-exclusive status but, at the same time, artport as a whole became associated with the collection. The "artport collection" is now given the same administrative purview as the Museum's collections. This means that all of the artists are treated as collection artists and that we are committed to preserving their work. Carol Mancusi-Ungaro, the Whitney's Melva Bucksbaum Associate Director for Conservation and Research, has been very supportive of net art's preservation and has also spearheaded the conservation initiative devoted to preserving Douglas Davis' online project The World’s First Collaborative Sentence, which was donated to the Whitney in 1995, but remained the sole piece of net art in its collection until artport became part of it.
Bringing artport into the collection makes the statement that net art as a medium has the same status as traditional art forms. Not all of the artists that contributed to artport are exclusively "net artists;" they may also be painters or sculptors and work across a range of media. Bringing their web projects into the collection means that they are as important and collectible as a painting or sculpture.
The 2015-16 English premiere league season kicks off on Saturday, and the National Football Museum will be collecting fan-made archives throughout the season using Webrecorder Beta. To suggest fan-made football Vines for the NFM archives during the forthcoming season, use the hashtag #footyvinesnfm.
Vines shown in this article are embedded directly from the Webrecorder Beta platform, and are not yet viewable on all browsers. Links to the original Vines are included in the captions, and the archived Vines can be seen in context in NFM's Webrecorder collection.
The National Football Museum, Manchester, UK.
The National Football Museum (NFM) holds the world's greatest collection of football (soccer) artefacts, with 140,000 objects in its holdings. As well as shirts, balls, photographs, paintings, and trophies, much of the history of association football in England has been captured within commercial media—typically print and broadcast, but sometimes more imaginative things like these "Goal Action Replay" flipbooks which were produced for the Daily Mirror newspaper back in 1972.
Daily Mirror Newspaper Flipbook (1 of 6) (1972). Vine courtesy of Emily Briselden-Waters.
The fans' "voice" is also represented through homemade memorabilia, banners and fanzines (of which the museum holds a collection of over 1000). Independent and often cut n' paste, these lo-fi publications produced during the 1970s, 80s and 90s embody fan humor, attitudes, and media of the day in a way which would be impossible to replicate in any other way.
Cover of Adams Family (Wycombe Wanderers) Fanzine, August 1995. Detail.
Vines as Contested Material History?
For the last couple of Premier League seasons, the "Football Vine" has become ubiquitous, continuing the lineage of fans re-appropriating existing media to tell their own stories.
Many of the fans' "films" take existing footage being broadcast (typically filmed on mobile phones directly from a television screen) and then re-interpret this through cropping, editing and adding a soundtrack. The short nature of the Vine format (around 6 seconds) lends itself very well to single moments in a game—often crucial goals and saves—but also moments of skill, controversy, and humor. Even the traditional print media have been making use of fan-generated Vines embedded within their online match reports as is demonstrated by this Telegraph report of Raheem Sterling's first game as a Manchester City player vs Roma. Football Vines are an important part of the story of contemporary fan culture, and therefore are relevant to the museum's collection.
This moment when Liverpool's Jordan Henderson appears to stare down Chelsea's Diego Costa became a major talking point and was shared thousands of times. Many people used this incident to discuss Henderson's credibility as a future Liverpool captain.
Museums which include contemporary popular culture in their remit have always had to make difficult choices with respect to what they can collect, as so much of the story they seek to tell is happening in the immediate present. With Vines, this is complicated by the fact that the interaction that plays out as a "Vine" is shared and circulated and this activity can be as important as the video clip itself.
Vines are perhaps best experienced within social media, where a viewer can participate in this process of faving and sharing. Unfortunately, this is not a viable collection strategy. Football Vines are often at risk of takedown because the legal territory surrounding this culture is unresolved (see: Is posting football Vines copyright infringement?). The timely sharing of key moments from games via Vine and Twitter led in August 2014 to a backlash from the commercial broadcasters and the Premier League citing piracy laws (since they own the commercial rights).
"You can understand that fans see something, they can capture it, they can share it, but ultimately it is against the law," said Dan Johnson, director of communications at the Premier League (according to a BBC report). "It's a breach of copyright and we would discourage fans from doing it, we're developing technologies like gif crawlers, Vine crawlers, working with Twitter to look to curtail this kind of activity... I know it sounds as if we're killjoys but we have to protect our intellectual property."
Oops! Couldn't find it!
The suggestion that clips deemed to be offending will be taken down is apparently being followed through on, as Vines of important Premier League goals from the 2014/15 season are now hard to come by, with many having been replaced by the above "Oops! Couldn't find it" image. Those that do remain online often have peculiar adjustments to their color or aspect ratio, presumably making it more difficult for the copyright holder of the original footage from which the Vine is derived to identify the clip.
So as not to lose quite so much fan-produced media next season, I have been working with Rhizome's Dragan Espenschied and developer Ilya Kreymer (formerly Internet Archive) to try out their Webrecorder platform, which records all of the functionality of online activity within native platforms (rather than downloading mere screengrabs). The aim is not be to contravene copyright, but instead to document online behaviors (sharing, comments, edited imagery) which are intrinsic to the Vine platform and demonstrate online fan culture now, in 2015.
For now I have produced a little test to document a series of weird and wonderful moments from the 2014/15 Premier League season. They can be seen as captured and archived with Webrecorder, and are embedded directly from Vine in their individual glory below—unless, by the time you read this, they've already been taken down.
11 Weird and Wonderful Vines during the 2014-15 English Premier League Season
Suggested by Fearghal Cross, Brendan Shanahan, Edward Jenks, Rick Banks, Gregory Povey, Peter Martin and Nuradin Abdi. Thank you also to Loz Kaye (former leader Manchester Pirate Party) for advice/support in early phase of this project.Goalkeeper
Tim Howard (Everton against Southampton):
Terry and Sterling:
Tony Hibbert skills Everton:
Nigel Pearson Scuffle:
Steven Gerrard sending off:
Jason Puncheon free kick (Crystal Palace vs Manchester City):
Leah Williamson penalty kick:
Wayne Rooney Celebration (cinematic):
Alan Irwin—Deadline Day #PurpleDildo:
Nigel Pearson Ostrich:
"Brian Potter" Phoenix Nights Blackpool Pitch Invasion:
Bate Borisov captain Dzmitry Likhtarovich taken out by cheerleader in Belarusian Premier League:
Serbia vs Albania Drone Flag:
This research was conducted as part of Out of Play: Technology & Football, a season of commissions, artists residencies and artefacts at the National Football Museum, Manchester UK, and Collecting Cultures: Art of Football, an intitiative to improve the NFM's art collection.
Out of Play also included two other projects that featured ephemeral online media in a museum context: We Tripped El Hadji Diouf, organized by Jason Eppink, and The Time of The Game, by Jer Thorp, Mario Klingmann, Teju Cole.
Supported by public funding from Arts Council England and the Heritage Lottery Fund.