|The Electronic Arts Community Goes Online: A Personal View|
by Kathy Rae Huffman
I first began attending international media-art festivals and observing the media scene "abroad" around 1980. (I lived in Southern California then, but live in Vienna now.) More than a decade ago, I began to see European media artists like Klaus vom Bruch and Bernd Kracke leaning toward new digital practices, creating communication-oriented art that made works in traditional media seem out-of-step with a fast-arriving future. Bob Adrian's "The World in 24 Hours" (1982) was one of the first multimedia, live communication events, linking Ars Electronica with various international sites. At Electra 83, a pivotal exhibition held at the Musee d'Art Moderne in Paris, dozens of artists defined the critical communication currents of the era. (Roy Ascott was among this early group of communicators.) But the means to realize such visions were unavailable when access to networks was prohibitively limited and expensive. Still, a glimmer of the power of connectivity-as-art was emerging in Europe.
A few years later in San Francisco, I was a member of the SIGGRAPH 1985 art jury to which no communications projects were suggested or submitted. This was still primarily an American event with artists heavily influenced by industrial, computer-graphics standards (and a far cry from the 1996 SIGGRAPH artworks, where art led industry when it came to communications projects). As a media-art decade, the 1980s in the United States might be remembered as an era in which technique predominated, and content was politically correct. (I include video, artists' television, and installation work here.) Computer graphics and the technical communications industry seemed dominated by TV-advertising and Hollywood-business imperatives, while cultural theorists applauded the mergers of art and advancing, commercial technology. "Cross-over" was the term used to describe performing artists who "made it," like Laurie Anderson.
By the early the 1990's, the media-art community awakened to Cyberspace. The Cyberconf and TED meetings became cult events. Jaron Lanier introduced Virtual Reality at SIGGRAPH 1989, in a hall across the street from Boston's Institute of Contemporary Art. I was one of the 5000 people in the audience who were agog at the implications of Lanier's predictions for long-distance personal contact and shared virtual space. This technology, which for many was initially confusing and technically problematic, has almost made it to the off-the-shelf software stage; already the reality for linking up online exists. In fact, the VR research of artists like Stahl Stenslie, and the performance experiments involving remote body stimulation by Stelarc, predict more than just reaching out--they promise the capability to "touch" someone.
An enormous surge of online art has emerged since the introduction of the World Wide Web and visual interfaces. The Internet has assumed a real status as the virtual artist's "turf of choice" since 1994, mainly due to the availability of the web browser Mosaic (and now Netscape's Navigator). Internet access for artists transcends international borders; its users include media activists, culture critics, free-lance entrepreneurs, and literary artists--many of whom previously struggled outside institutions and on the marginalized peripheries of cultural classification. Do we now find ourselves trapped within another system of control? Not the 1980s-style culture of consumerism and materialism, but in the online art scene itself. This scene, a fluid space, has its focal points in real events that take place world wide. These numerous conferences, seminars, festivals and forums are ruled by a self appointed group of media theoreticians and popular-culture scholars, event organizers, and alt.politicians. The museum media-art curators, alt.gallery owners, and underground art critics are outnumbered by a factor of x10. In Europe in particular, a general knowledge of art history (and especially media-art history) is sorely missing from this new database of dialogue. The near-absence of discussions about Net aesthetics and online content suggest that a divide separating online discourse relating to Net Art versus Net Culture may already exist.
Who makes up this creative Internet community, anyway? The Internet encompasses numerous media art makers and organizers among its ranks. Today's online artists, however, are not simply an extension of the interactive, interdisciplinary, media- and video-art crew of the 1970s and 80s. Net artists bring with them a diverse collection of backgrounds and experiences: they are photographers, conceptual artists, writers, performance artists, sculptors, and theater directors, as well as computer graphics artists, Web designers and installation and video makers. An elite group of speakers, personalities, and entertainers has, unfortunately, also emerged at the real life events. Lack of regional funding often ensures that the same speakers "do" the circuit of festivals in a season. The academically affiliated are also numerous--such conferences offer a mechanism for publishing (and thereby maintaining credibility with colleagues and department chairs). The large numbers of artists who once swarmed the few, international video festivals are no longer in abundance. But at the smaller, newer events, fresh local talent is beginning to emerge along with the realization that regional aesthetics and concerns can compete with (and often eclipse) the "international" works presented.
Like their media-activist predecessors, this local/global online tribe seeks consensual space to seek out--and communicate with--like minded colleagues. Sometimes to fight common causes involving censorship and the trampling of privacy rights, or to promote better and cheaper access for individuals (especially in Eastern Europe). This Utopian frame of mind is not solely a California dream popularized and articulated by John Perry Barlow, it is also a European reality. Forget the upscale Wired magazine variety of hip, or even the cyber-chic punk aesthetics evoked in the Cy-Fi classics. What I'm talking about are artists and Net practitioners who have positioned themselves within server structures as communication specialists and Internet providers. These idealists can be compared to their counterparts in the alternative media scene, especially in terms of their idealism and determination to promote positive change. Many are doing just that. The first examples of online environments created by and for artists began to spring up in the early 1990s with The Thing (in New York, then Northern Europe), and the Digital City in Amsterdam. The Well in San Francisco is the predecessor to many American servers that provide alternatives to commercial online services and promote the notion of a community of users.
If the horizons of the virtual appear to be limitless, real-life cyber-oriented forums are also growing at an amazing rate. They comprise both cyber-events and the cyber-appropriation of video and multi-media festivals, exhibitions and mainstream print publications (even Flash Art will go online soon). No, video, film and installation art is not "dead," as some like to rant. In fact, during the past year, I attended more than 18, European media-art events--conferences/symposia/festival/biennial type exhibitions--that focused on communication and art. They included Telepolis (Luxembourg), The Next Five Minutes (Amsterdam), Ars Digitalis (Berlin), Digital Chaos (Bath, UK), The Butterfly Effect (Budapest), 5.CYBERCONF (Madrid), Electra 96 (Oslo), New Bodies (Maribor), Ars Electronica (Linz ), the Dutch Electronic Art Festival at V2 / ISEA (Rotterdam), Meta Forum III (Budapest), and Cyberria (Bilbao). These events offered concentrated platforms for the discussion and exhibition of Network art, criticism, and/or activism--not to mention reality checks on theory and practice. In addition, the standard European media festivals, like Videofest (Berlin), European Media Art Festival (Osnabrueck), ROOTS (Hull), and the World Wide Video Festival (Den Haag), also focused online practices within the context of media, video, film and performance art.
But perhaps these events are most important as ceremonies of coming together IRL (in real life). Although celebration--meeting, eating and drinking together--seems ingrained in our very social species, its importance for today's online personalities cannot be underestimated. Amidst all the discussion about Net ethics, power, community, and content, collective online identity remains a new idea. Collaborative projects that find power in a collective identity often grow out of such gatherings. For example, the first discussions about the formation of a Digital City began among a group of pirate TV and radio activists in Amsterdam, circa 1991. Digital City seemed like an impossible dream then, but it is now a fully realized, community project. In addition to this sort of community, there are also mailing lists and forums for discussion that connect artists and media theoreticians in conversation and text forums like NETTIME. It is within these e-mail lists and exchanges that a community has emerged, one which participates in online events (point to point performances and connections among partner sites), topic-related chats (irc and MOO formats) and in online projects like #refresh (October 5, 1996). These events depend on an audience of interested participants which follows Net trends and ideas.
But, it remains very curious that those who inhabit a domain like the Internet--which admonishes borders--remain a close knit society of physical neighbors. The New York online community generally locates itself on servers situated in Manhattan, and primarily speak to each other, just as German speaking Internet users collect around servers sited in Berlin, Cologne, or Vienna. Even though English is the default online language, there is still limited communication except among the socially entrenched Net advocates and the educated elite. And this is where IRL meeting places for the online community fit in. These are the places where artists working in various Internet forums, and from disparate cultures, can connect, respond to theoretical positions, and talk face-2-face. Without such reality checks, Net culture would be an unrealistic forum for Utopian dreamers and power seekers. As it is, the Net is growing up into a dreamer's reality.
Kathy Rae Huffman is a free-lance media- and Net-art curator. Her online activity includes pop~TARTS , an interactive column for Telepolis Journal with Margarete Jarhmann; dar~LINKS, a curated selection of web sites by women for the Ars Electronica Serve; and, with Eva Wolgemuth, the Siberian Deal project. She collaborates with HILUS intermedia research in Vienna, and is an advisor to C3-Silicon Studio in Budapest.