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The Internet, a Tool for Art?

The origins and definition of internet art

In the early 90s, when the internet became open for the public and first online communities were founded, the "Cyberspace" was called a "total work of art".
(Rötzer, Florian; Weibel, Peter: "Cyberspace – Zum medialen Gesamtkunstwerk" 1993.)

I like this vision of the internet as one great artpiece, but to define Netzkunst in the context of art history I firstly would like to distinguish between "art on the internet" and "internet art". When you browse the web you find thousands of online galleries and portfolios of artists showing documentations of pieces which are based on other media and don't need the internet or any network for presentation.

Internet art is characterized by using the internet not only as a presentation platform, but also as a raw material. Reflecting on the medium's specific general conditions , qualities, technical and social issues (not only in an artistic sense) internet art contemplates the communication form itself in a critical way. Furthermore a piece of internet art can only exist within or by use of the internet. That means it does not nessecarily have to be displayed online, but needs the medium to be realized (like for example flashmobs are organized on the internet, but happen in real public space).

"" is one of the early terms for Netzkunst, coined by the first group of net artists, who used this diction as their group name. Members of this group were Heath Bunting, Rachel Baker, Vuk Cosic, Jodi, Olia Lialina and Alexei Shulgin.

" I feel it's time now to give a light on the origin of the term – " ". Actually, it's a readymade. In December 1995 Vuk Cosic got a message, sent via anonymous mailer. Because of incompatibility of software, the opened text appeared to be practically unreadable ascii abracadabra. The only fragment of it that made any sense looked something like: [...] J8~g#|\;Net. Art{-^s1 [...] Vuk was very much amased and exited: the net itself gave him a name for activity he was involved in! He immediately started to use this term."
explains Alexei Shulgin on the mailinglist "nettime" on March 18th, 1997.

1996 on the festival "Teatro Telematico" in Trieste, Italy a discussion was organized with the title " per se". Some artists involved in the group as well as others participated in this early talk about the folowing topics:

"Is there a specific
How does the artist use the control over the distribution of his/hers work?
How does the modernist/romantic perception of the "art work" as a tangible piece influence the net.artist? Is hard copy obsolete?
Is teritory (realy) obsolete? (does the automatic globality of audience necessarily mean the universality of the topic?)"

Besides the term "", also "Cyberart" or "webart" were used, today the english term "internet art" and the German "Netzkunst" are wide-spread.
Following Wikipedia, there is a slight difference between "internet art" and the german word "Netzkunst". Netzkunst means art, which exists within networks, not nessecarily on the World Wide Web, but of course it includes all "Internet Art" (compare the links from Wikipedia in different languages).

"Internet art (often referred to as net art) is a form of digital artwork distributed via the Internet. "

"Netzkunst ist ein Sammelbegriff für künstlerische Arbeit in Netzen oder Netzwerken. Darunter fallen als Kunstwerk definierte soziale Netze, die künstlerische Nutzung analoger Netze wie ursprünglich bei Mail Art, sowie künstlerische Arbeiten, die digitale Netzdienste wie das World Wide Web oder andere Kommunikationsnetze wie Mobilfunk benutzen."

(engl. transl.: "Netzkunst is a collective term for artistic work within nets or networks. This includes social nets which are defined as artworks, the artistic use of analog networks like originally Mail Art, as well as artpieces using digital networks like the World Wide Web or other communication networks like mobile radio phone services.")

On the website of the Academy of Visual Arts Leipzig Hans Dieter Huber has chronologically listed internet artworks from 1991 to 1999, which gives a good historical introduction into early net art. If you follow Huber's list you will find some pieces standing alone as websites, but mostly you will be led to artist networks and artservers. Remarkably this list has not been updated for the last 12 years and many links are not working anymore. can hardly be specified and labeled as a concrete genre of art. It is more like a chameleon, sneaking through the wires, through systems of daily routine and sometimes it is found, but not identified. The plots are non-linear, the process is interactive and rarely one author can be identified, the results are unsteady, immaterial and usually vanish after some time. All that is left in the end is the message, experience, the vision, the we even have to call it "art"?

"…NET.ART, like the internet itself, encompasses everything so it resists definition. After all, an operating system, a database and a site devoted to sponsoring subversive acts have all been declared works of art."
(Alexej Shulgin, quoted after Julian Stallabrass, Internet Art: The Online Clash of Culture and Commerce, 2003, p. 138, quoted after John Greenwood)

Internet art consciously locates itself outside of hegemonial structures of art institutions or the market. Since their exhibition space is not a museum or a gallery, but private public space that just exists everywhere, internet artists are more independent than artists using traditional media. Users happen to find pieces through their everyday life, by accident. The pieces, often driven by strategies of guerilla communication such as fake and subversion aren't explicitely declared as "art". Cornelia Sollfrank's piece " Generator" exemplifies subtle critque on art institutions and the market:
For the internet art competition "EXTENTION" at Kunsthalle Hamburg in 1997 Sollfrank submitted 127 different, but similar looking artworks, signed with fake pseudonyms. All of those pieces were computer generated by the " Generator".

"Die Künstlerin ironisiert damit, die allgemeine Vorstellung von Netzkunst als Website-Kunst, in dem sie gerade Webseiten zu Kunst erklärt, die aus zufällig zusammen gestelltem Bild- und Textmaterial des Netzes entstehen."

(engl. transl.: "By declaring web sits tat are constuctd fom randomly assembled/arranged image and txt matrial fom te Intrnet, te artst makes te common noton of net art as web sit art subject of irony.")

Today the " Generator" is accessable on the web for everyone. The user has to enter a keyword for search (which will also be the title of the work) and a name functioning as the authors pseudonym. Since 1999 there have been developed 5 different versions of the program, the source codes are also available for download and further use under GPL (GNU General Public License).


(screenshot: "This is not Art" by anonymous2, created with generator)


Not for construction, but de-construction of the internet is another generator, the "Injuction Generator" by the Austrian group, honored at the Ars Electronica Festival in 2003. The website is plain black, an emblem with a stylized eagle, a globe and the acronym of a (fake) company or organisation make it look reliable at first view. Around this emblem, upside down (nobody reads this), the words "Internet Partnership for no Internet Content" and in a box below "is there any web-site you wanna take off the web using a highly subversive method?". By Clicking the "proceed-button", users can automatically generate and send a standard court-order, claiming any target-website to operate on an illegal basis. (
Aware of such special methods net artists use, the jury of Ars Electronica often honored projects which were not explitely declared as art or placed within the context of art. (like for instance the censored "Microsoft Hate Page").



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