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The Internet, a Tool for Art?



The network as a "Social Sculpture"


The main aspect of internet art is the network structure. Almost all pieces are created by teamwork or temporary collaboration of a group of artists. Tilman Baumgärtel even signified as the first pan-European art movement since the end of the second worldwar, which doesn't only include western artists, but also from former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia:

"Die Gruppe von net.artists, die sich im letzten Jahr im Umkreis der Mailingliste nettime LINK ZUM LJUBLIANA-Artikel formiert hat, ist wohl die erste gesamteuropäische Kunstbewegung nach dem Zweiten Weltkrieg, die nicht nur Künstler aus dem Westen, sondern auch aus der Ex-Sowjetunion und Ex-Jugoslawien einschließt."

(engl. transl.: "The net.artists group that formed/arose around the mailing list of the article nettime LINK TO LJUBLJANA is probably the first pan-European movement of artists after the Second World War including/which includes not only Western artists but also artists from the former Soviet Union and Jugoslavia.")

(Baumgärtel, Aus der Vor und Frühgeschichte der Netzkunst, 1979)

Consequently happens within networks, is made by groups of artists and many artpieces are designed as platforms themselves, open for participation and discussion. In this way also artist networks such as the Thing are seen as whole artworks (made of artworks). These virtual (art) communities were based on interactive involvement of many - a long time before one even could have thought of Facebook, Myspace or Youtube.

In his essay "Das Internet als imaginäres Museum" Tilman Baumgärtel differentiates between networks and net-works:

"Mit 'Netz-Werken' meine ich Kunstwerke, die vor allem im WorldWideWeb realisiert wurden, und als eigene, abgeschlossene Internet-Site konzipiert wurden. 'Netzwerke' sind dagegen die sozialen Zusammenschlüsse und Kollaborationen, die zum Beispiel auf Mailinglisten oder in anderen 'virtual communities' stattfinden."

(engl. transl.: "By 'net-works' I mean art pieces that for the most part are realised in the World Wide Web and are conceived as a self-contained, singular/distinctive web site. 'Networks' however/rather are the social consolidations and collaborations that take place on/in/via mailing lists or in other 'virtual communities'")


Early artist communities started as simple mailinglists (still active lists are or and Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) like Mailbox //Bionic at FoeBuD. Co-founders of the //Bionic project were the artists Rena Tangens and padeluun. The artistic achievement in this case is not creating an object and showing it in an exhibition - it is creating a platform, an empty space for others to fill.

"Es ist nicht unsere Aufgabe, das Werk nach unserem Gefallen zu gestalten. Es soll uns und allen anderen Wesenheiten gefallen — wir sollen es sehen können und wissen: Es ist gut. Unsere Aufgabe ist behutsame künstlerische Moderation. Deswegen benötigen wir eine kommunikative Gesellschaft. Nicht eine Gesellschaft, in der wahlweise Kunst eine weitere Form des Imperialismus oder Separatismus ist und die Kunst oder gar Kultur bestimmt. Wir benötigen eine Gesellschaft, in der alle Menschen für sich selber und/oder andere mitgestalten dürfen, können und sollen."

(engl. transl.: "Our task is not to create/shape the piece as we please. It is supposed to appeal to us and all other beings – we should be able to see it and know: It is well done. Our task is the careful/gentle artistic presentation. Therefore we need a communicative/communicating society, not a society where art is another kind of imperialism or separatism that forms/determines art or even/the very culture. We need a society where everyone is allowed, able and supposed to participate/help in shaping/forming for themselves and/or others.")
says padeluun in his speech at the "EXTENSION" awards ceremony in Hamburg, Kunsthalle, 1997.

The network "The Thing", founded by Blackhawk, Gisela Ehernfeld, Julia Scher, Wolfgang Staehle, Frans Staufenberg and Benjamin Weil in 1991, also started as a BBS in New York, with offshoots in Berlin, Cologne, Vienna, Frankfurt, Amsterdam and Basel.

Julia Scher in an email, 2011:

"Our first servers were AMIGAS! The servers got located in the basement of Wolfgangs rented place on Walker (or was it White St) just below Canal. The early up and running of the board, we all had a role, it was a group effort, and some of the history on this is out there. [...] we all had distinct NYC personalities at the time- and without glossing over it in a way that makes us all to be stereotypes, we brought in a way our own BBS ideas into it. Writing on a BBS was more like (as Marisa Bowe put it at the time) like courtley love. Long and agonizing waits and you had to write politely. [...]"

When "The Thing" was re-designed as a website in 1995, it lost part of it's communicative aspects. Today it again provides a mailing list for "redefining the relationship of new media culture, fine arts and social activism.", joinable at

Besides regional and supra-regional networking early virtual communities were often referring to real existing locations and community structures. Examples are the "Digitale Staad", 1993 arisen in Amsterdam and the "Internationale Stadt Berlin" (1994-1998), with the goal to simulate social life in virtual space. Additionally mentioned in the context of artist networks should be the artservers adaweb (at walker art center) and artnetweb, functioning as hosts and documentation tools for internet art and the netart search engine, developed at the Academy of Visual Arts Leipzig. (There are many more important virtual communities for artists and I can't link all of them here, but they are, of course, all linked to each other. So if you start at one point, you will be led to further sites and surf on the wave of internet art.)

Referring to Joseph Beuys' idea of the "Social Sculpture", artists consider such networks as artworks themselves. Wolfgang Staehle comments in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, March 22nd, 1994:

"Beuys ging es um die soziale Skulptur, eine künstlerische Produktion, die eine Gruppe oder eine Gemeinschaft zusammen macht. ,The Thing' ist so eine Skulptur: es realisiert die Beuyssche Idee von der direkten Demokratie, vom politischen Gemeinwesen als sozialer Struktur. Gleichzeitig stellt es eine Erweiterung des Kunstbegriffs dar."

(engl.transl.: "Beuys was interested in the social sculpture, an art production(?)/ a production of art realized/made by a group or a community. 'The Thing' is such a sculpture: it realizes Beuys' idea of a direct democracy, a political common weal as social structure. At the same time it constitutes the expansion of the notion of art.")

(quoted after Dieter Daniels, "Die Kunst der Kommunikation", 1994)



social sculpture

(image: Joseph Beuys, 7000 Oaks, documenta 7, Kassel, 1982)


In which way the definition of art is expanded, padeluun describes in more detail:

"Kunst als Teil des Alltags. [...] Uns trieb die Frage, was denn nun nach Beuys'scher Theorie "Alle Menschen sind Künstler" und Ives Kleins "Alles ist Kunst", nun denn die Aufgabe der Kunst sei. [...] Dazu mußten wir viel Ballast abwerfen: Bilder und Skulpturen, Performances, Installationen, Film, Video, Musik, Freundlichkeiten, Sektempfänge und die Erwartung "verstanden" oder gar akzeptiert zu werden. [...] Wir wollten nicht unsere "Genialität" auf den Rest der Menschheit loslassen, sondern mit der Menschheit — den bewußten und un(ter)bewußten Künstlerinnen und Künstlern — kommunizieren, um gemeinsam an einem Netz der 'Modernsten Kunst' zu arbeiten; den Mehrwert erforschen und anwenden."

(engl. transl.: "Art as part of every day life. [...] We were driven by the question as to just what the task/function/purpose of art is according to Beuys' theory "everyone/everybody is an artist" and Ives Klein's "everything is art". [...] To find an answer we had to discard a lot of ballast/burden: pictures and sculptures, performances, installations, movie/moving picture, video, music, kindnesses, receptions and the expectation to be "understood" or even accepted. [...] Our objective was not to unleash our "ingenuity" onto the rest of humanity, but to communicate with humanity – the conscious and non/un-conscious artists – in order to work together on a network of 'modern art'; to explore and apply the added value.")
(padeluun, "Reseau D'Ameublement", 1997)


Looking at this statement today, when internet has changed to web 2.0, a network of communities based on user created content, we understand that the visions and work of internet pioneers has been the precursor of virtual communities today. Yes, there is a desire to participate and express oneself. Yes, everyone is an artist by nature. Everyone who does photography, video, music and uploads it on Flickr, youtube or myspace. Everyone who comments on content develops it further. It is art in the sense of Joseph Beuys - it is not about discussing it's quality and far away from being something 'elite', even authorship doesn't play a (primary) role - it is about context and communication, about the thing itself.

The curator specialized in internet art Oliver Laric appreciates the confusion, trying to differentiate between artworks and works made by "normal users":

"Es wird oft von einem Konsumenten gesprochen, der auch produziert, der Prosument, sowie von dem Leser, der auch schreibt. Es wäre auch eine Möglichkeit, die Zugehörigkeit einer Szene zu ignorieren und Arbeiten lediglich als Arbeiten zu interpretieren ohne den Produzenten zu beurteilen. Dann sind es eher Ideen ohne Autoren, das passt auch zu der Idee des Cloud Computing, bei der hunderte oder tausende von unterschiedlichsten Orten gemeinsam an einem Projekt arbeiten."

(engl. transl.: "Often the consumer who also produces is called the prosumer, as well as there is the reader who also writes. Another possibility would be to discard/ignore the affiliation of a scene and to assess works solely by themselves without the producer. From this standpoint/In this regard they would be ideas without authors. This matches/corresponds to the idea of cloud computing where hundreds or thousands of distinct locations are working together on a project.")
(interview by Nora Malles, monopol online, 2011)

Following these thoughts, any (amateurish) creativity helps constructing the "Social Sculpture", a growing, self-regulating, authentic image of needs and visions of our society. The downside of this movement, that moderates and restrains creativity, is putting it into a box, labeling and selling it: the commercialization of online communities and transformation of free space into virtual shopping malls.



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