A few things I learnt about net art. Notes for the BNF Talk, Paris, 06.12.17

Domenico Quaranta

I started being interested in net art in the late nineties, by chance. I was an art history student at the university, I just discovered the web (not really an early adopter, indeed). Intuitively, I thought there should be some interesting artistic development out there, and I decided to do my MA thesis about it even before seeing any real net art.

What I first discovered was not that good. I missed the lexicon, the right links and the right friends. Then, luckily, I found a book, that provided me with keywords, links and friends.

1st lesson. Books are important for net art. They offer you a chance to find it offline, and they provide an order, a view, an entry point that may be difficult to find online.

The book was Artscape: panorama dell'arte in rete (2000), by Gianni Romano and is, to my knowledge, the first book about net art published in Italian. After a few wonderful months spent on Nettime, Rhizome, and artist’s websites, and listening to this sound, I decided to focus my thesis on ada’web, a website founded by curator Benjamin Weil and entrepreneur John Borthwick in New York in 1994, and run until 1998.

Why ada’web?

I graduated in July 2002. Two years later, my thesis was published by the university press, with the title NET ART 1994-1998. La vicenda di Äda'web (Milan 2004).

Meanwhile, I had started writing for magazines (Random, Exibart, Noemalab). In 2005, I curated my first exhibition, for a media art festival in Turin; the second, a small section for an art prize; and the third, for a mediatheque in Milan. In the following years, I made a master for curators (2003 - 2004) and started a PHD (2006 - 2009). I kept writing and curating. In the heydays of Second Life, I even played the character of the avatar art critic and the blogger (Spawn of the Surreal, 2007 - 2009). I’ll come back to this later on.

I’m focusing on these years because they were very formative for my future approach to the criticism and curating of net art.

On the one hand, I realized that my role was that of a mediator, and a translator, of art practices the art world was still unfamiliar with, often taking place in a different exhibition and discursive space (be it the internet  or the specialized field of media art). As an art critic, I had to provide information and art historical contextualization. As a curator, I had to be a filter (choice) and a facilitator for finding the right way to show artworks in the physical space.

Lesson 2. Net art always needs some kind of translation and contextualization, when you have to communicate it to whatever audience. [Add a reference to my teaching experience.]

On the other hand, I realized that this insularity was still perpetuated by the modes in which my critical and curatorial activity took place. As a writer, I often contributed to specialized magazines, or to specialized columns in contemporary art magazines. As a curator, I mostly curated for festivals, or was allowed a small space in broader events. This was both positive and frustrating.

For example, playing the role of the art critic in Second Life was a very energetic experience. I was late on net.art, and I followed the wave of surfing clubs from the side, without actively taking part in the scene, even if very close-by. Second Life offered me the chance to be more than a side character, to participate in the conversations, and sometimes to influence them. To make things happen for the first time, as in the case of The Gate, the hybrid installation I curated for the iMAL Center for Digital Cultures and Technology, Brussels in 2007; to meet and interview the main characters; and to have some fun.

Lesson 3. Net art needs to be experienced live, at least once.

At the same time, the feeling that media and net art’s insularity in the art world didn’t match anymore with it’s increasing topicality and maturity became the focus of my PHD research, and my curatorial work. In April 2008 I co-curated, with Yves Bernard, the exhibition HOLY FIRE. ART OF THE DIGITAL AGE. For me, the show was a way to test, in front of an audience, a simple statement: that net art and recent media art were ready for the mainstream art world, and that the art world was ready for them. And to get reactions.

Reactions came, and were quite strong. The focus of the exhibition on the art market as one main player in the re-contextualization of media art in the contemporary art world was controversial, as well as the claim that the label “media art” made no sense anymore. But there were also positive consequences, both on a personal and a broader level.

On a personal level, I think the exhibition earned me the opportunity to curate, for two following years (2009 and 2010), the Expanded Box at Arco Madrid, the section of the fair dedicated to new media.

On a broader level, the exhibition anticipated the rise of “post internet” art, and the generalized perception that the contemporary art world was ready for the exploration of the topics, the aesthetics and the languages emerged with the digital turn.

Holy Fire was also one step onward in my PHD research. I discussed my PHD thesis in 2009, and right after I adapted and shortened the text for publication. It came out in Italian in 2010 with the title Media, New Media, Postmedia (Postmedia Books, Milan 2010), and three years later in an updated English version (Beyond New Media Art, Link Editions 2013). The first presentation of the book I did was actually in Paris, at ENSAD in 2010.

Lesson 4. Net art has played the historical role of making the media arts interesting again for the broader art world, thanks to its low tech, conceptual approach, and of testing the forms and languages that facilitated the integration and acceptance of the younger, “post internet” artists.

Beyond New Media Art was published by the Link Art Center, a small institution I co-founded in 2011, focused on publishing and curating, online and offline. One of the first exhibitions we produced was Collect the WWWorld. The Artist as Archivist in the Internet Age (2011 - 2012), a project that focused on the practice of building archives and creating from existing contents in contemporary art, with a focus on recent developments in net art, re-contextualized with the work of more established or older artists, such as Seth Price, Ryan Trecartin, or Hans Peter Feldmann.

With the Link Art Center, I also published two collections of essays, In Your Computer (2011) and AFK (2016). They both collect mostly published texts appeared on online and paper magazines, catalogues or small gallery brochures, in the attempt to offer them another chance of circulation and preservation.

We also published a number of artists books under the headline “In My Computer”, a series I edited. Link Editions releases all its books as free download pdfs and paperbacks in print on demand, a solution I like a lot because the number of existing copies is not decided in advance, but it depends upon the interest of the audience.

Along all my career, I finally participated as a contributor or as an editor in a number of artist monographies (Aram Bartholl, Eva and Franco Mattes, How to Play Eddo Stern, UBERMORGEN, Gazira Babeli).

Lesson 5. With digital and net art, book acquire an archival quality and function. Although books always had this role, it becomes stronger with art practices that are ephemeral, context specific and time specific by nature.