Every medium has its canon. Graphic design, painting, and sculpture are all bolstered by great works that help set the standard for those to come. Until recently, though, a net art canon was a slippery concept, though not for a lack of choice. Net art, or art made with the internet as a material, has been thriving since the 1980s, but establishing which pieces define the medium has always been difficult.
“Digital culture is repeatedly undervalued by commercial institutions,” says Michael Connor, artistic director of Rhizome, an affiliate organization of the New Museum that focuses on digital art.
In early 2017, Rhizome launched an ambitious project called the Net Art Anthology that aimed to remedy this issue. Every week for two years, Rhizome’s team would preserve a new piece of “net art,” adding it to an online archive where it was given its own Brutalist-style microsite that includes images, links, quotes, and an in-depth essay to contextualize the work in the greater galaxy of the medium.
The online exhibition is expansive, yet focused. Some of the pieces live in the browser, like Jonas Lund’s, “I’m Here and I’m There,” which allowed people to observe Lund’s browsing habits in real time (it’s now archived). Others live as PDFs, like K-Hole’s Youth Mode report on youth culture that birthed the term “normcore.” All net art has something in common, though. “Net art is art that happens in networks,” explains Connor. “It’s art that isn’t really possible without those networks.”
Despite net art’s seemingly ephemeral nature, 15 pieces from the Net Art Anthology are now on display at the New Museum for the exhibition “The Art Happens Here.” We asked Connor to walk us through four pieces that help define the medium, because, as he puts it, “This work is most interesting when you get into the weirdness of each.”