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We Owe Everything to the Weird Early Web

Net art gets its due in a new exhibition that traces the roots of everything from normcore to basically all digital design

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.

Olia Lialina: “Give Me Time / This Page is No More,” 2015

The internet has an ever-morphing aesthetic. Choose a web page and you could probably pinpoint when it was developed, give or take a few years. The technologically-stunted Brutalism of the early 1990s gave way to dirt web Maximalism later in the decade. This is the period that Olia Lialina is most interested in. The artist, who is best known for her interactive browser piece, My Boyfriend Came Back From War, has been an astute documentarian of the internet’s inherent aesthetics. As she once wrote: If something is in the net, it should speak in net.language.

In her 2015 piece, Give Me Time/ This Page is No More, Lialina dives into net 1.0 when Geocities defined the personal web with clip art and messy blocks of text. The piece juxtaposes two projected slideshows— one featuring pages promising updates to the platform, and another showing the pages after being shut down in 2010. The work is an act of preservation and appreciation, Connor says. A lot of the time, the visual style of Geocities pages are associated with bad taste and bad design, he says. But someone spent their life on it, and it should be taken seriously.”

Bunny Rogers and Filip Olszewski: “Materials from Sister Unn’s,“ 2012

In 2012, a strange new shop popped up along a stretch of vacant storefronts in Queens, New York. Inside, vases filled with black, wilted flowers sat in rows on white shelves. A glowing refrigerator lit up the space. The awning, a simple black-and-white design, read Sister Unn’s.

When the store originally appeared it became a weird community space for people to leave flowers, Conner says. It had a shrine-like quality to it.” Anyone curious enough to Google the store’s name would be directed to a website where they were given a pixelate rose to add to a growing digital shrine. The perplexing store was the work of artists Bunny Rogers and Filip Olszewski, who were living in the Forest Hills area of Queens at the time. Rogers and Olszewski were interested in exploring the increasingly blurred lines between our digital and physical lives. Someone might first experience Sister Unn’s on the street; another might click through to the website. The lack of context gave both spaces—online and off— a mysterious quality that allowed people to make it their own.

Miao Ying: “Blind Spot,” 2007

During her last year of college, the artist Miao Ying spent three months Googling every word in the Chinese dictionary. It turned out that many of the words she searched for never showed up—the government had censored them. Every time Ying encountered a blocked word on Google, she would paint a strip of White Out on the dictionary’s page, effectively erasing it from the general Chinese vernacular.

Paging through 1,800-page dictionary shows lines of redactions, including the obvious words that relate to religion, government, and activism. The resulting piece, Blind Spot, lives as a physical book, and is a powerful exploration of privilege and limitations on the web. The piece looks like a typical work you might see in a museum in some ways, Connor says. But the process the book represents wouldn’t have been possible without a computer and networks.

Shu Lea Cheang: “Garlic=Rich Air,” 2002–2003

In 2002, the artist Shu Lea Cheang created a browser-based game that explored a funny idea: What if garlic was the only currency of worth in the world? The game was set in the year 2030, a post-apocalyptic time when the value of established currency had been demolished. Players would trade URL and online information for bulbs of garlic, or “G.” 

The digital experience was just one component of Cheang’s piece. At the same time, Cheang and her friends grew 10,000 bulbs of actual garlic in Upstate New York that online players could then cash in their “G” for.

Though the speculative game had a hint of humor, the ideas behind the work were prescient, says Connor. For starters, it blurred the lines between traditional” net art and performance art. But it was also a forward-thinking satire of what’s so commonplace today. She saw how the internet would usher in this experimental forms of currency,” he says.

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