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The Frustrating way the Art World deals with Digital Art

I remember visiting Upstream Gallery in Amsterdam at the end of February 2017 for an exhibition featuring works by the Dutch Net artist Jan Robert Leegte. In the show named Sculpting the Internet, Leegte’s depicted his interest in conceptualizing and utilizing various online resources and programs as raw digital materials. The internet is both his canvas and his workshop. In the exhibition, however, I was disappointed by the amount of actual digital works on display, or better put, the lack thereof. In the middle of one of the rooms stood Leegte’s work Google Maps as a Sculpture, more specifically the 2017 one and not the 2013 original. Google Maps as a Sculpture from 2013 is a website in which users see a digital 3d cube rotating. Each side of the cube however works as surface on which Google Maps can be used. This makes the website an interactive work where the user can play around in Google Maps zooming in/out etc. as long as that side of the cube is in view. The 2017 version of the work on display however, was a physical cube with on each side a random screenshot of the earth looked upon through Google Maps. The original work was completely stripped of its direct connection to the internet, it’s interactive element, it’s raw digital material, it’s virtual existence. Only the conceptual aspect of 2013 work really lived on in the 2017 version, arguably part of it’s visual aesthetics as well which was translated into the IRL world.

Why does a Digital artwork or a Net artwork require a transformation into a physical Post-Internet copy before it can be placed in a gallery space and be considered viable as a piece of art? To be of value? What is it with the art world that they need a unique, authentic, one of a kind (or at least one of a selected series) physical object before a work can have a value? Or can we even still call the 2017 artwork of Robert Jan Leegte Net art? Within the young history of Net art and the academic writings about it, much is still in discussion. Different authors defend the use of either Internet art, Net art or as the preferred term for whatever “Net art” is [1]. Its direct connection with the internet is also not necessary according to certain theoretics. Personally I agree with Tilman Baumgärtel’s definition of Net art:

“Art that deals with the genuine characteristics of the Internet and that can only happen through and with the Internet.” [2]

I fit is essential for a Net art artwork to be connected to the internet, if it’s a vital part of its functioning, of its very existence, then Leegte’s 2017 work can not be considered Net art. In a way it feels more like a picture taken of a painting and then being presented as an artwork in its own right, which it can very well be. But still, it feels a bit unfair, like we’re not giving the original enough credit, enough of a chance. But that’s the entire issue when talking about the place in the art world for Digital and, especially, Net art. Like Baumgärtel, Rachel Greene is another pioneer in researching and writing about the history and development of Net art. Greene was actually the first to publish about Net art outside of the internet following the success of an article she wrote for Artforum in 2000. Already back in 2000 she addresses the issue of using images of webpage artworks as illustrations in her article for Artforum as follows:

“Whatever images of projects grace these pages, beware that, seen out of their native HTML, out of their networked, social habitats, they are the equivalent animals in zoos.” [3]

Even though we’re eighteen years further along, which is centuries in the history of the internet, this comparison, this little warning, is still as relevant as it was back in 2000. Offline copies of artworks meant to function online, interactive pieces now non responding, physical clones stripped of their digital origin, they just don’t cut it. How can it be true that in the roughly 25 years of existence of Net art and Digital art, we are still struggling to value and appreciate these artworks and art practices in their natural habitat. Unlike the year 2000 we now should have the tools and knowledge to create new curatorial practices and new platforms to properly give online, digital artworks the place they deserve. If not, Net art will stay in the realm of online culture too often and miss out on a lot of audience. Net artist may keep on feeling like they also have to make physical works to both get recognition and get paid. And to be honest, that’s just a shame.

[1] The origin of the specific term “”, written in small letters with a dot in between, is more of an accident than specifically chosen. The story goes that comes from a fragmented email sent by Net art pioneer Vuk Cosic in 1995. Somewhere within the dissorted aray of numbers, letters and signs the term stood out and has since been used within the Net art communities.

[2] The quote chosen here actually is a more compact English translating from the German original (Baumgärtel, 2.0, 2001) by Josephine Bosma in Nettitudes: Let’s Talk Net Art, 2011. p. 28.

[3] Greene, Rachel, ‘Web Work: A History of Internet Art,’ Artforum 38, 2000 pp. 162

Written by: Stein van der Ziel


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