Thursday, May 24, 2007

'Discuss the limits of net art as socio-political or cultural critique with reference to the work of specific artists or works'


As a relatively new phenomenon (the term ‘net art’ first emerged in 1995 (Galloway 1999: 208), net art essentially aims to draw public attention to the functional failings of the internet. Net artists encourage the spectator to critically look at technology, and in the process create a strong socio-political and cultural commentary (White 2006). However, there are inherent limitations on net art creating such a critique. Net art can be difficult to identify and locate given that is it largely expressed in error messages and disfunctionality. On the other hand, over use of the net art aesthetic has made it so familiar to users that they cease to see net art as a political and cultural commentary, but more as a style of art (White 2006). Issues with spectatorship also arise, as audiences are largely left to their own devices in deciphering the meaning behind net art. The authority of net art can also limit its usefulness should society hold a restrained confidence in the feasibility of any given works. Finally, the increasing comodification of intellectual property by corporations can also limit the critical value of net art insofar as it remains impartial to commercial pressures.

Aesthetics: recognizing net art

The aesthetic of net art is blurred and inconsistent between forms, with an overarching theme of failure pervading net art works such as Jodi’s ‘%20 Wrong’ (White 2006).

Due to this, and the unfamiliarity of the medium to most users, some spectators have trouble distinguishing between net art and other internet failures. For instance, the opening page of Jodi’s ‘%20 Wrong’ presents users with a familiar 404 error message, and no clear hypertext link to the following page (Heemskerk, Paesmans 1995). If users do find the hypertext link, they are repeatedly confronted with more error messages (Stallabrass 2003). When ‘%20 Wrong’ was first created, users failed to recognize it as net art, and emailed complaints and suggestions of how to fix the site to the site’s creators (White 2006). ‘Jodi play[ed] with dysfunction, causing users to wonder whether their machines h[had] stared to play up (Stallabrass 2003: 36). Net art resists the ‘art’ label it becomes increasingly difficult for users to comprehend, culturally locate and understand these works (White 2006). For instance, Net art work sites such as ‘%20Wrong’ and Adaweb (Weill 1995) do not employ the use of the term ‘art’ rendering them even more difficult to recognize. However, the inability of users to identify net art is very much a part of the aesthetic that net artists seek to create and Jodi ‘derives a positive computer aesthetic by examining its negative, its point of collapse,’ (Galloway 1999: 216).


Traditionally, a consistent set of standards are employed for critiquing art, and ‘art’ is generally easy to locate as it is demarcated by society in galleries and museums (White 2006). Net art however, creates an ‘anti-aesthetic’ and spectators often ‘blunder’ into it given their difficulty recognizing it and the fluid nature of net art forms (White 2006). The web is ‘a space in which the distinction between art and not art becomes harder and harder to see’ (Galloway 1999: 217). However, this confusion is often intended and actively created by the producer of the medium (White 2006). Net art’s ‘ability to aesthetically render the abstract space of protocological networks into visible ‘disturbance’ is precisely its value as both political tool and a work of art’ (Galloway 1999: 214). Thus the inability of users to successfully identify net art may not be a limitation at all, but rather evidence that net art is fulfilling its desired purpose and perpetuating the socio-political and cultural point it was intended to create by its author. Net art essentially disturbs the familiar position of art to the spectator, an aesthetic that could essentially limit the critical usefulness of net art or that could expand it given the reaction of users, so that its ultimate weakness becomes its greatest strength.
Further, due to the perceived death of the author in recent times, ‘digital artists find themselves stripped of the ethos around which most previous artistic communities were founded’ (Lunenfeld 2000: 4). In relation to net art, this means that such art forms are even more difficult to recognize as authorship is not consistent between works- nor is it celebrated and publicized. This is largely by virtue of the physical nature of web sites, whereby authorship is rarely declared and due to the collaborative nature of net art, and the sometimes difficulty in identifying the finished work (Stallabrass 2003). This could limit the authority of such work (discussed further below) as net art authors do not build solid reputations as their work is more prominent than they are. However it may also lend itself to a greater promotion of freedom of speech as the work outshines the author who is second to the message being conveyed.

Problems with spectatorship

As discussed above, the spectator is unapologetically and intentionally displaced and alienated by net art (White 2006). For net artists, ‘there is no interest in achieving a more readable and coherent work’ (White 2006: 101), and the spectator misunderstands what is going on onscreen because they cannot comprehend why a site would be written to malfunction. This is evidenced by the confusion surrounding ‘%20 Wrong,’ (Heemskerk, Paesmans 1995) discussed above. Some spectators perpetuate this confusion by evincing an unwillingness to give up the programming logic they are familiar with, essentially exacerbating their alienation and isolation from net art (White 2006). This power of alienation is at once limiting to net art but at the same time forms the basis of the cultural critique artists seek to engage. For instance, the immersion of spectators into net art juxtaposes and highlights the delicate balance between eroticism and agitation (White 2006). Users become engaged with net art by virtue of its mystery. By clicking on hypertext and exploring net arts sites, their curiosity is spurred as much by voyeuristic desire as it is by frustration and need to control and fix. This duplicitous transfixion is thus as cultural commentary in itself. Despite this, ‘the poignancy and pain of interacting with net art works eventually dissipate as the spectator grows acclimated to sites and discovers the highly constructed aspects of the failures… [and] there is no way to recapture the initial flashes of blindness and confusion that occur when first viewing and image’ (White 2006: 112). Thus, as the spectator becomes familiar with the work the message diminishes, limiting net art considerably. On the other hand, the vastness of the web and the originality of works mean that the spectator is constantly being faced with new challenges.

The authority of net art

‘If the web is a surface on which artists can draw, and if these drawings are sometimes unofficial, subversive or scatological. A link can be made with net art and graffiti’ (Stallabrass 2003: 87). Due to the aesthetic of failure that is pivotal to net art, sites can be seen as mere glitches or annoyances, their value diminished by the frustration of users. Given the ‘curious collection of bathroom-wall scrawl’ (Galloway 1999: 217) that is characteristic of many net art sits like ‘%20Wrong’, this graffiti-like presence is magnified.

Moreover, given the ease of reproducing and copying web pages means that net art can be mechanically replicated and proliferated causing it to be so common and mutable that it decreases again in authority (White 2006). ‘The presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity…Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be’ (Benjamin 1936). Thus the ability of net art to critique politics and culture is limited largely by technology which influences the receptiveness of audience to information.

Further transfer of net art to CD and DVD can irreparably alter the work itself, destroying the relationship of net art to the very ‘structures that many of these works are commenting on and quoting’ (White 2006: 112). However, ‘the dematerialization of data offers great opportunities to artists’ (Stallabrass 2003: 33) as the form is free to distribute and can be changed or manipulated at any time. This means that artists have a large creative license, and due to the digital form of the media available to them, almost anything is possible to produce. Pursuant to the ease of reproduction is the trend in faking web sites, ‘[creating] a moment when users questions their knowledge of what they are looking at, doubting its authenticity and whether its authenticity really matters’ (Stallabrass 2003: 91). This technique of critique in net art is dangerous erases the context of the art work and essentially limits the content of work, in turn creating confusion ultimately resulting in a loss of authority (Stallabrass 2003). Web sites such as (a fake WTO website) and (a fake George bush website) mirror and parody existing websites to convey a political message. The reproduced web pages aim to create confusion; however they may ultimately create doubt about a given political message as user become more suspicious of material, questioning what is real and what is serious.

WTO spoof site ''

The real WTO website

Finally, the repetitive nature of net art, while it can be ‘used to unravel dominant cultural beliefs’ (White 2006: 112) limits the usefulness of net art as a socio-political and cultural critique insofar as the repetition may become an institution itself ‘reproduce[ing] traditional categories and forms of power’ (White 2006: 112). Net art repeats itself within individual artworks, and also between different artworks, as a definable form is beginning to emerge. For instance, the repetitions of ‘%20Wrong’ ‘have become a stylistic convention rather than encouraging further interrogation of programming and technology’ (White 2006: 112). Constant repetition of net art styles and themes thus erodes the authority of such work as a social commentary. On the other hand, such repetition means that the message behind net art is growing in popularity and beginning to form into a cohesive set of ideals. Essentially this means that net art is not only a critique of modern cultures, but that is it becoming a cultural movement in and of itself.

Comodification of net art

‘To some extent net art is only viable within the particular network in which it is situated’ (White 2006: 92). Net art thus ceases to convey its message once it becomes a commercial commodity. For instance, boasts that it is the first distributor and gallery of net art. Further, Hollywood is cashing in on the insurgence of net art into the web, as movies such as Requiem for a Dream have commissioned artists to create websites in the style of net art. This comodification of net art distorts the initial message of net art and limits it insofar as net art that is traded is at direct odds with the institutions it initially sought to critique.

Requiem for a Dream

Further, the increasing threat of litigation over intellectual property threatens to limit net art and its ability to critique society. The recent dispute between (a children’s toy distributor) and (a net art collective) is an example of this animosity. In order to protect their ‘artistic integrity’ refused to settle, and fought for the right to maintain their domain (Stallabrass 2003: 96). In this case, turned the law suit into a continuation of the art, creating spoof websites and making a mockery of their aggressor, using net art as a ‘tool of political protest [as well as] a work of art’ (Stallabrass 2003: 99). was eventually successful, as sales dipped due to’s campaign. This evidenced a widespread desire for ‘cultural freedom’ (Stallabrass 2003: 101), and suggests that attempts to comodify net art may work in favour of the artists desired message. However, this case was one of an established and large collective of artists working and fighting together. The threat of commercialization of net art may still threaten smaller and less established artists who don’t have the means to fight back as vehemently at


Net art is a valuable source of socio-political and cultural critique. Despite it initial anomalous entry to the web; it seems that net art has in fact become a form of art that is collectively recognized. However, this is not a restrictive a limit as it may seen. As a form, net art can be studied and critiqued, which is important for all mediums that provide a social narrative. Net art is still new enough that it is surprising and confronting to those who stumble upon it on the web, and continues to make a poignant social and political commentary, while challenging and enticing the spectator. The beauty of net art is its inherent contradictions and the fact that its limitations can in turn be its greatest strengths. For instance, the message is delivered as the limitation: a website that is difficult to recognize as net art is successfully challenging traditional notions of what art is and so forth. Net art also places a greater responsibility on the spectator to interact and try to understand the work before them, encouraging the active rather than the passive consumer. It also asks the consumer to realize that free speech does not need authority and that anyone should be able to critique what they believe to be society’s failings. Attempts to comodify net art may threaten the usefulness of such a medium, however for those artists who are passionate about the message they are sending, the menace of litigation can be successfully use to further the message of the art.


Bookchin, N. A Story of Net Art (Open Source). Accessed Monday 21st May 2007 from

Drukrey, T and Weibel, P., ed. (2001). Net_Condition: Art and Global Media. Cambridge: MIT Press

Etoy (1995). Etoy. Accessed Monday 21st May 2007 from

Galloway, A. (1999). Protocol: How control Exists After Decentralisation. Cambridge: MIT Press

Heemskerk, J. and Paesmans, D. (1995). %20Wrong. Accessed Monday 21st May 2007 from

Lunenfeld, P. (2000). Snap to Grid: A User’s Guide to Digital Arts, Media, and Cultures. Cambridge: MIT Press

Requiem for a Dream (2000). Accessed Monday 21st May from

Stallabrass, J. (2003). Internet Art: The online Clash of Culture and Commerce. London: Tate Publishing

Weill (1995). Adaweb. Accessed Monday 21st May 2007 from

White M (2006). The Body and the Screen: Theories of Internet Spectatorship. Cambridge; London: MIT Press

Benjamin, W. (1936). The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Los Angeles: UCLA School of Theatre, Film and Telvision

No comments: