The Internet has been
around for over ten years and it is already developing a detailed history.
Or perhaps histories (pluralities) might be a better way of contextualizing
the legitimating process that historiography attempts to accomplish.
Contributing to this conundrum is Internet Art by Rachel Greene.
The book is ambitious as it tackles the complex web of activities
in internet art from its early days to the beginning of our new
that is not easy to accomplish in under 225 pages, most of which consists
of images. Yet, Greene develops a cohesive narrative of the multifaceted
online activities that have come to be labeled as “internet art.”
The book is divided into an introduction and four chapters. It begins
with a brief history of computer technology and its relation to preceding
art practices, moving through early internet art including specific
forms such as e-mail art, browser art and hypertext, tactical
and games, networks, criticism of e-commerce and collaborations to
name just a few of the many categories.
Greene takes a chronological approach
introduction and the first chapter, then moves on to focus on specific
thematics and writes about works that were made in 1995 in direct
juxtaposition with others done in later years. Greene contextualizes internet art as an extension of art practices
that are now part of the mainstream artworld. Artists like Allan
June Paik, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Tony Oursler, Cindy Sherman, and Valle
Export among many others are cited as predecessors of internet art,
in technological terms, but rather in ideological explorations of
communication in art practice. The already well-known
early net artists
like Vuk Cosic Heath Bunting, Olia Lialina, Jodi.org, Alexei Shulgin
are mentioned along with others like Clover Cleary, Annie Abrahams,
Deck who can be considered part of a second online generation.
Greene is quite aware
of the problematics in writing a history book and is quick to make
her disclaimer in the very first pages, when she explains that due
to limited space, she is not able to include several of the works she
is interested in and that therefore she offers an extensive list of
resources in the appendix. Greene sees Internet Art functioning as "one
of those early portals, offering paths for readers wishing to explore
the fields and histories of contemporary art and media." (7)
And playing the role of a portal the book does very well. Those who have already read the
book and were part of online communities during the early days of the
net as well as today would agree.
But the book does have a specific position worth deconstructing.
To begin, it imposes a post-conceptual narrative on many of the
as Greene states, "I relate the ways in which internet art is indebted
to conceptual art through its emphasis on audience interaction, transfer
of information and use of networks, simultaneously by passing the autonomous
status traditionally ascribed to art objects." (10) This can mean
one of two things, either that all the artists who make internet art
have an implicit relation to conceptual art or that only those artists
who have such connection are included in the book. The problem behind
this statement goes further if we consider the possibility that some
of the artists included in the book may not actually have any relation
to conceptual art; this would mean that an ideological imposition is
at work. In any case, Greene admits to writing a specific
type of history. This maneuver makes the assimilation of internet art
by the mainstream artworld easier by generalizing its complex position
(which Greene is careful to acknowledge in the introduction) to create
a direct connection to the art cannon in a way that the rest of the artworld
is able to understand.
approach exposes a particular contention at play in historiography today,
which is to create a historical narrative knowing that it is not expected
to be part of a "total history" or a "general history" but
simply "a history"—her history, her own little narrative.
And because of this Greene should not be criticized for taking license
in focusing on her interest. But what her position does expose is the
limitation of what she considers to be the extension of a conceptual
art practice, as she fails to include many artists in various parts of
the world who were also active online since at least the mid-nineties.
It seems impossible for many artists across the globe to be unaware of
conceptual practices; that is if we are willing to take Greene’s
assertion at face value and claim that she is focusing on those artists
who are specifically extending conceptual art practice on to the net.
Artists from Asia, Africa, Australia and Latin America who do share a conceptual
online art practice are simply excluded; organizations such as Sarai
and Latin American Net Art are instead included as resources in the appendix
page. This would not be a problem if Greene contextualized her approach
more specifically and explained that her focus is mainly on those artists
who are part of the North American and European discourse, in which
artists like Yong Hae Chang from Korea have been included when they are able
to make strong enough connections through ongoing exhibitions in the
Eurocentric network. But instead her failure to do this simple clarification
turns her history into yet another Western imposition on the rest of
This ties to the most problematic aspect of the book. While Greene
connects her history of net art to Dada, Fluxus and happenings,
she fails to specifically
define conceptualism. If she had done this, she may have realized that
she was referring to a very specific narrative, and not an art practice
that implicitly spans across the globe. For Greene to assume that the
reader knows what she is referring to when she uses the term "conceptual" as
the "bypassing [of] the autonomous status traditionally ascribed
to art objects" is not enough. Just as she took the time to briefly
explain the history of the computer, so she also had to take the time to
explain the history of conceptual art practice so that the reader understands
her ideological and cartographical position.
Regardless of all this, one could claim that it is impossible to
cover everything is a book that would usually be dismissed as
a laundry list
by many critics. Instead, I am amazed by Greene’s ability to cover
so much ground with the strict criteria imposed by Thames and Hudson on
its writers in a book series that promotes itself for providing lots of
images. The book reads well and does justice to those artists who are included
in it. And because of this, the reader becomes even more aware that the oversight
of the ideological subtleties I have mentioned cannot be blamed on the
limit of space.
Regardless of my criticism, I do think the book is important in the
necessary historicizing of net art. I admire Rachel Greene for taking
on the challenging
task of writing a version of an extremely complex online activity.
And I do recommend Internet Art to anyone who is unfamiliar with
history. It is now up to those who follow after Greene to look out
problematics and to do their best to keep them at bay.
Link to book and publisher's site.