BOOK.REVIEW: Internet Art by Rachel Greene

BY: Eduardo Navas

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 century, something 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 media, databases and games, networks, criticism of e-commerce and collaborations to name just a few of the many categories.

Greene takes a chronological approach throughout the introduction and the first chapter, then moves on to focus on specific strategies or 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 Kaprow, Nam June Paik, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Tony Oursler, Cindy Sherman, and Valle Export among many others are cited as predecessors of internet art, not necessarily 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, and Andy 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 works discussed, 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.

Greene’s 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 the world.

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 net art history. It is now up to those who follow after Greene to look out for ideological problematics and to do their best to keep them at bay.



Link to book and publisher's site.

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