The recent past is a foreign country | Rhizome and the long lost story of net art
In the early 1990s, when the World Wide Web was in its infancy, artists began to explore the internet’s potential as a new medium.
The result was net art: art that relies upon or engages with digital technologies and networks and the set of cultural practices that surround them. The possibilities offered to artists by the web appeared to be endless. “[It] was an entirely new world,” says Brooklyn-based artist Cory Arcangel. The early incarnations of net art tended to appear amateurish and pixelated, but were often possessed with an avant-garde, punk spirit. Mark Tribe and Reena Jana, authors of New Media Art, go as far to argue its case as “the final avant garde.”
But the story of net art is surprisingly little-known. For an art phenomenon that grew up in the nineties, the relative obscurity of many of its most significant artworks, and the difficulty involved in accessing them, is puzzling. On occasion, the disappearance of a key artwork can be as simple as the host site deciding to delete it, as in the case of net artist Petra Cortright’s 2007 video VVEBCAM,which was removed by Youtube because it used an array of tags that did not correspond to the content of the video. The context in which the work existed and which fed into it — the comments, the rising view count, etc. — were lost forever. These problems of legacy are a principal concern for the New-York based nonprofit Rhizome — an organization dedicated to the preservation of digital art — as highlighted by their new online exhibition: Net Art Anthology.
Over the course of the next two years, Net Art Anthology will retell the history of net art from its beginnings to the present day by restaging and contextualizing a different artwork each week, which will be accompanied by an essay published on Rhizome’s main website. The exhibition seeks to combat what Rhizome’s creative director Michael Connor considers to be the lack of historical understanding that surrounds net art. “I see so many of the digital art practices that are happening today being treated as if they’re entirely new,” says Connor. “In fact, they have this history. This isn’t to say that they’re not novel or innovative, but simply that they are in dialogue with a historical narrative — one that we are not necessarily able to access, because these histories tend to be preserved and narrated so poorly.”
The history of Rhizome stretches back almost as far as that of net art itself. It was founded in Germany in 1996 by the American artist Mark Tribe, then living and working in Berlin. Tribe wanted to find a way of facilitating idea sharing between artists outside of the traditional contexts of museums, galleries and symposia. Motivated by the hope of creating a more egalitarian art world, Tribe set up Rhizome as an email list that he hoped could develop into, in his words, “a grassroots network that would flip the logic of Artforum on its head.” Though various similar projects already existed, these would not have the sticking power of Rhizome — which the organization owes largely to the creation of its ArtBase archive in 1999.
As Tribe notes, the function of ArtBase — which until 2008 accepted open submissions for consideration — has changed over the years: “In the early years of ArtBase we were looking more at which submissions could be classified as net art, whereas now ArtBase and the Net Art Anthology exhibition take on more selective role, aiming to create a kind of canon of net art.” This move towards a more curatorial approach has been shaped by Rhizome’s partnership with the New Museum, which began in 2003. “The partnership gave us that sense of institutional longevity that the project of maintaining an archive requires,” says Connor.
Petra Cortright, VVEBCAM (still), 2007.
Eduardo Kac, Reabracadabra (still from a video reconstruction by Warren Cockerham), 1985
VNS Matrix poster, mid 1990s.
Olia Lialina, My Boyfriend Came Back from the War, 1996