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Alex Galloway, director of Content & Technology at Rhizome.org talks to Peter Schauer about the state of internet art

Keeping net art live

Rhizome.org is the first place to go to explore net art. Founded in 1996, the site is the best alternative to a museum for web art available on the internet.

PS: What is Rhizome’s purpose?

Alex Galloway: Rhizome is a do-it-yourself art venue for digital artists and others who are interested in using the internet in new creative ways. Our mission is to present new media art to the public, to foster communication and critical dialogue about new media art, and to preserve new media art for the future.

PS: How many artists are you currently dealing with?

AG: The volume is high. We receive 10 to 20 e-mails every day and several art submissions to the Rhizome ArtBase, our on-line archive of internet art. Last December we had over 4 million hits on our website. We have the largest, oldest collection of documents and works of art in the field of new media art.

PS: What do you see as the most important trends in net art?

AG: The most general trend I see is toward software. The stakes are higher now. Artists are feeling the need to do something more sophisticated than simple HTML. They are making (or simply using) more sophisticated software in their work. This trend started with “Webstalker” which is an artist-made internet browser, but is also evident in current work such as Ade Ward's “Auto-Illustrator”, a generative software application based on the Photoshop interface (http://www.auto-illustrator.com/), or even Entropy8zuper’s new work “Eden.Garden 1.0” (see p.37) which uses a 3-D virtual reality engine to render an imaginary space filled with plants, animals and other objects.

PS: Who is making this work? Are they artists from “traditional” backgrounds or are they designers, or someone in between? Many of the people I have talked to reject the label of “art” for their work.

AG: The new media art community has always been sceptical of the traditional art world. A lot of [traditional artists] don’t seem to “get” it. When they do, great things happen, but when they do not, it is a disaster. If any of the artists come from traditional art backgrounds, you can’t tell, because they have had to transform themselves into programmers, graphic designers, etc. New media artists are much more like producers than artists-as-geniuses. I like that.

PS: To go beyond net art into areas such as virtual reality or bio-engineering, for example, will require access by artists to some pretty advanced technology. How will artists work in these fields and how will they do it without specialist training?

AG: Biotech has become a new battleground for art making. Artists like Eduardo Kac and Natalie Jeremijenko are working in this area. But I do not think it will ever be as important to artists as computer technologies are, simply due to the accessibility factor. Anyone with half a brain and a buck or two can make interesting web art. Bio-engineering living tissue is another story. I still put my money on the opensource/Linux revolution [which allows users to design their own software] because it brings formerly prohibitively expensive technologies into the hands of the public.

PS: Rhizome looks like a hub to facilitate communication between artists and users—is this not the role of the museum? What should museums and the public sector be doing to encourage and promote this new expression?

AG: Rhizome is a communication machine, nothing more, nothing less. Traditionally museums have been the opposite of this. They have been machines for the elimination of communication. They facilitate the curator’s voice, yes, and the so-called artist’s voice, yes, and the “monumental” voice that all large institutions have. But not the voice of real inter-personal communication. Real communication is horizontal, or peer-to-peer. It is Rhizome’s role to help with this.

PS: Can new media, for example, web-based art be sold?

AG: Anything can be sold. That much is clear. There are many examples already of new media art being bought and sold. For example, John Simon sells personalised editions of this java applet “Every Icon”. (see http://rhizome.org/object.rhiz?1722) Major museums have commissioned internet work by artists. I think this is mostly a personal choice that each artist makes.

What is great about new media is that the cost of producing art is so much lower that it becomes increasingly possible for artists to avoid the commercial world, if they choose to do so. For example, Jodi.org, perhaps the most well known and respected internet artists in the world, are rabidly anti-commercial. I can’t think of another artistic medium where this is the case.

PS: How should we preserve net art for the future? Jodi.org changes all the time. Who is saving the changes?

AG: The internet is very much like life itself. It is incredibly dynamic. Art has always been much more like an inanimate object. Hence the problem with internet art. I think the answer lies in what Jon Ippolito calls “variable media.” Variable media are archival techniques that allow works or art to be translated into future contexts. The artist’s intent is catalogued in detail so that his/her intentions are known for posterity. Then, future curators or collectors know how the work should be maintained or preserved. The variable media initiative is in place in the Rhizome ArtBase (rhizome.org/artbase), our on-line archive of internet art. We have a detailed questionnaire that each artist fills out, stating whether they want their work to be displayed on emulators in the future, or whether they grant us permission to make derivative documentation of the work, or whether they grant us permission to take their work out of obsolete formats, and so on.

PS: How should net art be exhibited? Galleries with clusters of computers are particularly unsatisfying; is there a better way?

AG: Internet art should be viewed on the internet. It is that simple. If museums want to give the public access to computers and couches and a T1 connection, then great.

But, at the end of the day, internet art is about surfing the web, at the office, at home, at the cybercafé, wherever. The reason why museum exhibitions are unsatisfying is because the internet is “supposed” to exist in that private, personal space that is your computer. I do not read my e-mail in a museum, I do not look at porn in a museum, and I would prefer not to view my net art there either.

On the other hand, museums can be excellent spaces for other types of new media art. For example, Char Davies’s work with virtual reality or Nam June Paik’s sculptures and installations translate very well to the museum context.

PS: Computer games are starting to look better than most new media art. Are games the new arena for cultural expression and interaction?

AG: Games are an exciting format for artmaking. Several artists have started working in this area. Jodi created a net art game called “SOD” that uses the Castle Wolfenstein virtual reality engine. But my all time favourite is the role-playing game “Toywar” (http://www.toywar.com/) created in the winter of 1999 by the infamous pseudo-corporate art group etoy (see p.37). This game allowed hundreds of players from around the world to interact in a web-based virtual space.

Even better than the real thing

Games in art are nothing new, but art in games is something only recent developments in consumer technology have been able to deliver. “Quake 3”, is the third release from ID software in their hugely popular “Quake” series, which convincingly introduced the idea that computer games for your desktop can be designed in three dimensions, with sound and graphics, and with a first person view that gives a real sense of being in the game, not just playing it.

The key feature of “Quake 3” is its graphic realism, which means that the human body has been modelled as a moving, living organism. As affordable processor speeds go up, designers are free to approximate less and less, and it will not be long before we are able to capture digitally all the movements of the human body. Although the art of reproducing the human form in realistic motion is a tradition which goes back to the marble statues of the Greeks, today sculpting is no longer done in clay or stone, but in code, and the most advanced work is being scripted by computer game designers. Indeed, internet artists often use technologies pioneered by game creators. When the MIRALab at the Université de Genève completes the first fully accurate computer model of the human body in motion, ID will be among the first to use it.

“Quake 3”, like most new games on the market, is specifically designed to connect people over the internet, through dedicated servers which allow several people to compete within the same virtual space. The user is no longer playing against the software’s pre-programmed routines, but can instead compete with others around the world as each player tries to achieve the game’s objective: kill all the opposition.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Keeping net art live'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 113 April 2001