On the latest episode of Recode Decode, Rhizome artistic director Michael Connor joined Recode’s Kara Swisher in studio to talk about the group’s exhibit at the New Museum, “The Art Happens Here,” and the future of art made on the internet — which Rhizome calls “net art.”
“It’s not a passive object on a shelf,” Connor said. “It’s something that happens in encounters between people and machines. What we find is that over time and in our culture, it’s devalued so people don’t recognize its value and they’re not putting the resources into sustaining it.”
Rhizome, a digital art community founded in 1996, has in some cases decided to preserve more than just the art itself. It has used special software called emulators to recreate the experience of using an obsolete operating system or web browser, to present the works in its archive in the ideal way.
“What we’re doing when we use emulation is not preserving the artwork, necessarily,” he said. “We’re preserving the software that made it run. So the real problem isn’t keeping ahold of the work but it’s keeping ahold of all the cultural and technical context that surrounds it, which is different than preservation in a traditional museum context.”
You can listen to Recode Decode wherever you get your podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts, and Overcast.
Below, we’ve shared a lightly edited full transcript of Kara’s conversation with Michael.
Kara Swisher: Hi, I’m Kara Swisher, editor-at-large of Recode. You may know me as the curator of the museum dedicated to Chrissy Teigen’s Instagram posts, but in my spare time I talk tech and you’re listening to Recode Decode from the Vox Media Podcast Network.
Today in the red chair is Michael Connor, the artistic director of Rhizome, a digital art community affiliated with the New Museum in New York City, where I am right now. Rhizome is currently running an exhibit, a fascinating exhibit at the museum highlighting the history of art made on the internet. It’s called “The Art Happens Here.” “Click Here,” apparently. That’s on your book, which is really wonderful. They have wonderful a book affiliated with it. Michael, welcome to Recode Decode.
Michael Connor: It’s great to be here.
I’m so excited about this because there’s a couple in there I do recall, the Dollie clone, I recall that and some others. I’ve been around since the beginning of the internet. I covered it very early and art was something I hadn’t thought of, although it occurred on it all the time. There’s memes and there’s creativity and all kinds of things. I’d love to get an idea of how this came together. Then I want to talk about the actual individual pieces and there’s some you want to focus in on. Let’s talk about how it came together.
Sure. I think that story is sort of inextricable from the story of Rhizome itself, which is an organization that was founded in 1996, pretty early in the life cycle of the public internet. It came together as an online community to bring people together, to share information and talk about this, this new kind of communications platform and how it could be used artistically. Very quickly after that it evolved into a conversation about how works that were made through that new platform could be sustained over time. In 1999 Rhizome began an archive of digital art called the Art Base.
All right, talk about that, because things go away on the internet. There’s been the Internet Archive to save websites and things that happen. You can find old Yahoos, old Googles, the original things, but the internet by its nature, even though there’s that famous line in the movie about Facebook, “the internet’s written in pen, not pencil,” it does go away. It has the ephemerality that is very different. In art, that’s the case.
I actually don’t like to use the word “ephemerality” about the internet because I think that the internet kind of doesn’t have to go away.
There is something that’s performative about the internet. That’s one of the reasons why we call our exhibition “The Art Happens Here” because the art is happening. It’s not a passive object on a shelf. It’s something that happens in encounters between people and machines. What we find is that over time and in our culture, it’s devalued so people don’t recognize its value and they’re not putting the resources into sustaining it.
Absolutely. Absolutely. That’s a good point.
Also companies don’t consider the kind of downside of obsolescence as they push forward for always having a new platform and new thing and so there is a kind of cultural aspect to the way that internet art kind of doesn’t last.
You had been collecting and preserving it because ... What was the idea, that it should be collected and preserved like other works of art?
Rhizome is really an organization that focuses on a very contemporary form of culture, but we do that with the knowledge that there’s a conversation that people can draw on from the past. We’re always trying to support younger artists and emerging works and new kinds of practices, not even recognize this art yet. In doing so we want people to know there’s this whole history that you can draw on and bring forward as a resource for the present.
This exhibition is an opportunity to bring together different positions from the history of internet art and to present them in ways that show how they are relevant to this moment in time as well.
Right, which is, any exhibition wants to do that. You were preserving these over time and with what in mind? Were they presented somewhere? Or they were in this archive?
The question of how to preserve the internet is a really complicated and interesting one. I think Rhizome has a particular take on that conversation where we, we’re sort of interested in the idea of internet art being re-performed and thinking about how this very active format can be treated in a way that doesn’t fix it necessarily in a given position, but instead allows it to live.
There’s a couple of different technical strategies that we’ve developed in particular that we’ve found to be really suitable to our preservation strategy. One of them is emulation. Our preservation director Dragan Espenschied is a key advocate of emulation as a way of bringing works from the past into the present. One of the interesting things about emulation, which is using a piece of software to imitate another piece of software, is that what we’re doing when we use emulation is not preserving the artwork, necessarily. We’re preserving the software that made it run. So the real problem isn’t keeping ahold of the work but it’s keeping ahold of all the cultural and technical context that surrounds it, which is different than preservation in a museum traditional context.
Well it’s interesting you say that because I was at the Smithsonian 10 years ago and they had all these computers they had to save because they were trying to save them for posterity, all the various computers and devices. One of the problems is ... two problems actually. One is they were missing some of the software to be able to use it and the degrading of that software. Then secondly, the people who knew how to use it. They would have to find really old people to work some of the very early technologies, and if not, they were just blocks of bricks. They were like bricks that didn’t do anything. It was really interesting.
They brought me in there, “What do we do?” I was like, “I don’t know. Something.” It was a really interesting question. I guess go to the companies and hope that they could preserve them.
Yeah, and keeping ahold of that knowledge is an important part of what we do. We actually have a software curator, Lyndsey J. Moulds. She’s not a dinosaur of the internet. She’s someone instead who researches these ...
Yeah. One of her key projects is to look at browsers of the past and research and understand their different affordances, what they were capable of presenting and what they weren’t. There’s a lot of really practical ways that comes into play. I can show you one now if you want to do that.
Sure, sure. Yeah.
One of the works in the gallery exhibition at the New Museum ... They’re not all browser-based but one of the ones that is called “Skin on Skin on Skin” by a group called Entropy8Zuper.
This is from ‘99. It’s actually just turned 20 years old a couple of weeks ago. It’s a good post-Valentine’s Day work because it’s actually a series of 25 internet-based love letters that they sent back and forth, multimedia love letters. They did it after meeting online on Hell.com, which you may ...
Oh, I remember.
Yeah. The work was actually intended to be private, just for them, but other users of Hell, I think they stumbled upon their private directory and then it became public. Then they decided to sell it, so they made it a pay-per-view artwork in the early internet. The work involves all kinds of things, like Shockwave and Flash and sound all these other things, so finding the right browser that ran this work took that kind of knowledge.
Yeah, Steve Jobs ended that, if you remember. He did it at one of our conferences, actually, which is interesting. Let me see this.
In order to make this work accessible on the web today our preservation team lead by Dragan has set up an online emulation environment using a platform that they call emulation as a service with the University of Freiburg.
For those who aren’t looking, Windows 98 just came up.
Yeah, we’re starting Windows 98 in our browser here.
I see Netscape just came up.
Yeah, it just takes a moment to load. What this is doing is really sort of spinning up an instance on the cloud for us to kind of access this work interactively through essentially a live video connection. That’s why, at the beginning, you saw that I was able to choose the location of my server, because having a low lag time is important to the experience of the work. It’s not like a video where you can buffer and have that kind of lag. These are some very high-production-value pieces that they made just for one another as a way of getting to know each other and developing that intimacy. There’s a lot of really rich detail and depth in them.
Here’s a heart.
Here we’re looking Auriea, who is one of the two people sent a picture of herself. You can mouse over it and it animates the picture and you can see her partner underneath. It’s a step — here’s a nice goth image of a beating heart. Yeah. It’s a step beyond Tinder but many years before, I guess.
Yes, yes. It’s was a way of meeting people and impressing people via photos or graphics or things like that.
Yeah, each of these is a composition that they made. I’m also fascinated with the idea that you could take it and sell it as a work, like an epistolary novel of the early internet age.
Right, and so what were you looking for when you were bringing together the show? What was the conceptual ideas? To someone browsing, talk about the different types of things that you were presenting. Browser-based versus ... There was Netscape browsers and there was other ... during that time period that was the dominant browser, actually.
When we were doing the show ... I should explain that this show comes out of an effort called “Net Art Anthology” which is an effort to retell the history of net art through 100 works. In the research of the net art history we’ve seen people try and tell a story in book form, in different ways. We wanted to look at the works themselves and let a story emerge from that, in an almost fragmentary way. We were inspired by the model of Anthology Film Archives here in New York which has a sort of essential cinema list.
I just walked by it yesterday.
Yeah, it’s an incredible resource. They’ve put together this list of films in the ’70s that they consider to define the art of cinema. That project has its own problems, but we thought it was an interesting way to look at net art. We did this work online. You can see at anthology.rhizome.org and you can see the 100 work and all these different stories about them there.
This exhibition brings together 16 of those. We wanted not to make a “best of” or a particular time period but instead to think about what are the problems that come up when you’re thinking historically about net art and digital culture? What are the kinds of questions that we think people should be asking about that? The works are intended to show a diverse range of media forums and positions on the question of archiving.
And this one in particular is interesting in relation to that because it started just as this encounter between people, not something that’s intended to last over time, necessarily. Then it had this other life through its circulation as a project for sale. Then it went away. The artists haven’t seen this work in 20 years almost.
Right. Where was it for them? Was it on their ...
It was, but they didn’t have the kind of emulation in place to access it.
Right, they didn’t. They got rid of that computer, right?
I guess it was 2004 was the last time they’d seen it before we presented it online. It kind of dealt with the question of archives in two ways. One, the idea of public circulation being its own form or archiving by putting it into people’s hands. The other, the sort of institutional question of archiving, how do we resist these forces of technological obsolescence and make things continue to have a life?
Which is an artwork in and of itself as an art theme. Obsolescence, right?
It’s the 16 of these, so the 100 that are in there are the ones that ... they go back. Explain what is in the 100.
Yeah, the 100 works include projects from 1982 to 2016.
What’s ’82? What’s in ’82?
That was Robert Adrian X’s The World in 24 Hours, which is our oldest work. We have also Electronic Café ’84, which is a really nice older project. Both of those works are early networking projects where people were interested in the idea that telecommunications networks were ways of connecting people and having participatory events.
That was a big idea.
It absolutely was. Electronic Café ’84 is in particular really fascinating story.
Explain that then.
That one is from the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and it was five sites. They were connected over sort of early networks that used the community memory bulletin board in order to have people in these local communities make and share images with each other and use some sort of video writer to annotate them and exchange them back and forth. They had a kind of restaurant.
It’s called Instagram, but go ahead.
Basically, yeah. They had spaces set up in Korea Town and in Venice and I think a Mexican restaurant and also somewhere in south central LA, they had these kind of interesting, really, community-based spaces. And they had people making, working with these new tools and sharing it, really anticipating a lot of the things that would later happen but doing it in a way in that was very community-focused.
Right, right, which is really interesting. When you saw these things then it was really something because it just didn’t exist. Now we’re so used to these things and how easily we’ve become used to these tools but at the time these things ... People didn’t share things like this.
I remember downloading a book on the internet at a server at a college. I kept saying, “I’ve downloaded a book.” They were like, “So, and …?” I’m like, “You don’t even understand what that means.” I was quite particular about it. “This is bigger than you understand, this moment in time.” This was an aha moment for me, at least.
The first work, the ’82 work, was a similar thing?
Yeah. That was an effort to connect a number of site worldwide using fax and Slow Scan TV and early internet, but it was only text based in that ...
Everything was back then.
Indeed. The idea was they would link up these different sites and share works and kind of share works back and forth in an ongoing kind of performance. For each hour of the day, there’d be a different venue that would be producing and receiving and displaying. What survives from that is a lot of documentation that shows these very active scenes where people are making drawings and moving around the space and connecting with one another.
I think that what it comes down to is this idea that when the network becomes available to you as a possibility, I think that there’s a lot of questions like, “What can this enable me to do?” For many people, I would argue that one of the first things they want to do is connect with one another. That means really creating culture, I think, through the network.
Absolutely. Did you think about how it had been done previously with other mediums? The first movie that was broadcast, it’s a beautiful film of two men dancing, which is really quite lovely. I don’t know if you know that. It’s a little tiny film that they made. I think it was Edison made it because they had men in the studio and they just were showing movement. It was quite artistic in a way. Did you think about how to talk about different internet art is? Is it net art or internet art, just net art? You used the term net art in your book.
Yeah, I like “net art” because it’s sort of a little more casual and it implies a fuzziness about it that I think is appropriate given the complexity of the internet. “Internet art” makes it seem like it’s something really specific to me, which is not correct. The internet has so many different forms at a time.
How do you define net art? What does that mean to you?
I like to define it as art that happens on or through the internet. The choice of the word comes from the same source as the title of our exhibition, which is an artwork by artist duo called MTA, called Simple Net Art Diagrams. This is the best explanation of net art.
Okay. Go ahead. Go for it.
It’s just a diagram that shows two computers with a line connecting them and there’s a lightning bolt in between them. There’s a little label that says, “The art happens here,” pointing to the space between the computers. MTA made this work because they wanted to tell people that when they’re looking at their net art works they’re not ... that what you see on the screen isn’t the work. It’s the exchange that’s the work. It’s the dialogue that’s happening. It’s not just about the object, but about what’s unfolding through that moment of interaction.
Which you can’t do with a regular piece of art. You just stand in front of it and it doesn’t ... Sometimes you participate with it or something but there’s usually little participation, correct?
Yeah, I think that one of the thing’s that’s important about the project that you were starting to refer to is that there is a longer history of network art that goes beyond the internet. I mean, you could argue that the Lumière brothers actually set up a communications network around the world with their agents that were exchanging these films in five continents within I think the first two years of the cinematograph being invented.
Networking is actually I think a pretty important part of art, but the computer and the computer network makes that more powerful, and a new form of art, or new forms of art, begin to proliferate because of that technology. An artist plus the internet isn’t just an artist on the internet, it’s a different kind of entity.
Let’s talk about the tools that are used in the works that you picked. You picked 16 works out of 100. Browsers obviously the top used tool of art ... because it is the communications vehicle for a lot of things, especially in the early internet.
Well, I think really when it comes to net artists, they’re using every tool that’s connected to the internet. One of the works that ...
Email? Is there a lot of email?
Email, well, one of the works I was gonna mention in relation to tools would be “Blind Spot,“ by Miao Ying, a Chinese artist who, in 2008, Googled every word in the Mandarin dictionary, an 1,800-page dictionary, and she whited out the words that were censored. It was an early stage in that initial moment of Google and China trying to come to a rapprochement, which of course is relevant in the present.
It certainly is. They did and then they didn’t. People don’t realize Google was 26 percent of the Chinese search market for awhile there.
Yeah. It had an important role. What’s fascinating about that work is that you could say that the form of it is a book, but it wouldn’t really have existed without internet access.
Without Google, all these other tools coming into play. All those things are part of the making of that piece and part of the tool set, I would argue.
What about email?
Email, okay, so one of the interesting works that uses email is Mark Tribe, Alex Galloway, and Martin Wattenberg’s “Starry Night,” which is a great project to talk about because it uses Rhizome’s own archive. It’s based on Rhizome’s text base. All the emails that were sent on Rhizome’s listserv in the ’90s were curated into a special selected archive of the best emails that announced events or offered art criticism. The text base was this incredible archive, and Mark and other people at Rhizome were interested in offering new and artistic ways to access it.
“Starry Night” was an artistic interface to the text base that took the form of a starry image. Each star represented an email. When you clicked on that star it would bring up a set of keywords. If you clicked on the keyword “net art,” you could see all of the other emails in the text base were connected by a kind of constellation. You could navigate to all the other emails attached to that keyword.
So it’s a really interesting classic work of ...
A great way to think of email.
Absolutely, of internet aesthetics. I also think email is something that’s so momentary. To go back to it is actually really hard, as we all know in our ...
It is. We just forget about it.
It’s just hard. Yeah. And sometimes maybe wake up in the middle of the night ... this is a different way of going back beyond ...
Yeah. I never wake up in the middle of the night. I don’t answer email anymore, just so you know, Michael.
So don’t send me one. No, I just don’t, I just decided I’m done with it.
It’s probably a good idea. I mean it’s really a horrifying ...
Someone’s like, “Did you get my email?” I’m like, “No, I did not.” And they’re like, “I sent it.” I’m like, “Yeah, I didn’t get it.”
You’re like a hero to me.
I just decided. I get 5,000 emails a day.
I just begin with every email with, “I’m sorry,” it’s just like ... that’s the only ...
There’s a great Nora Ephron essay on this. A hundred years ago she wrote about moving from excitement to email to non-excitement. So other tools, one of them was the Dollie Clones, I remember that. Talk about that because that’s an object. You’re using an object to talk about surveillance, really, and other issues around that.
Yeah, the Dollie clones are fantastic.
Explain the Dollie clones, because it’s creepy and fantastic at the same time.
Well, this is a work by Lynn Hershman Leeson that we included in the online exhibition. It’s not in the gallery project actually because we ... it doesn’t really speak to archiving questions in the same way.
Yeah. Where’s Dollie?
Well, Dollie’s been exhibited recently a couple of times so we felt also ...
Where do you put Dollie? Explain Dollie. Dollie’s creepy as hell.
All right. Dollie ... well, Lynn has been working on the questions of cyborgs and how technology would change the human for a long time, really since the late ’60s. And so in the ’90s when Dolly the cloned sheep was developed, Lynn was inspired by that. She’s not a person that is overly, I would say, paranoid about new technologies that might change the definition of what it means to be a human or a living thing. She’s more enthusiastic, but also questioning. Her Dollie Clones were a clone of herself and a clone of her alternate persona, Roberta Breitmore, which is an identity she’s developed as an artwork.
The evil twin, right?
She used to have projects where you could go to a hotel room and open drawers and see Roberta Breitmore’s stuff, and understand her story from looking at her stuff. She got a driver’s license as this alter ego of Roberta. I mean, all these things that ... just the idea of a ...
I love artists like this.
She made dolls of herself and of this evil twin, as you call it.
No, it’s an evil twin, but go ahead, move along.
I don’t know if it’s evil.
Yes it is. It says evil in there too. I recall it as being evil.
Oh, it does. Okay. All right, I’ll go with that. The dolls are ...
It’s always an evil twin, just so you know. There’s never not an evil twin, but go ahead. Now I’m teasing.
I can’t endorse this. The dolls were little sculptures that sit in display cases in a gallery. They each had a webcam in place of one of their eyes, and they each had a website where you could go to their website and see what they were seeing. They would be displayed in a gallery and then people on the web could go and look at what the dolls were seeing in the gallery space.
It was early webcam, so they would upload like every three seconds a still image of the gallery space. So it was interesting as a way of thinking about what a networked vision might be. Now that we have cameras that we can call up all around the world, how does that change our understanding of human vision?
It was thinking about the internet user as a person who could see through the dolls’ eyes. So as you clicked through, you could actually control the dolls’ heads telematically from the web browser, and then you would click through and see these different provocations about what it meant to be a person that could see through the network in this way.
Right, and also right now: Facial recognition, surveillance, all these issues around this, and robotics in terms of creating cyborgs. These ideas.
Absolutely. I think that the understanding of what we think of as human is shifting as a result of technology. This is a project I’m describing from the ’90s that was obviously taking up these questions at an earlier moment in that discussion. I think one of the reasons a project like this is important to me is because these conversations have a history that we can draw on and help to contextualize where we are now in relation to things like facial recognition.
Did you have to feel like you stayed relevant to what’s happening now? Because all these issues are in these pieces of art in many ways, lots of different things, whether it’s the Dollie Clones or other things.
One of the principles in Net Art Anthology was that we wanted to show the works one at a time so they could recirculate on social media and spark their own conversation. So just in terms of Rhizome’s own function as an organization, we’re always connecting with younger artists by doing interviews and projects. We have a grant program where we give out small amounts of money on the internet with a very easy application. We speak to a public which is made up of many emerging and young artists, and by recirculating the works, we found that it was sparking these conversations, where people were encountering the works and being inspired by them in ways that in some cases we might have predicted, and in some cases kind of not.
Give me an example.
Like this morning, I was looking at a show at the Migros museum in Switzerland, and there’s a couple of recent works that are shown in the foreground, one by a Chinese artist named Guan Xiao. In the background is a poster from 1991 or ’92 by VNS Matrix called, “The Cyber-Feminist Manifesto for the 21st Century.” And that was the first work that we presented in Net Art Anthology. I can’t claim that we are the reason that it’s there but I certainly feel like we’ve put something forward into the world and it’s starting to circulate on its own in a new way, as a result.
Well that’s interesting because did you imagine the people who are making this art at the time thought it would survive, or was it made not to survive? Do you think people then ... when you choose to do an internet or a net piece of art you’re making a choice of possibly letting ... and I don’t again wanna use the word obsolescence, but gone ... like gone.
I think that it varies. Some artists were thinking historically from the very start. For many artists, it never crossed their mind, and there’s a lot of examples of people who, I think, didn’t realize how attached they would be to the work that they made until it was inaccessible to them, and they’ve in some cases experienced it as almost like a real personal loss. So it does vary.
Someone like Mark Tribe, the founder of Rhizome, was thinking about these questions early on, but it was partly because so many artists had already begun to lose their work and find that things were not able to be sustained.
It’s somewhat ironic, the losing of the work, because there’s a group ... Laurene Jobs just bought it, actually, Pop-Up Magazine, which creates shows, artistic shows, a lot of them about ... a lot of them essays, photography, discussions and stuff, music, and they don’t tape them at all. They don’t preserve them in any way, and that is it. When you see it, the audience sees it, and then it is gone. It’s purposefully that way, although they’re very active on social media. They’re very active. They have California Sunday magazine, other things. The premise is that the art is done and it moves along.
That is definitely an aspect of net art practice too, the conscious decision not to hold onto something is really something that has its own artistic possibilities. Some of the works in Net Art Anthology are only presented as documentation. There’s a piece that is kind of an interesting one in that respect by Devin Kenny, called, “Untitled (clefa),” and it’s a performance that he did in, I think 2013 in Mexico City. He was interested in the new meme of “Trayvoning,” which is like planking but done by what he describes as really horrible people. Trayvoning was lying down with Skittles and pretending that you are ...
In the pose of Trayvon Martin.
Right, which was an internet meme?
It was an internet meme.
Really awful. And so Devin was like ...
So much is awful on the internet. That is one of the most awful.
That is true. Yes. Something is very awful on the internet. He did his own kind of Trayvoning experience at this gallery space, and it was in Mexico City so it was in a different context, where people might have had their own associations. He was interested in embodying this very horrible position that people were taking and then it really existed as a moment in time.
I think maybe another work that’s sort of along those lines is Amalia Ulman’s Ethira, which is an app that she developed that was intended as a kind of anonymous social media project in response to the way that people were feeling so much pressure to brand themselves online, especially around mental health.
Brand themselves? How? Explain that.
Well, online, if you begin tweeting, for example, about your issues with depression, soon you attract followers that want to see content about depression, and you understand that when you tweet about depression in a certain way you might get more “Likes.” So there’s an incentive to talk about mental health in a certain way that becomes part of a public persona that isn’t necessarily productive for someone who’s using those tools as a way of actually dealing with mental health. Like maybe speaking to your followers isn’t what you need. Maybe what you need is release and catharsis, a sense of human connection.
Amalia created Ethira as an app that was a little bit similar to something like Snapchat, where you could make posts that were attached to a map, and the posts would be visible for a certain amount of time and they’d go away and they were always anonymous. Some people were using it as a kind of like shouting into the void project, to release something they had to get off their chest. She did that for a while and the idea was that the posts themselves would disappear, but it was very difficult of course to make an entire social media platform as an artist that had an explicitly indie-commercial vibe to it. No user profiles, no ability to capture any data from people, there was no profit element to this project at all. In the end of the project, she staged a funeral for the app itself. It was the closure of it.
None of the content is available. The app itself is gone, and the project is now at a close.
Yeah, well, that was the ...
I guess she’s not an internet company.
She explicitly is not an internet company.
Someone the other day was describing how these companies got started, Google and others, that a lot of the data they originally collected was garbage to them. They didn’t need it. And it turned out to be gold. It was just extra stuff that was part of the search process and they figured out that it actually was valuable. Is there any data projects you think were interesting? The idea of what the using and abusing of the data really ...
Yeah, there is. I mean, of course this is a big conversation among artists, it has been for a while. One of the projects that’s in our gallery show is called, “Lungs,” by a duo from the UK called Yoha, made up of Graham Harwood and Matsuko Yokokoji. That project is using a database from the 1930s that was actually collected around the workers at a munitions factory in Karlsruhe, Germany, by the Nazi officials that ran that factory.
They liked data. The Nazis liked data.
Yeah. I guess the database was developed using the punch-card machines that IBM was supplying to the Nazi government at that point in time. In the project they show in the gallery, they use this database and they give a breathing sound to each entry in the database, which represents an enslaved worker, as a way of rehumanizing the people that were suffering under this regime through the dataset that was created to oppress them.
It’s the idea of a kind of software memorial to them, using sound. I was interested in this project as a way of thinking about the whole concept of the database as being something that controls us, but looking further back into its history, in a way of …
Giving it meaning.
… giving it meaning, and giving it emotional depth.
Absolutely, because each piece of data is a person in some way, or some piece of a person.
Where is art going? You’re preserving the ones that are created, but even as you speak so much more is being created, right? It’s like a constant. Some of the stuff is ...
I just went to see, a couple months ago, Carne y Arena, which was a VR artwork around immigration, where you put on the VR, you experienced being in the desert with immigrants. It was beautiful. There was all this beautiful VR art around it and you were physically in a space that you felt cold, you walked around without your shoes. It was cool. It was a really interesting way to get through the message that the artist wanted to talk about, immigration. I thought that was a really wonderful way to depict that from an artistic point of view. That was also funded by Laurene Jobs, who is doing a lot of photography art around immigration and things like that. Where are things going? What do you think the new technologies ... what are you seeing?
Yeah, that’s a good question. It’s also a difficult question. I’ve been doing this internet art business for a good while. I have luckily a co-curator who’s more in touch with the newer scenes, Aria Dean. She couldn’t be here today. But one of the things that we kind of noticed in doing this project was that there are sort of distinct shifts that happen on the internet. And one of the recent ones that kind of relates to what you’re talking about is the way that artists have retaken a position within gaming. And I think ...
Oh, gaming is beautiful.
Yeah, and I think that there’s been a proliferation of tools that allow for games to be made more easily, over the past five years, let’s say.
Or, maybe eight, at the most. And that’s really important because I don’t know if ... There’s a famous quote, where Francis Ford Coppola is talking about how filmmaking will only be an art form when the 13-year-old girl can make a movie with her camera.
And something similar applies in the digital realm where, when gaming feels too complicated and inaccessible, people can’t express themselves through that platform as easily.
So we’ve had things like really interesting work on the gaming front. One of the works from Net Art Anthology is by an artist that we love from the Bay Area named Porpentine. This is her project, Psycho Nymph Exile, which is actually a hypertext kind of narrative that brings people through this computer-generated landscape and tells this fragmented story.
And you click on the different ...
You click on the text to move through it. So it’s actually kind of like a throwback, in a way, to earlier forms of net art, but it’s bringing it into a Unity 3-D environment.
And using it ...
Yeah, it’s Unity, I can see that, yeah.
Using it as a way to ...
Unity is a gaming way to design and develop games, but go ahead.
Yeah. And so she’s creating this kind of game-like environment, which is very beautiful. But the whole story is about working through trauma, and the fragmented nature of the game relates to the way that people experience reality in a fragmented way after a trauma.
And she is using the gaming platform, essentially, to do that because ...?
Yes. Well, I think because gaming allows for the creation of a kind of speculative reality. I think that she’s interested in the world-building aspect of games. That, through games, you can create a world.
Through games you do create a world.
Yes, that’s ... And so for her, the work is really creating a world where people are gonna experience this particular, imaginary, speculative way of working through trauma.
The world-building itself is the kind of artistic project.
Right. And any other sort of technologies you see [that are] promising around our ... VR is obviously one.
Yeah. Well, VR is quite promising.
But I was gonna mention that one of the things that I think artists on the internet are really quite focused on now is, there’s almost a blurring line between art and non-art that I see happening. So in Net Art Anthology in the last few years, there are artists who are making a stock photo agency as an artwork. And one of my favorites is an artist, Rafia Santana, who’s using the internet to kind of create a contemporary reparations scheme called “Payblack Time.”
She started this after the election in 2016. And it was basically ...
Yeah, and it was ...
She was thinking about the election and how she was seeing a lot of white guilt being circulated online, and she was like, “Let’s turn this into a resource.” So her project is that white internet users can buy meals for black artists and internet users, and she facilitates that.
And has done so successfully for a couple of years.
So there’s gestures like that, which are really material, and they’re quite economically oriented, in a way, and they’re a little bit like ... It can be difficult to differentiate, in a sense, between what’s art and what’s just a thing in the world.
So let’s just talk about, what’s just a thing? Because there’s a lot of things that’re published on the internet that are quite creative. You know what I mean? For all the dreck that’s out there — and there’s plenty. You can do lots of art about the dreck that’s on the internet. The reactive and quickness of it, some of it is just ...
Twitter can be very beautiful, in a weird way. It can be funny. It can be moving. Lots of things you see on the net can be ... Even Tinder has a poignancy to it, right? Doesn’t it? It kind of does, how people pick pictures. You could see artists taking advantage of all these things. Facebook, probably. There’s probably a wonderful thing to be done, artistically, about Facebook.
Yeah. And I’m not here to litigate what’s art and what’s not.
Especially because I agree with you, that what internet users do is already beautiful.
Yeah, some of it.
Yeah, despite the best efforts of @jack, or whoever else.
And I think that those things should be sort of understood as artwork. And the kinds of work that I try and champion, and that we work often with at Rhizome, it’s not like an artist that steps back and paints a picture of what’s already happening; positioning the artist outside of it as the observer that has a privileged vision.
But, artists that’re in that mix, themselves, and that the work functions in that kind of culture, in that digital culture that it’s kind of deeply engaged with. That it’s of digital culture and not something distinct.
Right. And what about commenting on digital culture? The screen time and addiction and things like that. Because one of the things is, you’re consuming this over screens. And of course, there’s all the controversies around what screens do to our society, and art has always talked about how things have ... Whether it’s cars, or television, or something affects us. There’s been lots of art on those issues. Is that something you think will be part of it, or what these ... They’re using mediums that could be damaging to the society at large, and things like that.
Yeah. I mean, I think that the question of screen time is a complicated one. You know, I was recently reading a statistic that 80 percent of white users say that social media is a distraction from the important things, and then 80 percent of black users think that social media is a way that important issues reach audiences that wouldn’t otherwise be heard.
And the symmetry of that statistic is alarming.
I think that we should be careful about thinking that social media is bad because we’re experiencing negative news on it, or contact trauma.
Right. “We already knew.”
So that’s a really good point. Wow, that ...
But all of these things surface in artists’ work. And every year, we run a micro grant scheme in the summer, so people can apply with their random idea for a small grant from Rhizome. And I think through that, we really surface what people are interested in making work in response to now. And certainly, one of the things that I think has been emerging is just imagining that ... We’re at this point where the internet does show signs of kind of fracturing.
We’re starting to see things like Russia doing an experiment where they’re trying to disconnect from the internet for a day.
And so the DNS system, and the international consensus that’s required to keep that going. We’re seeing things like experiments with mesh networking, or USB sticks and these kinds of things that ...
Mm-hmm. What could you do with a USB stick anyway?
Well, in Cuba, they run a massive media-sharing network through USB called El Paquete Semanal.
Mm-hmm, they do. You’re right.
And I think those are the kinds of things that people are thinking about now, because the idea of an always-on, ubiquitous ...
They trade them. They trade the USB sticks.
Well, there’s also a kind of commercial venture around it, too. So it’s a trading ...
Yes. Yeah, my sons just were there, they were telling me about it.
Yeah. And I think that people look to those examples and think we shouldn’t make the assumption that we will always have this kind of freely accessible global cloud infrastructure that we can tap into at any moment. It’s almost like we’re coming to the end of the moment where we had that cloud infrastructure Golden Age. And it always had edges, too.
One of the works in the show is called “Net Art Latino Database,” and we worked with the artists that created this back in the early 2000s. And when we were presenting, one of the works that he chose as part of Net Art Anthology with us, he didn’t like the idea of presenting it only in emulation, because there’s no cloud server located in Latin America that can run the kind of emulation that I showed you at the start of the show. So he made this beautiful walkthrough video of the work that you can watch on a much slower connection and have a good experience.
And so that kind of thinking, that ... It’s kind of always existed, and I think it’s maybe coming into view now, in a new way, as these kinds of resource pressures and things like ...
Sure, absolutely. Whether we’re gonna be able to access it, that is true. You could present it in a different way, because a lot of these ... They must be dying, like other people that use all the latest tools. Right? To pick things, and things like that.
There’s always gonna be art created in analog, but how do you look at the ... Finish up talking about the difference between analog art and digital art. How do you look at that? Is that a shift? Is that a break? Or not at all? Because a lot of analog art is now all over the internet. I was thinking of this Ivanka thing that’s going on, with her vacuuming stuff. And it’s every ... They’re using the internet to push out lots of art, and lots of stuff is being preserved online; everything from the Dead Sea scrolls to ... There’s all kinds of things. That’s not art, but it’s being ... Preservation is happening on the internet in ways that we couldn’t have imagined.
Is there a break between the two of them, or where do you see that going?
I see both continuity and change. And certainly in this project, thinking about how networks have always been a part of artmaking has tried to inform ... We tried to have that inform our thinking, but the computer is really a transformative tool, and I think it’s like that thing ... It was a famous NRA quote, that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”
But of course, the reality is ...
People with guns kill people, but go ahead.
People with guns kill people.
Exactly. Well, “people plus gun” is different than just “people.”
And artist plus computer is different than just artist. And I think that understanding that here is a kind of material difference that happens when work is made in this way and circulated in this way, is important to thinking about how to sustain that work over time and preserve it.
And do you think artists are relying more on these digital tools? Even art? Even painters and ... Everybody is using, in some way, is using these digital tools. Has it changed the way we think of creation of art?
Absolutely. The idea that you can make work on canvas for an online audience is such an interesting one. And artists have thought through that carefully. One of the works in Net Art Anthology by Artie Vierkant is called “Image Objects.” It’s a series of works that are really like ... They’re two-dimensional pieces that look like sculptures when they’re photographed and circulated online. So they’re meant to look different for a web visitor and a gallery visitor.
And this was already a way of thinking, but how do I use the gallery space as a networked environment, presenting work for people all over the world to look at? I would argue that the Ivanka Trump performance of someone vacuuming is a performance that’s staged for the internet, also.
Absolutely, 100 percent.
And that results in a different kind of work being ...
Commentary, everything is part of it.
The commentary, the outrage over it, the delight over it. It’s really an interesting ...
So ultimately, it’s all in that art, now.
It’s all in that art, now. All right, I wanna end on that. Do you imagine a day when there’s just not ... Everything will be in this sort of holographic ... You could see. You could see where it could go. It could bring more art to people, because they get to see more, or it could create this sort of strange ... What happens to galleries, going forward, the physical galleries?
Well, galleries have surprisingly withstood a lot of shocks already, as technology has changed. I think that at the moment, there’s still something different that you get from standing in space with people, in moving your body around, that you are not getting other places.
I imagine that in the future, the real question will be ... Not that those places won’t continue to exist or won’t continue to be important, but it sort of becomes a question of access. Is it easier, in the future, to visit spaces virtually, or does the apparatus needed to visit them virtually become hard to get? You know?
I really think that ...
It won’t be.
You don’t think so?
There you go.
I remember suitcase telephones. Now, everybody has one.
Well, I think that the question of like, “What is consciousness?” or something, which is something that some of the artists in Net Art Anthology think through, is gonna mean that we have work that can address us in very different ways than what we’ve seen so far.
Those kinds of refiguring consciousness through technology, new ways of accessing the brain directly outside of the sensorium, those things will allow for different artistic experiences.
Absolutely. And we haven’t even gotten to the haptic touch.
Oh, yeah. It’s gonna be wild. It will be wild.
Yeah, it will be wild going forward.
Anyway, Michael, this is riveting, and I’d love to talk more about it. I’m gonna come visit the show. I urge you all to go look at it online. It’s at the New Museum, if you’re in New York City. “The Art Happens Here.” Thank you so much for coming on the show.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.