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Net_Condition: Art and Global Media

Editor: Peter Weibel, Timothy Druckrey
Publisher: Cambridge, MA & London, UK: MIT Press, 2001
Review Published: September 2001

 REVIEW 1: Lisa Lynch

This is an odd, exciting, and sometimes exasperating moment for net artists and their audiences: as the genre begins to move from the Web into the museum and gallery, debates have emerged over what net art is, what it can do, and where it should best be seen. Depending on who one talks to (or depending on whose email postings one might be reading) the term "net art" either defines artwork that relies largely or entirely on its Internet connection to produce meaning, or simply computer-based art that comments, in some way, on the social, political, and aesthetic dimensions of digital culture. And -- also depending on who one talks to -- net art is either an emergent genre that has finally been granted both institutional weight and critical dimension; or a briefly viable alternative aesthetic movement that died at the very moment it became a museum object. In Net_Condition: Art and Global Media, editors Timothy Druckrey and Peter Weibel combine the broadest possible definition of net art with the most optimistic vision of the vitality and potential of the genre, in a valuable yet often frustrating volume that places works of net art alongside works of critical theory that describe the social conditions that such art seeks to remediate. Net_Condition has its flaws, but like the editors themselves (Druckrey is one of the foremost editors of new media anthologies and Weibel runs the prestigious Center for Art and Media, or ZKM, in Karlsruhe) it is a force to be reckoned with for those interested in digital culture generally and net art in particular.

Net_Condition retrospectively catalogues an ambitious multimedia exhibition, Art and Global Media, held at various European locations from October of 1998 to February of 2000. Curated primarily by Weibel, Art and Global Media was intended to focus on the global effects of new media (the "conditions," to use Weibel's term, which facilitate and result from a network society) as well as on "the way the media change and construct reality" (8). While the exhibition included a film program and a series of symposia that assembled theorists to discuss everything from The Matrix to the globalization of media conglomerates, its showpiece was a series of net-based art installations that took place in four separate, networked locations: the ZKM; the sterischer herbst festival in Graz; the Media Center d'Art I Disseny in Barcelona; and the InterCommunication Center in Tokyo. In these galleries, Weibel assembled a lineup of many of the most well-known net art works from 1996-1999, as well as a series of pieces created especially for the exhibit. The end product was, as Weibel notes in his introduction to Net_Condition, the first major museum showing of net-based art -- though several major shows, including the SFMOMA's 010101: Art in Technological Times and the Whitney's Bitstreams and Data Dynamics, followed in quick succession.

Weibel and Druckrey's volume attempts to give a sense of the scope, the theoretical underpinnings, and the artistic diversity of Art and Global Media, focusing primarily on the net art exhibit and the lectures and discussions concerning new media and society. The 400-page, coffee-table size tome is divided into seventeen sections meant to reflect the conditions surrounding network culture, ranging from "Community Conditions" to "Ideological Conditions" to "Surveillance Conditions." Each section, in turn, contains both artworks and theory that gesture towards that theme. At the front of the volume is a section called "Initial Conditions," which includes Weibel's curatorial introduction as well some of the email exchanged between organizers and contributors in the show's planning stages. Implicit in this introductory section is the idea that the exhibit should help to establish the theoretical and artistic parameters of the emerging field of new media art. In his introduction, Weibel notes that the Net_Condition exhibit was not only the first major museum net art show; it was also the first exhibit to "make visible" the "contours" of network society. Though this second claim seems a bit grandiose, it reflects Weibel's commitment in both the exhibit and the catalog to provide a field-forming selection of both art and theory.

In terms of the net art projects selected to appear in Net_Condition, the editors have succeeded admirably: many (though by far not all) of the most complex and engaging works of art and many of the most interesting net artists working in the field are assembled here for the first time in one bound volume. The selection includes software art such as Macij Winsniewski's "Netomat," a radical reconfiguration of the idea of the browser that has since been shown at the Whitney; entirely net-based pieces such as Joachim Blank and Karl-Heinz Jeron's "re-mail," a site which allows you to forward unwanted email to be answered anonymously by others; and installation pieces such as Jeffrey Shaw's "The Distributed Legible City," which allows two users in remote locations to bicycle through the same virtual space, encountering one another along the way. There are even several projects which, in themselves, have less to do with net art in the broadest sense than with the politically subversive use of technology; for example, the graffiti writing robot produced by the Institute for Applied Autonomy.

Leafing through Net_Condition, one can quickly gain a sense of what sorts of concerns have motivated net artists over the past few years, as well as an idea of what kinds of approaches these artists take to their medium. There are, however, severe limitations to the offline study of net art: though Net_Condition is filled with handsome glossy two-page spreads in which screen captures are arranged around with highly stylized texts, these layouts often fail to capture the spirit and substance of the works themselves. Granted, it is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine how such artwork can be adequately represented within the pages of a book. Even as a museum show, Net_Condition received mixed reviews for its attempt to escape the confines of the browser in exhibiting net art: some critics (including Josephine Berry writing for Rhizome and Olia Lialina, one of the exhibited artists) felt that Weibel's decision to display net art projects on stand-alone computer terminals, often severed from their network connection, did disservice to their material specificity. Judging from the current bickering over the curatorial politics surrounding net art [1], such criticisms should perhaps be seen as inevitable, even imbedded in the process of exhibiting net art in a museum context. However, it is a shame to find no gesture of acknowledgement of these concerns in Weibel and Druckrey's volume. Net art on the printed page is, after all, at an even greater remove from its material context than net art on a stand-alone monitor. Not surprisingly, some of individual artworks address the gap between book text and Web text: the most interesting among these is Giselle Beiguelman's "The Book After the Book," a hypertextual series of observations about textuality assembled especially for the exhibition.

Thankfully, the lack of attention to aesthetic form that somewhat undermines the presentation of net art on these pages is counterbalanced by several contextual essays, especially Tilman Baumgartel's invaluable essay on the history of net art. A Berlin-based writer who is in the process of publishing a book on net art, Baumgartel traces the brief history of the genre from its utopist beginnings -- in a moment, he argues, when the net was perceived as a "New Jerusalem" -- to its current focus on critique rather than celebration. Beyond this, he delineates how net art represents the continuation of the dematerialized art practices embodied in the telecommunications art of the seventies and eighties. Providing a brief account of this ephemeral, often poorly documented genre, Baumgartel notes that the impoverished historical record surrounding communications art should serve as a cautionary tale to the net art community, a community whose own history he and others are struggling to capture and preserve. Heidi Grundman's essay, "Radio as Medium and Metaphor," though weighed down by a sometimes inelegant translation, is similarly useful for those interested in how net.radio sound art evolved from various kinds of twentieth-century sound installations.

Even as some of the specific aesthetic content of net art is lost in the process of translation, its theoretical and political value is pushed to the fore by the editors. Weibel, far more than Druckrey, has repeatedly said that net art is inseparable from the theory produced around it, and the structure of this volume is geared towards this interdependency. In fact, Net_Condition seems to suggest, at times, that net art is the solution to the problems identified by critical theorists of network society. In his introduction, Weibel argues that net art -- which he rather broadly defines as ranging "from physical location installations to world wide networked computer games" -- has inherited the project of utopian political engagement, becoming "the forum in which many of the emancipating hopes of the avant-garde are being rephrased. Web art is a form of art to which the great political hopes are linked" (18). Druckrey, in turn, describes net artists as individuals who have managed to elude the restructuring of subjects within network culture; they are, he writes, "a remarkable flexible community . . . whose concerns are deeply and critically engaged with a cultural sphere in which the 'condition' is understood as a state in which permutations supplant resolutions, in which stability is merely a special condition of instability, where localization is not abandoned in false globalization" (24).

Just as the net art in Net_Condition is a representative selection of the genre, the theory Weibel and Druckrey have chosen has been drawn from the current canon of new media studies (or at least in its European incarnation). For example, Jurgen Habermas on the transition from cultural debate to cultural consumption; Robert W. McChesney on the breakdown of democracy due to globalization of media; and Vincent Mosco on technopoles and militant particularism. These choices make Net_Condition a fine resource for those who are trying to grasp the influence of new media on media studies: with one significant shortcoming. Unfortunately, the book's designer, Christian Chruxin, superimposes some of the densest theoretical texts in the collection over photographs that document the various gallery spaces of the Net_Condition exhibit. The play between these photographs and the texts (often rendered in an iris-searing red ink) makes essays such as Claude Gianneti's "Ars Telematica: The Aesthetics of Intercommunication" and Gerhard Johann Lischka's "Everybody's a Mediator" almost entirely unreadable. This interruption of meaning is clearly not accidental; rather, Chruxin's decision is most likely related to a desire to match the efforts of new media artists to render the communications signals of video and the Internet as noisy, busy, and untransparent. But the result is a constant battle between the denotative and the connotative that leaves readers unsure whether they are intended to read the theory that the editors have so diligently assembled. Net_Condition seems to be trying to do two things at once: while the volume's editors have diligently selected texts that analyze and deconstruct network society, the design team seems more interested in making the volume itself manifest as a symptom of the very processes it documents.

If the volume itself embodies a sort of paradox, the theoretical works included here similarly reflect two of the more paradoxical tensions evident in discussions of new media and society: first, the tension between technological determinism on the one hand and social constructivism on the other; and second, the paradoxical interplay between the enormous potential for centralization and totalization embedded in the emergence of a global network, and the fragmentation and individualization materially evident in social spaces highly mediated by such networks. These tensions are spelled out most clearly in Manuel Castells' "The Net And The Self: Working Notes For A Critical Theory of the Information Society." Castells, a sociologist whose three-volume work on information society has been seminal to much of the theoretical debate on new media, argues that "we must reject from the outset any attempt to consider technological change as the exclusive source of historical change," while maintaining that it "is just as important to acknowledge the extraordinary social change represented by the new information technology" (35). This social change, Castells argues, is characterized most notably by the transformation of social spaces into "flows," or "purposeful repetitive programmable sequences of exchange and interaction between physically disjointed positions held by social actors in organizations and institutions of society" (44). But this space of flows, he contends, is also a space of tribalization, a breakdown of the social contract facilitated by the erosion of public media space in network culture.

Many of the essays in this volume suggest, along with Castells, that the "net condition" is at once technologically determined and socially constructed, at once a space of conglomeration and a space of fragmentation. These essays also collectively argue for the ubiquity of a global communications network, which means that authors who might wish to call attention to the uneven development of such a network, or the implications of still-existing gaps, are not represented here. It might be asking a bit much of Net_Condition to wish for some discussion of this topic: one has to make editorial choices somewhere, and Weibel and Druckrey seem to have chosen not to peer over, or into, the chasm of the digital divide. But the "global" should not be invoked so often and so handily in this case. The discussion of marginalized communities in Net_Condition seems limited to Marina Griznic's essay "The Spectralization of Europe," which focuses on a gap between Eastern and Western Europe that has little to do with lack of bandwidth. Griznic argues, in effect, that the lack of interest in net art emanating from Eastern Europe serves as evidence that the East is the monstrous, scatological Other of Western Europe. While her essay is a deft, pleasurable waltz through Lacan and Zizeck's notions of subjectivity and extimacy, it has the unfortunate role of being the only sustained attempt in the volume to consider questions of otherness. The discussion of gender discrepancy in the information economy is similarly attenuated: the section titled "Gender Conditions" is one of the shortest in the volume, limited to Victoria Verna's avatar art (compelling work, but hardly primarily about gender) and a manifesto scripted by the German Cyber feminist Group called the Old Boy's Network that calls for social changes such as a "virtual menstruation hut" on the ZKM server (301).

I could continue in this vein of criticism, but, like the design issues in Net_Condition, the treatement of marginalization here is less accident than symptomatic of the field and moment the volume has chosen to represent. Ultimately, one needs to remember that Net_Condition may perhaps be the first of many volumes of its kind: printed catalogs that attempt to render substantive and material the ephemeral, contested field of net art. For those of us who still fetishize books, such catalogs might in fact serve a vital function even despite their flaws -- as totems attesting to the significance of something that really can only be assessed off the printed page. For those who have gotten beyond book-centrism, ZKM's Net_Condition Web site might be the way to go: it has hot links to all the works in the volume and a series of curatorial texts specific to the site. Now if only the Web site included legible versions of the theoretical essays . . .

1. For an extended discussion of these issues, see the curation debates on Nettime (http://www.nettime.org) and on the CRUMB (Curatorial Resource for Upstart Media Bliss) Web site (http://www.newmedia.sunderland.ac.uk/crumb).

Lisa Lynch:
Lisa Lynch is Visiting Assistant Professor of English and Media Studies at Catholic University. She writes on disease narratives, biotechnology, risk discourse and the interface between the visual arts and scientific culture. Her most recent publications include an interview with Eduardo Kac in New Formations (forthcoming late 2001), an article on Greg Bear's Darwin's Radio in Literature and Medicine (forthcoming late 2001), and interviews with new media artists Natalie Jeremijenko and David Kremers in Knowledge and Society (forthcoming late 2001).  <l.lynch@mindspring.com>

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