Net Art: The Pioneers of the Net

Michael A Rizzotti

The National Museum of Art of the 21st Century in Rome (Museo Nazionale delle arti del XXI secolo─MAXXI─) is hosting an exhibit displaying the works of six artists described as “pioneers of the net”: Antoni Muntadas, Natalie Bookchin, Heath Bunting, Alexei Shulgin, Francis Alÿs and Vuk Cosic. The MAXXI, one of Italy’s most popular museum of contemporary art, is inaugurating with this event the first of a series of exhibitions dedicated to “net/web art”.

The goal of the exhibition is to initiate an interactive play between the visitor and the web-art. Inviting the visitor to continue the experience of the museum on his home computer. Linking the art of the past with the online world of today. The show was made unexpectedly popular by the Italian press’ reports about the exhibit ─both print & online versions─ with their links to the museum.

Some of these web pages may be considered ancient by Internet standards. However, the exhibit is entitled “pioneers of the net”. These artists have been chosen because they are the innovators of this art form. The era between 1997-1999 is considered the golden years of the World-Wide-Web. The Net had not reached critical mass and was going through a period of elitist anarchy. Cyberspace was full of creative endeavor.

On Translation (1997)

I was surprised to receive an email from my cousin Roberto who lives in Torino, Italy, asking me to comment Antoni Muntadas’ “On Translation” web page. As it happens, i was working on this piece about the MAXXI exhibit when i received his email. It felt uncanny, since my cousin had written to me only on two occasions in the last two years. I couldn’t help thinking that the Net is working in mysterious ways. He sent me his email to ask if i could translate the meaning of the English web page. Somehow, my cousin’s email confirms Muntadas’ premise that the we encounter communication hurdles when we surf the net but these gaps are quickly transcended by interactive means (a quick email to a cousin in LA who speaks English). Muntadas also dwells on the difficulty of loosing the original significance of a message in the translation of one language into another. I hope the reply i sent to my cousin was helpful. Since then, Muntadas has updated his web page to included many other languages.

The Intruder (1999-2000)

With The Intruder  Natalie Bookchin is adapting Jorges Luis Borges’ short story La Intrusa into an interactive mind game. Borges’ story is about un ménage à trois with misogynistic overtones and a tragic ending: “an analogy for basic game narratives-invasion by an other/an alien (in this case a woman) who must be eliminated to bring about resolution and closure.” The love triangle here could be seen as an interruption between self and the intimacy with the text and the incursion of a videogame as an “other” presence. The “alien’s” intrusion by the videogame disrupts an idyllic interaction between self and the word.

Imaging Natalie (1998)

To get the best view of Imaging Natalie one must take few steps back (12-15 ft or 4-5 meters). Move around until the right perspective reveals the best view of the portrait. This technique is similar in many respects to what we do when we observe a modern painting at a museum. Heath Bunting in his page uses the keyboard to paint the portrait of Natalie Bookchin who was the subject of the previous paragraph. The sequence of the typos are in themselves meaningless but with a proper juxtaposition they reveal the image of Natalie. In the process Bunting links the symbols of the keyboard and the screen to web art as well as a tribute to a peer.

Desktop Is (1997)

For Alex Shulgin Net art is about oneself. The way you set up your desktop reveals your personality. The choice of icons, how they are displayed on your desktop, your screensaver, your background, reflects your order of things. Your bookmarks and your links reveals your interests and your openness to the world. Your email address book discloses who you know. The Desktop Is…who you are. Like Shulgin’s page we live by a myriad of personal connections and links to web pages who contribute to our own expansive being.

The Thief (1999)

Francis Alÿs web-art describe how the image of the window throughout the History of Art has been used to represent the visual observer inside looking out into space. His web/art reveals how the advent of Windows 95 somewhat became a virtual extension of this representation. “Unlike the front door, the window does not only connect the inside and the outside; it embodies the architectonic project of having the outside inside, of pulling the landscape into the living room. We could say that computers are similar to landscape paintings in being architectonic devices.” What is exposed is a virtual window onto the world.

History of Art for Airports (1997)

Despite the odd title of Vuk Cosic’s web art, he succeeds in confirming the themes already proposed by the previous artists on this page. Cosic in his own way bridges the gap between such classics as la Pieta and a semiotic representation. He graphically links a famous piece of art of the past to a modern signpost: Signs that are omnipresent in the visual landscape of our daily life. Markers, pointer, road signs, classic images of art that have mutated into a novel visual mix.

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