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Would the last person to leave this website please turn out the lights?

  • by Matt Locke (matt.digitalarts@architechs.com)
  • published at DFI: degrees feet inches; a curated space for internet specific artworks; UK (September, 2000)

Vivienne Selbo, in her DFI text, remarked that the series of selections in this project seems to form some kind of thread, a line taken for a walk through the shifting landscapes of networked art. As the penultimate tenant of the DFI space, it seemed appropriate to shift direction; to test the underlying assumption of DFI as a curated space for internet specific artworks before the project hits its terminus. In particular, it seemed a good opportunity to take up the baton from the other DFI curators and focus on areas that move the practise of net.art out of the curiously linear definitions that Pauline van Mourik Broekman described in her intro to the May 99 DFI selections.

Ironically, it has been the success of these definitions - originally formulated as a radical response to the perceived commercialisation of the web and the naturalisation of the browser as an interface - that has led to the increased interest and gradual assimilation of net.art into institutionalised spaces such as the Tate and the Whitney. Shows such as net.condition at ZKM and the recent Whitney Biennale have attempted to graft a seemingly ephemeral and intimate art-form onto the white walls of the gallery or museum, a process that simultaneously introduces the spectre of commodification and the desire to develop a canon of historical works that can define the genre. In a recent Rhizome panel session at the Kitchen in NY, Mark Tribe suggested the term net.installation to describe artworks (for example, John F Simon's Every Icon) that flirt with the speed and radical connectivity of networked art practises in a format that the institution can endorse, without threatening the existing rhetorics of display in the way that, say, a temporary media lab would. If the rise in prominence of video installation is because, as Isaac Julien has said, something had to replace painting, then net.installation could replace video art in curators affections as the edgiest, coolest, most-up-to-the-minute work around. By demanding that such work creates a spectacle equivalent to the cinematic works of Bill Viola, Stan Douglas, et al, more intimate works that only really make sense in a one-to-one browser space will be relegated to the margins of art history along with other difficult to commodify practises like mail-art and kinetic art.

ISLAND/An Artists Impression, by Nina Pope and Karen Guthrie, deals with these dilemmas by laboriously constructing a three-dimensional scale model of an on-line MUSH environment in the gallery space. The MUSH has developed a curiously rural English identity, with car boot sales and campaigns to stop tourists building holiday homes, and a similar suburban aesthetic pervades its 3-D equivalent. With the sculptural model of an on-line, textual environment, Pope & Guthrie provide a solution to the problem of spectacle in a way that undercuts the pomposity of institutional display rhetorics, presenting the sculpture as a curiously pointless, hobbyist pursuit. Like the scale models of the D&D environments that were the textual precursor of MUDS and MUSHES, or the obsessive mapping of your home town in a model railway (or its virtual equivalent the flight sim landscape patch), An Artists Impression compensates in its detail for what it lacks in purpose. A similarly fruitless task to Umberto Ecos one-to-one scale map of an empire, it can never hope to represent the thing it describes, but nonetheless stands as a beautiful, futile monument to the physical and temporal differences between the two spaces.

Fiona Raby's FLIRT and Igor Stromajer's Mobile Trilogy both point to another route around the imposed colonisation of networked art by institutional curators by targeting a space that is even more intimate, networked and non-spectacular than the web-browser. By routing the work to a platform that is ergonomically incorporated into the users' intimate space, it is hard to imagine how either of these projects could be re-presented in a museum or gallery. Instead, the projects use mobile devices to target an ephemeral space that is defined by a mix of geography and the user's transient personal space a kind of temporary intimate zone that is impossible to accommodate architecturally.

In FLIRT, the movements of user's around city of Helsinki are traced via their mobiles frequent contact with transmitters around the city. By this method, the location of the user can be identified to a single reception cell of no more than a few blocks of a street, and can then be targeted with information specific to that cell. In FLIRT, this information ranges from simple communication or dating games to interactions with a virtual lost cat that is roaming the city, appearing on user's phone displays when they share the same cell. In one game, a virtual moose stampede crosses the city, crushing any user that doesn't exit the affected cells in time. Although FLIRT is primarily a research project for NOKIA, the specific connections between content and geographical spaces, and the way in which it encourages performative responses from its audience both point to a fruitful area for further cultural research.

Igor Stromajer's Mobile Trilogy has a similarly playful approach to mobile spaces. In this case the focus is on existing cultural developments in mobile technologies, such as SMS's vernacular vocabulary and the use of vibrating mobile phones as intimate sex toys (developed further as a concept in Lucy Kimbell's VIP project www.v-i-p.co.uk). Projects such as vibra.action appreciate that the mobile phone, of all the networked technologies that have entered the mass market, has most successfully crossed over from being an external tool to part of the user's intimate space. Whether worn as a fashion item in a holster or carried as an accessory in a handbag, the mobile phone has broken free from the physical network and become a communication space with a very specific and emotional protocol.

With mobile interfaces, the relationships between user, interface and network are so intimate, yet so ephemeral, that it is difficult to imagine how this territory could be successfully occupied by institutional or commercial content. Undoubtedly, this will change, partly because commercial pressures will try to shift the platform from being a low-media, richly interactive text space to a rich media, passively consumed audio-visual experience. The web's claim to be a unique media platform has gradually been undermined by it being a little too similar to television or cinema; ultimately too distant from the user to prevent it from becoming another anonymous screen. There might still be a chance, however, that mobile interfaces will fare better than the browser in resisting this homogenisation of platforms towards the common denominator of passive spectacle, and retain some of the radical qualities specific to networked platforms.
Igor Štromajer Intima Virtual Base Virtualna baza Intima Igor Stromajer www.intima.org Igor Štromajer

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