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August 25, 2006

Conference Report: On Zero One/ISEA 2006


Where Art Thou Net.Art?

Conference Report: Where Art Thou Net.Art? On Zero One/ ISEA 2006 by Randall Packer :: Commissioned by Rhizome.org :: The long awaited Zero One/ ISEA 2006 took over San Jose, California, two weeks ago in a sprawling, city-wide, mega-festival celebrating art and technology in the heart of Silicon Valley. Much has already been written about it, from daily observations in the local papers to a feature in the New York Times, from the Blogosphere to the listservs. As one who has been immersed in the new media scene since the late 1980s, I would like to contribute a bit of historical context to the discussion: I offer my commentary from a pre-millennial perspective, when the dream emerged in the 1990s, during an era of optimism and promise, the dream of a new art form that would side-step a mainstream art world mired in curators, museums, galleries, objects, and old aesthetic issues. This was the dream of Net.Art, a revolutionary new international movement of artists, techies, and hackers, led in large part by the unassuming, unabashedly ambitious new media curator from the Walker Art Center, Steve Dietz, now director of Zero One.

These were heady times indeed. I met Steve in 1997 while I was in residence at the San Jose Museum of Art. His research had brought him to the holy Mecca of new media, Silicon Valley and the community of artists in the Bay Area who had been working with new technologies since the dawn of the personal computer. He wanted to meet Joel Slayton (who would later become director of the 2006 ISEA Symposium), so I escorted him over to San Jose State University where Joel is head of the CADRE Laboratory for New Media.

Shortly thereafter, Steve launched two groundbreaking Net.Art exhibitions, Shock of the View, and Beyond Interface, both of which brought together leading Net artists exploding on the scene: Mark Amerika, Natalie Bookchin, Masaki Fujihata, Ken Goldberg, Eduardo Kac, Jodi, Mark Napier, Alexei Shulgin, to name just a few. It was a time of artistic transformation, new paradigms, hypernovels, distributed authorship, and globally extended, real-time, robotic, collective art. It seemed anything was possible. By 1999, David Ross was Director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Intel was pouring millions into Artmuseum.net, and there seemed no end to the surging tide of experimental new media art. It was at that time that early discussion began of an international festival of art and technology in Silicon Valley. Beau Takahara founded the organization Ground Zero, which would later become Zero One.

But with the new millennium the tides would turn: Natalie Bookchin announced the death of Net.Art, the tech boom was a bust, and both David Ross and Steve Dietz were ousted from their museum jobs for harboring visionary aspirations in an economic downturn. So with the announcement that the Zero One Festival and the ISEA Symposium would launch in 2006 in San Jose, with Steve Dietz at the helm, it was something like the Phoenix rising from the ashes.

And it rose with a bang! "Seven Days of Art and Interconnectivity," with over 200 participating artists, an international symposium, city-wide public installations, exhibitions, concerts, performances, pubic spectacles, performative-live-distributed cinema, wi-fi interventions, container culture, skateboard orchestras, digital dance, sine wave surfing, datamatics, surveillance balloons, a pigeon blog, the squirrel-driven Karaoke Ice Battle on wheels, and to top it off a nostalgic, bombastic blast-from-the-past from Survival Research Laboratories. The 13th International Symposium on Electronic Art Exhibition took over the sprawling South Hall at the Convention Center. Its themes: Interactive City, Pacific Rim, Transvergence, Edgy Products, and on and on... spoke of enough technology to wire a third world nation.

And so, with all the buzz, and the sheer largesse of this ambitious festival of new media, I couldn't help ponder how it was connected to the original Net.Art dream, when a new art form arose from networking every computer on every desktop and engaging a global audience in new, pervasive ways that became possible as technology was increasingly ubiquitous and transparent. The Net.Art dream would call into question our relationship to the new media, as art has always aspired, to critique its impact on our lives, our culture, our communications systems, our relationships, our view of the world, our own changing humanity in a technological world. I couldn't help but to wonder, what exactly happened to that dream, once driven by a small fringe core of artists, writers, thinkers, and curators, and now practiced by literally thousands of techno-artists emerging from every university and art school across the planet, many of whom converged in San Jose for Zero One / ISEA.

The first thing that came to mind was that art and technology no longer exists on the fringe of the artworld, and in fact, the demarcation between art and engineering has blurred considerably. At Zero One you couldn't tell the artist from the engineer (Billy Kluver must be rolling in his grave). Joseph Beuys' notions of social sculpture, or Allan Kaprow's participatory Happenings now inform the new systems of art that have dissolved the distinction between artist and non-artist, between performer and audience. For example, the Interactive City theme, organized by Eric Paulos, sought "urban-scale projects for which the city is not merely a palimpsest of our desires but an active participant in their formation."

In the installations of Jennifer Steinkamp at the San Jose Museum of Art, I saw suburban moms taking snapshots of their kids in strollers bathed in layers of colored light. In the Listening Post by Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin, also at SJMA, the artists orchestrated chat room discussion, in real-time, from around the globe. Etoy's mesmerizing Mission Eternity involved a trailer installation parked outside SJMA in the downtown Plaza, which investigated personal data storage for the afterlife (ashes to ashes, bits to bits).

There was good art and there was bad art, but everywhere you turned there was art or something like art permeating the physical spaces of downtown San Jose (including the mobile light rail cars and the dome of City Hall), as well as the invisible ether of the airwaves, from bluetooth networks to cellular tours (the latest rage). There was very little time to spend with any particular work. Everyone was engaged in high gear, moving from one venue to the next. In Bill Viola's keynote address, he made the prescient remark, "artists are jumping into a train for a high speed ride while they're still laying the tracks ahead."

The hyper-adrenalin flow resonated in the on-line commentary as well, where, if you read the considerable Blog chatter surrounding Zero One/ISEA, you would find that the experience became concentrated on sheer movement and the social networking that reigns supreme at all conferences and festivals.

And so what about the dream of Net.Art? Those of us who have spent countless hours, in the past decade, bemoaning the loss of the dream could now say that the dream had been realized (for better or for worse). I heard artist friends complain about the democratization of Net.Art, the selling out of Net.Art, the "mainstreamization" of Net.Art, and other remarks I won't mention here,
and yet, I think that we would all agree that the uber-dream of Net.Art -- to dismantle the precious nature of the object, an art that would defy the walls of the museum, that would, as expressed in Roy Ascott's Museum of A Third Kind, reject the notion of the physical museum space altogether, the dream of Net.Art as a force that would rewire the experience of art, a "fantasy beyond control" according to Lynn Hershman -- had become a living, breathing reality in San Jose for those compressed seven days.

And if you turned to the Blogosphere there were plenty of critics: Patrick Lichty wrote, "There are many topics, like locative media, data mapping, ecologies, and so on that are being explored. On a rhetorical level I have to ask whether these are the right ones and why these are the ones that are compelling to us." And on the CRUMB list, I found an insightful comment by Molly Hankwitz, who said, "I think the process of interaction must be done very carefully. The worst thing is the mainstreaming of situationism into a middle class playground."

Finally, I turn to Mark Amerika, one of the original dreamers, for a closing observation: "Net art is in many ways still the most alive and accessed art movement ever to NOT be absorbed into the commercial art world and that's fantastic!" Perhaps the success of Zero One / ISEA was in its commitment to concentrate on experimental media art, to emphasize media art's inclusive, democratic, and participatory nature, and lastly, that contemporary art must embrace the new technologies - shamelessly, fearlessly, defiantly. Net.Art may be dead, but Net Art 2.0 is alive and kicking.

Randall Packer is a widely-exhibited artist, composer, educator, and scholar. He is Assistant Professor of Multimedia at American University in Washington, DC, and the author of Multimedia: From Wagner to Virtual Reality.

Posted by jo at August 25, 2006 06:01 PM