Artists have been using the very processes of the internet as media of expression since its early days, to create dynamic, often interactive, works. Emphasising temporality, chance and intervention by users, such artworks are dependent on the enactment of a system to convey their conceptual and aesthetic content. Thus, the relation between the net and net art works at the time of their creation is highly contingent, as they are linked to the structures and processes through which they are performed. For this reason, traditional frameworks for understanding artworks as static, discrete objects fail to address critical aspects which defy those boundaries by being neither fixed, nor separable from their network milieu. This examination will focus on early net-based artworks exemplary of second-wave digital humanities as described by N. Katherine Hayles, namely artworks which prioritise the temporal, the spatial and the curatorial over the textual, the narrative and the quantitative, and which offer insight into the procedural emphasis of such practices. Due to their computational approaches, and to the medium whereby they were developed, these artworks fit the criteria of Timothy Morton’s hyperobjects: they are viscous, nonlocal, temporally undulating, phasing and interobjective. Exploring relations between net art works which employ spatial and visual procedures through the concept of hyperobjects, this paper will address some of the aspects that differentiate procedural artworks from other artforms.
Artworks which explore the process-oriented potential of networked media, employing the mechanics of web-based elements, such as loading, refreshing, clicking on or navigating between pages, actively engage the procedural aspects of the internet. For example, JODI’s Automatic Rain (1995), utilised the slowness of mid-1990’s internet to animate the “rain” as it progressively loaded, revealing temporality and procedurality. Current connection speeds are too fast for this work to display correctly, and the fact that it only functioned as intended for a brief amount of time acts as a reminder that data transfers are not instantaneous, as they may now appear to be. Similarly, the link rot of many net art works which have endured, or at least stayed online, for some time expose their existence as parts of larger media ecologies.
Though it may at first seem an unlikely connection, the characteristics of hyperobjects are also descriptive of those of the net-based artworks we are looking at. Thinking of these in terms of viscosity, nonlocality, temporal undulation, phasing and interobjectivity allows for a new approach through which to address their active and ephemeral features. A networked image may be “produced by thousands and thousands of end users on their laptops” (Galloway, 2015, 94), defying notions of artistic productions as singular, instead being as pervasive as they are dispersed. The temporality of net art works only further complicates things, vacillating between fleeting and enduring qualities. These works create phase-spaces that are often too complex to be perceived with a single instantiation or contact. They are algorithmic entities that reflect causality and process, and that as such flow into the future. These aspects are in accord with Hito Steyerl’s concept of the “poor” image, which she describes as prioritising performance, particularly transmissibility, over sharpness, resolution, mimesis and other factors considered constitutive of “rich” images. As previous technologies have altered artistic modes of production, and with them, systems for the evaluation of such productions, the internet, too, has radically changed what kinds of art may be produced, how they are communicated and the principles through which they are understood. With emphasis on the active, procedural nature of web-based artworks, this investigation delves into the properties which set these works apart from other kinds of artistic productions and which are becoming the dominant norms due to the pervasiveness of algorithmic processes in many artistic practices.
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Morton, T. (2013). Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. Minneapolis, London: University of Minnesota Press.
Steyerl, H. (2009). In Defense of the Poor Image. E-Flux, (10), 1–9.
Miguel Carvalhais is a designer, musician, and artist. He is an Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Fine Arts of the University of Porto. He studies computational systems and their use in creative practices, having focused his PhD in the subject and later published a book on the topic, Artificial Aesthetics (2016). His research and artistic practice explore how computational and procedural systems are read and how procedural discovery and interpretation are paramount for the creation of meaning and aesthetic experience. These have led him to explore a number of fields, such as the legibility of processes, philosophy of computation, artificial creativity, emergence, serendipity, artificial intelligence, legible AIs and the right to explanation. He is one of the founders of the xCoAx conference on Computation, Communication, Aesthetics and X, which he has been involved in organising since 2013.