What Happened to Art at the Dawn of the Internet? ：A Revision of Net Art from the 90s to 2000s
Co-Author：Daniela Ruiz Moreno and Emily Hsiang-Yun Huang Translator：Emily Hsiang-Yun Huang｜Editor：Tammy Hsieh
The article is published in collaboration with Taipei Digital Art Center.
Since the pandemic breakout, it has been a necessity for institutions and individual practitioners to migrate to the online. However, the development of online platforms and internet-based artworks was already happening in the 90s when the internet was starting to become available. Therefore, this article focuses on the situation of the born-digital artworks from the 90s and 2000s which have been categorized as net art practices by “Western” scholars in order to find out the historical context of the present situation. The research period matches with the general access to the internet and it will focus mainly on the “regions” of Taiwan and Latinamerica. Although referring to geographical locations can seem contradictory when talking about the “borderless” online sphere, the research acknowledges that access to the internet, hardware, and software are indeed affected by the development of the technology, political /social structure, regional infrastructures and institutions.
A Brief Introduction of Net Art
Since the 90s net art has been defined in many different ways. Initially, from the euro-centered traditional art history perspective, net art refers to a specific artistic movement that took place during the mid-90s with artists living mainly in Europe (to expand about the myth of origin see Vuk Cosic’s interview). At its early stage, the artistic movement had a utopian vision of the internet, considering it as an autonomous zone and made an effort to differentiate from artworks for the internet (also called “web art”, “art in the net”) that perpetuated traditional institutional logics. The general consideration of the network as a medium for a democratized access to art works and its documentation was another characteristic of this so-called movement. The network allowed them to propose ubiquitous artworks that could be accessed in cheaper ways. This provided a DIY philosophy and the idea that anyone could generate an artwork. Some artists related to it nowadays consider that net art as a movement has died, it’s finished because of its institutional absorption which appeared as a limitation to its autonomy.
However, some net artists belonging to the above-mentioned movement do not identify with the concept of movement. Moreover, researchers such as Josephine Bosma (NL) or Claudia Kozak (AR), and Lila Pagola (AR) have expanded the considerations of net art, not as a specific movement but as an artistic practice and way of reception. Considering the non-binary relation among culture and technology is crucial to understand this expanded notion of net art. As theorists Claudia Kozak and Lila Pagola explain, net art should be understood as a technopoetic. This concept that they propose refers to any artwork, (including artistic projects, public art programmes and even poetic devices) that “in various ways assumes at every moment their technical environment and acts accordingly”. They consider both art and technology as regimes that have the potentiality to experiment and create with the sensible world.
The flexible definition that Bosma developed during 1996 to 2001 can be summarized as follows: “A net art work can exist completely outside of the Net (…). The ‘net’ in net art is both a social and a technological reference (the network), which is why the term net art is highly flexible (…). Net art is art that is created from an awareness of, or deep involvement, in a world transformed and affected by elaborate technical ensembles, which are, in turn, established or enhanced through the Net.(…) Net art can be described as an expansion of the entire field of the arts. Net art is, therefore, not a discipline, because it contains and even connects numerous disciplines.”
Several artists argue that there was a general utopian and even “naive” mood of the net artworks from this period. Much more than being a practice which was obsessed with its materiality or with the available technical devices, it made use of such an infrastructure to achieve a social necessity of collaboration which differed from the possibilities that cultural institutions were able to offer at the moment. Artist Thiago Hersan (BR) expressed that at the beginning the Internet “felt like a wide open space of exploration, of learning, of building, of meeting people. It was a time when using the internet and programming the internet was pretty much the same. But a few years later, a lot of the internet looked predetermined, with predetermined forms, predetermined questions and with reasons behind all this. And besides being boring, it was kind of a disappointment.”
Early Net Art in Taiwan
In the 1990s, Taiwan had lifted martial law and entered into the era of globalization and capitalism. At that time, the internet had become more widespread, and personal computers have started to become widely involved in everyday life and for working, although it was not yet fully engaged in building up social relations in everyday life like it is nowadays. Most of the net artworks from Taiwan are no longer available or difficult to find sufficient information. Here are the net artworks in that era: Jun-Jieh Wang’s Neo Urlab (1997), Huang Wen-Hao’s Internet Installation Art Exhibition – Secret Garden（1999) and Yu-Chuan Tseng’s Let’s Make ART (2003). The more well-preserved or documented net artworks were generated by artists based in New York at that time such as Shu Lea Cheang’s Brandon (1998-1999), Lee Mingwe’s the RYT Hospital-Dwayne Medical Center (2002), Fang-Yu Lin’s installation From the Great Beyond (2005) and Doctor of Creative Arts in New Media Arts at University of Technology, Sydney, Australia, Yueh-Hsiu Giffen Cheng’s Cyber Fortune (2008). The above-mentioned artworks are preserved by institutions from the U.S.A. and the UK. In Taiwan, an archive of net art hasn’t been created yet and artworks from European artists, more than from locals, are easily accessed. Further in the article, a similar situation will be described for Latinamerica.
Take Shu Lea Cheang’s Brandon (1998-1999) as an example to have an idea about this period. The work was the first web art commissioned and collected by Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. It shows a story of a young transgender who was raped and murdered because of his gender identity. It not only used the latest technology at that time but also included performances and created an open-collaboration platform during the project. Brandon is not merely a “website” that happens on the internet, it also included holding public forums, chatting online, staging a virtual court that invited people to join both physically and virtually to become the jury of the court and discuss Brandon’s case at the Theatrum Anatonicum in WAAG SOCIETY in the Netherlands. Shu Lea Cheang emphasized in an interview held by Rhizome “It’s an open narrative. I was inviting different participants to join to fill in the narrative, the content. I have always planned the project as a multi-artist collaboration.”
Early Net Art in Latinamerica
In general, access to the internet in Latinamerica was firstly made available by universities or public institutions dedicated to research and science during the 80s, but its broader commercialization didn’t take place until mid 90s with the advent of the World Wide Web in the USA.. Uruguay was one of the firsts countries in the region to make it widely available (through the adinet service) but it was not an accessible and stable service in terms of its costs and speed. Widespread access to the internet in Latinamerica had a much slower development than in Taiwan. Only by 2015, 54,4% of the inhabitants of the region had access to internet connection. As to understand the general context of the region it is also important to consider that many countries (Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Paraguay, Perú, Uruguay among others) had suffered military dictatorships from the 60s onwards, in some cases even until the 90s. This brought social and economic crises and a consequent isolation among the countries. The first net art experiments in the region did not have a political or activist approach, instead net artists’ preoccupation at that time was the endogamic conditions of the art system and this new practice allowed new ways of exhibition, alternative circulation channels and opened the possibilities of relating with the audiences. Artists focused on the possibilities of interactivity as a way to expand the concept of artwork and the possibilities of the “spectator” in the reception process transforming them into co-authors in some cases.
Differently to how net art had developed in other regions, net artists from the Latinamerican region never achieved to create a “local community”. As already mentioned, access to the internet was slow, expensive and there was a lack of a powerful social infrastructure necessary for the development of a strong institutional context or a relevant research and critical production. Artist Brian Mackern (UY) stated that it was easier for them to find information about European artists than to know what artists from their own or neighbouring countries were doing. This situation led him to develop an archiving and distribution project of net art from Latinamerica, the net.art_latino database (visit Brian Mackern’s interview to know more). The database can be considered as a political statement in the gestures of archiving and recopilation of the net artworks, in making the artworks accessible as to foster a regional and international engagement and visibility. Similar to the situation mentioned for Taiwan, the majority of links archived in the database are now broken.In relation to that condition, Mackern and Nilo Casares (curator of the net.art_latino database book) express that far from leaving the broken links as a nostalgic gesture, “we must not forget that the internet is a dynamic system, where things are, and cease to be just as street signs and building façade colours change from day to day. For this reason, we cannot ignore that we are now witnessing an impossible attempt to pin down the movements of an era whose only survivors are those who resist giving up what they once were.”
Focusing on the work Mi deseo es tu deseo [My desire is your desire] (1996-19977) by artist Gustavo Romano (AR) may contribute to exemplifying the online experiments which took place in this period. Romano is part of the Fin del mundo collective and he is also the creator and curator of Netescopio (digital art archive developed within the MEIAC, Spain). The artwork consists of two character’s simulated profiles which the artist uploaded in various Usenet forums. Their portraits had been composed of synthesized digital images. Users could leave messages to each character. The work is the compilation of the e-mails received, it was exhibited in two offline exhibitions in Buenos Aires and Mexico. It is still possible to access all the messages that the virtual identities received at the time. Mi deseo tu deseo can be considered as an incipient experiment of dating apps. Also, its title could be read as critical interpretation or an anticipated warning of the risks of online exposure and navigation (information recopilation, and algorithmic targeting for advertising or political campaigns) as the fictitious characters appear to have a completely passive attitude and can only desire what the users want them to desire. The artworks mentioned, Brandon and Mi deseo es tu deseo, share the user participation aspect. However, Shu Lea Cheang’s work created a very clear invitation to political action and engagement while Gustavo Romano’s work appears as a more ludic or romantic participation. Considered together, they both clearly point to the mutual influence of our online and offline ways of relating which corresponds to Bosma’s perspective on net art existing outside the ‘net’. This leads to the potentiality of political resistance in the network society.
At the user level, it is possible to consider these artworks as very clear presentation of the varied ways of using networks, be it for romantic socialization, for political action, research or any kind of engagement which, in our present has been centralized and conventionalized in a few social media platforms – be it Twitter, dating apps, Facebook or Instagram- with predetermined and limited possibilities.
The will to contribute to the histories of net art which differ from the hegemonic ones does not come without many challenges. The two compared “regions” have had a different development regarding wide access to the internet but shared similar political and social developments as well as a lack of institutional infrastructure to work towards the preservation, circulation and theorization of net artworks. Accessibility to many of these artworks is still possible thanks to western initiatives such as Net art Anthology (launched in 2016 by Rhizome under the artistic direction of Micheal Connor).
It is our hope to develop further research on the history of net art in different and especially marginalized regions in the context of social infrastructure and technological mechanisms while taking the regional digital divide, accessibility of the internet and the world politics behind it into consideration.
Daniela Ruiz Moreno (Argentina / Uruguay) is an independent curator and art historian focused on interdisciplinary practices that combine video, performance, sound and participatory art. She has coordinated the Artist-in-Residence International Program of the Fundación ‘ace para el Arte Contemporáneo (Argentina) and has been a curator in residence at various institutions such as Delfina Foundation (London), demolición/construcción (Argentina), Guanlan Printmaking Base (Shenzhen) and Shanghai Curators Lab (Shanghai). In 2019 she received the Brooks International Fellowship and was part of the Tate Exchange team at Tate Modern. Currently she is based in Madrid and is working with projects supported by institutions as Fundación “la Caixa” and Espacio de todos.
Hsiang-Yun Huang (Taiwan) is a visual artist and researcher of contemporary art theory based in Taiwan and the Netherlands. Her art critiques about philosophy of time, internet arts and curating the digital were given grants by the National Art and Culture Foundation (TW) in 2018-2019 and 2021-2022. In 2020, she initiated a webinar/performance program Embodied Interface （Latin America, Japan, the Netherlands, Slovenia). In the same year, she and Chen Jhen co-created the exhibition Uchronia (interactive website about post-colonialism) both as an online exhibition and offline exhibition in Taiwan.
As a curatorial collective: They focus on internet art from the perspective of post-colonialism and the global south. With a process driven co-creation approach, their curatorial methodology articulates academic research and art practice. They have launched the project EMBODIED INTERFACE in 2020 and they are currently researching the issue of post-truth in the context of digital globalization.
BOSMA, Josephine, Nettitudes, Let’s Talk Net Art (Studies in Network Culture), 2011
CASARES, Nilo & MACKERN, Brian The netart latino database, net.art_latino database, MEIAC, Spain, 2010. Link to the book : https://www.digitalartarchive.at/fileadmin/user_upload/Virtualart/PDF/301_netart_latino_database.pdf
KOZAK, Claudia Tecnopoéticas Argentinas: archivo blando de arte y tecnología, Net.art. Editado por Claudia Kozak, Caja Negra, Buenos Aires, 2015,
PAGOLA, Lila, The inverted mapª of Latin American net.art, net.art_latino database, MEIAC, Spain, 2010.Link to the book: https://www.digitalartarchive.at/fileadmin/user_upload/Virtualart/PDF/301_netart_latino_database.pdf
KARIN, de Wild, The Brandon Project: An Open Narrative, May 16, 2017, Rhizome. This interview accompanies the presentation of Shu Lea Cheang’s Brandon as a part of the online exhibition Net Art Anthology. Link:https://rhizome.org/editorial/2017/may/16/the-brandon-project-an-open-narrative/. Access Date: 2021.10.20.
王柏偉，《PAR表演藝術》 334 期 / 2020年10月號，〈 「後數位」狀態下建構逸出螢幕外的敘事 2020「亞當計畫」觀察〉，2020。原文連結：https://par.npac-ntch.org/tw/article/doc-%E3%80%8C%E5%BE%8C%E6%95%B8%E4%BD%8D%E3%80%8D%E7%8B%80%E6%85%8B%E4%B8%8B-%E5%BB%BA%E6%A7%8B%E9%80%B8%E5%87%BA%E8%9E%A2%E5%B9%95%E5%A4%96%E7%9A%84%E6%95%98%E4%BA%8B-2020%E3%80%8C%E4%BA%9E%E7%95%B6%E8%A8%88%E7%95%AB%E3%80%8D%E8%A7%80%E5%AF%9F-fro0zh5tvk。閱讀日期2021.10.1
 Hsiang-Yun Huang, Daniela Ruiz Moreno VUK ĆOSIĆ, VUK ĆOSIĆ: A perspective on the myth of the origins of the net.art, Taipei Digital Art Center, 2021:https://dac.taipei/%e7%b7%9a%e4%b8%8a%e5%b0%88%e6%96%87/vuk-cosic-%e7%b6%b2%e7%b5%a1%e8%97%9d%e8%a1%93%e7%9a%84%e8%b5%b7%e6%ba%90%e8%bf%b7%e6%80%9d/. Access Date: 2021.10.01.
 PAGOLA, Lila and GRADIN Charly, Tecnopoéticas Argentinas: archivo blando de arte y tecnología, Net.art. Editado por Claudia Kozak, Caja Negra, Buenos Aires, 2015, p. 184-185
 This perspective also related net art to the previous international expansion of the Fluxus group, visual poetry and mail art.
 See footnote 1.
 KOZAK, Claudia Tecnopoéticas Argentinas: archivo blando de arte y tecnología, Net.art. Editado por Claudia Kozak, Caja Negra, Buenos Aires, 2015, p.1
 BOSMA, Josephine, Nettitudes, Let’s Talk Net Art (Studies in Network Culture), 2011 p.23
 ibid, p.24-25
 Po-Wei Wang，Performing Arts Redefined (Platform). 334 edition / issue of 2020.10. Post-digital Condition:The Narrative Constructed Beyond the Screen. (「後數位」狀態下 建構逸出螢幕外的敘事 2020「亞當計畫」觀察) (in Chinese)。Access Date: 2021.10.1.，Link：https://par.npac-ntch.org/tw/article/doc-%E3%80%8C%E5%BE%8C%E6%95%B8%E4%BD%8D%E3%80%8D%E7%8B%80%E6%85%8B%E4%B8%8B-%E5%BB%BA%E6%A7%8B%E9%80%B8%E5%87%BA%E8%9E%A2%E5%B9%95%E5%A4%96%E7%9A%84%E6%95%98%E4%BA%8B-2020%E3%80%8C%E4%BA%9E%E7%95%B6%E8%A8%88%E7%95%AB%E3%80%8D%E8%A7%80%E5%AF%9F-fro0zh5tvk (in Chinese)
 The link of Let’s Make ART (2003)：http://tyuchuan.com/1988-2014/mart02/page/c_main.htm 。 See also ：曾鈺涓，數位藝述第5號，2016，DIGIART臺灣數位藝術知識與創作流通平台，〈 網路藝術已死？〉 （in Chinese）
 Link of the documentation of the artwork From the Great Beyond (2005)： http://compustition.com/projects/beyond/index.html
 KARIN, de Wild, The Brandon Project: An Open Narrative, Rhizome, May 16, 2017, This interview accompanies the presentation of Shu Lea Cheang’s Brandon as a part of the online exhibition Net Art Anthology. Link:https://rhizome.org/editorial/2017/may/16/the-brandon-project-an-open-narrative/. Access Date: 2021.10.20.
 Official figure provided by the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean in 2016. See more information about the report: https://www.cepal.org/es/comunicados/cepal-aumenta-fuertemente-uso-acceso-internet-america-latina-caribe
During 1971-73 in Chile, with president Salvador Allende, the project Cybersyn had started to develop. This project aimed at constructing a distributed decision support system to aid in the management of the national economy using available telecommunications such as Telex. Although it was a project for industrial management, it was later considered as an alternative possibility to the Internet as we know it today. The project was cancelled after the advent of the military dictatorship of Pinochet.
 Brian ‘s interview at DAC Taipei. Link：https://dac.taipei/en/uncategorized-en/brian-mackern-a-perspective-on-net-art-from-south-america/
 CASARES, Nilo & MACKERN, Brian, The netart latino database, p.10, 2010.
 Usenet was an early non-centralized computer network for the discussion of particular topics and the sharing of files via newsgroups.