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Lost in the Cyberspace Translation
There's something missing in online `art'

  Sunday, July 14, 1996

Everyone seems to believe that art has a future on the Internet. They probably are right, but for the wrong reasons.

A generation that came of age staring at screens, the thinking goes, will be sensitized to images and therefore keenly receptive to visual art in any medium. But unlike camera-reliant film and video, computer electronics and software are not pictorial -- or iconic -- media, despite their capacity to process images. Even a costly marvel of computer animation like the movie ``Toy Story'' is not a new kind of pictorial vehicle; it impresses us because of how well it simulates what the camera captures.


People captivated by the look of images on the electronic screen will find this hard to accept. So will visual artists who view the Net as a career launchpad. So will the growing number of museums and galleries that use images to engage people at their Web sites.

But the structures and possibilities of cyberspace are nothing like the syntax of images and image media. Image art on the computer screen looks and feels arbitrary as can be, because from the technology's standpoint, it is.

Looking for art on the Internet is about as much fun as culling quotable vanity plates from freeway traffic. Art can be found there, of course, allowing plenty of room for quibbles about what is meant by ``art'' and ``there.''

Most of the Web sites maintained by museums, for example, offer a handful of images to represent their holdings. Click on the link to the Art Institute of Chicago's distinguished Asian department and you get a view of an antique Chinese bronze horse. Of course, this image itself is not art. And like the camera, but more thoroughly, digitized reproduction negates the real object's scale, weight and presence.

Conceptual art -- not visual art -- is what has a future on the Internet. The intriguing art on the Net now concerns itself not with pictorial aesthetics but with issues raised by the system itself: credibility, confidentiality, the sensation of disembodiment, online time as catatonia.


An example is ``Legal Tender'' (, the project of a team of artists led by Ken Goldberg. This is a work involving tele-robotics

--mechanical operations at some remote point, activated by viewer commands over the Internet.

The text of ``Legal Tender'' explains that the work allows an online visitor to perform remote-controlled tests on a pair of $100 bills, one real, one counterfeit. An image shows a roomful of robotic apparatus, pur portedly in Washington, D.C.

To make a test, you have to register a name and address, which will be enough to discourage some people, defacement of currency being technically criminal. Once registered, you are assigned a small sector on one of the C notes, a magnified view of which appears on the screen.

Next the choice of tests is offered -- a puncture of the bill, for example -- and you are asked whether you will ``take responsibility'' for it. If you proceed, you get to compare before-and-after details of the tested bill and declare whether you think it real or counterfeit.


``Legal Tender'' mocks the Treasury Department's crowing about having developed new counterfeit-proof paper currency, good facsimiles of which soon began to appear. But its main point is to heighten the uncertainties built into interactivity on the Web. Is a tele-robotic operation really carried out somewhere at your behest? Why is it necessary to ``register'' first? Is one's own engagement with this work its true tele-robotic component? On what does anyone's credulity toward images and other information on the Internet rest?

An extreme case of online moral anesthesia is the real-time events staged by Australian performance artist Stelarc (

He takes literally the idea that technology is forcing evolutionary changes in the human body and body image, and often works with robotic props and prostheses.

He has performed -- and promises to do so again -- with limbs rigged to electrodes that can cause him to move involuntarily in response to commands sent over the Internet by members of his online audience. Stelarc's high-tech puppetry underlines the sadistic temptations of distance and the technology that spans it. Stills from his most recent performance of this work, called ``Ping Body,'' may be found at his Web site.

Other artists toy with the disembodiment implicit in being online. Someone at the University of California at Santa Barbara known as Victoria Vesna ( offers online visitors the chance to design a body to personify them in cyberspace.


``Avatar'' is the term for such a cyber-surrogate, and there are chat rooms where participants can encounter each other in the form of avatars, rather than as bursts of text.

At Vesna's Web site you can review an extensive menu of avatar design specs and see what kinds of identities other people have ordered.

The sensation of disembodiment, of online time as numb time, is crucial to any critical perspective on art in cyberspace.

Conceptual art seems most at home on the Internet because it stands for the possibility that ideas, not their physical substrate, are the real matter of art.

One of the most famous online art projects, the team of Komar and Melamid's ``Most Wanted Paintings,'' satirizes the idea that art is democratic, that public feedback might improve the quality of art (

Using survey research techniques, Komar and Melamid determined what kinds of content people would most -- and least -- prefer to see in a painting. They then created a picture -- a tissue of generic details -- to conform to the survey results. They began with the United States and have since continued the project in other countries, including Russia, China, France and Turkey.

The generic pictures are awful, yet as figments of statistical imagination they seem right at home in cyberspace. America's ``Most Wanted Painting'' is a kitschy mountain-and-lake landscape with a couple of deer and a family in historical costume. France's is very similar, except that the people are scantily clad.

The big question remains: With numberless great artworks in physical space, why would anyone bother with art in cyberspace?

An obvious possibility is that minds untroubled by skepticism, or with little taste for the sensations of life, simply find cyberspace more hospitable than the physical and social space where most art resides. Cyberspace offers anonymity, inexhaustible (if trivial) novelty, delusions of effortless mobility and the constant feeling of brushing the leading edge of -- something.

Until recently the static visual arts could still stir in people the feeling of being at the wave crest of an evolving, not-yet-understood sensibility. That was part of the promise of the term ``avant-garde.'' But the confidence in progress that once nourished the modernist avant-garde arts has long since collapsed. Progress today seems to be all on the side of science and information technology.

Naturally, some artists nostalgic for art's old progressive possibilities want to get into cyberspace.

So do hacks who, misreading Andy Warhol, think being an artist just means putting your name and product before as many people as possible. Works of this inspiration appear regularly on The Gate, The Chronicle's online service, which has a feature called ``Gallery 360.'' ``Gallery Obtuse'' would be a better name for it.

In principle an image of any object from the history of art can be made available online. Right now, finding the specific image you want to see is the hard part, but it is sure to become easier as museums, libraries and art galleries continue to develop Web sites and put their image banks online.

Charging for access to images is sure to become part of the picture, as legal questions about electronic rights to art reproductions are resolved.

In just the past two weeks, technology companies have announced security innovations that will guarantee the safety of ordering merchandise by credit card over the Internet. So look for the Net to realize soon its destiny as the world's biggest-bandwidth shopping channel, and for the art market to be part of the electronic mall.

Already, a typical art museum Web site includes detailed information about the museum's shop. That in itself hints at another reason art is on the Internet: as bait. The popular audience that museums have been cultivating over the past two decades knows well what a respectable excuse for shopping a little art viewing can be. The weightless availability of images onscreen makes that excuse even easier to provide.

Since the mid-19th century, when the annual Salon exhibitions in Paris began attracting a large, opinionated public, artists have thought about how to position their work before the largest possible audience. Today -- or if not today, tomorrow -- the shortcut to a mass audience is to put work on the Net.

At worst, this impulse is no more than self-promotion. At best, in the public works of Jenny Holzer and Kryzstof Wodizcko, for example, a mass forum can launch a critique of language and images as tools of power.

Holzer is already on the Net ( with a couple of her language pieces, cascades of statements that sound now like wisdom, now like wisecracks, bat tle cries, propaganda or slurs on humanity. Her work seems to belong on the Net because to confront us with the impossibility of tracing her ``Truisms'' to their sources has always been part of her point.

Electronic technology promises to complete the erasure of differences between art and information about it that began with photographic reproduction, or perhaps even earlier, with the reproduction of famous paintings by engravings.

Of course, the differences between unique objects and images of them do not really disappear. That thought is shorthand for changes in how people speak and behave, for how they gradually assent to overlooking the differences between mediated and unmediated reality, to the detriment of what philosophers like to call ``the external world.''

Then again, if we believe with William James that ``whatever excites and stimulates our interest is real,'' the distinction between mediated and unmediated reality may turn out to be specious after all.

Only art that helps us sort out issues such as this will stand tall in cyberspace, and it is bound to be more conceptual than visual.


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©1998 San Francisco Chronicle  Page 28

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