As more brands tap web-art talent, the New Museum is rescuing vintage digital art from the dustbin.
Digital art organization Rhizome has been collecting internet-based art since 1996. This year, the organization will embark on one of its most ambitious projects: The Net Art Anthology, a 2-year staging of 100 influential digital artworks at the New Museum in New York City.
Net Art was born in the earliest days of the internet, and encompasses a range of digital art forms: video, imagery, and activist projects. Rhizome’s first staging will be 1991’s “A Cyberfeminist Manifesto for the 21st Century,” feminist statement from Australia-based collective VNS Matrix designed to live exclusively on the web. The exhibit will also cycle through more well-known recent works, like Petra Cortright’s “VVEBCAM,” a performance recorded on YouTube in 2007.
Part of the challenge of collecting and presenting Net Art, according to Rhizome founder Mark Tribe, is the Internet’s ephemeral nature. “If somebody puts an oil painting in a closet for 5 years, it’ll come out looking pretty much the same,” said Tribe during a launch event for the exhibit. “With media art, the technology’s always changing.”
Net Art was primarily meant to be displayed online, not collected for future use; in many cases, the browsers or tools originally used to present works are no longer in use. In response, Rhizome has launched Webrecorder, a key piece of the preservation puzzle. Webrecorder allows users to display a webpage as it was originally intended, through an archived version of a specific browser or Flash player.
With the launch of the Net Art Anthology, Rhizome and the New Museum are giving the fledgling digital art movement a renewed sense of rigor and permanence. The exhibit also calls forward the earliest days of Internet exploration, where the digital met the surreal in a burst of creativity that disrupted both the current art landscape and the world’s outlook on technology.
“It’s hard to remember, but there was a sense of stepping across a new frontier. Kind of like a Star Trek feeling,” said Tribe, who is also the current chair of the School of Visual Arts’ fine arts MFA program. “Everything had been done. There was nothing new under the art sun. And then the Internet opened up. It was a space for happening. Art happened here.”
In recent years, designers have begun to tap the digital landscapes of Net Art for a jolt of creativity or edge. Last year, Cortright partnered with Stella McCartney for a series of glitchy, surreal videos featuring the designer’s latest line. In October, W Magazine tapped digital artists Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch for a photoshoot featuring Kendall Jenner and Gigi Hadid that presented a warped view of our relationship with cameras and technology.
As Net Art moves toward a mature place in the art canon, it remains a potent source of inspiration surrounding the intersection of art and technology.
For more on digital surrealism, see our Unreality trend report.