Publish at June 11 2012 Updated April 12 2022

From Net art to digital art

Some tracks to define the contours of and its role in society

The pioneers of Internet art seem to have given way to the very many artists who exploit digital technologies in physical spaces. Yet there is a continuity of function and spirit among these artists, and their resistance to traditional forms of art marketing.

Is digital art like digital photography, digital music, or even digital pedagogy? Do we gather under this appellation a practice finally old, improved without being radically transformed by the digital tools and supports?
We can define digital art in a very simple way : any form of artistic expression based on the use of computer code. We can also add multiple characteristics to it. Its interactivity, for example. The fact that the public is generally more actor than spectator of the works.

A MOOC produced by the Enghien Arts Center and the Orange Foundation, Art and Digital Creation, explores different forms of digital art. It includes visual arts as well as live performance, music, theater, holograms, robots... The common point between all these works, besides the use of computer code, is their critical function: they question the very tools they use, and the way of making society that results from their use.

Net art, since the birth of the Internet...

While artists have been exploiting digital technologies since the 1960s, the arrival of the Internet has allowed for the emergence of specific artistic forms, grouped under the name of Net art.
The definition of Net art is given by Jean-Paul Fourmentraux, one of the best connoisseurs of the genre :

" Since the second half of the 1990s, Net art designates interactive creations conceived by, for and with the Internet, as opposed to more traditional art forms transferred to the network "

Net art was born with the irruption of the Internet, in the mid-1990s - Like the site Thot, by the way ! There are still a few surviving art sites online from that era, with a recognizable aesthetic. On the site, the work of two Dutch artists, one of the oldest still in operation, we see the famous 404 error code transformed into a work of art. At the same time, Vuk Cosic, a Serbian-born artist, transformed some iconic works of Western visual culture into airport pictograms.

My Boyfriend Came Back from The War is an interactive work also born in 1996. It is still online and has inspired entire generations of artists. In 2016, an exhibition brought together the original work and its many derivatives.

The excellent American website Rhizome offers a anthology of net art. Unusually, it runs through 2019 and thus offers recent works.

Is net art for sale ?

Net art is certainly less fashionable than in the 2000s. This, while digital art forms are proliferating in physical spaces. All contemporary art galleries have to exhibit digital art. But installations are expensive, maintenance is complex... and the work in digital media is easily reproducible.

Reason why it is difficult to sell digital art to collectors :

" We need to establish a charter. Determine what a digital work is because for there to be a collection, there must be possession, for there to be possession and a market, there must be the ability to resell. For the moment, the most practical thing is the establishment of a certificate of sale with the indications of use,"

said Pierre Cornette de Saint Cyr, a famous French auctioneer, in a 2010 Arts Hebdo Médias article.

In fact, it seems easier to get collectors to admit the absence of an author than the absence of a price. In October 2018, the first painting generated by an artificial intelligence  sold for more than $430 000 at Christie's. The production of the AI had taken on all the material attributes of classical painting, which may partly explain its price.
Born of the Internet and not leaving it, Net art unfolds in a space freed from the institutional constraints represented by galleries, museums, collectors, art theorists. The work is accessible on line, at any time and in any place, by thousands of (theoretical) visitors simultaneously. In this sense, it is the uniqueness of the work of art that it questions, but also what is at stake on the web, namely the existence of closed, controlled, marketable spaces.

Duchamp, in his time already...

Net art can be linked to earlier artistic movements. The reference to Marcel Duchamp appears to be inescapable, once again: by exhibiting an upside-down urinal, accompanied by all the codes of representation of academic works of art, the latter, as early as 1917, signified that any artifact could become a work of art from the moment an artist designated it as such; it is his approach that matters here, far more than the object itself.

In the same way, Net art artists make us look differently at the digital technologies that are now an integral part of all our activities. And it is indeed the essential role of the artists in our societies, not to decorate our walls, but to question the world in which we evolve, and its transformations:

"it is necessary to note that well beyond the simple digitization of the activities existing before, the artists of the digital carry out an often relevant reflection on the use of these technologies. Whether it is on the nature of the digital image, on the relation to space and time, on the structure of the network and on the place that the body and sensoriality occupy, but also on the concepts of author, work, receiver, as well as on their relations, as well as on the changes brought to the communication, this art has a lot to tell us. Because they address the sensitive, the artists of the digital have the capacity to bring to the perception of each the modifications of the relations to the world brought by the TIC. They play a sort of mediating role or a watchdog role (as Mac Luhan thought, by the way),"

affirms Marie Serindou, a keen observer of digital art for more than 10 years .

The Internet is no longer the wonderful playground it seemed when it first appeared. But if you look hard enough, you can still find creative spaces that, like all true alternative movements, need the penumbra to exist and develop. It would be a shame to ignore them. Some references cited below invite you to frequent them.

Title illustration : site, Rafaël Rozendaal, 2010.


Articles by Jean-Paul Fourmentraux :

Net art , Communications, 2011/1 (No. 88) -
Net art : Artistic Self-Production and Digital Criticism.  Issues in Information and Communication, 2015 supplement B

MOOC Art and Digital Creation . Enghien-les-bains Arts Center, Orange Foundation, 2019. Accessible as a free course. -

History of art for airports, Vuk Cosic -

My Boyfriend Came Back From The War -  Olia Lialina -

Anthology of Net art, Rhizome -

The Fountain, Marcel Duchamp (third replica), Wikipedia

See more articles by this author




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