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November 24, 2019

YANG | When We Treat Internet Art as Free Software

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Who pays for software these days? Software is either free or is meant to be pirated. That is the implication of our digital culture. Everything on the Internet by default has to be free, or it will be vehemently tinkered until it’s free. We equate accessibility to the expectation of free content. This mentality in regards to the digital sphere feeds into our perception of Internet art. What is Internet art? It can be an Instagram post, a website, a digitally restored artwork in an online archive, an audio-visual offered through a streaming platform, a program that is creatively miscoded with artistic vision or even a glitch that is artfully crafted. Once artwork is mediated through the Internet, our critique has a fundamentally different basis than our assessment of any other form of art. Many of us have ingrained the belief that Internet art is intrinsically vulgar, or at least inferior to other art forms.

Why? Because the Internet as an open network offers artists and audiences unprecedented possibilities to be connected to one another. The notion of openness and accessibility is embedded in our Internet culture. This is often enabled by offering content for free. When the Internet makes it easier to make, distribute, critique and consume art, it challenges the elitism of the art world. In the networked age, the hierarchical art ecosystem consists of artists, curators, critics and audiences is flattened. Internet art emerges in the art world as another new wave that challenges the status quo and calls for greater openness and accessibility. It echoes countercultural beliefs in the 1960s that seek to obliterate hierarchies with small-scale devices that connect to large-scale networks.

The Internet as an open platform is perceived as a threat to the purity of art. Just like its predecessors, Internet art comes off as an intimidating force of the unknown to the establishment. In response to the perceived threat, the rhetoric of vulgarity and impurity is institutionalized and thus amplified. It argues that the openness and accessibility of the Internet have devalued the appreciation of art, enabling the mass circulation and thus the mass production and consumption of art. This echoes the criticism of low art and pop art and implies the belief that the viewing experience of Internet art can hardly be cultured. Yet I would argue that the noise on the Internet is precisely the context of the medium. As Marshall McLuhan introduced the world to the enigmatic paradox “the medium is the message,” it can be perceived that the unique viewing experience of Internet art — with pop-up ads and glitches being integrated in free software — is central to the message of the medium.

There is often a misconception regarding the Internet as a platform. It is often perceived as merely a medium to deliver other art mediums. Yet I would argue that the Internet is not only a platform but an infrastructure, and it is through its fluid and often amorphous infrastructure that leaves ample possibilities for artistic endeavors to be implemented. The creative misuse that accentuates the infrastructure is what distinguishes Internet art from pure technological engagement with the protocols that operate on the very same platform. The essence of Internet art is that it reminds the audience of the medium.

As Internet art often exists within such obscurity, it is often presumed to be hard to be collected and thus ephemeral and insignificant. This nature of Internet art reflects the perpetuating rhetoric of vulgarity and impurity. As such, Internet art is never a standalone piece but is always seen in coexistence, and when it appears on a platform, it often co-exists with applied, practical design. This speaks to the dichotomy between art and design. How can we draw the line between web art and web design? We cannot. We cannot fully delineate the two components from their symbiotic presence.

This ties to the aforementioned connotation of free software. As we cannot delineate Internet art from content that can be accessed for free (even when the content is not offered for free, it will ultimately be rendered free) on the Internet as a platform, we essentially perceive Internet art the same way we perceive free software. As we associate Internet art with free software, we essentially associate Internet art with the softness within the context of long-standing hierarchies of hardware and software, of engineering and programming, of manufacturing and design and of men and women. For some, this amorphous state of Internet art connotes a sense of inferiority, yet for others, this echoes the hope of technological utopianism to shed light on the power imbalance. For these people, Internet art is an electronic force of resistance to our hierarchical bureaucracies. This sense of freedom speaks to Stewart Brand’s belief that the use of technologies can lead to a non-hierarchical society. Perhaps this is why Internet art is no less controversial than free software. How do we get free software? Through the Internet. How do we access art for free? Through the Internet.

Stephen Yang is a sophomore in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Rewiring Technoculture runs alternate Mondays this semester.