September 23, 1989

From: Tom Watson
Subject: Online art in NYC

Since you were our first feature in @NY, it seems fitting that you should be in an issue near our second anniversary (how we've all survived, I'll never know). In any case, I'm trying to take a critical look at the way the Net has changed/affected/dispersed the art scene in New York City. So what's hot? What do you like? How's ArtNetWeb doing? And what has the Web meant to the more-tasteful-than-thou NYC art scene?
Your friendly community publisher,

Hi Tom,

artnetweb is still very much alive and kicking -- if not particularly prosperous -- since your profile of us in the first issue of @NY. Microsoft has neither offered us big bucks to sell our souls nor threatened to squash the life out of us. No limousines have deposited pesky Armani-clad art collectors at our door. A venture capitalist did stop by the storefront one day last month with what looked like a suitcase full of money but it turned out he had the wrong address.

We just keep going somehow -- like you and everyone else we know -- because we like what we're doing and think it's important in the long run. Cheap, too! All we really need is a phone line and we're still in business. What it is exactly we're doing is still a mystery to many people. When you asked us the first time we said we wanted to help artists figure out how to get online and we're still doing that by teaching classes, developing projects and generally being around to answer questions when we can.

Our introductory HTML classes in the storefront have been a very popular way for people to get started, artists in particular, because we understand how confusing it all can be. Right now we're in the process of going online with classes in VRML and 3-d modeling (check out our "Online Education Center" on the Web site for details and class descriptions --

Most of last winter was taken up by our "PORT:Navigating Digital Culture" project at the MIT List Visual Arts Center ( We were asked by the List Center to do "an Internet exhibit" as an adjunct to the show by conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth in the main gallery because they felt there was a connection between the concerns of artists in the 'sixties that resulted in the conceptual movement and what is happening today. At the time it seemed to us that the energy we found was with real-time performance over a distributed network, not unlike the "Happenings" in the 'sixties. With the help of a T3 connection from the Media Lab and equipment loaned by some very adventurous companies we managed to program live projects six days a week every two hours in the gallery for a period of two months.

The result was chaotic in the beginning but eventually things started to make sense as we learned to use, and misuse, the equipment and software. By the end of the two months we had a distinct feeling that a new kind of exhibition space had been created at PORT and we looked forward to doing it again in other venues. Unfortunately our enthusiasm hasn't been shared by the institutional art world which is still fretting over whether they should put images on their Web site (or to even have a Web site).

We are currently working on a VRML 3-D interface for the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and, with luck, that will lead to more adventurous projects. One very positive result of PORT was the realization by the participants that we need a facility in New York where online performance can be created. Commercial firms like the Pseudo Online Network and generously allowed artists to use their equipment and studios to webcast CU-SeeMe and RealAudio during PORT but a permanent and affordable place that is geared to experimental art projects is essential. One of the groups in PORT, Floating Point Unit, is in the process of building one now in Williamsburg (you'll have to ask Jeff Gompertz, Bruno Ricard or Volcano for details. Their Web site is

Another project we're involved in is the "Foundation for Digital Culture" (FDC or "digicult" for short), a collaboration between various art groups that formed during the last year's CyberSoho in dissatisfaction with the way digital art was being conceptualized and presented both in the media and in exhibition spaces. We meet once a month to talk and propose possible projects because it was obvious that our individual likelihood for survival was nil if we put our energies into competing so we agreed to help each other where we could. The PORT project was very much a result of these meetings. Among the groups are ada'web, Plexus, The Thing, Gertrude Stein Repertory, Art Dirt, Rhizome, Postmasters, X-Art Foundation and about four or five others (a complete list can be found at the Web site

For various reasons I personally find Europe a more interesting art scene right now for people working online. They have a distinct advantage in many ways of being technologically behind the U.S. (though Finland is the most wired country on earth) in that there is less pressure to commercialize the Internet. There's more room for investigation that would be seen as unproductive here. And there's the advantage of having governments that are, if no longer quite so generous, at least not outright hostile to art. There's also the money being pumped into Eastern Europe by George Soros who quite willingly pumps it into art projects that provide Internet access. The influence Soros has, culturally, is a hotly debated topic on NETTIME and other e-mail lists and discussion forums.

The recent DocumentaX in Kassel was the first major art venue to take online work seriously and is significant because, unlike institutions like Ars Electronica or conferences like ISEA, it was not traditionally dedicated to electronic or computer art. Many criticized director Catherine David for what they saw as her neo-marxist slant -- and from what I understand the digital exhibitions were lacking in appeal to visitors -- but I was hopeful, particularly because I was able to, in a small way, participate in Documenta via the BLAST Forum created by Jordan Crandall of the X-Art Foundation. The theme was "spatial articulation", which sounds daunting but is, basically figuring out where you are in space, and how you interact with it, a fundamental process in almost any art and important as our very concept of space is changing.

Europeans seem much more accustomed to using networks, be they railroads or government bureaucracies, and so they see the Internet differently than we do. Artists like Heath Bunting from England, Alexei Shulgin from Russia and the team of Dirk Paesmans and Joan Heemskerk who work as are among the most interesting artists today, on or off-line. They work naturally with the idea of distributed networks and seem to understand the value of collaboration.

As for what is going on here, there seems to be very little connection going on but I have seen signs that the interests of the art world are turning to the concept of digital, rather than anything like "computer art." That was always a bad term that nobody but schools liked anyway. The most evident sign is what some are calling the return of "abstract painting" in the galleries but is really an interest in basic concepts and conceptual thinking -- in other words a kind of "object-oriented programming" but with paint. I see this too in the video work of artists like Diana Thater who treat the projected image as something to take apart and rearrange or Stephan Koplowitz's Webbed Feats.

I've gone on, I know, but I've been meaning to put some of these ideas down for a while and your email set me off. I had meant to write and thank you for the piece Jason wrote on the importance of digital art for Silicon Alley but hadn't gotten around to it. I'll try to remember who our friends are from now on.



PS: I have a site called "iola" where I try to put links to art things I find interesting. It changes as I add and delete stuff and my mood shifts but it's usually whatever I found recently online.