Metronom: Much of the sector criticism has focused lately on net art almost as a bulwark of opportunity and resistance, even going so far as to coin expressions such as ‘art for locked-in’. There seems to be little competence or little awareness of net art even from insiders, have you thought about why this might be

Domenico Quaranta: Like many other realities, in this time of lock-in and fear of human contact, the world of art has been forced to migrate online. Some have been content with putting things on their social media or live streaming on Instagram, Facebook and Youtube, or to further utilise their mailing list as a communication tool; the more adventurous organized online exhibitions, fairs and virtual viewing rooms. All of a sudden, the network has changed, from a place of communication and support to physical space, to the only possible space for the manifestation of art. Given the current circumstances, it was predictable that the artistic practices that had long ago chosen the network as their primary space of existence would find renewed interest. There is nothing wrong with that, a reinterpretation of the net art tradition might prove to be one of the positive aspects of this unfortunate period, and teach to the “non-native” arts something about this space. But describing net art as perfect for this moment of forced imprisonment on the screen and on the net is very dangerous, because it risks falsifying completely its nature and jeopardizing its understanding. For net art, being on the web has always been the consequence of a choice of freedom, not an imposed condition. We choose to make art on the net to explore new conditions, to be part of a community, to establish a direct dialogue with the spectator and with the public space of which we are part. That’s how it was in the Nineties, and continues to be today, but with differences. Think about Land art: it was, and in some ways still is, a refusal of the white cube and its implications, the search for huge spaces, the desire to leave a formal mark on the natural world and to create new spaces for relationships. But if, due to some cataclysm, the whole world of art was forced to leave the museums and galleries, and retreat to the Nevada desert, would they continue in the same way? Would we all become Land artists?

M: The Link Art Center ended its activity last autumn, amongst its longest-running projects there is Link Cabinet, an exhibition space the size of a single web page, which hosted site-specific projects. This project started in 2014, can you tell us how you came to think, design and curate that space? Do you think that, beyond the conclusion of the Link project, it can still be a valid model for exhibitions?

DQ: The Link Cabinet is a project conceived and curated by Matteo Cremonesi for the Link Art Center. As with many other Link projects, the curatorial or editorial concept and choices were shared by all team members, but the driving force behind the project was one of us, in this case Matteo. The Link Cabinet collected the legacy of some previous projects – from Harm Van Den Dorpel’s Club Internet, which presented curated exhibitions with an opening and closing date, to the Internet Pavilion of Miltos Manetas, open for the duration of a Venice biennial, up to the personal site of the artist Martin Kohout, that for some time had daily “opening hours”. If on the one hand all these projects applied certain characteristics of reality to the online exhibition space – the specific temporality of an exhibition, its closure between the four walls of the white cube – on the other hand they started from a reflection on the temporality of the internet, which is based only apparently on persistence and infinite duration. We expect that a site we visit today will also be there tomorrow, but often that’s not the case: many online exhibition spaces and personal sites have disappeared or have changed over time; and when this has not happened, it often occurs that the obsolescence of the links and languages used makes them useless anyway. So why not give up the responsibility of the archive straight away and not focus on artworks that are experiences limited in space and time?
Personally, I think that the best projects proposed by Link Cabinet were those that exploited this temporality and this performativity of the web page: as Return of Investment by Jonas Lund, a site conceived as an advertising space that increased its value with each transaction, laughing at art as investment and at art flipping, then predominant; or as Addie Wagenknecht’s This Connection Is Untrusted, in which the movement – random or controlled – of the viewer’s mouse paints and reveals at the same time an image that has been – for various reasons – censored or obscured. In cases like these, net art reveals its performative nature, and archiving is often delegated to the viewer, who saves and distributes their screenshots.
I have no doubts on the current validity of the model, even if I feel the urge to make a distinction: just as renting a beautiful space is not enough to make a good gallery, so even the most up-to-date online gallery model is nothing without the quality of the contents and relationships that are activated within it.

M: Production and fruition of art, are two different levels of analysis which, however, in the case of net art happen to be mixed and overlapped, often underestimating the skills and expressive characteristics of the authors. The comparison, perhaps risky, that could be done is that with photography, which lives on and in many hybrid places. Is this potentially wide diffusion and multifaceted nature making it elusive and the subject of few dedicated studies?

DQ: Net art shares with any digital artefact the performative nature that Boris Groys has attributed to the digital image: it exists only when it is performed, on the screen by a spectator. If the spectator, as Duchamp noted, is necessary for any work of art, on the net and on a screen, its role implies other actions rather than just looking: he or she opens, closes, clicks, makes navigation choices, sometimes participates or contributes by writing, uploading or downloading. If you and I, right now, connect to the same site it is very likely that we would have a totally different experience of use. Aside this, it should also be noted that, for how many ‘frames’ you can put, inserting it in an exhibition or linking it from a museum site, net art always has the opportunity to be enjoyed without the art label previously stuck on it – something that does not happen to a painting in a gallery or an installation in the Biennale. This interview is a frame that conditions the experience of this or this link; but what happens if you come across one of them during a random navigation instead?

M: The market has had a fluctuating attention towards net art. In your opinion, what factors or characteristics, both on the side of the intermediaries, and of the collectors and of the artists themselves have influenced and influence now this discontinuity, that is almost episodic?

DQ: Even though we have kept it implicit, we have to set what we mean by ‘net art’. The original definition of Joachim Blank – an art that exists only on the net and that focuses on the myth of the net – for at least fifteen years has no longer been suitable for describing the multidisciplinary and post-media work of artists who express themselves with the most diverse forms and media. The initial difficulties of understanding it, related to the refined and conscious use of a medium and an environment still alien to many of us, were overcome when the network became an unavoidable element of our daily life. In this passage, many of the artists who identified or identify themselves with the expression ‘net art’ have set a stable foot in the art world, successfully supported by the market and institutions. The discourse changes when we go back to ‘net based’ art, which is the real object of this conversation. Its digital (infinitely reproducible) and public (accessible to all) nature constitutes a permanent challenge to the art world which is forced to review some of its foundations, such as the idea of uniqueness and ownership. Also on this front, giant steps have been taken, both in terms of private and public collections, but it is not surprising that a gallery has more confidence in managing the sale of a Rafaël Rozendaal tapestry rather than one of his websites. However, it is true that many of Rafael’s sites belong to private collections, and that important institutions such as MoMA in New York and San Francisco have recently started courageous acquisitions of net-based works by JODI and other ‘net artists’.

M: Among the many projects born in recent months, Constant Dullaart has launched an exhibition project that investigates the nature of the screen as a ‘new landscape’, perhaps one of the most coherent projects that could be read, watched and listened to. How did you live and are living, as curator and as a consequence a user, during the forced closure and therefore physical inaccessibility of museums, galleries, festivals?

DQ: is an amazing project, an exhibition platform conceived by an artist in collaboration with his reference gallery, and which has so far hosted three exhibitions curated by artists (Rafaël Rozendaal, Constant Dullaart and Jan Robert Leegte). It is yet another proof that institutional projects supported by impressive funding are often beaten in speed, quality and audience by apparently minor and marginal initiatives, based on the quality of the interpersonal relationships they activate.
Having said that, I repeat that it is crucial that the network is not seen as a forced choice, but as a choice of freedom. Museums, galleries and festivals, if they have not done so already, can certainly take this opportunity to strengthen their presence and identity on the net but I think they should focus their efforts on creating the conditions to bring us back to their physical spaces as soon as possible. Due to its characteristics, the art world could easily become the incubator in which to study and test new fruition rituals and new ways of relating that take into account the need to redesign the space between people. It did it even before it was necessary. When crossing the exhibition space or attending an opening or a performance, the art public is ready to accept the conditions of use that are proposed to them: paths already traced, a fixed number of entrances, predetermined behaviours. It is the ideal context in which to redesign our relationship with the public space.

M: Past, present, future: there are those who are already wondering how and for how long will this period of radical, forced transformations influence the art that we see in the coming years. How long do you think it is necessary, as a critic, to be able to make an analysis of works and trends (if they can ever be identified)?

DQ: It depends on which trends we want to analyse, and how the pandemic (or, as many speculate, the new pandemic cycles) will evolve. For now, Coronavirus has had a ‘shock and awe’ effect: within a few days it has upset our habits and our social structures, restricted us to our homes, led us to accept serious limitations of our personal freedoms, caused an economic crisis already considered more serious than those that preceded it, reduced our freedom of movement bringing it back to a pre-EU era, pre-low cost flights, pre-globalization. Now we need to understand if we are entering an era of permanent terror and confinement cycles or if we are returning to the ‘old normal’, and the first hypothesis seems more likely to me. If the art of the last thirty years was closely linked to the structural characteristics of the era of globalisation and information, that of the next thirty will be radically different.

M: Art and social media, a monstrous union or an opportunity?

DQ: Since the early 2000s, social networks have been a new dimension of contemporary public space. They are monstrous, it is true, but no more than museums – shopping malls and many non-places in the globalised world. If art does not find a way to live in them, or to engage in a critical dialogue with them, I don’t see how it could be called ‘contemporary’.

Domenico Quaranta is a contemporary art critic, curator and teacher interested in the ways in which artistic practice reflects the ongoing technological changes. He is the author of Media, New Media, Postmedia (eng. Transl.: Beyond New Media Art, 2013) and editor of several volumes, including GameScenes. Art in the Age of Videogames (2006, with M. Bittanti). Since 2005 he has curated and co-curated several exhibitions, including the recent Cyphoria (2016) and Hyperemployment (2019 – 2020).

© METRONOM and Domenico Quaranta, 2020