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Net Commissions 2000
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> Robert Atkins

Erin Blackwell

Glen Helfand

Subject: Random reflections re. QCC's web commissions
From: Robert Atkins <ratkins@idt.net>

Dear Rudy:

It's a pleasure to reflect on the online projects you've produced for QCC. Thanks for the opportunity. The difficult part is knowing where to begin: With the dancer who makes a movie about a boy who can fly? Or the works about family history and social schizophrenia? Or the future embodied in plans for a queer geriatric home?

Such diversity! It's a nice metaphor for queerdom and our various communities. But it's also happenstance: a product of your curatorial modus operandi and primarily, in this case--the nature of all things digital. Many people wonder what constitutes this new, net-art medium. But is it really a medium? Has there ever been a medium that devours all other media—video, graphics, photography, texts, drawings, sound, VR? John Hanhardt, the savvy Guggenheim curator who helped midwife video art during the seventies, believes that "the web has fulfilled many of the ambitions of twentieth-century new media--seeing video images, adding real time via closed circuit [or web-] cameras, incorporating [video] installation elements such as still photographs and texts." What he sees as "fulfillment," I call a parallel world.

BTW, I find that I increasingly like to think in terms of digital media, rather than its subset of online art. After all, five years from now we'll no longer be glued to screens and monitors, we'll be wearing cyber-art garments. And our twenty-first-century garb will simultaneously be clothing, communications medium, and artwork. Digital makes everything truly hybrid. A good case could be made for online art being the fulfillment, to use John Hanhardt's term, of conceptual art, the mother of hybridity in the visual arts. Think of the direct line between a work in the 1970 Information Show at the Museum of Modern Art like Hans Haacke's survey of viewers' attitudes about the Vietnam War. Simultaneously an artwork and a survey, you might see it as a survey compromised by its limited reach. But Hans reached thousands (and tweaked then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller in his own institutional backyard.) Today's art-activist, however, can reach millions online, if she knows how to work it. The Internet is the most radically decentralized distribution system in the history of our species.

Like video and photography (two earlier mechanical media) the Internet was created as a communications technology. But unlike them, artists didn't arrive on the scene decades after their inception. Artists helped create the look-and-feel of the web; in 1994-95 nine percent of sites were artists. And don't give up on the gift economy that still characterizes much of the Internet. Did you see that fascinating piece in the Times today about advertising-blocking software that is going to revolutionize the Net--yet again? (And if web-art collectors remain few and far between, so what?) Suffice it to say that as an historian/commentator, it's important to me to note that telecommunications arrived no less than a century ago with the invention of the telephone. Most people are unaware that Marcel Proust listened to the Paris Opera on dedicated (expensive!) phone lines transmitted directly from the stage prior to World War I. That's how he first heard Wagner; without whose influence Remembrance of Things Past might have assumed a very different form.

Do I digress? Of course many of us are a lot more interested in art than in technology and tools. But it's not easy to divorce the two. And probably not totally desirable either. (I go back and forth on this one.) I was fascinated to hear, Rudy, that the artists you commissioned for this project hadn't previously designed works for Internet viewing. (Their collaboration with you reminded me of artists who have worked for the past three decades with master printers at print producer/publishers like Gemini, ULAE or Crown Point Press.) The advantage, of course, is that artists coming fresh to a medium or situation often bring expansively new perspectives. Did their virginity show? Only in that none of them (save for Armando Rascon) even tentatively utilize the possibilities of communicating with farflung viewers or expanding their works across audiences and networks via links. But not many artists do. This sort of communication entails almost a new conception of art: so much audience input (and non-linearity) can threaten the very role of artist as master author or text-maker. Digital culture is redefining us in every way.

Two things do bind these projects: One is an interest in lived experience, the tangible. This is not the same as narrative, but it's not entirely unrelated either. (Even Rascon's Home contains a sort of vaguely implied narrative that might begin: "Once upon a time there was a little faggot who never thought he'd grow old.") Joe Goode's The Boy Who Flew for Short Periods is a Jungian archetype-of-a-dream, Mabel Maney's Wish You Were Here is autobiography in the mode of Dorothy Allison, while Gary Kong's Crazy Quilt offers a social-psychic account of the center coming unhinged; a millennial meditation on the theme of fragmentation. The other characteristic these works share is their transparence--no viewer needs me to explain or evaluate them. And that's an excellent quality in a web-work for a hybrid arts/cultural "space," like QCC's, "into" which a visitor may stumble. (No matter what geographic metaphors we use for the net, you are not, repeat not--presently in a gallery.)

Perhaps some future queer boy or girl will visit the QCC site and experience these works as part of a process of self discovery. The Crazy Quilt may seem more like the grid of TV game shows a la Jeopardy--another gestalt of pixels on a screen--than a work of art to our young viewer, but what the Hell? Thirty years ago I looked at Gainsborough's Blue Boy and managed to find myself in it.

Gotta run now and work on my gay pride drag--This year I'm dressing as a modem.

Peace, love and solidarity.

Robert Atkins

(NOTE: Net Art Commentaries were commissioned by Qcc in 2000)