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Art perception in a networked environment
cyberspace as artistic space/medium/protocol

Hiro is approaching the Street. It is the Broadway, the Champs Élysées of the Metaverse. It is the brilliantly lit boulevard that can be seen, miniaturized and backward, reflected in the lenses of his goggles. It does not really exist. But right now, millions of people are walking up and down it. The dimensions of the Street are fixed by a protocol, hammered out by the computer-graphics ninja overlords of the Association for Computing Machinery’s Global Multimedia Protocol Group.
Neal Stephenson, “Snow Crash” (1992), chapter 23.

In their earliest descriptions of the Internet, cyberpunk authors such as Neal Stephenson, Bruce Sterling and William Gibson (who coined the term ‘cyberspace’)(1) depict a parallel, realistic and spatial environment where sensory experiences mimic those from ‘the real world’. In their imagined, three-dimensional networked spaces a user can wander, interact with others and the environment, experience inside and outside, be unexpectedly confronted with new settings or new information – much like what would happen when one moves within a real landscape, city, building or environment.

In a way, it is logical that such early descriptions of the Internet – still a set of text-based utilities in the beginning of the 1990s, with only a small number of specialized users – should mirror our existing spatial experience in such a significant way; these descriptions were highly imaginative, but also in a way safe and familiar, and somewhat naive. The choice of such direct metaphors is logical though, since it would have been very difficult to predict, for example, the precise evolution of technologies that have made the Internet very popular since that day and that shape our everyday experience of it. Among other things, these standards and protocols have evolved into the World Wide Web, the ‘killer application’ that has boosted Internet use since the mid-nineties(2). E-mail, another ‘killer app.’, has just turned 30(3), the World Wide Web is less than ten years old.

These widely used and well-known applications, and the protocols that underlie them, are subject to change and evolution. It is interesting to observe that e-mail has basically remained unchanged since its invention – it’s a practical and useful everyday application that doesn’t need many more whistles and bells. The protocols that underlie the World Wide Web, though, become more complex with fast pace, and its possible applications increase every day. In its early beginning, the Web was still a largely text-based medium, used as an extensive hypertextual bulletin board where individuals and organizations were able to publicize and cross-link the type of information they wanted to disclose – mostly text with a few small images at first, because the low bandwidth of that period didn’t allow ‘heavier’ content. Nowadays, the possibilities have multiplied – moving images, sound, video, interactive applications – even the construction of the three-dimensional, spatial environments envisioned by cyberpunk literature will be theoretically feasible, if broad bandwidth becomes more widely available.

Compared to the possibilities of these high-tech applications, how is the Internet used at this time, and what does the general perception of the network look like? For most people, everyday use of the Internet doesn’t involve complex multimedia content or the exploration of simulated environments. The main attraction of the Net, and its most widespread use, still consists of a combination of information retrieval, leisure activities and social interaction. The Net has made very diverse content accessible to many people in an unprecedented way; nowadays an Internet user can consult specialized information from her personal computer, while about ten years ago she would have been forced to extreme, if not impossible efforts to find and retrieve that information. Music lovers get access to specific online radio stations that broadcast their favourite but exotic musical genre; very specific content is accessible on web pages physically located on a machine on another continent. Presenting challenging, useful and unique information is primordial to the development of a successful website.

As mentioned above, e-mail is still one of the ‘killer applications’ of the Net; for many people, social online interaction is of high importance. Communication happens on a one-to-one, one-to-many or many-to-many basis; virtual communities are, unlike ‘real-life’ communities, strongly based on shared and mutual interests, less on geographical and spatial factors(4). As a general observation, it is important to note that Internet use very often occurs from within an intimate, personal setting (the private home, sometimes the office or another more public space) and that personal orientations and interests will define what a user will view and perceive and what not. It is also very significant to see that immediate, visual perception plays a much less significant role online than in the real world; online behaviour is dominated by textual exchange, which favours linguistic and intellectual activities over sensory perception. Using the Internet could be considered a rather abstract and conceptual activity of non-spatial nature; few users are interested in online content that uses strong metaphors of real-life space. The aforementioned cyberpunk-literature predictions of a parallel ‘cyberspace’ or ‘metaverse’ are perhaps unlikely to become widespread, because entirely different behaviour and applications have developed on the Net.

So, one could say that cyberspace as we know it, possesses no spatial nature at all; the Net is a medium, similar to (for example) the written press or radio. This statement is confirmed by standard practice in cyberspace legislation, where the Internet is not considered a separate place, but is regarded rather as an activity which is firmly rooted in everyday life, connected with the people that use it and the machines that technically support it. The perception, experience and use of any medium are strongly influenced by the protocols that define its infrastructure. Radio, for example, would be experienced in a totally different way if it would allow two-way interaction, which is not the case now due to sociological, but mostly political factors and decisions. Similarly, our experience of the Internet is strongly defined by largely political decisions about its protocols. Lawrence Lessig, Professor of Law at the Stanford Law School, correctly points out that the code of cyberspace (the technology that underlies it, the protocols and software) defines people’s behaviour as much as, or even more than, legislation would do (5). In real space, the social implications of politically influenced infrastructure are also present (the lay-out of roads conflicting with, or reinforcing, traffic rules, for example), but in a much less prominent and relevant way. In cyberspace, infrastructure inescapably defines the user’s behaviour.

The Internet as ‘spatial’ infrastructure
The fact that the Internet is a medium and not a space, does not imply that spatial representation or metaphors of cyberspace would be undesirable. In order to understand and study the Net, scholars and artists alike are trying to create visual diagrams and outlines that represent aspects of online activities. These representations build upon existing metaphors that are sometimes obvious (the Internet as a web, grid or network, for example – even the term ‘World Wide Web’ might be considered a metaphor), sometimes surprising, such as social activity and interaction in an online forum, represented by a series of flowers with colourful petals(6). Evidently, the Internet as a medium does rely upon a physical, and thus spatial, structure – the meshwork of cables and machines and the people who operate this infrastructure; every activity in this world-wide network can be geographically traced. A request for a web page located on a server in Manhattan, issued by a user in Belgium, for example, might physically pass through several routers in the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States. So, mapping of physical Internet traffic can be very similar to the mapping of geographical information. But as soon as other aspects of Internet use are studied, different and more metaphorical methods will be used. In fact, every different question and assumption will call for another type of representation, hence the diversity of approaches in the new scientific field of cybergeography(7). These metaphors can sometimes be very simple, linguistic rather than visual in nature; the term ‘Information Superhighway’ or, in German, ‘Infobahn’, is a good example of this. This term was coined by US vice-president Al Gore in the mid-90s, illustrating his utopian views and commercial perspectives for the Internet at that time – proving that not any chosen metaphor is ideologically neutral.

Cyberspace and artistic space
Where and how does art find its place on the Internet? The above description of the non-spatial, sociological and infrastructural aspects of cyberspace is vital to understanding how art on the Internet manifests itself, how it positions itself in the broader context of the network and how it will be observed, perceived and assimilated by its audience, or rather its users.

Does the Internet know a concept that is equivalent to the notion of ‘white cube’ in ‘real space’? As demonstrated above, cyberspace is a medium, not an actual space, and it is difficult, if not impossible, to trace down a digital equivalent of the sanctified, enclosed environment that the exhibition project ‘Who Says Seeing Only Happens With The Eyes?’ reflects upon. But separate (not clearly definable) domains exist where online art is created, discussed, criticized and even canonized. In a similar way to offline sociological processes within art criticism, the intellectual economy of online art deals with objects with a clear artistic identity. The online equivalent of the ‘white cube’ is not a space, but a conglomerate of diverse, active communities of artists, critics, practitioners and mere spectators or ‘lurkers’, sometimes small and very specialist, sometimes highly acclaimed and connecting literally thousands of Internet users. Each of these hard-to-define and overlapping communities strives for an agreement on their definition of what is art and what is not. In terms of infrastructure and applications, such communities can gather around mailing lists, online galleries or individual artistic projects.

It is a bit ironical, by the way, to notice that a lot of Internet art projects, especially those from the early days of the World Wide Web, were created as a reaction against standard contemporary art practice and the ‘white cube’ economy. Very much like examples of anti-art in the offline art world, such projects become canonized anyway; they also, eventually, become sacralized within the discourse they often tried to avoid. Internet art projects with a clear ‘anti-art’ attitude try to bridge the perceived gap between art and life, for example by trying to reach a different and unsuspecting audience. Especially in cyberspace this is not an easy mission, because Internet users approach the medium from the perspective of their own interests; those who are not interested in art, are very unlikely to encounter it by accident. It is important to note that this only applies to art projects that purely exist in digital form; for artistic projects with an offline component the situation is different, because such projects can find a possible audience via other channels.

The question of the audience leads us to the issue of perception of online art by the user or visitor. Internet use, as stated above, is mostly textual in nature; within everyday use, visual information and other multimedia play a subordinate and supporting role, contrary to popular belief about the hypermedia characteristics of cyberspace. Due to the long history of the supremacy of visual representation within the arts, many online art projects actually do make extensive use of these hypermedia. Generally, though, the most compelling artistic projects online are largely text-based, with emphasis on the interface rather than traditional visual representations or evocations. Such projects strongly rely upon the inner mental landscape, the representational memory of their users, much like representation within literature can depend on mental images created by the reader, or the way in which one can associate a face with an unfamiliar voice on the telephone. Here, online art again responds to the intimate setting and the personal experience and interests of the Internet user. An artwork, thus, occupies a mental space as large as the sum of the frames of reference of all separate users.

This mostly applies to those online art projects that, in one way or another, refer to a reality outside cyberspace, probably in real space. Some very interesting Internet projects, though, are much more conceptual in nature and reflect on their own environment – the network and its protocols – much like offline art sometimes reflects upon the ‘white cube’ itself. For Internet art, reflection upon the medium is one of the main and returning themes. Many projects deal with the reprogramming and even subversion of the protocols and standards that underlie the Internet as we know it. Different types of visual representation of the network environment (see above) exist within the artistic online discourse; such projects demonstrate how online art should not always be restricted by its infrastructure, but that the infrastructure itself can be reversed so that the medium can be represented in an entirely different way.

Internet artworks
Neal Stephenson: Snow Crash (1992)
A cyberpunk novel with a very detailed description of the metaverse, a three-dimensional virtual spatial prediction of how the Internet would evolve.

Heath Bunting: Visitor’s Guide to London (1995)
An early, hypertextual Internet artwork which offers a psychogeographical tour through London.

Benjamin Weil (curator): Äda’web (1996-1998)
A renowned, early example of an online art gallery, collecting Internet art by artists such as Jenny Holzer and Lawrence Weiner.

JODI – Map (1996-2001)
An archetypical Internet map, representing the subjective mental image of the Internet from the artists’ duo JODI.

Philip Pocock, Florian Wenz, Udo Noll, Felix Huber: A Description of the Equator and some Øtherlands (1997)
An associative, hypertextual, multi-user environment; a symbolic exchange between authors and users over the network and in physical space (Entebbe in East Africa and other geographic destinations).

Hervé Graumann: l.o.s.t (1997)
An intuitive evocation of a dark, online space.

IOD: The Web Stalker (1997)
An early example of artistic software, The Web Stalker is a radical, so-called ‘tactical’ browser that turns the spatial experience of surfing inside out. Instead of viewing single pages, the user gets an overview of the whole environment she is browsing.

Knowbotic Research: IO_dencies – questioning urbanity (1997-1999)
Complex, multi-user online cartographies (mental maps) of large cities, representing diverse and multidisciplinary viewpoints from users.

DeskSwap (2001)
A screensaver art project that allows Internet users to swap images of their desktops, either expectedly or unexpectedly.

‘now you’re in my computer’ (2001)
An anonymous Italian artists’ duo is publicizing its entire hard disk for the online public.

Martin Wattenberg: Idea Line (2001)
A timeline and thematic outline of various Internet art projects of the past years. This project is just one of the many works where the artist tries to visualize her personal perception of the field (the equivalent of the ‘white cube’?) of Internet art.

Martin Dodge – Cybergeography (2001)
An atlas of visual representations of cyberspace.