Modernism and New Media (Panel presentation SF International Art Fair September 2000)

Lisa Jevbratt: Net Art and Supermodernism

There are strangely many ways to approach the issue of net art and modernism, so many that it almost seems meaningless, maybe net art is just that - modernism. Maybe we can just forget about the postmodernist play with signifiers, its attempts to reveal the conditional, its ironic smiles at every attempt to ground expressions in meaningful trajectories, in the real.

Art criticism has for a long time adopted post-structuralist theories of signification that tell us that meanings are created in the play and relations of signifiers. What we see is what we see, it's the WYSIWYG of art theory. But what happens when what we see is the tip of an iceberg? Maybe it is not be reality that hides under the surface, but a system - equally real constructs of layers of layers of functionality and intent.

The semiotic trope a la mode in the post-modernist paradigm has long been irony. What happens when artist starts companies that, yes, are companies, they are dot coms not dot orgs or dot nets. Sure, the "playful artist company" is still out there (rtmark for example) but how successful is it as art? It feels more like traditional capitalist critique. More successful as art and definitely as a company is Primordial. Its product is the Zoob -a little colorful toy building block that is just that, a toy. It is sold to kids in toy stores while it is advertised in art journals and exhibited as art. Today, irony is not ironic enough. (My own group C5, where are we in this? Or South to the Future, that opened their dot community this Thursday at New Langton Arts).

I could go on finding indications of the defeat of post-modernism as it is expressed in the various art forms utilizing the Internet as its medium and issue. I could mention the insufficiency of the Barthesian concept of work as something created in the reading of a text and how problematic that notion is when we do not any longer have a work that is delimited from its context, when it could be said that it does not even have a context - it is all text, and when the breakdown of the distinction between author and reader is no longer a concept but a factuality. And now artists start to make tools, web browsers etc (webstalker, search engines) to regain some of the control lost due to that breakdown, getting back towards the artist as the creator, artist as god, if only in the shape of the tool maker.

I could mention the victory of modernism in that how these projects, to a large extent, are self-referential, investigating its medium, and how they contain a lot of unembarrassed formalism, Meta and Jodi to mention two examples.

These examples make it clear: it is too much, too much modernism, it's supermodernism.

I am choosing the concept of memory, one of the obsessions of modernism, to make an argument for how new media art, or more specifically art that utilizes computers and networks, are approaching supermodernity. I will show two of my own projects as examples.

The modern self, the individual, the subject is created through its travel through space and time, as Odysseus traveling away and back again to his home island Ithaca. He is driven by his need to show his strength as an individual, his separateness, fighting against temptations of lusty immersion and by the utopian future the memories of his home island and life is providing him with. He is created as an individual in the trajectory of past and future. His self becomes real by its positioning in a now, dependent on history. He comes from somewhere and he is going somewhere. He is, or becomes, because of his history and his future, and the future depends on his memories of his history.

One of the main reasons for networked computer technologies special position in our culture is, interestingly enough, its ability to remember. Memory is an integral aspect of the technology. Every transaction and interaction is known and potentially remembered by the machine.

[ The Stillman Projects, Show slide, Short description of S hosted by Switch 1997:

In The Stillman Projects this memory is utilized to generate trails of the visitors of the site. The visitor gets to answer a question, related to the site and is assigned a color, red green or blue, dependent on that answer. Every time the visitor follows a link, that link is slightly colored by the visitor's color.


While The Stillman project utilizes this memory to generate trails, histories, pasts and futures, there is no individual, no subject left. The histories and futures that were the means to generate the individual, now becomes the subject itself. The modernist machinery is made more important than what is produced within it. In Stillman there are only paths, no beginning or end. It's not memory to confirm the individual; it's memory for memory's sake.

We can apply the same ideas on the concept of place.

A modern place is a place if it has a history, if something took place there, and if something will take place there. Without history and without "ritual" or meaning the place is just a location. It needs memories and futures to be. That is what positions the place in the now, what makes it real.

We know the post structuralist place through Baudrillard and Eco. We know Las Vegas and Disneyland, with their horizontal histories. They get their meaning through their internal relationships, contemporary culture and films - they are mythological spaces. They are playing history while being independent of an actual past, presence or future.

The supermodern place are the transitory spaces we pass through, the airport, the hospital, the web site. They are filled with the trajectories of futures and pasts but we donŐt stop there. The place could be there but it is not, because we are not looking for it, we don't wait for it, we don't care about it. Peoples dreams, whishes, pasts etc, everything that makes a place a place, a modern place, is there, but that is the *only* thing that is there. The web can be thought of as this gigantic transitory space where each page is always a steppingstone to something else.

[1:1, Show slides, short description of 1:1:

1:1 consists of a database of the IP addresses to eventually all the web sites in the world and interfaces to access that giant address-book. The database is created by sending out softbots that finds out if an address have a site connected with it.

Interface "Every":
2: this is an interface that contains links to all 180000 sites currently in the database. Each pixel is a link and the color of the link represents whether or not the softbots that I sent out got access or not.

3: here each pixel gets its color after the IP address that it represents.
When clicking on a pixel you get to the site that pixel represents.

1:1 generates images, interfaces that functions as portals to the web, they write a history of existing sites and point to the open spaces for future investigation and indexing. The interfaces takes you to any other "place" on the web, that is their function, to make you continue and to make you aware of you continuing.

These projects take modernism more serious than modernism ever took itself. The modernist method, anchoring self and place in time, reality, through memory, honored the place and the subject; supermodernism honors the modernist method itself.

The concept of supermodernism relies on the writing by Marc Auge "Non-places, Introduction to an anthropology of supermodernity".