The Digital Canvas: The Odd and Fascinating History of Internet Art

Also known as Net Art, this art form takes center stage on the smart devices that you use everyday.

You ever create a GIF or meme that are you just absolutely impressed with? Your creation has garnered laughs, the occasional witty comment, and has potentially even gone viral. You may even be so bold to call your internet creation, a work of art. Though this term is thrown around to describe just about anything, calling your GIF/ meme art, is not too far off.

The birth of the internet revolutionized many aspects of the world, changing the way people communicate with each other (for better or for worse), and countless industries across the globe even spawning new companies and technology. However, it also changed art.

Nevertheless, it goes much deeper than you think. Aside from changing the way people buy, sell, and exchange art, the internet has created a new form of art, Net art. Now before you go rolling your eyes, bare with us for a second.

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Net Art or Internet Art is what’s implied in its name; internet artists use the internet and various forms of media across it as a medium to create interactive experiences; to sculpt, to paint, to design etc. In short, internet art uses the internet as its mode of dissemination.

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If anything internet art is the ultimate extension of the postmodern movement and a prime example of an era dedicated and defined by what is happening across the web, across social media, on forums, and on blogging platforms.

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1’s & 0’s': What it Internet Art?

The Digital Canvas: The Odd and Fascinating History of Internet Art
Source: geogoo

Though the term art is rather ubiquitous, art is simply the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.

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If anything, it is when someone applies their creativity to deliver a consumable product or experience that conveys a message. Net art is simply coded into the internet, unbounded by things like galleries or museums.

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The Digital Canvas: The Odd and Fascinating History of Internet Art
Source: 404.Jordi.org

Mark Napier’s 1998 Shredder net art project took websites that are keyed into his web page's search field and very literally shredded and deconstructed the websites. While Russian net artist Olia Lialina forces users to click through pages to convey a visual poem.

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Just like the countless artists out there, the messages vary, ranging from political to pure experimentation.

Internet art is distributed through the internet. A net artist may create an audio-visual experience that can only be experienced on a laptop, create a strange website that evolves over time or even create a virus that is designed to spread through networks in a particular way. So how far does internet art go back?

Brief Internet Art History

The Digital Canvas: The Odd and Fascinating History of Internet Art
Source: wwwwwwwww.jodi.org

According to respected art critic Rachel Greene, the world of internet art officially began in 1993 alongside the birth of the graphical world wide web, with a majority of the 90s being what is now considered the golden age of internet art.

For the artists involved, the internet was just another medium for artists to explore humanity’s relationship with technology. The duo Jodi.org was one of the firsts to use the internet as a medium creating http://wwwwwwwww.jodi.org/.

This is not a standard webpage. While clicking through the web page visitors are greeted with incomprehensible symbols. However, if you are truly curious by clicking into the pages source information you discover the true art hidden within the code’s page.

The Digital Canvas: The Odd and Fascinating History of Internet Art
Source: Rafael Rozendaal

While in 1994, Antoni Muntadas created an immersive installation and online database that cataloged cases of censorship from around the world. Dubbed The File Room, Participants were invited to contribute to the installation by sharing their knowledge. Think of it as a web Wikipedia way ahead of its time.

The Digital Canvas: The Odd and Fascinating History of Internet Art
Source: Antoni Muntadas

The BIT plane project that ran from 1997-1999 attached a camera to a “drone” flying it through  Silicon Valley’s “no camera zones”, documenting its journey on the webpage. The video project explored aspects of privacy while also testing and experimenting with network technologies.

The Digital Canvas: The Odd and Fascinating History of Internet Art
Source: BIT Plane 

Thousands of artists and artworks appeared during the 90s leading organizations like Rhizome to preserve these new internet artworks. They eventually secured a $200,000 grant to start the Net Art Anthology.

The Booming Internet Art

The Digital Canvas: The Odd and Fascinating History of Internet Art
Source: 9 Eyes/Jon Rafman

Fast forward a couple decades and internet art have evolved, paralleling the evolution of the internet. Simple web pages have now become filled with easily accessible playback media, social media, an infinite amount of image, interactive media, and of course memes and GIF.  

Net artists have taken advantage of the changing landscape creating works of art with this technology that remain relevant to the current landscape.

The Digital Canvas: The Odd and Fascinating History of Internet Art
Source: Screenfull

In 2004 Abe Linkoln, and Jimpunk started a blog hosted on the popular Blogger platform called Screenfull. Like a manifestation of what the early 2000s represented, the duo posted an excessive collection of looping videos; animated GIFs; images; and audio clips, sampled and remixed from around the web for the ultimate multimedia experience on your computer.

The Digital Canvas: The Odd and Fascinating History of Internet Art
Source: Rafia Santana

While #PAYBLACKTiME is a “white-money transference system that provides free meals via Seamless/GrubHub to Black + Brown folx across the North Americas.” The project makes white people Paypal to the page, who then, in turn, buys food for non-white people through popular food services like GrubHub and Seamless.

The project actually raised $4,000 for people of color who needed food, spreading itself throughout social networks.

Meme Culture/Social Media

Now, the internet is more prevalent than ever, with some creating elaborate hoaxes to gain or draw attention. A medium and a messenger, social media push art allowing works to travel across the web at alarming rates, creating viral moments. The rise of meme culture is an excellent example of this.

In short, a meme is an image, video, piece of text, etc., typically humorous in nature, that is copied and spread rapidly by Internet users, often with slight variations, relevant to what is happening on the news or in pop culture.  

You have probably spent hours on platforms like 9gag or Instagram browsing and laughing at culturally relevant memes. Even major brands have gotten in on the fun while some artists have used it to build brands or make money.  

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Artists like Rafael Rozendaal have found ways to even profit from this new digital frontier, selling digital art pieces for as much as $4,900. Tools like the popular blogging page Tumblr or even Google Street View have been used as ways to present art.

There is a tremendous amount of net art out there and it is rapidly growing. It will be interesting to see what ways people utilize the web to create art in 2019.

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