Art & Culture on the World Wide Web
From the Control of Content to the End of Art
By Niranjan Rajah
Cyberspace or Cyberterrain
The Internet has come of age just as the world adjusts to the end of cold war and as economic and cultural globalization takes shape. Even as developing countries make preparations for the information age, the very values of nations appear to be receding. Nationalist economic and cultural policies the world over are giving way to the imperatives of transnational capital and media.
Speaking at the United Nations, Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad cautioned that "as we approach the millennium . . . the preeminence of transnational forces has blurred the definition of national sovereignty." With the advent of economic, efficient, and universally available computer-mediated communication, it is possible to imagine that eventually, nationality itself will be displaced, as various overlapping virtual communities emerge in cyberspace with identities and allegiances of their own. Indeed, the term coined by William Gibson in his fiction Neuromancer has become common currency in factual discourse about computer-mediated communication. Space, however, is too utopian a metaphor for the Internet. More realistically, we are at the pioneering stages, or the opening up, of a cyberterrain. Far from being amorphous, undefinable, and uncontrollable, the contours of this new realm of human engagement will be shaped, as ever, by the dictates of financial and political power. As network technology and legislation respond to demand for the control of content and for secure communications, new intranet and cryptoconstituencies will emerge, complying with differing regulations and displaying marked cultural differences. Boundaries, not as yet tangible, will surely manifest in time.
Control of Content
The ubiquity of the Internet is due to the metaconnectivity of transmission control protocol/Internet protocol (TCP/IP) communication. The TCP/IP suite has the ability to interconnect networks that use different local protocols while also allowing networks linked by other internetworking protocols to connect with the Internet, thereby forming the wider matrix of computer-mediated communication. The genius of this protocol is its ability to ensure that messages get relayed from one computer to another even when parts of the network are inoperative. Any deliberate attempts to restrict the passage of information is circumvented by TCP/IP, quite simply, as if it were damage. The result is that all information on the Internet is instantaneously and globally accessible regardless of compatibility with local laws and values.
In Malaysia's bid to leap from rapid industrialization into the global information economy, its government has embraced the free flow of information on the Internet. It is recognized that government control over the cultural parameters of society might have to be set aside. The prime minister himself has indicated that the community and individuals must now take responsibility for self-control in the face of content arising from constituencies with values different from our own. There is, nevertheless, the obvious fear that information-rich Malaysians will begin to inhabit a different realm of values, leaving their traditions and those without Internet access far behind.
The prime minister has spoken of the necessity for international cooperation rather than local censorship in the context of Internet regulation. Nevertheless, countries in Asia and elsewhere have already attempted to enforce censorship of the Internet. Singapore, for instance, has begun to filter all national Net use through proxy servers that can prevent access to sites that challenge Singapore's political and cultural integrity. Network administrators must, however, specify exactly which site is to be barred, because such filters are as yet unable to distinguish actual content independently. In addition, service providers and certain classes of content providers have to be licensed under the class licensee scheme for the Internet, and they're required to adhere to a rigid set of restrictions that apply to political, ethnic, religious, and sexually explicit content. Although mechanistic control may prove technically difficult, it certainly can be reinforced by policing in the real world.
The Electronic Panopticon and the Specter of Encryption
Michel Foucault had envisaged that Jeremy Bentham's proposal for the ideal prison--the panopticon--would be the model for future systems of surveillance and social control. In today's computer-mediated communications, the channels we use to send messages can be used by others to gather information about us. All communications by and between the citizens of a networked society are perpetually open to the scrutiny of those who administer each level of service provision. Kevin Robins and Frank Webster observed that with the information revolution, the social totality comes to function as a hierarchical and disciplinary panopticon. Ultimately, it will not be restriction of free expression but protection of privacy that will diminish the transparency of the Internet. Further, according to Tim May, the "specter of encryption" looms over the information society. He and other cypherpunks are working to make electronic privacy available and affordable to everyman, in the belief that it will lead to uncontrollable fluidity in the Internet and, ultimately, undermine the authority of nations. These information age libertarians point out that "an online civilization requires online anonymity, online identification, online authentication, online reputations, online trustholders, online privacy, and online access." Anarchy aside, the imperatives of online commerce will render encryption technologies commonplace in the near future. The credit industry, for instance, is working on encryption for secure online transactions--hardly cryptoanarchy, but finger in the eye of the panopticon keeper nevertheless.
Indigenous Content Provision in the Multimedia Revolution
The ongoing merger of technologies made possible by increased computing power and high-speed networks is expected to integrate older technologies--telephone, audio recording, movies, radio, television, and print--under the interactive rubric of the computer. If the telephone facilitated instantaneous person-to-person interaction, radio and television allow messages to be transmitted from one source to many receivers. Audiences only have to turn on their respective communications appliances to receive ongoing broadcasts. The Internet is, indeed, a revolution in communications technology in that any receiver of messages is now able to broadcast as well. It is as if the domestic telephone has become not just a television but also a TV station. Even so, as less computerlike, and therefore less interactive, Internet browsers emerge and as advertising and the entertainment industry go online, there is a possibility that the World Wide Web will turn into a quasi-mass media in its own right. Indeed, as entertainment delivery systems move to the Internet, the planet will become, as Negroponte puts it, "a single media machine." Those who dominate this powerful organ will influence, if not determine, cultural values throughout the world. Media mogul Rupert Murdoch once claimed that satellite TV, financed by advertising revenues, would be able to "bypass state-controlled television" in authoritarian countries like China. However, by banning the satellite dishes needed to receive Murdoch's Star TV, China has pressured him into helping them effect a state broadcast monopoly. In Malaysia CNN broadcasts with a short delay that allows for the vetting and removal of inappropriate material. MTV has removed Beavis and Butt-head and otherwise brought their content in line with Malaysian broadcast values as part of their strategy "to become the music-based channel for young people in Asia." Berfield observes that in addition to compromising on broadcast content, international satellite operators have had to turn to local programming to meet the demands of Asian audiences. She notes that most of Asia's television advertising revenue still goes to local stations, which are best able to provide local content. Asia's satellite experience is an indication of what could happen with regard to language and cultural content on the Internet. In the long run, cultural invasion via the Internet must be met by competitive, indigenous content provision.
From Form to Context to Content
In the modernist era, the critique of form replaced the concern for content in the art of representation. In the West, the purist aesthetics, the politicized art manifestos, and the various revolutionary movements are no more. In the East, the return to tradition in the cause of nationalism has turned into appropriation in the course of ethically neutral cultural production. Indeed, the avant-garde's aesthetic revolutions have been sublimated in the parodic cycles of fashion and in the calculated product obsolescence of the dominant technological monopolies. Artistic parody, pastiche, and hybridity prevail in this post-avant-garde global culture. Be it in architecture, painting, or the novel, formalism has been eclipsed by the reflexive and ironic play of context. If postmodernism has valued originality at all, it has been in terms of the art of re-presenting preexisting material. As the various media of communication merge into one amorphous or multivalent hypermedia and as user-friendly interfaces conceal the formal aspect of computing, contextual play is becoming the unconscious, technologically determined norm. Earlier, the advent of photography had undermined the aura of uniqueness of the image. One of the artistic consequences of the mass circulation of printed images was the invention of collage. The artist no longer had to hand make an image but could now cut out two preexisting images and combine them to generate another. The production of meaning was achieved by appropriating and recontextualizing found or ready-made material. With digital technology, photography's mechanical ethos has gained electronic fluidity. If photography brought on the commodification of images, the Internet, as Paul Valéry prophetically envisaged, enables visual images along with sound and text to serve us in our homes, like other utilities, "at a simple movement of the hand." Far from its esoteric origins as a mode of criticism, contextual play has now become the normal way of producing new content.
From Deconstruction to the Hyperlink
In the Saussurean theory of signs, the individual words that make up speech acts gain their meaning in relation to their context. Such relativity of meaning led initially to structuralism's methodical analysis of systems of signs, and, ultimately, to the dismantling of those systems in deconstruction. Indeed, in poststructuralist theory, meaning is no longer to be found in the intentions of the author but in the interpretations of the reader. The production of meaning is located in the process of reading and not in writing. In the writerly approach to literature, the reader is invited to actively participate in production of the meaning. The reading of a text is no longer a passive consumption but the active writing of another. Authority passes from the writer to the reader. Meanwhile, the computer has transformed the contemporary writing space from the fixed text of graphic marks to an indeterminate, combinational electronic text. In digital writing, hypertext software allows for the linking of words and passages of text in various linear and nonlinear ways. The connectivity of the hyperlink across texts and images from indefinite and inexhaustible sources leaves the World Wide Web in a state of permanent deconstruction. The Internet is inherently a writerly medium in which an author can set up inexhaustible hyperlinks, and the reader can surf through and even around them. One consequence of that writerly approach is the collapse of critical into creative work. Criticism has ceased to be a matter of scholarly arguments about creative sources and has become a euphoric, creative endeavor in its own right. Creative work has, in turn, become multidisciplinary and made a profound engagement with history and theory. In the visual arts, this has resulted in extended use of text, performance, and video. In fact, there has been a conflation of primary and secondary productions in all areas of postmodern culture. As multimedia goes online--fluidly articulating image, text, sound, and video--the Internet will become the ideal medium for presentation of these and other yet unimagined hybrid cultural forms.
Art on the Internet (and I don't mean Hollywood!)
The Internet engenders a new era of instantaneous connectivity and interactivity in which the totality of representations exists in virtual proximity. Ascot believes the Net is the infrastructure of a dynamic new human consciousness powered by associative thought. This mode of thinking is the aspect of cognition that is related to artistic activity, and artists have been drawn to the Internet from its very inception.
In the early days, networked art required some technical understanding of electronic media and was the domain of the committed computer or digital artist. Five years before the advent of the World Wide Web, pioneering network artist Paul Sermon was setting up telematic workstations in public exhibition spaces and at festival sites. The workstations, consisting of clusters of Macintosh computer terminals, were connected via modems to what was then the European Academic Research Network. These telematic events involved a large number of contributors from around the world and questioned the authority of the artist over representations made in networked environments. The last of these projects--Texts, Bombs & Videotape (1991)--simulated the TV newsroom scenario in an interactive satire of the role of the media in the Gulf War. Today, just as icon-and-mouse software transformed the notion of computer literacy, the World Wide Web has simplified and democratized Internet access. Artists from the real world have been going online at a tremendous rate. This artistic engagement is underscored by the fact that the Web makes commonplace some of the esoteric sensibilities of the age.
In the 1950s André Malraux proposed that in the modern age of printed imagery, reproductions of works of art on cards, in magazines, and in books constituted an imaginary museum. As the archives and collections of the world's libraries and museums become instantly accessible online, the resulting proximity of information from geographically distant sources will bring to virtual fruition Malraux's notion of a museum without walls. The connectivity of hyperlinks across indefinite and inexhaustible images, objects, and archives constitutes a museumlike domain to which access is universal, instantaneous, and remote. Within that multivalent virtual museum, the role of curator belongs to anybody with a home page who cares to set up a few hyperlinks. Virtual museumgoers can, in turn, negotiate their own way across the links, interactively reorganizing any given narrative. The indifference to authorial function, inherent in the new communications media, confers upon the viewer or reader the power to realize the postmodern fancy of the Death Of The Author. To paraphrase the text of Steiner's canine cartoon, "On the Internet, nobody knows you're an author"--or a curator even! The majority of art sites on the Web simply use the World Wide Web to present artwork that already exists in other media. Others, however, have begun to treat the Internet as a medium for art on its own terms. What follows is a review, a virtual curation even, of sites that attempt to reveal the technological, aesthetic, social, and political parameters of computer-mediated communications.
The End of Art
In The Failure of Marcel Duchamp/Japanese Fetish Even! Rajah (the author) locates his critique of European aesthetics as a site-specific installation in the World Wide Web. While interrogating the ontology of the image in computer-mediated communication, this work also attempts to mark the problem of cultural constituencies in the Internet. In A Hypertext Journal, Pope and Guthrie performed an online interactive travelogue with a remote worldwide audience that could make requests regarding the route or content of the tour. Taking with them laptop computers, a digital camera, sound and video equipment, and two modems, they reconstructed the Scottish tour made by Dr. Samuel Johnson and James Boswell in 1773. The travelogue was published daily on the World Wide Web. In Sweetness and Light, Kempadoo uses a plantation analogy to address the neocolonial inequities behind globalization of media and communications networks. Weintraub's Realms is an interactive narrative of the urban landscape that negotiates the "shared intimacy" of the World Wide Web. In Peeping Tom, Myers explores how both observer and observed reveal themselves in the voyeurism of the Internet. The ada web is a collaborative site that reflects on the Web as a medium for communication in projects like Securityland, Holzer's Please Change Beliefs, and LOVE by GROUP Z. As the World Wide Web brings the cultural mainstream online, larger and more sophisticated art sites are being produced with corporate, institutional, and technological patronage. The Laboratory at Oxford University's Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art presents Tilson's works for the World Wide Web in The Cooker and Mach's Quick Time Virtual Sculpture Vessel. In Ping body, Stelarc transforms the Internet into a realm of action by wiring his musculature to the Internet so that its movements are actuated, beyond his own volition, by returning pings. Bodies INCorporated is a multiuser environment produced by Vesna that investigates the social psychology and group dynamics of virtual bodies in a networked corporate structure. Indeed, artists are making critical use of the World Wide Web to construct new arenas for their work. It is viewers, however, who are empowered as the participatory mode of the Internet levels artistic authority, substantiating radical notions of the end of art.
5. Mahathir Mohamad. Speech at the Infotech Malaysia'96 Conference, December 1996, http://www.jaring.my/nitc/main.html.
6. Sidney James's letter to George Yeo, http://www.eff.org/pub/Censorship/Internet_censorship_bills/ Foreign_and_local/Singapore/960813_hrw_sg_netcensor.letter.
7. Singapore government press release, July 1996, http://www.eff.org/pub/Global/Singapore/Censorship/ regulations.071196.release.
9. Timothy May. Crypto Anarchy and Virtual Communities, http://www.c2.org:80/~arkuat/consent/Anarchy.html.
25. Paul Sermon. Telematics, http://www.ntticc. or.jp/preevent/ ic95/info/paul-commente.html.
28. Niranjan Rajah. The Failure of Marcel Duchamp/Japanese Fetish Even! http://www.hgb-leipzig.de/waterfall/.
29. Nina Pope and Karen Guthrie. A Hypertext Journal, http://doric.bart.ucl.ac.uk:80/web/Nina/Tour/.
30. Roshini Kempadoo. Sweetness and Light, http://www.rtvf.nwu.edu/Homestead/ rkempadoo/rk-1.html.
31. Anette Weintraub. Realms, http://artnetweb.com/projects/realms/notes.html.
32. Julie Myers. Peeping Tom, http://www.obsolete.com/peepingtom/.
33. ada web, http://www.adaweb.com/home.shtml.
34. ada web, Securityland, http://www.adaweb. com/project/secure/corridor/sec1.html.
35. Jenny Holzer. Please Change Beliefs, http://www.adaweb.com/project/ holzer/cgi/pcb.cgi?change.
36. GROUP Z. LOVE, http://www.adaweb.com /~GroupZ/LOVE/35.html.
37. The Laboratory, http://www.ruskin-sch.ox.ac.uk/~jake/lab.html.
38. Jake Tilson. The Cooker, http://www.ruskin-sch.ox.ac.uk/~jake/thecooker/here/here.html.
39. David Mach. Quick Time Virtual Sculpture Vessel, http://www.ruskin-sch.ox.ac.uk/~jake/lab/l11a.html.
40. Stelarc. Ping body, http://www.merlin.com.au/stelarc/pingbody/index.html.
41. Victoria Vesna. Bodies INC-orporated, http://www.arts.ucsb.edu/bodiesinc/frames.