Grethe Melby (born 1972)
Grethe Melby is an honours degree student at the Institute of Media Science at the University of Bergen. Her thesis is a case-study on the so-called ”DVD case” in which the young Norwegian Jon Johansen was arrested by the police after being reported by the American film industry for participating in the development of a de-coding system known as DeCSS. This code would make it easier to copy the contents of a DVD, but also make it possible to watch DVD on machines running the operative system Linux.
Melby has also worked as a theatre producer and actor, and has worked closely together with the dramatist Hjørdis Lehre. She has participated in several minor Norwegian Internet art projects and has been an active participant in various Norwegian e-mail lists. In the Spring of 2002 she was engaged by Kunstnett Norge (Art Net Norway), where she has written a number of articles about Internet art.
Re-writing the instruction manual
by Grethe Melby, member of the curatorial team.
”We monkey around with new technologies in an effort to see what they can do, to make them do things the engineers never intended, to understand what they might mean, to reflect on their efforts, to push them beyond their limits, to break them.”
- Mark Tribe
Given the fact that Internet is such a widely used medium it may seem a paradox that Internet art – or net.art – is an art practice that is not easily accessible to the general public. One would think that the opposite was the case, since art is ”freely available on the Internet”. Several works can even be downloaded, copied and modified by the user. The artist usually has no possibility of limiting or controlling the use of his or her artwork. In principle, anybody can own Internet art.
Nevertheless, this particular area of the art world is unknown for most people, including artists, art critics and others involved in the arena of art and culture. This is one of the reasons that artists working with the Internet are so suspicious of any art institution. Those in the upper echelons of the art world – those with the most power – for example museum directors and curators, don’t understand the work. When they try to mediate Internet art, the Internet artists themselves often experience their efforts as misunderstood and uninformed.
Those who do not appreciate or understand Internet art should be defended. The main problem is that Internet art – including net.art – is more difficult than any other medium to mediate within the traditional framework of an art institution. If one is to have any interest in Internet art, one usually has a genuine interest for computers, Internet and the general technological developments within this area. There is no reason to expect that everyone to have such an interest. During the last fifty years computer technology has changed enormously – from the early days when the computer was simply a research tool which simplified complex mathematical problems, to today’s communication technology, with the distribution of information based on a principle of many-to-many rather than the broadcasting technology which favoured a few-to-many principle. Art which bases itself on technology often comments upon these developments. So if one is not aware of or interested in these developments it is difficult to understand what the art is commenting upon.
The main Internet art public probably consists of ”nerds” – those who are able to tell interminably long stories about the technical details of their first computer, and all the computers and gadgets they subsequently invested in. The undersigned is no exception to this rule. I was introduced to the Internet as late as 1996. A fellow student talked me into buying his old computer, a so-called ”four-eight-six”. It wasn’t easy to persuade me. I already had a computer. I was very fond of my little square Macintosh SE which resembled a sugar cube, so I couldn’t see the point in buying another computer. I was used to my machine. It looked reassuringly like the computer I was used to working on at the offices of ”Youth against the EU”. 
My friend nodded understandingly. By the way, was I aware that Kristen Nygaard, leader of “No to the EU”, had made a huge contribution to technological developments? I had to admit that I wasn’t aware of this: For me Kristen Nygaard was ” the No-General”.
With a triumphant smile my friend pointed out that this is what happens when one’s perspective does not extend past national borders. Together with Ole Johan Dahl, Kristen Nygaard is world renowned for the development of object-orientated programming, the computer programming language that laid the foundation for Java, C++ and others. This way of working with a computer was an important innovation within the field of technological history. If you search for information about Kristen Nygaard on the Internet today, you will find texts about the programming language known as SIMULA rather than documents about the ”No to EU” movement.
My friend’s main persuasive gambit was that he had seen a cheap US Robotics 28.8- modem for sale in one of the less salubrious second-hand shops in Nygårdsgaten in Bergen. With this piece of equipment I would be able to ”log on”. Of course he failed to mention that his primary motivation for selling his computer was the fact that he intended to buy himself a brand new ”pentium”, and that he also wanted to connect our computers together, creating a network in our living room.
It was the modem that persuaded me to give up my little sugar cube. I no longer cared that my Macintosh SE made sounds that would have brought today’s young contemporary musicians to their knees – these sounds filled me with anxiety every time I switched the machine on. This modem - which was apparently the same as the one Olia Lialina used when she first embraced the Internet – brought with it a whole new range of experiences. With it I could send e-mails, surf on the Internet, download files from ftp-servers and ”talk” directly to others via a talk-service. With my friend leading the way, I entered the kingdom of the nerds, where the focus was more or less fixed upon the significance of the software in relation to the capacity of the computer hardware.
I hadn’t yet discovered Alexei Shulgin’s humorous advertising page for the computer hardware FuckU, FuckME, but I did come across several pages containing promises that this or that particular hardware would fulfill my dreams. On a general level, FuckU, FuckME from 1999 takes a look at the way in which the IT industry insists that it can cover most of our needs. FuckU, FuckME also refers to one of the most popular concepts regarding the Internet; the fact that social intercourse can take place in ”cyberspace” – that it is no longer necessary to leave one’s own house in order to fulfill one’s need for social commerce. This Internet piece uses a well known rhetorical device – the hyperbole – in order to exaggerate and ridicule the contemporary, naïve belief in ”new technology”. Few years later this blind belief was challenged with the collapse of the dot.com industry.
If one examines the history of net.art one sees how important the actual physical meeting place was – the exhibitions, the festivals and conferences. Internet communication was an addition to these physical meeting places – it was not a replacement. At the same time, Internet communication – mainly in the form of e-mail lists - was extremely important when establishing a critical discourse about contemporary issues in general and art in particular. Whilst artists working with other media have often complained about the lack of discussion and engagement with current critical discourse, those working with Internet art have complained of the opposite: sometimes there is just too much talk.
FuckU, FuckME was made in 1999 – according to Shulgin, the end of the net.art era. It also coincided with the first signs of a collapsing IT industry. This shows how closely connected net.art was to technological development and the cultural conceptions that are always closely connected to it. The five artists that are focused upon in the exhibition – the Russian artists Olia Lialina and Alexei Shulgin, The Slovakian artist Vuk Cosic, The British artist Heath Bunting and the two Dutch artists Joan Heemskerk and Dirk Paesmans (jodi), have all made work that in various ways can be read as directly comments upon contemporary issues and their area of speciality – new technology.
Jodi’s Wrongbrowser is a double edged comment: on the one hand the piece focuses upon compatability and the need for software producers to follow the common standard so that the technology employed is functional for the user. This is not always the case. Instead software producers often create problems for the user as part of a marketing strategy. The reason is the struggling for power over standards. If the standard of one producer becomes the common standard, the company responsible can then control the development. By the strategy ”embrace and extend” the dominating producer keeps to the general standard, but changes it slightly so that the products of other producers become dysfunctional. This problem has been understood by the ”father of the browser”, Tim Berners Lee, and he has seen to it that the browser producers all keep to the same standards which are agreed upon by an organisation called W3C. This council consists of representatives from the browser branch, and they themselves must arrive at a political agreement about the development of browsers. If one is to look after the interests of the consumer, it is simply not good enough to let technology ”develop itself” in a free market. There must be a well-informed, competent political strategy behind it.
On the other hand, jodi also questions W3c’s standards. Their standards have a direct effect upon our understanding of the Internet. If we take a careful look at metaphors in use, we may find details that are concealed or suppressed. We often talk of ”web pages” as if Internet was a book. But a web page might also be termed a ”live broadcast” – the content matter is mediated directly – here and now – and not necessarily in the same way again. We talk about ”net sites” as if Internet was a geographical landscape, even though this ”landscape” is in continual motion and constantly changing character. It’s actually quite striking that the discourse around the Internet is characterized by the need to employ terms that are solid, secure and committed to paper in black and white. This is especially remarkable when the Internet is obviously characterized by the ”flow of information” that the media theoretician Raymond Williams dedicated to other electronic media such as radio and television - media can be said to front orality rather than literacy.
The technical construction of the Internet does not reflect the security that one associates with the materiality of paper. The electronic flow enhances the immateriality that one associates with oral communication. This creates problems for the institutions that belong to our modern times. Just think about the role paper plays in modern beaurocracy, and how oral agreements are perceived as being less formally binding and more corrupt than written agreements. Signing a paper means something quite different from making an agreement by telephone. Whilst the latter is more difficult to document, it is obvious that a piece of paper with a signature is evidence of an agreement that will hold for the future. This problem also applies to digital documents: for a start, they are easier to copy and modify than paper documents. There are established rules and conventions that prevent the falsification of paper documents. However, as digital technology moves into new territories, the interesting thing is that it is able to adapt and accomodate specific requirements. The need for security and solidity are often issues that arise when technology is discussed publicly. Those joining the debate are often politicians and representatives of large commercial enterprises, whilst those who most frequently use the insecure channels of the Internet are often demonised and criminalised.
This is one of the central issues regarding the role of Internet art. It comments upon how technology might be understood, why it is understood the way it is, and how developing technology can move forward. Or to requote the Rhizome founder Mark Tribe: We react like monkeys with regard to new technology because we want to see what technology can do, to get technology to do something that was never intended by the engineers, to understand the meaning of technology, to reflect upon it’s possibilities, to push technology over it’s own borderlines, to break it.
In her exhibition text, Josephine Bosma writes that she has come to the conclusion that it is perhaps the critics that have interpreted net.art artists as political artists, whilst they themselves play down their political engagement. In some respects this is perhaps true. At the same time, this art form is clearly political in it’s approach – the artists choose to ignore the instruction manual offered by the technology producers, preferring to make their own rules and guidelines. It is this attitude to technology that makes net.art such a critical art form. It is critical to the conceptual framework that limits the discourse taking place within the art institutions and the art world, and it is critical to the limited horizons of the IT industry.
Perhaps this is the greatest difference between the early net.art period and today’s Internet art. In his article Generation Flash Lev Manovich points out that the new generation of Internet artists are less interested in politics and focus more on aesthetics. Less attention is paid to the way in which the tool one uses affects the art one produces with it. The art produced during the net.art period was a reflection upon the aesthetics of the technology one chose to use and upon the importance of the various forms of perception. Today, the new generation of Internet artists are more interested in working with the IT industry’s designs rather than against them. Perhaps this constitutes a frightening lack political interest for an area that raises important issues and should attract far more attention from the general public than it actually enjoys. When new technology is introduced, there will always be a period during which those who are involved with it need to reflect upon the way in which it functions and field of activity it relates to. Perhaps it is simply a question of time, and a general discussion and exchange of ideas will follow in due course.
The exhibition Written in stone. A net.art archaeology is related to a debate that has been taking place within the field of Internet art ever since it began. These days there are doctoral theses and papers written on the subject in the academic world – and the question is often how to mediate the culture that arises from the development of new technology within traditional institutions. This question is often launched as something entirely new, that we are faced with a completely new phenomenon, and that this new technology brings with it something we have never seen before. At this point it is tempting to quote a well known theoretician and philosopher who’s words were quoted to death in the 1960’s and 70’s, but who is seldom quoted today. This philosopher is reported as saying: ”For one who is not aware of history, everything is new”. Perhaps the time has come to make a serious effort to fight through the gibberish of theoretical terms that are constantly being produced in the academic world. These terms are also part of the net.art discourse, but perhaps it would be more fruitful to take a closer look at how this type of problem has been solved earlier. If we consider the mediation of net.art, we can see that we are dealing with a culture that has been, and continues to be a phenomenon that is very much alive. For many however, this phenomenon has been foreign, inaccessible and difficult to understand.
This is one aspect that it shares with other ancient cultures, for example the ancient Egyptian culture, as expressed in the form of hieroglyphics. It is worth reflecting upon how ancient cultures are mediated to today’s public, and this is the starting point for the exhibition Written in stone. A net.art archaeology.
In July 1799, the French troops found themselves in the small village of Rosetta in Egypt. General Napoleon Bonaparte’s expedition army had just landed in Alexandria, and his army was not only composed of soldiers. There were also one hundred and fifty artists, engineers and scientists from various fields. Their mission was to ”promote information in Egypt”. During the next four years, with military aid, this troop of specialists drew up an inventory of Egyptian riches from the past and present. The Institute of Egypt was established, and the Kingdom of the Pharaohs was reconstructed.
One important discovery that took place during this time was the discovery of a large stone. The stone was found near the small village of Rosetta, and was subsequently named after it – The Rosetta Stone. Until the stone was discovered, it had been very difficult to decipher the hieroglyphics which provided so much insight into ancient Egyptian culture. Stone after stone with inscribed hieroglyphics had been found, but the religion depicted by these stones was no longer practised. Messages were no longer inscribed on walls in the form of hieroglyphics, nobody read them aloud with pleasure or annoyance. The culture was dead and the signs were silent.
The Rosetta Stone brought with it a breakthrough in the understanding of hieroglyphics and consequently the understanding of the Kingdom of the Pharaohs. The stone was covered with characters – each inscription was repeated three times, firstly in hieroglyphics, secondly in demotic characters, and thirdly in Ancient Greek. When the English forces conquered the French some years later, The Rosetta Stone was brought back to England, where scientists were able to decipher the hieroglyphic code with the aid of the Greek text.
Writing is technology, and like all other technology it is worthless if the knowledge of it's uses have been lost. One interesting additional point to this story is that together with the characters from a dead culture, one discovered characters from a culture that was still alive. The study of Ancient Greek has been of the greatest importance to the study of the past. It is the practice of this language that has made it possible for us to interpret a number of thousand-year-old texts.
This makes The Rosetta Stone a good metaphor for this exhibition. It examines net.art’s heroic period which stretches from 1994 to 1999. Not all of the cultural objects that belong to this period have been preserved. Some are just fragments of what has been. Not all of the preserved cultural objects are necessarily understood by us. The conditions under which they were created have changed – politically, culturally and technologically. This is why the exhibition Written in stone is just as unable to recreate history as the egyptologists were in their attempt to recreate the Kingdom of the Pharaohs. But just as the Rosetta Stone provided the key to many Egyptian secrets, this exhibition attempts to provide the key to Internet art. Of course, it will not solve all the puzzles, but it will certainly illuminate some of those secrets.
Later I had my doubts about this political standpoint. Nevertheless, these articles about the resistance against a Norwegian membership in the European Union might be interesting for the foreign reader.
Kristen Nygaard: We are not against Europe. We are against Norwegian membership
in the European Union.
Dag SeierstadNORWAY - EU, 1961-1994