In 1994, Korean-American artist Nam June Paik had a dream. Sourcing 52 bulky Sony television monitors, he assembled the objects into a wall-like structure and set the screens to play electronically generated images and video clips. Like cells, these screens appear to respond to one another; some feature the same faces or objects, while others link up to create phantasmagoric bursts of colour. The effect is entirely overwhelming—and echoes the dense infotainment of YouTube, Instagram, Facebook and other apps and websites widely used today.
This is Paik’s Internet Dream, a work which prophesized our current hyper-connected world. The artist also predicted the phenomenon of an “electronic superhighway” in a 1974 essay, written 15 years before the World Wide Web was invented. Tellingly, he spoke not just of the practicality of such technological advancements, but also of the cultural renaissance that would inevitably occur, stating that this electronic network “will become our springboard for new and surprising human endeavours”.
Although Paik never fully interacted with the internet as we know it today—he passed away in 2006 due to complications from a stroke he suffered in 1996—he is widely considered one of the first practitioners of internet-based art, building on top of the intermedia experimentations of the experimental Fluxus movement. Immediately after the advent of the World Wide Web came the first generation of “net.art” practitioners in the 1990s, followed by the web 2.0 movement in the early 2000s, which has continued to evolve and integrate into contemporary art today. While institutions and publications have traditionally focused on predominantly Western net artists and those practising in North America and Europe, there is growing interest in artists who are part of the Asian diaspora or based in Asia, where much of the world’s hardware and software is developed. These artists, much like Paik, push the frontiers of not just cyberspace, but also human connectivity, probing the fundamental ways in which we transmit, disseminate and use information globally.
With the explosion of the internet came radical possibilities of social equality, community organisation and political resistance—themes that were explored by early hacktivists and net art practitioners. Taiwan-born Shu Lea Cheang played both roles, harnessing and infiltrating the platform to raise awareness about identity issues in the US at the time, such as instances of violent transphobia and discrimination against queer communities. In 1998, the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum in New York commissioned Cheang to create the collaborative website project Brandon (brandon.guggenheim.org), which narrates the life story, rape and murder of transgender individual Brandon Teena using text and image animations, chatroom logs, clickthrough popup webpages and various other popular internet tools from the 1990s. The highly interactive project also traces the history of LGBTQI rights in America, often displaying these items of information in cascading windows or as flashing animations, as if hacking the page to highlight the insidious discrimination the community faced.
The Guggenheim was ahead of the curve in commissioning Brandon—internet or web-based art was considered anti-institutional and uncollectable at the time. As these projects already exist in public, the role of the curator—who might traditionally be tasked to activate the piece, installing it in a show or space—becomes somewhat redundant. The focal relationship is instead on the work and its participant, who can anonymously click through and choose their own journey. Additionally, these sites were (and still are) free to anyone with the web address and access to the internet.
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