Virtual Reality Check
Warner, Nicholas, Art Monthly
Where previously the canonical history of art has focused exclusively on autonomous artworks and individual artists, in recent decades a shift has occurred, placing this focus on the conditions of distribution, circulation and interpretation of art, in other words, its exhibition. It has become expected that exhibitionary practices actively contribute to the criticism and production of contemporary art. Prior to this the practice of exhibiting intended only to assimilate finished material works of art into one of the two spheres of post-art production: the art historical canon and/or the commercial art market. However, more recently, with the professionalisation of curating and the proliferation of curatorial academia, it has become the standard for those producing exhibitions of contemporary art to not only present works but critique them and interact with them as a generative method of knowledge production. Because of this curatorial turn there is now excess critical activity to bolster the output of any specific field of art production. Producing art as an exercise is no longer exclusively the duty of the artist but of the curator too. Exhibitions no longer simply reflect and observe but, through the models of participation, interaction and activation, they actively contribute to the field of 'making'.
However, despite being perhaps the most widely contributed to area of art ever, net art has perhaps not received the same degree of attention from the world of practising curators and the international community of contemporary art galleries. Critically and theoretically the field of net art is expanding exponentially. But while more theorists are writing about the intricacies of the net art paradigm, exhibitions that deal with net art largely manage the display of works tentatively, struggling with the complexities of the technologies and the justification of their inclusion in the white cube. This medium and practice are constantly growing, and with the increase in net art theory books, an increasingly complex net art history is developing. Net art's roots are clearly embedded in the so-called net.art movement of the early 1990s and the anarchistic, subversive efforts of net.artists such as Heath Bunting, Alexei Shulgin and Olia Lialina. This era has had a line drawn under it and a vast network of practitioners have risen from the ashes of those first few prominent web producers, marking the end of the first major theoretical phase of net art, as Alex Galloway lamented in his 1999 article 'net.art Year in Review: State of net.art 99', 'The first formative period of net culture seems to be over'. An interest in new technological advances and online social relations is neutralising the previously anarchistic values of net art production and some of the key institutions of net art, such as Rhizome and e-flux, are cementing their status and taking on management of the genre's canon.
With such a rich and recent history, and with such a plethora of readily available works, why is net art being so poorly represented in galleries? While curators seem well aware of the intricacies of attempting to translate works conceived for home viewing into the dreaded white cube, few have risen to the challenge. In the 1960s and 70s a surge of technologically concerned exhibitions tackled the basic concept of networked art. Among these were the ICA's 'Cybernetic Serendipity' exhibition in 1968, as well as 'Software' and 'Information' in 1970 in New York at the Jewish Museum and the Museum of Modern Art respectively. However, the internet as we know it now was unavailable then and these shows largely focused on the ethical implications of a new international network of communication, which at the time was a major development. Now, decades on, we have witnessed the exponential growth and synthesis of that network, and artists worldwide are utilising its communicative resources with such ease and self-organisation that the inadequacies of curators' attempts at getting involved have not caused too much upset. …