Logic in Cyberspace: Web Art & Postmodernism
- Amy Divila
The desire to venture into
unexplored “landscape” guides the direction of new genres.
With the advent of the Internet, information-based technology
has enabled artists to investigate a new art form, a cerebral “medium for
creative expression”, web art.
Web art surfaced in the mid- ‘90s to receive, almost immediately,
much support and encouragement by museums, foundations and other traditional
institutions. Institutions such as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art,
The Whitney Museum of Art, as well as the Dia Foundation and the Walker Art
Center have openly accepted this new genre of art through purchasing web art
for permanent collections, funding web art projects and creating exhibitions
solely comprised of web based media. Even though the fast-developing art medium
is in its infancy and the “criteria for artistic evaluation are still being
developed”, curators, critics and the art public have not only embraced the
web aesthetic but the conceptual elements encoded within as well. 
The phenomenon of acceptance and support enjoyed
by such an emerging art form can be assertively attributed to our culture
in general, but more specifically the underlying ideas manifested over time
through postmodernism. Postmodernism gave birth to “conceptual art”, an art
practice which suggested that the art had traversed from object to idea, from
a tangible thing to a “system of thought”.
Technology has created a new reproductive medium, which
by its very nature confirms the ideas and canons of postmodernism both aesthetically
as well as contextually, even more absolutely than photography. Web art has
enabled the artist to interrogate the conventional codes embedded in the materiality
of the art and thus transcend traditional stylistic conventions. The movement
and ideals of postmodernism systematically dismantled the values created by
the formalist establishment. Formal values, which governed art throughout
modernism, concerning originality, uniqueness, authenticity, autonomy, transcendence
and aesthetic quality were questioned and thus deconstructed by art theorists
who embraced the writings of Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida and Walter Benjamin.
The format and content of web art succinctly
encompass the postmodern concept of representation and the ideas of copy vs.
original, artist vs. viewer, spatial vs. temporal and visual vs. verbal.
The very characteristics of the web medium such as infinite reproducibility,
interpretive interactivity, non-physicality, and coded language, contribute
to the affirmation of these postmodern concerns. The parallel between postmodern
theory and a pure art form that coherently echoes its concepts, manifests
the acceptance of web art into the microcosmic art community as well as the
larger, info-driven society.
Rather than focusing on the
“singleness of the art object,” postmodern theorists such as Rosalind
Krauss, Benjamin Buchloh, Craig Owens and Douglas Crimp were interested
in art’s multiple contexts and meanings and its relationship with
social and cultural influences.
This change in focus from the external qualities
to the internal content of art and thereby the rejection of the
basic aesthetic inherence of originality, created a burgeoning
interest in reproductive, mechanical media. Technology allowed
for the creation of reproductive mediums, which denounced basic
modern aesthetics and thus confirmed the movement away from traditional
Photography was the favored
medium of postmodernism as it, by its very nature, called into
question modernist ideals. Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay, “Photography
in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, influenced the postmodern
thought that “photography deconstructs the possibility of differentiating
between the original and the copy” and thus the original’s “aura”,
“singular authenticity” and its “authority” become obsolete. 
As technology has evolved,
the “reproducibility” of digital media further blurs the concept
of the original, as there is no distinction between “the first
idea and its slavish imitators”.  Web art exists, in its essence, as coded language
at one or multiple addresses on one or multiple servers and as
each viewer arrives at that address the artwork is created and
recreated on the computer screen. The web art form is pure conceptual
art as there truly exists no original object only ideas. Thus
the “handmade mark of the creator” and the “aura” that is created
by an “original” does not live in the virtual world and is therefore
null.  Once the concept
of the original becomes obsolete the authenticity of a work and
the authority that an original commands is equally mute.
Not only is web art by its natural
language a copy or a repetition but the concept of the artwork
created through a technological medium also addresses the lack
of importance of the original, as demonstrated by the web art
site Every Icon.
Upon arriving to the site the viewer is confronted
with the fact that the artist has created perameters for the computer
to decode, similar to the “instructions” given by Sol Lewitt. 
The computer, your computer
is forced to calculate every possible visual combination within
a 32 x 32 grid as each square of the grid is assigned either color:
black or white. Through this experiment the artist ponders whether
“image-space” can be explored solely using a computer rather than
l hundred trillion years making the
project a conceptual one. The “computational promise” of the experiment
created by the artist exists only conceptually without an original
or a copy.
Every time the viewer revisits the site, the
calculation begins a new and thus the machine repeats its “promise”.
The value of this type of medium is apparent without the constraints
of originality and conveys meaning sometimes “beyond the scale
of human existence”.
art “by exposing the multiplicity, the facticity, the repetition
and stereotype at the heart of every aesthetic gesture” defines
itself as the postmodern medium of our technological society.
This reproductive medium exists without originals and thereby
suggests that “if art could no longer be original” then the concept
of the “artist as an individual genius” has become an outmoded
idea.  As Every
Icon revisits an unattainable answer, Desktop
IS introduces the concept of a searching through digital detritus
to pose an unanswerable question. 
The Desktop IS project
questions the individual users' configuration of their personal
desktop and creates a dialog about the user’s identity and the
desktop as an “inhabitable space”.  The “distinctive individual brush stroke” of
the artist is absent as traditional appropriation is utilized
through a type of electronic readymade, the desktop.  Each desktop is a “found” object used to “comment
on the human condition” as the viewer juxtaposes each desktop
with the next.  The artist creates
nothing but a conceptual platform to question “personal identities
mapped onto this intimate interface”.  The idea exists
in a pure format on the web, without the distraction of potential
burdening arguments of originality suggested by modernism.
Artist and Interpretive
concept of the artist as genius and the idea that art centered
on its creator was attacked by Roland Barthes as it was questioned
earlier by Walter Benjamin. Barthes radically proclaimed that
the “birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the
The artist, therefore, was no longer the subject
of interpretation but rather the work itself was critiqued through
its text. More importantly, the reader, the viewer, the audience
had replaced the artist as creator because the meaning of the
work was to be found in the interpretations of the text and each
interpretation spawned new meaning. 
web art the viewer or user is the ultimate creator through the
very nature of its interface. The user is conditioned to manipulate
through a web art site by a series of mouse movements and clicks
as these basic functions are fundamental to wielding oneself through
the web for anything: research, entertainment, communication.
The interactivity with web artwork is intimately part of the piece
itself as the viewer is forced to make “arbitrary” choices which
“makes the viewer feel that he is actually participating in the
unfolding of the work”. 
Whatever dilemmas have arisen for artists creating
interactive work, web artists have almost universally relinquished
“authorial control” over their work. 
The art sites Superbad and Grammatron “head unabashedly into the danger zone of audience interaction/participation”
utilizing a nonlinear construct encouraging viewers to transform
into players.  Once the user
types in www.superbad.com into their browser and is delivered to the home page, it is up
to the “spectator to click to the next image” in order to progress
through the barrage of visual effects.  Superbad’s simplistic interactivity encourages “deeper concentration” which
facilitates the viewer to create “meaningful links” between the
images causing “visual emotion” to ultimately consume the viewer.  The viewer thus
actively participates in creating the experience of “strangeness,
mystery and beauty” these images evoke. 
Grammatron’s more complicated narrative also enlists the viewer to participate
through its visual, educational journey. Through this “interiorized
landscape” the viewer is introduced to Abe Golam, a “legendary
info-shaman” and is compelled to join him on his quest for “creative
immortality”. The artist, Marc Amerika, has created a new narrative
possibility known as HyperText Consciousness (HTC). 
The viewer is exposed to a new type of story
structure which is “more hallucinogenic or clickual” while still
maintaining a “narratologically-mind discourse”.  This type of “branching discourse” creates
a work lacking an “authorial center” allowing the user to surface
as the ultimate protagonist.  With web art’s
emergence, more responsibility and new freedom have been given
to the audience transforming the mere viewer into a participant
and determinant character in this virtual world.
Spatial Existence and Non-physicality
As postmodernists “looked
beyond the frame” and opposed the modernist claim that “artwork
was an autonomous object” to be graded on its formal properties,
they questioned the values of originality, artist as genius as
well as the spatial existence of the art object.  Art theorists asserted the “primacy of the
temporal over the spatial” and as such rejected stagnant art that
only existed in space rather than transgressed time. 
The idea of the artwork as “almost infinitely
malleable” was celebrated as artists probed the “outer limits”
of three-dimensional space. 
Web art does exist in space but
in a virtual space which transgresses the traditional notions
of spatial relationship with the viewer. The dematerialization
of the art object is inherent in web art as the viewer accepts
the reality that this art form does not produce a 3-D object and
thus spatial interface with the piece is impossible. The relationship
exists via a machine; a machine which may only transmit art that
“represents” three-dimensionality. Flesh
& Blood greets its audience with images of a face pressed
“between the glass surface of the user’s screen” and the glass
surface of the artist’s scanner.  This initial image represents the “point of
contact” between the viewer and the artist, a closeness suggesting
that the computer screen is nothing more than a “thin membrane
between two beings”.  The artist and
thus the image representing the artist are obviously non-physical
and as far as the viewer is aware, a presence existing only virtually.
Flesh & Blood contrives
an atmosphere of intimacy but realistically the “physical closeness
between participants is purely theoretical”. 
The vehicle of web based
media permeates through time and space through its nature of accessibility
and availability. It can exist simultaneously for one or multiple
viewers at any given time of day or night. Light
on the Net perfectly conveys the idea that web art can pierce
the traditional notions of spatial existence, as the user has
the “ability to reach out and turn a switch on a light several
thousand miles away”. 
The “telepresence” that the user-visitor experiences
creates the sensation of performing a “physical action” and seeing
the results. 
and Coded Language
The primary goal
of postmodern art theorists was “decentering, that is, getting
rid of anything that implied a center or hierarchy”.  Jacques Derrida
who formulated deconstruction announced that “everything is a
text” and utilized text and language to dismantle modern ideals
by probing wording and exposing hidden contradictions.  Because of the
multiple meanings and “marginal” terms within language, Derrida’s
deconstruction reaffirmed the notion of the death of the author. 
Thus the text and the interpretive meanings
within the text not the artist were the focuses of postmodernism.
The new art form of information
technologies exists in a world of strong textual elements. All
web sites share a “textual essence” which manifests “declarative
web art” and possibly a more “intentional, coherent message than
in other art mediums”. 
Web art such as The
Struggle employs political propaganda through written text
as simply another “object”. 
The text utilized by the artist is in the “service
of the art work” rather than the artwork being in the “service
of politics”.  Thus web art is
a privileged medium enjoying the didactic luxury able to keep
the viewer situated in front of its message simply because the
user understands that the very nature of the web is supposed to
The “plain language” characteristic
of web art assists in the deconstruction of messages conveyed
in this electronic medium.  The
Reader is designed to act as an “equalizer that takes the
disinformation out of plain textual information” and thereby “stripping”
web sites of superfluous visual information such as banners, photos,
and illustrations. 
The Reader exposes the “web’s unstated ambition to forsake its information-superhighway
origins and to become a new-age TV set”. 
The raw text hidden under the barrage of colorful
distractions “brings cyberspace down to earth”.  The textual characteristic
of web art is a defining marker that this technological art form
lends itself as a partner to postmodern values of conceptual art.
Web art has been “accepted” by
traditional institutions, critics and thus the general public
because it “fits” into our culture and society, a society which
has been groomed by postmodern ideals. Thus web art has not been
subjected to “cultural limbo” as photography had “for a century
and a half” by the constraints imposed by modernism. 
The postmodernists embraced
the idea that technology, especially reproductive mediums that
would “radically affect the perception of art”.  The rejection
of traditional notions and therefore the bourgeois mediums which
reiterated the idea of “art as a purely self-involved activity”,
created a strong affinity towards new genres for postmodernists.
The support given by postmodernism to technological art forms
has played an important role in redefining the value of web based
mediums today. This movement has allowed art to propel itself
forward into experimental genres that have developed along side
The nature of web based art facilitates
this acceptance. The infinite reproducibility of the web art form
reaffirms postmodern deconstruction of the “unique existence”
of the art object and thus its exuded authority and authentic
Web art has crossed the “boundaries” of what
was once the “unreproducibility of the aesthetic original” and
introduced a world that exists free from the concept of either
the original or the copy. Web art also elevates the user-viewer
to the level of interactive creator and thus instrumental in the
process of artistic realization. Because of the interactive nature
of web art, the viewer has ultimately replaced the artist, thus
confirming Barthes’ theory of death of the author. The existence
of web art in a non-physical, temporal realm also contributes
to the rejection of the modern value of the spatial art object.
The audience understands the virtuality of this technology as
it pervades daily life on the net.
Finally, the inherent makeup of the Internet as a catalog
of information, coded language, and raw data, allows web art to
present art as text and equally text as art. The limitless interchangeability
of text and web art constitutes the revelation of postmodern theorists
that the meaning of art can only be found through the relationship
of the “world outside the text that is nevertheless inscribed in the text”. 
ideals set forth the current society’s methodology of valuing
art and thus new art forms. It is because web art so accurately
mirrors the canons of postmodernism, that it is such a favored
form in the art world. Web art’s acceptance and popularity exist
because it is a concept as much as it is a “tool”.  Web art, like photography,
is an instrument reiterating the values posed by postmodernists
in order to reject traditional mediums. The opposition of tradition
powers our society forward to seek out new ways to explain old
ideas and explore new questions that pervade our environment.
Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author”, Brian O’Doherty,
ed., Aspen 5 + 6 (Fall
– Winter 1967): sec. 3.
Morris Dickstein, “Where Do We Go from Here?”, Village Voice,
Patrick Frank, “Recasting Benjamin’s Aura,” New Art Examiner,
Mar. 1989, p. 30.
Jurgen Habermas, “Modernity – An Incomplete Project”, Hal Foster,
ed. The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, The
New Press, New York, 1998.
Glen Helfand, “Net Work: The SFMOMA Webby Prize and the State
of Online Art”, Open: The Magazine of the San Francisco Museum
of Modern Art, Fall 2.
Fredric Jameson, “The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism”, Postmodernism,
or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Post-Contemporary
Interventions, Duke University Press, Durham, 1991.
Rosalind Krauss, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and
Other Modernist Myths, MIT Press, Cambridge, 1999.
Rosalind Krauss, “A Note on Photography and the Simulacral,”
October 31 (Winter 1984): 59, 63.
Sol Lewitt, “Paragraphs of Conceptual Art”, Kristine Stiles and Peter Selz, eds., Theories and Documents
of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists' Writings, University
of California Press, Berkeley, 1996.
Lucy Lippard & John Chandler, Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object 1966-1972, New
York, Praeger Publishers,1973.
Irving Sandler, “Postmodernist Art Theory”, Art of the Postmodern
Era: From the Late 1960s to the Early 1990s, Westview Press,
Howard Singerman, “In the TEXT”, A Forest of Signs: Art
in the Crisis of Representation, Museum of Contemporary Art,
Los Angeles, 1989.
Walker Art Center –
Randall Packer, www.walkerart.org/gallery9/beyondinterface.html.
Randall Packer is the Director of Multimedia at the San Jose
Museum of Art and one of the curators for Beyond Interface. The
Walker Art Center created an online gallery called Gallery9 which
was founded by the Director of New Media Initiatives, Steve Dietz.
Beyond Interface: net art and Art on the Net project was curated
by Steve Dietz in 1998 which consisted of a group of art projects
dealing with information-driven interface. The site contains links
to the web art sites as well as dialog amongst the curatorial
selection committee. Other curators include Chris Locke, a Xerox
Lecturer in Electronic Communication & Publishing at University
College London; Susan
Hazan, Curator of Multimedia at The Israel Museum; and Ken Goldberg,
creator of the web art project Momento
Mori as well as a Professor of Engineering at University of
California at Berkeley.
Randall Packer, “Net Art as Theater of the Senses: A HyperTour
of Jodi and Grammatron”. www.walkerart.org/gallery9/beyondinterface/america_work.html
Ken Goldberg, “ON/OFF the light”. www.walkerart.org/gallery9/beyondinterface/fujihata_work.html.
Total Museum –
Marc Vogue, “Interactivity
and Self-Referentiality”, Some S-I-S-S-J-F-F-D-E-M-T-W-A-I-D-C-F-A-A-S-T-W-C-S-M-R-W-L-G-I-T-R-H-W-M-C’s
of Web Art. www.totalmuseum.org/webproject8/marc_text.html#introduction. Web Project 8 is an online exhibition which has been organized
every year for the last five years by the Total Museum of Contemporary
Art and supported by the Seoul Metropolitan Government
and the Korean Culture and Arts Foundation.
The show, includes eight contemporary artists, four Korean and
four international which are commissioned to create original pieces.
The exhibition exists virtually through links to the sites from
December 1, 2000, to February 1, 2001.
Richard Barbeau, “Specificities of Online Art – The Case of
John F. Simon, Jr., Every
Icon, 1996. www.stadiumweb.com/everyicon/eicon_statement.html.
Alexei Shulgin, Desktop
IS , 1997 – present. www.easylife.org/desktop.
Ben Benjamin, Superbad,
Mark Amerika, Grammatron,
Mouchette, Flesh &
Blood, 1998, www.mouchette.org/flesh/tong.html.
Masaki Fujihata, Light
On The Net, 1996. www.light.softopia.pref.gifu.jp.
Young-hae Chang, The
Diane Bertolo, The Reader,
Habermas, “Modernity – An Incomplete Project”, The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on
Postmodern Culture, p. 5.
Helfand, “Net Work: The SFMOMA Webby Prize and the State of Online Art”, Open:
The Magazine of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Fall 2, p. 39
& John Chandler, Six
Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object 1966-1972, New York,
Sandler, “Postmodernist Art Theory”, Art of the Postmodern Era: From the
Late 1960s to the Early 1990s, Westview Press, Boulder, 1996, p. 334.
Sandler, “Postmodernist Art Theory”, p. 346 & 347.
Howard Singerman, “In the TEXT”, A Forest of Signs:
Art in the Crisis of Representation, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los
Angeles, 1989, p. 162 – 163.
Sandler, “Postmodernist Art Theory”, p. 347. Rosalind Krauss, “A Note on
Photography and the Simulacral,” October 31 (winter 1984): 59, 63.
Sandler, “Postmodernist Art Theory”, p. 347.
“Paragraphs of Conceptual Art”, Kristine Stiles and Peter Selz, eds., Theories and Documents of
Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists' Writings, University of
California Press, Berkeley, 1996, p. 825.
Simon, Jr., Every Icon
Sandler, “Postmodernist Art Theory”, p.
Patrick Frank, “Recasting Benjamin’s Aura,” New Art
Examiner, Mar. 1989, p. 30.
Jameson, “The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism”, Postmodernism, or, The
Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Post-Contemporary Interventions,
Duke University Press, Durham, 1991, p. 5.
Barthes, “The Death of the Author”, Brian O’Doherty, ed., Aspen 5 + 6
(Fall – Winter 1967): sec. 3.
Sandler, “Postmodernist Art Theory”, p. 339.
Sandler, “Postmodernist Art Theory”, p. 333.
Sandler, “Postmodernist Art Theory”, p. 337.
Sandler, “Postmodernist Art Theory”, p. 346.
Sandler, “Postmodernist Art Theory”, p. 346
Dickstein, “Where Do We Go from Here?”, Village Voice, pp. 19-20.
Helfand, “Net Work: The SFMOMA Webby Prize and the State of Online Art”, Open:
The Magazine of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Fall 2, p. 39