Imago Aevitas: Beginnings of Art Projects on the Internet in India and the World
This is the second research note from Charu Maithani, one of the short-term social media research fellows at The Sarai Programme.
Net.art is associated with certain aesthetics and ethics of artists, designers and technologists in the mid-1990s. The term net.art has an interesting anecdote on how it got the name. In December 1995 Vuk Cosic, artist and theorist, got an email that had garbled text. Maybe due to an incompatible software there was only ASCII in the email, except for two words that looked like parts of two sentences – Net. Art  . Vuk Cosic held onto the term and started using it often. It soon became popular specifically among a certain groups of people, including Antonio Muntadas, Alexei Shulgin, Natalie Bookchin, Heath Bunting, Olia Lialina, Jodi and Vuc Cosic. This small group rejected existing systems of gallery, looking for alternate networks, were bound by their common interest in technology and its artistic exploits. They were interested in represented new ways of creating and receiving art and media. Lists like Nettime are primary constituents of net.art. Though the terms net.art, net art and internet art are used interchangeably, net.art has been accepted as one of the movements of internet and web based art .
The first big event to feature net art was Documenta X, 1997. Catherine David, the curator, brought together different disciplines including writers, filmmakers, sociologists from Asia, Africa and Latin America. For the first time a website was created for Documenta. Curated by artist and curator Simon Lamuniere, the website was conceived as an art project and was not merely an information portal. Several net projects like Visitor’s Guide to London by Heath Bunting, A Description of the Equator and some Otherlands by Philip Pocock, Florian Wenz, Udo Noll and Felix Stephen Huber, unendlich, fast… by Holger Friese, were included. Peter Weibel, the Director of ZKM termed net art as ‘a great power which radically transforms a closed system of object aesthetics into modern art – into an open system of post-modern (or new modern) space of activity’ . In 2001 Venice Biennale, the Slovenian pavilion presented a computer virus. The source code of the virus, biennale.py, was made to spread in the invitations to the 49 Venice Biennale on the opening day. The source code as well as deinstallation instructions were also made available. While it was controversial and received flak for being irresponsible, but at the same time it was exciting, testing the digital medium and highlighting new networks and modes of circulation at a mainstream art event. Conceived to create alternative temporary space, net art is anti-establishment and non-object. It destabilises the traditional relationship between the spectator and the art object. Even though net art has been absorbed by many institutions, it largely remains outside their control due to the nature of internet. The reluctance of institutions to integrate net art and forms of digital arts in their discourse has led to an ambivalent relationship with the art world; while net art thrives in the creative practices of technologists, designers, coders and digital architects.
The beginnings of net art lies in algorithmic and graphic art in 1960s where algorithms were created on the computer to make drawings via a plotter on paper. To create algorithms, one should define the constituents of an image, which in turn is broadly made up of shape and colour. Looking back, it is not surprising that part of it lies in visual perception. Bela Julesz, a neuroscientist, was also one of the first computer artists. Along with Michael A Noll, they are one of the first digital artists. The first exhibition of computer graphics, George Nees: Computergrafik, was held in Stuttgart, Germany in 1965. In 1965, Howard Wise Gallery in New York displayed the works by Bela Julesz and Michael Noll including the computer generated picture of Piet Mondrian’s Composition with Lines.
With massive technological growth, our familiarity with computer screens grew and they became a ubiquitous equipment in the house like refrigerators and televisions. With the internet, new connections were being drawn and the world was a closer space. New ways of sharing ideas, reaching out to people and developing a common platform for exchange were pursued. Looking at alternative ways to voice their opinions and concerns, the net artists of the 90s and early 2000s were opting out of the existing art networks and circulation. With no limitations of space and outreach, the internet emerged an easy platform to get the message across in an effective way. More importantly art was no longer accessible only in galleries and institutions; it was no longer passive and object based, anyone anywhere could access it. The participatory nature of net art is an important aspect that makes the audience the participant as well as creator of the project.
In this post, I would like to introduce a couple of works by Mumbai based artist Shilpa Gupta. She is one of the first people in India to make net art. Gupta has been working across medium like digital interactive arts, video, photography, sculpture and installation. At a time when there was hardly any net art in India, Gupta’s projects include Diamonds and You (2000), Sentiment-Express.com (2001), My Email (2002), Kidney Supermarket (2002), xeno.bio.lab (2003) and blessed-bandwidth.net (2003). Gupta’s was working as a web designer in 1999 when she decided to explore web projects to question the familiar and disturb the relationship between art – patron – artist – audience.
Shilpa Gupta’s first web project was Diamonds and You on the free Geocities server (http://www.geocities.com/diamondsandyou) in 2000. The website was focussing on the global diamond trade and e-commerce. The audience has to buy diamonds based on their cut, clarity, carat and colour. Before making the payment they were asked questions on the route that the diamond import should take, the age and salary of the diamond cutter. The process of selecting the diamond is meant to draw attention to the smuggling of diamonds, exchanging diamonds for guns in Sierra Leone, the political and humanitarian crisis of such places and the exploited labour of diamond cutting and polishing in India. The website does not exist anymore since the closing of Geocities.
Diamonds and You gets the attention of the audience by sale offers on diamonds. It is only mid-way in the process that the audience realises that the website has a larger point. The steps in the online process enables the transformation of the audience into participant. Uniting acts of interaction and performance, the artist creates acts of subversion. There is a dislocation of the role of a consumer when the participants decide the kind of diamond they want only to discover the political and economical effects of their choice. The work exists in collaboration with the audience/participant. The experience of interacting with the website creates the work. “Like Andy Warhol’s factory, the people as well as the methods of production and distribution were all part of the project’s meanings”  . While the elements exist in terms of hyperlinks and meta data, the cohesiveness of the website is created only by interacting with it. The user is the simultaneous creator and the audience, evolving the role with the time spent on the website.
The audience interaction with the website goes beyond the ostentatious function of the website, establishing a relationship with technology. In my recent conversation with Gupta, she shares that in 1999/2000 a lot of e-commerce websites were coming up. As a web designer she was creating many of the static product viewing and selling webpages, and uses the same aesthetics in Diamonds and You. Gupta’s strategy of employing consumerism as the basis of such actions, gives the participant a false sense of control. It is an instance of using technology to reveal conditions of socio-economic oppression.
Another project, blessed-bandwidth.net, commissioned by Tate Online, gave instant blessings to the visitors of the website. The visitor can choose from five religions – Hinduism, Muslim, Sikhism, Christianity and Buddhism, to receive their blessings. Upon choosing the religion, the website shows the photographs of the places of worship of the chosen religion. Upon clicking the place of worship, warnings signs for covering heads, removing footwear and menstruating women to leave the website, come up. The visitor performs a three step ‘ritual’ to take the blessings before being presented with a verification certificate. The visitor can also keep a diary of sins and dress up a deity as per the chosen religion.
The screen in blessed-bandwidth.net becomes an extension of the physical space. Taking the ability of people to take a journey without leaving their desk, the work questions our relationship with religion and God in the digital age. The computer screen gives a true experience of being ‘a window to the world’. The screen enables in creating a new relationship of the visitor with God and spirituality. It is a gateway to redemption from sins. The visitor can move between different religions and activities by clicking links giving the screen a spatial architecture from where the participant can easily move in and out like alternate reality.
Blessed-bandwidth.net got a lot of attention not only for using web as a medium, but also for the content. It was a time when net art was getting bigger than being an alternate platform and independent voice; institutions had started taking interest and were commissioning projects. For the institution, preservation of the website was a concern, but Gupta’s artistic vision was not burdened with it.
The underlying concept of these websites extend to the larger practice of Shilpa Gupta where she subverts norms, plays with alternate structures, fracturing existing narratives, questions global politics and acts of violence.
 Alexei Shulgin on nettime, 18 March, 1997
 In the strictest sense, internet and web based art is that uses internet as the platform for creation and reception of art whereas net art exists within specific networks on the internet and not necessarily on world wide web.
 Peter Weibel, Art/Politics in the Online Universe
 Rachel Greene, Web Work: A History of Internet Art, ArtForum, May 2000, pg 163