Dispelling the Myth that Net Art is (Not) a Commodity: Olia Lialina

Olia Lialina (born in Moscow) currently teaches at the Hochschule fuer Gestaltung, Karlsruhe. One of Russia’s best-known practitioners and theoreticians of the internet, Lialina was also the first to found a commercial online gallery for web-based art.

Sven Spieker talked to Lialina on the occasion of her recent visit to Los Angeles.

S. S.: What is the situation of the net art and net artists in Russia?

O. L.: As far as the Russian internet is concerned, the internet itself is obviously about the abolishment of borders. It is true that in the age of the internet it has become very easy for people in Russia to communicate with their relatives in Israel. At the same time there are new borders that have appeared because of the internet. These are borders of language. I would say for example that what constitutes the Russian internet is not simply the computers that you can find on the territory of the Russian federation, but all Russian language sites all over the world, and the people who create them. In other words, what you have here is a community whose borders are constituted by the language shared by its members. As you know, the so-called “founding fathers” of the Russian internet did not even come from Russia. They were mostly émigrés living in America, Israel, Estonia or Finland. It was they who developed the idea of a Russian internet before people in Russia themselves. Russian net art is not really developed in Russia, except by Alexey Shulgin and myself.

S. S.: Shulgin still seems to be known more for his photography than for his online work.

O. L.: Yes, I think this is true. In Russia he is also still more known as a photographer. What is specific to the Russian internet, and perhaps surprising to a Western audience, is the fact that the Russian internet is so much focused on literature. It is very literary-minded. The contents of most non-commercial Russian internet sites is focused on literary texts. Another thing that is developing very rapidly are news sites. A lot of new ones have appeared last year and I generally prefer them to English online journals. In the West, many print publications have their online outlets that are organized exactly like their print counterparts. In Russia, on the other hand, many online periodicals exist only online. The people who run these publications are not simply offline journalists who at some point decided to go online; they come directly from the net. I for example have never ever in my life read newspapers, but I cannot live without reading Russian online publications.

S. S.: When you look at the way in which computers are distributed in Russian society, there seem to be enormous regional and social differences, both within Russia, and between Russia and the West. This seems to be not only a question of economics. It appears as if the people who take an interest in the internet are generally intellectuals who work for the media. What kind of an influence does that have on the role played by the internet in Russian society? As you know, in America the internet is becoming a mass phenomenon where about 70 percent of households already own a computer. In Russia, of course, that percentage is much smaller and seems to be confined to a very specific segment of society.

O. L.: The group that you are talking about is not actually a group of intellectuals or educated people. It is true that access to the internet is not as widespread in Russia as it is in the West. Moscow University for example offers no internet access whatever, it is completely disconnected. hen you look at the geography of the Russian internet, you realize that, apart from Moscow and St.Petersburg, very large numbers of internet connections are to be found in those areas where the Soros Fund implemented its internet program. For example, the (otherwise relatively obscure) university of Yaroslavl’ is a true internet paradise.

S. S.: We have been talking a lot about net art. Could you give me a definition of what net art means for you?

O. L.: To answer this question is about as easy or difficult as to answer the question of “what is art.” Net art is created by artists who work online and who are dedicated to the investigation of that digital environment, who create something in that environment. In other words, net art is not simply a vehicle for the propagation of offline art, or even for interactivity with one’s audience. The question “What is net art?” is actually already outdated. New questions have emerged that are much more specific, such as “What is the difference between net art, web art and browser art?” In the past, the question “What is net art?” usually went hand in hand with another question, “Does it really exist?”. Today there are more pressing issues, such as, for example, “Is it possible to collect net art or not?”

S. S.: Even though my question may have seemed flippant, I think the issue is an important one. We could say that art is whatever has somehow managed to establish itself on the art market. When I say art market, I don’t just mean the commercial art market, but also the media that provide critical and intellectual commentary, promoting specific artists and their work. The art market is the only conceivable gauge for establishing what is art, and what is not. Art, in other words, is that which is written or spoken about as somehow innovative or new, regardless of whether it actually is new or not. This is why I want to ask you about the relationship between net art and the art market. The fact seems to be that since there is no art market for net art it is therefore impossible for us to speak in meaningful terms about net art.

O. L.: About two years ago, I began to intervene actively in the online art market. I wanted to educate people about that market. This is how I started my Teleportacia gallery, to give people a completely different idea of how to deal with online art. This is also how I conceived the exhibition “Location Yes”, an exhibition of URLs. The idea for it came from my experience with offline exhibitions. Nowadays museums like to invite net artists for their offline exhibits, but they routinely hide the location bar. This is done on purpose, in order to hide the fact that the exhibited online work does not in fact exist on the museum’s own server. The fact that the location bar is hidden not only withholds the name of the artist who created the piece, but very often it also obscures a great deal of content. This is why I decided to create an exhibition of URLs. The idea was to put together a large number of sites where the location bar itself was at least as important as the in-window. The exhibition was staged in the form of articles that can be printed out. By the way, the point I wanted to make was not that we as the new generation of (net) artists do not need the art market, even though it often seems as if its institutions (museums, galleries) pay us to tell them that we do not need them any more.

S. S.: Teleportacia Gallery was the first online gallery for net art. Could you tell me a little bit about the history of that project?

O. L.: As I said there have been all these conferences devoted to net art and the result was that net art became a part of the art market. The point was, though, that net art, by comparison with other kinds of art, was traded very cheaply on that market. As it turned out, it was enough for museums or galleries to create a link to the work of an artist or even simply to pay for her airfare (honoraria are out of the question) in order to control the work. The explanations given by the institutions for this kind of appropriation were simple, a.k.a., that net art is “free” because it doesn’t really exist, and that it’s virtual. So I decided to change this situation and to start a gallery that would promote the opposite approach. I wanted to promote net art as “expensive”, as something that you can really own. And I wanted to let the art institutions know that if you organize an exhibition and you get money for it, it’s not a good thing to simply create a link to somebody’s work without giving even the slightest financial compensation.

S. S.: How do you see the problem of copyright with regard to net art?

O. L.: The question boils down to what is a copy and what is an original. True enough, on the web, everyone can easily copy everything. Then again, you can say the same about paintings, it’s just more work. But in painting just as with net art, you can never reproduce the original because it’s unique. It’s a digitally unique object. Everything else is simply a matter of contract. What exists on my server is by that very fact declared to be an original.

S. S.: To the extent that it has its own URL, i.e., its own location. After all, that location cannot be copied, there can only be one unique URL for every work.

O. L.: Yes. Of course I am not saying that everybody should be interested in purchasing or owning net art. For example, I myself am not interested in buying works of art, I simply wanted to make a contribution to the discussion. I wanted to show that everything is possible and that such transactions are actually easier to accomplish with net art than with offline art.

S. S.: What was the first exhibition you organized at Teleportacia Gallery?

O. L.: I showed miniatures from the classical “heroic period” of net art, five very small works that were for sale. The artists represented were Vuk Cosic, QUESTION and myself. I was asking $ 2000 per piece. At the time people told me this was crazy. But now at MOCA San Francisco they ask up to $ 50 000 for an artist’s annual work. As you can see, the amounts have soared. My mission has been accomplished*. The gallery became a forum for all these ideas about owning, buying, and selling net art. I think my main interest in all this were the ideas themselves. Teleportacia Gallery is a kind of research project concerned with net art and how to deal with it. By the way, only one work from this exhibition was sold unfortunately my own. This made people suspicious and from time to time someone asks me if this was all for real. It was for real.

S. S.: Since web-based art does not allow the purchaser to carry the art object “home”, what marks the change of ownership? I assume the work is transferred to the purchaser’s server?

O. L.: In the case of the people who bought my work, this is what happened. They are themselves web designers who wanted to start a new server with a collection of web-based art. So they now have my work on their server. By the way, they are people whom I trust completely. They also wanted to support the idea of a gallery for net art, that’s another reason why they bought the work. The great thing about an online gallery is that even if a work is sold, that does not mean that it disappears from the exhibition. After I sold this work of mine I simply changed the link. Now the link no longer goes to my server, but to the purchaser’s server.

S. S.: What this means is that nobody who sees the work in your gallery will have any idea that it has changed its owner, which of course takes away one of the things that was most fascinating to collectors in the past, the fact that they possessed something that you could look at only in their home, whereas now nobody will even know who owns the work.

O. L.: I think we need to accept this new logic. When you look at the way museums are redesigning their collection policies you can see that this is already happening. True, they still spend a lot of time trying to figure out new ways of showing that ownership of web-based artwork is possible. What they are beginning to learn, though, is that you cannot deal with net art the way you deal with other media. Web-based art cannot simply be sold on video tape. Of course they will never get rid of their logic of possessing objects, so they are working on a variety of tricks that allow them to “possess” net art.

S. S.: Museums have a hard time abandoning the idea that what they exhibit are objects. Objects are things in three dimensional space that can be transferred from one location to another. The problem with web-based art is that it cannot be treated in this way…

O. L.: I agree with you. In Naples next week there will be a huge conference of museum officials where they will discuss the politics of going online, and what to do with net art. But no one from the online community has been invited, at least not officially…

S. S.: Does Teleportacia have a future, or do you see its mission as basically accomplished?

O. L.: It definitely has a future, even though its initial mission has been fulfilled. But now there are other interesting things going on. We have a lot of new exhibitions, even though the works exhibited are not for sale anymore. I don’t want to spend my life selling works. It’s not what I am interested in.

S. S.: How do you see the relationship between net art and political activism?

O. L.: At a certain time in my life, I got to know people who called themselves activists. At that point, this term stood for people who used computers as a free, inexpensive medium to spread their political message. One of the most important aspects of the net was that there was no censorship. These people had mailing lists as well as other means to connect with each other. At some point, net artists started to be invited into the spaces created by these political net activists. The activists in their turn began to be invited by museums, galleries, and academic conferences. At first the connection between these two groups was like the connection between two neighbors. As neighbors, the political activists began to share their ideas with the net artists, and vice versa. They also began to develop joint projects. For me, the first experience of working as a net artist with political net activists was the “Noone is Illegal” campaign. As you know, there was a website devoted to this campaign at the Dokumenta X. My position with regard to this project was mostly that of a web designer. The relationship between net activists and net artists was such that the artists often served as the activists’ designers. This was because it was the artists who had a keen sense of the medium’s possibilities and the sense of freedom that it can give you. When the “Noone is Illegal” website was established for the Documenta show, I was working on my teleportation project which involves the simulation of processes of teleportation on the web. All this is a fake, a joke. Yet it turned out that my idea of teleportation was very close to the ideas developed by the “Noone is Illegal” activists. I therefore decided to work with this campaign. I wanted to show that teleportation can be used not only for going somewhere very fast, but also for travel in this world (for some people perhaps even the only chance to travel at all). Even though my project was essentially a joke, it merged very well with the serious message developed by the people from “Noone is Illegal”. The only other online activist project I have been involved in was a fictitious database, a cooperation between me and two other people.

S. S.: I would like to ask you if activism is for you something global, or if it is something that is pursued differently in each country or region of the world. Does the global quality of the worldwide web go hand in hand with global activism, regardless of local context? For example, can you think of a way how net activists might intervene in the war in Chechnya?

O. L.: As far as Chechnya is concerned, I am sure there is nothing that you can do online to stop this war. The people who started this war do not look at these sites. And as far as the suffering population is concerned, the internet is very far from their minds. I am always quite skeptical of campaigns online. I think that one has to be quite skeptical of all the hype that surrounds the idea of global communication. During the NATO military campaign in the former Yugoslavia, for example, we had a lot of internet contact with people in Belgrade and elsewhere, but as soon as the military decided to interrupt the phone connections, these contacts ended abruptly. Global communication ends as soon as you are barred from entering your office. On the other hand, I do think that the internet needs to be used not as a tool for self expression, but as an instrument that initiates specific political action. As far as Russia goes, I think the idea of activism is generally speaking not very popular here. The population in Russia is quite apolitical. If, for example, you look at art circles, they neglect politics completely. Artists in Russia generally try not to talk about politics because they are tired of it and because they do not believe that politics can change anything. There are some exceptions, such as the group Mail Radik. These groups have a good feel for the internet and its uses. They are also very good at spreading their ideas through the internet.

S. S.: I have a related question that has to do with the medium and the way it is used by artists who consider themselves to be political activists. I am interested in the extent to which the specificity of the medium is important for the political message it carries. The point of view taken by politicized artists in the past, especially by members of the historical avant-garde of the 1910s and early 20s, was that you couldn’t be a political artist without paying attention to the specific nature of the medium that you were using. According the avant-garde, it was in fact the medium that made that message into what it was. In other words, the medium, for the members of the avant-garde, was not simply a vehicle for “spreading the word”, but actually an intrinsic part of the message itself. Do you think that questions such as this are now obsolete, do you think that net artists are mainly using the internet as a convenient tool to spread messages that it would be much harder to spread on paper, or are they still working with and through the medium itself? Or do we live in a post-media age where the internet has become that point where you no longer have to talk about different media because the internet has become all those media together…

O. L.: I think it is extremely important for the net artist to tie his or her self-expression to a specific reflection on the medium itself. But it would be good if the political activists would be more concerned with using the internet as a tool for their concerns, not as a space for their own self- promotion.

S. S.: Thank you very much for this conversation.

(Los Angeles 12 April 2000)