From Browser to Gallery (and Back): The Commodification of Net Art 1990-2011

By Jennifer Chan

First published on January 2012

Slides for a talk at "The Art of Success" Salon at Abandon Normal Devices Festival 2012
The Commodification of Net Art from Jennifer Chan

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Since its beginnings in the late 90s, internet art has had a fickle relationship with the museum. While commissions and granting initiatives have been established for media arts in Europe and America, the relationship between internet art and its fluctuating appearance in institutions demonstrates that it has not yet been wholly embraced by mainstream contemporary art.

Due to its variable reproducibility, the curation and collection of net art has presented challenges and transformations to the traditional operations of art distribution. Sculptures, digital paintings, installations and performances appear on the internet as documentation of art, whilst animated gifs and videos are moving images that require browsers, screens or projections as the apparatus for (re)presentation. This essay traces the shifts in value of internet art from browser to gallery, and compares disparate examples of curation, collection and selling of net art from past and present.

As a result of decentralized distribution, the media object undergoes reification when the documentation of an art object is reproduced and viewed more than the object that is represented within it. In its move from digital to physical exhibition spaces that may be self-organized or affiliated with professional institutions, web-based art accrues exhibition value. As Nicholas O’Brien has observed with the paradoxical installation demands of media objects:

“…there is an unexpected reliability and expectancy for physicality to substantiate a work – or else to give any ephemerality of a medium some sense of belonging within the gallery.”[1]

Commodification occurs in the physical representation of a digital media object for exhibition in a physical gallery space, where screen-based media becomes an object of culture for visual consumption and contemplation. I will compare traditional approaches to selling with alternative, artist-run exhibitions to explore ways of creating value for net art beyond the computer interface. In this study I trace the shifts in value of net art (in particular, the conception of digital aura and the move from free distribution to spatialized, sellable commodities). Finally, I argue that the most effective way to monetize net art is not through selling a physical analogue of the digital object, but a contextual integration of the buying process into the completion of the artwork.

[1] Nicholas O’Brien, “Hyperjunk: Notes on the Installation Demands of Media Objects”, Bad At Sports, August 11, 2011.