Distributed Collectives / Little Berlin

Since the early 1990s, net art has evolved and established itself at the same rapid pace as digital technology. Simultaneously structured by, and acting upon, its medium, current online practice poses specific curatorial challenges relating to its mass digital distribution, typically private reception, and the spatial, temporal and institutional constraints of public gallery display. Recent exhibitions have engaged productively with these problems, for example, in Exhibition One (Gentili Apri, 2010) Timur Si-Qin produced 3D rendered versions of works by net artists in a simulated gallery environment; Kari Altman’s Core Samples (Extra Extra, 2011) extended her blackmoth.info meme with installed video and physical objects.

Catalyzed by local cooperative action at little berlin’s Open Web Studio, Distributed Collectives surveys recent internet-based art, focusing on collaborative and individually authored works by members of three distinct, internationally scattered, groups: Free Art and Technology Lab (F.A.T.), Computers Club, and Manifest.AR. The exhibition features moving image, browser extensions and augmented reality (AR); project documentation and material ephemera; and wall-based projections hooked up to the online catalogue, distributedcollectives.net. Curator Kelani Nichole’s expertise as a web communications professional proves valuable in negotiating curatorial issues and highlighting the uniquely collaborative conditions of online art production [little berlin; August 5-27, 2011].

AR technology, only eighteen months in development and still glitchy, demands a high level of skill sharing between creative coders. Operating on Smartphones, using GPS and visual recognition technology, AR works first capture or depict the live environment on screen, and then supplement it with additional images and data to produce site specific and interconnected digital fantasies. Manifest.AR, known for its guerilla, virtual installation of open submission art at MoMA, contributed downloadable projects, some grounded, albeit tenuously, in the exhibition’s physical and temporal Philadelphia locality. In Show Me (2011) Todd Margolis invites residents to show his avatar around town. Metro-NeXt (2011) is a subway station “wormhole” digitally situated in the gallery’s vacant, grassy lot, by Caroline Bernard, Laile Pascual, and John Craig Freeman.

The collective’s anti-elite, collaborative, and open source ethos operates in an ambivalent political exchange with the self-centered aspects of online instant gratification. While 4Gentelmen’s Great Firewall of China (2011) powerfully protests censorship, Mark Skwarek’s Portable Islands (2011) humorously plays to our consumer age desire for personal comfort. A possible update to Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ The Social Mirror (1983), in which the activist artist mirror-plated a New York City Department of Sanitation garbage truck, Skwarek’s Smartphone app registers the department’s circular logo, and replaces the same eyesore vehicles with a brightly rendered, floating beach scene on screen. Ukeles’ public intervention forced bystanders to see themselves and their city as responsible participants in the ecology of waste disposal. By contrast, Portable Islands offers an escape: virtual sand in which to bury one’s head.

Browser extensions – installed to enhance functionality- also work to the user/viewer’s advantage. For example, F.A.T’s Tobias Leingruber shows documentation of Pirates of the Amazon (2008), an add-on that linked (for twenty-four hours) almost any product on the globalized bookstore to a free, illegal download. Curator Nichole works as a “user experience designer,” producing clear, easily navigable, text and visuals online. This appears to have informed her decision to simplify the typically chaotic systems of display associated with web-based art – intimidating to the uninitiated – in both the physical exhibition and the catalogue’s straightforward layout. In the gallery, monitors each displaying one looped work, or document, sit in networked clusters corresponding to the three collectives. The screens tend to face away from each other, affording individual pieces a quality of sustained attention that would be improbable on a private laptop, with its characteristically distraction-prone, multi-tabbed browsing experience.

Computers Club produces shimmering, painterly animations that require such focused, patient viewing. In Duncan Malashock’s personal effects (2011), a pattern of pixellated light drifts across a carefully drafted bedroom scene; Travess Smalley’s scrolltone (2011) hypnotically pulses with red, green and blue dots that slide horizontally across the screen. ASCII art – pictures embedded within the dots, dashes and characters of HTML source code – occasionally supplements the works’ metamorphosing visual qualities, as in series_i (2011) by Krist Wood. The separate monitors feed the illusion of each work’s autonomy, coercing a reading of these pieces as testing the technological and formal limitations of their medium, like the early, grainy video art of practitioners such as Charles Atlas.

This useful, but insufficient, interpretation omits an equally important aspect of Computers Club’s practice, also relevant to other online collectives. The group coheres around the ongoing process of creating and maintaining avatars, and a dynamic blog, as much as through their common output of moving image constrained within temporal parameters. Nichole’s curatorial inclusion of white plinths as supports for the flat screen monitors puns on this inadequacy of the gallery in the face of immaterial, relational works, helping to shape a show that is at once accessible and critical.

Published in Art Papers, Nov/Dec 2012.