Michael Gibbs essay (full text)

Web 2.0
Michael Gibbs
2007

Several commentators are declaring that the Internet is evolving from an information-based medium to a participatory social network. Dubbed Web 2.0 in 2004, it is seen as embodying a new and revolutionary digital democracy that enables everyone to be seen, heard and read, that allows information to be shared and that facilitates communication between communities of friends. Tim Berners-Lee, however, the original inventor of the World Wide Web, points out that that this has always been the way that the Internet operates. But perhaps the espousal of Web 2.0 is actually an attempt to re-hype the Internet after the disastrous dot.com crash at the beginning of the millennium. And what better way to do this than to tout its presumed democratic credentials and, in the process, to restore faith in its commercial prospects? The success of YouTube, MySpace, eBay, Second Life and Wikipedia prompted Time Magazine to declare ‘You’ as their 2006 person of the year, mediated, it is true, by a computer monitor which was represented on Time’s cover as a mirror. Everyone is now dreaming of being ‘discovered’ on the Net, of having their 2 minutes of fame, making a killing on Ebay, their blog rantings being taken seriously and their home-made video viewed by millions. Broadband Internet access means that the field is wide open – everyone can be a receiver or a broadcaster and there are hardly any censorship or time/space restrictions to contend with.

In Second Life, the virtual world operated by Linden Laboratories, you can construct an avatar for yourself and do things you’ve never dared to do in RL (Real Life). If you’re an artist you can open your own gallery and try to sell your work, although, judging from the results so far, you’re only likely to succeed if your work is either sci-fi or erotically oriented; conceptual art, it seems, is rather too rarefied for the instant pixel-recognition factor demanded by the digital environment.

Since digital video has become almost ubiquitous then maybe you’d like to try your luck on YouTube. Type ‘art’ into YouTube’s search function and you’ll get 163,000 hits, some of which have been viewed over a million times. The top-ranking items seem to be mostly examples of street art, ‘speed painting’ and computer animations, but if you search deeper (and especial;y by name) then there are several gems to be viewed, including early videos by Bruce Nauman, short Fluxus films and vintage films by Dali. Sometimes you’ll find that someone has simply gone to an exhibition, copied a video film or installation on their own digital camera and then uploaded it to YouTube.

A far more useful archive of artists’ films and videos can be found at ubuweb.com. Inaugurated in 1996 an an online archive of visual, concrete and sound poetry, UbuWeb has been growing rhizomatically and now offers a veritable cornucopia of historical and contemporary material in freely downloadable streaming MP3, MOV and RealVideo formats. Rare film and video footage has been converted to digital files, so now you can view important work by the likes of Vito Acconci, Yves Klein, Gary Hill, Pipilotti Rist, Chris Burden and Robert Rauschenberg, just to mention a few names. Much of the material is accompanied by useful explanatory and background essays and interviews. One of my favourites is the video clip produced by Joseph Beuys in 1982 in which he sings an anti-Reagan song with a pop group backing. Rock on, Joseph!

If the Internet is being increasingly used as a depositary of shared files, what has happened to Net.art? Will it too find a place in the historical archives of the future? Some Net artists, it seems, are already focussing their attention on Web 2.0. Blogspot by JODI and Cory Arcangel, recently commissioned by the Impakt Festival in Utrecht as part of their ‘Net.art is dead, long live net.art!’ project, cannibalises Web 2.0 services like Blogger.com and the slide show sharing site Slide.com and reprogrammes them into abstract streams of illegible data. If JODI’s deconstructions are now seeming a bit predictable (after all, they have been doing this sort of work regularly since the mid-1990s), then perhaps we need to look elsewhere for more radical and subversive forms of Net.art. Ubermorgen.com, for example, was created in Vienna in 1999 by Hans Bernhard and Liz Haas as a platform for hardcore radical activism aimed at big corporations. Their latest project, GWEI – Google Will Eat Itself, managed to fool Google (for a while, at least) by serving Google text advertisements on a number of dummy websites and then using a software hack to trigger automatic clicks. Since Google pays website owners a small fee for every click on one of its advertisements, Ubermorgen was able to collect this money and use it to buy up Google shares. The idea is that Google would eventually be paying for its own demise. So far GWEI has been able to purchase 292 Google shares and despite threats of censorship the project has already received a number of awards and been exhibited in Tokyo, Berlin, Paris and Seoul.

Ubermorgen was also involved in Amazon Noir, an attempt at hijacking more than 3,000 books (including, appropriately enough, Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book) from Amazon’s digital library by using the company’s “Search Inside the Book” function which enables users to search for keywords in about 250,000 books and then to download the single page in which that word appears. Amazon Noir sent thousands of requests per book and then reassembled the books into pdf format and distributed them through peer-to-peer networks. After threats of litigation the matter was settled out of court in October 2006 with the sale to Amazon of the Amazon Noir software for an undisclosed sum. Interestingly, the project was financed by a 10,000 Euro stipend awarded to Hans Bernhard by the Oldenburg-based Edith Russ Site for Media Art.

Digital activism and corporate media hacking represent the front line of the contemporary European ‘techno-fine-art avant-garde’. Web 2.0 is likely to be just as vulnerable a target, so it would not be surprising if services like YouTube and eBay are next in line for attack.

Michael Gibbs is a writer based in Amsterdam. ‘Web 2.0 Google Will Eat Itself’ was originally published in Art Monthly, issue 306, May 2007, p40. http://www.artmonthly.co.uk

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