Looking for art on the Internet is rather like posing the question of whether there is other sentient life in the universe: statistically speaking, there must be something vaguely animate lurking within the vastness of space, but the big question is whether it is intelligent life. Driven by an optimistic desperation to find something out there somewhere, one wonders where to start. A quick browse of the largest conglomeration of Net sites - the United States - reveals a whole host of 'interactive' exhibitions but most are of historical, botanical or zoological interest only. Two of the main sites that proclaim themselves to be concerned with contemporary art - OTIS Art Image Server and ANIMA (Arts Network for Integrated Media Applications) are both symptomatic, in different ways, of the problems with dealing with artworks over a communications network.
OTIS is 'a collection of images and information accessible mainly via INTERNET that is open for public perusal and participation. The quickest analogy drawn is that OTIS is like an "art gallery".' For obvious reasons OTIS is not like an 'art gallery' at all, except in the sense that like many 'art galleries' it is full of crap art - or rather very small pixillated versions of photographs of crap art and sometimes (this is the avant-garde bit) directly-generated-on-computer crap art. There are many, many conceptual problems with the creation or presentation of artworks as screen-based, two-dimensional images, some of which have been covered earlier this century in relation to photographic and mechanical reproduction, but many of which have arisen from recent technology and have never been adequately articulated. Questions of context (whether social or architectural), physical presence and scale have dominated much contemporary work, but here have been entirely disregarded. Given this, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that for a whole group of 'image-makers' on the Internet, the experience of art has been entirely through reproductions.
By way of contrast, ANIMA offers a more theoretical approach to some of the questions thrown up by recent technology, focusing on 'the development of virtual communities for creative collaboration, the possibilities of networking as a tool for research in art and technology, and the network as a medium for artistic exploration and communication'. While providing some useful resource material, it is hard to escape the sense of naive libertarianism that underpins this and so many other projects. Many German sites provide similar 'collaborative' projects such as the 'SS Stubenitz,' a converted fishing trawler with a satellite Internet link, and the abysmal 'HypArt Project':
'The thought is that a single picture is created by several people. Therefore the image is being divided into squares and each artist contributes one of them. Since it is the aim to get a single picture as a result, the parts should match their neighbours. To get the project started I already finished the middle part by myself.
Who can contribute? Everybody! I strongly believe that everybody is capable of producing art, so there's no limition in participants.' [sic]
Sadly, a three by three grid of 200 pixel square pictures that join each other at the edges is unconvincing as evidence, either for the well-worn argument that everyone can be an artist or for the validity of collaborative artistic activity on the Internet.
At the other extreme, many established arts institutions are beginning to build World Wide Web or Internet sites to allow access to their resources. For example, the Louvre offers a potentially interesting WWW site, comprising of a history of the museum and a steadily growing picture archive with cross-links to other institutions in Paris. Closer to home, Derby University provides another paradigm for art on the Net: a sort of virtual degree show in which each participant publishes a short text about their work and offers a handful of decent resolution images. As with the Louvre site, this is a format to which the Internet readily lends itself - an easily browsable and quickly updated source of information which provides the basis for real world contact with art.
Surprisingly, given its appaling record with e-mail and Internet access, it is Japan that hosts some of the more interesting contemporary art projects. ATE (Art, Technology, Environment) is a collaboration between the electronics company NEC, on-line initiative RACE, and P3, a well-established independent Tokyo exhibition space. Projects include an 'Artist in Residence' series, of which the first were the Japanese group Ideal Copy: 'real' contemporary artists for a change, whose on-line project is based on the ambiguity of currency moving across national borders. The site also provides documentation of events at the P3 exhibition space - David Blair's hypertext work, Waxweb being a recent example.
Where the concept of art on the Internet comes unstuck is with the enormous claims of 'collaborative working processes' and 'revolutionary new forms of artistic expression' that all too predictably grace the home pages of far too many WWW sites concerned with 'art'. At the core of this problem is the question of accessibility. Proportionately, there are very few people with an informed interest in contemporary art; fewer of these have computers, fewer still a modem and an Internet connection. In Britain you could meet both of them if you hung around Bar Italia for long enough. Most contemporary artists using computers as a tool in their working process are interested in making objects that inhabit real space, not blurred thumbnail images on a monitor. The rest act as a reminder of those 70s artists who thought Mail Art was a really good way to circumvent the totalitarianism of the gallery. Sad.