Parallel Gallery
and Journal

Network Art and Virtual Communities

Derrick de Kerckhove

(this paper was originally written for Art Futura 1995)

The rapid development of art on the Net is one more proof that artists are among the first people to use new media and make them perceivable as environments open to more than utilitarian and functional use . One of the roles of art addressing technological transformation is to bring out the human content, the metaphorical over and above the functional or litteral value of the unfolding technological environment. In times of great structural changes of the collective mind, the artist's job is to make people aware of such changes and create the new decors and sensory experiences afforded by them.

On the other hand, the evidence of art and of art's role on the Net only dawned on people after Mosaic tranformed the World Wide Web from a cooperative computer-supported work software technology into a tool for esthetic expression. Within weeks, homepages were vying for attention with as much colour and movement and sound as the carrying lines and the patience of the user could bear. Among the first institutions to get a site on the Web were museums and galleries with scanned images and navigable itineraries. Perhaps Nicolas Pioch's quick and dirty posting of treasures of Le Louvre in early 1993 did more to awaken people to the possibilities of the Web than many others. Today, a simple tour of artbased websites via Yahoo opens up access to so many sites that it's already too late to hope to visit them all. Sites and homepages devoted to art galleries and museums, public or private, famous or unknown, number in the thousands.

However, were it to be limited to such use, art on the Web would not be very interesting. It would be no more than just another delivery system for the art market. The real nature of the Net is to act as a forum for collective memory and imagination practiced by different groups in different configurations in extended real-time . The screen of each individual user substitutes for the display function of one's own imagination and memory. But what is accessed on the Net is other people's imagination and memory and the access is both private and collective, both static and dynamic, both archived and contextualized. In that regard, the Net delivers the promises of Virtual Reality which is to make real-time instant imagination externalized on a screen and thus "objective" in a paradoxical way. It is, after all "walkable". But while stand-alone VR can at best accomodate a dozen people, VR on-line can house millions.

Memory versus intelligence

Let us compare two cognitive operations, one private, the other collective. When you think privately, or when you picture something in your mind, you focus your attention inward and what you "see" or work into at the other end of your attention is a more or less unified but flexible image or group of thoughts. There is no particular "place" for the object of your attention, but you cannot deny that it is "there" somehow. It seems to be at some central point, slightly forward, and slightly below eye level in your mind/brain . The image is suspended somehow not visibly grounded in anything but the immediate context that has required its formation. This suspended field, the thought, is the object of focus. Likewise, the object of focus of a network is the collaborative work that goes into it.

Networked communications bring different people simultaneously in collective thinking by making them all enter in the same suspended field of networked activities. The time-frame of this suspension is different from the time-frame of the private mind's thought. It is extended time, hence accomodating for the different moments of inputs by different people in the same collective thinking. Extended time is not simultaneous time, it is comprehensive time. It takes all the elements of succession in all directions in a single grasp. That is how and why a collective working out of thought can take its sources in simultaneous and successive myriads of "hits", just as the thought or the image in the brain instantly connects millions of interconnections.

The centrality and communality of this suspended field may not always be apparent, especially when it is only text-based (e.g. with MOOs and MUDs). However, if there is a common image that every participant shares, for example a groupware screen for collaborative work at a distance, then the paradoxical communality of the object of attention appears quite readily. Each participant's screen becomes a portal and a support to the unified collective thinking. More and more Net artists could be tempted to explore the psychological consequences of this new cognitive situation.

Here is an example of a site which may not be considered as an artform today, but which might someday be remembered as one: Knowledge Adventure Worlds. When you register on the site, you are invited to download a few megabits of structured data in your hard drive. You thereby acquire the decor and the costumes of a virtual meeting place for actual meetings. For those in the know, it is not much more than an illustrated MOO where people meet by writing and create plots and places and objects with words. But there lies all the difference. Words are not the thing itself, the image is (at least in this case). Nobody noticed when we only had MOOs that the space of communication was unified in a single collective mental environment. When you share exactly the same space with dozens of people landing there from all over the world at the same time, you have the necessary continuity of data to help you perceive the unity of substance. To make another comparison from another angle, take CU-SeeMe, for instance (by all standards still a pretty rough substitute for live videoconferencing): it is not the fact that, for the moment, the presence of your interlocutor is chopped into slides by a slow-scan TV effect, it is the fact that you see the different locale of your interlocutor which makes it impossible for you to equate both spaces. With imagined space, that is possible because the main elements of the imagination are made to be common. That innovation is about as powerful and artistic as Cervant¶s' Don Quixotte who tried to bring our attention to the fact that reading novels could fills so much of our mind as to replace it with their own space.

As Nicolas Negroponte emphasized in Being Digital, with networked communications, the processing conditions for information are rapidly shifting from "atoms to bits", that is from hardware to software, from permanent analog to labile numerical supports. The most important characteristic of data on-line is that it is digital. Not only because reducing every difference to 0/1 facilitates their shuffling around, but because this very flexibility makes matter, once perceived as consisting of mutually heterogenous and impenetrable substances, seems now as fluid as thought itself. It is a fact that while all the supports of information of the past are supports of memory (books, tapes, records, films, videos, photographies), the main technologies of today's information systems are supports of processing, that is intelligence. This shift is nothing less than a much larger shift of the culture from memory-based to intelligence-based processing. Soon we will not have to "live" history, we can simply think it ahead.

Artforms as thoughtforms

This shift has profound implications for artwork in the new culture arising from networked communications. Because of it, a significant part of the art conceived and proposed on-line has abandoned the "object" fixation for process-based activities. While traditional art activities addressed cognitive and emotional responses through the use of objects or spectacular performances, art on the Net puts the effects before the cause, so to speak, and addresses cognition directly in the interactive process which makes every user a partner in the artistic process. Indeed, the notion of "art on the Net" takes a fuller meaning when the Net itself is used as prime material for the artform. Among the esthetic qualities specific to networked communications are "webness" and "metadesign".

Webness, a term coined by the jurors of the Art on the Web category for the 1995 Ars Electronica Prize, points to a character that is quite specific to the properties of the World Wide Web. While the Internet by itself is endowed with a moderate degree of webness, the World Wide Web is incrementially more "webby" because it adds hypertextual links to ubiquitous targeted communication. Compare e-mail which allows you to communicate one-to-one or one-to-many in a star-shaped formation, with Hypermail which adds instantly self-adjusting links within your message. The webness of Hypermail is the interconnectivity that links thinking sources in a durable network of specifically addressed connections. Webness means interconnecting live human intelligences by purposely conceived collective interfaces for self-adjusting innovations and discoveries. Something like a collective thinking in slow motion is happening out there. A linked web is structured like a liquid crystal, always reconfiguring itself without losing its molecular identity. Webness is also an esthetic criterium in that there is beauty in patterns and quality of interconnections . Webness in art means that the artform uses the Net for its interactive properties rather than simply as a vehicle for promoting content.

Art + Com's T-Vision is perhaps one of the prime candidates for today's best interpretations of webness. Although it was granted the prize for the artform with the most significant potential impact on society at the 1995 Interactive Media Festival in Los Angles, it is not quite out on the Net yet. It consists in the projection of planet Earth on a screen in 3-D . With a flying mouse, you can change your point-of-view from outer space all the way down-to-earth and even land at a site where, live via ATM or the Net, you can see what a video camera is looking at. The point is that it is possible to imagine that, like Virtual Tourist, but in a much more sophisticated way, we could address ourselves anywhere on the globe and land there in a live contact. Beam me over, Scotty. T-Vision is perhaps the Net's next stage because it is the interface by excellence that interiorizes for each one of us our new body image, that of the globe itself. With the foreseable rapid growth of ATM, we may soon have a Macro-Web with the most urgent interface we could ever hope for. T-Vision is without question one of the most important creations for the on-line communities short of the invention of the Web itself.

Metadesign is another major characteristic of art on-line which comes with the territory of interactivity. It is the kind of design that puts the tools rather than the object of design in your hands. The better interactive systems are not those which define the process, but those which define the conditions for the process of the interaction. The more tools are in the hands of the user to shape, specify and control the interaction, the more interactive it will be. In that sense, CD-Roms like Burn Cycle or Johnny Mnemonic, as great works as they are, are not very interactive, while David Blair's WaxWeb, as excruciatingly slow as it is, is very interactive. We can expect a great increase of metadesign possibilities in VRML (Virtual Reality Markup Language) over HTML, the first generation language of collective knowledge tools. The advance of VRML over HTML is as significant as that of hypermail over e-mail. The difference is that instead of dealing with webbed words, we are beginning to learn to deal with webbed worlds.

The art of the Web is the art of collective thoughtform, shared hallucination for some, real live experience for others. In Tarkowski's magnificently haunting Sci-Fi film, Solaris, a team of astronauts falls under the influence of a unknown planet which projects objective thoughts in the shapes of objects and people that the participants believe to be real. Thoughts and shapes on the Net are much more real than that. Here are a few examples...

A collective tastebud

HOMR, otherwise known as Ringo ++ by Patti Maes et al., is a site which allows you to specify with some accuracy your musical tastes when you register. A few seconds after completing a simple but compelling questionnaire, you get a series of recommendations for what other musical pieces you might like, and which ones to avoid. So far, this seems not much more than a rather astute marketing tool making good use of the interactive potential of the Web. Press another button and you now get a statistical profile of the number of people who share your taste presented in a decreasing order of communality. As an added service, you can, in some cases, obtain the e-mail addresses of the people who have the musical tastes which are relevant to you. Again, this is not an artform per se except that, as an esthetic and building tool for real-time actual communities, it is a new concept in sensory design: a collective tastebud.

Reversing repression

Antoni Muntadas' The File Room is at first glance a kind of politicized community watchdog service: it gives access to whoever logs on to as many censored files on art and politics as Muntadas and his team could find to scan, process or digitize from the time of Cleopatra to the present. As a database, it is just "classified" content, but, as a support for a collective mind community, it is a huge collective social service making the objects of repression, permanent evidence for investigation. The artistic element is to attempt to reverse the process of repression by accumulating the body of evidence in a single mind-based environment, a collective lore accessible as "objective" data by anyone.

Problems of identity

Many critics of the Net get very worked up over the issue that the markings of individual identity can be made to disappear completely save whatever it is that the user cares to put out there. People don't bother with the much more interesting question of what identity to give to a collective on-line. Linda Dement's Cyberflesh Girlmonster addresses precisely that question by creating a composition of a woman made by the assembled body parts of her friends photographed and scanned into the system. Just in case you would think that it just a representation and no more, before you discount the possibility that such bizarre melanges would ever affect you directly, consider Stelarc or Luciana Haill's projects. Stelarc is working on down-loading in real-time the pulse and beat of his nervous system on-line so that somebody else's arms and legs connected through the appropriate interface can execute a danse neurophysiologically willed at the other side of the planet (Australia, for example). What is the collective identity of a siamese twin ?

Luciana Haill's project is even more complex and intimate: she plans to use an improved version of Kahata's Interactive Brainwave Visual Analyser (IBVA) to download her brainwave patterns on the Net and mix them up in an orderly fashion with other participants's brainwave patterns so as to generate an interactive display that would be the combination of hers and the other people's thinking. That has webness and metadesign in it.

About the "virtualness" of virtual communities Among the virtual worlds similar to Knowledge Adventure Worlds that have not quite made it on-line yet, but hold great promises once they do is Carl Loeffler's Virtual Polis, a virtual community environment which allows you to access your personally designed virtual appartment complete with a virtual wardrobe stored in virtual drawers and bought at a virtual shopping mall next to a virtual amusement park in the virtual neighborhood. At some point in the not to distant future, you will be able to don these clothes to meet real partners also dressed up virtually for business or seduction or any other purpose you care to meet for. In such environments, everything is indeed "virtual", except that the people who meet there are "real". Similarly, the Télévirtualité project at the Institut National d'Audiovisuel in Paris allows people to entertain real-time conferences on line, but with a lip and facial expression graphic rendering synchronized with their real speech and expression movements registered by an on-site camera.

Hence, there is much more than virtualness about on-line communities which are made of real people, really involved with each other, but who can do a lot more "real" things together than with the telephone. Did the development of phone-in habits in speakerphone conferences or live radio and TV shows ever bring up the notion of virtuality ? Telephone, videophone and on-line communications have much more to do with telepresence than virtuality, that is with actual presence, than with virtual experience. The fact that it is now also possible to add virtual experiences via on-line communications shouldn't incline us to forget that it is the reality and the targeted pertinence of on-line communication that is its principal characteristic. To that extent, what is exceptional about the on-line community is that it retains a body and the mark of your input even when you are off-line. The so-called "virtual" community is not only a large number of people more or less directly, more or less constantly involved in a common activity. It is also a real-time immediate and contingent presence, like a mind at work during its work.

On-line communications have created a new kind of permanence, a new stability of mind, a collective mind, in which one plugs in or from which one pulls out, but without affecting the integrity of the structure other than by direct contribution. Somewhere, in netherspace, there stands a body of evidence, constituted by an absolutely precise and recorded network, with inputs and outputs all over the world. These collectives of "mind-at-work" are active, learning, self-organizing and thereby growing in size and precision. So, let us assume that these new states of mind, states that have both the permanence and the flexibility of liquid crystals, are a reality. They are right there, here, now, and growing. Many among us know, others guess that the whole culture is moving to that condition, a fact made all the more certain when we see that business and government are now looking at all of this with hungry eyes. There is an urgent need for artists to explore this new psychological condition, so that they can begin to prepare the antidotes to potential traumas, and reveal the extent of the new possibilities that we are offered.

Derrick de Kerckhove is director of the McLuhan Program in Culture & Technology and professor in the French Department at the University of Toronto. He promotes a new field of artistic endeavor which brings together art, engineering, and emerging communication technologies.