August 1, 2022

What Can Web1 Teach Web3?

Virginia Valenzuela considers the legacy of Internet art for the NFT space
Credit: JODI, oss.jodi.org/abuse, 1999. Courtesy of the artists
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What Can Web1 Teach Web3?

Consuming art and media in Web3, one becomes accustomed to ever-advancing technology, to wondering what more is to come. Modern computer graphics can recreate a virtual doppelgänger of our physical reality; artificial intelligence can make art, write poetry, and feel; and digital art is sold for astronomical sums on marketplaces built on blockchains. Everything Web3 seems to move at lightning speed, iterating monthly, such that what was once impossible seems tangible, just before it is rendered irrelevant. 

But among the surfeit of 3D sculpture, Photoshop brushwork, and animated GIFs, one also encounters new forms of pixel art, animation, and geometric continua reminiscent of long-lost screensavers from 1999. For those working in Web3, it can feel like a moment of calm within a cryptographic storm. Late at night, scouring platforms like Hic et Nunc or Teia, one grows particularly nostalgic. 

With their solid backdrops and dancing pixels, rotating cubes, and glitch motifs, not to mention color palettes à la Windows 98, works like ynom* (2022) by p1xelfool or CAN I? (2022) by Kaspar recapture a moment before the wholesale commodification of the Web. Maybe it’s the lo-fi aesthetics or the buzz of underexplored technology, but as a child of the 1990s, I couldn’t have imagined what the computer and its close companion, the Internet, were truly capable of.

Working in today’s “roaring” ’20s has a similar feel: The technology is here, but what it will accomplish — and how far corporate greed will colonize it — one can only speculate. 
p1xelfool, ynom*, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

The Internet of the ’90s was a true Wild West. No communications system had ever been so efficient, so emotive, so ubiquitous. It combined the written word with a new aesthetic, one whose familiar images existed on unfamiliar digital terrain. Web pages, emails, and chat rooms were the new books, letters, and parlors — emerging slowly, and then all at once. With the advent of the personal computer, the Internet turned progressively from an instrument demanding high-level clearance into an escape from the daily “reality” of the home, promptly being adopted as a tool by that most inquisitive of communities: artists. 

The early renderings of human creativity crafted with the tools of the digital age were necessarily unusual. The Internet was interactive and customizable, which ushered in a major cultural shift. Anyone with a basic knowledge of coding could become a creator, and anyone with an internet connection could participate in a community of blooming subcultures driven by artistic expression and experimentation. Heath Bunting, a British systems analyst and “artivist,” launched his first work of net art in 1994. King’s Cross Phone-In was a webpage listing phone numbers to 36 telephone booths in and around London’s Kings Cross train station. The piece invited people to call in at a specific date and time such that the station would be “borrowed and used for a temporary cyber cafe.” As people passed through the station, the telephone calls created an odd symphony, with commuters who chose to pick up the phone greeted by complete strangers.

Heath Bunting, Kings Cross Phone In, 1994. Courtesy of the artist

In The Rise of the Network Society (1996), Manuel Castells described our modern, mediated reality as “a system of feedbacks between distorting mirrors.”¹ The feedback loops forged on the early Internet were ephemeral, experiential, and driven by an entirely new set of signs. Some of the most iconic works of early Internet art (otherwise known as net art or net.art) include slow-loading images, interactive interfaces, and aesthetically pleasing lines of code laid out in green on black. Artists, many of them also coders and designers, learned how to manipulate the technologies that were growing increasingly ingrained into everyday life. Joan Heemskerk and Dirk Paesmans’s Jodi.org blended the web page — the final output — with the code used to create it. In the process, the programming, which was normally veiled, became a part of the viewer’s experience. 

Web pages, which began as simple blogs and tech company billboards, became agents of multimedia storytelling. Code was transformed from the literal to the figurative, becoming itself a creative medium. 

Though the concept of the artist-technologist was not new (generative art had been around since the 1960s), something about Internet art garnered more attention. Perhaps the most famous work of net art is Olia Lialina’s My Boyfriend Came Back From the War (1996), which inhabits a web page whose clickable images and hyperlinked texts morph into new images and dialogues. Loading slowly from top to bottom, many images are in a state of constant distortion. In the process, the work ruptures linear experience — iterating the work anew for each viewing. 

In a 2011 interview, the artist acknowledged the influence of HTML frames, which allowed for multiple pages to be visible in the browser simultaneously. Exploiting this feature, she wove together two characters and their chaotic love story into a stream-of-consciousness narrative that plays across the screen. The work explores the disorientating effects of early globalization, of individuals leaving one reality and joining another — reunited, yet forever changed. On a technical level, it reflects the difficulty of finding peace in a framework that refuses to stand still, which is partly why the HTML frames fell out of use, and then out of programming altogether.

Vuk Ćosić, (Still from) Deep ASCII, 1998. Courtesy of the artist

Vuk Ćosić is one of a number of artists who popularized the American Standard Code for Information Interchange (ASCII) aesthetic, later made famous by the opening sequence of The Matrix (1999). This cryptographic code helped to address the overlong download times of the period, substituting letters with binary integers to quicken the rate of communication between computers. Ćosić’s work, Deep ASCII (1998) is now regarded as a seminal work of computer art, rendering the 1972 pornographic film, Deep Throat, as green ones and zeros filtering across a black screen. Like many works of impressionism (not to mention Titian, Velasquez, and Rembrandt) Deep ASCII forced viewers to step back in order for the scene to resolve, in the process revealing code as an ultra-sexy mode of representation. The Internet also democratized the display of art by offering artists a place to present work with “no museum, gallery, or auction house required.” Sound familiar? 

For the artist and new media scholar, Jon Ippolito, net art was a new generation’s collective needling at mankind’s accomplishments in fine art and technology:

Artists are good at pulling back the veneer to reveal reality, and the reality of the Internet in the ’90s was that websites often didn’t work. This was not just due to faulty code, but also because the infrastructure was still rickety. Sometimes you would just type in a [correct] URL and the browser couldn’t find it. So artists made lemonade from lemons by exploiting these glitches to create original and surprising experiences.²
JODI, https://wwwwwwwww.jodi.org/100cc/hqx/i907.html, 1995. Courtesy of the artists

Constant Dullaart has been making art on and about the Internet since the late 2000s, already developing “proto-NFTs” on ascribe.io in 2014, and more recently releasing NFTs through aura.lol (2022-ongoing). However, he is most associated with the Post-Internet movement (though he also uses the phrase “internet-aware art” to describe his practice). His favorite aspect of art is creating new experiences, producing outputs that are “charmingly clumsy, simple, witty, or surprising, especially if you use a function for something else than it was intended to do.” While this spirit of experimentation was common to net art of the ’90s, Dullaart also sought to identify weaknesses in the infrastructure of the Internet in order to subvert it. 

In The Death of the URL (2013), the artist invited viewers to a web page whose URL is jittering out of control, its cascade of x’s disorientating, yet subtle. “I wanted to make the title of the work the subject of the work, which I made by animating the URL, while keeping the website static.” The same image is hosted on several subdomains and folders that refresh in a constant loop, maintaining the web page with the URL in constant flux.

The fun thing that happened is that the browser history of the viewer was taken over by the work. Hundreds to thousands of entries. I had people […] emailing me in panic. The browser refreshed so quickly they didn’t have time to type in a new URL. […] I still think it’s funny if an artwork makes things like that happen, questioning people’s beliefs [in] the information infrastructure they become accustomed to.³

Constant Dullaart, The Death of the URL, 2013. Courtesy of the artist

Of course, one of the blockchain’s primary goals was to circumvent centralized structures, including the banks, middle men, and corporate third parties who seemed hell bent on squeezing profits from people. The current Web2 leviathan is a shopping mall run by Amazon and overseen by Google, with its public space built by Mark Zuckerberg (and perhaps soon, Elon Musk). But as Ippolito reminds us, “The Internet was a much less monolithic place in the 1990s. [...] There were literally dozens of competing browsers and outside of the web people still used non-browser tools to share files and communicate.” 

For optimists, Web3 is a chance to reclaim the privacy and creativity that was once common ground, while redeeming the Internet from its present predatory state in which one person’s data is someone else’s product. Evangelists valorize the blockchain’s anonymous, yet traceable transacting, while celebrating the NFT as a means of empowering creators to live off their own cultural labor. For the pessimists, the blockchain is yet another billionaire’s plaything and the metaverse a neocolonial land grab. But if Web3 utopianism feels familiar, can the lessons of Web1 generate a different future?

The Internet was originally conceived as a place where individuals could erect their own domains and servers in order to operate without the constraints of third parties. In addition to embracing these new tools, new media artists built some of their own, including browsers like The Web Stalker and applications like Auto-Illustrator. “In so doing,” Ippolito adds, “they proved that the digital future didn’t need to be packaged by mega-corporations, but could [instead] be shaped by a vision designed by the rest of us.” 

It is this very sense of community-driven innovation that makes the competition between blockchains particularly interesting. Even as Bitcoin and Ethereum maintain dominance, new blockchains like Cardano, as well as platforms for interoperability like Polkadot, are carving out space for new communities. They are global by design, yet local by nature, not unlike the early internet. 

JODI, oss.jodi.org/abuse, 1999. Courtesy of the artists

“A sense of belonging, of recognition, of moving forward: These are the unacknowledged lifeblood of creativity. [...] Fortunately, despite the blatant commercialism baked into most cryptocurrencies, NFT culture offers a new opportunity for artists to find this kind of communal support online.” Yet, for Ippolito, one problem still remains — wealth. Many of the artists on Tezos originate from underground communities who can’t afford Ethereum gas. 

In 1996, Castells wrote that “Spatial inequality in Internet access is one of the most striking paradoxes of the Information Age, given the supposedly placeless characteristic of the technology.”⁴ By supporting its grassroots communities, Tezos is offering what many artists currently lack on Ethereum — a truly translocal geography. Yet Web3 must listen to the pioneers of the past to safeguard its integrity. As Dullaart recently confided:

There was an honesty in the content people uploaded in the early years of the web. Content didn’t have to follow the rules of cinema, television or other traditional media — it was liberating. My first website was made in a night, and I found my audience and friends online years before I got a gallery. 

In the same way, the NFT is breaking down the power structures, social networks, and entrenched assumptions that made the traditional art world so powerful. In the process, it is also generating its own canon. Like the early web, it brings a lot of noise. But through art, care, and a new revolutionary spirit, we can return the Internet to what it was meant to be.

🎴🎴🎴

Virginia Valenzuela is the Managing Editor at SuperRare Magazine, where she writes and commissions pieces on NFT artists as well as topics related to Web3 and the metaverse. Based in New York, her writing has been published in Wired, The Independent, High Times, and the Best American Poetry Blog. She received a dual MFA in Creative Writing from the New School, where she was Research Assistant to David Lehman. She was also recently awarded the 2022 Future Art Writers Award from MOZAIK Philanthropy, and invited as a juror for their next exhibition, “The Digital Awakening.” She is currently tokenizing her poetry and writing her debut novel.

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¹ M Castells, The Rise of the Network Society, Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010, 365.

² J Ippolito, interviewed by the author on June 2, 2022.

³ C Dullaart, interviewed by the author on June 14, 2022.

⁴ M Castells, The Rise of the Network Society, 377.