Constructing Social Reality: The Art of Networked Practice

Paul Hertz

Instructor, Art History, Theory, and Criticism; Film, Video, New Media, and Animation; School of the Art Institute of Chicago

keywords: art, education, technology, networks, community, open source, conference, activism, complexity, democracy

Thus the computer, on line to user-controlled networks, will become the tools we need to practice the construction of social reality. The result will be cultural autonomy (“self-law”), a nonhierarchical structure of authority and reality, characterized by the proliferation of “autonomous reality-communities.” ~ Gene Youngblood [1]

Like the generation of artists working in “expanded cinema” in the 60s and 70s, who developed new forms of art, authorship, distribution and political action centered on media technology of the day, video artists from the 1990s on have developed new forms suited to the media technology of their day, a global communications network. Then as now, artists spoke of “new media art” as a tool for constructing a new social reality and viewed the communities and connections they forged as instrumental to, or even identical with the transformation, which they envisioned as anti-authoritarian and non-hierarchical. Then as now, a period of disillusion followed when the communitarian impulse largely failed to stir the rest of society to use media to change their lives; nevertheless, video art became a canonical style within the institutional art world. In our present moment, network neutrality has ceded to global censorship, the end of privacy and the commodification of attention (“eyeballs”). Many-to-many communications are a subculture (albeit a significant one), submerged in a one-to-many global broadcast empire. And network art, in its various manifestations, may be sailing on to institutional legitimacy.

The educational system of the 60s and 70s experienced a similar enthusiasm, with a similar trust in new media to transform and democratize education. The outcomes were more mainstream than those of the video art subculture: Media have become thoroughly integrated into the classroom, if not equally distributed. Their educational impact is still debated.

A little over a year ago, the Art of Networked Practice, an International Online Symposium on Innovation in Networked Research, Artistic Production and Teaching in the Arts, addressed the related topics of online communities and art practices and the impact of network technology on education. Sponsored by the School of Art, Design and Media, Nanyang Technical University, Singapore, and in association with Furtherfield, an artists’ network anchored in London, the conference happened in some place, in no place, and in many places. Singapore was some place, where co-chairs Vibeke Sorensen and Randall Packer coordinated events in front of an audience of roughly 25 people. The larger online audience participated from the no-place of cyberspace. The countries and timezones participants hailed from were many places: Finland, Australia, Italy, Sweden, Lithuania, Singapore, Greece, France, Canada, China – over 40 countries from around the world, including developing nations such as Malaysia, India, and Indonesia. The entire event was recorded. Around the core of conference’s online archive are scattered islands of networked practice linked by filaments of conversation – tweets tagged with #netartizens, conversations on the NetBehaviour mailing list, and artworks posted to 0P3NR3P0, an uncurated, open-source web portal that hosts online art.

Whether online communities or even the particular no-place of the conference itself resemble autonomous reality-communities is one of the questions the conference posed, along with apparently more practical ones, such as how artists and cultural, research, and educational institutions use and are transformed by networks. On site, the conference proceeded as conferences do, with panels, presentations and keynote speakers. Online, weeks before the conference, the NetBehaviour listserv began a conversation and projects began to show up in 0P3NR3P0.

The first day of the conference was devoted to online art communities. Packer’s opening statement reiterated the conference’s goal of circumventing the restrictions of time and space. To underscore his point, the first intervention presented interviews with artists on and off site, hosted by Ruth Catlow and Marc Garrett, co-directors of Furtherfield, who spoke from London. After a word about Furtherfield’s advocacy of Do It With Others (DIWO), Catlow acknowledged the affordability and reduced environmental impact of online conferences while stressing the potential ethical conflicts of using proprietary software (Adobe Connect Webconferencing). The interviews covered online theatrical performance and open source software to enable it (Helen Varley Jamieson), the emergence of GIFs as pop art iconography (Maxime Marion), the potential of the internet as a virtual studio and exhibition space (Juergen Trautwein) or as a vehicle for ecological research and awareness (Joana Moll), and the value of Free/Libre/Open-Source Software (FLOSS) and radical openness to nurture a community-propelled “digital literacy” (Nick Briz and Joseph Chiocchi, creators of 0P3NR3P0). In stressing the materiality of the net and its social impact, Briz and Moll set up a potential for critical discourse that became one of the missed opportunities of the conference. The day closed with a new work by Helen Varley Jamieson, “we r now[here],” performed by NTU students using live webcams to merge virtual and physical presence.

The second day of the conference (or the second late night, halfway around the world) introduced the critical role of networks for education as a second stream of inquiry. Tim White surveyed current educational technology such as mainstream MOOCs. Anne Balsamo presented FemTechNet, a “distributed open collaborative course,” that offers a DIWO alternative to standardized courseware. Other presenters addressed the particular needs of cultural animation and art instruction over a network. Deborah Howes suggested that museum and studio practices could evolve in online spaces to reach out to a global and diverse community. David Ross discussed the shifts in pedagogical practice in a low-residency MFA program at the School of Visual Art (New York). Of all the presentations, Balsamo’s most clearly tied into the previous day’s emphasis on online communities and the forms of social reciprocation and critique that they can construct.

Keynote speaker Steve Dixon provided a thorough chronology of “Networked Performance Histories,” from Futurist theater through networked immersive worlds. More than an art historical list, the chronology supported his argument that the existential condition of being human, which is always already to act in relation to other humans, becomes more apparent as technology mutes or exaggerates other, less essential qualities of being-in-the-world. Dixon’s approach, relentlessly linear but resourceful, contrasted starkly with the subsequent keynote, where Jon Cates posed the question, “can networks of meaning be considered art?” His point of the departure, Duchamp’s notorious “Fountain” and the tangled halo of discourse surrounding it, led by a series of non-linear leaps to Chicago’s Dirty New Media and Glitch Art scene. Citing Virilio, “accident is the future form of art,” Cates located contemporary identity as unstable, glitched and broken, isolated in vast networks where we desire nothing so much as to reach through the screen and touch one another. One can appreciate Cates’ remix style and still yearn for a broader context – telematic art and “relational art” have asked similar questions, considering social structures and interactions as art while negotiating intimacy.

Chaired by game artist-hacker Anne-Marie Schleiner, the closing panel of the day, “Peer-to-Peer Cultural Production,” brought together the founders of two of the leading alternative art spaces in Europe, Ruth Catlow and Marc Garrett of Furtherfield in London and Alex Adriaansens of the V2_Institute for the Unstable Media in Rotterdam. Schleiner examined how the comparative anonymity of the early web supported critical art, and suggested that social media’s lack of anonymity may hamper it. Garrett offered a historical sketch of Furtherfield as a community of amateurs, artists, and technologists committed to restructuring the social context of art and artistic legacies, in opposition to neo-liberal models of art as commodity. Adriaansens described two projects that required complex online community models – shared work spaces and crowdsourcing an autonomous floating vehicle (Protei) to clean the oceans. Protei included work groups in China, Chile, Korea, and the Netherlands. Adriaansens’ presentation revealed the global reach of educational institutions within communications networks and the capacity of artist networks to work with them. Both presentations implied a need for institutional presence to achieve artists’ community goals.

In “Collective Research,” the first panel of the final day, Charlotte Frost and Juan Camilo Gonzalez described efforts to support PhD candidates with online research and publishing initiatives. McKenzie Wark examined the collaborative networks of the 1990s, particularly, as successors to Dada, Fluxus, Situationists, Squatters movements, etc. Melinda Rackham recalled the World’s Women Online (WWWO) show that she organized 1995, when only 8% of persons online were women. The -empyre- list ( developed out of her PhD research as an “open” space for thematic discussions in 2002. Frost’s intervention emphasized the need for open source, global publication networks and research communities. Rackham sounded the same themes, but emphasized the power of geographically local communities while rejecting global social media. Wark’s appraisal of the continuity of spontaneity and irrationality as forces for liberation recalled Jon Cates’ keynote, and suggested that organization and logic are not the only processes involved in social liberation.

Keynote speaker Peter Looker, Head of the Teaching, Learning and Pedagogy Division at NTU, proposed a critique of institutional culture by contrast to network culture. The academy needs to foster similar collective, networked, decentered knowledge. This will require a shift in institutional roles and structures of authority: he left the details to our collective imagination.

Screen capture 2015-04-02-14.35.21 A view of the Adobe Connect Webconferencing window for the Art of Networked Practice conference Virtual Roundtable, with local and remote video, slides, and online chat.

Screen capture 2015-04-02-14.35.21 A view of the Adobe Connect Webconferencing window for the Art of Networked Practice conference Virtual Roundtable, with local and remote video, slides, and online chat.

The conference closed with the “Virtual Roundtable Global Exchange: Net Behaviors,” an open dialogue for all participants, local and remote, with panelists Packer, Garrett, Cates, Gonzalez, and Vibeke Sorensen, Chair of the School of Art, Design, and Media at NTU. The online chat provided commentary, jibes and sidebars throughout. Panelists reviewed the “netartizen” contributions on Twitter and NetBehaviour and compared Jennifer Chan’s tweets objecting to artists’ “free work” with contributions to 0P3NR3P0 – “free” in the double sense of being both unpaid and unfiltered. Sorensen suggested that “netartizen” was a role created by the democratization of media, available to anyone. Panelists addressed how open curation and radical inclusivity of networked exhibitions serve to redefine art by opposing myths of artistic genius and commodity value. Marc Garrett noted the continuity of this position with and Dada. Citing Mez Breeze’s post from the parallel chat (“We need to reorient our persceptions of aggregational intent. is firehosing and navigating such considered curatorship? or handholding?”) Packer expressed the unease that radical inclusivity could generate. Perhaps curatorship need not reflect the prestige of an institution; it might express the ongoing discourse of a community.

Shortly before we said our farewells, in some place, no place, and many places, Packer reiterated one of the recurring themes of the conference, more diffuse than issues of new educational technology or curatorial practice but equally cogent, singling out one of my posts in the parallel chat. I paraphrase: “Does a shift in social organization, from hierarchy to network, underlie all the issues we are raising about artists, curating, and networks. Is our social organization undergoing a profound global change in the very way we structure power?” I had in mind American physicist Yaneer Bar-Yam, who sees in the emergence of networks as systems of collective decision-making the potential to respond to global crises that hierarchical forms of organization cannot provide. [2]

This optimism in emerging structures, which Youngblood expressed 34 years ago, still informs our hopes for communications technology. Yet we are left with the vexed question of how autonomous social networks actually can be constructed in a postcolonial world, at “a historic moment in which there are no more colonizing countries, only countries that are colonized by capital that has become invisible and has taken on a ‘ghostly’ character.” [3] To paraphrase William Gibson, the network is here, but it is just not equally distributed. It is also material and its physical structures are largely owned by a complex of commercial and sovereign interests. The apparent leveling effect of the Art of Networked Practice operates while we netartizens are turned to our screens. Out in our many streets our freedom is compromised or absent, unequal, and always hard won. Networks will rule – but will they be in any sense participatory or democratic?

It is easy to forget, in the nostalgia of experience-becoming-history, that every act of creating an archive such as the Art of Networked Practice is situated in an economic system that commodifies our illusions and sells them back to us as propaganda to sustain its own hegemony. At the moment of its creation, flush with the pleasure of ideas and meeting old and new friends, it may be enough to celebrate the archive. Outside the context, if we don’t ask the difficult questions, we will repeat the cycles of utopian self-deception that haunt the art of social change, from 19th century Romanticism on.

Beyond the Temporary Autonomous Zones and inchoate yearnings of information to be free that roiled the nettime list lie sustainable, institutional forms of networked practice – the Institute of Network Cultures, NetBehaviour, FemTechNet, Sarai and numerous other attempts to sustain the “critical co-creation of learning spaces” (Ruth Catlow’s phrase). Sustainable decentralized network structures seem to be what our present situation calls for. Artists are not known for creating sustainable social structures. Neither are academic institutions, beyond their own historical traditions. No magical belief in emergence, in the noosphere, vegetal consciousness, or the proletarian engine of history will forge the future we imagine. It will require work, dust, noise, sweat, error and sacrifice. Whether decision-making networks will be democratic is by no means clear, but we have some say in that, too. In a small but significant way, The Art of Networked Practice offered a vision of what we have achieved with networked culture and of where we might expand our efforts. It required effort. It generated optimism. It left us with unanswered questions. Its archives are worth repeated visits.


  1. Gene Youngblood,  “Towards Autonomous Reality Communities: The Future for Computer Graphics.” SIGGRAPH 1982, Art Show Catalog. Association for Computing Machinery (1982).
  2. Yaneer Bar-Yam,  “Complexity rising: From human beings to human civilization, a complexity profile,” Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems (EOLSS UNESCO Publishers, Oxford, UK, 2002); also NECSI Report 1997-12-01 (1997). See
  3. Santiago Castro-Gómez, “Traditional vs. Critical Cultural Theory,” Cultural Critique, No. 49, Critical Theory in Latin America (Autumn, 2001), pp. 139-154. Translated by Francisco González and Andre Moskowitz. University of Minnesota Press, 2001.



Paul Hertz is an independent artist and curator who teaches art history and studio courses in new media at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He delights in dysfunctional fortunetelling, faux symbolism, intermedia, code sourcery, glitching and social interfaces.