Holes in the Web: The Problematic Economics of Net Art
Last week’s issue of The New Yorker featured a piece by Susan Orlean on Jacob Bakkila and Thomas Bender, the masterminds behind the semi-recently deceased Twitter sensation @Horse_ebooks. For anyone unable to penetrate the magazine’s paywall and/or lagging behind on the meme cycle, @Horse_ebooks captured hundreds of thousands of followers by tweeting out mysterious, Dadaist phrases like “Demand Furniture” or, most famously, “Everything happens so much” over a span of about two years.
The account bewitched social media. Was it a bot whose faulty algorithms were inadvertently blurting out nonsense? If so, what was the source material it was pulling from? Who had created the thing in the first place - and why were they content to let it do whatever the hell it was doing? No one knew the answers, which of course only amplified the speculation.
Then last September, @Horse_ebooks and another highly trafficked online curiosity - an anonymous YouTube account known as Pronunciation Book - laid a trail of bread crumbs that converged at a small gallery space in New York. There, Bakkila, who had been manually creating the content for @Horse_ebooks, and Bender, who had been manually creating the content for Pronunciation Book, unveiled their new joint creative venture, Bear Stearns Bravo. The project is a highly (emphasis on “highly”) idiosyncratic interactive web series about financial regulators attempting to build a case against a parody version of the moribund investment bank as it tries to cover its own fraudulent tracks. To Bakkila and Bender, it is the next evolution of the bizarrely fascinating, internet-enabled body of work they’ve been developing for nearly a decade.
And “body of work” is where this discussion gets interesting to me. Orlean contextualizes Bakkila and Bender in a larger genre of creative content called “net art.” The medium can be very roughly defined as conceptual art created digitally and designed to spread online. (In Orlean’s piece, Bakkila labels it “performance mischief.”) Aside from that, the only unifying element between different net art projects seems to be a sense of esoteric humor that takes me back to my days as an undergrad at the University of Chicago, where various campus houses held traditions like a Connect Four tournament played entirely in the communal showers with the water on full blast, or the famous university-wide Scav Hunt, for which I was once asked if I would be interested in recreating Van Gogh's Starry Night out of toenail clippings. (I declined.)
Some net art pieces are Twitter accounts like @Horse_ebooks. Others are cooperative performances within online games like Quake III Arena. Still others take the form of hacks or plug-ins that benignly disrupt your use of social media. All would be regarded by the average person as deeply, though benignly, weird.
However, from an art market perspective, they are also deeply problematic. This is true for both artists and collectors, though I would argue much more so for the former. The issue is the medium itself. Orlean draws a comparison in her piece between net art projects and Dada readymades - sculptures that consisted of everyday found objects minimally altered by the artist and re-presented as artwork. The most famous readymade is Marcel Duchamp's Fountain, a urinal he simply turned upside down and signed with the alias “R. Mutt.” While the mischievous creative ethos driving both genres may be similar, I think this comparison breaks down relatively quickly. Readymades, and Dada works in general, were regarded by many in their era as utterly strange, if not completely repulsive. That was the point. But the crucial difference is that Dada artists still produced tangible assets capable of being bought and sold, and thus generating revenue. In the decades since, the genre’s art historical value has been reflected in its market value.
Orlean later draws a more apt parallel between net art and another artistic movement: performance art. And it’s in this comp that the new medium’s difficulties come into focus. Since its inception, performance art has easily been the most torturous artistic genre to monetize. In fact, many of its leading proponents were drawn to it precisely because of its ability to stymie the commercial market. Performance is often celebrated for its ideological purity. There is no saleable object; only an intangible act. An audience is usually welcome, but not necessary. Seldom if ever are viewers asked to pay. Although a performance piece can be reprised again at some point in the future should the artist desire, the work will never be exactly the same twice. It only persists in memory and traditionally meager documentation. Add these together, and it is no more possible for a collector to own a performance than to punch a ghost.
All of this makes performance art wonderful for a creator hoping to attain ascetic purity, prove her unsullied commitment to ideals, or separate herself from mainstream life. It does not, however, tend to make performance art a sustainable creative career. Even the medium’s most iconic figures bear this reality out. Marina Abramovic’s life and practice only stabilized when one of her gallerists began selling limited edition photos of moments within her performances. Before then, she had been reduced to living in a van. Allan Kaprow, the lauded pioneer of the participatory performances he labeled “happenings,” primarily made his living as a professor and founder of the Judson Gallery. Chris Burden, the rebel artist whose performances included taking a rifle bullet in the arm and crucifying himself on the roof of a VW Beetle, quickly shifted his focus onto more conventional media like sculpture. (You can thank him for Urban Light, the nested streetlamp piece Angelenos have seen in front of LACMA and on every fourth OK Cupid profile they’ve perused since 2008.)
To me, net art looks most like a digital mutation of performance: just as intangible, but infinitely re-playable and much more easily and widely distributed. Whether one sees this an improvement or a debasement depends on one’s level of interest in the purity of performance. But an aspect of net art that cannot be argued is that, so far, it has proven to be about as difficult to monetize as its “Live - 1 night only!” predecessors. In fact, the undercurrent running throughout Orlean’s piece is the question of how Bakkila and Bender can build their “success” to date (at least in terms of popularity) into a sustainable career. No one involved seems to have a definite answer.
The more I think about it, the more the predicament faced by net artists hoping to sustain a career in the medium resembles the predicament of every other twenty-first century content creator relying on the internet for distribution. Leslie Kaufman of The New York Times recently wrote a feature on the rapidly worsening lot of YouTube stars that offers some striking parallels. I would argue that the general challenges of making a living as a YouTube star also carry over to making a living as a self-published author, emerging musician, independent filmmaker, or any other iteration of twenty-first century artistry.
The crux of the crisis is this: The internet has been great for distribution of content, but remarkably less good for the business of being a content creator. Net artists may hold one tiny advantage over their comrades in other media, in that the net art field is significantly less saturated with choices than musicians’, authors’, etc. Yet net artists’ reliance on the web also puts them in competition not only with other net art, but with everything else competing for users’ attention online. Memes, video clips, news scandals - it’s all clamoring just one click away. With increasingly more content available to consumers, a sustainable audience gets harder and harder to capture.
Sustainability becomes even more elusive when viewed through a strictly financial lens. The internet has proven beyond doubt that the more readily available something is, the harder it is to convince someone to pay for it. Think about the enormity of online music piracy or premium cable torrenting. As a global culture, we have decided that things online don’t just want to be free; they should be free… and almost invariably are if we look hard enough. In this ecosystem, the idea of asking people at any level to pay for net art seems like a fool’s errand. Orlean notes in her piece that Bakkila and Bender experienced a sizable backlash when their audience discovered that the second episode of Bear Stearns Bravo would cost $7. There is no publicly available data for their returns so far, but I would guess that the duo lacks any basis to climb tax brackets yet. Which makes sense: If online consumers cannot get what they originally wanted gratis, most would rather move onto plan B than open their wallets. After all, there is plenty else available for no cost other than time.
Further, net art’s reliance on the internet means there can be no such thing as scarce net art. Net artists want their work to be shared, to spread, to become sensations. On some level, scarcity would undermine the entire engine of the medium; limited edition net art would cease to be net art almost by definition. And since scarcity drives so much of the money flooding into contemporary art, that makes net art as dicey a way to sustain a creative career as live performance art ever was.
Orlean notes that there are museums such as SFMOMA and the Guggenheim “collecting” net art, but if “collecting” simply means “downloading for free,” or paying a paltry sum like $7, then even the traditional institutional route to revenue is a black hole for net artists. Whether private or public, a few major acquisitions can bestow life on a traditional artist’s entire next phase. But there is no such thing as “a few major acquisitions” of net art. The medium’s particularities transform it into a volume business - one that institutions alone can’t sustain. According to the 2012 edition of the Museums of the World directory, there are about 55,000 total museums in the world. If we (generously) assume that half of those would be interested in collecting Bakkila’s and Bender’s work, the second episode of Bear Stearns Bravo at $7 per downloadwould net them $128,333.00… which they would then have to split, leaving each with a gross of $64,166.67… which they would then have to pay taxes on… To say nothing of their actual profit margin after repaying production costs…
You see where this is going.
The viral spread of successful net art works suggests that a large audience is responding to the psychological mischief and conversation fodder it provides. But to become financially viable, I believe that net artists need to think about monetizing their work less like traditional assets and more like enablers of communal experience. The excitement surrounding Bakkila’s and Bender's Bear Stearns Bravo gallery event offers a tantalizing example, more in the mold of a concert than an exhibition. Perhaps there is also a viable subscription model - the Spotify or Beats Music of net art. But either way, the path forward suggests that the medium’s creators will need to be much more open-minded in how they generate revenue than those working in more traditional visual art genres. If they don’t, they may never smash the glass cage confining their work to life as enthusiastically shared but financially handicapped curiosities. And I doubt that digital bohemianism is much more appealing after a point than the analog version.