Community Without Community: Net Art and its Micro-spheres

Jennifer Chan

“I used to see the Internet as a place without shape–an endless ocean of information, or a vast social metropolis. These images of the Internet, however, were merely visualizations of how one interacted with the Internet. By focusing on the way I interacted with the Internet, I overlooked the Internet as a place by itself.”
— Robert Lorayn, “Desrt”, beginrecords, 2010.

The internet has been described as a “global village”, a “public sphere”, and more commonly, “social networks” by cultural theorists. While these terms are popular conceptual metaphors for community online, they imply that users are a homogenous group who use technology in a purely functional manner. If, however, users are also artists who employ the informal space of the web for work & play, the socialization of net art complicates. New media art historians distinguish between earlier practices of browser-based web art and broader artistic activity on the internet as “”1. However, contentious terms such as “postinternet” and “New Aesthetic” have emerged lately to describe the work of artists whose work explores the influence of the internet in everyday life and the physical world2. These terms largely refer to definitions encompassed by net art­–that is, “art based in or on Internet cultures”3.

Web 2.0 technologies foster “easy participation” for many-to-many content distribution on the web, but until recently, demographic research has suggested otherwise. The “1% rule” once asserted that 1-9 % of its users in any online community are content producers, and 90% are passive lurkers4. Engagement is key to the disclosure of something online as net art, since artists decisively instrumentalize the distribution mechanisms of the internet to complete or promote their work5. Before the use of Facebook and tumblr for art distribution, micro-eras of artistic activity occurred on mailing lists, Geocities, surf club websites, and even the link-sharing network, delicious. Manuel Castells cites that “space of flows” and “timeless time” are contingencies of digital mediation of social and economic relations in a networked society6. Yet these paradoxical and generalized definitions of an altered relationship to reality suggest there is an unresolved haptic division between the electronic landscape and the physical world. Even “community” is a place-oriented metaphor in itself7.

This article is titled after Charlie Gere’s book, Community Without Community, as I’m interested in how net artists like me negotiate community in light of bygone generations of art history and unconcrete histories of internet-based production. How do creatives contend with conditions of apparent anonymity and transient streams of user-generated content? I interview four net artists on their experiences of making art online.

Olia Lialina

Olia Lialina is a net artist who has made websites and gifs since the Nineties, and is also a new media professor at the Merz Akademie. Her work celebrates and excavates the vernaculars of early internet user culture, or “digital folklore”. Aside from creating personal, affective websites such as “My Boyfriend Came Back From the War” (, she curated her peers works on her website, A recent project with Dragan Espenschied, “One Terabyte of Kilobyte Age” catalogues now-defunct Geocities web pages8.


from One Terabyte of Kilobyte Age by Olia Lialina & Dragan Espenschied (original url

“In the 90s net art distribution belonged online, and to the festivals and conferences. It was a mostly European phenomena. Today it’s still online, but galleries and the contemporary art world are very interested. was the first REAL Net Art gallery because it was the first one to offer for sale. Others were offering paintings or photography. Miniatures of the Heroic Period was the first exhibition9. It offered 5 technically simple one page works for sale. I was not really intending to become a gallerist, so the next exhibition, Location=Yes, was not about selling10.

‘Postinternet’ and ‘New Aesthetic’ are senseless terms, because ‘post’ and ‘new’ are prefixes that are wrongly used. But the phenomena they try to name are extremely interesting: artists are working with the internet as a mass-not new-medium, and [the latter reveals] the tension between analog and digital worlds.”

Through its short history, Lialina witnessed shifts in artistic co-option of the internet– from groups of technological pundits to a general purpose users. As evidenced by Ryan Trecartin’s shakily shot videos and Petra Cortright’s heavily filtered webcam videos, self-reflexive amateurism is a prominent characteristic of net art today. Lialina’s recent project with Dragan Espenschied, One Terabyte of Kilobyte Age catalogues Geocities web pages to reinvigorate interest in the aesthetic sensibilities of early amateur users. In doing so they create an archive that hints at communities based in the creation and visitation of personal homepages.

Nick Briz

Nick Briz is a new media artist and professor at the School of Art Institute of Chicago. As a proponent of copyleft, Briz also creates critical “artware” (artistic software) and tutorials for users to understand and reproduce popularized digital aesthetics such as “New Aesthetic.js” and the “Glitch Codec Tutorial”. Since 2010, Briz has been involved in organizing the GLI.TC/H festival in Chicago.

Nick Briz w/ Eric Garcia, Mix Master Mickey Demo — a creative piracy & digital literacy tool for kids

“To quote Jonny Ryan, the difference between community before and after the internet is proximity and interest. From the beginning, glitch was always a community. There are old [net] veterans coming out to GLI.TC/H and also students. We’re [the festival is] transitioning [from curated programming] currently and this year all the events were organized by interested artists. While we were deciding where people would congregate online, younger people were pushing for newer platforms and older people were pushing for listserves. I found myself somewhere in the middle. I don’t trust anything that doesn’t have a centralized point of control that isn’t myself. I’m generally more interested in distributed decentralized control. There’s a socio-cultural value placed on the uniformity of display on Facebook and what makes me uneasy is how ubiquitous and invisible it is … I see the utility but I get unnerved by its corporate interests.”

Briz’s online video, Apple Computers, is a documentary-manifesto that reappropriates the aesthetics and politics of Phil Morton’s videos within the Macbook interface to critique the profit-driven, proprietary characteristics of Apple electronics11. Juxtaposing interviews with Chicago-based peers with personal call-in to Apple’s customer services, Briz creates an oral history of a regional community that is creatively dependent on Apple, yet aware of its shortcomings.

Lorna Mills

Lorna Mills is a Toronto-based artist who creates colouristic gifs and elegant prints of digital kitsch. Mills culls imagery from the corners of the internet to create rambunctious, looped assemblages of visual discombobulation. Scanned, enlarged, and lacquered prints of porcelain dogs populated her recent solo show, The Axis of Something at Transfer Gallery (NY) in addition to installations of twisted, quixotic gifs its source images. Mills shares her work on Google+, a social network that displays size-restricted animated gifs. Along with Sally McKay, Mills has co-run an image-dump blog on Digital Media Tree since 2005.


“Sally originated the blog in 2003. Digital Media Tree is owned and run by a NYC programmer named Jim Bassett. He made the site intuitive to use-while leaving us with plenty of room to play with code – so we didn’t have the formatting restrictions that tumblr or any corporate blogging tools had. Because so many art blogs were focused on current art works, we initially posted a lot of Canadian artists who didn’t have a large web presence. (I was excited by VVORK’s format–pictures without a layer of commentary.) [Our] blog was always about us, our interests, and the art we liked. Tumblr, Google+, etc are ways to encounter other artists. Ultimately, social media sites have won out with my current interests simply because its been easier to encounter artists that I’ve never heard of, doing great work. Exchanging images on social media is the way I’ve connected with people; I’m less interested in what they write.”

Mills assisted with organizing DIY screenings and projections of gifs by international artists, such as the collection of fan gifs from net artists for “Sheroes” (Toronto) a series of performance events that were themed to the music of female superstars like Madonna and Doll Parton. She also co-curated “When Analogue Was Periodical” (Berlin) as a satirical response to Transmediale’s 2013 theme, “Back When Pluto Was A Planet”. These screenings provided a physical venue for an informal social-exhibition of typically web-based work, thus bringing unseen work to a regional audience.

Will (Glasspopcorn) Neibergall

Will Neibergall is an artist and net-famous rapper known as Glasspopcorn. Besides releasing witty cross-genre rap and pop tracks on SoundCloud, he is active on emerging internet communities such as Tight Artists and, an image-based chat forum by Ryder Ripps. His presence on the web has led him to open for Ryan Trecartin’s MoMA PS1 exhibition in 2011 when he was fifteen. Now seventeen, he recently quit rap due to audiences’ ongoing sexist attitudes to his online rap peers, Katherine “Kitty” Beckworth, and Danny West. Following the onstage sexual harassment of both performers at a concert this past May, Neibergall wrote a tumblr blogpost to shed light on the dehumanization of internet micro-celebrities, possibly due to the distantiation of the computer screen and journalistic misrepresentation12.

“Networks are comprised mainly of people who barely seem real–I know them only as consumers and producers of content, not irl (in real life) friends or collaborators. I think that creates an ethic of efficiency, self-promotion and creativity because of the pressure of making your presence known in those conditions. My introduction to ‘postinternet’ was Grimes using that word to describe her music…’postinternet’ works raise a lot of important questions that might not be answerable in any important way.”

While theorists develop terms for the convenience of referring to practices that emerge from disparate internet communities, artists may be less interested in adapting to theoretical oversights than playing with the technologies at hand. Although Neibergall resists mainstream interest in his youth and talent, he concedes that he’ll continue to incorporate aspects of hip hop in his practice, and hopes to find new audiences that identify with him.


As evidenced by the disparate networks Niebergall and Mills participate in, net art of the now is constituted by micro-spheres of artists whose activity flutter between select platforms, websites, and listserves. Net art critic Josephine Bosma extends the Sloterdijkian notion of “spheres of co-existence” to describe the “hybrid, unstable shapes (of spheres) created by artists on the net”13. Their digital labour has output in offline realities, where, between links and wireless connections, cables and servers store and uphold these communications in a stable manner. Artists like Briz and Lialina create unique domain name websites to educate the public on artifacts and politics of internet culture. Others like Neibergall and Mills may opt to split their creative distribution between different media-sharing platforms due to the convenience of finding similar artwork and unexpected audiences. Away from the museum and white cube gallery, streams of images and links on tumblr foster a pluralist and ahistorical approach to visual discourse with web aesthetics. Perhaps instant feedback on platforms – reblogs, “likes” and “shares” — is taking precedence over the meticulous development of a personal or community website.

During this time of writing I am currently active to different degrees on three Facebook groups about net art, respectively titled “Facebook 3”, “media art histories”, and “Net Art”. Some have overlapping membership. I am also passively subscribed to three tech-related mailing lists: nettime, faces-l, and Unlike-us. I cycle between the indiscriminate sharing of Facebook to skim the high-theory debates on tech listserves, browse canonical art news on Rhizome, scan coolhunted new media fashion on dis magazine, post a few facetious comments, am wholly absorbed into insular “sphericules” of social news, casual banter and flows of art14. Net art is constituted by these disparate spheres of prosumption that are based on interest, free labor, and self-education. Nepotism is inevitable; artists who Like each other’s work co-promote and write about each other­–just as I am doing now–to form alternative histories and “imagined” community based on agreeable artistic principles. As spheres overlap and anonymous followers grow, an artist’s sphere of influence grows and personas may collide. What becomes of interest to me at this stage whether anyone needs criticality in the very public, deregulated spaces of flows.

  1. Olia Lialina, “OFFLINE ART: new2 opening speech by Olia Lialina“, Aram Bartholl – Blog, February 21, 2013 []
  2. First used by Marisa Olson in 2008, the term describes the condition of using the internet as a necessity in everyday life
    Gene McHugh, “Untitled”, Post Internet, September 12, 2010. []
  3. Josephine Bosma, Nettitudes: Let’s Talk Net Art, (Rotterdam and Amsterdam: NAi Publishers, Institute of Network Cultures, 2011), 24 []
  4. The “1%” hypothesis of unequal participation was recently replaced by “easy participation”, which describes that three quarters of audiences participate casually online in some way due to an increased ease of uploading photos, sharing links, etc. BBC, “Online Briefing Spring 2012: The Participation Choice”, May 4, 2012. []
  5. Bosma, 60 []
  6. Manuel Castells, Communication Power, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009) 33-36. []
  7. Annette N. Marakham. “Metaphors Reflecting and Shaping the Reality of the Internet”, University of Illinois Chicago, 2003. []
  8. Olia Lialina and Dragan Espenschied, “One Terabyte of Kilobyte Age” 2011-present []
  9. Olia Lialina, “Miniatures of the Heroic Period”,, 1998 []
  10. Olia Lialina, “Location=Yes”, , 1999 []
  11. Phil Morton is a Seventies video artist who developed an anti-copyright approach to media distribution called “copy-it-right”, which declared that faithful copies and care of artworks should be made for distribution.
    Marisa Plumb, “COPY-IT-RIGHT”, Furtherfield, February 13, 2009 []
  12. “I’m disillusioned with the presumptuous nature of the hip-hop community (predicated on the kind of groupthink that has led to journalistic misrepresentation of Kitty based on her race and gender) and the effects of the “memeification” of performers…”
    — Will Neibergall, “Viral Bodies, Kitty and Memetic Ontology”, Alt Crit, 2012 []
  13. Bosma, 62-64 []
  14. Todd Gitlin. “Public sphere or public sphericules?”, Media Ritual and Identity, eds. T. Liebes & J. Curran. (London: Routledge, 1998) 168-175 []
Jennifer Chan is an artist-curator living and working in Chicago, IL.