When it comes to Internet art, exhibitors don't need to worry about real estate — there's no concern over getting that 24th Street storefront or finding the next big Lower East Side space. By hosting new media work on a Web site, curators can show whatever work they have the bandwidth to upload, choosing whatever frame and context they like for the art they want to display. But there are also downsides to not having a real space: no gallery neighborhood, no system of collectors, no sidewalk traffic. By creating online-only galleries, new media artists and curators are defining an innovative brand of exhibition space particularly suited to showing Internet-based work — but, surprise, they face challenges just as any brick-and-mortar gallery does.
The idea of a "virtual gallery" has been kicking around for a while, from Adobe's faux-starchitecture virtual museum to Google Art Project's museum tours, both of which present digital replicas of real art in virtual spaces. The Whitney museum's "artport" created a museum-run portal for Internet art that commissions and shows new media work, though programming has severely slacked since 2006. New online-only efforts, created not by institutions but by devoted individuals, differ in their focus solely on new media work and their participation in the Internet life of the new media community.
Online exhibition venues like bubblebyte.org, Barmecidal Projects, Fach & Asendorf Gallery and STATE present programs of Internet art exhibitions as well-curated, complex, and critical as any physical alternative art space. Each site has its own aesthetic and branding, much like physical galleries, and its own distinct critical perspective. The online spaces vary in their commitment to a public presence, with some adopting all the trappings of a traditional gallery — press releases, schedules, biographies, and the rest — while others are content to remain obscure. Updated once a month or a few times a year, these sites, like any pop-up gallery or a nonprofit, may be inconsistent or short-lived, but their impact is powerful as rallying points for the artistic community.
Bubblebyte.org, run by English artist Rhys Coren and Italian new media curator Attilia Fattori Franchini is among the most active of the online-only spaces, presenting six unique solo exhibitions since January. "We love that the Internet can reach huge, diverse audiences and can bypass the bureaucracy of the whole commercial gallery/public space system," Coren wrote to me in an email. "We just realized we could get the work we loved out there for free."
Beyond connecting and supporting Internet artists, Bubblebyte's goal is to establish a critical lens and context for Internet art, a desire that many of the online spaces share. Toward that end, the site functions in a way familiar to any art aficionado — pre-scheduled exhibitions have specific opening and closing dates, after which the show is no longer accessible; there is no interactive archive. This pointed ephemerality is rare in the context of the archive-obsessed Internet, but it also helps to make Bubblebyte less overwhelming: One show is all you get, and all you need to think about. The space is meant to "give art viewable online the same sort of time constraints as art viewable in a gallery," wrote Coren. "Art shouldn't always be so easily consumable and forgotten."
Bubblebyte's current exhibition, "Il Labirinto di Cristallo," is an international group show with artists' single works grouped by the themes of "Oceano, Futuro, Industriale, and Azteca." Featuring pieces by Parker Ito, Nicolas Sassoon, Constant Dullaart, and others, the exhibition is a powerful glimpse of the Internet art community as whole. In contrast, the Tumblr-based venue STATE only displays a single work at a time, with an accumulative archive that remains accessible after shows "end," or leave the homepage. STATE's curatorial vision comes through in the pieces that they show — conceptually oriented works, such as Christian Oldham and Jeff Witscher's "Pictures at an Exhibition" and Jacob Broms Engblom's "wShare" interrogate the experience of online consumption. STATE changed directorial hands several times through its yearlong lifetime, and has just launched its final exhibition.
Where STATE and Bubblebyte exist outside of the commercial realm (along the model of physical alternative art spaces), Fach & Asendorf Gallery (FA-G), run by artists Kim Asendorf and Ole Fach, is "the only gallery I'm aware of that's thinking about how to put value todigital work," new media curator Lindsay Howard told me. Similar to STATE, FA-G maintains an active archive of the pieces it shows, publicly accessible to any visitor. But Asendorf and Fach's GIF Market project may represent a possible commercial model that FA-G could transition to. A combination of public display and private ownership, a series of 1,024 minimalist animated GIFs created by the pair are displayed in a grid, with a price and the name of the buyer, if applicable, inscribed below each individual GIF. Prices are determined by algorithm, rising each time a GIF is purchased, so that the final GIF would cost €16,384 ($23,350). The current highest appraisal for a purchased GIF (adjusted according to the algorithm) is €125 ($180), with the original price of €38 ($53.60) paid by artist Michael Manning.
Online-only art spaces confront the difficulties of sustaining viewer interest and maintaining credibility, as well as the possibility of finding a way forward for the unique medium of Internet art. The different approaches taken by these different spaces show a multifaceted new media community, engaged not only in the act of creation, but in curation, contextualization, and careful commercialization of art online.
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