Authenticity and Authorship in Internet Art

Since the 1970s artists have been using the Internet to create and distribute works of art. With its expansion and present day ubiquity, it has increasingly become a platform for communicating and sharing artistic ideas, concepts, and objects in a variety of forms. As many new technologies have done in the past, the technology that constitutes the network of networks that we refer to as the Internet, has changed and challenged the ways in which we think about, discuss, and create works of art. If everything that one experiences on the Internet is a digital reproduction—an image of something presented on a screen for example—is there a cyberspace equivalent to the physical concept of an authentic work of art or is internet art always a reproduction? To whom can we attribute the authorship of a work of internet art? Although modern art has historically been entwined with discourse on the authenticity and authorship of works, and despite being a part of the modern art tradition in many ways, internet art exists on the periphery of this dialogue, requiring an altered perspective.

In the interest of clarity, two terms which will be used throughout the following paragraphs are worth defining at the outset. For the purposes of this dialogue we will use the somewhat ambiguous term internet art to refer to digital artwork created for and reliant upon on the Internet to exist, specifically those works which are Web based, making use of the Web browser and its rendering capabilities, the interactive interface, hypertext protocols, and relative ease of use that it provides for both content creators—artists—and content consumers—viewers or users. We will also take the term image here as being closely aligned with our contemporary understanding of the graphical user interface, that being content which is digitally displayed on screen and may include typographic, iconic, and photographic elements in various combinations and configurations.

When writing about artistic authenticity in his essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin discussed the concept of the aura. The aura being, in this case, those qualities which are not translatable from the original art object to its reproductions or imitations. The authentic work exists entirely independent of the copy. Authenticity creates for itself a unique and singular place in time and space that even the most careful and convincing reproduction cannot also occupy. As he maps artistic reproduction throughout history in order to demonstrate that it is not a new practice, Benjamin touches on the acts of: the artist scholar manually recreating the works of a master; the foundry in Ancient Greece; etchings, engravings, and lithography; ultimately proceeding to photography, a leading technology of that time. Reproduction was not a modern invention even in Benjamin’s day, but had become a far more prolific and widespread practice since the Industrial Revolution and its spread of capitalist mass consumerism. Technology has been carrying art away from the private sphere—a work seen only by the privileged and the few—toward the public sphere—a work seen by the many—ever since. Benjamin understood that the passage of time not only changes the techniques of artistic reproduction, it also changes our societal and cultural readings of, relationships with, contemporary valuations of, and even creative practices within art. Since he penned that essay, technological advances, the circulation of images, and our understanding of the idea of the public sphere have undergone mutations of extreme magnitude.

The Internet has turned the public sphere into a global sphere. Nearly any image can be made available within seconds of its creation to anyone, anywhere in the world. Uploader and downloader need not share geographical location, ideological opinion, cultural understanding, or even an awareness each others existence; the only requirement is that both parties have access to the Internet. The Web, in its reduction of the technical barriers to entry to online access by way of its founding ideologies of inclusion and accessibility, turned the browser—the de facto tool used to interface with it—into one of the most common pieces of software on the planet. With relative ease, images are shared and displayed from within the browser environment, bringing forth representations of packet-switched digital data that are visually recognizable to the user. The browser has, in dramatic fashion, exemplified the impact that technology has on art. Time and space, in relation to art, become skewed as the types of spaces that we view and discuss contemporary works are no longer divided into the private and the public, they are global. Conversations are happening in real time and frequently cross societal and cultural borders in their scope. Public criticism—perhaps it is more accurate to say global criticism—circulates immediately upon exhibition of a work of art. This has the effect of manipulating the ways in which we respond to works as it becomes increasingly unavoidable to consume such opinions, critiques, and knee-jerk reactions in concert with the first viewing of a work. These conditions of discourse undoubtedly have some effect on the artist as well, as global criticism gains larger platforms to share opinions indirectly, and often directly with the artist. The browser acts as both discourse conduit and means of technological reproduction in this performance which, willingly or not, contemporary works of art are born into. Not only does this discourse happen on a grander scale than previous eras on account of the global nature of the Web, but a greater number of disparate individuals are able to form opinions on any given work because images of it can be circulated with a speed and ease unknown before its invention. The latency between exhibition of an authentic work and its reproduction by way of the browser is limited only by the speed at which the image can first be uploaded to the Web. In the case of internet art, the distinction between the two forms breaks down entirely.

The internet artist does not work directly with the medium of which their work will be viewed by the public; they write code—plain text—which the Web browser uses to turn into an image. Artist alone does not create the image of their work, it is only with the rendering capabilities of the browser that the image can be painted to the screen, converted from text to image, instruction to object. In this process, the difference between the authentic image and the reproduction becomes incomprehensible. With each refresh of the browser, the image is created anew, with no recreation being exactly identical to any other recreation. Each recreation is born into a different time. Each server response may result in data packets taking different paths across the network. The image is subject to the variables of latency, server outage, network speeds, client computer capabilities, viewport dimensions, and differences in the way each browser vendor interprets and implements the specifications of hypertext and styles within their product. During the creation process, the internet artist recreates the work many times over before it is completed—digital files are held in a data buffer while being edited, temporarily stored before ultimately overwriting the previous version upon saving, thus eliminating an earlier state with a newer reproduction—constantly shattering the notion of the aura. Can these files of code, these instructions to the browser, be considered authentic works of art? The line blurs much more when one considers that the files are likely to exist in more than one location simultaneously: on a local hard drive; on a Web server; in a remote version control hosting service. These files, by all accounts identical in content, created by the same hand and written or overwritten at the same time, exist in more than one digital space at a time. If internet art can be said to have an aura, it cannot be on Benjamin’s terms. The absence of this definition of authenticity is an inevitable result of the medium, and could even be considered to play an essential role in this context, as some internet artists have exploited within their work.

Considering the process of the execution and display of an image on the Web, how do we define the relationship between browser and image? The browser itself technically paints the image to the screen, rendering it recognizable and communicative, with the artist supplying instructions by way of code. How different this is than an artist—Andy Warhol certainly comes to mind as an example—who enlists production assistants to execute their artwork in accordance with instructions is an interesting aspect to ponder. In the latter situation, the artist may communicate with the assistants before, during and after the production process, and possibly assess the work for approval prior to exhibition. For the internet artist, there is very little way of knowing exactly how their work will present: browser quirks play a role in inconsistencies in the image, as do things like network speed, network errors, server outages, malicious attacks, firewalls, device capabilities, viewport sizes, etc. It would be impossible to account for, or even imagine all possible variations of the work, let alone give approval to all variants before exhibition. How do we define authorship of an internet art work when the particulars of its creation and exhibition can be found as much in the hands of the Web, the browser, and the end user as they are the artist? Surely we cannot assume that the idea that inspires the work is what defines the author; each individual throughout history cannot stake claim to the authorship of their every fleeting thought, including those in the majority which likely failed to gain a material existence. The result would be an upheaval of the entire concept of authority; a reduction of societal value in the image, the object, and language itself. Rather we need to look toward the Web and the browser as playing a pivotal role in the authorship and exhibition of internet art. The browser with its ability to turn instructions for an image, a description of a hypothetical work, into an image representing the described art object, and the Web providing the means by which to materialize it for public display.

Internet artist Olia Lialina’s most well-known work, My Boyfriend Came Back From the War, is an interactive hypertext poem with a non-linear narrative. As the user clicks the screen it divides continually subdivides the frame and unfolds into a piece which can be experienced in a multitude of ways. This work is illustrative of the fact that without the capabilities of the browser to create the image, and without the required user interaction to both navigate to and then participate in the performative nature of the work, the piece would not come into being, existing only as instructions for a piece to be read by a computer. Lacking the browser software and its capabilities, the piece would not be able to be seen, experienced, or discussed. It has frequently been remixed, appropriated, and recreated using a variety of Web based technologies, including HTML, Flash, and social media platforms. Lialina catalogues an extensive list of these recreations on her own website, the existence of which have not reduced the perceived value of her work. Perhaps this too serves as evidence that Benjamin’s framework of authenticity cannot be applied to internet art, as the imitations and reproductions are not only embraced by the artist in this case and others like it, but they fail to fall victim to the problems associated with aura, which either does not exist on the Web, or exists well outside of the Benjaminian context.

The technology underlying works created specifically for the Internet as opposed to works using other technologies for their creation and presentation, are subject to a different dialogue when it comes to interpreting the text of a work through time and space. That is, the text—as in the perceived meaning, intention, importance, and interpretation of the work—lies not just between artist and viewer, subject to continual re-evaluation through time and space as in the case of artwork not created for the Web, the text of internet art is an ongoing dialogue that exists as a combined understanding, or misunderstanding, between the artist, the viewer, the browser, and the network and protocols that constitute the Web. To omit these two middlemen, the browser and the Web, would be to ignore two of the most powerful forces within the dialogue of the work. These forces shape our experience with, and understanding of internet-based artwork through time and space, and the resultant social changes that occur therein. These forces dethrone the author and abolish the authentic.