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Distributed art of invisible networks: notes on network politics

Magda Tyzlik-Carver


Art and politics are not two terms that would be linked through some form of representation. They are constituted as such in the same knot of the visible, the sayable and the thinkable, in the same framing of a common space where some practices appear to be named “arts” and some matters to be viewed of as “political”. 

Rancičre, 2002

Network art evolved from the early participation of artists in the growing telecommunication networks of the World Wide Web in the 90s, characterised by their limited accessibility and slow bandwidth. Internet art practices of the time were influenced by activist and hactivist (computer hacking + activism) approaches to the medium.  The use of media as a tactical tool was defined in this way by Lovink and Garcia, two artists/activists/theorists engaged in practice of Electronic Civil Disobedience:

Tactical Media are what happens when the cheap ‘do it yourself’ media, made possible by the revolution in consumer electronics and expanded forms of distribution (from public access cable to the internet) are exploited by groups and individuals who feel aggrieved by or excluded from the wider culture. (1997) 

Early Internet art of the 90s manifested itself in the net.art works of such artists as Heath Bunting (UK-picture right), Olia Liliana (Russia), and Vuk Cosic (Slovenia), and in the offline environment of festivals and conferences such as Next 5 Minutes or Ars Electronica, mailing lists and online art communities such as nettime, THE THING, Syndicate, Rhizome.org, etc. (Greene 2004).  

Network art follows also from relational art, which tried to re-establish the human bond in the changed social conditions of a globalised world. According to Nicolas Bourriaud (2002), who coined the term and explained the idea of Esthetic Relationell in his famous collection of essays, art practice of the 90s shifted the realm in which it operated from private, individual consumption of art to “intersubjective encounters” provided by art. Relational artists concentrated on production of “relations between people and the world, by way of aesthetic objects” (Bourriaud, 2002:42). They proposed models of sociality and distributed them in galleries or museums, which according to Bourriuad revitalise “the place of visuality in the exhibition protocol, without belittling it” (2002:43).  

Network art is also tied to the contemporary world of “post-material economies” (Terranova, 2006:30) defined through the concept of “immaterial labour”, which Terranova explains, following Lazzaratto, as “a political concept able to actively respond to the social transformation undergone by subjectivity in what have been called post-industrial, post-Fordist or network society” (Lazzarato, M. cited in Terranova 2006: 28). 

This new form of critical art today can be recognised by the fact that it takes place in many distributed locales, merging everyday activities taking place in “real life” with those which are enhanced by technology and Internet. Network art is a hybrid. It is a combination of sociality and technology, human relations mediated by internet based tools which allow communication, new and open models of participation and free and wide distribution, not only via telecommunication channels. It is art which uses network as its medium. This is the context in which I further discuss collaborative network art projects within which the connection between technology, sociality and mystery might suggest the possibility of reaching the ethical organisation of sensory experience that produces a politics of network aesthetics. This terminology derives from Jacques Rancičre who discusses the connection between politics, aesthetics and ethics in the context of distribution of the sensible in The Politics of Aesthetics (2006a). He characterises distribution of the sensible as the way in which forms of “what is visible and audible” and all that can be “said, thought, made or done” is categorised in the common.  In the glossary of the terms available in the book, “distribution” refers to forms of inclusion and exclusion and the “sensible” is that which can be apprehended by the senses.

The function of critical art, according to Rancičre (who, however, never talks about network art), is not only to create a situation in which it is possible to see the true nature of things behind their appearance, by arranging the ways and relations between art and life. But it is also a way in which a spectator responds to the knowledge or understanding produced by that relation with the artwork and how this knowledge is taken into the realm of the society. In contemporary critical art, Rancičre distinguishes four main forms and “mystery” is one of them (2006b). Mystery, as “specific way of putting heterogeneous elements together”, creates a certain relation between them which establishes the familiarity. This relation is rooted in poetry and the use of metaphors “where heterogeneous realities are woven in the same fabric and can always be related to one another”. What the use of mystery produces is the realisation of our co-existence and the strangeness of the world we inhabit.   

Glorious Ninth (www.gloriousninth.net) is a collaboration between new media artist Kate Southworth and sound artist Patrick Simons. Their collaboration started in the context of the net.art aesthetics with many works created particularly between 2001 and 2004. They are often interactive works which mix together text, visual and aural elements placed within the frame of a computer screen and within the context of Internet. 

love_potion (http://lovepotion.gloriousninth.net/) (pictures X3 above and below) is a distributed artwork by Glorious Ninth which has been developed since 2005 and it is defined by the artists as a “durational performance artwork in three phases” (love_potion a). It juxtaposes heterogeneous elements together such as growing borage plants from seeds, scents and magic spells, gardening tips on how to grow borage, DIY installations and sound and visual works created by Glorious Ninth which are freely available for download. And it is this conjunction that is arranged over time into three stages within or through which the quality of the public/audience/participants’ presence is subtly organised.   

In its formative structure love_potion could be considered a distributed, networked happening. All the elements needed for performing love_potion are given on the site and we are invited to “join the invisible network of tactical gardeners” (Southworth 2007).  This invitation is where the complexity of this work is articulated.  It negotiates many levels of engagement by placing heterogeneous elements in the mysterious relations expressed through metaphors which I will explore. My reading is that the “invisible network” can be understood as the common; “tactical gardeners” are the audience/people/participants and magic potion could be read as participation. If we follow this kind of poetic reading of love_potion this piece then becomes a ritual of participation in the performance. Through its distributed nature it manages to eliminate the audience as called for by Allan Kaprow (1966), and creates participants who “have a clear idea of what they are to do” and also are “willing and committed” declared in their decision to perform love_potion. They are the tactical gardeners who plant the borage and when it is ready use it in preparing the magic drink and with frankincense cleanse the space chosen for the performance. The heterogeneous elements here are put together to strengthen the “potential for invisible network of love to co-emerge” (love_potion a). 

love_potion is a space and the time of the common. Everyone who performed the ritual shares the experience with the others regardless of the fact that they don’t know about each other. The common is established through ritual of going through each or at least one phase of love_potion, and realised through the very fact of its execution. The invisible network of tactical gardeners is the realisation, the object of the common that cannot be seen but can only be felt, experienced or imagined. Common is defined through shared habits in the community, the so called ethos which in love_potion exists in the activities of those following the prescribed steps in each of work’s phases. It is represented by dispersed (in time and space) rather then distributed actions of invisible network of people, repetitive activities turned into ritual, seeds and herbs, and audio-visuals, which all are organised by the mediative function of love_potion.  It is this double mediation which turns the everyday chores into a work of art, a ritual, a performance and then takes them back again to the ‘real life’. 

We might wonder, however, about this double-mediative function in love_potion. On one hand it can be understood as “consensus” defined by Rancičre as “a reconfiguration of the visibility of the common” (2006b), whose role is to turn a political into an aesthetic function of art. That is to say that “political matters” become “artistic practices”. This takes place through reorganising the common space in such a way that it can not lend itself to “a dispute, to the polemical framing of a controversial world into the given world” (2006b). However, what consensus produces is not merely empty political space, but the space which has the potential to be reframed by artistic practice.  And perhaps this is what takes place in love_potion with the use of double-mediation. In the space created by consensus, where ritual and mystery aestheticise everyday activities to then reshape them into a happening or a performance. love_potion creates an experience in which life becomes life because it is not there. This is the clash, “the mystery of co-presence” (Rancičre 2006b) which negotiates the distance between art and life in the act of turning gardening tasks into ritual and then staging a performance of sharing borage herbs in the potion of love. The negotiation which takes place is made stronger by the very relation with the work which is completely experienced by the “tactical gardener” who contributes to the organisation of the common in the form of invisible network. And creation of distance between the realms of network, life and artwork is essential for it obliges the participant/performer to realise and assess those very distances. 

In love_potion by leaving open the moments in which to enter the work, the common is not instituted once and for all. The relation with the audience in this piece requires active engagement and agreement not only to participate in the work but also to allow love_potion to enter the life of the participant. That is perhaps a moment in which we are invited to open “our selves to a state of fragility and vulnerability” where “weaving together the processes and relations that co-emerge through growing ingredients, making potion and encountering others” (love_potion b) take place. Perhaps this is also where the sociality, the so called human bond or the common is being distributed in love_potion which if staged in the gallery as a performance is a mere representation of what it becomes when entwined in everyday activities of the performer. Invisible network of “tactical gardeners” intertwine processes and relations, online and offline, time and space. They negotiate for themselves life and art in each phase of the love_potion which they decide to stage or in which they participate. love_potion is at the same time the origin and the representation of what it creates. Representation here takes on different function, similar to that of consensus, which is to actively compose a common space to be reshaped by artistic practice. The clash between the actual experience of the ritual proposed by love_potion performed in the everyday, and non-experience represented by staging it in the gallery has the potential to create dissensus which plays out “the politics of works of art” (Rancičre, 2006a: 65). 

Another situation of the common can be encountered by the participant in the sessions organised by the Department of Reading [DoR] (http://www.reading.department.cc/ ) (picture right and below) It is a project which is interested in suggesting new ways of reading which create and add new textures to the written text by allowing for interventions in and on the texts. It is done on the website dedicated to the project which uses wiki, a tool permitting collaborative edition of texts and with the use of Skype as a space where debates about the texts take place. The sessions organised by the Department of Reading are communal reading meetings taking place at the same time in a physical space of a gallery and virtual context of the DoR website and messaging window. The reading sessions are not limited to acts of passive reading and aim to “physically” intervene in and on the texts which exist on the server and are distributed via the DoR website. The intervention might take a form of annotation or alteration of the text also with the use of images. This “evolving practice of reading” of the DoR sessions makes visible not only communal reading processes involved within each session, but also the ways in which those processes are made visible and categorised in the common.    

Here, however, the common is established by another framework and produces something different to the invisible network of tactical gardeners. The participants in the sessions are virtually connected. Not only do they share the time which could be considered an immaterial node in this networked activity, but they are connected to the same server where text is stored. They are also “gathered” within a Skype window where discussions and conversations take place. Thus this network is organised by shared time and virtual space materialised by the visibility of participation in the session. What is also shared in this community is the physical distance of the majority of participants from each other.  Here, the common exists by its defined temporality, physical dislocation and the virtual connectedness of its members. 

A session of the Department of Reading creates and at the same time represents the processes at work, as they are archived on the website. Is the representation of this network practice organised by consensus? It might be too early to answer as DoR is still in the stage where practice of reading within the community evolves. But also in the DoR session mystery seems to have its use. “Heterogeneous realities” (Rancičre 2006b) of written text, reading practice, discussion, technology allow “for other forms of intervention and encounter” (Department of Reading). 

Dislocation in case of Department of Reading sessions, and disconnection among the “tactical gardeners” in love_potion create the political space as it makes visible the in-between areas of the common. Rancičre says that:

Politics plays itself out in the theatrical paradigm as the relationship between the stage and the audience, as meaning produced by the actor’s body, as games of proximity or distance. 

(2006a: 17)

Transposing this statement into the network paradigm, the relationship is played out in the distance between the networks’ forms of organisation and how they are made visible. The lack of physical connection between the participants arguably makes the realisation of the common even stronger because it is not a representation of sociality such as is the case in many of relational artworks. Network art has the potential to embody the common where all the “realities” become visible. This is how the connection with ethics can be re-established in the contemporary art today, through the realisation of the common where “artistic practices are not ‘exceptions’ to other practices” (Rancičre, 2006a: 45) and where the common is not just an ethos but “polemical distribution of modes of being and ‘occupations’ in a space of possibilities” (Rancičre 2006a: 42). 




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First published by Techsty Magazine 5 (2008) (www.techsty.art.pl)