Ewa Wójtowicz Academy of Fine Arts in Poznań

Approaching the Project: From Conceptual Art to Net Art
The ways in which the art project has changed over recent decades can be perceived as a shift: from the “analogue” networking project, with all its rules and the relationships between the author and the participants, to the contemporary Internet art project, where the author is subject to dispersal and the project itself is decentralized and entirely virtual. Has the term “project” been remodeled since the meaning it acquired in the 1970s? Are there any issues derived from the conceptual realm that are still valid in the current conditions? Can conceptual projects be updated in a digital format without changing their core meaning? Project vs. Product The “net art project” borrows half its name from computer lingo (initially, “net art” was “net.art”) and half from conceptual art, which has preferred the term “project” over “artwork,” inasmuch as the notion of the work of art has been profoundly altered within the conceptualist context. Within conceptual art, the word “project” was a good way to name the result of the artistic work and its public reception. While the conceptual artwork was trying to escape historical terminology, leaving behind even the word “artwork” itself, it suggested that a major change was occurring in every part of the art system. The word “project” in itself suggests something open and incomplete, a sketch rather than a finished picture, a merely initiated and often unpredictable situation that could change under numerous conditions. Another important notion introduced by the conceptualist way of thinking, was to perceive the artwork as a project rather than a product. A project was something free of the art market, for the simple reason that it was impossible to sell it or include it in a collection. Nor could it be easily presented in a gallery. The only way to present a project was to exhibit its documentation, which began to supplant the original idea, since the documentation could eventually assume the role of a product. The opposition between the project and the product remains ambivalent on the Internet, given the strong connection to software, which is, for the most part, a product. Nevertheless, the Internet project still escapes the fate of the conceptual project and its documentation. Not only a form of visual art, the project (which we can understand more as a basic scheme) is often a collaborative work; a good example is architecture, or any other enterprise that requires a basic scheme. For this reason, the art project is often multidimensional, since it derives from a variety of approaches and perspectives. As we can read in an anthology on conceptual reflection in Polish art: “Conceived as a document, or a project of activity, a work of art acquires a character of a sign. It no longer aspires to represent reality . . . but indicates its aspect which is absent and cannot be made evident at a particular moment. A


work of art is inscribed in a temporal order and referred to a broader context which is an artistic process.”1 The term “project” was introduced to the art world by conceptual artists and mail artists. The latter group included Ray Johnson (1927–1995), the founder of the New York Correspondence School. As Mark Bloch explains on a web page devoted to Johnson: “His love of collaboration and a habit of recycling old works into multi-layered new ones resulted in a flurry of ‘mail art’ circling the globe with instructions to ‘add to and return to Ray Johnson.’” 2 Johnson worked on numerous projects, referring to some of them as “Nothings,” because they did not fit into any art trend. He took on the role of director and coordinator, but without presuming any particular outcome for his work; instead he sought meaning in the communication process itself rather than in any result. The general feature of any mail art project was its open potential: it wasn’t the sent object that was important, but the immaterial network connecting the participants. Mail art projects thus colonized a new territory, namely, the postal network, which was certainly not invented to be an artistic medium. Almost the same practice can be noticed simultaneously in conceptual art.3 As stated in the foreword to the catalogue for the exhibition Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin 1950s–1980s (Queens Museum of Art, Queens, New York, 1999):
[C]onceptualism questioned the idea of art, not in the sense of negation (as in anti-art), but in order to enlarge and deepen the scope of what art could be. . . . The artwork underwent a shift from object to subject. This represented a change in function, purpose, and capability, a recasting of the object’s status and meaning. The processes that came to signify conceptualist practice – a change in emphasis from the object to the idea; a priorization of language over visuality, a critique of the institutions of art; and, in many cases, a consequent dematerialization of the artwork – were set in motion long before the anointing of Conceptual Art.”4

Of course, not only was this dematerialization of the artwork an important shift toward the perception of the work of art as a project, but it also emphasized the artwork’s processual features, and, to quote Benjamin Buchloh, the “withdrawal of visuality.”5 Those artists who withdrew themselves from visuality entered a new sphere of communication, interaction, and ongoing process. Author
Paweł Polit, statement on inside cover flap of Paweł Polit and Piotr Woźniakiewicz, eds., Refleksja konceptualna w sztuce polskiej. Doświadczenia dyskursu 1965–1975. / Conceptual Reflection in Polish Art. Experiences of Discourse: 1965–1975 (Warsaw: Center for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle, 2000). 2 Mark Bloch, An Illustrated Introduction to Ray Johnson 1927–1995 (1995), <www.echonyc.com/~panman/Ray.html> (accessed 25 May 2006). 3 Mail art is often seen as part of conceptual art in a broader sense. In my view, this is a separate and autonomous artistic practice, since conceptual art does not rely so much on the development of a network and, while mail art may involve certain conceptual-art features, the reverse is not necessarily true. 4 Luis Camnitzer, Jane Farver, and Rachel Weiss, “Foreword,” in Queens Museum of Art, Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin 1950s–1980s (New York: Queens Museum of Art, 1999), vii–viii. 5 Quoted in ibid., viii.


The status of both artist and viewer, then, undergoes major changes as well. In conceptual art, the project was based on the idea of a “strong author,” while in mail art, this notion became more dispersed, as artists played with the identity of the author, making it unclear and dissolving it in multiple-names actions, or allowing it to disappear in networking nodes. Nowadays, the artist is not the only provider of the core context in interactive communication, but the viewer, too, becomes a user, or a (v)user,6 terms that point to the viewer’s more active participation in perceiving and reshaping an art project. Roland Barthes, in announcing the “death of the author,” implied that the author had disappeared as an institution and also as a person. In relation to the project as such, we can notice two different and highly polarized ways in which an author can be involved: – as a strong author who initializes and controls the development of the project on the widest possible scale; or – as a dispersed authorship, which is often associated with the notion of multiple names or group activity. There also exist certain middle options between these two. Lev Manovich, discussing the issue of authorship in new media, differentiates nine separate models.7 Asking “Who is the author?” Manovich points to certain new features of authorship that have emerged along with the new media, but others have a longer history. One of them is collaborative authorship, which is very important for the project. Manovich claims that collaborative authorship is more common in art history than we think. But collaboration in Manovich’s sense of the word relates rather to the collective work of a group of people, without any improvisation or openness to interactivity. The first model described by Manovich concerns the collaboration of individuals in groups organized for joint work – either person-to-person or through some kind of network. Manovich does not specify the kind of a network this might be, but the principle can be applied to both digital and “analogue” communication networks, such as the postal system or telecommunications before the Internet era. Manovich specifies four possible results of such collaboration – a new media work, a performance, an event, or a “project” – in contrast to the “masterpieces” produced in previous eras. All four of these supposed results have ephemeral, often time-based features that may result in the completely immaterial character of what is achieved in this process. Moreover, it should be stressed that this process is a vital part of the whole event (here understood in a broader sense). Manovich acknowledges that it doesn’t really matter if the process produces any material result; it is valuable in itself, as a process of exchange and networking. Manovich describes another model of authorship as a process of choosing from a given menu. He cites Barthes, who understood text as being a “tissue of
The term (v)user, in the sense of a “viewer/user, interactor,” was coined by Mirosław Rogala in 1998. 7 See Lev Manovich, “Models of Authorship in New Media” (2002), available for download in Word format from Manovich’s website, <www.manovich.net/>, under “Texts” (accessed 25 May 2006).


quotations,” rather than as a single message from a single, godlike author. In the new media, the issue is even more complicated, since there are quotations derived not only from the creators’ personal experiences, but also from partly nonhuman environments, such as “databases of media assets.”8 This leads us to yet another model of authorship proposed by Manovich, namely, “collaboration between the author and software,” in which an authorship that uses artificial intelligence (AI) tools may be considered as a collaboration between the human author and the AI instruments. In this case, certain basic rules are established and then a software application is used that allows these rules to assume meaning or perform some creative action. The author’s hidden identity, which was an important element in multiplenames concepts, is also important in contemporary network activities, where some net artists and activists conceal themselves within collectives (such as etoy, jodi, ®Tmark, 0100101110101101.org), arguing that such relinquishment of personal identity makes their work stronger. Manovich compares these attitudes to commercial branding, though I cannot fully agree with this comparison. Manovich concludes his essay with the observation (based on a statement by Ulf Poschardt9) that no matter how the author has changed, he is, in fact, still present. The same opinion is shared by Alexei Shulgin, one of the pioneers of net.art, whose famous collective project Desktop Is (1997)10 attracted numerous participants. They were invited to create graphics based on standard desktop components, such as icons, windows, and shortcuts. The results were aesthetically provocative and highly personalized, like Rachel Baker’s work, which displayed folders named: “bakerssexuality,” “protectedby,” and “Virex DropScan.” Other contributions to the project looked like visual poetry, for example, Garnet Hertz’s piece. The project was not only a collective action moderated by Shulgin with many participants, but also an online exhibition of their works, open 24/7 and independent from the art system. Nevertheless, in his provocative manifesto, Shulgin stated:
I don’t believe in interactivity, because I think interactivity is a very simple and obvious way to manipulate people. Because what happens with so-called interactive art is that if an artist proposes an interactive piece of art, they always declare: ‘Oh, it's very democratic! Participate! Create your own world! Click on this button and you are as much the author of this piece as I am.’ But it’s never true. There is always the author with his name and his career behind it, and he just seduces people to click buttons in his own name.11

Such software is, of course, written and designed by humans but it admits certain artificial-intelligence factors as well. Manovich proposes that this represents a mediated dialogue between the author and software designers. 9 Ulf Poschardt, DJ Culture (London: Quartet Books Ltd, 1998), 284; quoted in Manovich, “Models of Authorship.” 10 Online at <www.easylife.org/desktop/desktop_is.html> (accessed 25 May 2006). 11 Alexei Shulgin, quoted in Tilman Baumgärtel, “Art on the Internet – The Rough Remix,” in Josephine Bosma, ed., Readme! Filtered by nettime: ASCII Culture and the Revenge of Knowledge (New York; Autonomedia, 1999), 237.


Collective projects that are at the same time online exhibitions are a vivid indication that interactive ideas don’t have to be reduced to simple “point and click” actions. Within the global network it seems quite easy to encourage the whole (wired) world to create new content that can also be easily added to the endless data space, to paraphrase Douglas Davis.12 The Dispersal of the Author? The “death of the author,” as Peter Lunenfeld discusses it,13 was ultimately not a total death. Following Foucault, Lunenfeld argued that it didn’t refer to any sort of end at all. In my own view, we may be dealing here rather with a dispersal of authorship, which concerns both the medium-specific artwork and the author himself. An example of the latter may be seen in the case of Darko Maver, a Serbian installation artist and photographer who is known not only for his provocative pictures involving such subjects as murder victims, but also for the severe difficulties he faced in Yugoslavia, including persecution and imprisonment. In the late 1990s, rumors circulated about Maver being sent to prison by the repressive Yugoslav regime, and several art magazines took note of his story. There was even a statement issued at the 48th Venice Biennial in 1999 that mentioned his death in prison. The only problem was that Darko Maver had never existed. He was a fiction invented by the (h)activist group14 010010110101101.ORG (Zero One Dot Org) in their collaborative project Darko Maver (1998–1999), which they undertook with Luther Blisset.15 The name “Luther Blisset” is also fictional; in fact, it refers to an art collective and is thus related to the notion of the “multiple name.”16 Together the two have created a website for Darko Maver, where one can find his biography and a set of his shocking photographs, which were later revealed to have come from police documentation of real crimes. The confusion in the art world that resulted from the revelation of Darko Maver’s nonexistence is understandable. However, as Rachel Greene suggests, it also touches on the delicate subject of fictional identities and the impossibility of verifying information on the Internet.17 No wonder Darko Maver was himself a project, not a real person.
In an interview with Tilman Baumgärtel, Davis asks, “Why not get the whole world together to write a sentence?” See Tilman Baumgärtel, [net.art 2.0]. Neue Materialien zur Netzkunst / New Materials towards Net Art (Nuremberg, Verlag für moderne Kunst, 2001), 60. 13 See Peter Lunenfeld, Snap to Grid: A User’s Guide to Digital Arts, Media and Cultures (Cambridge, Mass., and London; The MIT Press, 2000), 2–12. 14 The term “(h)activist,” a coinage of unclear origin that is widely used on the Internet, refers to a socially critical hacker-activist who addresses political or social problems. 15 See the project website, <www.0100101110101101.org/home/darko_maver> (accessed 25 May 2006). 16 The concept of multiple names is discussed by Stewart Home in his Gwałt na kulturze. Utopia, awangarda, kontrkultura od letryzmu do Class War, tr. Ewa Mikina (Warsaw: Signum, 1993), 74–78; originally published as Assault on Culture: Utopian Currents from Lettrisme to Class War (Oakland, Calif.: AK Press, 1991). 17 See Rachel Greene, Internet Art (London: Thames and Hudson, 2004), 100–102.


The status of the artist has been changing since the “media became new,” as Manovich puts it. The artist’s status is slowly becoming almost indistinguishable from the user’s status, as happened in the free software movement. But it is not just the artist whose status has been subject to rapid change. The audience, too, slowly started to be composed of users – and not merely passive viewers – whose awareness of the possibilities of contributing to the global “open text” is constantly growing. Documentation When speaking about the project as an art practice, we must not overlook the issue of documentation. According to Boris Groys, the relation between the artwork and its documentation is particularly interesting, inasmuch as art documentation has, since the 1970s, become an autonomous art form. This fact raises questions about the topology of an aura, in the Walter Benjamin’s sense of the word. Groys makes a significant distinction between the original and the copy, one that is based on the physical availability of the perceived artwork:
When the distinction between original and copy is a topological one, then the topologically defined movement of the viewer alone makes the distinction. If we make our way to the artwork, then it is an original. If we force the artwork to come to us, then it is a copy.18

Sometimes, documentation is such an important part of a project that its status is not merely historical. Certain conceptual projects based on long-distance collaborations would not be the same without documentation. One example of a long-distance, long-term networking project is the collaborative work Questions Moscow New York (1975–1976) by the American artist Douglas Davis and the Russian artist duo Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid. As Douglas Davis recalls: “We decided to created a transatlantic art work together, using the only media that were allowed to us at that time: the telephone and the camera.”19 The project was based on photographs taken, separately, by Komar and Melamid in Moscow and Davis in New York. In both cases, the pictures showed the artists holding written questions and looking in the direction of a black line painted vertically on the wall. When the artists exchanged their pictures by post and spliced the images together, the result was a picture that made it look as if the Russians and the American were in the same room, divided by a line. In fact, all the pictures had in common was the time they were taken (they were shot at exactly the same moment in Moscow and New York) and the content of the questions. Davis was holding questions written in Russian, while Komar and Melamid’s questions were in English. The questions related to the line: “Where is the line between us?” “Why is the line between us?” “What is the line between us?” and “What is beyond the line?” This last picture showed Komar and Melamid in winter coats, as if they were about to leave, and indeed, they soon emigrated

Boris Groys, “Art in the Age of Biopolitics: From Artwork to Art Documentation,” in Okwui Enwezor et al., eds., Documenta 11_Platform 5: Exhibition. Catalogue (OstfildernRuit, Germany: Hatje Cantz, 2002), 113.
18 19

Quoted in Tilman Baumgärtel, [net.art 2.0], 59.


from the Soviet Union. A fifth picture, which served as an epilogue, was taken in New York, where all three artists finally met in one physical space, and they took a picture of themselves tearing the line off the wall. Thus, in a symbolic way, the Iron Curtain was breached through the creation, by very simple means, of an illusion of a shared physical space. The work was, in itself, almost nothing but documentation, as this was the only possible way to develop such an idea. As the Polish art historian Andrzej Turowski has said, in the Eastern bloc countries (Poland, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Czechoslovakia), conceptual art was often associated with opposition, since it could speak a language of relative freedom. Also it provided an easy way to exchange ideas with the Western world.20 Net Art Do the same conditions and criteria that apply to the conceptual art project and its documentation remain relevant for the net art project and its digital artwork – files stored on a remote server but visible simultaneously on the monitors of countless Internet users all over the world? The net art project’s somewhat blurred relation to the “proper” work of art presents intriguing questions. While net art may be compared to both conceptual art and mail art – since in its basis it shares some of their key features – a hypertextual, unstable, technology-bound and site-specific art project raises several questions. Where is the essential issue of art within the project? Is it still a pure idea, or is it a process of communication, perception, or interaction? Does the term “project” evoke the openness and potential of constant transgression and, if not, should it then be revised? Typically, the early net.art21 project seemed to borrow, and modify, many features from mail art. It was based on a medium of communication. It focused on its communicative features. It invited participants to relate to a given idea in creative ways. The enhanced role of the former viewer (in the traditional artist– viewer opposition) and now active participant was claimed as a profound change in the art world, almost a revolution. But was the v/user really equally important as the artist (the project designer)? Net art projects live only as long as they are readable by the currently used software. But the digital realm has always been prone to remodeling and remixing previously existing material. Also, net art showed that the center was, apparently, somewhere else. In mail art projects, there were still geographical addresses with postal codes and city names, but while a URL address may contain a country code, any individual file can be uploaded on a different server anywhere in the world and then linked. A perfect example is provided by an early work by the Russian artist Olia Lialina, Agatha Appears (1997), where a narrative runs through American, Russian, German, and Slovene servers, each one hosting a different HTML file. It is visible
Paweł Polit, “O sztuce konceptualnej. Andrzej Turowski w rozmowie z Pawłem Politem / On Conceptual Art. Andrzej Turowski talks to Paweł Polit,” in Polit and Woźniakiewicz, eds., Refleksja konceptualna w sztuce polskiej, 52. 21 I reserve the punctuated term “net.art” for the pioneering activity that took place between 1993 and 1998 and use the unpunctuated “net art” in a wider sense, for art that uses the Internet as its primary medium.


to a viewer, but not immediately, and the change of server doesn’t really affect the project: http://www.here.ru/agatha/cant_stay_anymore.htm http://www.altx.com/agatha/starts_new_life.html http://www.distopia.com/agatha/travels.html http://www2.arnes.si/~ljintima3/agatha/travels_a_lot.html http://www.zuper.com/agatha/wants_home.html http://www.ljudmila.org/~vuk/agatha/goes_on.html Although highly decentralized and very site-specific in terms of the global network, the project is not very interactive when compared to collective networking projects. Interactivity Interactivity is one of the key features of the art project per se. The open nature of any project involves some kind of interactive potential. We should note, however, that Lev Manovich, doesn’t trust the “myth of interactivity.”22 He argues that, in fact, both participants in such a seemingly interactive relationship are strangers, sharing no common field of communication:
The notion of collaboration assumes some shared understanding and the common goals between the collaborators, but in the case of interactive media these are often absent. After an author designs the work, s/he has no idea about the assumptions and intentions of a particular user. Such a user, therefore, can’t be really called a collaborator of the author. From the other side, a user coming to a new media artwork often also does not know anything about this work, what it is supposed to do, what its interface is, etc. For this user, therefore, an author is not really a collaborator. Instead of collaborators, the author and the user are often two total strangers, two aliens which do not share a common communication code.23

What happens then between the author and the viewer/user – the (v)user – if it’s not collaboration? Manovich argues that it is, rather, miscommunication. There are and were, however, projects that intentionally involve some kind of miscommunication, sometimes so as to create a social network through it, sometimes to emphasize the ambivalent nature of such interactive contact. One example is the well-known mail art project Portrait of Robin Crozier,24 which Crozier himself coordinated, although most of his correspondents had never met him. This anthology of supposedly true and accurate portraits of Crozier made something else clearly visible: it was not the imagined pictures of Crozier that were important, but rather a picture of the collective imagination, which was created in the process of mail-based networking. The miscommunication factor didn’t really matter; indeed, it helped to enrich the whole project.
Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2001). Manovich, “Models of Authorship in New Media.” 24 See Clive Phillpot and Andrea Tarsia, eds., Live in Your Head: Concept and Experiment in Britain 1965–75 (London: Whitechapel Art Gallery, 2000).
22 23


Manovich recalls one more useful model of authorship, which can also be related to the notion of the project. This is the Open Source Model, which comes from the realm of coding. It is based on the general rule that a code written by one author can be modified and amended by another user without changing its core (a “kernel” in the case of Linux). There are many cases of this in freeware and shareware software. The very first one, apparently, was the famous but stillunfinished Project Xanadu25 by Ted Nelson (started in 1965). This aspect of contemporary culture has been well described by Peter Lunenfeld, who also attempts to find a unifying variable for the current situation.
The idea of a singular author has become suspect. This notion, often literalized as the “death” of the author, first surfaced in literary theory, gained credence in the art world, and seems to well describe a moment in which hyperlinks connect everyone’s work to everyone else’s. This is all well and good, though in the absence of such venerated concepts as genius and transcendence, digital artists find themselves stripped of the ethos around which most previous artistic communities were founded. Beyond neophilia and millenarianism, around what centralizing concept can these artists build community? I would propose that the cohesive force binding them together is less a shared sense of destiny that the common use of similar tools – what I refer to as “commodity camaraderie.”26

Lunenfeld’s term “commodity camaraderie” relates to economics, and he mentions several examples from (techno)culture and commerce, pointing to the changing relation between the producer and the consumer. But a question arises: is this the only feature that can unify the dispersed authorship and the decentralized identity of a new media artist? Updating or Upgrading? An important step toward “refreshing” the ideas of conceptual art and transferring them from the analogue to digital realm is being undertaken by a New York-based artist duo who work under the name MTAA (M.River & T.Whid Art Assoc.).27 They have been working on the series Updates, which includes three online projects that refer to previous works by conceptual artists. They have made three online pieces, the first of which was onKawaraUpdate (2002), designed as a splash page for Rhizome.org. It made reference to On Kawara’s pictures and replicated their general look; only it displayed the specific date of 10 December 2002. A second piece was vitoAcconciUpdate (2001–2002), a multipage flash animation relating to Vito Acconci’s performance Seedbed (1972). In addition, this piece was made interactive; on a chosen day (31 December 2001), MTAA asked Internet users to vote on how they wanted the piece to be changed. After that day, however, the project was returned to its former shape. The latest work in the series, 1 year performance video (aka samHsiehUpdate) (2004), is supposed to update a work by Tehching (“Sam”) Hsieh, One Year Performance (1978–1979) (this work is also known as the Cage Piece).
25 26 27

See Project Xanadu, <http://xanadu.com> (accessed 25 May 2006). Lunenfeld, Snap to Grid, 4. Their website is <www.mteww.com/> (assessed 25 May 2006).


Hsieh carried out a series of One Year Performances between 1978 and 1986. The first one, made between 29 September 1978 and 30 September 1979, involved him staying in a cage and refraining from talking, reading, writing, listening to the radio, or watching television. This year of isolation was documented by a series of photographs.28 The performance was open to the public at scheduled times, so viewers could watch Hsieh going about his everyday activities. As the MTAA artists explain on their website: “Our Updates resound seminal performance art from the 60s and 70s in part by replacing human processes with computer processes.”29 Indeed, in MTAA’s Internet version, the human factor is reduced to certain episodes of everyday activities performed by the two artists in simple and almost identical white rooms. The viewer can watch them reading, sleeping, eating, using laptop computers to, apparently, browse the Internet, exercising, and so on. There is a time-counter under the video window that makes the viewer aware of how long he or she has been watching the performance. One can also log in and save one’s viewing time so as to compare it with others’. Ideally, one could watch for an entire year, in other words, the same amount of time as Hsieh’s original performance. The idea of updating conceptual projects is both intriguing and challenging. Because the artists do not make a “copy and paste” activity, this is not plagiarism. They reuse a previous scenario, adjusting it to the technical conditions and digital realm of the global network. In their reference to Kawara’s work, for example, they turn the paintings into pixels: the idea is preserved, but the substance is removed. At the same time, the networking aspect of the original (Kawara uses his ideas in mail art projects as well) also remains. In the samHsiehUpdate, however, there is another major change: here there is no actual sacrifice endured (unlike Hsieh’s original project), since the whole situation is simulated – a fact that is explicitly revealed. By calling their work Updates, MTAA has made a significant decision, one that suggests that some conceptual ideas are worth updating. Moreover, the implication is that these works can be made to reach a much wider audience. We must ask, then: are these updates or are they actually upgrades? Where is the balance between an update and an upgrade? In terms of software and hardware, both words are often used and considered to be similar. But while an update is time-bound – for example, when we update a website, we simply add current information without remodeling its structure – the upgrade is a technical improvement, one that is supposed to make a device work better. Perhaps, we might propose the term “refresh” – in software “refresh” is the name of a browser button that makes a page update quickly, displaying its content in its newest form. The idea of “refreshing” older works is not so new; we need only recall the well-known work After Walker Evans (1981) by Sherrie Levine, and then the shift to digital media by Michael Mandiberg in AfterWalkerEvans.com and AfterSherrieLevine.com (both 2001). But with MTAA’s Updates, we are dealing
Images of Hsieh’s performance are available online at <www.one-yearperformance.com/no1.html> (assessed 25 May 2006). 29 See <www.mtaa.net/mtaaRR/on-line_art/index.html> (assessed 20 June 2006).


with something more than reproduction, for there is a change in the project: not longer is it a difficult trial of human strength, but an effortless series of episodes.

Refreshing As long as the conceptual project can be refreshed in a new technical environment, a number of questions arise. Where is the original? How profoundly can the original idea be changed? Is this a Duchamps-like gesture rather than an attempt at updating? There are a few Polish conceptual projects that might be subjected to such updating or “refreshing” in the realm of the Internet. One is Zaczyna się we Wrocławiu [It begins in Wrocław] (1970) by Zbigniew Gostomski (born 1932). The project is described by the artist as a grid of elements, situated in the city in accordance with a given sketch:
0/ on the plan of the city, on its suburbs, and beyond its limits, covering an increasingly extensive space, according with point 5, symposium assumptions, “it shall be realized so as not be perishable” 1. 0 - an element X in a diameter, X in attitude 2. / - an element with dimensions X x X x X” . . . It begins in Wrocław. It could be started anywhere. It begins in a definite area, but it need not end there. It is potentially endless. It is unchanging in its form, but perpetually changing in its situation.30

The whole idea is purely virtual, since it would be absurd even to try to fulfill the instructions. Gostomski claimed that the elements should be not perishable, always the same size and made of the same material, and mass-produced. Although he wanted the elements to be physical objects, this grid of elements in the immaterial realm of Internet could possibly acquire new potential. Because the Internet is a flexible space able to host text, pictures, and sounds, all in digital format, it seems a perfect solution for all kinds of ambiguity. Its open character makes it a bit unstable, but that’s what happens with content on the Web. By placing a conceptual project in an Internet environment, we can approach it once again, adjust its core ideas to new conditions, and expose it to new audiences, who are sometimes unfamiliar with it. This approach may add certain new aspects (or even values) to the original work, but it should be undertaken with care so as not to oversimplify the project. A conceptual work by an artist from Poznań, Andrzej Bereziański (1939– 1999), Zamiana energii [Transformation of energy] (1975), which consists of typed words on a white background, could be also re-presented and updated on the Internet, just as Kawara’s work was updated by MTAA. The same is true of
Zbigniew Gostomski, Zaczyna się we Wrocławiu (luty 1970 rok), It Begins in Wrocław (February, 1970), in Polit and Woźniakiewicz, eds., Refleksja konceptualna w sztuce polskiej, 81–83.


Bereziański’s earlier work, Zdjęcia z podróży [Photographs from the trip] (1971). In the context of the computer screen, both works could gain additional meaning as well as the potential of interactive communication. Another Polish artist, Włodzimierz Borowski (born 1930), has carried out numerous actions and performances, claiming that performance is an escape from the work of art as an object and that it shifts the perspective to one of process and experiment. He perceived the conceptual approach as a “word that opens a space.”31 In one action, Anti-Happening Fubki Tarb (1969), at the Pod Mona Lisa Gallery in Wrocław, Borowski “painted” a picture using the audience in the gallery as his paint (the name of the action is an anagram on the Polish phrase tubki farb – “tubes of paint”). Upon arriving, the audience found the gallery empty and the artist absent; there were only photographs on the walls, which depicted audiences from certain previous events. This unexpected situation was photographed during this anti-exhibition. In my opinion, this project could now be “refreshed” in the realm of the Internet, as the elements of emptiness, suspense, and audience manipulation are easily available in this medium. We might, then, ask why such examples of Polish conceptual art have not yet undergone such updating.32 The not-so-surprising reason is that Polish conceptual art projects are not as recognized as “Western” ones. Apparently, even within the Polish art environment, there is still little awareness of their importance and no direct sense of a need to merge the conceptual attitude with the digital medium. Włodzimierz Borowski claims that art is a huge sphere, which can be perceived only in fragments. The artist tries to note these fragments, and although the notation changes, it is still connected with this sphere.33 He also says that a new discovery in art requires a new language. In my opinion, this new language could well be digital, for the transfer from conceptual idea to Internet project may open our minds to another fragment of the same overwhelming sphere that is only partly accessible to our senses. Andrzej Turowski has said that idea-based art began to fade away when the art market experienced a crisis and again started craving the product rather than the project – objects, not sounds. 34 For this reason, the immaterial conceptual art project was largely forgotten in the 1980s and later. Possibly, the new realm of the Internet, where the physically existing product is irrelevant, could be a space in which the ideas of conceptual art can be reconsidered and updated. The updating effort should not be understood as an attempt to improve the piece but rather as an approach to the idea of the project as such, so long as it is potentially open and flexible within the given instructions. This kind of updating may not only remind the wider public of some interesting but forgotten ideas; it might also give these ideas a new life in the realm of digital media.
Ibid. This question was raised by Marina Gržinić during the discussion following my presentation at the “Mind the Map” symposium in Leipzig on 17 October 2005. 33 Włodzimierz Borowski discussed these ideas in an interview in 2001; see Józef Bury, Kreowanie pustki – rozmowa z Włodzimierzem Borowskim, „Opcje”, no. 5/40 (2001), 44– 48. 34 See Paweł Polit, “O sztuce konceptualnej,” 46–52 (English translation, 211–213).
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