Most historical internet art is not contagious media or anything like contagious media, and has little connection to street art either. I do not want to go into great detail listing examples upon examples of well-regarded internet art that does not appeal to a wide audience or have viral potential, but I do want to look briefly at a few examples of internet art, some that appeal to a wider audience and some that do not. The three examples with a particularly esoteric appeal are archived by Rhizome’s ArtBase, a curated collection of supposedly the best of internet art.
There is Bunting’s 1998 piece _readme. The piece consists of a press clipping about Bunting that has been reformatted so that many of the words are hyperlinks such that the word “hello” would include a hyperlink to “hello.com” and the wod “goodbye” would include a hyperlink to “goodbye.com”. As you click the links, the colors change based on which sites you have visited and which you have not. As a work of internet art for an internet art audience, this piece may be absolutely brilliant and groundbreaking. It’s already found a place in art history books. But it’s not viral art or contagious media. My mother could care less about it: She’s not going to accidentally stumble across that page some day, her friends are not going to email her a link to the page, she’s not going to tweet out a link to the page even if she does somehow end up there and I’m not even going to try to explain to her what little I understand of the theories behind the piece that might make it interesting to a small subset of the art world. _readme is, in my limited experience with internet art, quite a typical work with regard to its accessibility to those outside of the internet art community and Bunting’s limited effort in engaging with a larger community.
Interestingly, Bunting also did a project that really captured some of the best things about street art, and it was organized online and involved a global network of participants. For King’s Cross Phone-In, Bunting got the word out online that people should call in to all of the pay phones at the King’s Cross train station in London, England on a given day at a given time. If we trust Wikipedia, people ended up calling in from around the world that day and they had conversations with random strangers who picked up the ringing pay phones (some who knew that the project was happening and some who did not). The internet made that project significantly easier to do than it might have been 10-20 years earlier, but the piece still engaged people who had no knowledge of Bunting’s work or internet art.
Jody Zellen’s 2005 piece talking walls is particularly interesting for the street art and graffiti communities because it involves images of street art and graffiti. It is essentially 16 photos and 16 video clips that the viewer has some control over as she moves the cursor around the page. Perhaps you find the work interesting for “exploring the visual language of wall and street markings,” as the artist suggests the piece does. Even if that’s the case, talking walls could exist just as easily in a gallery setting, and Zellen is using the web as a gallery in a very basic way. Anyone can go to talking-walls.com and experience the piece. Great. That’s more access than people have to the work of most artists, but still Zellen has done nothing more than exhibit in a slightly non-traditional setting. Discovery of the work still relies on traditional means, maybe a link from Zellen’s own website for example. That’s the internet-art equivalent of painting in an abandoned building, but it’s how so much internet art is housed and distributed. That’s using the internet for storage rather than distribution.
A lot of internet art, both old and new, exists only at a specific URL. Internet artist Rafaël Rozendaal has said, “My work is public by nature,” and sold multiple URL-specific works on the condition that it remain a publicly accessible website. But that URL, however awesome and sharable the link may be, is not quite public in the way that something that exists in its entirely on a social media platform (or can at least be shared there in a way that does not require leaving the walled garden) or invades your internet space is public. The URL-specific artworks of Rozendaal and others are public in a similar way to how some public museums are free, not in the way that a piece of public art is public.
When Jonah Peretti coined the term “Bored at Work Network,” we weren’t constantly connected and sharing on Twitter or Tumblr or Facebook. He was making and sharing URL-specific internet art in era when the vast majority of link-sharing was done via old-fashioned email. Black People Love Us! is a website Jonah and his sister Chelsea Peretti launched in late 2002, ostensibly the homepage of a white couple who black people just seem to love. The site is a joke, with plenty of comments from the couple’s friends like “Johnny always says: “I’m not racist; one of my best friends is Black!” I think he might mean me!” I see the site’s success as evidence of most internet art’s failure to connect with people the same way street art has done, despite the opportunities to do so. BPLU is not viral art, but it did connect with people and they shared it. The piece still “went viral.” If early internet art had been similarly accessible, perhaps it too would have gone viral. All it took to go viral even before social media was a website/artwork that people want to share rather than something so strange and esoteric that sharing is near meaningless. BPLU struck a chord with the Bored at Work Network and received over 600,000 visitors in its first month. BPLU is a URL-specific work of internet art that went viral, but it is not viral art and, like most URL-specific work, it does not exist in the same sort of public space that viral art exists in.
While there is enormous potential for sharing and viral art on Tumblr, Ben Valentine has written about a number of artworks that exist there and are essentially URL-specific despite existing on such a sharing-friendly platform. He describes what he calls “the dashboard-feed dilemma of Tumblr art,” where a work either essentially breaks or just being really annoying if you view it by following the blog and seeing the posts in your dashboard, the page of the site where posts from all the blogs you follow show up.
Honestly, I don’t hate traditional internet art or other internet art that isn’t viral art. It’s just that it has taken me a very long time to appreciate much of it, and I think it fails at doing the things street art and graffiti are good at, which is a shame because those things that street art and graffiti do on a city street can be done even more effectively online. Most internet art doesn’t attract an audience or force itself upon in audience in the same ways that street art, graffiti and viral art do. Internet art has, throughout pretty much the history of the genre except perhaps very recent examples, failed to connect with the general public, and even when it does, it often exists in a self-contained URL-specific format essentially outside of the public space of the internet.
All of this background is to provide a context and set the stage for viral art and the cutting edge art that we’re now seeing: Art found online that is not as isolated and esoteric as internet art has traditionally been, art that treats the internet like the street rather than the gallery, internet art for the post-social media Bored at Work Network.