by Michelle Kasprzak
Click on images to see works
Remixing and collaging elements found on the web has been a part of net art since its inception.
Early works such as MTAA's Ten Digital Readymades, created by entering the term "ready made" into a search engine and archiving those search results, exemplified the sense that material on the web offers rich fodder for artists to develop work, with or without heavy subsequent alteration by artists. A few years after Ten Digital Readymades, "flea markets of images" 1 became widely available on the web due to the growth of uploaded content, and the ongoing evolution of search engines. Those factors, coupled with simple web site development becoming an increasingly rapid and easy process due to blogs and wikis, produces conditions for net art in the present moment that have resulted in what are known as "surf clubs".
In an essay by critic and thinker Matt Fuller reviewing net art practices that used appropriation and remixing before the advent of surf clubs, he states: "Firstly, each piece of work is not especially apart from the other works by the artist or groups that produced it - it is part of a practice. Secondly, each work is assembled out of parts that belong to a collectively available resource. So this again, is something set aside from the standard issue art modes, unique visions, talented individuals and all the rest of it. It is the power to connect." 2 Surf clubs are environments that use the collectively available resources that Fuller refers to, and capitalize on the power to connect. They are often highly collaborative, giving artists a space to share, manipulate, remix and redistribute content originating from a found image, video, or sound. Emphasizing the collective, rather than the individual, often contributions are unattributed or posted under a handle. Akin to but more than a sketchbook for sharing ideas, surf clubs offer a platform for dialogue, play, and group critique that delivers in a way that some partially-successful web 2.0 applications were intended to.
The range of content is enormous and impossible to summarize, though it is noteworthy that sometimes postings are also witty comments on digital culture itself, such as a 'totem' of instant messaging icons 3, or a collection of images of people using laptops in idyllic settings 4. As Marcin Ramocki noted in his fundamental text on the nature of surf clubs 5, "the operation appears rather simple: a group of artists post together as a group on one blog, they surf the web for material which stimulates their imagination, and then re-post it with a varied amount of post-production treatment and manipulation." Perhaps because of the simplicity of the basic formula, and also because the material is so varied and unpredictable, the inevitable "but is it art?" question is raised around this phenomenon. This perennial question is merely a red herring, given that even if one could reduce the work that artists create as part of surf club activity to mere sketching or experimenting, surf clubs are also a fascinating window into process and collaboration in our contemporary digital context. The results, which are the posts that become subject to discussion and debate on their aesthetic and conceptual merit, are as valuable as physical ephemera which is commonly collected and exhibited in museums.
Engaging with surf clubs, as a participant or an observer, requires that you contextualize the practice within the larger history of art objects, process-as-practice, and collaborative working. Where early net art frequently failed to convince conservative critics, perhaps the surf clubs of today can persuade with these vital links to the past, and glimpses into the future.
1 : Marcin Ramocki, Surfing Clubs: organized notes and comments, Halifax, May 27, 2008.
2 : Matthew Fuller, "Commonality, pixel property, seduction: As If",
Pixel Plunder, Year Zero One.
3 : nasty nets.
4 : nasty nets.
5 : Marcin Ramocki, Surfing Clubs: organized notes and comments, Halifax, May 27, 2008.