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And that, he says, is just fine. Because net-artists happen to use extremely marketable skills in the development of their art, the paradigm of the garreted artist suffering through soul-sucking day jobs to support the art habit breaks down when applied to net-artists. The community that makes up what might be termed (again, loosely) the net-art world bears little resemblance to the traditional one that exists in three dimensions. Wolfgang Staehle, a founder of The Thing (www.thing.net), a combo research lab/"virtual nightclub"/online exhibition space, says many net-art practitioners have problems with the term "artist." "I personally prefer cultural activist," he says, and points out that the community (he prefers the term "social sculpture") that gathers on The Thing is made up of political activists, hackers, writers, and programmers, as well as artists working in traditional media. In addition to the explosion of Web sites that serve as repositories for net-artwork, numerous net-art festivals are held each year, though mostly in Europe, and a major resource center called ZKM (www.zkm.de), described by critic Robert Atkins as "the Bauhaus of digital art," recently opened in Karlsruhe, Germany.
"One thing that attracted me to the Internet as a space for art making is that it allowed us to work independently of the entrenched institutions that dominate the world of contemporary art. At this point, we don't really need the museums," says RhizomeTribe.
The question remains, however: do museums need net-art? Many forward-thinking curators obviously think so. David Ross, former director of the Whitney Museum and current director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, serves on Rhizome's board and has acquired Web-based art since arriving at SFMOMA. Sarah Rogers, director of exhibitions at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, recently curated a well-received show called "Body Mécanique: Artistic Explorations of Digital Realms." "There's so much fascinating work taking place that utilizes technology. Sure, museums should be featuring that work." She notes, for instance, that this year's Venice Biennale featured only one tech-based artwork. "Institutions don't support contemporary work enough period, whatever the medium."
But however sparing institutional patronage for net-art might seem, no one disagrees that there's a great deal more than there was even two years ago. In an Art in America article published last August, Atkins criticized American art museums for "waiting until the dust settles before committing curatorial resources to online art." He's since become greatly encouraged by the steps museums have taken to get involved in the medium. MOMA commissioned three Web-specific projects for last spring's exhibition, "The Museum as Muse." The Guggenheim continues work on its ambitious Virtual Museum as well as commissioning ongoing Web projects. The Walker Art Center continues to expand its already extensive collection of Web-based art. Dia Center for the Arts recently announced a partnership with Stadium (www.stadiumweb.com), a site featuring work not only by artists like Wisniewski, but also those known best for working in more traditional mediums, like Louise Lawler and Allan McCollum.
But above and beyond what net-artists can offer traditional art institutions, and what those institutions can offer in return, Atkins feels the Internet itself is where net-artists' contributions are most valuable. "The online realm is desperately in need of their distinctive way of seeing things," he says. "If the Web becomes increasingly commercialized, the influence of artists will diminish. Art has always been appropriated by fashion photographers, etc., but on the Net, artists can affect culture at a much deeper level, offer an alternative to the glut of commercialization and information that the medium will become if we leave it in a corporate entertainment state."