Date: 7.3.2001
From: Tilman Baumgaertel (
Subject: "Art becomes an experience rather than a physical object"

Interview with Marc Napier

?: You used to be a painter, before you turned to the internet and
started to create net art pieces. How did your training as painter
influce your work on the net?

Napier: I think a lot about painting, and I am influenced by the history
of painting. Whatever medium I work with, I look at the nature of the
medium itself, what are the unique qualities of that medium, and I use
that nature as a source of ideas. Each medium has it's own character
and I want to create art that works with that character, that is
appropriate for that character.

In work like the Shredder or Digital Landfill I used text and images
from the web itself as raw material for the piece: fragments of images,
broken links, individual characters of text enlarged and scattered about
on the screen. These pieces are influenced by Jackson Pollack and Cy
Twombly, both painters that allowed the paint to show up as a physical
material in their work. A more recent work titled Feed uses HTML and
images as raw material, and presents this material as graphic
abstractions on screen.

?: Your older work before "Digital Landfill" was web art that is to my
mind very formalistic and very remindful of the early pieces by european
artists like Jodi? I don't want to create an artifical dichotomy between
European and US net art, but can you say a little bit about how you were
influenced be the european "school" of internet art (if you were at all,
that is)...

Napier: I was very influenced by Jodi. They demonstrated that the
browser could be a place for visual art; a space for art with its own
aesthetic rules. And their work is very visual, not simply conceptual.
It's fun to look at.

You could say I explored the web formally in my early work. I wanted to
explore the character of the web as a medium and as a space for
experiencing art. My work was about seeing what the web could do, how
it worked, what was the unique nature of that medium. Without that
exploration I may have just ended up using the web to tell stories or
make pictures, things that could just as well be done in older media
like video, film or paint.

?: A lot of your work is about "recycling" old data. Is this your
protest against the "information overload" of the internet?

Napier: It's not so much a protest as a celebration. The web is an
abundant source of digital "stuff": text, images, sounds, animations,
code. I see that as raw material, and use it to create aesthetic
effects. Perhaps this is an adaptation to the mind-numbing endless
expanse of "content" (or lack of content) that the web has become. A
filter like the Shredder puts the entire web into a new perspective by
creating a new viewpoint through which the web can be viewed - an
aesthetic viewpoint. It shows that there is more than one way to look
at the virtual world. But I do this because I enjoy the shredded web,
not because I find the "original" web offensive.

?: There is a certain "aggressiveness against data" in your work. They
are being dumped, recyled, torn apart. Is that your attitude against the
Web or do you want internet users to be able to "strike back"?

Napier: Much of my work deals with the nature of ownership and authority
in the online world. From the Distorted Barbie, through Digital
Landfill, Shredder, Riot, and somewhat in Feed, I look at who owns the
images and text we see on the web. Our culture habitually strives to
define boundaries and lay claim to territory, but on the web these
territories are artificial. They are created by software and code. I
enjoy finding a way around the rules of the software to get behind the
surface appearance of the web, to break down the appearance of solidity,
as in Shredder, or territory, as in Riot. These projects vicariously
'hack' websites, not by damaging the actual site, but by changing the
rules of the browser to display webpages in unconvential and
contradictory ways. I made these artworks to explore the mutability of
the web, to show how the browser imposes many of our real-world
assumptions onto the virtual world, where those assumptions really no
longer apply.

?: My impression is that another focus of your work is online
collaborations, like in the unfortunately defunct "GrafficJam" and now
with "P Soup". Is that right, and why do you put that idea in the
forground so much?

Napier: On the web people can communicate remotely. Chat rooms and
bulletin boards can communicate actions from different parts of the
world, nearly instantly. This is intrinsic to the web, so I want to
explore that aspect of the internet space and see what potential it
creates for artwork. For hundreds of years artists have created the
static art objects that we are familiar with, painting and sculpture
that viewers can gaze at but are not allowed to touch.

Now we have the opportunity to create art that viewers can participate
in. They can become a part of the creative process, not just witness the
final static result of the artists creative process. In a sense the
participant becomes a collaborator with the artwork itself. They
activate the artwork and influence it just by interacting with it. And
they connect into a larger aesthetic process by responding to the
actions of other users of the artwork. This is a very powerful aspect of
the web that deserves to be explored.

?: You talk about the aspect of net art that it is not tied to a
specific space anymore, yet I know that you have toyed with the idea to
make installations that can be shown in the real world. Is working on
the net eventually unsatisfactory?

Napier: I want to explore the relationship of the physical and virtual
worlds. How do these two spaces relate? What interfaces can we build
outside of the typical desktop mouse and keyboard? I created an
installation for the Whitney's "Data Dynamics" (
that senses motion in the physical space and translates it into a cursor
on screen. Web users and people in the space can interact through the
same screen as the artwork folds activity in two spaces into one
display. The installation can be easily moved to new locations, and can
be installed in several physical spaces simultaneously, to merge
activity from different locations into one display, accessible through
the internet.

?: And what would the significance of an "internet sculpture" be - as
opposed to a piece that just "happens" on the net?

Napier: In a sense all internet art exists in the physical space,
because we experience the internet through a physical device, usually a
monitor, mouse and keyboard. This interface connects us to the world of
magnetism and electrical impulses that exists inside the chips of
computers. There are other ways to interface the physical and virtual
spaces. Large flat-panel monitors that hang on a wall, for instance,
change the nature of viewing online artwork. High resolution screens,
high bandwidth, voice interfaces, wireless pointing devices; these all
change the experience of navigating online, and affect how we think
about the virtual world. Right now we assume that there is a solid line
dividing the physical and virtual spaces, but in the near future we will
see that line become very fuzzy.

?: If you talk about monitors hanging on the wall, it sounds like you
are thinking about exhibit digital art like paintings…

Napier. I am influenced by the history of painting as a medium. Painting
is a very portable art form. When I say 'painting' I mean the physical
object, the canvas stretched over a wood frame, painted with pigment
bound in oil or acrylic. This medium appeared during the Renaissance,
and was a new technology at that time. With oil on canvas an artist
could create artwork on a fairly large scale, yet could easily transport
that work. Compare this to frescoes, which required that the artist
embed pigment directly into walls and ceilings. The available space to
create frescoes was limited, and the result was very un-portable. The
art was tied to the real-estate, and over time might be obscured or
painted over.

With oil on canvas came the possibility that art could be conceived and
created outside of a single physical space. The artwork could be easily
installed any place that had an available wall, and could change owners
easily. Simple, portable, relatively inexpensive, and durable; these
qualities made oil on canvas one of the most successful and lasting
media we've seen, and opened up the possibility of a gallery market
where paintings could be bought and sold by private collectors. The
internet creates a similar art form, artwork based on software, that is
also highly portable. Software based art exists wherever it can be
executed, wherever the software it needs to run exists. In the case of
artwork made for web browsers, the art can be seen anywhere where a
person can connect to the web.

? In the Seventies Nam June Paik wrote an essay entitled "Electronic
Sistine Chapel", where he describes an installations where video beams
project moving images on the walls of a room. He argues that this would
be superior as interior design to the wall paintings of the Sistine
Chapel in the Vatican. So a similar idea came up in video art…

Napier: Video art sought a similar portability in cable TV and the
videotape markets, but never gained a foothold in those environments.
Fine-art videotapes never made it into the videotape distribution
channels. More recently video lives in large installations, usually in
museums, certainly not an art form that the average person can take home
with them. These works remind me of frescoes: they are tied to the
physical spaces where they are installed, and can not practically be
viewed in the spaces we live in day-to-day.

By contrast, art on the web can be viewed using the same tools that a
web surfer already has: a PC, a browser, an internet connection, and
perhaps some readily available plugins. A person exploring the web may
view a site about financial news, then view a site of net based art,
without having to do anything differently. They are already equipped to
view the art, just as a person who wants to hang a painting in their
home already has the equipment for doing that (a wall, a hammer, a
nail). Just as oil on canvas redefined the art object by making artwork
more widely available, so net art can alter our thinking about where art
exists and what form it takes. Art becomes an experience rather than a
physical object.