Innovative Canvas

06.03.14

Would You Buy an Internet Website as Art?

You can’t hang them on your wall or loan them to a gallery. But that doesn’t mean Rafael Rozendaal’s Internet-based works aren’t art. For a relatively reasonable $6,500, you can own one.

Rothko, Basquiat, and Warhol paintings fetch big bucks at auction. But GIFs, TIFFs, and websites? Though there’s a long history of artists hacking computer scripts and calling the results art, selling tech-based art is a particularly tough task.

Which makes Netherlands-born, New York-based internet artist Rafael Rozendaal, 33, a case study for his field—when it come to making a living, at least. Rozendaal hit on the closest thing to an object that the Internet has to offer—the unique URL—and made that his art. Domain names function as both the title and location of his work, and he sells them for $6,500 a pop—chump change in the overheated contemporary art market.

“What I like about Internet art is that you’re not sure if it’s art or not,” Rozendaal says. The Jeff Koons of net art, Rozendaal often dons snazzy suits and shares uplifting stories about the democratic nature of technology to tech audiences worldwide. “It’s a pure experience, just you and the work.”

Like many artists working online, Rozendaal went to art school and knows his Rodin from his Rembrandt. He started making websites in 2001, a year before graduation. Many are trippy, dizzy-making affairs that could pass for screensavers. Others have limited interactivity: raise and lower your mouse in “Open That Window” and you’ll hear the sounds of the city; move it side to side in “Open This Window” and you’ll enjoy the tweets and trills of nature. A few, like “Please Like” and “Please Comment,” take advantage of social media. All use open-sourced, mass-market code—the earliest run in Flash, the more recent in JavaScript.

“Given that he’s working with web technology and code, which is something that’s really difficult for collectors to sink their teeth into, he’s been quite successful at setting himself up,” says Michael Mansfield, curator of film and media art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. “He’s breaking new ground in selling URLs, but he’s not the first or only artist who has engaged the market as part of his practice. Andy Warhol probably did that better than anyone.”

“The print itself is not a precious object,” Nichole says of Valla’s work. “The digital file is. The print is just what you display.”

Today’s net artists are the descendants of video art pioneer Nam June Paik and artist and composer John Cage, with some hacker culture thrown in. Contemporary exemplars in the field are people like software engineer turned artist and designer John Maeda and conceptual artist Cory Arcangel, best known for hacking Nintendo games and a 2011 Whitney Museum of American Art solo show. But compared to those more radical artists, many of whom engage real-time data-generated online, Rozendaal’s work is tame.

Perhaps Rozendaal’s most radical gesture is the chutzpah to peddle domain names. His collectors aren’t the bold-faced speculators that show up at auctions; they’re people testing the limits of the market. Buying a Rozendaal is both relatively cheap and cutting edge. But selling digital work to the general public isn’t easy.

“It’s about getting people accustomed to the aesthetics of a GIF and the aesthetics of the web,” says Kelani Nichole, co-founder of Brooklyn’s Transfer Gallery, which opened last year to deal in computer-based work. Galleries like Transfer work on authentication of works, preserving files, and documenting artist intent—the things necessary to legitimize the art and ready it for market.

A recent exhibition of the artist Clement Valla featured objects and prints, but the only thing sold to collectors were TIFFs.

“The print itself is not a precious object,” Nichole says of Valla’s work. “The digital file is. The print is just what you display.”

Photos: Rafael Rozendaal's Internet Canvas

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Rozendaal’s collectors are subject to a thorough user agreement stipulating that the work remains public and accessible, always. When a collector acquires one of his websites, their name appears above the browser window alongside the work’s title.

“It’s like people who donate an artwork to a public park and have their name on it,” Rozendaal says. “It’s a bit of vanity and a bit of generosity. When art was mostly painting and sculpture and you couldn’t make many copies, it was natural for it to be restricted. But now it’s much more natural for it to be open.”

Internet art’s accessibility matches most museum missions—and you don’t need a Renzo Piano building to show it. Since 2002, the Whitney has showcased net-based work on its Artport. Organizations such as Rhizome have been archiving such work even longer and have over 2,000 pieces online.

But with technology constantly changing, what’s the lifespan of an artwork dependent on the latest advances? So long as Rozendaal continues to work in open-source code, the answer seems to be: forever.

“There are huge communities of people who can crowd-source solutions for conservation in a way that couldn’t be done for painting and sculpture,” Mansfield says. “The real question is: What if there’s a power failure?”