NETWORK : The virtual state of the art

Dominic Cavendish finds works ranging from Athena-like posters to quilted images of Aids at the first UK Internet Art Festival
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Indy Lifestyle Online
The First UK Internet Art Festival was never going to take the art world by storm. As Eva Pascoe, manager of Soho's on-line coffee-spot and festival site, Caf Cyberia, pointed out to the 50 or so who assembled a few weeks ago for a public forum on the subject: "What we are really talking about is the lack of British art on the Internet."

First to address the gathering was Alex Berka, who stood in front of a terminal to show some of the art that he and two other artists - Martin Gardiner and Rita Kunzler - are currently displaying on the caf's own Web site. The audience craned their necks and squinted at a screen to see the tiny images that were being downloaded at a pedestrian pace.

What you could see ranged from what looked remarkably like futuristic Athena posters to Mr Gardiner's more promising "computer virus" series.

"This is static stuff. I'll find something more interactive," Mr Berka mumbled, clicking into a virtual nightclub. The man who describes his work as "an admixture of high technology and human psychosis" then added: "I've run out of things to say."

Very few people seemed dismayed by this. Although the room was full of computer literati, only four confessed to being Internet users, and the prevailing mood was that things are still at an embryonic stage. The UK has only a couple of on-line galleries, which, unlike Cyberia, are more concerned with cataloguing conventional artwork than promoting "Net artists". What exactly such an artist might be was roundly contested in the debate that followed.

Ms Pascoe argued that a Net artist was any artist prepared either to receive technical training or ongoing design assistance. James Bloom of Wired magazine, on the other hand, took the view that if artists didn't have a technical understanding of the Internet, they should not be creating art on it.

Reading a speech from his portable PC, Mr Bloom dismissed the idea that one of the main services the Internet could provide was commercial samples of traditional galleries.

"We need to create new art for this interactive medium. We need artists who understand that the actual space of the Internet is important in itself and that the more people who have access to this space, the better. Who wants to walk around a gallery if it's full of toffee-nosed litists? Artists are looking for DIY space rather than traditional art spaces."

One example of successful collaborative Net art cited was an interactive arts page in which women artists had downloaded and added to a quilt of images on World Aids Day. However, the slowness with which most modems import visual displays was raised as one of the main factors that would put off anyone used to the sophistications of film and multimedia. Others saw the limitations as useful artistic and technological challenges.

"The fact that we are all here, rather than talking about this on the Net, shows that we've got a long way to go," concluded Ms Pascoe, before announcing the awards for Internet artists. Best Web-site award went to the Hypermedia Research Centre at Westminster University, which was praised for bringing students and locals together, while another brightly coloured certificate, for "Political Art", went to Trio, a graphic design group based in Sarajevo, whose posters "advertise" the war in Bosnia (for example, a Coca-Cola logo has been reworked to read "Enjoy/Sarajevo).

The winner of the title of Best Web Artist was Jeremy Quinn, for the nightclub, while a Most Promising Artist ("bravery") Award was given to Alex Berka for giving six-months' worth of his work to the Internet. Collecting a glass mug, and six months' free cyberspace, he smiled apologetically: "From what I've heard tonight, it looks as though my static, non-interactive work is going to suffer the same fate as the dinosaurs."

Work by three artists can be located on the World Wide Web at Cyberia: http://www.easynet. co.uk/pages/cafe/cafe.htm/ Bosnian art is at Westminster University: http://www.wmin.ac.uk/ media/hrc/

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