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Out of the Internet and into the gallery

Silke Wünsch /lpf
September 16, 2013

Web artists blur the lines between the digital and real world. Often, the observer becomes the user and can intervene in the process. In his first solo exhibition, Berlin-based Aram Bartholl shows how it's done.

A USB stick poking out from a brick wall Photo: Flickr/Aram Bartholl
Image: Flickr/Aram Bartholl

If you happen to see someone leaning against a random building, pressing a laptop into the wall, it just might have something to do with architect, artist and digital enthusiast Aram Bartholl.

So what's going on at the wall? Turns out, there is an embedded USB stick, through which users exchange data with each other. This "dead drop" allows for file-sharing without Internet access, something Bartholl conceptualized in 2010. The practice has caught on around the world. As part of an exhibition in the Museum of Modern Art (MoMa) in New York last year, Bartholl similarly embedded a USB stick into a wall.

Artist Aram Bartholl leans against a brick wall with his laptop Photo: Flickr/Aram Bartholl
Aram Bartholl exchanges data at a 'dead drop'Image: Flickr/Aram Bartholl

Internet as tangible art

In MoMa he was just one of many exhibiting artists, but now Bartholl is being featured in his first solo exhibition. A 7-meter (23-feet) high sculpture in front of Fridericianum Museum in Kassel calls attention to the exhibition. It is a massive, red Google maps marker. The exhibition's name, "Hello World," is not a coincidence. Computer programmers use the expression in software as a confirmation to alert users: "I exist and am ready to be used."

And this is exactly what Bartholl wants to do with his work. "Internet has such an impact on people that it is impossible not to discuss it. It is now on center stage," the artist said. "For me this is another meaning of 'Hello World.'"

Internet opens a lot of possibilities. More and more artists are getting involved with the web and are using it as a platform for their work. Media artist Julius Popp visualizes digital information by using machines he built himself. These devices, in turn, transform bits into words or into a pattern. He is known worldwide for his "bit.falls," where popular search terms are automatically fished out of the Internet and made visible with water jets for only a short time.

Shot of waterfall sculpture from Julius Popp, which features various words for a few seconds at a time Photo: picture-alliance/ZB
bit.fall: water sculpture from Julius PoppImage: picture-alliance/ZB

Several artists, like Dutch-Brazilian web artist Rafael Rozendaal, work exclusively online and have become famous as a result. Rozendaal has transformed the Internet into his canvas and showcases his interactive artwork online. Each work has its own website. Observers can alter the image as they wish.

"Interaction is something very natural for Internet users," says Rozendaal on his website. "And this is the challenge for Internet art." Thus, art is able to depart from its ivory towers in galleries and museums and resurfaces on the screen to anyone with a computer or a smartphone.

Blue, pink, red geographic shapes make up Rafel Rozendaal's artwork Photo: ifnoyes.com
Web artwork "Ifnoyes" from Rafael RozendaalImage: ifnoyes.com

Computer game in real-life dimensions

Alternatively Bartholl prefers to funnel Internet into "real" life. At the museum entrance, he has reproduced the backdrop of first-person shooter game Counterstrike. "A lot of people play this kind of game and know its layout quite well", said Bartholl. That is why he wanted to bring these spaces into real life - which particularly excited him as an architect. "These buildings only exist on servers and software. I think they should be built."

The piece "Are you Human" shows a captcha code on large, rusty iron loops on the floor. These are the codes that users must often input on websites to post a comment to an article.

Captcha codes can not be read by machines. By entering the code, users alert the program or the website that they are a human and not a bot that sends spam. "It was important for me to experiment with it on a big scale and give real weight and materiality to an otherwise fleeting Internet signature," Bartholl said.

Inside museum, shot of giant iron captcha code sculpture on the floor Photo: cc/by/sa/Nils Klinger
Machines aren't the only ones who have problems reading a captcha codeImage: cc/by/sa/Nils Klinger

A growing acceptance

Many "officials" from the art scene are still wary of web art. But this seems to be slowly changing. "At first Internet was not so overtly visible in public," said the exhibition's curator Olaf Val, from Kassel Art Association. "Now one can see Internet subjects on the news every day. And the consequence is that the artists involved with it are also taken more seriously." Val said he hopes that in the future, increasing numbers web artists are able to exhibit their work.

The public is certainly interested. Visitors at the Kassel exhibition are not only computer and Internet nerds but hail from all age groups interested in art. Nevertheless, one part of the exhibition leaves some visitors clueless. Bartholl curated a parallel exhibition, in which 14 artists participated. It is a room with 14 routers. Each router shows a piece of Internet artwork (a website, a video, or an animation). But it only works if you have a smartphone, as visitors must log into the router to see the artwork. This is a perfect example of Bartholl's intent: show how digital and real world converge. But it is also a reminder that not everyone is so well-connected to the digital world. Visitors without a tablet or a smartphone only see small, black squares on a wall.

Bartholl's works are closely in tune with the times. He must constantly create something new, because Internet and the way people interact with it changes so quickly. The artist has even chased after a Google-camera car while waving. As a result he makes a few cameo appearances on Google Streetview, while the houses behind him are pixelated.

Edward Snowden and the NSA affair have also inspired Bartholl. He has printed an encrypted key in big letters on a canvas. To the left is a portrait of US president, Barack Obama, wearing Google glasses. Only one word protrudes from the speech bubble: "PRISM."

Outside the museum, a large, red sculpture like a Google maps marker indicates the exhibit Photo: cc/by/sa/Nils Klinger
A big Google marker denotes the exhibition "Hello World" outside the Fridericianum Museum in KasselImage: cc/by/sa/Nils Klinger