From Clubs to Affinity: The Decentralization of Art on the Internet

Brad Troemel

Just as society’s notion of a single public sphere has transformed into dispersed networks of like-minded affinity, so too has the reception and production of internet art become increasingly decentralized. I will use Juergen Habermas’ 1962 essay The Structural Transformation of The Public Sphere as a model to understand what formative shifts have occurred in the past two decades of the internet’s existence and the art that has been displayed through it. The first portion of this writing is an attempt to historically situate the internet’s role in providing a public sphere for artists. Later, I draw a parallel between post-Y2K social platforms like Facebook and the networked distributional channels many internet artists have been using since the emergence of surf clubs. I conclude with a criticism of art determined by the protocols of the latest networked platforms– such as Tumblr. Instead of a close-read of specific works, I will be focusing on tracing a structural lineage between early examples of canonized internet art, the mid-2000’s surf clubs and today’s Web 2.0-hosted art communities. By examining their productive and distributive structures, I will provide an understanding of the limitations and freedoms the artists active in these various periods have undergone. It is my hope that by examining these structural pro’s and con’s internet artists may come to a more ideal conception of future organizational forms.

1. The Creation of Digital Selves

With the release of Netscape Navigator in 1994 and many state-backed projects widening user access, the internet began hosting a massive influx of users eager to explore the new potentials in communication, self-representation and political organization it provided. This cultural phenomenon helped shed the skeptical view many artists previously held toward digital technology–a tendency beginning with the destructive influence cybernetics had in the Vietnam War. In an interview after organizing Software, a seminal exhibition of digital art at the Jewish Museum in 1970, Jack Burnham explains the difficulties of dealing with the contradictory desires of artists who wanted to make use of digital technology while simultaneously boycotting the corporations producing that digital technology on War-affected moral grounds. In the midst of Vietnam, Burnham goes on to call the future of a digitally focused art “increasingly untenable”[1]. To artists and other cultural producers, the 1990’s internet presented an inviting break from the one-to-many distributional structure of corporate newspapers or television. Artists’ expectations of the internet’s position to share information democratically can be seen as a reinvigoration of the belief in a public sphere, described by Jurgen Habermas as a discursive space outside of government or economic influence where individuals are able to communicate freely and come to a common agreement through inclusive participation.[2]


Software flier from 1970


Upon its release, the internet seemed capable of combining the positive aspects of previous public spheres into one by mixing the congregational unity of the 19th century English coffee-house or French salon, the decentralized awareness of printed or televised media, and the self-designing agency of local democratic elections. Online existence even managed to provide a key opportunity these previous spaces never could: the ability to create an identity from scratch. Such was the hope of 1990’s virtual reality enthusiasts, who designed their online personas through chosen words and graphics. Habermas believed the perversion of previous public spheres was the long-term result of the capitalist economies out of which they arose.[3] Divisions between different sexes, races and classes were widened through market-driven wealth disparities and minority group interests’ lack of media representation to the point of creating deep-seated communicational separation. Believers in a virtual utopia hoped to transcend the symptoms of these divisions (such as the perception of difference as seen through living spaces, personal appearance, and spoken dialect, among others) through the digital obfuscation of conditions one was born into and the ability to self-represent oneself through a user-created online avatar. Peter Steiner’s 1993 New Yorker comic strip joke “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog” nicely sums up the joyous impossibility of determining who were the digitized voices communicating with each other, rendering the objectively visualized traits necessary for prejudice obsolete.

The 1996 internet art project, “Mouchette” similarly played with the indeterminability of online existence by anonymously producing the sexualized website of a “13 year old girl” complete with the ambiguation of “her” own identity’s authenticity. Eva and Franco Matte’s Darko Maver (1998) project anonymously created a fictional Serbian artist whose falsified documentation of sculptures were published online and later landed “him” a spot in the Venice Biennale. Multi-user dimensions’ (MUDs) and bulletin board systems’ (BBSs) participants of that time often presented themselves with mythical handles and graphics, much like the avatar-fueled communities of today’s World of Warcraft or Second Life users. As shown by names like, Group Z, VNS Matrix, Kasselpunk, ®TMark, 0100101110101101.ORG or YOUNG HAE-CHANG HEAVY INDUSTRIES, prominent internet artists and collectives of that era also veered from traditional identification.[4] The pseudonymity common among 1990’s internet users points to their belief in a separation between the fleshly and digital selves they simultaneously inhabited. Virtual reality utopianists did not consider their constructed identity a mask, but a revealing of a ‘truer’ self stripped of the arbitrary conditions of their inherited existence. As Picasso said, “Art is a lie that brings us nearer to the truth”.


A "self-portrait" from


After the “Dot Com Bust” and the 9/11 attacks, the internet took on a new social shape, embracing and mandating birth-given identity in America and abroad.[5] This shift towards traditional identification was partly caused by a change in the way digitally invested corporations understood the free labor of internet users as a potentially profitable natural resource. Many post-Y2K businesses shifted away from pay-to-play restricted access and made use of the widespread desire of users to discover, view and re-circulate information online. Web 2.0 profit was primarily founded on exposure to advertising and data mining the habits of identified users as an informational resource to be sold to marketing firms. Spam was the incompetent and belligerent older sibling of Web 2.0’s sophisticated advertising mechanisms– all of which required a return to finding out just who was using the internet and why they were doing so.

These commercial interests ran parallel with larger governmental efforts to track the lives of named individuals through legislation like America’s Patriot Act, Russia’s N 575, or the Great Firewall of China. As German Police and Justice Minister Thomas de Maiziere wrote in his essay Foundations of a Common Net Policy for the Future, “The free citizen shows his face, tells his name and has an address.”[6] At the dawn of the new millennium, being consensually surveilled was not only the new economic and political duty of law-abiding American citizens, but would soon become a social necessity as well. Recreational internet users of the 1990’s emphasis on a multiplicity (or negation) of selves was converted to the heightened construction of one’s Facebook profile information, for instance. Web 2.0 social networks like Myspace commanded users to make avatars from their birth-given identities, to self-design their personalities through tagged pictures and comment threads, profiles and quizzes. The online creation of new selves was not over, but this time they would bear the same birth names as their creators. Compared to the previous decade’s belief in identity made through imagination, social networks appealed to their user’s peer-fostered egos by providing publicly visible friends lists and peer displays of communication to indicate real life popularity. As a result, many users came to believe each event in their lives actually had two authenticating factors: the moment an event occurred in real-time and the moment it was recognized through a digital photograph by a vast audience of peers online. The oft-used net saying “pictures or it didn’t happen” isn’t just a come-on for proof, but exemplifies Web 2.0’s externalization of reality from the eye of the beholder to the informational reciprocation of peers.

Facebook template for tagging friends


2. Art in the Social Network

The 21st century emergence of internet art as a valid artistic form coincided with the rise of Web 2.0 social networks such as Friendster (launched in 2002), Myspace (2003) and Facebook (2004). Preceded by the Walker Art Center’s experimental online art space Gallery 9 (1997-2003), in 2003 the new media outlet Rhizome became part of New York’s New Museum, effectually cannonizing an ongoing institutional position for internet-related art within contemporary art discourse. The mid-2000’s defining organizational structure for art online was the surf club. Websites like Nasty Nets, Supercentral and Spirit Surfers were made of 15 to 30 person groups whose members contributed to an ongoing visual-conceptual conversation through the use of digital media. Surf clubs shared some aspects with social networking platforms through continuously occurring posts, communal organization and the performativity of real-time involvement on a publicly visible digital stage. Though born well into the Web 2.0 era, surf clubs took cues from the major social networks of the time while remaining separate institutions from them. The dispersion of art through wholesale involvement within corporately sponsored social networks would not take place for another few years.

Surf club members fulfilled a double role of production and reception by interpreting each other’s posts and responding to the previous creator with their own visual art in a chronological display. The club members’ conversational insularity within a single space (as delineated by their URL) allowed for a thorough articulation of concepts and aesthetics. Currently prevalent internet art themes such as the readymade-inspired use of default software effects, ‘digital shamanism’ and the Photoshop manipulated appropriation of vernacular net culture became popularized during this period as a result of the clubs’ ability to focus and expand on their fellow members’ work. The intended viewership of surf clubs also included non-participating audiences– the URLs could be accessed by non-members as well. In-house surf club trends were highly influential to their external public; many of today’s emerging internet artists have claimed the artistic content produced by the clubs’ ‘legislative bodies’ of participants as highly influential.


T-shirt for sale by John Michael Boling for Nasty Nets from October 2006


As a (visual) literacy-required and internally conversant group made possible by the opening of a vast informational trade border, the history of the surf club shares great similarities with Juergen Habermas’ conception of the early bourgeoisie public sphere. Inclusion in a surf club was largely dictated by a prospective member’s social affiliations or through a club organizer recognizing another artist’s work online.[7] This publicly conversant grouping of communally productive artists separated surf clubs from their forerunners, who had often communicated with each other privately through e-mail and displayed projects on individually maintained URLs. Also made apparent by surf clubs was the need for internet artists to produce their own institutional borders to more visibly exist as an art-focused discourse when located on the seemingly infinite plane of online existence– promotional billboards can double as walled barriers and vice versa. The trade off between surf clubs and individual artists’ websites was one of openness for efficiency. By creating a meta-organizational structure within the internet, not everyone would be able to participate in posting works, though many more viewers would be able to engage the work of prominent and emerging internet artists during that time due to the convenience of the clubs’ unifying site of display.

Habermas describes a similar methodological tension within the early bourgeoisie public sphere: on the one hand, some Renaissance era bourgeoisie wanted to encourage a more broad discussion among a greater percentage of the population while other members wanted to maintain a quality level of opinion-forming discourse without the noise of uninformed masses. This is not to say the early bourgeoisie public sphere advocated a teleological end in its selectivity of members; the public sphere was conceived as an idealized site for ongoing and informed debate free of dogma. Surf clubs also espoused no specified intention beyond serving as a host environment to a series of visual-conceptual jests and responses made by qualified members.[8] The surf clubs’ initial underdog status soon transitioned to one of institutional success for many members as venues like the Venice Biennale, the New Museum and a slew of international galleries endorsed club participants.

March 2009 Artforum cover featuring internet artist Cory Arcangel and video pioneer Dara Birnbaum


Regarding Habermas’s theory, Craig Calhoun states,

[…] a public sphere adequate to a democratic polity depends upon the quality of discourse and the quantity of participation. Yet the transformations of the public sphere that Habermas describes turns largely on its continual expansion to include more and more participants (as well as on the development of large scale social organizations as mediators of individual participation).[9]

With this in mind, one can see a parallel historical progression of internet artists away from rarified groupings and towards the larger numbers of participants currently using Web 2.0 platforms to publish their work. Habermas considered the mix of unregulated participation and corporatized social organizations (such as newspapers) as the end of a quality debate for the public sphere. Without a space for discourse free of economic pressure, and if public knowledge was controlled by the private interests of printed media, Habermas believed an idealized public sphere would be impossible. However, today’s Web 2.0 mass media outlets do not insert informational content for their users, but allow them to distribute self-produced content amongst one another. Because such a reversal of roles was unanticipated by Habermas, this essay will now draw upon more up to date theories to develop an understanding of contemporary structures.

Internet art’s transition into the dominant social model of its online environment was completed as an emerging group of artists utilized the networked capabilities of Web 2.0 platforms, leaving behind the centralized structure of the surf club and its barriers to membership. Artists new to web-based mediums who lacked social connections to older club members (many of whom had been active since the 90’s) found agency in platforms that fully automated the process of blogging and placed the participant in an opportune community of peers united through a shared corporate interface. Tumblr and Blogger granted users free hosting, URLs and inner-platform communication options. Feed aggregators like Google Reader (2007) allowed users to simultaneously follow any blog with an RSS feed and receive instant updates on those sites, providing an even more comprehensive opportunity for viewers to keep tabs on the artists of their choosing. Through self-selected aggregation, the Web 2.0 internet art viewer is involved in a relationship of affinity to many artists’ work as opposed to the contained unity of a surf club. In such a form of peer-to-peer engagement viewers forego the hope to overcome all divisions in taste and resign their interests to ongoing positions of difference. The cohesion of a club becomes unfeasible when each artist and viewer’s understanding of ‘the internet art world’ results from an atomistic, self-tailored exposure through aggregated digital media.


Screengrab of a Google Reader


If relations between internet artists using Web 2.0 platforms are best thought of as a form of consensual affinity, the structure of those relations may be understood through Gille Deleuze’s concept of the rhizome, a baseless structure capable of forming links between any two points within it. Deleuze describes the rhizome as a tangle of interconnected nodules working in concert with each other through individual links instead of a common ground. It would be easy to say that all artists work this way and always have– that before the internet an Impressionist painter was influenced by a rhizomatic array of other 19th century painters, for example. But, today’s Web 2.0 internet artists are uniquely rhizomatic not based on their source of influence, but because their production of meaning is externally contingent on a network of other artists’ content. This shift is evidenced in the way Tumblr’s practitioners regularly post other artists’ work alongside their own without consent. Artists like Andrew Laumann do not claim creation of the appropriated work they post to their Tumblrs, but contrast the differences in signified content, intention or history between them and others to situate viewers’ understanding of their own art. It is important that the viewer interpret the appropriated artist’s work as separate from the blogger-artist, or else all meaning generated through juxtaposition would be leveled.

Individuals during and prior to the existence of surf clubs have blogged the work of other artists through Delicious accounts, but to click a Delicious link takes you directly to the website of the artist described. This generation of Web 2.0 artists centralizes others’ content around themselves, pulling the actual work off of its creator’s website and placing it on their own. The difference between past and present linking methods is subtle but telling; linking work on Delicious is a way of saying “I like this”, while placing appropriated Tumblr content next to one’s own work is a way of saying, in some capacity, “I am this”. To blog someone else’s work is a method of locating disparity and semblance, a gesture that allows artists the ability to situate their interests in a larger field of production while simultaneously announcing themselves as distinct creators. The same can be said of the act of tagging on Facebook or writing on someone else’s wall: each is a performative display made to elucidate a connection between separate identities for the spectatorship of an assumed audience. The Web 2.0 artist positions herself as part of an expanding whole–the artist perpetually understood in relation to a self-produced group show. By necessitating the viewership and representation of other artists to define one’s self, Web 2.0 artists blur the line between viewing and creating, as each action becomes a continuum of the other.


Image for a proposed children's television show about artist Parker Ito created by and posted on artist Chris Coy's Tumblr, 2010


The context a Web 2.0 artist creates for herself on her Tumblr is not the sole lens through which her work is viewed. She may be subject to appropriation by another artist in her aggregate network–her work now acting as a counterpoint instead of the conceptual anchor. Many websites posting new art exclusively show other artists’ work using various logics of infovisualization. A promotional website’s organizational voice is determined by its range of content, rate of posting, information included about work, designed display and textual commentary. For most viewers and producers, finding out about a new artist usually results from these well-trafficked promotional blogs, making Web 2.0 artists’ context for initial recognition one heavily influenced by the agenda of another website’s organizational voice in a process much like gallery or museum representation.

As an artist is included on more organizational blogs the concentric circles of her viewer-perceived image tug increasingly further from their middle point. This rhizomatic pull is even capable of severing the relation of an artist to her own work entirely– each entity living its own existence without many viewers’ recognition of who made the work in the first place. Anonymized art usually comes by way of images that have been re-circulated deep within the networks of Web 2.0 users. Just as a tire’s treads wear away with use, the contextual backing of an art image is stripped by its own applicability among networked bloggers. In this way, the removal of an artist’s name, work title, and date is the highest honor bestowed upon today’s networked producer. It is this art that has visually resonated so well its image has preceded its description.


Ryan Barone's LOL (2010) was quickly dissolved into anonymity upon release


3. Structural Limitations and Peer Influence

Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of Web 2.0 platforms is the decentralization of artistic tendencies, which, instead of being located in only a few places, are displayed through hundreds of individual sites often connected through a blogging service. It would be wrong to assume that determining influence has been removed altogether, though. Network artists would do well to understand the subtle ways art is influenced in lieu of consolidated sites of production, to dissect internet art’s chain of aesthetic command (the type of content and form internet artists collectively hold dear, and the visual-conceptual techniques employed by the majority) without the centralized visibility of the surf clubs’ guiding influence. The disuse of clubs must be considered alongside a simultaneous rise in constrictions by the protocols of Web 2.0 platforms’ structural biases. As Alex Galloway and Eugene Thacker state in Protocol, Control and Networks, “protocological control brings into existence a certain contradiction, at once distributing agencies in a complex manner, while at the same time concentrating rigid forms of management and control.”[10]


A social economy of reblogged material is an expression of exchange-value. The objective of this system is recurrence–to be bought/reblogged the maximum number of times at the greatest price/digital visibility possible. This consensual process of peer-to-peer dispersion does not mean there is a system of discipline in place for internet artists who step outside the limits of what is artistically ‘acceptable’, but a series of pre-emptively controlling factors over the type of content circulated within Web 2.0 art networks. This control privileges aesthetic interoperability in a way best articulated through Postel’s Law, “be conservative in what you do, be liberal in what you accept from others,” which is to say that art produced for Web 2.0 platforms must conservatively anticipate the constrictions of its environment to be most liberally circulated within it. When applied to networks like Tumblr, interoperability should be defined on two levels. First, the formal interoperability of a Web 2.0 work is determined by the categorical distinctions between mediums most blogging services offer. What is not singularly defined as an image, video, or textual piece of content is unable to be transferred through these channels. Web 2.0 users’ inability to combine mediums at the moment of production is a severe limitation to the creative process and fosters a regressive, if unintentional, return to medium specificity. Even works that adhere to a single medium are still subject to further scrutiny. For instance, a video artwork that allows users to embed it in a greater number of websites (as opposed to only being viewable through its source, like most Quicktime files) is automatically ‘privileged’ because it will be able to be appropriated by a wider audience. As artist Jon Rafman says,

I think we’ve reached a point now, in my generation, where we don’t even know if we are celebrating something and saying its great and affirming it or if we’re engaging in an ironic critique and mocking it. We’ve almost collapsed the two.[11]

For those unwilling to engage in a critical discourse, this collapse means that visibility is the prime currency of network value, making formal interoperability a factor of utmost importance.


The now defunct feature 'Tumblarity' allowed users to monitor the social popularity of their posted content. It was ended in February 2010


Secondly, the interoperability of content in these networks is greatly determined by the social pressures of rhizomatic production. An artist defining herself in juxtaposition to a peer is only as valuable as their respective projects are meaningfully divergent. What causes this juxtaposition to fail is when network artists make no attempt to specify the point of comparison between their own work and the work of another. This appropriation can be corrupted when artists intend their publishing of another person’s work to be an unspoken appeal for reciprocation, especially when that peer can offer greater visibility if she chooses to do so. Artists using platforms like Tumblr should be weary of the addiction originated by those sites’ preceding social networks– endless reliance on external validation. Web 2.0’s dystopia for recreational and artistic users alike is the loss of a conception of the self in absence of network approval, to believe that we are hollow shells waiting for Facebook comments, Tumblr reblogs, and promotional Tweets to provide the substance of our being. For a generation of internet artists that is admittedly apolitical and tends to bark in the face of intellectualism, a return to medium specificity and aesthetic purity as evinced by the recent embrace of formalist digital ‘painting’ seems all too fitting. When artistic value has been subjugated to a mere reliance on visibility, abstract beauty functions as the perfect decor in an arena of political ambivalence. Web 2.0’s generation of artists should aspire to creating an art as rich and complex as the environment they inhabit, but it may paradoxically require more of them to stand for something greater than their relations with each other. There is no turning back to previous structures of the internet’s public spheres, but for artists, perhaps there is a way of combining select aspects from moments in history as a sum greater than its parts. Try envisioning a world of internet art that embraces the 1990’s imaginative negation of birth identity, the surf clubs’ considered focus on their peers’ work and the decentralized agency of Web 2.0 platforms. That would definitely be an environment worth aspiring to.

[1] Willoughby Sharp (1970). Willoughby Sharp Interviews Jack Burnham in Arts Magazine. Vol. 45, No. 2, November 1970, pp. 21-23

[2] As a military project later taken over by private interests, internet of the 1990s does not live up to an orthodox definition of the public sphere. The California ideology-inspired type of hope I describe is one of use not creation, content not carrier. Eager participants were pleased to use the technology created by other people or companies as a means to their own end, whether social, political or recreational. Beliefs in an end to communicative repression that were founded in technological opportunities previously unavailable must be considered in tandem with the ongoing marketing and product design strategies of the companies responsible for the commercial internet and home computer industries’ success. The inclination among these companies has been to promote the perceived autonomy and self-reliance of their buyers when using their products. Everything from the mouse to the desktop to Macintosh’s “Rip. Mix. Burn.” campaign has attempted to foster users’ belief in their own digital agency. For this, the absence of a visible authority governing the internet has been both a reality of use in many situations and a plan constructed to obscure underlying limitations that will be discussed throughout this essay.

[3] Habermas traces a direct link between the simultaneous emergence of a public sphere, democratic governance and capitalism, stating “It is not possible to demonstrate the existence of a public sphere in its own right separate from the private sphere, in the European society of the High Middle Ages.” [p. 399]

[4] Early internet artists so revered the net-specific characteristics of interaction in their digital public sphere that many criticized the work of later internet artists whose work could be viewed offline or without an internet connection as not being true internet art. Such criticism suggests that these pioneers considered the laterally communicative environment of the internet as an integral lens for their work to be viewed through and activated by. While some post-Y2K artists have since came to view this criticism as an elitist mandate, it should be remembered that these early net-specific beliefs were fueled by a belief in egalitarianism– what could be viewed offline could be made private and excluded from the open viewing and participatory domain of the internet’s proposed public sphere.

[5] Lovink, Geert. Eva Illouz, Facebook, and the Crisis of The Multiple Self. P.2 Unpublished.

[6] Lovink, Geert. Eva Illouz, Facebook, and the Crisis of The Multiple Self. P.1 Unpublished.

[7] From a personal interview with Nasty Nets co-founder Marisa Olson on December 13, 2010.

[8] From an interview with Guthrie Lonergan by Thomas Beard on March 26, 2008.

[9] Calhoun, Craig. Introduction: Habermas and the Public Sphere. The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England. p. 3

[10] Galloway, Alex and Thacker, Eugene. Protocol, Control and Networks. (2004) Grey Room. MIT Press, Boston. P.8

[11] From an interview with Jon Rafman on Bad At Sports by Nicholas O’Brien. May 12, 2010.


About Bret Schneider,


  1. Pingback: About Mouchette » From Clubs to Affinity: The Decentralization of Art on the Internet « 491

  2. Pingback: De los clubs a la afinidad: la descentralización del arte en Internet | tin:tank

  3. Pingback: links for 2011-02-18 « links and tweets

  4. Pingback: Artists on the Internet | Stephen Truax

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  6. Dear Bret,
    Why didn’t you publish Michael Manning’s reply to Brad Troemel?
    I understand it was submitted as a comment to Troemel’s post.
    Best, Tom Moody

    • Tom,
      Simply because there was no comment from Michael anywhere in our WP comment history. we had an exchange about his comment not being approved, but his comments for some reason aren’t submitted to 491. We can assure you that this is not an issue of censorship of any kind, but rather what seems like some mysterious technical issue.
      update: MM’s comment went to spam because of the amount of links it contained. It was approved, but the comment’s author requested we post the link instead.


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