Digital Landfill >>
Mark Napier

"Now, with Digital Landfill, web citizens have an economical, safe, clean, and environmentally friendly way to dispose of unsightly scrap data." --Mark Napier

Mark Napier

Arguably more useful than the information that it reorganizes.

Shredder >>
Mark Napier

Reconfigured browser that creates an alternative view of the Internet.

||| HIAFF 3.0 | university of colorado | department of art and art history | digital arts area | in conjunction with alt-x | atlas | blurr

Kristine Feeks: To begin, could you tell us how you first became involved with Net.Art?

Mark Napier: First, a little background on me. I have a BFA in painting, and graduated in 1984, just as PCs were becoming popular for business use. I learned some programming on a Commodore 64, got a job as a support programmer in a small PC consulting company, and have been programming database applications for the finance industry since then. I continued to paint but never attempted to put together art and computer technology until a writer friend (Levi Asher, author of website "Literary Kicks") introduced me to the web in 1995. We did a hypertext collaboration together in summer 1995 ("Chicken Wire Mother"). Around that time I also started "Negative Space" which was about the immateriality of the web. In '96 I worked on the Distorted Barbie, about ownership of symbols, also hypertext. In 1997 I saw what jodi was doing and decided to use the web as a painterly visual medium. I dropped the text from my work and started working with fragmented animated images and layers of text. That's when I started potatoland.org, and in 1998 released Digital Landfill and the Shredder.

KF: Your fascination with converting information into visual images is not only gorgeous, but deeply thoughtful. Could you talk about your processes as an artist as you plan and prioritize the aesthetic values and the programing techniques of your art?

MN:All my artwork starts with a gut reaction. I worked with the web as a hypertext medium for a while, and then started thinking it would be neat to tear a webpage up, or draw on somebody elses website, or mix websites together, or stack them up vertically. These are all physical actions that do not apply to the virtual world of the web, and for that reason they become interesting metaphors. When we try to apply physical actions to the virtual world we learn something about this new space, about how we, as physical creatures, relate to a non-physical space. Out of these gut reactions came Digital Landfill, Shredder, Riot, GraphicJam. These works are not about technology, they are about humans responding to technology. It's a useful distinction to make. Art is about people. Technology is about people. It's easy to get caught up in technology and forget what's driving this whole process, and then art becomes stylized, a hi-tech fetish. Programming is my craft. It's how I make the artwork. It's not an end in itself. I have found it very useful to know how to program, and to be able to code my own artwork. In the Shredder, I knew how to code a cgi script to retrieve a webpage and reformat it. I knew how to get around the restrictions of the browser. And I spent days just tuning the scripts to generate a page that looked intriquing, that was somewhat random, but also looked enough like the original webpage to convince people that they had "shredded" the original site. It's very important to me that the artwork is visually engaging, as well as conceptually strong. People often compare net art to conceptual art, and there are certainly relationships between the two, but the web is a very visual medium. Computers are capable of presenting brilliant color, animation, video, sound, and have an interactive interface built in. There is no need to make gray work in this medium.

KF: I was very amused by your Digital Landfill piece. The concept of infinitely replicatable digital trash is wonderful! Was it your intention to document, to analyze, to provoke thought? To me, this deviates from your other work such as "Shredder" and "Feed", could you discuss this project in the context of Conceptual Art?

MN: Digital Landfill is an artwork that can grow indefinitely based on user interaction. I wanted the artwork to be a cross section of the web itself, and to always be changing in surprising ways. The project is an exploration of art on the web, where art can be an evolving, ongoing process, and there is no physical art object. What better way to explore this than through a "landfill", a physical place that collects objects that are obsolete, and are destined for decay. Digital Landfill started as a reaction to the massive amounts of text that I received in a mailing list. I was intrigued by the text itself, as a seemingly persisten artifact, stored in my email inbox. It had a history; emails had threads to them. Messages were buried inside messages as people replied to other emails. I thought of doing an artwork about archeology, about digging down into a layered history of text, then realized that Landfill was a more appropriate metaphor. Archeology re-discovers the most common artifacts of previous civilizations, the things they took for granted. Digital Landfill is about what we throw away, and what we value, in an immaterial medium. It asks the question how do we discard a virtual object, and is that metaphor even applicable on the web? Digital Landfill is related to Shredder and Feed in that all three are about immateriality, and all three work by appropriating content from the web. These artworks all treat the web as visual raw material. They sculpt the digital substance of the web into new forms, by applying new software rules to the code, text and images that make up the web. I don't think of the Landfill as a conceptual artwork, though it has a strong conceptual component to it. I enjoy the work for the dada-esque visual poetry that arises as unrelated bits of text, images, animation and sound are layered together. We create new meanings from the fragments of uprooted content.

KF: In a recent paper I described "Feed" as an action painting of sorts. Of course, I was making a reference to Jackson Pollack. What artists have you connected with and who has influenced your work?

MN: I enjoy Jackson Pollack's work very much, especially for the way he used material. He explored paint in it's most raw form, without disquising it. In the Shredder I wanted to use the web as a raw material, so the code, html, text, images and colors, would become a visual aesthetic in their own right. I have been influenced by Cy Twombly as well, for the chaotic, accidental, seemingly unplanned quality of his work. Other artists that I think about a lot: Robert Smithson, Christo, Walter de Maria, all for the way they use the physical environment within their art. The web has it's own "physicality". With the right software anybody can make a spiral jetty on the web.

KF: In Net.Artland there has been quite a buzz about archiving programs on outdated machines and browsers. How do you plan to preserve your work so that people may enjoy it in 101010 (as opposed to 010101)?

MN: Well, I'm not a pro at preserving art, and I don't worry about it much. I do enjoy thinking about what art is, and what it isn't, and that inquiry parallels the archivists inquiry: when we preserve net art, what are we preserving? I'm intriqued by the preservation of net art because the museums have to define the thing in order to preserve that thing. I believe that process is leading to a new definition of art as an experience, not simply as an object. In net art, the artwork is a design that is routinely replicated in a variety of software environments. Net art starts with the assumption that the art will be seen in many different software environments and will change form slightly when it is viewed. Screen resolutions vary, users change their window size, the operating system imposes limitations, as do the video and sound cards of the viewers computer. Net artists have a variety of tools for creating similar aesthetic effects. We have DHTML, Flash, Director/Shockwave, Java, just to name a few of the tools. Each of these tools can create similar or even identical effects. An artwork can be translated from one software to the other. The net.artwork does not reside in one specific software, or in one hardware platform or operating system, or in one computer. The artwork is an effect, a design, an experience, created by software, but not necessarily tied to one software. Net art is portable. The art exists whereever the technology exists to present it. I make art in java, a powerful programming language that allows me to define exactly how I want the work to behave. Java won't last forever, but has a better chance of lasting for a decade or two than most software packages. Since the specific details of the artwork are spelled out in the java code, the artwork can be re-written into new languages relatively easily. That allows the work to be re-created, if necessary, to take advantage of future computer technology.

KF:I am especially interested in your "Negative Space" project and its relation to John Baldessari's piece where instead of scanning everything he owned he actually destroyed all his material possessions.

MN: I relate to John Baldessari's photographs of common objects, with captions.When I first started making websites I realized that space was obsolete. We experience the web as a space with its own geography and navigation. As the web becomes more widespread we live in a world increasingly split between two spaces, the physical and the virtual. The physical space I live in changes as a result. My apartment is no longer a social space. I rarely meet people or socialize there, while I often meet people and communicate with them through the web, usually every day. So the physical space I inhabit becomes a curiosity, a thing that can be re-represented (and navigated) in the 'other' space, the web. I used a scanner instead of photography because the scanner is designed to read surfaces. It attempts to read 3D objects as if they are already flattened. The result is a distorted compression of objects into shallow reliefs: shadows and highlights are flattened by the all-over flourescent light of the scanner. It's as if I tried to physically flatten the objects of my home into a digital format, to somehow squeeze the material of the physical world into the virtual world. I presented the images with humorous text about the objects, turning the objects into satire: a parody of the physical.