Not too long ago I was asked to participate in the second issue of publication and exhibition platform Wave Int’l. This iteration will be hosted by Oakland exhibition space Important Projects opening this saturday (the 28th of May) with an accompanying online publication. I was very excited to be involved with this initiative started by Chicago based artists and organizers Brian Khek and Jasmine Lee along with the talented work of Andre and Evan Lenox, Ben Schumacher, and Hayley Silverman. Wave Int’l issue02 will include essays, objects, conversations, projections, and installations represented both in physical space as well in a downloadable pdf. When initially asked to participate, I knew that I had wanted to be able to contribute a piece for the publication that would address some ongoing questions I’ve been workshopping about the over-simplification of the term community. Specifically I’ve been wondering how the academic vernacular of “the community” has effected an emerging field of artists working on or around network technologies.

The best way that I knew how to approach these concerns – one of the most developed ways I have grown into over this past year – has been through an interview format. I decided – with Brian and Jasmine – that being able to talk with Hayley would be a good use of my inquisitiveness, and hopefully allow for both of us to get out into the open some shared anxieties about our burgeoning field and the milieu of unresolved circumstances that screen-space and digital frameworks pose to our respective practices. Our conversation (which I will provide excerpts of in a bit) did provide for some interesting insights, but in a strange way, it also served as a reinforcement of how dire these unresolved questions are for myself, and in a way showed me how my own practice still had much room for growth.

One such instance came when we started to critically examine what it meant to work within a community and how I had come to expect a certain sustainability that a community maintains as a result of shared interests:

Nicholas O’Brien: … I’m curious about how you engage your community or what community means to you since community is such a large part of my practice. In other words, being able to engage like-minded people, making work for them, or about them, or with them is very important for me.

Hayley Silverman: Community is complex and usually related to my terrestrial coordinates. I would often think of my community as being the people immediately within my surround and whom I share lived experiences with. When I look at artists work online I process it differently. They are indexed as information.

I sometimes think of community as a veil for a collective understanding. That there is a presumption that we do indeed know each other. The social translated online creates an intense circulation, one that, as I said earlier, magnifies certain personalities. The second self, or the other self produced virtually, seems to be a contemporary project of redesigning “the old man into the new man”- contributing to an obsession with the relevant – the contemporary. Artistic production, curation, and reception will always be dangerously entangled with the social.

NO’B: Do you think the web, as an interface for highlighting the social aspects of creative production, allow for more transparency for these communities to intermingle?

HS: The web helps facilitate modes of engagement that do open up a dynamic space (one that is interlinked) but my primary vehicle in the production of my work is felt reality.

NO’B: Can you elaborate on the term “felt reality.”
HS: I privilege empirical knowledge.

Although probably not originally intended, Hayley provided me with a great insight that I think I had up until now taken for granted: makers and artists working online each have very specific reasons for interfacing with the web as a site of production and distribution. My more critical readers will probably think that this admittance is a sign of naivet̩ on my part, but instead being able to allow for this realization to wash over me Рto let it permeate some of the more immediate expectations I have from any given community Рwas (and continues to be) a powerful thing for my own sensibility to reconcile. I address this disparity later in my conversation with Hayley:

NO’B: I might want to move on to talk about the importance and relevance community plays within your work. Being able to engage like-minded people, making work for them, or about them, or with them is very important for me. What are some of your thoughts on how your peer group effects your work (particularly when you are often grouped together with artists that make work more directly interfacing with online technologies). On that note, I think one of the things I’d like to talk about is a concern I have about the limitations of any given community and how perhaps one of those limitations is revealed in the aesthetics generated through or around those associations.

HS: Communities form as the intermittent and transitory outcomes of coordinates whether that be through geography, gender, race, or a process of filtration. How do we align ourselves with particular subjects or movements? Is it to protect ourselves from the voluminous waves of information that wash over us? At some point we could use convention to narrow ourselves… It is as though identity is the condition of correct anticipation, given these restraints. I think the process of a thinker or maker is to invent places to explode to. 

NO’B: Communities then can be mobile?

HS: Well it depends on how you define mobility. Jung’s writing on “herd psychology” speaks about the rootlessness of modern people that results from a disaster not only of primitive tribes but of modern man, in effect, causing a collective psychic injury. The herding of people into major megalopolises caused social and mental pathologies; thinking in large numbers would result in the rise of “mass psychology” also known as mass-mindness. This dependence on the externalization of culture (materialistic technology, commercial acquisitiveness) would enable the loss of spiritual culture. Within this ideology we have never stopped being mobile – it has become extended to another frontier – in this case, cyberspace.

NO’B:  This injury is probably linked to how I’m skeptical of the overuse of the term ‘communities’ and how using that buzz term poses potential limitations. If we have constant mobility – or have a history of it – creative content would then suffer from a kind of transience. However, people latch onto momentary glimpses within that haze and form small niches around them. I fear these pockets of communication and exchange don’t lend themselves to further extension outside their immediate sphere. Do you see an inherent limitation within the establishment of these types of communities?

HS: I’m not sure that’s true. I do believe that people act as if history has ended. That nothing is connected to a lineage – which encourages people to behave not as historical actors but by living out their own demography.

My initial skepticism of the term community – which could be located in my own overuse of the term as a catch-all for a grouping of people that might only be working with similar technological approaches – was (and maybe still is) unfortunately contributing to misconceptions about net-based practices instead of undoing or realigning those expectations. In this way, I was finding ways in which the interview is not always a viable format, and was reminded of a quote from Guthrie Lonergan reacting to harsh criticisms that Bring Your Own Beamer events recently had undergone after mounted stateside exhibitions: “I think the real deal happens online for many.” I felt at that moment that what Guthrie was trying to express was that often times an exhibition or show (even ones with promising premisses and multiple iterations like BYOB) cannot possibly hope to resolve everything within their physical manifestation, and that artist find that the location where the dialog gets fleshed out the most is through shared networks of exchange and conversation (like message boards, comment thread, gchats, group blogs, etc.).

In this way, I felt that being able to re-evaluate my initial questions, and the intentions behind them, could still be an effective way for me to continue to foster my own creative practice. I hoped that doing so would also enable an exposure of my process with others. I decided while in the midst of editing the material for Wave Int’l to try and take these anxieties I was finding about my own sense of participation amongst the community of my peers and formulate them into new questions for Brian and Jasmine:

Jasmine Lee: I was thinking about how Wave Int’l is contextualized… within what “community” It’s difficult to locate, since it falls somewhere between an academic discourse, a critical discourse, and an artistic discourse.
Nicholas O’Brien: I think that these borderlands of discourse is something I struggle with, personally. Or not struggle, but feel anxiety about.
JL: There seems to be some understanding that those said discourses, or at least their titles, are somewhat arbitrary.
Brian Khek: Yeah, I feel our style of execution is something in an international context. Not representing any specific city, per say.
JL: Global, not international.
NO’B: That distinction seems important.
JL: It’s global in the sense that the discourse is united — our interests and what not — but we are still reconciling borders, names, nations, territories. Which is not far off from titles of “communities” or what/how individuals choose to align themselves with.
BK: Right. I feel like international assumes defined communities (i.e., nations).
JL: Yes, and those definitions are very important in distinguishing where the differences become similarities.
BK: Maybe that’s why the abbreviation in our name is more appropriate. I feel “int’l” plays with that.
JL: I think we’re… interested in illuminating, or hinting at distinctions; in structuring content, subject matter. The same way an abbreviation might.
BK: Maybe [the abbreviation of the name] recognizes those distinctions. I feel like the name is supposed to make you think of corporate identities but the abbreviation makes you question what it really means. It serves as an abstract to the familiar. I think it’s important or successful in that we get to talk about it so often.
JL: I guess that’s also what I meant by those distinctions of community/discourses being arbitrary.

Seeing how this distinction was important for the organizers of this project gave me more pause about the use of community – as Jasmine says – as an arbitrary grouping of persons. When I had initially decided that discussing community and shared experiences within a given material or environment, I had unintentionally accepted that the similarities within delivery of content would extend backwards into the original conceptualization of a project or work. To that end, I decided to explore an alternative route and was curious to see if acknowledging shared influences might be a location to discover how community and aesthetic are generated and supported:

NO’B: This kind of actually brings me to a question that I had early on in thinking about this project. In thinking about naming and drafting an identity, could you talk about some of your main non-art influences? For instance, how does “general web content” influence your practice?
My reason for asking is that I think when working online, in particular when working with a publication, there is an aesthetic that gets referenced both consciously and unconsciously.
JL: Well, to list off some recent influences off the top of our heads… Joseph Grigely‘s exhibition prosthetics, Katja Novitskova’s post internet survival guide, Kari Altmann’s r-u-in?s.
BK: With our exhibitions we try to extend the content/subjects in the publication and vice versa.
JL: We learned some really important things working with Joseph, in regards to protheses, which are not limited to general web content. In this way, it’s the careful consideration of all components of an idea as extensions of the thing itself, which is why we stress both the exhibition and it’s subsequent documentation. As well as the printed publication and the web publication.
BK: We try to make it clear that neither is the premier object of focus. We are as interested in presenting the physical works as we are a pdf or printed publication and I think we attempt to achieve a harmony between them to communicate something more faceted.
JL: Often times, digital work may be made to trump – replace – reconcile the matters of the physical, or material, or vice versa. We see all components as beneficial on the same plane, but I’m not sure if that is completely developed yet.

This last quote from Jasmine speaks very strongly with a concern of mine that I think other artists within the so-called netart community are also addressing through a movement back – or sideways – to more traditional frameworks and mediums. One of the best examples that I can come up with in recent memory could probably be observed in a group show entitled Rhododendron curated by Harm van den Dropel at W139 in Amsterdam. In this exhibition artists that have used the internet as a site for production and distribution in many early works have chosen to create objects using more traditional fine art materials (or have continued a practice that I am unfamiliar with from pre-net projects). This example is just one of many of the signifiers of a reversal of the potential “trumping” that digital contexts provide within the community that I aim to represent and be in dialog with.

Nicholas O'Brien

Nicholas O'Brien is a new media artist, curator/organizer, and academic living and working in Chicago. Since getting his BFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Nicholas work has been included in multiple national and international venues including The Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, The Xth Biennial in Lyon net art project, Lampo,, and the Centro Multimedia in Mexico City. He has also curated many screenings and live audio-visual performances within the Chicago area under many different projects including co-founding an alternative artist-run space called BUSKER which operated between 2005 and 2007. Currently, Nicholas is an adjunct faculty in the Department of Interactive Art and Media at Columbia College teaching media theory. More information about his work can be found at