Yes, internet art is material. Contrary to uses of 'immateriality' as a descriptor, the ethereal matter that flashes before our eyes on the computer screen is bound by hardware, electricity and remote storage space. However, using 'material' to describe online art is ultimately misleading; the internet and its contents do not behave the same way as objects that fit a traditional conception of materiality. Digital materiality makes opportunities available that would otherwise be impossible through fleshly existence, and vice versa. Among these uniquely digital characteristics is the chance for a more complete use of anonymity - a powerful tool that has acquired new untapped possibilities throughout he internet. This essay outlines the emerging potential for anonymous production, dispersion and reception of art online as a new participatory structure. The more diverse relational structures are afforded to artists, the richer and more complex the whole of art may become. With a variety of available structures to work through, artists will be able to capitalise on the favourable traits of a multiplicity of choices while more effectively avoiding the limiting tyranny of a single profit-incentivized option.
An anonymous structure for the dispersion of art will justifiably seem foreign at first for a number of reasons. The value of art has long been located in a co-dependent tension between the identity of its creator, the auratic for the work is manifested through and its signified intellectual content. Anonymity is a strategy that runs counter to art history's continual valorisation of named individuals. While art's cult of individuality may appear to result from capitalism's encouragement of self-made economic conquest, individual makers have defined art history even sunk the times of medieval religious patronage. Although many medieval artisans produced work without personal recognition, most did so under the guise of a master's guild sacrificing their name for their paycheck. The artistic guild was premised on the idea that the master's talents could be spread among those under his tutelage. This belief of the lateral movement of artistic creativity paradoxically emboldened the individuals most qualified to teach it and maintained a hierarchy of prestige through pedagogy. The ongoing focus on artistic brands can be historically situated in the tradition of the old master using his name to separate his level of wisdom from the laymen.
Not since art's mysticl application was there a strong de-emphasis on the creator's identity and an increased emphasis on the artwork's intellectual or spiritual functions. Such ancient art recalls the notion of a common, as mentioned in the book Commonwealth by Michael hardy and Antonio Negri. A common is a mutually produced resource that is made available to all the value of a common is not located in its ability to be profitably traded, but in its functional use. The same can be said of language, a common that is only as valuable as its ability to be excessed purposefully. Anonymous art strives to be a common, to be endlessly edited and shared by all. Identity is an obstacle to maintaining a common's equality of use. A common art does not preemptively enforce anonymity, but renders working through a name pointless. How may someone take credit for what is already owned by all? How may someone cal attention to her own contribution to a common when so many before her contributed without taking credit?
As Deluze says:
"To reach, not the point where one no longer says I, but the point where it is no longer of any importance whether one says I. We are no longer ourselves. Each will know his own. We have been aided, inspired, multiplied."
A common operated most successfully outside the grip of government or corporate control. When a common becomes private property it loses its ability to be mutually defined, betraying its purposes of universal creation and use. Before purchased ownership there is an owner of most art. This is the role of the named creator. Art prodded by an identifiable person is always a form of property whether purchased or not because it is this stated identity that acts as the work's owner prima facie. The internet and previous modes of viewing art do not differ in their ability to use images to reach mass audience - both have proven they can do this very well. The internet is different in that it can perpetuate information anonymously, while capitalism must rely on distinct buyers and sellers to properly function as a system of trade. Nothing can verifiably be purchased from and anonymous creator because no single voice may emerge as an authentic author or owner above others. Digital anonymity makes property contracts unfeasible by fostering the endless possibility that anyone, anywhere could have produced the content in question. Without an e-mail address or contact information of any kind, digital anonymity is a one-way glass only capable of outward production. It's true that anonymous art may influence art produced by named creators or be influenced by the work of named creators itself. Anonymous art may even be exhibited through private venues, but it cannot be owned or sold by those institutions without and authorial source.
The kind of anonymity I describe as an internet-based alternative is absolute. It should not be mistaken for pseudonymity, which disguises born identity while maintaining a singular, semantically contained existence capable of interacting on behalf of itself. Pseudonyms obfuscate one identity to maintain another. Museum and gallery names are pseudonyms themselves, brands representing the combined individual efforts of their workers and participants. Pseudonymity has long been an accepted practice in property ownership and sale because it still recognises the identity of a creator distinct from others, thus initialising a matrix for the trade of 'credible' possessions.
To be anonymous is to be universally indeterminable, to be without identity in any form separate from anyone else. Living anonymously in flesh would always be impossible. An individual may separate herself from society, fake her death and remove her finger prints but she will forever be bound to a unique physical body for the duration of her life. The human body is never anonymous because it will never anatomically merge with the body of another. Communication is the disembodiment of intention, a language where ideas are transmitted without necessitating the physical presence of the communicator to be received. A digital enrolment is the ideal site for anonymity, because it allows the most efficient and rapid communication possible with the least centralised presence of its communicators.
These two aspects – digital form and anonymous participation – must be considered in tandem and all times when understanding the alternative structure I describe. As mentioned, attempts to anonymise oneself in flesh will always be flawed. Additionally, to think that art still produced by named identities will provide an alternative to previous structures simply by existing online is equally naive. Many artists utilise the internet as a publicity machine with the latent hope of using there social capital accumulated online as an opportunity for commercial exhibition later in life. The distributional efficiency of publishing content online can very easily serve as an appendage of the art market. There is already a minor league feeder program in the making, where galleries and other institutions discover artists who are digitally popularised. The minor league is created by internet-based art communities and commercial galleries performing a feedback loop with one another through an intimate understanding of each other's social and economic value. As a minor league, internet art communities aid commercial galleries by calling attention to artists who people are already interested in, ending the risky guessing game of whether an artist's work will be palpable to a wider audience. By increasing her visibility, the artist's digital peers elects her to a higher position in luxury capitalism. In return, all of those peers who previously supported her are bestowed with the social capital of the art gallery's decision making because they had the good sense to help validate someone who was going places. This is not to mention the likely increased amount of respect the artist's peers will have for her as a result of her gallery approval. In the minor league we see the internet's participants and profit-based institutions thriving from one another, exchanging power to embolden themselves through the other's curatorial exclusivity. The minor league is not an example of an alternative structure to the art market, but a newly available path to succeeding within it.
Gallery directors basing their curatorial decisions on the positive attention an artist cultivates online is a much less despotic version of capitalism than directors strictly choosing to represent artists based on their perceived profitability among collector's tastes. The former takes into account art that is relevant to many people and latter anticipates the interests of few. This influence from the internet does not equalise the disproportionate amount of power the individual gallery director has in determining the offline public's perception of what art is of merit or solve the gallery's geographically-exclusive problems of viewer access - but at least it's an improvement on the status quo in one regard.
WIth the optimistic potential of the minor league looming on the horizon, it's tempting to forget what is restraining about creating art through a name. By comparing the possibilities of anonymous to branded art production it's possible to understand what is gained or lost between the two options. An artist's brand is shaped through the ongoing negation and navigation of all possible methods and interests. Many celebrate this suffocation of choice, considering the accumulated limits of their singularly focused interests a cozy niche. For a branded artist, separating the will to please others apart from her own genuine interests becomes tricky the more socially or commercially successful former works of art become. Anonymity is a potentially freeing tool capable of removing the pressure of social expectation or personal artistic continuity. To start with a ban slate of viewer expectation and personal liability is an ideal point of departure for art's production. Here an artist is given the maximum degree of personal creative liberty possible. Correspondingly, an anonymous artist also receives the most minimal degree of personalised recognition possible; her work may be responded to, but her identity will not be. This creates a dilemma of motivation. For what reason aside from the absolute freedom in creation offered by namelessness would and artist consensually ban her self from receiving individual credit?
By working anonymously, an artist may bypass the social registers necessary to be accepted in a specialised community. Anonymity can excel the circulation of an unknown artists work on merit alone without being bound to the time-consuming and restrictive politicking of a social network. The alchemy of a named artist's endorsement of her online peers usually combines some elements of earnest appreciation, social aspiration and fashionability. Part of what motivates reflagging art is the desire to associate one's self with the content and creator featured. In doing so, the reblogger attaches a bit of her brand's social capital to the creator/content while simultaneously acquiring a limited amount of her subject's capital as well. This standardised method of value exchange is what makes art that exists online a quasi-common; anyone can use or appropriate it, but not all are able to equally excerpt their brands influence on a given work of art – that depends on each individual's status within their network.
An incentive is given to reflagging anonymous art because the person appropriating it is able to exert a significantly larger 'amount' of her own brand on the work than if she had to mutually reciprocate value with another named creator. Like someone reflagging non-art images, her gesture is a promotional readymade, offering her support for content that has evaded the most oft-used art contextualisation known – the artist's signature. In the absence of an authorial presence, the reblogger fills anonymous art's identity void with her own. This added incentive to circulate anonymous art online is not as selfish as it may appear. Because the anonymous artist has withdrawn from social politics, it is the 'responsibility' of her peers to act on her behalf promotionally. The anonymous artist's peers are waging a bet with a source that has absolutely no responsibility to them by investing their brands' credibility in nameless work. Unlike the named artist who sees a peer promote her work and feels more inclined to reciprocate admiration, the anonymous artist offers no such benefits or enforceable social pressure. Reblogging anonymous art is only as valuable to a named peer as other viewers perceive that art as being of quality.
An artist may choose to participate in an anonymous structure so she can experience the reception of her work without and viewer remorse. The anonymous viewer or critic also shares the flight of social pressure experienced by nameless artists. Anonymity switches a viewer's attention from who is saying what to what is being said. It has long been a tradition of art school critiques for each student viewing work to write a comment about it on paper and submit it for the teacher to read aloud. While this example is not as truly anonymous as what is permitted by the significantly larger population using the internet, this classroom use of identity obfuscation similarly functions to create a chance for honesty among peers. Taste tests are devoid of packaging for this reason as well. Anonymity does not create aggression or anger – it allows what is already present to show what it truly is without retribution.
Online art's discourse lags due to a lack of articulated viewer dissatisfaction. There is a much greater incentive to produce a positive review or to reflag a fellow named-creator than to express a criticism fully. Most bloggoing websites are designed for the ongoing circulation of images and links as a promotional device. Blogging's structural bias to rapidly reproduce images at the expense of considered written words is a reflection of the human tendency to gravitate toward the symbolic immediacy and low time investment required of images. In general, this is why companies use logos instead of academic treatises focused on the merit of their product. Infinite high fives lacking any criticality easily fosters an environment of laziness and ill-conceived art. Oftentimes the closest thing to negative feedback digital peers provide for each other is indifference. There is something seriously wrong when the most damning bit of criticism an artist may receive online is a temporary dip in traffic statistics. Nothing about anonymity insures critical reception will be articulate or helpful, but the chance for a critic to give a well thought out negative review without feeling any social wrath for it is possibility otherwise non-existent.
When considering the reception of digital anonymous art, it's necessary to ask where such art comes from. A presentational website that features artworks without a name attached is not inherently anonymous – it could very well be the work of a specified group of people. Once you've realised that a single person is incapable of assuming or speaking on behalf of a digital entity claiming to be anonymous, the website is no longer anonymous. Usually the first person you realise cannot begin posting on such a website is yourself. The principal of anonymity is that everyone must be implicated as a possible actor, making no one accountable. True anonymity necessitates a website structured for open participation by all. Although one user looking at another user's anonymous post on such an open website will realise she did not create that specific work of art, through open participation she has an equally valid claim to say she did create it regardless of if she personally knows she didn't.
In addition to the necessity of open participation, an anonymous structure for art online would function most efficiently as a surface archive. Opposite of the rigorously contained collection traditional archives strive for, a surface archive is a platform for content to temporarily exist before being carried off into other contexts due to the forced deletion of its history. Through deletion, the surface archive routinely betrays its own centralisation, acting as a meeting place for anonymous communication that immigrates to a decentralised outcome. Similar to a common's mutual production and use, the surface archive is a structure designed for presentness and constant adaption more so than historically categorised rigidity. The surface archive does not derive its value from the chronology of its contents but from its use as a production facility for mutually formed memes that travel beyond it. Regarding archives, Baudrillard says:
Ramses does not signify anything for us, only the mummy is of an inestimable worth because it is what guarantees that accumulation has meaning. Our entire linear and accumulative culture collapses if we cannot stockpile the past in plain view. […] We require a visible past, a visible continuum, a visible myth of origin, which reassures as about our end.
The surface archive strives to avoid accumulation so to encourage unrestricted participation. Constant deletion allows no visible continuity to occur – no artistic norms may be created without the consensual endorsement of the surface archive's most current participants. The deletion of content in a surface archive may work by maintaining a standard amount of mutual use within a post or occur at regularly established time intervals. The surface archive fully embodies the notion of the digital stream; we don't know where the content began due to anonymity and don't know where it will end up due to origin deletion and subsequent decentralisation. All we are able to do is stick our hand in its flow, contributing to a rapidly changing organism. It's ultimately this artistic interminability that defines the alternative structure I have attempted to describe. Through the wilful negation of identity and history, art becomes radically unpredictable – capable of becoming a little closer to life itself.