Art and identity on the web



In a world increasingly mediated by technology and images, everything directly lived has moved away into a representation. What Guy Debord calls “the spectacle,” a social relationship between people mediated by images, has become the dominant way of life. (Debord,1983) In this age of the spectacle, the definition of art has been blurred, stretched and distorted to accommodate different agendas. The internet as a virtual parallel to the physical world makes evident questions of the relationship between art in technology and issues of identity, power and control therein. Who creates art on the internet?  For whom?  To what purpose? Many people now have the freedom to express themselves creatively through personalized homepages such as MySpace with custom colours and designs, furthering their self identity through artistic practices and self expression. However, from another point of view, perhaps this is just a demonstration of our commodity driven society; a process of self commodification. Not only has the internet allowed the further joining of art and commodity in an effort to entice consumers, but on the other end of the spectrum, the long standing ties between art and activism have been reinforced and the line between the two further blurred by the opportunity for collaboration across time, distance and social groups.

The personal homepage, reflective of personal values, beliefs and taste enables the construction of the self through negotiations of identity. “Constructing a personal home page can be seen as shaping not only the materials but also (in part through manipulating the various materials) one’s identity.”(Chandler, 1998) Many networking sites offer the option of personalizing your “space” through artistic preferences such as colour, form and sound which assert the authors individuality through creative expression. Since the construction of personal space on the internet is a dialectical process of creation and revision, personal values, beliefs are made apparent or fortified through the concrete selection or creation of expressive elements. While the creative attributes of an online page are useful to enliven, beautify and direct meaning, it could be said that this apparent diversity is simply masking homogeneity in sites that offer user preferences such as MySpace.  While personal web spaces can enrich our notion of the self, they are also a presentation of this self to others. The ability to constantly revise your space enables the removal or omission of undesirable qualities as well as the transformation of self portrayal. Personal web space follows a formula similar to advertising; through creation, association and integration personal web space evolves to create a desirable image. “The personal home page is a self-publishing medium in both senses of the term: being able to produce webpages is like owning your own printing press, and what some might call ‘self-advertisement’ seems to be a key function.” (Chandler,1998) Similar to advertising, images are a key part of communicating an online identity and at the same time serve the function of presenting (what the author believes to be) a desirable image. For example on Flickr, self identification and artistic expression merge with self advertisement. People upload photos with artistic value while at the same time integrating photos that portray different aspects of their person such as parties and functions attended by the individual in question.

This makes evident the question of where image for the purpose of (artistic) enlightenment, aesthetic value and self expression end and image as (self) advertisement begins. Through association with desirable images in order to enhance the appeal of the self, the process of self commodification begins. In this respect, personal web pages can be said to mirror real world corporate strategies. Corporations make extensive use of the association between image ideal and commodity to stimulate desire and consumption. Maragret Crawford describes this strategy as a process of “indirect commodification” which allows non commodified values (such as art, cultural representations) to enhance commodities. “But it also imposes the reverse process – previously non commodified entities become part of the marketplace.” (Crawford, 1992) The HollisterCo. Website integrates art and a specific (west coast) style of living with their clothing line to stimulate desire. Such artistic mediums as (Indy) music and film- a live beach cam- are featured prominently on the site and used to create an identity. The website is not only a store but a conductor of cultural ideals and purveyor of aestheticism. Similarly, “communities of fans (of different forms of media) are linked to aesthetic and cultural choices made by subordinate groups.” (Kirsten Pullen,2004)While corporations are using cultural practices and art to infuse their brands with an identity, the creation of art and online cultural movements such as fan art and spinoff plots (fan fiction) created by fans are under attack by large corporations for copyright infringement. (Kirsten pullen,2004) Do corporations now own culture, art, ideas and products of inspiration? Are corporations and institutions the only ones worthy of creation and influence?

Although art is frequently implicated in processes of corporate and official image making, the internet has also facilitated coalitions between activists across time and space, and the production of politically charged art.  In addition to corporate strategies has emerged, a tactical response by activists characterized by art on the internet. “The internet becomes an enabler for artist/activist groups to devise tactics and engineer situations which question and potentially upset existing power relations between the individual and the establishment (art institutions, corporate power, traditional art market).” (Dzuverovic-Russell,2003) An internet community called ‘The Yes Men’ is one of many such organizations, who make evident the facility with which media can be manipulated, “Impersonating Big-Time criminals (leaders and big corporations) in order to publicly humiliate them.” The dynamic nature of the web facilitates anonymity and the creation of multiple identities or in some cases, the creation of fictional identities as was the case in the creation of the artist known as ‘Darko Maver.’ By creating a fictional artist who supposedly staged and photographed murder scenes -generating much attention online and subsequently offline- only to reveal his non existence, the group 0100101110101101.ORG “tried to show the mechanisms which hold contemporary art, to make clear that critics and curators are able to create an artist, apart from the value of his works; this phenonmena is currently accepted or taken for granted and peoples undervalue it’s impact.”(Caronia,2000 – cited in Dzuverovic)

In a world where our public space is becoming increasingly privatized and works of art are displayed not on artistic merit but to further corporate or institutional agendas, the internet offers the potential to reclaim space as publicly generated and used, passive consumers have a greater opportunity to become active users and creators. In a commodity driven society dominated by ‘idols’ and corporations, where fame is as simple as following a generic formula and celebrity status equals talent, e.g. Paris Hilton ‘the artist, musician and actress,’ the internet provides an outlet for those not incorporated in packaged culture, and an opportunity for international recognition. Websites such as not- for- profit Rhizome ( are invaluable in the creation of public art space on the net. The notion of anonymity afforded by a web presence facilitates personal expression enabling in depth negotiations of identity, community and associations on a global scale.