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U is for URL

“Let’s meet irl,” my friend said to me — or more accurately, typed out on a digital device and communicated over to me via the internet. 

The acronym irl stands for “in real life”, a phrase that emerged into common use in the 1990s. Prior to its popularisation, “real life” was the default. The term irl was born only because an alternative had emerged — the world of the URL.

URL is short for Uniform Resource Locators, akin to street addresses on the internet. Every webpage (like the one you’re reading right now) has a unique address allowing you to find it and navigate the online world.

This world has taken over our lives; we spend more than 6 hours of each day immersing ourselves in it. Just like how artists harnessed the potential of New Media for artmaking, so did they with the internet, evolving with the different iterations of the web. 

WEB 1.0: The Wild West and New Means of Expression

Web 1.0, the earliest form of the internet, was the Wild West, full of potential without much infrastructure or cultural norms.

With limited people able to access its infrastructure, a few people created web pages and content for a large group of readers. It was at this time that the first generation of internet-based artists came to be, under the label of net art.

In 1996, Olia Lialina created My Boyfriend Came Back From the War, an interactive hypertext story. Closer to home, Singaporean artist Lin Hsin Hsin created the Lin Hsin Hsin Art Museum, which claimed to be the first online museum, complete with a cafe, gallery, and more.

Such projects were an early indicator of what internet-based art would become: interactive projects that create relationships between viewers and their screens, and turn our digital devices into artistic spaces. These early works also pushed the technical limits of code and grew in complexity in tandem with the technology itself. 

Web 2.0, Performativity And Surveillance

Web 2.0 is the era in which we now experience the internet, accessed not just through individual sites created by a few, but a network of links on which anyone could have a voice. The age of social media accelerated our ability to connect, and more importantly, contribute to a larger conversation. 

In the midst of this development came Post-Internet Art, an art movement that emerged towards the end of the 2000s, contextualised in a world where the internet is integrated with everyday life and no longer just a small aspect of it.

Web 2.0 permits anyone to be a creator, which has also enabled artists to share their works directly with the world. The potential of any URL to be an artwork changes the definition of what an artwork or an art space is. 

In 2014, artist Amalia Ulman staged a fictionalised performance of her life through the medium of Instagram. Over months, she managed to fool her followers and friends into admiring  – and criticising – an increasingly consumerist evolution of her life, even going so far as to fake a breast augmentation surgery, before announcing that nearly everything was a lie. 

Post-Internet artworks like Ulman’s explore themes that may not sound particularly novel in the context of postmodern art: surveillance, ephemerality, and the falsehoods of identity. 

Nonetheless, the blurred boundaries between digital and physical realities complicate our understanding of these topics. Is surveillance truly problematic if it’s our default state of existence online? Do we possess digital bodies in the same way we do our physical ones? 

Web 3.0: Ownership and the Future of Artistic Intelligence

Even before the full potential of Web 2.0 has played out, Web 3.0 has already emerged as a theory of what the internet will evolve into. Sometimes promised as the stage of a utopian new world, the reality of Web 3.0 as a fully decentralised web is only in its early infancy.

One of the most spoken-about features of Web 3.0 has been NFTs or Non-Fungible Tokens. Built upon blockchain technology that theoretically makes ownership transparent and trackable, NFTs often take the form of artworks that can be bought and sold.

When Damien Hirst burnt 1,000 of his paintings, he claimed that he was simply “completing the transformation of these physical artworks into NFTs by burning the physical versions”. 

In Hirst’s work, this binary between the physical and virtual comes off as archaic in a world where irl and url have already become one. Ownership aside, Web 3.0 throws up more interesting questions about how Art is created, and who it is created by.

When artist Jason Allen’s print Théâtre D’opéra Spatial won a first-place ribbon at the Colorado State Fair’s fine arts competition, it created almost an immediate controversy. Allen had fed text prompts around the theme of “space opera theatre” to an Artificial Intelligence (AI) image generator Midjourney, before finetuning his favourite renditions in Photoshop.

While it might seem odd that artworks made this way can be considered to have artistic merit, consider this – in many contemporary artworks, technicians, assistants and gallerists are indispensable, often playing a collaborative role in bringing an ambitious vision to life. 

Allen has simply chosen a different collaborator, one born from technology that has already taken root in our daily lives. 

In fact, it’s even changed our definition of what “real life” means. 

Feature Image: The Salon in the Lin Hsin Hsin Art Museum. Image courtesy of Lin Hsin Hsin via Wayback Machine.

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