Case Study: the_living (1997-1998) by Debra Solomon

Introduction

The term internet art can encompass a diverse range of characteristics and online works that are created for or influenced by the internet. In this way, internet art does not necessarily include photographs or videos of physical artworks posted online, but can instead refer to artworks, like this one, that make use of the internet as a tool. As a result, these works are inherently dependent on the internet’s technological infrastructure and the problems that come with it, foremost it’s changeability. 

To deepen the understanding of these works, LI-MA is using case study based research, in which one case, representative of a larger number of artworks, is used to determine methods for finding solutions to similar challenges and questions. The term net art is often used as an abbreviated form of the more general term internet art, referring to any work that is made for or uses components employed by the internet. It encompasses more specific terms, such as software-based art, and in the context of the case study examined below refers to its presence on the Internet as a site of performance and audience interaction. Unlike with internet artworks that have generative or algorithmic attributes, the following case study does not take the technical aspects of the Internet as its work-defining property. Instead, the Internet constitutes a site of durational performance and exploration of virtual identities. Therefore the third case study in the Infrastructure for Sustainable Digital Art project strove to examine how preservation strategies could be developed and implemented to address internet artworks, using as its representative work, Debra Solomon’s the_living (1997-98).

To understand the conceptual nature and functionality of the_living, the work was investigated in great detail in regards to its art historical background, technical properties as well as desires of stakeholders. Following this scheme, first literature research was conducted concerning the artist’s practice, related works, and how the_living had been presented in the past, both online and in institutional set-ups. To flesh out this framework, an interview was held between the artist and the preservation team at LI-MA (see Debra Solomon Interview Summary). The gathered information was further analyzed and disseminated through a presentation at the Transformation Digital Art Symposium 2023 organized by LI-MA, titled ‘Bringing Net Art Documentation to Performance: Activating the Memory of the_living (1997-1998)’, and the inclusion in the upcoming exhibition REBOOT. Pioneering Digital Art. (7 October 2023 — 1 April 2024) presented by Nieuwe Instituut and LI-MA, with key works from the period 1960-2000 and new work by contemporary makers.

Brief Description of the Work


 Figure 1 - Still from the_living’s ‘Wardrobe of Live Moments’, Curriculum Vitae: D.A. Solomon. Archived in Wayback Machine 17 Jun 2000, via here. Accessed 1 February, 2023.

the_living is a performance-based net artwork carried out by artist Debra Solomon (US/NL) between 1997 and 1998. It centers around the online life of the digi-persona ‘the_living’, with the artist as her flesh holder. The work is highly situationist, with the_living intervening into different chatrooms of an early video conferencing software CU-SeeMe without former notice. There, she would chat with other online users and live streamed moments of her life in unusual places, such as swimming pools, in Amsterdam canals and on the bike. These live performances were often long and could last throughout the day. The_living also had a website www.the-living.org, where the artist gave explanations of the work and displayed the various ‘Tamagotchi gifts’--animation and midi files she created—for her audiences.

After the year-long performance, the_living project continued to evolve in the form of installations, broadcasts and in-person tours until a complete shift in the artist’s practice in 2003. Due to technological obsolescence, the website is no longer online and most of the digital files have been lost. Despite its ephemeral lifespan, the work is pioneering in staging artistic intervention into the online public space, and critically reflecting on the blurring boundaries between the physical and virtual worlds at the early Internet age.

Case Study Questions

Questions raised by net art that were hoped to be addressed with this case study included:

  1. What is the conceptual nature and functionality of the artwork?
  2. How can we re-activate a net artwork that has gone offline on the basis of limited documentation material and defunct digital content?
  3. How can we present the work in a way that spotlights its situationist nature?
  4. How can we retain the memory of the artwork in the long term?

Virtual Persona in Early Internet Culture

Driven by the fascination with the Internet as a communication network, the popularization of cyberpunk as a genre, and renewed demands from the Third-wave feminist movements, the late 1990s witnessed the creation of digi-persona and avatars in the Netherlands and abroad by female media/net artists. After a few earlier works such as The Egg and the Internet (with the artist collective Netband) and Images (Larger than) 1:1, Debra Solomon started the performance-based net artwork the_Living, with an attempt to document the emerging digital culture and explore the boundaries between the virtual and physical worlds. Solomon did her first presentation of the performance in September 1997 at the Worldwide Video Festival in the Stedelijk Museum. The work was later exhibited in the group exhibition μ (mu) at Arti et Amicitiae, DEAF 98 at V2_, the AVATAR exhibition at the Oude Kerk, the Offenes Kulturhaus, Zentrum für Gegenwarts Kunst, among others. These performances were named by the artist as "the_living's Wardrobe of Live Moments." Between 1999 and 2001, the artist went on to develop other imaginaries of the virtual world in video installations and physical tours, all of them in loose connection with the online performance under the the_living project.

The work had been wrongly associated with cybersex given its dependence on the video conferencing platform–at the time a main site for pornography–, although the artist was completely blind to these aspects back then. The arduous labor of doing the performance in a durational manner also had a negative impact on the artist’s wellbeing. In 2003, Solomon’s practice underwent a radical shift from the digital to the material sphere. In 2004, Solomon began publishing her research about food culture and food as a platform for social interaction. In 2017, the_living was included in the Digital Canon project initiated by LI-MA, as part of the twenty pioneering artworks made on Dutch soil with lasting impact on digital art and culture.


Figure 2 - Screenshot of “the_living (Internet Expo #1).”, Park 4DTV, 22 May 1998.

Situationist Performance and the Conundrum of Documentation Material

In reflecting on the genre/category, Solomon uses the term 'situationist', and prefers defining the_living as conceptual art apart from its being a performance-based net art piece. She would enter others' digital video conference rooms uninvited, and chat with others about the imaginative live moments she was experiencing. It is worth mentioning that the audiences in the reflector were often not aware that the artist was performing. Their reaction also varied from confusion, annoyance or irritation, to recognizing and welcoming the_living in the conference rooms. This situationist nature of the work led to its 'ephemeral' reception amongst the public, who might not identify the_living's performance as an art project at all. In the meanwhile, the artwork carried an archival incentive to document the emerging digital culture, Solomon intended that the ‘Wardrobe of Live moments’ will come to form a 'working chronicle of digital culture', which can be accessed later on through archived videos and chats. These video footage were kept by the artist herself and transferred to LI-MA at the beginning of the case study research. However, because the website www.the-living.org has long gone offline and the CU-SeeMe software is out of use, most digital content (such as the ‘Tamagotchi gifts’ in Javascript, GIF and Midi files) of the work has gone defunct. 

Re-Activating the_living: Video Performance and Publishing as Long-Term Preservation

In the artist interview, Solomon voiced her dissatisfaction with former exhibition iterations of the_living, because they showed the work in a representational manner and did not capture its performative and situationist thrust. Thus, re-activation of the_living for the REBOOT. Pioneering Digital Art exhibition at Nieuwe Instituut focuses on the situationist aspect of the artwork rather than replicating the original technical set up. Here, the conservation measure leans towards a concept-oriented approach of re-interpretation instead of emulation, migration or reconstruction based on material and technical aspects. Instead of having a separate work station for the artwork, the_living will be presented with footage from 'Wardrobe of Live Moments' occupying the monitors of Het Nieuwe Instituut, any screen in the exhibition space, or other public spaces in and outside of the museum. Visitors' experiences in the exhibition space might be disrupted by the footage from the_living, thus restoring an element of surprise and contingency. The website www.the-living.org served mainly as a distribution platform for the artist to send and showcase the Tamagotchi gifts. From the remaining documentation material in the Internet Archive, it could be detected that the animation files and programs follow one another to appear on the screen as the user clicked on the gif images and text boxes on the screen. The conservation thus constitutes the partial reconstruction of the original webpages from www.the-living.org, including a page that showcases the animations and midi music in a rolling 'slideshow' manner.

Lastly, to preserve the memory and art historical legacy of the artwork, the case study research leads to the establishment of a permanent online presentation that contextualizes the_Living. This presentation contributes to this goal of critical research and reflection on the work, with publishing as a preservation strategy. It will also allow the user to understand the work’s functionality and have an overview of its composing elements, such as the video footage “Wardrobe of Live Moments” from the artist’s archive, documentation material of the website from the WayBack Machine and visual documentation of the hardware. This presentation will be hosted on Monoskop with ongoing preservation care from LI-MA.

See LI-MA’s MediaWiki for “the_living” and the Debra Solomon Interview Summary for more information. Full interview, case-study report and object-related documents available upon request.

Duration: September 2022 - May 2023
Research completed by: Haitian Ma (Intern, LI-MA), Joost Dofferhoff (Registrar, LI-MA), Claudia Röck (Conservator, LI-MA), and Gaby Wijers (Director, LI-MA)
In collaboration with: Debra Solomon (Artist), Arie Altena (Website and Archive Editor, V2_Lab for Unstable Media), Sanneke Huisman (Curator, LI-MA), Wiel Seuskens (Senior Technical Conservator, LI-MA), Mauricio van der Maesen de Sombreff (Engineer and Junior Conservator, LI-MA), and Olivia Brum (Junior Conservator, LI-MA)

Case Study Summary compiled by Haitian Ma on 14 April 2023
Last updated by Haitian Ma on 14 April 2023

Related documents

Presentation Bringing Net Art Documentation to Performance: Activating the Memory of the_living (1997-1998) by Haitian Ma at the Transformation Digital Art 2023 symposium