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The Universal: An Interview With Olia Lialina
Robert Barry , May 9th, 2020 08:43

The work of Olia Lialina, currently online at Arebyte Gallery, lays bare the structures of the net – and returns agency to the user

All photos by Max Colson

It is one of the great ironies of the present situation that what may be the only exhibition in London that you can currently go and visit ‘in the flesh’ consists entirely of work meant originally to be experienced online. Olia Lialina’s Best Effort Network, currently on display at Arebyte Gallery in East London, consists of three screen-based works all of which, as Lialina insists, were “were born to exist online”. And yet, if you were to find yourself, during your once daily government mandated constitutional walk, strolling through the eerie neoliberal hellscape of the recently branded ‘London City Island’, past the windowless data centres and vacant yuppiedromes, you could peer through the big windows of Arebyte Gallery and see these works projected. You can’t, of course, go inside.

There you would see Lialina, the original ‘GIF model’ herself, swinging through the infinite loop of Summer (2013), every one of its eighteen frames hosted on a different server, each one redirecting automatically to the next; or spinning round the carousel of Best Effort Network (2015/2020), appearing and disappearing with the vagaries of packet switching networks; or swimming across myriad photo buckets in the newly commissioned Hosted (2020). “The show is installed,” Lialina confirms. “That’s the crazy thing about it. At the last moment, we were all hoping that it would be not so bad. So we continued to build the show. But anyway it was not possible.”

All the other galleries on the planet right now have been reduced to a series of ‘online viewing rooms’ , slick websites crammed with jpeg reproductions of works intended to be seen IRL. Not this one. Here we have a real, live in situ show of distributed, networked, virtual art works.

But Olia Lialina is no stranger to contradiction. The artist who fell in love with the web in the mid-90s for its dizzying sense of instant connection, has long maintained a suspicion towards interactivity in art. The pioneer of ephemerality whose own work has long presented obstacles to preservation, has spent much of the present century archiving the peculiar vernaculars of early amateur web design. “I live in a paradoxical professional situation,” she confesses. “And it’s fine.”

Born in a still-Soviet Moscow, Lialina was a movie critic and co-founder of the Cine Fantom film club at the city’s Cinema Museum, when she first went online. “Like everybody else in 1995,” she shrugs, “you are doing something else then suddenly there is internet.” Of course, as Lialina is quick to acknowledge, the internet, in some form or another, had been around for quite a while by 1995. But it was the arrival of Mosaic in January 1993, the first web browser with inline graphics, easy to install and ported to MS Windows, and a radically intuitive design (compared to previous browsers), that produced – for millions of people worldwide – that feeling of ‘suddenly’, that global “rush of excitement” that Gary Wolfe, writing in Wired magazine in October 1994, called “unprecedented in the history of the Net.”

“Suddenly I could reach people and suddenly people could reach me. It was quite a thing – in post-Soviet Union, in 1995, in Moscow. Of course you could say that the Iron Curtain is already long down. But still there was a lot of isolation. People were communicating more inside their own countries or inside their own city. Then suddenly you find people outside in the US, in Europe, in Australia, who are interested in what you are doing, and it happens in several minutes. It’s unbelievable speed.”

“Everybody could get Mosaic,” Lialina says, “and you could learn very fast.” She had logged on in order to make a simple website for Cine Fantom, a place to advertise events and maybe – one day – host the films themselves. Pretty soon she was hooked. “I realised that this is the only thing I wanted to do now. I don’t want to write about films. I don’t want to make a website about films. I want to try to make a story inside the browser.”

The immediate result of that desire was My Boyfriend Came Back From the War (1996), a story that unfolds through a series of pixellated black and white images and short fragments of text that open successive windows, dividing the screen into different sized oblongs depending on how the user clicks through the different elements of the narrative. Included in Rhizome’s seminal Net Art Anthology as well as exhibitions in Eindhoven, Basel, London’s Whitechapel Gallery, and the permanent collection of the MEIAC museum in Badajoz, Spain.To this day, it is regularly cited as a defining work of 1990s net art. The critic Andrew Dickson, writing in the New York Times, recently suggested that the current lockdown, with all the ‘real’ galleries shut and everyone stuck indoors, was precisely its “moment to shine”.

But Lialina herself seems bemused by the newfound attention. “I think it’s a very wrong work to look at at this time. I myself wouldn’t recommend to anybody,” she says. “It’s all about isolation. A monologue of people who are inside one space but they don’t want to be inside this space anymore. I would maybe prefer if people looked at it when this is over. I think it could make you even more lonely! Just because it is online, it doesn’t mean it is for now.”

This question of what makes something truly ‘online’ is a vexed one for Lialina. “It’s the same old misunderstanding,” she complains. “As soon as something is online it is already net art. But it is not. My works are made for the net and about it. They are about the internet itself. It is the topic.” And that’s the nub of the thing. More, perhaps, than any genre since 1960s formalism, the net art of Lialina’s generation has always been deeply concerned with the specific properties of its medium. For Lialina, the “distributed” nature of the work is key. “One file is on one server, and another is on another. It doesn’t work if your computer is offline.”

“It is such a great gift that we didn’t have fast internet from the very beginning,” she says now. “That slow connection that we had in the 90s allowed a lot of different forms to be born. Otherwise, it would immediately just be streaming media, like YouTube.”

Following My Boyfriend Came Back From the War, Lialina’s focus shifted slightly from the interlocking frames of the browser window itself to the location bar at the top. Few people pay much attention to that little strip of white above the bookmarks bar and below the line of tabs. Most people just click links, little worrying about the long strings of characters that make up sites’ web addresses. But for Lialina, it’s crucial, “because it is exactly this part of the browser that tell you you are online.” Not only that, it “also tells you exactly where you are.” Which server you have connected to, which subdirectory of that computer’s file management system, what protocol is being employed to get you there. Agatha Appears, in 1997, began a long series of works in which the movement of characters on the screen, through the narrative, is mirrored by the ‘real’ movement of the audience through the virtual space of the internet, reflected in the changing URLs appearing in the location bar.

As Lialina explained in an online lecture hosted by Arebyte Gallery on 30 April, when Tim Berners-Lee first published his proposal for the World Wide Web thirty years ago, he had intended the ‘u’ in URL to stand for universal resource locator, not uniform resource locator, as it turned out. For Berners-Lee, this universality was important. And it remains so for Lialina. “This is our last command line,” she tells me. It is a potential source of agency for users (as revealed in dramatic fashion by the recent case of a guy arrested for ‘hacking’ an airline ticketing website to give himself free business flights – by the simple trick of manipulating the URL in the location bar). It is also the place on the screen where the net’s geographies, hierarchies, and relations of force and ownership are laid bare. No wonder, then, that the big corporations who increasingly control our access to the web, want nothing more than to obfuscate that bar – to transform it into little more than a search box, “to hide these things from the users,” as Lialina puts it, “so that they only ask Google and Google will tell them what they need to know.”

In a sense, Lialina’s whole project is about providing a counterweight to the corporate narrative of the online world, to take some of that agency back from Amazon and Google and return it to the user. When I ask her what advice she might offer to web surfers, forced by the privations of lockdown to live more and more of their lives online, she is unequivocal: “make your own homepage,” she says straightaway, “– and even maybe host it yourself. Because this is still possible and one should always try to do things that are still possible. This is the thing that can immediately change your position, change the way you see the web. Just one simple page and already you can start to understand what’s going on. It can already change a lot.”

Olia Lialina, Best Effort Network, is at Arebyte Gallery (and online) until 30 May 2020