Pioneering net artist Rafaël Rozendaal on the freedom the internet affords him above any other medium
We caught up with the New York-based artist for a fascinating chat about his unique practice, as well as what it is he loves (and hates) about the internet more broadly.
Considering a website as an object is a slightly tricky one, but it’s necessary in the context of internet art. To ascribe something value, we often need to understand it as something which is unique – not that it necessarily has to be an original, but it should exist as something which you, and only you, can own.
One of the first artists to reconsider the website in this context was Rafaël Rozendaal, a Dutch-Brazilian artist who spearheaded the concept of selling websites as art objects. His works – which include eggalone.com in which a sphere rotates according to the boundaries of your web browsers and almostcalm.com, where you can control a pink and blue gradient with your mouse movement – are experiments in creating with the internet as a canvas. These sites, which garner over 60 million unique users every year, are sold to collectors (at times for thousands of dollars) who then own the domain name of the site, agree to keep the work publically accessible, and have their name added to the source code.
Not confined to the medium of code, however, Rafaël’s work spans installations, weavings, lenticular prints and even haikus. It’s also led him to exhibit globally, from Times Square to the Centre Pompidou, the Whitney Museum, Valencia Biennial, Casa Franca Brasil Rio, Seoul Art Square, and the Stedelijk Museum. Through his practice, Rafaël has come to change how the world views net art – it needn’t be an art form wholly concerned with critique and satire, but it can be the space for abstract and compelling explorations of colour, interaction, gesture and movement.
Here, we chat to Rafaël to discuss what draws him to working with the internet, why he hates blockchain so much, and the importance of creating a sense of permanence within his work.
It’s Nice That: Can you remember the first time you worked with the internet and what interested you so much about it?
Rafaël Rozendaal: I remember the first time I browsed the web and I distinctly remember an immediate realisation, that the first thing you do when you go on the internet is look up things from the real world. So, I would look up information about comic books or lyrics to music, kind of using it as a library. But as you’re doing that, you start thinking, what can happen here that can’t happen in other media? Then when I was in art school, I came across this progressive Dutch TV channel that had a website where they would let artists do different experiments and that really blew my mind! The whole idea was to make things that can’t happen on TV – don’t treat it like TV but use the medium in a different way. And in school, I found out that the tools were not that hard to learn and that was really empowering: the idea that a newspaper or a TV channel or an artist, everybody has the same opportunity, especially in the beginning.
I also remember liking that the internet was so low bandwidth and you had to create a new visual language. You couldn’t use photography or the other tools that were known from cinema and television. Just like early video games have a very distinct aesthetic, the early internet did as well because of the limitations. I remember really liking those limitations.
INT: And were you one of those people who became completely fixated with code, or was it always more of an artistic pursuit for you?
RR: I always liked the idea of building images out of lines, because I come from drawing. And for that reason, I really liked vector graphics. I liked the scalability and the mathematics involved. It feels like you’re recreating your thoughts in math. But that’s not so much code, it’s still a visual tool. And then Flash came along, and that was such an extension of Adobe Illustrator. At that time, I knew a little bit of code. The boyfriend of someone in my class was studying computer science and there was something I couldn’t figure out and he helped me. And it just went from there.
INT: You mentioned that you come from a drawing background, is that an interest that stems from your childhood?
RR: Yeah, both of my parents are artists so it was a very natural path for me. There was always a lot of materials around the house – the whole house was filled with paintings, paper, cameras, and books. We would always go to museums and look at architecture while on holiday. It’s like if you grew up with parents who were into sports or whatever, it was the natural progression.
INT: And what kind of child were you? I think there’s often an assumption that people who work on or with the internet – and it’s something you’ve spoken about before too – are very introverted.
RR: I wasn’t particularly introverted but I was more into indoor activities than outdoor ones.
INT: Some of your work counteracts those ideas – things like Bring Your Own Beamer, which is based around bringing people together. Was that on purpose?
RR: Well, there are many angles to that and one is that people who make things on the internet get to know each other through chatting, but when you get to actually meet them, it’s very exciting. That was also at a specific moment, just before social media became really saturated, so people knew each other from their web experiments rather than their selfies.
INT: The internet does facilitate some of the largest and closest communities, so it’s interesting that it has a reputation for attracting individuals who like to work on their own, when it seems that’s often not true.
RR: Yeah! When I started, before social media, everyone just had a homepage, and you could really feel someone’s personality through the way they approached their work. And it was very cross-disciplinary. Before the internet, everyone was either an artist or an architect or a designer but then, on the internet, everyone made what they would call “experiments”. It was such a new material. There were so many different kinds of people involved.
INT: You’ve worked with so many media throughout your career. What interests you in exploring these different forms?
RR: I was talking about it with a friend yesterday – why I make things or why I don’t make things. And I like this expression that you fall in love with an idea. There might be shyness, you might have a lot of doubts, but when you fall in love with it, those things are unimportant and you go for it. That’s how I would describe it – I fell in love with the internet, for example. I think the main motivation is that you have a thought and you have an idea of what it could be, but you don’t know for sure until it’s realised. And that’s the energy I like. I really want to see what the experience will be once this thing exists, when you add A to B.
INT: So it’s about following a curiosity?
RR: It’s definitely about following curiosity for me. It’s funny with these kinds of questions because you start psychoanalysing yourself. You could also say it’s a neurosis, you can’t help but make work because you feel unimportant without it. So who knows what the real reason is!
INT: Being involved in net art so early on must have been super exciting.
RR: Yeah! I distinctly remember fearing the days when the bandwidth would become so good that the internet would just become TV. You know, YouTube is interesting but it doesn’t have such a distinct style. I think low bandwidth, things like woodblock printing from Japan or 8-bit video games, whatever it is, there’s this level of abstraction that’s really interesting to me.
INT: Is that the main driving factor for you working with the internet?
RR: The key thing for me is the freedom that any other form, as far as I know, doesn’t afford. Whether you’re an artist touring galleries or someone publishing a book or making a movie, there’s always more people involved to get you and your work out there and there’s always a discussion about what the best approach is. But on the internet, whether it’s good or bad, no one is asking, “Are you sure you want to publish that?” That was and is the interesting thing to me – nobody is tapping your shoulder.
INT: For a lot of people, the idea of a website being an artwork is still fairly challenging and that places your work in a really interesting place.
RR: Maybe it’s just a bad idea! I should just quit... I’ve thought about that, though, because when I started I thought it was just a new format, like video art. I thought everyone was going to be doing it soon enough but I actually think there are fewer people doing it now than before.
INT: You stuck with it, though! When did the idea to make the Art Website Sales Contract come about? Was it born out of necessity?
RR: I was speaking to friends who were video artists and they had this certain type of contract, because they didn’t want their work to be used in a commercial context and they wanted to specify how it would be exhibited. When you sell a painting, it’s pretty straightforward but with other media, there are a lot of questions.
INT: Looking at that in the context of technology like blockchain, for example, can you see your work moving forward in that world? Does that simplify or complicate the notion of giving a buyer the “original”?
RR: I don’t like blockchain one bit! It’s very funny, when something new comes along, people are very shocked when I don’t like it. For example, I’m really not into VR. When I put the headset on, I want to take it off as quickly as I can. It’s the opposite of a phone, which you just want to touch all the time, even if you’re not really looking for anything. Blockchain, the idea of creating unique binary sequences that can then be located, I saw it really messing with people’s heads when Bitcoin started to become big. People were so greedy and a lot of artists were putting a lot of money into it. And then Blockchain as a way of authenticating individual files is not very user-friendly and it’s not human-readable. A domain does a lot of things that Blockchain does not: there are words involved, it’s fun, it’s shareable – you can say it over the phone, someone can remember it, it has a location and is universally accessible with easy software, instead of needing a specific Bitcoin wallet or blah blah. I don’t really see the plus side of the Blockchain. I think it might find some use, but all the things we thought of distributed computing and quickly sending money across borders hasn’t really worked out that well. It’s a very slow platform and it turned out to be very energy inefficient.
“On the internet, no one is asking ‘Are you sure you want to publish that?’ That was and is the interesting thing to me – nobody is tapping your shoulder.”Rafaël Rozendaal
INT: Yeah, I read something about how Bitcoin uses the same amount of energy as the whole of Switzerland!
RR: But still, I saw it taking over people’s minds! They couldn’t think of anything else!
INT: Coming back to work, you started to touch on your love of colour earlier and your work features a pretty distinctive and simple visual language. How did this develop?
RR: I think it’s down to efficiency. Take for example one website that I made, trashloop.com, where you see a trash can and you can put the piece of trash in it but it always comes back. I didn’t want the image to become blurry when seen at a bigger size and knowing that your work is going to be seen on many devices and multiple ratios raises some interesting questions about composition. Traditionally, when you make a composition, whether it’s in film or photography or a painting, you know the size of the work – or you at least know the ratio. And on the internet, you don’t know that, which is a very interesting problem. So a lot of the decisions that I make come out of that. It relates to the work of Sol Lewitt, where you make works out of a formula, and then they fill the potential space. It’s similar in that you make an instruction and then it’s executed around the world on different devices.
INT: Are there any other decisions you make based on the fact that you can’t predict how or where someone views your work?
RR: Well, I tend to use very strong colours because they work on any screen. In the beginning and I noticed that a lot of screens were not that good at showing the difference between, for example, pale blue and light blue – they might look like the exact same colour on certain screens and so I would use the most saturation and the most contrast possible so my work could survive any screen. But I’ve also always liked bright colours. That might be in my DNA, I don’t know.
INT: And so, now, do you have a set palette – a series of hex codes – that you work with?
RR: I always change it a little a bit. For example, I’ve been working with textiles and my first instinct was to use the same super bright colours but I also wanted to try very pale colours and it turned out that that was also very problematic in that system. The weaving refracted the light and you couldn’t distinguish them. There might be something about these grid-based, programmatic environments that favour bold colours. But it might just be my personality...
INT: I think it gives your work an element of playfulness. Is that intentional?
RR: It’s so intuitive – making art is not as fun as you might think because it’s a lot of doubts. One of the interesting things that happens, though, is that a personality encounters a material. Two personalities will encounter a material very differently. I have my personality and when I touch the computer, that’s what comes out.
INT: When it comes to the naming of your works, specifically your web-based pieces, I’m interested in how you go about that. They often seem to have some underlying messaging, a punchline or some hint as to what the work is about. Is that true?
RR: Sometimes it’s very straightforward; there’s a website with toilet paper and toiletpaper.com was taken so it becomes papertoilet.com. But sometimes there’s a programming term in there, or a song that I was listening to.
INT: They really help to set the tone for the work, though.
RR: Yes, that’s intentional. I always want to make short names so that people can remember them and the main reason to make the works in domain names, for me, was so that the work feels finished. Back in the early days of people doing web experiments, as I said before, everyone had a homepage and then the experiments would be /experiments/4b.6/5b.7 or whatever and then a few years later they’re gone because it was just a folder. You also didn’t know if it was a study or a finished piece of work. So the domain names really help to define that this work will be here and it will always be here, you just need to bookmark it. You know how bookmarks are associated with this idea of link rot, where people change the structure of their URL scheme on their site and all of a sudden their links don’t work? Instead, if you have something that is always in this domain name, it gives it permanence.
INT: Yeah, you’ve mentioned before how giving a piece of net art a domain name is the same as framing a sketch. It elevates it.
“The internet for me was a way to have a level playing field for everyone.”Rafaël Rozendaal
INT: Is having a sense of permanence associated with your work important to you then? Do you like knowing it will be there “forever”?
RR: Well, I think it’s important in the sense that, on the computer, and the same with a photo album on your phone, it’s very easy to create a lot of files. And if you create too many files, you never look back at them, it’s too much to absorb. So the domain names make me narrow down whether a piece of work is important enough for me to buy the domain name, or if it’s just a sketch.
One more thing, when you start making experiments on the computer and you wanted to see the history of digital art, it was very difficult to comprehend because it’s very hard to document it in a book. So if you want to study the history of painting, you see that this painter did that and then this painter did that and they invented this thing; you understand the trajectory. But if you want to go back to the days of CD-ROMs, it’s very hard to comprehend what happened. So I thought, if we want to have a dialogue between internet artists generationally, meaning people can respond to each other’s work, the work needs to be available for a long time.
INT: When you’re working with a browser, or with the web, it’s a space for you to experiment visually. But does your work harbour critique of the internet too?
RR: It was and is more of a critique of the art world than a critique of the internet. Because I thought, especially when I started, that the structure of old people deciding what “art” is was very odd. You’re 18 and then you suddenly have to make friends with 60-year-olds because they might like you and then put you in a position to show your work to the world. The internet for me was a way to bypass that, to have a level playing field for everyone. My work is really made from a sense of early internet optimism but I still think having the work available outside on other platforms and in your own domain name, on your own server, makes you more independent and gives the work longevity.
INT: On the flip side, do you see any negative impacts on creativity from the fact that anyone – or any artist – can upload anything to the web?
RR: No, I think it’s social media that is the devil. It makes people feel awful.
INT: What do you think about the fact that people produce work specifically for Instagram now?
RR: It’s odd because it’s so small... But I think making a web page is still a little bit tricky, not everyone can do it. And most people are too lazy to do it. But when it’s as easy as Snapchat or whatever, something goes wrong. You would think that removing friction makes everything better, but maybe there’s a point where a bit of friction is good, you still need an FTP server and you still need to know how to code a bit [to make a website] and that barrier is kind of interesting.
There’s also this thing that I call the “make you feel bad industry” and it’s like every time something comes out and you think you like it, something happens to ruin that: “I like Instagram – well, turns out it’s making teenagers depressed”; or “I like Uber – turns out it’s creating suicide among taxi drivers.”
INT: With Abstract Browsing, was turning those screenshots into weaves in any way a response to this kind of negativity that you feel towards certain parts of the internet?
RR: It came from the idea that, in the real world, you can do things to change your perception of something, wear glasses with a different colour or look through a lens that turns something upside down, take drugs, things like that and everything looks different. And then when code comes in, you can filter it in some way and change the perception of the code so the first browser extension I made was Text Free Browsing, which mimicked something from the early internet days called image-free browsing, which allowed for low bandwidth. As you wouldn’t have to load images, you could search the web a little faster. And I thought the opposite was interesting, where you would only see images as all the text is removed. It was just a way of thinking about how you could change how you see the internet.
You could see that as a reaction to the world being overwhelming and wanting to reduce it down to just colours. But my interest is more to do with making abstract compositions because I like investigating how we move through a rectangle with our eyes. It’s interesting how websites are designed year on year, in an evolutionary process to make you more sticky, you keep you there longer, to scroll forever. And I’m interested in how your eyes move across the screen, and that’s a lot easier to analyse when you remove all of the information. When you remove the images, the text, all of a sudden you can focus on the flow of the page. The interesting part of it is not saying these corporations are good or bad or whatever, but it’s interesting that they have such a different approach to composition than all of art history because most of art history is about the artist deciding where things go. But here, it’s an algorithm learning from the users that if it, for example, moves the feed a little to the left, it turns out people stay ten seconds longer, and they’ll test that all around the world. So it’s this weird AI together with humans creating compositions that nobody thinks about.
“There’s something strange about working with a computer, as you let the computer decide a lot of things, whether that’s through interaction or through using randomness.”Rafaël Rozendaal
INT: Why, when you were exploring these notions of changing perceptions, did you decide to physicalise the work and turn them into weavings?
RR: I was doing a residency in Istanbul and they asked us if we wanted to do something with local craft people and I knew there was a lot of textiles in the Middle East. That led to the first prototypes. And then I took the research further in the Netherlands at the Textiles Museum, using lots of different threads and colours. But the other thing I found interesting was that I made the browser plugin and I started taking screenshots and, just like on your phone, you quickly have too many. And the interesting thing about making things physical is that you have to choose, say, six out of 2,000. As I’m taking screenshots, I’m not really thinking too much, I’m just thinking “oh, this looks different,” but in physicalising them you have to think, why this six?
INT: It’s also interesting that weaving also involves a code.
RR: Yeah, that influenced my decision too. I’m very comfortable with systems.
INT: The idea that your works constantly straddle the digital and physical worlds definitely makes it unique.
RR: I can’t help it! There’s something strange about working with a computer, as you let the computer decide a lot of things, whether that’s through interaction or through using randomness. And then when you make a physical work, all of a sudden, you feel something very different, it’s more definite.
INT: It must be an enjoyable juxtaposition. That sort of relates to your ideas around permanence again, that physical artworks become digital artworks and are then kept in vaults and only ever seen as images of the originals. Do you imagine that we’re heading towards a time when we’ll only ever see digital recreations of artworks? And are you fighting that in some way?
RR: Yeah, it’s very funny because when you go to dinner with collectors, they all show each other the works they have on their phone. One of my collectors has a website so he can show my actual work, it’s not a reproduction, he’s showing the actual webpage. When I share websites on Instagram, as a screen recording, people are like, OK whatever. But when I show the same website, inside an installation in a museum or on a wall in a public space and make a video of it, people feel much more like it really happened. There’s a weird thing going on there, it’s like a primitive part of the brain which makes us think it’s “real”. It’s not that it matters so much to me how people respond to my work, but it feels like the websites are intended to be viewed digitally – they’re digital-first and it’s almost like they’re a syrup. It’s pure creativity. And then to make it drinkable, you have to add some water, whether that’s putting the work in an exhibition or a public space or something.
About the Author
Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor.