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BRIAN MACKERN: a perspective on net.art from South America

Q: We know your work mainly through your creation of the Net.art Latino Database, but we also know that you have a strong experience as a musician, visual, sound artist and curator. Could you tell us a little bit about how you move through the art world in general?

Brian: My generation comes from connections with the real world, we were in touch with physical objects. I’m a music based artist, I come from free-jazz and improvisation has  always been one of my main interests within any art form. In the 90s when these new technologies and connection modems became available I became interested in exploring this new world.  Actually Uruguay was one of the first Latinamerican countries to have Internet for everyone, it was expensive of course and it was modem Internet, in a physical line.

When this new medium became available, there were no courses to learn how to use it, you needed to be self-taught. But to me, it came as a strike, the possibility of being in a digital or virtual world. While learning how to build an online presence, I got more and more into the digital world. The sounds and music were still there but I focused more on reflecting about what it is to live in this virtual world, what are the experiences there. I was interested in understanding the processes that were happening  below the surface of the interface.

During the 90s, everything was open, you built your own machine, you had to learn how to control it. In that context a new paradigm was installed which was the one of  “the user”, meaning people who were using technological devices. I think the main difference with our contemporaneity is that now we are “prosumers”, we are consumers and we also constantly produce content for the network. And this comes with a certain degree of unconsciousness of what happens under the surface: systems of controls, leaving your fingerprint and providing information.

In this 25 year period of migrating from being users to prosumers, from the late 90s to our contemporaneity, my artistic practice shifted. As we got to know better about how the systems worked, I got more interested in that. It was so interesting to meet people coming from so many different disciplines. Everyone was thinking about the Internet and a collaborative network started to be created. So that was the main change of paradigm of the 90s, from having an occasional opportunity to get a book from someone who had travelled, to being part of a huge group of people with shared interests and everyone sharing and learning from each other. This was a very nice movement, and also a moment of naive optimism.

Print screen of NETART LATINO DATABASE, Brian Mackern, 1999 – 2004

Q: What other aspects from the Latinamerican region would you say that influenced your artistic practice?  

Brian: Something important within my practice is not only collective action but also the DIY (do it yourself). This happened more in Latinamerica but also in Europe, as everybody was a user and we all had to learn how to configure the devices. We all got proficient in working with electronics, programming or designing interfaces. This lasted for a few years, because then Europe triggered up and high-tech became accessible and we in Latinamerica got stuck. In Uruguay and other Latinamerican countries, we had a huge economical crisis in 2002 and that got us stuck forever. But this also made us more creative to solve things which we could not solve with money as we couldn’t buy new devices.

The DIY practice in Latinamerica delivered products which were low-tech. For example, I’ve been a VJ for many years, but when I started, in the late 90s, it was very difficult to get a projector. You could get someone to lend you one, but maybe that projector was burnt so you had to design your own projects for that specific projector. This meant you were adapting your aesthetic narrative to the devices that were available, it was dialogue between the hardware which was available and the artwork you wanted to do.

Q: Could you tell us about the Net.art Latino Database?

Brian: I started to create the net.art latino database in the late 90s because that was the moment in which the History of net.art was starting to be written. Research started to become published but all the histories were coming from Europe or from the Northern hemisphere (Canada, USA) and focusing on the production from those regions. That was actually stange or a contradiction to what net.art was, because what happens with net.art is that it works with what defines the net. The first thing is that the Net is composed of many nodes and there is no hierarchy between these nodes, that’s the characteristic of a network. But when you build a history you need to go back again to this old method of constructing a discourse: what happened first? What was the most important event?.

Another aspect is that in those histories that were becoming accessible, there was no reference to Latinamerican net.art. So I said okay, if this continues to happen, if the productions and developments from this region continue to be ignored, it won’t be because of the lack of information, I will make all the information accessible in this site that became the Net.art Latino Database.[1]

And that was it, as you can see, the interface I created is very low-tech, in ascii and I chose the image of Joaquín Torres García’s inverted map of Latinamerica that he proposed in the 1940s saying “our North is the South”. This shift of directions in the map of Joaquín Torres García was a very clear statement which provoked a resistance and an alternative to eurocentrism. With the database I was providing information as to allow an alternative discourse and net.art history which not only focused in the Northern hemisphere.

At the moment (2021), I think that more than 60% of the links are not working and I deliberately left it like that. In the database you can find the information of the site, the original links of each net.artwork, the name of the artists, their country of origin and some little comments about each work. This was a collective work as I got all the information by asking in many mailing lists.

Q: What was the response from institutions and researchers to this database?

Brian: Josephine Bosma generously included this work in her book Nettitudes: Let’s Talk Net Art(2011)[2] But also, around 2008 an artist-book[3] about the database was produced by MEIAC in Badajoz, Spain. The book gathers several commissioned texts by Latinamerican and Spanish theorists, not only referring to the database itself but the general Latinamerican net.art movement (e.g.: Nilo Casares from Spain, Lila Pagola from Argentina, Gustavo Romano from Argentina).

For the book we chose a very thin paper as we wanted to convey the idea of fragility that the web itself has. Also, we printed the complete list of links which appear on the database in a continuous paper and we used the paper that dot matrix printers which were generally used in the 90s needed. For us it was important to also use low-tech for the creation of this book. 

Q: In another interview you received, you mention that you believe that sharing and communicating productions is the best way of preserving. Could you tell us about your work in relation to the restoration of net.artworks? (E.g.: Epithelia – Mariela Yeregui, 1999)

Brian: The latest big association with the net.art latino database was with Rhizome, through the artistic direction of Michael Connor, who has also overseen the initiative Net Art Anthology[4]. I think this was the first anthology created with a real interest in covering this movement at a global scale. They have created a balanced and broad representation.

Apart from presenting the net.art latino database, with Rhizome I was also able to recover Mariela Yeregui’s work Epithelia[5], a very strong artwork about the deconstruction of the body through the navigation of the site. When Yeregui first produced that work, it stayed online only for approximately 1 year. This because it had html and programming tags which were only read by a specific browser (Netscape 4.7) and if you had a different version, you could not see the piece. However, I kept on thinking about it for many years and that is why I decided to reconstruct it with the support of Rhizome. I worked on this for 1 year as I had to start it from scratch and worked very closely with Mariela.

So that’s another big part of my practice, the fact that I work a lot with archives.  I am interested in the use of archives as a way of evocating things, not as a way to remember but more to evocate what was that time, what I was doing at that time and what I am doing at the present. It’s a mutual contamination of my life from that time and my present life.

Brian Mackern (Uruguay) is a new media artist, developer and designer of digital and hybrid net based art projects since 1995. Musician, composer and developer of autogenerative and reactive sound visual structures and environments. His art practice delves into areas defined by memories and remembrance, urban geographies and affective cartographies, noise, remix, glitch and errors. His work, mainly concerned with processes and structures which go across digital and physical environments, explores interface design, soundtoy creations, real time video-data animations, netart, soundart and digital archaeology. He has presented his work and given workshops and lectures throughout Latin America and Europe. His work has been exhibited at major international art festivals and received recognition from numerous institutions. He is also a curator and coordinator of art and education related projects based on contemporary technologies.

Artist’s webpage: http://bri.uy

[1] The link to Net.art Latino Database: http://meiac.es/latino/index.html

[2] Josephine Bosma (2011). Nettitudes: Let’s Talk net art. Nai Publishers.

[3] Nilo Casares (dirección editorial), Laura Baigorri, Giselle Beiguelman, Lila Pagola y Gustavo Romano (textos) net.art latino database, Museo Extremeño e Iberoamericano de Arte Contemporáneo (Badajoz), https://www.digitalartarchive.at/fileadmin/user_upload/Virtualart/PDF/301_netart_latino_database.pdf

[4] https://anthology.rhizome.org/netart-latino-database

[5] https://anthology.rhizome.org/epithelia