Any social movement worth its salt has an origin myth: Rosa Parks for civil rights campaigners, Stonewall for gay liberation groups or, more recently, the Battle of Seattle for anti-globalization activists. In the long run, however, the historical status of these myths is unimportant. Their greater consequence—the part that endures in the practices of everyday life and sometimes flourishes in later political change—resides in the distinct pattern, rhythm or form they bring to collective purpose and belonging. Art has often sought to express such forms in order to justify its place in the modern world. The limits of this aspiration have been a primary concern for Julian Stallabrass over the course of a number of substantial books—from Gargantua (1996) to High Art Lite (1999) and, most recently, Art Incorporated (2004). Art, he writes in the earliest of these, ‘finds itself in a precarious and unhappy situation. It is no longer given a semblance of coherence by the avant-garde rebellion, and it is largely isolated from political and social movements.’

On one level this unhappiness could almost be taken as a definition for what modernism has, with occasional exceptions, always been. On another, it might be seen as expressing a feeling that has become particularly acute in recent years—the malaise of a modernism that has long since fallen behind its contemporaries. Stallabrass has tended towards the latter view, but in Internet Art: The Online Clash of Culture and Commerce he strikes a more positive note, finding in a diverse set of web-based initiatives and interventions the makings of a new avant-garde. Indeed, at the beginning of this insightful work—originating in an exhibition he curated at Tate Britain, whose publishing arm have produced this stylish and richly illustrated volume—he asserts that in its current form, internet art is ‘the most conceptually sophisticated and socially conscious area of contemporary practice’.

This is a bold claim, all the more so because Stallabrass’s subject tends to elude easy classification. The root definition of internet art as a distinct genre is both simple and conventional. Its aim is to take the distribution mechanism of the internet itself—hardware, software, wired and wireless interconnectedness, multi-user functionality and interactivity, anonymity, search engines and the preferences built into their algorithms—as both its means and its concern. The medium, in other words, is the message. Various exceptions to this rudimentary definition have been raised, and it is routinely enlarged to include other networked technologies such as cell phones, beepers, fax machines, and human networks more generally; but as a rule, this is it.

Many of the artworks discussed by Stallabrass perform Situationist-style détournements and dérives, re-routing web-surfers away from the instrumentalized pathways of the corporate netscape. Elsewhere, online artists have appropriated data or imagery as electronic readymades, and several pieces discussed here have clear antecedents in Conceptual Art. Stallabrass describes a wide variety of practices, ranging from irreverent parody—such as Tomoko Takahashi’s spoof word-processing programme ‘Word Perhect’—to critical probings of the corporate world, all simultaneously dependent upon and at one remove from the workings of the world wide web. The group i/o/d devised a programme which strips away the visual content of web pages to reveal an intricate tracery of links and code—an X-ray of the virtual world which, while uncovering the structures of that realm, can only be propagated within it. Others, such as the duo working as Jodi, produce web pages that introduce glitches into the smooth functioning of browsers or subvert the slick graphics of computer games.

This sort of trouble-making is central to internet art as a genre but ultimately secondary to its larger critical promise; the latter cannot be encapsulated by a single work but is rather a function of the practice as a whole. One could describe this potential, using a term popularized by Joseph Beuys, as technologically enabled ‘social sculpture’; though this tends to suggest a medium or style, whereas internet art is driven by an aesthetic property or ideal—as the Italian Futurists were by speed, the Surrealists by chance, and various social realisms by the mass. Indeed, much as in crowd management techniques of the past, here email bulletin boards, online public databases and self-replicating computer viruses are all understood as plastic media that not only serve the various instrumental (and anti-instrumental) aims of their designers, managers and users, but also well up with a value that exceeds the sum of their parts—as pleasing or displeasing in their interconnected form.

This moment of aesthetic potential, when the interconnected forms of network technology become art, is like a switched-on, disembodied version of the experience Elias Canetti described in his 1960 Crowds and Power: ‘In that density, where there is scarcely any space between, each man is as near the other as he is to himself; and an immense feeling of relief ensues.’ Such a swoon of collectivized feeling is the promise (or threat) drawn on and negotiated by internet art and, much as for the crowd, it is intimately interconnected with any stake made for its social or political value. Stallabrass is less concerned with the aesthetic dimension of collectivity peculiarly available to internet art, however, and instead assesses its artistic and political vitality by its distance from the peril of the market.

Stallabrass tracks the political, economic and technological development of the internet, and of its broadly dispersed and innovative art, wisely and well. In thematically organized chapters—such as ‘The Structure of the Internet’, ‘The Form of Data’ and ‘Time and Space, Space as Time’—Stallabrass weaves together critical reflections and empirical information. The latter provides a welcome antidote to the breathless boosterism of recent years, while the former open up topics as diverse as the nature of online time, the limits of interactivity, the reaction of art institutions to the electronic upstarts, and the shared future of humans and machines.