“It was only a matter of time before it happened—the art biennale has gone digital.”[1]

In the digital and Internet age, the discourse of the public sphere has become increasingly relevant. Computers have become the preferred mode of communication in a networked world. The digital revolution is a communications revolution which has changed society. I will examine Habermas‘ idea of the public sphere and how his central concern, the idea that society depends on communication, is relevant to the Internet role in the evolution of a globally networked society.

The Internet has had a significant effect on the way we access information and has provided us with a platform for public opinion on social issues. It can be used as a creative space as well as a social space to discuss and to view art. Connectivity is a starting point for new ways of collaborating and socialising. The World Wide Web has provided a public discourse around art that is discussed, produced and viewed online.

 Herbert Marcuse was a philosopher who criticized modern technology, one of his core ideas was that in contemporary society we are entering into a new era; a technological society. Marcuse has a negative view of these technological effects, he does not see the advances as a benefit, but instead a threat. He states that machinery of the technological universe can revolutionise or retard a society. Like Heidegger and Husserl, he sees technological advances as robbing society of freedom.

In his essay “Technology and Science as Ideology”, Habermas provides a critique of Marcuse’s idea that technology will prevent us from having social change. “For this un-freedom appears neither as irrational nor as political, but rather as a submission to the technical apparatus which enlarges the comforts of life and increases the productivity of labour.”[2] Habermas account of the public sphere was that of a bourgeois public sphere that was a particular development in society. But what is a public sphere now with the invention of the World Wide Web? Technological media is absorbed into our society.

“Technology is always a historical social project: it is projected what a society and its ruling interests intend to do with men and things”. We connect to the world as individuals on a computer looking at a screen, once connectivity is established to a network we have access to unlimited data from other computers.  Cyber Space has replaced reality; we now have the ability to engage with objects of physical materiality.

This digital connection is real in terms of engagement. Bolter points out that on the computer screen everything is made visible to us through a window which we can click on and enter. This type of engagement can have its advantages. When quoting Michael Heim’s suggestion of “the computer networks as a godsend in providing forums for people without physical limitations of geography”. Bolter disagrees by pointing out that characteristics such as geography and time zones are limitations of computer networks.[3]

He has a point in terms of economic status and urban setting being factors in relation to access, approximately 500 million people we using the World Wide Web in 2002.

In 2016 these limitations are less of a factor with an increase of over 3 billion people worldwide.[4] There are many debates and discussion on blogs and social media in the public sphere. In relation to online blogs Mahlouly discusses the unreliability of Internet in relation to the public sphere.

Because bloggers and Internet users are not subjected to any form of control or gatekeeping. Their publications are likely to be less reliable, and their arguments lack rationality. Therefore, this online form of public sphere fails at confronting and discussing political issues in an organised and critical way. Roberts states “On the other hand, there is a wave of optimism concerning the potential of new technologies, particularly the web, to enable new forms of participation in economic and public life, to transform political debate and citizenship”.[5]

In relation to the online public sphere, I will explore a more specific area of its role in art and online symposiums. Bolter states that Tim Berners Lee invented the World Wide Web so scientists could share information. The evolution of the Internet we see an artistic shift due to the Internet changing the way we live, redefining social structures.

Many political scientists, media researchers and other scholars, as well as political activists, believe that this new medium has the potential to fundamentally change societal communication and that, in a nutshell, Internet communication makes a better public sphere than have the old mass media. The Internet relies on speed of communication and has accelerated at an incredible rate. Steyerl asks the question how could anyone think it could be over? The Internet is now more potent than ever.[6]

The web is a medium for sharing information globally, it is a tool that can be used to produce art and to support artistic collaboration. Artistic practices are undergoing changes in relation to their function within the digital sphere. Gere asserts that Net art is a product and symptom of the acceleration in technology. Net Art was viewed on the Internet and required interaction on the part of the viewer. Greene states that Net Art was a result of a software glitch which stemmed from an illegible email received by Slovenian artist Vuk Cosic. It resulted in a term to describe online art and communications.

Jodi.org were one of the first Internet collectives to make art for the World Wide Web. The Internet art duo pioneered it as a medium, they gained notoriety by confusing their viewers with websites that contained disorganised text patterns and HTML graphics. The invention of the Internet gave rise to artistic exploration and for the public to experience art. Every artist working with a traditional medium could benefit from knowing how to make an artwork for the Internet.

When referring to the Internet a platform for art, Mc Donald states that “Even if it’s not the primary place you want to locate your work, it can be an easy, fun, quick and satisfying way to express the smaller ideas.”[7] In relation to The Wrong Digital Art Biennale, discussing the discourse around online collaborations, Eastham remarks that artists have considered the Internet to exhibit their work and recently there is an increase in the number of platforms that now show art online in a contemporary way.”[8]

The use of the Internet as a platform of exhibiting art can be seen in the online biennial The Wrong. David Quiles Guilló, founder of The Wrong Digital Art Bienniale explains that “digital is all around us now: the phone, the computer, emails, WhatsApp, Instagram. This event provides an alternative space to connect to a wider audience.” When discussing the Venice Biennale Quiles Guilló remarks that digital art is challenging the establishment.

“The establishment tries to keep the new stuff that they don’t understand kind of off to the side.”[9]When considering The Wrong Digital Art Biennale we question the effect of embracing the Internet as a way of displaying and discussing art outside the traditional norm of the gallery. “The rhizomatic effect of the bazaaring of Net Art created by the sheer scope of The Wrong could have created one of the greatest analogies for the current explosion of media art today by giving a lot of it to the online public and creating an agorà for discussion as well”.[10]

The Art of the Networked Practice Online Symposium held in 2015 was a global gathering of local, remote speakers and audiences via Web-conferencing to discuss issues in contemporary art. The organiser Randall Packer states that it is a “concept that combines physical geography, the virtual + representational, with the network of social relations”.[11] We are only at the beginning stages of the advancement of the global network, and yet the possibilities are staggering.

One can only imagine the participatory role we will each grab hold of in the unfolding 21st century as we achieve greater means of expression to state our position in the world of affairs, to distribute our artistic output, to enter into creative dialogue. Traditional Art Galleries and Museum’s have long been the primary platform for the exhibition and circulation of art. Through the Internet we have an alternative way to distribute art into the public sphere.

Bookchin states that net artists did not rely on galleries or museums to show work, instead they exhibited on the Internet. Nickolas Koroloff creator of online GALLERY T states that “the digital way is a real way to promote and express creativity, not only a virtual thinking.”[12]


How do we currently relate to technology, how we think about it, what do we imagine it to be? “For Bookchin the net still provides a public space and open architecture to realise hypothetical proposals, sketches and prototypes”.[13]Due to the Internet our experience of the world is changing. Bosma states that a new landscape of shared spaces is evolving and part of this is the new public domain.

Bosma states Eric Kluitenberg‘s definition of the public domain. The public domain is something that is in constant transformation, never fixed and needs to be reinvented continuously. Truly public spaces, more often than not, just simply emerge spontaneously, and are not consciously designed. Bolter comments on the future and the past “As a digital network, cyberspace remediates the electric communications networks of the past 150 years, the telegraph and the telephone; as virtual reality; it remediates the visual spaces of painting, film and television; and as a social space….”.

We should consider the merits of the Internet as an artistic medium and as a platform for the exchange of information. It has provided a greater reach to audiences to access and discuss artistic discourse, as well as being a space to host art works. It has presented a new forum for public discourse “With the advent of the Net, civic interaction takes a major historical step by going online, and the sprawling character of the public sphere becomes all the more accentu-ated.”[14]

Has the digital era transformed the public sphere? The public can view and access digital art from any connected computer. The Internet has has provided this platform, to be independent of the reliance on the traditional gallery space. Carter points out that “Internet art forms rarely have a place in modern museums. Those that are put on display are either on public machines in a gallery, in which case the physical presence of the computers themselves unintentionally become a part of the artwork…”[15]

We can see the use of the Internet in the evolution of the digital public sphere in the revolutionary concept of The Art of the Networked Practice 2015. Holding a conference online and not being reliant on geographical location, the public can access an entire symposium and participative art project online. Internet can offer itself as a tool for the creation of a public sphere in which debates such as issues in contemporary art can take place. Roberts suggests that Benkler’s analysis of the networked public sphere takes into consideration the democratic effects of the Internet in the mass-mediated public sphere.

“The great strength of Benkler’s argument here is the understanding, derived from Habermas, that participation, in and of itself, is not the key criteria by which to assess the democratic promise of the web.” Perhaps Habermas idea of the public sphere did not envisage the globally connected society. Ascott suggests that a user of networks is potentially always involved with the net, constantly connected and interacting. With the invention of the Internet there is an ability to engage with and receive information.

For the relationship to work perhaps there need to be more of an engagement on part of the art world. As Simoniti recalls Bishop stated that if contemporary art can’t keep up with the Internet, it can have no claim on its definitional adjective.  Although Habermas was not considering the Internet in his concepts and still is unsure of its reliability. In an interview he remarks in relation to the Internets relevance to the development of the public sphere. “Yet, this in itself does not automatically result in progress on the level of the public sphere.”[16]

It could be argued that Bishop in her controversial text “The Digital Divide”, was dismissive of the Internet and digital media artists. She was more concerned with its place in criticism, her argument may have been based on her view of the current state of contemporary art in 2012. In a response to this, Cornell and Droitcour suggest in their 2013 essay “Technical difficulties” that Bishop’s comments are badly timed.

This is due to art beginning to critically engage with network technologies and art institutions recognising the undeniable importance of the Internet. The situation she describes in “The Digital Divide” is out of date. Perhaps with recent events in 2016, such as the The Wrong Digital Art Biennale and the Art of the Networked Practice Online Symposium there is a recent shift in engagement with artists, curators and critics who are using the Internet in a more critical way.

We only have to look at Electronic Superhighway (2016–1966) a retrospective exhibition in Whitechapel Gallery London to see an acknowledgement of Internet’s influence on contemporary art from the past to current.

“After all artistic activity is a game whose form patterns and functions develop and evolve according to periods and social contexts”.[17] Perhaps a rethinking of Habermas idea of the public sphere should now consider the Internet’s merits, in the extension of it’s social relevance and possibilities as a type of public sphere for contemporary art criticism.


[1] – Blackmore Evans, J. (2015). The Wrong: Even Digital Art Doesn’t Last Forever. [online] Studiobeat. Available at: http://www.studio-beat.com/art-news-blog/the-wrong-even-digital-art-doesnt-last-forever/ [Accessed 4 Apr. 2016].

[2] – Habermas, J. (1968). Habermas-Jürgen – Science and Technology as Ideology.pdf. [online] Google Docs. Available at: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0Bz8cVS8LoO7OUUxJQ0hyUWRaMGc/edit [Accessed 14 Apr. 2016].

[3] – Bolter, J. and Grusin, R. (2000). Remediation. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

[4] – Number of Internet Users (2016) – Internet Live Stats.

[5] – Roberts, B. (2016). FCJ-093 Beyond the ‘Networked Public Sphere’: Politics, Participation and Technics in Web 2.0 | The Fibreculture Journal: 14. [online] Fourteen.fibreculturejournal.org. Available at: http://fourteen.fibreculturejournal.org/fcj-093-beyond-the-networked-public-sphere-politics-participation-and-technics-in-web-2-0/ [Accessed 14 May 2016].

[6] – Steyerl, H. (2013). Too Much World: Is the Internet Dead? | e-flux. [online] E-flux.com. Available at: http://www.e-flux.com/journal/too-much-world-is-the-internet-dead/ [Accessed 17 May 2016].

[7] – McDonald, E. (2016). Looking a pigeon in the eye on a window ledge. Visual Artist Ireland, (3 May/June 2016), p.25.

[8] – Eastham, B. (2015). Review: The Wrong Biennale. [online] Rhizome. Available at: http://rhizome.org/editorial/2015/dec/01/the-wrong-biennale-review/ [Accessed 4 Apr. 2016].

[9] – Hunter, B. (2016). The Wrong Biennial: Digital Art Gets Real. [online] Canadian Art. Available at: http://canadianart.ca/features/digital-biennial/ [Accessed 4 Apr. 2016].

[10] – Lichty, P. (2016). The Wrong Biennial: The Wrong Project that’s So Right – a metacritique. | www.furtherfield.org. [online] Furtherfield.org. Available at: http://furtherfield.org/features/reviews/wrong-biennial-wrong-project-that%E2%80%99s-so-right-%E2%80%93-metacritique [Accessed 15 May 2016].

[11] – Packer, R. (2015). The Art of the Networked Practice. [online] Reportage from the Aesthetic Edge. Available at: http://www.randallpacker.com/art-networked-practice/ [Accessed 15 May 2016].

[12] – Koroloff, N. (2016). Interviewed by Burke, C. [16 May 2016 11am]

[13] – Corby, 2006, p.6.

[14] – Dahlgren, P. (2005). The Internet, Public Spheres, and Political Communication: Dispersion and Deliberation. Political Communication, 22(2), pp.147-162.

[15] – Carter, S. (n.d.). The Online Museum | Public Sphere Project. [online] Publicsphereproject.org. Available at: http://www.publicsphereproject.org/node/404 [Accessed 11 May 2016].

[16] – Schwering, M. (2014). Essays: Internet and Public Sphere What the Web Can’t Do – Jürgen Habermas interviewed by Markus Schwering | Reset Dialogues on Civilizations. [online] Resetdoc.org. Available at: http://www.resetdoc.org/story/00000022437 [Accessed 13 May 2016].

[17] – Bourriad, N. (1998). Relational Aesthetics. [online] Available at: http://www.kim-cohen.com/seth_texts/artmusictheorytexts/Bourriaud%20Relational%20Aesthetics.pdf [Accessed 16 May 2016].