Artist Profile – Olia Lialina

Published on 2018-04-29

Artwork featured in the salon: 'Summer' (2013) Animated GIF on loan courtesy of the artist.

Olia Lialina says she didn’t consider herself an artist until the Dutch Electronic Arts Festival printed the title on her nametag in 1996. Since then, she’s become an icon of “net art” and shown at the New Museum, HEK, Basel, ZKM, Karlsruhe, White Chapel Gallery, Art Projects Ibiza, The Kitchen, Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston. She’s identified as a film critic, webpage tinkerer, web design educator, digital curator, art entrepreneur, archivist, and GIF model over the course of her career. But one vocation is consistent and undeniable: she’s a close observer of how the internet’s evolution affects art. Though she started her career looking forward to what new technology can make possible, she’s grown her influence in looking back, understanding original contexts for digital pieces, and preserving display technology that becomes obsolete. 

In 1996, her browser-based piece My Boyfriend Came Back From The War made her a notable pioneer of internet art. Her click-to-reveal storyline about reunited lovers was built on HTML frames, a newly-released feature that let developers put multiple pages in one browser. She wasn’t just translating a story onto the internet, she was telling a story in the language of the web browser.

With such a close eye on how technological contexts change artistic experiences, she was also an early critic of the art world’s experiments with displaying digital art. In a charged and cheeky essay, she pointed out the awkwardness of computers (or worse still, net artists) in galleries and argued a browser-based display was a better venue for viewing and buying net art. This, she explained, is why she made “First Real Net Art Gallery” – Art Teleportacia—in 1998.

Her commercial intentions didn’t pan out, but the Art Teleportacia project uncovered just how much janitorial work goes into being a custodian of internet art. “Many of my works were based on features that browser developers considered being bugs and were removing those bugs in newer versions,” she told Creators’ Kathleen Flood in 2011, when HTML5 eliminated frame elements. “So, I have to find new tricks to keep them alive.”

Her interest in ephemerality deepened, too. In 2000, she launched the First Real Net Art Museum, and almost immediately renamed it the Last Real Net Art Museum. Here, she collected examples of the many copies, remixes and tributes artists like Constant Dullaart and Foundland Collective made to My Boyfriend Came Back From The War.  

These tribute pieces used a variety of approaches, from GIFs to Post-it notes to videos. But she wanted the name to make clear that all are subject to the whims of the internet. She annotates which works have been lost and recovered. 

In Summer (2013),  a GIF of a woman swinging back and forth from the viewer’s browser bar, Lialina devises a clever way to mimic earlier, slower web experiences on a more modern connection. The 18 frames of the GIF are hosted across 26 different sites, making them vulnerable to the whims of load times, site bugs, and outdated code. Michael Connor writes, “It reminds us that each time we view the work, we will experience it in a slightly different way, reflecting the shifting conditions of the network and our position within it.”