By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
Until last November, the Zurich-based Internet artists who call themselves ”etoy“ were known mostly to other Internet artists -- and the organizers of the prestigious Ars Electronica Festival in Linz, Austria, which awarded them the coveted Golden Nica award in 1996. But all that changed when Santa Monica--based Internet retailer eToys filed a domain-squatting lawsuit, claiming that the artists’ Web site had exposed the toy company‘s customers to profane and violent images.
EToys succeeded in shutting down the artists’ Web site, but also turned etoy into a Net cause celebre -- and created a PR nightmare for itself. Internet activists, followed closely by the media, rose up against what was perceived as a corporate hijack -- particularly since the artists had their domain name first. With public opinion heavily against it, eToys in January not only dropped its suit (after the holiday shopping season, of course) but agreed to pay the artists $40,000 in legal expenses -- as close to an admission of fault as a corporation is likely to give.
Etoy‘s victory over eToys was painted as a David-and-Goliath affair, the triumph of defenseless Internet artists over the big, bad U.S. corporation. But that facile characterization obscured the complex relationship between the artists’ message, Internet commerce and the media -- a nexus that made the legal battle a dream come true for etoy.
”David and Goliath is about small against giant,“ said ”agent“ Zai, the press spokesman during the fight and now ”CEO“ of the arts group. ”But the significant thing in our case was that hundreds of small attacked the giant from all sides. The buffalo started to drink water in the wrong place on the river at the wrong time. Soon all the piranhas had eaten him up.“
The etoy artists‘ willingness to share credit for their legal victory has less to do with modesty than with their core mission, which is to reach as many people with their ideas as possible. Etoy does this by twisting the familiar into unfamiliar shapes. They are corporate-mocking Internet artists who take the form of a corporation in a multilayered act of both emulation and ridicule. They even go so far as to take in real money for shares, much of it from fellow artists, but also from some surprising sources -- including former Austrian Chancellor Viktor Klima, a Social Democrat.
”Etoy is much more than your typical group of artist hackers,“ said author and National Public Radio host Douglas Rushkoff, who joined etoy’s advisory board late last year. ”It is an organism, a virus; an entity of humansilicon origin yet with no known biological or technological predecessor. The boys who have volunteered for etoy have quite literally surrendered their lives to the technosphere. Those of us lucky enough to have interacted with them or their mediations will never experience the man-machine-network interface in quite the same way again.“
Etoy will do anything that gets a reaction, pretty much.
”It‘s a company that doesn’t have any other purpose than to promote ourselves,“ agent Kubli told me last year at the Ars Electronica competition. ”There are certainly ironic aspects, or self-ironic . . . Reactions are very polarized. People love us or they hate us.“
”Us“ are male artists in their early 20s who have grown up in a media culture whose ubiquitousness they not only accept but embrace. Together informally since 1992, and active since 1994, etoy artists see the media not just as a marketing tool but as part of their art. And etoy seeks to master the art form. The etoy artists understand that from a media perspective, nothing is worse than boredom. They know the value of good, clear quotes. And they show respect for the media, as the massive archive of articles at the revamped www.etoy.com site attests -- in French, Italian, German and English.
The love for the media is not just about getting ahead. Etoy artists were offered $500,000 to turn over their domain name to eToys -- and said no. As Zai and Gramazio, the two key figures in etoy, explained recently during a long series of conversations at etoy‘s temporary headquarters in Zurich, what matters to etoy is connecting with an audience. They hate isolated art. That’s why the eToys battle was such a bonanza, but it would be a mistake to think it was mere luck.
Etoy came up with its name as a sort of creative accident, the members trying a list of thousands of catchy four-letter words generated at random. (Once they all saw ”etoy,“ they instantly agreed -- ”It was like magical,“ remembers Zai.) This was before the ascendance of ”e“ as a prefix. But in choosing their .com domain name, they were intentionally associating themselves with the big corporations that understood the Web was a potent branding tool. Other Internet artists were using long, complicated URLs -- and seemed hostile to etoy‘s notion that the art was the name and the identity more than any ”content“ at the site.
”We realized we were more concerned about the address than what we would put in the page itself,“ said Gramazio. ”We were paying money for certain brands and trademark stuff before the product itself . . . People would say, ’What the fuck is this? This is not art. Art should be a page.‘ We were saying, ’No, it‘s about the name, that’s the art.‘“
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