John Michael Boling"A computer not connected to the internet is a very different thing."
John Michael Boling's contribution to the history of Internet art is one of engagement. A prodigious user of personal computers and the WWW in their earliest incarnations, his work in digital montage, animation, and found video has consistently strived to push the limits of what is possible within the medium of Internet art. Boling has also been a significant champion of Post Internet Art in its formative years as a long standing contributor to Rhizome, co-founder of the creative forum Nasty Nets, and co-founder of Are.na, a platform for personalized research. In the last year, Boling has distanced himself from the internet, returning to his roots to work on his first major work: an anime television series made entirely on the open source software Blender.
So, you’re originally from Georgia?
I was born in Rome, Georgia in 1983 and lived there for the first 18 years of my life. In Georgia there’s a really great program called the hope scholarship. If you go to college In-State and keep a 3.0 average they pay for your tuition and give you money for books and stuff. I went to film school at Georgia State University in Atlanta for a year, hated it, and transferred to the University of Georgia in Athens.
Why did you drop out of film school?
By the early 2000’s, honoring my teenage dream of being a filmmaker didn’t seem as fun anymore. That independent film culture from the late 80’s and 90’s had collapsed on itself and it was just too expensive to do anything. So my dad asked about art school.
Had you been into art before that?
Not really, but I was around it a lot. My dad went to art school, and my grandfather had an art gallery in Atlanta in the 70’s. There was always art around the house.
What about doing stuff with the computer? When did that start?
My dad got us a 386 computer for Christmas in 1989. Pretty much every day since then I’ve been messing around with graphics on the computer.
What programs were you using?
When I was six I was using Deluxe Paint, which is this really cool bitmap graphics editor that was originally built for the Amiga. It was a really powerful program at the time. You could also make animations with it so I would spend my time making characters move around, mostly just playing around and having fun with it.
What about going online?
Shortly after we got that first computer, I dialed into a local BBS. I was like six or seven. I don’t remember if it was a messaging interface or a forum, but I remember some guy, his name was Megalomaniac, sent a message saying something like “Hey, how’s it going? What’s up? I saw you’re logged in.”
That’s gotta seem crazy.
I thought it was magic. I was really astounded by the possibilities knowing that you can connect with somebody like that. It wasn’t until ‘94 that we got WWW access through Prodigy which was an early competitor of AOL. As soon as we got that I saw there was a place I could put all these things I had been making. Prodigy was also the first of the dial-up services to offer free web hosting so I started to make websites.
What were they like?
They were just the goofy kind of nonsense websites an 11 year old would make. I remember one just had pictures of Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem from the Muppets with an infinitely tiled background image of a Zagnut candy bar, and probably a few rotating skull animated gifs... The fact that you could just copy and paste a website’s source code, make a few changes in a text editor and put out something new for people to see was amazing.
This was before google too, right?
Yeah, the internet at that time was so different. You could kind of conceive of seeing it all in some way. When Yahoo first started, it was something like a user generated directory of websites. For instance, there would be a moderator who would take care of collecting and organizing all the skateboarding websites in California or something. You could just surf through the hierarchy on Yahoo and actually find stuff.
Were you aware of Internet art from a young age?
Well, I didn’t recognize it as that. There were probably weird things I came across that felt like art to me. It wasn’t until a net art class in art school in 2005 taught by one of my mentors Mark Callahan that art online was sort of legitimized to me. It dawned on me that the stuff I found interesting and wanted to do could be looked at from an art perspective.
What was he showing you?
He showed us a lot of the new media and net.art canon and introduced me to Rhizome which is where I came into contact with an early piece that Guthrie Lonergan had made. That Guthrie piece hit me hard. I felt like, “I’ve been doing stuff like this for fun on the side. Why don’t I just do this stuff instead of all the other bullshit I’ve been doing?” Shortly after that Guthrie and I started emailing each other and became friends.
I understand that Delicious was fairly central to the internet art community at the time. How did you get into it?
I had begun uploading stuff to http://www.gooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooogle.com/, my art site but nobody really knew about it. A friend had told me to check out del.icio.us. I went to it, typed in my domain and four or five total strangers had already saved it. I was immediately hooked.
Kind of like your first “like.”
Del.icio.us was essentially the first Web 2.0 social network. If you saved a link, you could see a list of the other people who also saved that link. Through that process you could find cool people through the cool stuff they were saving. That doesn’t sound very crazy now but at the time it was amazing. I can’t really express how well it worked. I met so many friends there.
What was the common thing uniting the scene there?
The fact that we weren’t using it exclusively as an archiving or collecting tool like most people used del.icio.us. We were also using it as a way to put out our own work, like an open studio or something. Most of us in the scene went to art school and had arts training. We were really the first generation who had grown up with the WWW and understood it in a real way. We were just starting to hit a point of maturity where the work was getting more intentional, but nobody outside of our circle really paid any attention to it.
It was a different era.
Yeah. Twitter was still in its infancy and still revolved around SMS, Myspace was more popular than Facebook, and Tumblr didn’t exist yet. No iPhones. It was still casual and free. Then Yahoo bought del.icio.us and fucked it up and the web 2.0 social data agenda was embraced by all of the major tech players, and the iPhone came out and the internet really sort of changed into… well, what it is now.
Nasty Nets started before all that, right?
Nasty Nets was an extension of the way a lot of us were using del.icio.us. Travis Hallenbeck who is something like the purest internet user I know served as the original point of departure for Nasty Nets.
He was kind of the inspiration?
Guthrie really internalized a lot of what Travis was doing and reached out to Joel Holmberg and I wanting to band together. We reached out to Marisa Olson and we all started trying to figure out how to set up a place where we could do all the things we’d been doing on del.icio.us in a more customized way.
Kinda like a new place to hang out?
Yeah, it kind of felt that way immediately.
How did you guys figure out how to structure the site?
It was a Ouija board style website from a structural level. Four of us kind of figured out the initial layout and member set and it just mutated out of that. At the time I thought about it like a high school newspaper if the internet was your high school. It was like a club for professional Internet surfers.
Professional Internet surfers?
Yeah, just the idea of professionally surfing the internet as the foundation of a studio practice. Taking it seriously. Like, “this is my day job, I seek out and make things for the internet.”. When in reality nobody anywhere aside from a few oddities was really getting paid to blog. That wasn’t a thing yet.
What were your goals for the work you were making at the time?
Often it was just “What can I make tonight and put up tomorrow for everybody else to respond to?”
A lot of the work I've seen you do seems to come from extensive research.
Definitely. A lot of my stuff is about finding the right two things and placing them together in the right - wrong way. That is definitely the core motivation of my early work. I was trying to do whatever I could to reduce my involvement; that point of balance where the most minuscule alteration could create the most dramatic effect.
A lot of those early works remind me of Jack Goldstein or John Baldessari. Were you thinking about their work?
Honestly not until looking back. Most of the stuff I was looking at was on the internet and the only art I cared about was what was being made by my friends in the del.icio.us scene.
Like instead of art thats being made for the internet, that might come from an art-historical context, it was art that takes its complete source of reference from the internet.
I think that’s it right there, at least speaking personally. I was sort of doing it as a response to getting frustrated with art school, and getting that out of my system by using it as some filter for the internet.
You moved to New York after you graduated?
Yeah. There was an artist who had visited our school and he had a loft space for artist assistants in Brooklyn so I worked for him a couple of days a week and got the apartment for free. I had to work a little bit extra to have enough money for macaroni and cheese, diet coke and cigarettes. Most of my free time was spent on del.icio.us or just making something.
Were you able to start to hang out with people you had met there?
I had known Marisa Olson through del.icio.us and Nasty Nets and was helping her out with a few of her projects. She started taking me out to openings where I got to meet Lauren Cornell and Cory Arcangel who have both been amazingly supportive ever since. Charles Broskoski was in town and we started hanging out alot with Jamie Whipple. That combination of couches kind of crystalized New York as an outpost for the scene. Whenever someone came into town everyone would get together in real life and hang out. That was around the time that Nasty Nets and all that work really began to get more attention from the art world.
How did Nasty Nets end?
It was a weird end. I remember it got un-fun. There was some blog, maybe AFC or something, that contextualized it in a way that led to a flame war in the comment thread. It made it way too serious. People were getting catty about it. It started to become too much of a thing to the point of like "where’s the manifesto?"
It was never about that.
Not all the members of Nasty Net were even artists! It was a group of people all coming from different places all going in different directions all interested in different things. Nasty Nets was just the part of the venn diagram where everybody’s interests met. It definitely was not an art collective. So we just ended it.