I

"Rhizome" is the botanical term for a kind of stem that burrows underground, sending out shoots and roots. Rhizomes connect plants into living networks. Rhizome.org is a nonprofit organization that supports the international new media art community through online services and offline events.

Rhizome was founded in February 1996 in Berlin at a time when the international new media art world was fragmented into local communities and lacked a common platform for the exchange of ideas and information. While festivals such as Ars Electronica in Linz, Austria did enable people working in this field to share ideas with each other and the public, we saw an opportunity to use the Internet to facilitate a critical dialog that was more accessible, inclusive and ongoing, and to build community across geographical and cultural borders. At that time, there was no critical forum devoted exclusively to the field of art and new media, there were no regular columns in art magazines. Only the MIT journal Leonardo devoted attention to the Internet and net art, but mainly in an academic way.

We began with an email list, generously hosted at no cost by Walter van der Cruijsen at Desk.nl. I invited people I had met at Ars Electronica and other places to participate in a critical dialogue about the theory, practice and aesthetics of new media art. From the beginning, the focus was on many-to-many communication, on critical discussion and on the intersection of contemporary art and emerging technologies. By focusing on a narrowly defined subject, we have been able to be more comprehensive in our coverage of this fast-growing field.

Shortly after starting up, Rhizome moved to New York City where the Internet content industry, now known as Silicon Alley, was taking off. We incorporated as a for-profit entity, Rhizome.com, in July 1996. It soon became clear that Rhizome.com's advertising-based revenue model was fatally limited by market size. A second, more commercially focused enterprise, StockObjects, was started in 1997 as a way to leverage existing assets and build a viable business. StockObjects.com funded Rhizome.org's operations for two years.

By 1998, Rhizome had developed a large, supportive community. At that time Rhizome had around 2000 subscribers. We felt that Rhizome was finally in a position to thrive as an independent entity, so we spun it off from StockObjects and formed a new nonprofit organization called Rhizome.org.

As of April 2000, rhizome.org has about 750.000 hits per month, and about 10.000-15.000 actual visitors per month. The number of visits to the web site currently increases by 35-50% per month. Rhizome is currently increasing its number of mailing list subscribers by 7% per month.

 

II

Our mission is to foster communication and critical dialog about new media art, to introduce the works of new media artists, curators, critics and educators to a wider public and to archive these works for the future.

Email remains at the center of our activities - the glue that binds our community together. Email lists are among the most important and effective forms of online communication. A couple of years ago, Wired Magazine published a cover story on push media. It argued that push was the future of online publishing: instead of having to go somewhere and pull content down, these media platforms push content to you, keeping you engaged and involved. Most of the various push media plays that were being hyped at that time have died. But email lists - the original, low-tech push media - continue to thrive. Email lists are better for building online community than Web-based threaded discussion or chat systems because they reach out to you and ask for your attention. Until you unsubscribe, the email keeps appearing in your in box. In an attention-deficit economy, proactive media are particularly effective.

Our email list is available in two modes: Rhizome Raw and Rhizome Digest. Rhizome Raw is unfiltered and unmoderated. Messages posted to list@rhizome.org go directly to all Raw subscribers. These messages include announcements of new media art projects, events, festivals, conferences and exhibitions; press releases; calls for work; reviews of new media art projects; interviews with new media artists; commentary on issues related to new media art; and responses to other posts. Rhizome Digest is a filtered weekly compilation of the most relevant posts from Raw. Offering these two modes has been an important factor in our success. Raw serves as an open forum and community center, with a small but very active and dedicated group of contributors. Without Raw, the community would stagnate. But Raw can be noisy, and isn't for everybody. Digest is more manageable, more predictable, and much more popular. Without Digest, our audience would soon whither. As of April 2000 there are about 400 subscribers to the raw list, and about 4000 subscribers to the filtered list.

Our Web site rhizome.org is an online platform for the presentation, interpretation and preservation of new media art. It also serves as a resource for information about Rhizome.org and as a gateway to our email services. The site's key features include: artist-created splash pages, a library of more than 1500 texts on art and technology selected from the email lists, a preservation archive of net artworks and a bookstore.

As regards the presentation and preservation of net art, we differentiate between two kinds of net artwork: Cloned objects and Linked objects.

The cloned objects are net artworks actually housed on Rhizome's servers. The term cloning is particularly relevant, because the net art projects are identical to the original featured elsewhere on the net. It is not a copy in terms of a photocopy or a piece of music stored on tape, i.e. there is no process of analog duplication. Instead, the cloned objects are completely identical with the "original", because the entire code for the project is present on our servers.

The advantage of cloning a project is that the project will be preserved in a permanent location, namely our server, unlike linked projects which are often moved from one server to another, to a different directory, or its files simply renamed or removed from the net. Cloning solves this problem because all references within Rhizome's web site remain intact, such as links from Rhizome's database of texts to the cloned art projects.

The linked objects, on the contrary, are subject to the ephemerality of the net. If a web site for some reason has to close down, the project may disappear entirely, or it may migrate to a different url, thus cutting the ties to all sites that link to its no longer valid address.

Secondly, we differentiate between three types of net art sites:

A. static sites, which are sites that do not change, neither in content nor structure or size.

B. evolving, but self-contained sites. This type of site changes over time, but does not exceed the limits of its own site. An example is Ben Benjamin's Superbad.

C. uncontained sites which are not really sited anywhere, but migrate from site to site or "feeds" on them. An example is Mark Napier's Shredder.

Basically, there are three ways to preserve net art, depending on the type of work and the hardware and software involved:

A. Static preservation: everything is preserved along with the art project, including the technical "environment", as if placed in a time capsule: the pc, the browser version, the plug-ins needed, along with the files for the net art project itself.

B. Migration: The files making up the net art project are upgraded to current standards, i.e. the files are upgraded from earlier versions of, say, Quicktime to the current version.

C. Emulation: Parts of the original technological environment of the project is re-created on a different platform (a current one), by means of an emulator program. For instance, the emulation makes it possible to run files created on an old Atari computer on a Windows PC.

Artists submit net art projects by filling out a form stating whether the project is to be cloned by rhizome or linked to by rhizome (see distinction below). The contributing artists are responsible for uploading to and maintaining their projects at rhizome's site.

Our site's use of nonproprietary technology and functional design approach reflect our overall emphasis on community access and transparency.

Unlike most print and online magazines, which employ a vertical hierarchy to disseminate content from a few producers to many consumers, Rhizome is a grassroots community: a horizontally distributed, many-to-many network. It is in this sense that Rhizome is indeed rhizomatic.

Besides maintaining a web site and two mailing lists, rhizome often organizes and engages in off-line events, such as the digital happy hour at The Kitchen in New York City (an ongoing series of presentations and discussions of net art by net artists, begun in 1998). Rhizome aims to extend its off-line activities to other cities around the world. Rhizome participates regularly in various symposia on net art, produces articles not only for the web site, but also for magazines, exhibition catalogs, and books.

Since Rhizome.org went nonprofit in early 1998, we have transitioned from a primarily volunteer-driven entity with almost no funding or infrastructure to a sustainable organization with a core staff of experienced employees. Our funding comes from three primary sources: individual gifts, grants from foundations, corporations and government agencies and earned income.

Individual support comes via our board of directors and from our community. We remain committed to offering our online services for free, but ask subscribers to make voluntary contributions to help support our programs. Community support is crucial because, compared to foundation, government and corporate support, it is less volatile and because it sends an important message to other funders, indicating that we are important to the community we serve. Individual support is more common in the United States than in Europe and other parts of the world, partly because our lack of state funding requires makes individual support more necessary and partly because we have a stronger tradition of independent philanthropy. For example, public broadcasting in the US receives approximately half of its funding from individual members of its audience.

Rhizome.org has received grants from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science, and Technology, the National Endowment for the Arts and several corporations, including Oven Digital, Absolut, Altoids and Media and Beyond. Earned income includes fees for presenting at conferences and festivals, content licensing fees, advertising revenues and consulting fees.

In general, it seems that the tide has turned for us in terms of funding. Funders have begun to understand the importance of new media art, and the role that we play in fostering it. They have begun to rethink their categories so that we now fit more clearly within them. At the same time, we have gotten more organized and professional in our approach to funders.

Our goals for the future are to remain focused on the new media art community at a grassroots level, to continue to improve the quality of our services, to build our fundraising momentum toward true financial sustainability, to partner with other organizations while remaining independent, to respond to changes in the field by evolving our definition of what we do and to spread out internationally so that Rhizome.org becomes a global network of linked nodes.

Mark Tribe
Director and Founder of Rhizome.org

Recorded by Andreas Brøgger
New York, November 2000.