New York based web artist and designer Isabel Chang has created the third project in Hvedekorn and afsnitp.dk's ON OFF exhibition - a series of art projects with an online and print dimension.

Isabel Chang’s CUT2 is much in line with the idea of the ON OFF exhibition experiment: In the printed magazine Hvedekorn, we find two cut-out paper personalities, the dolls Slash and Razor, online we find a set of story lines for these dolls, written by Chang, and a wardrobe of avantgarde costumes, commissioned from independent New York stylist Kate Ruth by Isabel Chang. In other words, here on Hvedekorn’s web site you can read about Slash and Razor, their motives and actions, and you can print the costumes, hair styles, and make-up which the two characters wore as their stories unfolded.

Having the fiery character Razor attack the fake accents and watered out spicy sauces in Chinese take-out places, CUT2 deals with cultural issues like assimilated, even inauthentic, ethnic posturing. In the contrasts between the raw Razor, and the refined, posh, and ambivalent Slash, Chang also humorously plays with the vulture-like appropriation of extreme, edgy cultural phenomena by the media, and by the fashion world - heroine chic being the most obvious example in recent years, and with Isabel Chang’s project we are given the next trend: criminal chic, and other equally alternative looks and style-making clues (such as "English school boy with a touch of S & M”).

Already in its basic concept, creating paper doll characters for us to dress, Isabel Chang alludes to the idea of what we might call cut-and-paste cultural values. For instance, CUT2 points to the fact that anti-commercial, rebel tendencies (such as trashing a Starbucks), can be turned into commercial profit when discovered by eager money- and image-making machines everywhere. It rarely matters what we are dealing with: the depths of ethnic values or edgy cultural phenomena bordering on the illegal, they are all flattened in order to be spreadable over as large area of the globe as possible.

The world wide web will no doubt contribute to this effect, even if the web still holds the promise of an endless number of personalized alternatives and discrete specialized niches. This is one of the ambiguities of the web as it has developed over the years. An ambiguity that still persists - fortunately. (1)

 

Access and Distribution: Chang’s Online “Freewear” and the Printed Multiple

CUT2 points to the ambiguity of the web as a mass medium or exactly the opposite: an infinitely personalizable medium rich in niches, in the link between the world-wide accessible "freewear" online (the downloadable costumes) and the localized, limited edition magazine (published in Copenhagen) featuring the printed multiple. Crossing the boundaries of the real and the web-based, the locally and the globally accessible, CUT2 prompts questions about access, distribution, ownership, not to speak of art historical concepts such as the multiple, the collage, the viewer as “user” or co-creator (hence the costumizable).

If you go to Isabel Chang’s web site doxa.net (as of March 2001) you will see the play on “access” as well: in order to enter you have to prove that you have a certain sense of style by selecting the right combination of hair do and eye glasses for a woman's face. Chang plays with the idea of fashion (and art) as a question of knowing the right codes to access the content and values of a certain community.

An earlier project, Aspergillum Gently, experimented with the possibilities of having people interact and access content on the web only via a real world context. Visitors to the Columbia University Fine Arts Graduate show in Williamsburg, New York in May 2000, where Chang was a participant, could pick up a number of “keys”, empowering each holder to make public a part of the narrative of Chang’s web site project, Aspergillum Gently, or leave that part undisclosed for everyone. Only those parts of the virtual story opened by visitors to the real world show could be accessed on the site. And this is still the case, the full story is not yet available.

Paper Dolls and the Art of Toy Design

When artists discover and take on the challenges of a new medium with which to produce art, certain aspects of this new medium tend to become a part of the work of art and, with time, of the idea of art in general. This was the case with photography, for instance, where the ability to capture a moment with great immediacy and representational accuracy introduced the values of “documentation” and the “snapshot” into the sphere of art. As artists began to rethink the established ways of using computers, communicating over the web, trading products and services, visualizing data, constructing information architecture, and playing video games, these inherent dimensions of computer technology and Internet culture have found their way into art.

Currently, however, the situation seems to be one where it is difficult to differentiate between web projects that overtly understand themselves as art and, for instance, advanced interface design, programming, engineering, software development (such as alternative browsers, as some net artists have done), game design, and other areas that we usually conceive of as commercial, profit-oriented, research, or entertainment.

As the curators behind Interactive Playground, an exhibition project organized by Pitch.tv with the support of the American Museum of the Moving Image in New York, state: “At first we only contacted individual artists primarily doing experimental work but quickly made the decision to include design studios, commercial sites, and games. Criticism and exclusion will come soon enough, and it seemed appropriate in these primitive early days of computer art to let the audience experience widely”. In other words, time will show what comes to be considered art among these different initiatives. Or, perhaps: time will show how we come to consider art itself? In the meantime we are dealing with a lot of intermediary forms, located in an interesting crossroads between exactly design, games, engineering, animation, data visualization, information architecture. The curators of Interactive Playground call them i-Shorts, other options are "gizmos" or simply applying the still very open-ended term New Media Art...

CUT2 also places itself here, blending the domains of art, fashion, toy design, and commercial rhetoric ("download this now!"). The dolls are toys, if it weren't for the subversive content and the looks and situations, which are hardly suited for innocent little children. But then again, adults need toys as well, as never before. Much like the current revival of a primitive 1970s video game aesthetic in fashion and in online design (nostalgically recalling the PC and Internet generation’s 1970s and 1980s childhood), the cut-out paper doll is a vehicle whose nostalgia and cut-and-paste simplicity stand in deliberate contrast to the complexity of present-day existence. Chang plays with the idea of a nostalgia and childishness that in the face of existential and political choice can be seen as either unforgivably escapist in their simplicity, or somehow liberating in their creative possibilities and playfulness. With CUT2, you can create your own combinations of the paper doll costumes and hair dos, and make up your own stories accordingly.

As political rhetoric like “Fight the power”, nationalist rhetoric like “God save the queen”, existentialist like “The Future is bleak”, revolutionary or culture-jamming slogans like “Say no to MSG” slide out of Flash-designed fortune cookies (the Chinese cliché numero uno, but made in the U.S.), Slash and Razor present two humorously radical (or perhaps not so radical) answers to the questions that our culture poses to us as individuals. But this is all just writing. Go see for yourself where paper cutting and doll dressing will take you...

By the way, there are also a few surprises and secrets hidden in the wardrobe, but it is up to you to find them. (2)

 

New Markets: The Artist as Shopkeeper, The Shopkeeper as Curator

Pop artist Claes Oldenburg set up a shop in New York in the early 1960s selling various sculptural renditions of popular items of mass culture. Since then artists of diverging opinions and aesthetic convictions have been using the store as an art theoretical metaphor and/or as a platform for actual interaction with an audience. For instance, in 1997 Christine Hill kept a second-hand clothes store at the Documenta in Kassel, commenting on the nature and validity of art as a commercial product with(out) a practical value. A few years later, web artist Michael Daines put his own body up for sale on e-Bay, and currently (as of the end of March 2001) it is still possible to buy an item owned by Michael Mandiberg, a web artist who has put everything in his own possession, plus his time, on sale at www.mandiberg.com. These two latter artists are playing with the notion that with the arrival and expansion of the web everyone is a possible shopkeeper.

Selecting a variety of smaller, independent shops in the New York metropolitan area, and offering to present their goods on a centralized shelf online - www.cementgarden.com - Isabel Chang has taken a sort of commercial, yet grass roots curator's position towards these stores and products. Cementgarden illustrates a tendency on the web to create new market strategies and build new communities in crossing the real and the virtual world. The collaboration in CUT2 with independent stylist Kate Ruth is an example of Isabel Chang’s interest in combining not only the virtual and the real, but also an art, fashion and design spirit.

Incidentally, Amazon does the same thing as Chang’s Cementgarden with their Advantage program, offering to present independent bands’ MP3 music on the site, thus coming off as a generous big business partner innovating at a grass roots level. However, when the market really crashes, will Amazon still be doing this? Isabel Chang probably will.

Fabric8.com in San Francisco is another example of a web-based enterprise that makes use of the web to build a community of independent producers and consumers. The web site is now the fruit of a rhizome of underground initiatives within fashion, music, art, and culture, what fabric8 refers to as “genuine DIY business” (Do-it-yourself). The web has proven its ability to create new connections among real world and virtual entities, like a shop, a community, or an organization, cutting out some new sections of an already existing desire and environment. From Fabric8 to ®™ark to Skim.com, the rise of the web has been, exactly, the rise of new communities, large and small, mass market and niche, commercial and non-commercial, specific or general interests.

Skim.com is a Swiss fashion and community-producing phenomenon, based high up in the Alps, but marketed in global metropolitan areas and online. Part print magazine, part web site, part network of members joined by their skim.com email addresses, the idea is that by buying the magazine or a piece of merchandise from Skim.com, you get an email address hosted on Skim’s server (the magazine includes a wrist band with an email address). As a variation on the average chat group, here extending user names or avatars to real world public space, Skim is a combination of tribe symbol, express-your-individuality- through-new-techie-media tool, and a simple come-on excuse. The wearable email address is intended to build relations between individual members as you spot someone in the street or in a bar with a Skim number on them, or you log on to the web site and interact with people already there. Apparently more anonymous or exciting than actual face-time or a hand written note, isn’t it all about creating an excuse for communicating, and, of course, extending the sense of tribal belonging and identification across real and virtual space? With the ability to communicate with millions of other users connected to the web, we need someone to place us in a more or less specific box with selected other people.

As mentioned earlier, Isabel Chang experimented with a similar notion of crossing the line between real-world-and-online participation and community building in her Aspergillum Gently project, although the intentions and the content of her project can hardly be compared to Skim.com’s. In at least some of these cases, from the ideology critique in Hill’s project to Chang’s play with fashion codes, to Skim’s member culture and Mandiberg the comedian, the role of art and aesthetic production and interaction in a rapidly changing marketplace is being reflected upon, albeit in very different ways and probably with varying degrees of success and profit-motives.

What blurs the image, really, is the fact that smaller-community, independent art projects are concurrent with a growing interest from big business in art and art-like approaches. An enterprise like L.A. based fashion store kbond (conceived by artist Karen Kimmel and art director James Bond), is an example of an inverse strategy as compared to Chang’s Cementgarden: here the shopkeeper is the one taking on a role as art curator, envisioning the store as an exhibition or even performance space. "Behaving more like curators than shopkeepers Kimmel and Bond are keen to make sure that almost every feature of their store is capable of multi-purpose, multi-functional readings that are designed to mutate”, states journalist John Veshard in the fashion magazine Madison (spring 2000). Substitute the words "purpose” and "functional" for less practical and more vague words typical in an art context, like “multi-level” and “multi-sensual”, and you could have an article about a curator’s approach to exhibiting art, or an artist’s approach to his or her work. Kbond might not actually be “art” according to the most common definitions, but it is certainly getting closer to art than Gap or even Gucci has ever been.

Kbond is part of a larger movement where art and “creativity” is seen as an important part of the strategy of a commercial enterprise. A new breed of art directors, shopkeepers, and consulting firms aspire to a very “artsy” image in concept development, market strategies, sales tactics, product selection, store architecture, and aesthetics of display. This should come to no surprise to those familiar with Hollywood in recent years. Think of movies like Magnolia, Blair Witch Project, and American Beauty (who would have thought that a film beginning with Kevin Spacey masturbating in the shower could win an Oscar?). The alternative is in. Even the Ministry of Finance in Denmark, to take a slightly different example, has now realized the importance of Danish artists and film makers (notably the 1995 Dogme brothers, who created seemingly convention-assaulting films like Celebration and The Idiots) to the country’s economy and has now decided to channel an increasing amount of funds through the Ministry of Culture to the arts. This is the case in several other Western European "Third Way" governments (because a combo of capitalist stands and soft values like art and the environment is the way to go). Art could be big business, it seems, which comes to no surprise in the IT world, of course, where Intel has been sponsoring The Whitney Museum of American Art’s tech exhibitions generously, both economically and technologically, just to take one example. Apple's use of Picasso and Einstein in their ad campaigns could be another.

Not simply deeming this tendency “exploitation” or appropriation of art by big business and the culture industry (as Adorno would say), or even by succesful social-democratic economies, the optimistic view of this situation would focus on the fact that certain artistic, possibly open-minded values and more aesthetic ways of looking at things might actually reach a greater audience by being mass produced, mass distributed, placed in an environment that is traditionally seen as commercial or at least not inducive of aesthetic and creative reflection. Without comparing the potential for certain changes in design, product development, distribution, etc., to the ideals of Bauhaus and the Russian Avantgarde (especially because the current trends are not organized on the basis of a shared ideology or by a centralized agency, and it is often completely dependent on venture capital, which tends to disappear in times of recession), we might say that the New Economy has enabled art or art-like approaches to have a say in the commercial IT-driven world, exactly for the same reason that companies like Razorfish have established alternative, creative fora, such as RSUB (Siemens in Munich, Germany, is another good example, the company's current slogan is "be inspired"). Research and development create money, and research and development demand creativity.

However, what remains to be examined, I think, in the light of the talk of a new importance of creativity and art, is exactly which concept of art, creativity and the aesthetic is being called upon here (for instance, Monet’s, Duchamp’s or Hans Haacke’s?). Ultimately, as well, the artistic nature of these initiatives should be evaluated not only based upon the values and potential that are attached to them (revolutionary, therapeutic, or simply profitable?), but also their effects. In this matter it is hard not to be skeptical of the appropriation of creativity and the aesthetic. And it is easy to be too naive in claiming a new role for art. But time will show.