Increasingly, computer language is permeating the traditional linguistic structures, and the way we relate to our environment. Readme.txt, the title of this essay, effectively refers to the instructions format we have grown to be accustomed to, which replaces in many instances the "good old instruction manual" that used to come with every device we acquired, ranging from vacuum cleaners, to toasters, to software and related computer equipment.
The Web has now become part of our lives. When I was last given to travel in Mexico, I was astounded to find little shops in the middle of nowhere offering a multitude of communication services that almost always included access to the Net: "Larga Distancia, Fax, Copias, Internet" has become part of a rural landscape the same way it has become part of our urban experience pretty much everywhere on the globe.
The purpose of this essay is to outline a number of "trends", which have been developing since artists first started using the network as a natural extension of activities "off-line", as well as exploring its potential as a new medium, and a new realm. Indeed, what happens online is rather unique, as it is probably the first time when the means to produce an artwork and the way it is to be distributed and experienced have come to be the same: the medium and the locus have become one. Artists working on installations had already explored a system within which the boundaries between workspace and distribution space were erased. Here, however, the added factor of a virtual location forces a re-assessment of the notion of "in situ". Similarly, the process and the result are collapsed into one entity, which is also something art has been exploring before: the form of an artwork may consist of a set of documents that recount an action; the thought process that informed its making is meant to be visible.
Therefore, it is not a surprise to find a vast array of achieved online projects by artists. These often can be understood in the context of art making, and the various experiments that took place since the beginning of the 20th century, when artists in the Western world started challenging the notion and function of art, bringing in a number of new approaches to this form of creativity. Art, today, is far more in touch with it's surrounding socio-cultural context than it ever was, or at least consciously: from an idealized portraiture of its time, it has become an instrument of social criticism, and a reflection on issues that condition our lives. The meaning of the word "representation" has shifted, and one sees in many cases artists playing with the landscape, selecting fragments, isolating them, thus offering a different understanding of those components. What we can see online is pretty much comparable, in many instances, to what was happening in galleries and various institutions in the 60's and 70's. It is a fluid praxis, that does not necessarily rely on formal conventions, and that offers a different perspective on our common landscape we tend to take for granted.
This is maybe why one of the most dynamic and interesting aspect of the online art investigation is based on the structure, and this is certainly one area of work which I believe bares the most interesting dynamics.
Deconstructing the net.scape?
Since the very beginning of online exploration, there has been a number of artists whose main focus of interest has been the hypermedia structure of the network, the building elements (html coding, the browser window, or the bugs in the browsing software, to name a few) and of other essential parts of the net.scape (forms, buttons,...). The artists interested in that approach may at times have been perceived as formalists, as they have mainly focused on the way the landscape is built. Vuk Cosic's Metablink would be an example, as well as early work by JoDi. However, what appeared as pretty formal at first, was in fact concerned with the consequences of technical dysfunctionality in an environment where those machines have gained enormous importance in our lives (see Y2K Panic, and the way it has also inspired a witty little project by Jake Tilson, Dip).
Collecting information from the various chat environments, and re-purposing those fragments in an interface that mimics functionality, Weightless, a recent project by Thomson and Craighead offers a playful look at the unspoken conventions brought by an increasingly templated environment. Indeed, wizards and templates have become an intrinsic part of the Web building experience, and consequently the way Web pages look. Menu bars, email icons, and GIF libraries have brought a certain uniformity to the Web environment. Such approach has also prompted the research of such artist as Nick Crowe: Citizens derives from an exploration of personal home pages built on those templates. Structurally, pretty much all look the same, and while their content and purpose may be different, there's a shared concern that appears, which is to use the Web as a means to communicate to others, find new alleys of socialization, create communities which are no longer based on geographical parameters. Rather, it is a community of shared interest.
The network as a communication instrument is also the premise of Vivian Selbo's Killer @pp: Its @ll T@lk!, the first part of a series entitled Parts_of_speech. Looking at the net.scape, the artist comes to the conclusion that one of the main use people make of the network is still email, and that the new media industry is still searching really hard for the miracle software that will revolutionize the use of the network... or what is referred to as the "Killer App".
Many words attempt to describe the activity of experiencing online data, which denote the difficulty we may have to categorize this kind of activity. This is possibly because we can do more than just one thing in the same realm, sitting at one's desk, and accessing the world wide Web. While first conceived as a research tool, the Web has indeed become a space where we shop, where we access information about products and services, where we play, where we meet other people, ... it is basically an environment that somehow replicates, or rather, extends, the sum of all our social activities. So, is it surfing, is it exploring, is it watching, is it communicating, or is it navigating? None of the words we can come up with seem to be able to sum up all those different uses we can make of the network media. To date, the English business jargon refers to "users" that "click" and "browse". And it is therefore not a surprise if the type of software used to access Web content is called "Browser".
Browsers are therefore a constitutive element of our Web experience, akin to the computer, the screen and the modem. As a consequence, we tend to treat the browser as a transparent necessity: the fact that this software was conceived with an agenda, the fact that people sat down and brainstormed to figure out what its functions are, or will be, the notion of a built-in interest is something we tend to overlook and care little for. However, our access to data, and therefore, our experience, is entirely conditioned by the software. Just like we have learnt to ignore the basic elements of the urban landscape, we have stopped paying attention to software. We go by what is offered on the market, and we care little about the fact that all the functionality of a given piece of software is the result of decisions made by it manufacturer, who have consequently decided to anticipate our needs, thereby conditioning what our needs would be. It is therefore not surprising to find a growing number of artists working on browsers, or related programming that rethinks the way we relate to the data we have access to.
One of the first projects of that kind was produced by the British group I/O/D (Matthew Fuller, Simon Pope and Colin Green). Since the founding of what they like to refer to as a Web zine, the artists have been exploring the desktop, and the manner in which it is fashioned by the tools that operate it. The release back in mid-1997, of the now renowned Web Stalker, denotes a logical progression in that investigation. With the growing importance of the Web, it seemed obvious to start addressing that realm, and the software solutions offered to access it. With a simple premise that most of the important information was still conveyed by the written language, the Web Stalker sought to strip the Web page from anything else, while also offering a visualization of otherwise inconspicuous elements, such as code, or traffic (see article in Wired Magazine, December 1997). With a number of parameters set by the "user" (surfer, viewer, navigator, internaut, etc.), the Web Stalker will offer a deconstructed "navigating" experience.
It is probably very soon after (time is hard to keep, online), that Maciej Wisniewski released Jackpot. Taking its cue from the gambling experience, the Web page, once activated by a remote control, randomly loads a series of three juxtaposed Web pages from a database. Each site is "labeled" by category (.com, .org, .edu, .gov, but also .mil, .int, and other extensions we tend to be less familiar with), hence humorously address the issue of classification of documents. Indeed, if the Web is a "live encyclopaedia," there has to be conventions, so as to retrieve documents. However, and once again, who decided those conventions, and based on what interest? As in a real slot machine, one may win, and therefore have the satisfaction of adding a URL (Web address) to the database. Since then, Wisniewski has proceeded with this type of investigation, and released a number of other projects that address browsing, such as exploring the way Web sites are related, with Scanlink. His most recent project, Net-O-Mat is a downloadable software, released on line last summer (July 1999).
Mark Napier has also focused his interest on browsing, offering two remote instruments (no downloads needed), the Web Shredder and Riot, both of which collect and then reinterpret raw data regardless of the code. Where the former focuses on one specific page (the visitor may enter a URL of her or his choice, or choose from a list of bookmarks), the latter resembles a jamming experience, where data bytes are collected from three different Web pages entered either by the current visitor, or by previous ones. In real time, assuming other people are logged on simultaneously, Riot enables a number of participants to collaborate on the construction of a datasphere which ignores the difference between coding and actual content, as well as the structure this coding would create, that affects the way we experience the data. Both tools recontextualize the experience of a given (set of) Web page(s): images are deformed, code precedes text, and or overlays it, ... the result is a collage that may well compare to music sampling.
Jamming and sampling is more literally the purpose of the recently released <earshot, produced by Andi Freeman and Jason Skeet. This project may either be activated remotely, enabling a concomitant use of the interface by many users; or the application can be downloaded with a database of existing sounds. Each individual may either add new sounds of her or his choice, or download an updated sound library from the Web site. The interface recalls a music instrument, with sliders one can move in order to modify the mix of samples.
Both Napier and Blank & Jeron offer repositories for what is no longer deemed interesting, or what may be out of date. Napier's Digital Landfill and Sero.org offer the possibility for the visitor to "unload" the digital trash for others to enjoy. Indeed, what may be considered useless or outdated by some may be of use to others. Yet another way to question the way in which information is organized and any forms of classification.
Informed by a comparable approach, and trying to address design and coding as a construct, Cohen Frank and Ippolito produced a project that focused on issues related to the future of Web work. When bandwidth keeps speeding up access, when computers and software continue to be more sophisticated, what happens to content that has been produced earlier? From a thought process based on the notion of "variable media", the artists have developed The Unreliable Archivist, an interface that offers a possible answer to that question. It consists once again in a set of tools that enables access to data according to various adjustable parameters. Here, however, data is gathered from one specific site, äda'web, which archives were donated to the Walker Art Center in 1998, and the museum subsequently commissioned The Unreliable Archivist as a possible solution to aging data.
Re-interpreting data is also a concern of Thomson & Craighead, a group of two London artists who recently released CNN Interactive Just Got More Interactive. The extreme simplicity of the project does not preclude its strong conceptual base: adding a music box to the viewing of the CNN Web site indeed denotes an interesting take on the way we understand news, and the blurring boundaries between fiction and reality. The music box indeed offers a take on the content that evokes Hollywood entertainment, in that it enables the "surfer" to play music that adequately emphasizes the nature of the news she or he is reading: imagine the earthquake in Turkey with not only dramatic images, but also dramatic music! You are in control: should you prefer to be relieved from the trauma, switch to another music channel, and you'll get a whole new take on the tragedy!
Who will remember the now extinct UrouLette, a project developed by students at the University of Urbana Champaign, back in the very early stages of the Web? This now extinct site offered a randomized navigation tool, sending the Webbist to unknown and remote locations, to explore the network. One would indistinctively land on the homepage of a veterinary school in Australia, or on the one of an obscure manufacturer of security equipment, or maybe on the site of a museum in Kuala Lumpur. With Jump, Jake Tilson makes use of an existing tool that renders similar services. This time, the artist works as a collector of an otherwise lost practice.
Another activity artists have been focusing on is searching. search engines have indeed become a gateway into the intricacies of the Web. From automated search systems to lists of edited links, Search engines offer a one-stop entry into the maze of the online world. Like browsers, they have gradually permeated the desktop environment, promising the newcomer a tame navigation experience, a hand holding voyage. Artists like Heath Bunting were prompt to play with those mechanisms, trying to understand and then reveal the way these functioned. With simple code, Bunting managed, for instance to make sure that his projects were on the top of the returns when one would search for popular items, and derived a number of projects, most of which are no longer online, because of threats from corporations concerned with the project, or because the subjects he addressed were deemed too controversial by the hosting institutions (in the case of the Child Pornography Search Engine, for instance).
Reconnoitre, a project by Gavin Baily and Thomas Corby, which was released online in mid-September 1999, could be considered a browser as well as a search engine. The downloadable application consists of a 3D graphic interface that gathers data based on a keyword. Once entered, this word triggers a search that will cover a wide range of data of all kind: from meta-tags (words or phrases coded in Web pages so as to facilitate the work of automated search engines), to URLs and actual content. One can then navigate the 3D maze, re-aligning the found material and moving between the various nodes of the network of the collected data. In a recent statement, Corby described the project as "a dysfunctional browser seeking to enunciate our consumption of information as a journey of surprise [...] an ambient grazing of text, fragmentary, incomplete and happily purposeless."
Based on the premise that search engines there again are biased towards a certain kind of use of the Internet, and geared a predominantly white and male Western audience, the British collective Mongrel has engineered the Natural Selection Search Engine, cum banner advertising that praise cultural diversity.
With Anna Karenina Goes to Paradise, Olia Lialina uses three of the most popular search engines to create the base of a three chapter multi-threaded narrative construct, based on a contextualized search. Thus the artist introduces randomness as part of a narrative construct which is basically left for the reader to articulate. Not unlike the Zapping experience with television, it also reflects upon the evolving of that narrative in time. Indeed, chances are that a search conducted today may have significantly different results than a one carried out in 3 months, or even in 2 weeks, as listings, may change, pages may appear, while others disappear. Anna Karenina's paradise will consequently evolve with time and thus may remain as timeless as the original piece of literature it refers to.
Re-inventing the narrative?
Will the Web be to the 21st century what cinema has been to this finishing one? There are reasons to think that, with the blurring of all traditional narrative structures brought in by technology. Games increasingly borrow from film, cinemaís special effects tend to be more game like, and all forms are concerned with the viewer/user/browser/player input, in terms of defining her or his experience of the story. Online, a number of experiments have been developed, that attempt at posing the hypermedia structure as the starting point. An early example of this type of experiment is Polar. The project produced by CICV is the result of a collaboration between a photographer and a Web producer. Borrowing from esthetics that may recall photo-romanza, the project unfolds as a series of basic pages which can be navigated either in English or in French, each of which create a different narrative thread one can jump to and fro. Another early example is Charlotte, a collaboration between the writer Mike Vee and the Web producer/designer Yoshii. Here, the progression of the narrative is pretty linear. However, with the use of frames and words coded in different sizes, one gets an interesting progression within the narrative, which demonstrates how efficient basic HTML coding can be in the rendering of a fictional piece.
It is informed by the same idea of using very basic tools and programming that Isabel Chang produced the now famed adaptation for the computer screen of J.G. Ballard's famous novel, HighRise. The entire navigation of the site is based on the story's architectural structure, which takes place in the various areas of a tall building. HighRise echoes Blindspot, an experiment carried out between Darcey Steinke and Cherise Fong, wherein the progression of the narrative, while also borrowing from basic HTML coding structure, also complements the somewhat linear structure with images, animations and sounds in a framed environment. As the viewer progresses through the narrative, a map of the apartment where the action is taking place appears, literally mapping out the story.
Closer to the feel of "multimedia" CD-ROMs, using such technology as Shockwave and Flash, other artists have developed projects that refer more directly to the esthetics of cinema, while adding "interactivity" as an instrument of progression within the narrative thread. David Bickerstaff has developed a series of works based on that technology, the most achieved one being Ubiquity. The project was produced both as a CD-ROM and a Web site. Later experiments can also be found on his Web site, AtomicTV. A similar approach has informed the development of Exodus, the first full scale collaborative project by Michael Samyn and Auriea Harvey. The two artists have also worked on Skinonskin, a project commissioned by Hell.com (note this project is a pay per view project: for $7,50, viewers are given access to the project for 48 hours). Illusions, a project by Zoe Beloff, echoes the film maker's early experiments with CD-ROM with such project as Beyond.
With similar types of technology, artists have also been exploring the game interface as another source of narrative. Borrowing from existing popular games, whether Web based (Doom, in the case of Michael Samyn's I Confess) or "historical" arcade models (Space Invaders, in the case of Triggerhappy, a piece by Thomson and Craighead), these artists have infused a more conceptual yet humorous tone to these icons, using the dynamics of games interfaces while infusing it with more conceptual concerns.
The selection of projects for this essay is far from being exhaustive, and there are many experiments that have not been mentioned here. It is both the result of a curatorial choice, and the one of a net.scape that changes daily. More projects appear, more initiatives are taken, and more institutions engage in the production of new work. Corporations also start to play a role in the supporting of Web production, either as direct promotion for their products (infomercial) or as a policy that may recall corporate collecting when compared to more traditional art forms. Some institutions have teamed up to create directories that are rather exhaustive. The New Media Encyclopedia is one very good example. Going to museums Web pages and looking for their links is another useful resource.
After almost five years of experimentation, the online art "scene" proves to still be thriving, while those different strategies exist. This type of production however reflects the difficulty to establish "canons" that would enable one to categorize the projects. Art? Cinema? Games? Documentaries? The question is still lying, in a way reminding us that five years is still a very short amount of time to fully understand how this new form will or not have an effect on the more traditional art forms, as well as on the way one usually has access to this kind of cultural production. The fact that many of those artists do not necessarily have a traditional art background makes it complicated for a definite classification. Moreover, issues of presentation, conservation and collection come into play, now that institutions have started to recognize this kind of work as an integral part of the contemporary art production. While it is encouraging to see that the institutional reaction is more prompt than with earlier experiments (video, for instance), it is also true that the way this kind of work will be treated in the context of a museum, or a gallery will have a definite effect on how this work is perceived. One of the biggest challenges that still needs to be addressed is how this work will or not continue to use the dynamics of the network, or merely use the Web as a means of distribution. In any case, the lack of any established economic model so far will also pose some thorny problems, on how this kind of work is supported, and how it will later be or not embraced by the traditional art circuits, or whether an entirely new model needs to be invented. In that light, the pay-per-view experiment as carried out by Hell.com is an interesting one. Will art in the future function as a shared cultural resource, not unlike film or music, or will it become a commodity, just like more traditional art forms?