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Fine art of browsing
It is the medium. It is also the message. It is the art form without
critics, without tradition and without a history. Even so, there are
curators who want to preserve it, and dealers who want to sell it. Sean
Dodson on the unexplored landscape of cyberart
Wednesday July 28 1999
To the uninitiated, webart consists of work that centres around and makes
use of the web. While countless websites contain works of art, be they
reproductions of Rembrant or the latest Turner Prize nominees, webart can
only be defined by sites that actually are art. Webartists not only use the
very fabric of the browser to create and show their work, but often, for its
very subject matter. And so good has some of the work become, that various
dignitaries of the international art establishment are beginning to sit up,
take notice and wonder how on earth this stuff can be sold.
Last month at the CyberArt99 event in New York, the director of the Whitney
Museum of American Art, Maxwell L Anderson, impressed on his audience of
curators, art dealers and new media gurus the importance of creating a
proper art market for the digital arts. Users, he suggested, should be
encouraged to purchase web-based art online in much the same way they might
pay to download music files.
Anderson's speech followed news that Slovenian based artist Teo Spiller had
sold a work of webart to Ljubljana's municipal gallery for $500, after an
open auction conducted over the web.
Britain is developing a notable webart scene. On first glance Backspace, an
experimental digital workshop for the online arts, looks like a natty youth
club - albeit one encumbered with leftover kit from an aborted space
mission. Visitors could easily think that they have wandered into some kind
of futuristic mechanics' workshop, where casually dressed youths saunter
around the various bits of kit, chatting over chipped cups of tea, or
hunching over screens staring intently at complex layers of code.
To define Backspace is not easy, but to think of it as a cyber-cafe for the
digital hardcore wouldn't be far off the mark. Set in the Dickensian
backstreets of Southwark, not far from Tower Bridge, it is a self-funding
workshop and internet service provider (ISP) where different groups from
London's new media scene hang out, swap ideas, and occasionally attempt the
kind computer abuse that would be frowned upon at a more conventional
cyber-establishment. Many also see the place as the unofficial heart of the
city's digital art scene.
That luminaries in the art establishment are beginning to take their work
seriously has left the patrons of Backspace somewhat bemused. Some, like
Mathew Fuller, of British-based webart activists I/O/D, see it as a sign
that the art "establishment" is trying to muscle in on an art form that has
so far existed outside the traditional structures of gallery and market.
After all, he suggests, "the internet is so forgeable, and so fluid, that it
is very difficult to verify provenance and that's something that shakes the
established institutions up".
The artists of I/O/D www.backspace.org/iod started their web "activism" in
1994 by producing multi-media presentations via floppy disk. Their work
focused on the use of the computer itself - in order to provoke change, or
"blow the conventions up", as Fuller more cheekily puts it. Their work
became infamous for engulfing your computer, reducing it to a frustrating,
but addictive series of seemingly randomly generated dialog boxes, a
labyrinth of commands and answers that would crash the whole system more
often than not.
More recently I/O/D has made the web its favoured target. Its most recent
work, the Webstalker, blows open the structure of the web by stripping sites
of all content and design, leaving only a two-dimensional mnemonic showing a
skeletal map of how the web is linked together. The Webstalker has already
received over half a million downloads, but Fuller and his partners, Colin
Green and Simon Pope, see free distribution of their work, the subject of
Anderson's speech, as the essential principle of webart. For a group of
young British artists I/O/D seems surprisingly uninterested about being paid
This comes is no surprise to Pauline Van Mourik Broekman, co-editor of Mute,
the London-based, European art and technology magazine, and occasional
loiterer at Backspace. Van Mourik Broekman began shouting about webart back
in 1994 when she and co-founder Simon Worthington left art school.
Aware of both the cultural and artistic potential of the web and of the work
of early practitioners like Heath Bunting www.irational.org/heath and
Belgium-based JODI, and as no other art magazine seemed to be taking up the
art and tech nology cause, they decided to extend Worthington's one-off arts
and technology newspaper, Mute, that had formed a part of his masters degree
at the Slade. Or to try and help "nurture debate and discourse, to bring it
in to being, to not just sit around and wait", says Van Mourick Broekman.
As they put it in their editorials, Mute started as "attempted response to
the do-or-die mythmaking of the digital revolution", to debunk the wealth of
hype, that threatened to obscure the many good things that were actually
happening in the early days of the web. Mute began to pay particular
attention to artists like JODI who were then anonymously "performing" their
work on the web, which messed with and often crashed the browser used to
view it. Or how Heath Bunting used a hacker's eye to sabotage the workings
of the web.
Although very different in look and feel, both were using the web in a way
that artist Jon Thomson recently described as a kind of work "where form,
content and their means of transfer collide and collapse together". For
artists like JODI and Bunting the "whole thing is the art work", according
to Van Mourik Broekman. "Right from the beginning they both tried to
deconstruct the principles at work, and both wanted to show that there was
an archaic element to the web."
Once artists like JODI had become known, their influence quickly spread.
American-based artists Potatoland also started producing work on the web.
Late last year they unleashed the Shredder - a work that perhaps best
exemplifies how the platform itself can become the art. With the Shredder
Potatoland went so far as to design their own browser that, just like
Netscape or Explorer, can access just about every corner of the web. But the
Shredder works by "shredding" the sites it visits, stretching gifs to
abstraction and displaying the html and java script beneath them in a
beautiful display of colourful code.
If Van Mourick Broekman has any reservations about the current state of the
webart scene it is that the growth of the movement has led to a subtle
change in its meaning: that the beauty of the code revealed in JODI and
Potatoland is distracting from the very political comment that existed at
their inception. Whereas artists like JODI began by ripping fabric of the
web apart, and making comments about its unpredictable and ephemeral nature,
they now produce something more akin to a virtuoso performance, that Van
Mourik Broekman likens to more performance-based arts like contemporary
Like dance, webart works are of a very temporal nature and therefore can
vary over time. Webart also has no real physical presence and must be stored
digitally. But with the hardware and software used to create it constantly
changing, preserving the work is immediately problematic. Benjamin Weir, the
director of new media at the Institute of Contemporary Art, recently
lectured on the problems surrounding the curation of webart.
A former critic and curator of conceptual work, Weir became involved in
the webart movement when he co-founded adaweb, a website that commissioned
and hosted work by artists who were using the web as a medium. As Weir
pointed out in his recent seminar at the ICA, the old adage that works of
art are never finished, just abandoned, is fundamentally challenged by
webart. Not only are sites like JODI and Potatoland in a constant state of
flux, but they can be manipulated, updated and redesigned by the artist at
any time. Again Anderson's notion that webart can be bought and sold in much
the same way as a pop song is challenged by the never-quite- finished
aspects of webart.
Weir agrees that the European webart scene is in a better shape than its
American counterpart, and that Britain, for the moment, has a wealth of
funds thanks to the lottery and even New Labour's commitment to the creative
industries. But he has some reservations about how long this financial idyll
will last in Britain. "At the moment the European scene is much more
grounded, because Europe has a culture of publicly funded arts, but how much
money will be left when the current crop of online art student start to
leave college?" he asks.
That webart has managed to firmly establish itself is now beyond doubt. How
the movement will sustain itself is still in question. Benjamin Weir: "The
whole economy of online art is part of an equation that still needs to be
resolved and I don't think we are remotely close to finding a solution."
Still, back at Backspace, those casually-dressed youths keep pushing back
the artistic and technical frontiers of the web. In between chipped cups of
tea, of course.
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