From Tripod.Com's ScreenLife column- September 1997
(permission granted to reproduce this article here by Tripod.Com)


by Jason Conrad Cranford Teague

EVER SINCE THE FIRST CRT was attached to the first vacuum-tube-laden calculator, people using computers have had the impulse to create meaningful images out of nothing but numbers and photons. Sure, binary computer code may seem like a hostile medium in which to create a masterpiece of artistic expression, but artists have always had the uncanny ability to adapt new technologies to their whims.

As most of us have heard by now, the digital computer can do only two things: It can say "yes" or it can say "no." On or off, 0 or 1. But get enough of these on/off switches working together fast enough, and you can create anything from a company's spread sheet to a reproduction of the Mona Lisa. Of course the image of the Mona Lisa on your monitor is just that, a reproduction, not an original. The original, the canvas upon which Leonardo brushed paint long, long ago, is located in a museum in Paris. For many, what separates "art" from what you see on the computer screen is time and space. To be precise, it has always gone without saying that a work of art requires a unique history and a discrete physical presence.

But that may no longer go without saying. Why? Because the computer is like no utensil ever encountered in the history of art. The computer fulfills three formerly separate functions necessary to the creation and distribution of art. The computer is the artist's

  medium (like paint, ink, or marble): It is the agent and material with which the art is rendered. Like any other medium the computer, working in unison with the monitor (an extremely malleable "surface" which can display everything from the balance of your checkbook to a multimedia extravaganza), has its own unique set of properties, abilities, and limitations;
  tool (brush, pen, chisel): With a physical device such as a mouse, touchpad, or keyboard, and the use of specialized graphic software, the computer is the instrument used to manipulate the medium. Each of these different tools has its own unique properties, abilities, and limitations;
  mechanism of distribution (museum, gallery, frame): With the introduction of the graphics-enabled Web, artists quickly realized the potential of these machines to distribute their work to a wide audience. Of course, using the Web to display your work has its own unique properties, abilities, and limitations.

In his oft-cited article "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," the critic Walter Benjamin (Ben-ya-MEEN) stated, "Even the most Perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: Its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be." Here Benjamin is referring to reproductions of "original" works of art like paintings. But what about an art form for which the concept of an original work, one that is distinguishable from all copies, is irrelevant? What about a work of art that has never occupied a unique space? What can be said of art that evolves as a dialog between the artist and audience, and changes every time it's viewed?

Sure, the Web can easily be used as a museum of sorts, where existing works are reproduced, or as a gallery of static art works created with the use of a computer. But these are not examples of what I am referring to as Web Art. The one art form which truly makes use of the unique properties of the World Wide Web to create elaborate and even majestic narratives out of visuals (often incorporating text, sound, and any other sense that the artist can access), and which breaks down the barriers between linear storytelling and static illustration, is "hypertextual" art. How to identify it? Look for the following characteristics:

  It involves exploration: Hypertextual art invites the "user" (as opposed to the more passive "viewer" of static art) to explore the Web-based "environment" created by the artist, involving that person in the creative process. Often this is accomplished with the use of random or branching links that carry you through the hypertextual piece's tree-like structure (each "branch" may spawn many more). Take a look at N*Gen Interactive, an experimental piece where the user has to find her own path through the narrative not only by following links, but by finding them as well.
  It's synthetic: That is to say, hypertextual art brings together ideas and techniques from a variety of disciplines, not just the traditions of fine art. In fact, many of the most progressive artists online at the moment are formerly print-oriented graphic designers who've overcome their technophobia. Check out MkzdK 2.0, which brings artistic representation to scientific concepts along with a really sweet design.
  It's personal: One of the earliest concepts born on the Web is the personal (often intensely personal) homepage. Artists, rarely known for being impersonal, have been quick to contribute to the evolution of the homepage. Auriea Harvey's enigmatic and colorful Entropy8 and Woozy's Celebration of Loss and Guilt are excellent examples.
  It's communal: Yeah, yeah — there's been a lot of hype about how this whole Web thing is a big community. Hype aside, the Web has certainly made it easier for artists, who are used to forming groups with like interests anyway, to come together with common goals. One of the most interesting examples of such an art space is ada Web, which shows off the best of what art on the Web is all about, with a variety of input from diverse personalities. It's wild, wonderful... and there are no instructions.
  It's free: Artists who use a Web site to display their work are bypassing the traditional outlets for art and taking their work directly to the public (or at least that sector of the public that has access to the Web). By doing so they are not only subverting the time-honored concepts of art occupying a unique spacial position, but also calling into question the even more entrenched notion that a work of art is a commodity. To be certain, some artists will use the Web to sell physical reproductions of their work, or to sell their illustrations for use by others online. But many other artists are using the Web as a means to distribute their work without the need for commercialization. The Web is a publicly accessible sphere; there is no need to pay for a large physical display space (gallery/museum), and Web sites are pretty cheap if not free.

Are we at the beginning of a new artistic revolution, one unhampered by the increasingly pretentious filters of traditional museums, galleries, and critics? One which celebrates audience participation, the intensely personal, the blurring of disciplines, and the collaborative experience? Time will tell, but at the moment it certainly feels that way.


Jason Conrad Cranford Teague is a Web Designer and author of How To Program HTML Frames: Interface design with JavaScript. (See his ScreenLife article on The Pitfalls of Frames, published 8/6/97). Jason recently left his job as a Web Designer for Persimmon IT, Inc., where he designed Web Sites for companies including Siemens and Digital, to follow his wife Tara to London, where she is getting her Masters degree in English Lit. For more info, check out his Web site An Autobiography of a Digital Man.