The Art of Communication

When all is said and done, my favorite Web art can be found at Web-a-Sketch (http://www.digitalstuff.com/web-a-sketch). Visit the site and a gray pad appears on the screen, on which a surfer can etch to his/her heart's content, using the mouse to draw lines. Contributions are saved for future appreciation. What's even more artful than the etchers' crude line drawings are their titles: "The Wurld without Channels(tm)"; "Get back on the road cowboy!"; "Triangle Pac-man With Tounge" (which consists of six lines and some mighty creative thinking on the part of the artists,"Steph and Kathryn," as to naming their creation).I'll admit it: I know as much about art as I do about cow-tipping, so describing Web-a-Sketch as art -- putting it, at least in theory, in the same category of endeavor as, say, Monet's "Water Lilies" -- might strike some as suspect. Steph and Kathryn aren't De Kooning, I agree, but Austin, Texas, resident Alan Watts, who assembled the site, has got a bead on something.Web art is the newest of electronic art forms. While a sort of formal aesthetic has congealed around other types of computer art-installation, digital still images and video, computer animation -- the concepts behind Web art are embryonic.It's a tough field to enter -- the barriers are numerous, including cost, says Mike Lee, a computer-design teacher at the Maryland Institute, College of Art who runs VisualLee (http://www.visuallee.com), a local Web-design firm. "Unlike someone who can give a performance at an art school, or in an abandoned building, on the Web someone has got to pay for all the software and servers," he says.Not surprisingly most of the art sites online are created or hosted by Web-design firms. The dangers of this precarious funding method were discovered by Benjamin Weil, cofounder of AdaWeb(http://www.adaweb.com), a site that served as a home for numerous online projects by multimedia artists. Earlier this year AdaWeb's benefactor, Web-design company WP Studio, was sold to Digital City, which markets online city guides. Digital City couldn't see any payoff from the 3-year-old AdaWeb site, so it cancelled its funding. (Digital City agreed to keep the site online until Weil finds a new home for it, but no new projects will be added during the interregnum.)Another hurdle is the tool set. Web artists must get a handle on everything from multimedia technologies such as Shockwave to the headache-inducing EXtensible Markup Language (XML), which is about to become the Web's new standard coding language. While negotiating this steep learning curve, artists must retain their vision. "To really get to the point of being a true artist you have to master [your] craft, and I think it's the same with the Web," Lee says. "Anyone can just slap something on a scanner and put it up. That doesn't hold water in art school."Despite such obstacles, some are truly unique art sites. Lee points to Border equals 0 (http://www.borderequalszero.com) and Jodi (http://www.jodi.org), which push both Web boundaries and audience expectations (and occasionally crash browsers).A viewer participation element runs through the nascent world of Web art; many sites, such as Web-A-Sketch, invite viewers to take an active role in creating the art. At Amy Alexander's Multi-Cultural Recycler (http://shoko.calarts.edu/alex/recycler.html), participants combine stills from various live Web cams around the world into collages. Visitors to AdaWeb's Happier Days (http://www.adaweb.com/context/hd) can make up stories to accompany pictures; Piercing Mildred (http://www.mildred.com) lets surfers make bodily modifications to a cartoon character.While their content ranges from serious to whimsical, these interactive sites have something significant in common: their exploration of the Web's singular aspects: permeability and pervasiveness."When I first had the idea for the Recycler, creating a Web site in which the piece made a connection to other parts of the Internet was very important to me," Alexander says by e-mail. "I wanted to create a site that was process-oriented, so that every visit would be unique and specific to the moment someone was visiting."While techie visionaries prod the Web, the rest of the art world struggles to understand. "Museumgoers are being asked to participate with the art, which is not a behavior they are accustomed to in a museum. It's difficult for older people to do that," Matthew Yokobosky, associate curator of New York's Whitney Museum, told The Village Voice (http://www.villagevoice.com/ink/cyber/15bunn.shtml) for an article on how museums are handling Web art. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art plans to enter the creative work of Razorfish Studios (http://www.rsub.com) into its permanent collection, but others are dismissive. "There is a lot of stuff out there that is calling itself 'art' that isn't," Carl Goodman, curator of digital media at the American Museum of the Moving Image told the Voice.Goodman acknowledges that not enough time has passed to pronounce judgment on Web art as a genre. And it's not a given that electronic artists care about curatorial approval anyway. As Amy Alexander notes, the Internet "causes all sorts of things to change about the way work is exhibited. An artist can exhibit his/her work simply by putting it on a Web server, without curation." For better or worse, art can be presented directly to the churlish masses. Truly, the future of Web art holds limitless possibilities -- just like a blank slate on the Web-a-Sketch.

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