Overview of MW98: Why you should attend MW98 Learn new skills to enhance your museum site Explore issues and controversies facing Museums and the Web Experts featured at MW98 Commercial products and services to enhance your web site Organizations supporting MW98: Online interchange regarding the virtual museum experience Juried awards to best web sites in 5 categories Overview of MW98: Why you should attend MW98 Learn new skills to enhance your museum site Explore issues and controversies facing Museums and the Web Experts featured at MW98 Commercial products and services to enhance your web site Organizations supporting MW98: Online interchange regarding the virtual museum experience Juried awards to best web sites in 5 categories

Overview of MW98: Why you should attend MW98 Learn new skills to enhance your museum site Explore issues and controversies facing Museums and the Web Experts featured at MW98 Commercial products and services to enhance your web site Organizations supporting MW98: Online interchange regarding the virtual museum experience Juried awards to best web sites in 5 categories

Archives & Museum Informatics

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published April 1998
updated Nov. 2010


Web Specific Art: The Development of a New Genre

Michael Alstad and Camille Turner, Gallery Zero One, Canada

Web technology has made it possible for artists to control the means of distribution of their work and access audiences outside the mainstream gallery system. Year Zero One grew out of a desire to connect with other artists and to showcase and encourage the new genre of web specific artworks. In this presentation, we will explore the developing language and aesthetics of the web and how artists around the world are creating works using this dynamic, participatory new medium.

Science and art are derived from the Greek word techne. These two disciplines were interconnected and provided a wholistic world view leading to the blooming of arts, literature and science during the Renaissance. The age of "enlightenment" ended this age of wonder and mystery and encouraged the growth of rationalism that created a rift between artists and scientists. Each discipline went their separate way, trying to explain the world.

During the information age, the web developed becoming a tool for global knowledge sharing between people of different walks of life, cultures and geographical locations. Information is converging to form new disciplines such as artificial life, nanotechnology and fuzzy logic. There was also a resurgence of old disciplines such as geomancy, astrology and alchemy. Science is merging once again with art, philosophy and psychology. Never before have so many people had so much access to so much information. A wholistic view of the world is re-emerging and scientists are uncovering "new" theorems such as, the holographic universe paradigm, confirming what the sages of old knew all along, that we are all of the same fabric and together we are greater than the sum of the parts.

The alchemical process is a good metaphor for describing the potential of the web not only as a tool for artmaking but as a new medium. On the web, artists are able to connect with each other to create spaces that are provocative, interactive and empowering. Alchemy is an ancient discipline associated with the transmutation of base metals into gold or transforming something ordinary into something special. Artists now have: accessible technological tools, the ability to engage and directly interact with participants, a growing pool of knowledge and the potential to communicate to huge audiences.

This paper shows a cross section of the web at this moment in time highlighting events such as: a visit via digital microscope to a tiny installation where the mystery of human life itself is occurring, an art collective who was contacted via their web site by an artist doing work thousands of miles away, a mysterious shadowbox where participants manipulate lights and take pictures, a site where one can parent a creature, watch it evolve, rejoice when it gives birth and grieve when it dies. This is the ultimate age of alchemy. Let the transmutations begin!

First stop, a site aptly named, "Alchymeia". The work was on view via web cam as part of the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics Ice Art Festival. Shawn Brinkley, its creator, is interested in the emerging interface between art, science and technology. Alchymeia was created by introducing the naturally occurring steroids found in the urine of two Olympic athletes into "ultra-pure/ultra-cold" water. The water on its own, because it has all its impurities removed, cannot form crystals because there is no material from which to create. The presence of the highly ordered human genetic material forms a pattern which becomes the mould the ice crystals faithfully grow into.

"The crystals in this exhibition act as amplified recordings of one's physical presence expressed at a level of telematic so removed from operational awareness, it becomes a virtual space."1

This site is unique in its approach to art making on the web. The art creates itself. Shawn has set up a situation where we become the observers of a minute world where the miracle of transmutation is occurring in real time via digital video microscopy. We watch what is essentially human presence being manifested and amplified through the use of the tools of web technology.

Because of the transitory nature of the piece, and indeed the web itself, the artwork is no longer accessible in real time. Shawn's personal site now documents the experience, crystallizing it as it were.

Random Excess Memory is the title of the current group show of three international web specific art projects at Year Zero One. One of the sites jodi, is a kafkaesque maze of buttons, programming language, links, icons and collaged 'digital debris' where the visitor will go on an endless search finding nothing but more links to the virtual void. Along this claustrophobic and crazy journey an occasional 'bomb' or 'virus' icon appears playing with our collective anxiety and fear of the ultimate computer crash. Jodi makes us realise we are never content with being stationary on the web...we will always be clicking away looking for what's beyond...searching for the absolute.

"Evolution is a creative process, which acting independently, has produced living forms of great beauty and complexity. Today, artists and engineers are beginning to work together with evolution. In the future, it may be possible for artists to work in collaboration with evolution to produce works of art whose beauty and complexity approach that of organic life."2

Artificial Life is the use of genetic algorithms to create silicon based life forms. In an episode of X-files written by William Gibson, an artificial life form which was created to exist on the internet, lashed out into the "real world" and took the lives of its creators. Via a posthumous message on the net from one of its designers, the viewer is left with the feeling that life has gone on and perhaps they are now enjoying direct communion with their creature creation in another dimension. Communities are being developed around "A-life" where participants are becoming emotionally invested in their life forms.

A-Life Garden, hosted in Japan, is a world with a maximum of 500 lifeforms where humans can look through the "Picto Book" and "buy" cute little globular creatures. No cash changes hands but there is a point system. New members start out with enough points to "purchase" ten creatures and when offspring result, accumulate more points. Each a-lifeform comes endowed with 50 kb of DNA data. Statistics are compiled and available via the picto book which lists ratings for vitality, size, preference for and adaptability to various substances. Every hour there is a detailed text based report of the goings on of the Garden where one can monitor all the creatures within the ecosystem.

One of the most colourful forms of life here, is the human component. Tesh Nakamura is the keeper of the grounds and originator of the garden. He wrote the program as a concrete application of his PhD studies in self evolving designs and neural networks. Since then, it has become home to members from all over Europe, North America and Japan. There is a sense of community and impassioned discussions occur around issues that affect the ecosystem. Several members expressed outrage at the idea of introducing "artificial" ways of controlling the environment.

A site which exemplifies the convergence of scientific and artistic principles as well as embodying the concept 'interactive art form' is called Shadow Server. A professor of engineering at The University of California Ken Goldberg, who holds a degree in robotics, built a box containing five halogen bulbs and various objects. When the lights inside the box are illuminated the 'mystery objects' cast a shadow onto a scrim. A camera records the black and white image and transmits it back to the viewer across the Internet. On the web site interface there are five buttons where the viewer can control the lighting within the box. There are 32 possible shadow combinations.

Goldgerg's work is concerned with how viewers perceive electronically mediated images over distances - questioning both the new technologies and that which they are seeing. The objects inside the Shadow Server are never seen directly, only as muted silhouettes cast upon a sheet. Goldberg was inspired by Marcel Duchamp's Ball of Twine (With Hidden Noise), an artwork made in 1916 where he requested a patron to hide an unidentified object within a ball of string, which was then secured with screws between two steel plates and sealed in shellac. Duchamp never knew what was inside and since both he and the patron are dead, nor will anyone else. We can draw a parallel between this idea and the experience of visual perception on the web. What is beneath the ephemeral images?... something intangible and outside the realm of objective experience.

The web not only has provided artists with a new medium it has also led to an entire arts related resource network where artists can connect and collaborate with other artists. The Toronto based artist collective Symbiosis recently hosted a site specific exhibition in a vacant Royal Bank of Canada. The collective invited several guests artists whose work previously explored issues around money, banking and systems of exchange. Jerelyn Hanrahans Gesture as Value was 'found' on the web and the collective requested her to bring her project from Bern, Switzerland to The Bank of Symbiosis in Toronto. The Gesture as Value project uses an ATM Bank Machine which dispenses bill sized 'artworks' after the individual inserts their bank card and deposits their own 'gesture'. Jerelyn collected the gestures from diverse sources such as schools, old age homes, and psychiatric wards with the intention of using the bills as a type of "exchange as social value minimising national borders and offering individuals, using the machine, a broad perspective on other realities." 3

Shortly after the launch of their web site, Symbiosis received a request from an artist, Rene Rusjan to participate in the Triennale of Art in Ljubljana, Slovenia. Via the web, the artist requested Symbiosis members to answer several specific questions she proposed - either through text, images, video and/or audio - for inclusion in a physical installation in three parts: the Room with a View; the Room with Memory and the Room With an Ear. The visitors to the gallery were given the opportunity to interact with the various 'answers' collected from artists around the world!

Categorizing the new genre of "web specific" art is like trying to hit a moving target. The landscape changes at an alarming rate with the proliferation of new art sites that challenge the boundaries of art. Scientists are becoming artists and artists are becoming scientists. New tools and techniques develop as the new work demands. The common denominator is that the web is integral to the work. As a gallery that exists solely on the web, Year Zero One has become a witness and a catalyst for the alchemical acts that are occurring.

1. (1998) Winter Olympics Ice Art Festival
2.Ray, Thomas S. (1997) Evolution as Artist http://www.hip.atr.co.jp/~ray/pubs/art/art.html
ATR Human Information Processing Research Laboratories
3.Hanrahan, Jerelyn (1997) Gestures as Value http://artnetweb.com/gesture.html

Last modified: March 14, 1998. This file can be found below http://www.archimuse.com/mw98/
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