A Brief History of äda'web
In the beginning of the 1990s, three initiatives were developed concomitantly that aimed at exploring the possibilities of the then nascent online world for the development of a conversation about art as well as an investigation of new forms of art-making. Echo, The Thing, and Artswire were electronic bulletin board systems that all sought to foster the building of a strong cultural community. While Echo was probably closer in its scope to the San Francisco based The Well, The Thing elected to fully focus on the arts, quickly developing nodes in Germany, where its founder, Wolfgang Staehle, had strong ties. As technology evolved, The Thing was in fact the first attempt at creating an international art community online. That was before the Internet--and the Web--became accessible beyond the scientific and military communities.
When the first multimedia Web browser was invented in Illinois in late 1993, the possibilities became infinitely more enticing. All of a sudden, one no longer needed to log on to a server directly (which was the case in the early '90s, therefore terribly diminishing the potential of international online "gatherings"). Also, the type of document became much more versatile because it was suddenly possible to embed images, sounds, and text--such files had until then been self-standing and required several applications to experience each of them. More importantly, html documents were related to others with links that became the structure for the creation of artworks as well as commercial pages. As soon as early 1994, art students at universities adopted the Web, mainly to promote more traditional forms of art-making, such as painting and sculpture. A student at the French Ècole Polytechnique also developed one of the first online extensions for the museum, Le Web Louvre. These pioneers were soon joined by more institutional endeavors and one of the first art projects online, produced by the Randolph Street Gallery in Chicago. Indeed, Muntadas' The Fileroom: Archives of Censorship was released online in the fall of 1994, just when äda'web was created. äda'web, in turn, released its first online project in May 1995, although it had started "emitting" a few months earlier (February of the same year).
The Digital Foundry
Not unlike printmaking studios or foundries, where artists confront their projects with the technical expertise of a producer or group of producers, äda'web was set to offer artists the possibility of addressing the new medium without necessarily having any specific notion of computing. Rather, the input happened more at a conceptual level, with an understanding of the network that was informed by a practice developed with other media. Artists involved would be the ones who had an interest in the public space, an experience with various media, and who specifically did not rely on any form of craftsmanship to produce their work. Most of them had already collaborated with technicians or engineers, and envisioned their work as the result of a dialogue with producers of some kind.
The commanding principle was to offer the online world an alternative to the "online galleries" and other "virtual museums," where one would basically find glorified catalogues and other forms of "brochureware" somehow presumptuously referred to as "digital art." Producing work online gradually became a process the äda'web team understood as an ongoing dialogue with the artists as well as a sort of translation of concepts into the realm of the network.
Art online has evolved quite a bit since then. Inexpensive real estate (Web-hosting prices are low, and continue to be less and less expensive) and the relative ease of programming basic Web pages has enabled a number of artists to just go ahead and produce their own work, without the need for any mediation or support. With the contribution of such artists as Jodi and other early adopters such as Alexei Shulgin(1), this kind of production has become fundamental to the development of a community that preferred to stay away from the traditional art circuits. They maintained an approach to their practice--the making, display, and distribution of their work--akin to the one informed by thoughts that fueled the art scene of the late '60s and '70s, when artists questioned the system as a mercantile and dubious environment. In the context of the Net, this also means that art actively participates in the development of new media and online culture, thus repositioning this type of reflection in a more central cultural position.
However, there is first an issue of context. Today, a stand-alone artist Web page has little chance of receiving any attention. Things were different a few years ago when äda'web was set up and developed, as there were fewer sites available and the constituency of Web "surfers" was a more daring and probably more knowledgeable one than it is today. The problem of information and management of the ever-growing number and range of possible destinations has made it harder for the average "Webist" to find out where to go. It has become increasingly difficult to keep abreast of new projects. This is where syndication and the setting up of cooperatives are interesting models to contextualize artists' work. One example that comes to mind is The Thing. The fact that Staehle and his team offer Web-hosting and eventual technical assistance to their peers has made The Thing a place of choice for artists to host their pages. This means that anyone accessing the Web site has an opportunity to check a growing number of artists' projects at once. However, in that kind of economy, artists either have to know how to build their pages on their own or pay for technical support. Moreover, as the Web becomes increasingly organized with the advent of "portal" pages, it is increasingly clear that the model to follow is the one of aggregation and personalization, with some guide-like features. An example that comes to mind is the CyberAtlas, produced by artist-write-curator Jon Ippolito and offered by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.
The digital foundry model ideally offers both the hosting of projects in a specific context and the providing of real production support whenever necessary. In the case of äda'web, the foundry is also a filter, as there is a curatorial dimension brought to the development of the Web site. Indeed, artists who created work for äda'web were commissioned, which of course makes the offering of projects tighter in its scope. In the case of projects produced by artists themselves, the selection process is the result of a dialogue with the artists who were interested in the context but could do their projects alone. Thus there is less immediate input as far as the scope of the project and the technical resolution are concerned.
Curating has necessarily been a matter of adapting to the nature of the art praxis it has had to work with. When most artists were producing finished and discrete products in their studio, the curator's function was to coordinate the selection and display of an artist or artists' work, so as to reveal a specific viewpoint or angle of looking at the work. In that sense, the curator's modus operandi was closer to that of an editor. In most cases, the curator was working within the institutional structure, and part of the agenda(s) he or she had to address was related to issues of conservation and collecting, even when the exhibitions included contemporary work. As the practice of art evolved to encompass a variety of different approaches, materials, or techniques, the role of the curator subsequently had to reflect those changes.
Furthering the Duchampian notion of art only having a validity for the historical context in which it was created, artists since the '60s have often adopted an approach to their work that no longer includes such preoccupations as durability. In fact, this phenomenon started even earlier, when painters such as Jackson Pollock or Mark Rothko included condiments as part of their palette, making it all the more difficult for conservators to restore their works today!
Ephemera and performance-oriented types of projects called for a repositioning of the curatorial intervention. In that light, the examples of now historical projects by such curators as Harald Szeemann in Switzerland (When Attitudes Become Form,1968) or as Kynaston McShine in New York (Information, 1970), show how a new generation of curators engaged in rethinking their work much more along the lines of being a facilitator and dialogist, an emulator of some sort. By fostering exchanges between themselves and the artists they worked with, their position somehow shifted away from the institution and closer to the art and its makers. Moreover, they did not need to be affiliated with an institution, and thus became less concerned about issues pertaining to the specificity of the institution's role. In a certain sense, even if it proved a little problematic at times, the curator adopted a somewhat artist-like vision and sought to create an interpretative surface for the selected works, creating a relationship to the art that is not unlike the one a conductor maintains with the musical score. On that note, Umberto Eco's Opera Aperta published in the late '60s is a seminal piece of writing.
The relationship between the curator and the ephemeral works of art created a few decades ago calls for a rethinking of the notion of presentation and conservation. To that extent, the recent publication of Ippolito's paper on what he refers to as variable media is exemplary: as he poses the artwork as a set of instructions that can be interpreted and adapted in relation to such issues as technical evolution and other elements that tend to be time sensitive. However, this is only the beginning of an investigation that needs to be refined before the right solution is found, one that respects both the ephemeral quality of the work and the conceptual intentions of its original creator.
The Web, in a way, takes its cue from an understanding of art that tends to be rather open. Projects function more as propositions, or as a means for the viewers to engage with a certain thought process they will "interact" with in order to create a specific viewing experience. So, rather than presenting a finished work of art, most artists seek to engage viewers in order to let them participate in the experience and generate meaning. In that sense, there are elements reminiscent of earlier art praxes, such as Conceptual art or Fluxus. Furthermore, art produced for an online environment and context is generally a collage of various elements that somehow takes its cue from the structure of the World Wide Web, namely multimedia and networked.
Online, the notion of finished artwork is challenged in two ways: the first, as mentioned before, has to with the very nature of the project as proposition; the second has to do with the medium itself. As a thought process grows, an artist may want to proceed with her or his idea, adding as well as possibly modifying existing elements. Somehow, the fluidity of the medium calls for unfinished thoughts and, consequently, unfinished work. This is probably why a growing number of artists working online tend to primarily envision their body of work as a multidimensional investigation whose elements are all linked under the same url. Jodi (Joan H and Dirk Paemans) registered their own domain name very early on. There are, however, many other examples, such as Easylife.org (Alexei Shulgin), Vuk.org (Vuk Cosic), or Irational.org (Heath Bunting), to name some of the most prominent artists. Things may be different when artists' work is commissioned and/or produced by a lab or an institution, where work processes and schedules tend to be more defined in time. However, on äda'web, projects such as Julia Scher's Securityland have been unfolding for the whole life span of the site--from February 1995, when the trailer was released, to the late summer of last year, when Wonderland was added. Similarly, Matthew Ritchie's The Hard Way was released in two iterations, and it is only because äda'web has ceased to produce new projects that there was not a third. It is also noteworthy that a number of artists have come back to the äda'web team with the will to either revisit their project, or make a new one.
As network media develops, numerous projects that have appeared online confront the whole notion of the nature of art. Indeed, trying to understand and decide what is art and what is not is a difficult and challenging role that the curator has to engage with. A recent project, Extension (produced by art historian Susan Hapgood, whose main interest and focus is Fluxus; Ainatte Inbal, a producer who was also working at äda'web before its recent demise; and myself), consists of a selection of art Web sites (projects, information-based, and magazine types). In the selection of sites, some were deliberately included to reflect upon the meaning of art online--how some projects seen from an art viewpoint can be understood as art, or as important in the context of such exploration. Extension was also intended to reveal the dynamics that may exist between those sites, how they link to each other, how they refer to each other. This may, of course, be a spontaneous alliance that may eventually call for a further reflection on the role of the curator online.
One could see two overlapping models that complement each other while offering a varying scale for the curator's intervention in the work: be it a dialogue, a real collaboration in the process of production, or simply a selection that refers to an interpretation and/or a context.
Beyond Interface: net art and Art on the Net is a recent and interesting approach to the latter form of curating online. Curated by Steve Dietz, Director of New Media Initiatives at the Walker Art Center (note the shift in title!), the "exhibition" consists of a straightforward information-driven interface that groups a number of projects he found on the network. In a way, this approach somehow echoes the existence, very early on, of link pages that sites have put together to create some kind of a context for the projects and information they present online.
As in the case of more "traditional" art (if one may call the art practices of the late '60s and '70s traditional), the boundaries between the curatorial roles can be hard to decipher. When Jodi offers a map of the various sites they seem to feel some kind of affiliation with, they somehow operate on a curatorial level. When other artists create an environment in which they invite their peers to work, they somehow engage beyond what could referred to as "art." Such is the case, for instance, with Irational.org, as well as Easylife and many others. Yet, it is clear that these activities are complementary, and create an interesting and important dynamic.
When äda'web was created about three-and-a-half years ago, it proceeded with a curatorial approach started with other media, and tended to explore means to engage art in the public arena, take it away from the institutional walls, and address a different public, with strategies that definitely needed to be adjusted to that realm. Indeed, when visitors choose to enter a museum, they know what they're in for. But if art is coming to the street, one way or the other, it has to somehow morph into a more adaptable and fluid form, which reaches out and yet does not impose on the potential viewer. Since the Web is a public environment, one can easily see how the strategy is to reach out and offer an eclectic array of projects that investigate the medium and truly help to shape it. It is no surprise to learn that, while äda'web was still operating, a large part of the site's audience was composed of developers.
The second model of curating online consists of commissioning and coordinating the production of projects with invited artists. At first, äda'web's mission was only that. As the site grew and started having a real presence online, artists who were working online expressed interest in anchoring projects from the äda'web site, because they were interested in the context it would create for their work. As a consequence, äda'web soon offered an "associate" dimension in which projects by such artists as Michael Samyn (GroupZ), Jodi, and Maciej Wisniewsky were featured.
The curatorial function in that context is quite close to the one evoked before: the curator becomes a facilitator, an emulator, and a kind of a translator, at times. By bringing in artists whose main medium is not the Web to explore this new realm, the idea was to foster a discussion between the artists and the producers so as to create ideal conditions to produce work reflecting the artists' interests and concerns. In effect, while I was directly involved in the production process at the inception of äda'web, I soon became aware that I could not keep up with the technological evolution on a practical level, and gradually withdrew from the technical part of the production process.
Curating a project is slightly different from curating a Web site. Indeed, the construction of a Web site is informed by an accumulation of works, as it is no longer necessary to "close" projects in order to proceed with others. Issues pertaining to interface and navigation, trying to understand how to best present the projects or access them, is also part of the curatorial duties that working online demands. äda'web's team undertook a regular reworking of the interface to provide visitors those interfaces that best reflected the nature of the site and were user-friendly without being didactic. The first interface sought to separate the content into four different categories--project, influx, context, and extension--while offering random access to any page in the site and an icon for access to the site's shopping area. The main idea was to find an appropriate metaphor for virtual space while keeping the design very evocative of four distinct dimensions. For instance, random access was signified by a "diver" icon and the whole interface looked like a plaza.
Introduced about 10 months later, interface 2.0 ventured into exploring the metaphor of film. While access to the four dimensions remained, the core of the interface was a film strip that featured the newest content, mainly projects. That idea of promoting the most recent work available was pushed one step further with the introduction of a splash page that came with the decision to produce a series of artist pages that denounced the CDA (Communication Decency Act). Soon, however, this page became the locus for the presentation of the latest "feature" of the site.
Interface 3.0 offered a new categorization of content, resulting from the conclusion that some content was "experience-based" while other was "information-based." "Works" (produced in-house and experience-based, included the "influx" and "project" dimensions), while the "associate" subdimension appeared in "context." Furthermore, this interface included an index that enabled users to directly access the content they wanted to experience. Indeed, the äda'web team deemed it important to offer regular visitors quick access to the projects they were interested in as well as provide easier access for new visitors who seemed interested in finding projects by artists' names. Until then, it was assumed that artists were either not specifically interested in putting their names forward--considering their works as the result of a collaboration--or they had deliberately preferred anonymity in this environment, echoing the strategy they had developed in their thinking about work for public spaces.
This may denote an interesting shift in the conception of the Web as a space. While older artists considered it deliberately as a public space, it is conceivable that younger ones thought of it as another working space, possibly because none of these artists had actually worked in public space before working online. Others chose to mask their identity, so to speak, by adopting a brand name, such as Michael Samyn with the "brand" GroupZ, or Joan H and Dirk Paemans with the name Jodi, addressing issues of anonymity from an angle that echoes the increasingly sophisticated names of corporations that no longer adopt the monikers of their founders.
While maintaining the index, interface 4.0 introduced a new dimension to the notion of interface. While the goals were similar--improving navigation and potentially serving a growing community of visitors who may not have the same relationship to the screen as their predecessors--the need to position the site as different from the magma of commercial sites that were opening daily became more aparent. Hence the somehow joking approach to the omnipresent "frameset-cum-left-side-navigation-bar." In the case of äda'web, this navigation instrument proved hard to use, as the icons were in perpetual movement. The interface, thus, is stated as being more than just a navigation tool: it reflects the thought processes engaged by the production team and offers a real context for the work on display as well as the content.
It is also at that point that a complete revamp of the "investigate" subdimension occurred. As the number of visitors to äda'web was growing and their knowledge of art was probably less than the "early adopters," it was deemed important to provide specific information about the projects. Hence a whole series of tools was developed to facilitate a better understanding of the projects, including a more organized "fact sheet" on the works' "authors." While developing this new interface, it also became clear that the links page had to evolve. Unfortunately, the work that Susan Hapgood and the rest of the team engaged in never concretized on the site, although it was carried out and is now hosted as part of Ippolito's series of charts (CyberAtlas, a dimension of the Guggenheim's Web site).
Going back to the issues relating to the function of the online curator, a somewhat controversial topic pertains to the curator as a participant in the definition of a viable economic model for the online production and presentation of art projects. So far, content in general has had a difficult time finding a sustaining model and we can see how this has created tensions. It is obvious that most models pioneered by commercial sites are hardly applicable to an art context. For instance, banner advertising is completely irrelevant as it implies a disturbance in the experience of the work. If one takes the example of Slate magazine, which decided to give access to subscribers only, one may conclude that this is not a viable model for the arts either. Indeed, this implies that the whole notion of link and the potential to create amorphous projects becomes impossible. A third option is to try and sell by-products. This, as well, is sort of a problem as it implies online productions need to be sustained by off-line products ranging from multiples to screen-savers. Yet it is of crucial importance to find revenue models for art online if we really want this kind of cultural production to have more than a reduced impact as far as pioneering and defining this new medium.
Finally, part of the curator's function is to find adequate links between online art production and its possible presentation in the traditional art-viewing venues. Indeed, art institutions have started showing interest in displaying online artist projects and that requires some forward thinking in terms of the possibilities for exhibiting this type of work. For instance, some of the artists who were invited to participate in Documenta last year were appalled by the way their projects were presented, with computer stations displayed in an officelike environment. Along with the artist, the curator has to address these issues so as to be satisfied with the potential effect these presentations may have on the understanding of their work. Curators also need to think about the ways this type of production can be accommodated within the institutional walls. Map The Gap, an exhibition organized by the äda'web team in the fall of 1997, was an attempt to address those issues.
With the demise äda'web and its transfer to the Walker Art Center comes a whole new set of questions pertaining to the collection and conservation of art online. This probably constitutes a new challenge while bringing the curator back to issues that have very much been part of her or his function with more traditional media.
1. In the case of Shulgin and other artists from Eastern Europe, although the strategies might have been similar to, let's say Jodi's, the motivation was a little different. The Eastern European artists did not have to be defiant of the existing infrastructure, because it did not exist.
Benjamin Weil is the Director of New Media at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. He is the cofounder and was the curator of äda'web. He graduated from the Whitney Independent Study Program in 1989. His writings have been published in such international art publications as Flash Art International, Frieze, Art Monthly, and Atlantica. He has also published texts in museum catalogues for the Hara Museum, Tokyo; the Bonner Kunstverein, Bonn, Germany; and the Hayward Gallery, London. As a curator, he coordinated a part of Aperto '93 (45th Venice Biennale, Italy, 1993). Other curatorial projects include The Desire of the Museum, Whitney Museum, New York, 1989; Itinerari, Castello di Rivara, Italy, 1991; and Manifestor, a street exhibition of artists' projects on posters in Cologne, Munich, Turin, Tokyo, Paris, and Stockholm, 1992-1994.