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Art and the Mundane Internet

Chris Chesher

Chris Chesher lectures and researches in desktop media at Macquarie University.

“How long is this bloody thing going to take?”

I want to slap the screen to wake the computer up. It’s been sitting there for at least five minutes doing nothing but giving an occasional vague flicker. This is barely enough to keep me from reaching for the reset key just to relieve the suspense.

But then I am confronted with a lurid red and green graphic and in heavy blue letters, the title Putrid Afterthought. It’s a web page at http://underground.net [expired], from somewhere in the US, with a new series of beckoning buttons underneath. It claims: “Putrid Afterthought is what is seen at the end of the double-barrelled, shotgunned cesspool of hyper reality. View at your own risk. May cause irreparable libidinal damage.”

Once this appears it’s a matter of following further hyperlinks, more waiting and potential frustration.

With all the hype in the media about the Internet you would think browsing the net should be a more dynamic experience. But it isn’t. It’s sometimes tedious. Often frustrating. Using the net is quite mundane.

When I say the net at its best is mundane, that’s not actually a put-down. It is mundane in that it’s a day-to-day thing. It’s not extraordinary. It’s ordinary. And once you have been using it for a while, it becomes just a part of your daily routines.

The World Wide Web is the most popular way of publishing material on the Internet. It’s only one of the ways the Internet works, but is the best way to publish documents because it is easy to use and combines graphics and formatted hyperlink text.

(See How the web is woven).

Net publishers name their sites by using familiar metaphors: sites are exhibits, publications, or spaces. Things on the net really are not much like the originals. The metaphors help give focus for the authors and set expectations for the viewers.

Check out on-line exhibitions

If you visit a gallery you expect to see pictures. In fact, quite a few art galleries have a presence on the net. The Andy Warhol museum in Pittsburgh in the US, for example, has a site on the World Wide Web. It includes a ‘guided tour’, which lets you choose a floor, see the floorplans of each floor, and a list of every work on display. There are images of many of these works. The site promotes the gallery’s permanent exhibition and events, and is an end in itself.

Unlike a real-world gallery, you don’t have to be in the same place as the exhibition. Without travelling or paying entrance fees you can see all sorts of contemporary art works or older collections. The only difference between a virtual gallery in Paddington and one in Pittsburgh is the time it takes for the images to download.

But the time you may have to wait can be annoyingly long, even for the ‘local’ gallery. This affects the experience. Where in a physical art gallery you can shuffle from one picture to another in a matter of seconds, on the World Wide Web an image takes anything from a few seconds to several minutes to turn up on your screen. What you can see is confined to the size, and the resolution of the screen (usually around 640 by 480 pixels at 72 pixels per inch).

Visiting a virtual gallery makes you aware – by its absence – of the sense of place you feel in a real gallery. This sense affects the way you experience the artworks. It takes effort to get to a gallery – arranging the time, travelling to the gallery, bringing friends and so on. Once you are there, you feel a sense of place: the space of the gallery, the light, silence and smells are part of the experience of the gallery that are missing from the virtual experience. When you’re browsing the world through the web what is stable is the machine you are using, and the nature of the way the Internet works.

Virtualler and virtualler

An exhibition on the net doesn’t need to have a real world referent. Kaleidoscope, a web site for independent artists includes a maze of metaphorical places: the art studio, centre stage, cyberfair, a newsstand and reading and screening rooms. At each of these, the metaphor sets the expectation about what kind of information you should find there. Based somewhere (or nowhere) in LA, Kaleidoscope gathers material from independent artists and gives them virtual place and meaning. There are interviews with various artists about current theoretical and practical themes, graphics, sound and video clips (although downloading many will take you all night).

A new site from South Australia, Parallel, is a ‘journal / gallery’ that looks beautiful, and is rich in content. It is both a journal and gallery on the web, using the tropes of both to set the tone and structure of the web site.

Parallel opens with a well-designed first page. This is crucial, because it sets the tone for the whole site. At the top of the page is a graphic of their logo, followed by a brief statement of purpose, and a table of contents for the gallery and journal. Each item in the table of contents links to the work itself.

Also on the first page are a series of links to other sites in related areas. The articles deal with theoretical post-modern and post-structuralist issues. The gallery of art works is small enough not to alienate users. From small ‘thumbnail’ images in the main gallery there is the option of downloading larger versions or animated QuickTime video clips. This site makes good use of backgrounds and design using the capabilities of the newest browsers. It also backs up the structure with solid content.

System-X is another group of electronic and computer artists. For some time they have used a bulletin-board, which is available through dial-up and they now have a net site. It includes exhibits by musicians, visual and installation artists. Work like Brad Miller’s digital rhizomes finds a natural place here, growing in the cracks of the post-Cold War technology. SysX sees cooperation and collaboration between artists through the net as equally important to exhibiting work.

Read, hear, see!

Web sites are a means of electronically publishing all sorts of information that used to be published on paper and in other forms. Sometimes publishers have a physical version as well; other times they don’t. The virtual version is different from the paper one. The virtual version has new possibilities.

Next Online is an elegantly implemented, commercially-oriented site from publishers of Rolling Stone. Their site includes an on-line promotion for Rolling Stone, an online games magazine associated with the publication Hyper, called Hyperactive, MM multimedia magazine, and Geek girl. Managing director Phillip Keir says attracting notoriety on the Internet today is easier than through traditional forms. The electronic version of Geek girl, for example, was called up 300,000 times, far more than the paper distribution of 500 copies. The net provides an international audience impossible to gain economically with paper distribution. It also includes multimedia material like sound and video that are not possible with paper.

Another site, Artsnet, has grassroots community-based material, from the Australian Society of Authors and the Australian Network for Art and Technology, but has a home page that at the moment is cluttered, ugly and unclear. There is some good material on the site, but the initial impression is bad. On the net, clever and appealing design are critical in the impression you get of the material.

You could easily say the net is not as good as other media. It is slow. It lacks the visual impact of TV advertising. It doesn’t have the sense of place of a gallery. It is not as easy to read as a book. It doesn’t have the resolution of a photo. Being silent (except for grabs that take minutes to download) it is no competitor for radio. It is impersonal and antisocial compared with meeting real people.

But the point is the net is really a different medium. It has grown very quickly, and in many fields is becoming a real, lived-in resource. The net is now remarkably unremarkable. It’s no longer a technological experiment or a spectacle, but a medium, where the attractions are what you can see and do through it.

******************

How the web is woven

The easiest, richest and most popular way of browsing the Internet is the World Wide Web (WWW or ‘web’). The web is not separate from the net, but is a way the network infrastructure is used. To use it you need a browser: a piece of software that runs on your machine to decode and display web ‘pages’. The must-have browser of the net at the moment is Netscape 1.1, which has Mac, Windows and UNIX versions.

The home page is what first comes up – the browser connects to it automatically. A page of text and graphics will appear in the browser’s window. From there you can follow ‘links’ to other pages by clicking on underlined words or icons within the text. When you choose a new link your machine sends a small message through the Internet to call up the information you want. This is the URL (uniform resource locater).

Three bits of information form the URL:

1 The protocol. On the web this is HTTP
(hypertext transfer protocol) – the standard
way the data is sent and received.
2 The IP address. The unique address of the
machine, in the form of a series of letters
separated by full stops: www.warhol.com.
The IP address can also be a number, and
3 File path for the document: the name of the
file and the name of the higher level
directories (or folders) that group the files.

That’s what those long strange addresses are: http://www.warhol.org/warhol/, for example, will use HTTP protocol to retrieve the file warhol from the machine whose IP address is www.warhol.org. If you know the address you can connect directly to it by typing it in rather than following other people’s links.
To use Netscape you will need a full connection to the net (using PPP or SLIP if you are connecting through a modem). Internet Australasia magazine has an up to date listing of Australian service providers and costs. CC

Sites referred to in this article:
Andy Warhol museum
http://www.warhol.org/warhol/
Kaleidoscope:
http://www.kspace.com/ [expired]
Parallel:
http://www.va.com.au/parallel/
System-X:
http://sysx.apana.org.au [expired]
Sydney Morning Herald:
http://www.smh.com.au
Next Online:
http://www.next.com.au
ArtsNet:
http://peg.apc.org/~artsnet [expired]
Starting points:
Yahoo (General subject lists):
http://www.yahoo.com
Art History Research Centre:
http://www.cam.org/~harmsen/research/intro.htm [expired]

Chris Chesher lectures and researches in desktop media at Macquarie University.

RealTime issue #8 Aug-Sept 1995 pg. 6

© Chris Chesher; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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