Timothy Druckrey & Benjamin Weil


A conversation about äda web's end and the functionality of art hosting servers

Timothy Druckrey:

Somehow it came as a shock to the net community that äda 'web was cut from the orbit of non-revenue generating initiatives of AOL. The debates that insued on the mailing lists harped on automomy, corporate greed, misanthopic expectations, or pathetic forms of compromise. Almost none of these postings contextualized the issue as one that can be extended into a general failure of the institutional art world to come to terms with so-called "net art". The refusal of corporate sponsorship is, in the end, trivially expected. That an art world increasingly exuding cyberhype was conspicuously absent from the debates, suggests that the value of the work produced has little relationship to institutional imperatives or experience.

The problem revolves around several important gaps in the support for experimental media in the US. First is a virtually non-existent tradition for the kind of festivals and symposia that regularly occur in Europe and that have sustained the media arts (the list is long but includes: Ars Electronica, DEAF, Transmedia, ... ) Second, a longstanding unwillingness to situate (or really accept) emerging media art in the diminishing (but still active) sphere of alternative exhibition venues. Third are the frequently careless and naive attempts to integrate the media arts into mainstream museums. And fourth, the ill-informed contempt and superficiality emerging form art criticism or artists-cum-curators. (This was outlined in the July 97 Telepolis essay Pandemonium and Absurdity)

Not to be taken lightly, the continuing misunderstandings about the media arts generally, and the web specifically, still provoke the kind of heatedly disappointing debates currently filling, for example, the eyebeam list. But in the end the differentiations settle around the demands of a field in which legitimated institutional support seems out of place and in which little serious historical or evaluative work has been done -- no less any considered approach to the establishment of the value of "net art."

äda 'web emerged on the border of commerce and art. It posed no illusions about autonomy (it was, afterall, a .com and not .net or .org). Its curatorial position, articulated by its choice of projects and artists, served to reinforce a willingness to provide a reasoned platform in which to address the web as a differentiated terrain in which adaptation, reconceptualization, and experimentation could be fostered outside the free-for-all atmosphere usually atributed to "net art." In a field driven by instantaneity and mutation, ada'web seemed circumspect rather than freewheeling. Surely part of its reputation was staked in the kind of stability it represented. But sustaining stabilty in either the volatile aesthetics of the web, or the hit-and-run economy of web commerce hardly seems a fitting expectation. "Net art" might generate a flow of traffic, but fails to generate a flow of revenue.

I recently spoke with Benjamin Weil, curator at äda 'web. Rather than present an interview, I asked if he would contribute some thoughts about the issue:

Benjamin Weil:

Several issues are at stake here, but one comes to the forefront when dealing with issues of function. The "net art" scene has been developing somewhat erractically, not unlike a gold rush -- perpetuating the American myth of the Frontier.

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. I find this to be quite encouraging, as it means that art is actively participating 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 I started äda 'web, as there were less sites available, and the constituency of web "surfers" was more daring and probably more knowledgeable 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. Personally, I find it rather difficult to keep abreast of new projects. This is where I think that syndication and the setting up of cooperatives are interesting models to contextualize artists work. One example that comes to my mind is The Thing. The fact that Wolfgang 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.

This leads me to the second point I would like to make. äda 'web was started as a "digital foundry". The idea was to facilitate access to this new medium for artists whose research I believed made sense in this environment, but who might not be familiar with computers and programming. It therefore made sense to build a production studio which would, in a way, function like a print shop, where the expertise of the artist would be engaged in a dialogue with web producers who in turn would mediate these artists ideas and approach to the medium. The idea of context was of course very important. Nevertheless, this notion of "digital foundry" was of the utmost importance. Since the web was a relatively easy medium to work with technically speaking, it was a matter of enlarging the dialogue between the artists who had started exploring the medium on their own and as their main form of making art, and the ones who were exploring it as another medium, in collaboration with a production team. When I was approached, first by Michael Samyn (GroupZ) and then by Jodi, I realized that äda 'web could also become an interface for this dialogue to be emulated.

From its very inception, äda 'web was also thought out to foster a new approach to the economy of the arts. Indeed, because we were producing intangible and unfinished artworks, it seemed necessary to re-assess the relationship between art and funding. During its 3 1/2 years of existence, äda 'web explored numerous alleys of possible income, including an online shopping extension (exchange) which would sell books, magazines, videos, and artifacts. This proved to come too early, as net commerce was - and still is, somehow - in its infancy, and people were reluctant to pay electronically. We also thought about membership. Our constituency would be asked to pay a minimal yearly amount to support projects. This was also problematic, in that it would either force us to close the site, which, in my understanding of the medium, would have been antithetical with its hypermedia structure; or I would mean that some would get a free ride while others would pay, which implicitely meant accepting the notion of two classes of netizens.

The non profit alley was explored last summer, although it was already going back to more traditional funding strategies, notwithstanding the fact that very little funding available at the time.

Finding a way to collaborate with corporations, and introducing the notion of content research was the choice we made. Rather than soliciting companies with the same old "prestige/good citizenship" model, we thought we could make them understand that there was something more for them to gain in supporting art experiments with this new medium. Software companies had already been interested in "in kind" support. However, given the state of confusion that currently reigns in the content production business, where no one seems to know what to do next, it again proved to be too early for this kind of model to be implemented. The current state of the industry is indeed an instable one, where corporations change strategies swiftly and without notice, where the sources of revenue are still undefined, and where, as a consequence, no money will be invested if it does not look like there will be an immediate return on the investment. That notion is of course ludicrous. No older media has ever launched new products with that kind of expectation!
Today, the web proves to be an amorphous medium, serving many different interests, that range from services to product information and brand recognition strategies to editorially driven content. As it evolves, it seems that what emerges as a common denominator is the transactional form it takes. Magazines, for instance, tend to be increasingly tempted by offering subscriptions: the free-for-all model may consequently be short-lived, which is not a real surprise. However, the notion of hypermedia link structure may severely suffer from that model.

Whereas I still believe that maintaining one's own web page (and domain) is a possibility, it is however clear that if the arts on line do not get organized, they will once again fall on the side of culture, remain marginalized, and the opportunity to really create a forum for the arts to (re)gain a central position in contemporary culture will unfortunately have been lost. As the web gets more and more organized, time is running out, and such initiative may soon prove extremely hard -- if not impossible -- to implement.

Originally appeared online in Telepolis in April, 1998.

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