AND THE CORPORATE WORLD - A MIXED DOUBLE
Timothy Druckrey & Benjamin Weil
conversation about äda web's end and the functionality of art hosting
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
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:
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.
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.
appeared online in Telepolis
in April, 1998.
Timothy Druckrey >>
Benjamin Weil >>