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What is äda'web?

Robert Atkins, September 1998
Just the Facts

äda'web is an online-art site or gallery on the Internet. Following its opening in May 1995, it presented (and in many cases produced) more than two dozen artworks and projects designed for Internet viewing. (By online art I mean original, interactive art that can only be experienced on the Internet, rather than the digitized images of paintings or sculpture presented on many gallery or museum sites.) Founded by curator Benjamin Weil, äda'web was headquartered in New York. By the time it closed in February 1998, äda'web was regarded by many commentators as the premier showcase for online art.

Named after Lady Ada Augusta Lovelace--the daughter of Lord Byron and a 19th century-scientist whom many consider the first computer programmer--äda'web was, in 1994, a glint in Weil's eye. Starting in 1990, the Paris-born curator had been involved with a group of New York artists creating online projects. (Their work culminated in the first American art bulletin board, The Thing.) Like many early online artists and producers, Weil understood the significance of the release of the first Web browser, the University of Illinois Super Computing Center's Mosaic (1993), which preceded the release of the commercial browser software we use today--Netscape's Navigator or Microsoft's Internet Explorer. Web browsers helped transform the Internet from a text-only environment suitable for e-mail and chat to an environment--the part of the Internet now known as the World Wide Web--hospitable to graphics, video, and sound. Weil created a prototype online work with artist Julia Scher and used this "trailer" to help secure the financial and production support of John Borthwick, a new-media developer in Manhattan's Silicon Alley and the founder of WP Studios, which produced the online city guide Total New York. äda'web's offices and production facilities were adjacent to those of WP Studios, and the team that collaborated with Weil included Vivian Selbo, Ainatte Inbal, Cherise Fong, Susan Hapgood, and Andrea Scott.

In May 1995, the site officially debuted with Jenny Holzer's Please Change Beliefs, an interactive work that allows the visitor to rearrange the well-known artist's aphorisms. Weil went on to produce more than a dozen other works by an eclectic mix of artists ranging from those with major reputations as Conceptual artists (Lawrence Weiner, Antonio Muntädas) and respected mid-career artists of various stylistic persuasions (Julia Scher, General Idea), to artists such as John F. Simon, Jr., who focuses primarily on computer and online work, and writers such as Darcey Steinke, who was fascinated by the medium and wondered how such a project might affect her writing.

Collaboration was central to the online works that äda'web produced. Dealing with text, graphics, photographs, video, and sound (or any combination thereof) required a process remote from the romantic mythology of the artist working in tortured isolation in the studio, à la Van Gogh. The often expensive procedures for creating major online artworks is closer to that of video-art production or fine printmaking, in which an artist who may know very little about prints works with a "master printer" who helps him realize his ideas in an unfamiliar medium. Many äda'web works evolved from an original concept into something unexpected--experimentation became the most logical way to innovate in an untried medium. In fact, some projects, such as David Bartel's Arrangements, were released in an unfinished, or beta state, which allowed viewers to exploit the potential of online interactivity*--this essential characteristic of the medium provided feedback utilized in the works' completion. *(Meaningful uses of interactivity such as this are in short supply on the Internet, where interactivity typically involves something like voting for plot options on soap operas: Should Mary Jane tell her mother about her evil stepfather's affair with an Avon lady or confront him directly?)

What is showcased on the äda'web site does not--cannot--always reveal the often surprising or attenuated processes by which the works were made or conceived: Julia Scher collaborated with students from the Rhode Island School of Design on Wonderland, an expansion of her work Securityland, while artist Matthew Ritchie produced for äda'web a second and (projected) third version of his work, The Hard Way. Because it mimicked--and commented on--computer-game formats, Ritchie's ambitions for The Hard Way, too, expanded as the technology for online gaming improved. The chancy and evolving nature of new technologies also affected äda'web's experimentation. The full effect of Lawrence Weiner's Homeport, for instance, depends on software created for the Palace, an interactive virtual environment, that appeared to be gaining widespread popularity, but then fizzled.

In addition to the projects Weil and his team oversaw, äda'web also hosted more than a dozen projects for individuals, galleries, and institutions, including The Museum of Modern Art and the School of Visual Arts in New York. These projects included publications, lectures, online exhibitions, artworks by important online artists such as Jodi and Maciej Wisniewsky, and web documentaries such as Barbara London's Stir-Fry, an increasingly popular format that often chronicles a producer's travels from an interactive, on-the-road perspective.

As äda'web's popularity increased and its centrality to the geographically dispersed, online-art community increased, its own prospects for survival grew dimmer and dimmer. In late 1996, Borthwick sold WP Studios to Digital City Inc., a company owned chiefly by America Online (AOL) and the Tribune Company. Throughout 1997, äda'web's new corporate owner did not reveal its intentions regarding its WP properties, but in February 1998, Digital City gave up the philanthropic enterprise of funding online art, and äda'web's "doors" were permanently shuttered. In late 1998, äda'web was acquired by the Walker Art Center for its new Digital Arts Study Collection.

Toward Interpretation: The Cyber and the Hybrid

äda'web is important not only for its pioneering contributions as a producer and distributor of online art, but as a catalyst for new ways of thinking. Like so many virtual (cyber- or Internet-based) phenomena, it brilliantly illuminates and reveals the contours of its non-cyber (real life or actual) counterparts. As M.I.T. theorist Sherry Turkle has observed, the Internet emphasizes and underlines the tensions and social fault lines in real life. The most spectacular instance of this may be the contribution of the Internet to the end-of-century redefinition of gender roles: In online chat rooms thousands of men have impersonated women and vice versa, behavior that would be both difficult and dangerous for most people to even contemplate carrying out in real life. Although it is a far less dramatic example, äda'web similarly helps illuminate and underline the tensions in the rapidly evolving world of contemporary art.

Online art is perhaps the most hybrid art medium ever. It not only employs many other media, such as video, graphics, photography, text, and sound, but it is a medium in which production and distribution, design and aesthetics are often (disconcertingly) intertwined. Its hybrid nature is so pronounced that it even extends to the concept of the online exhibition. The online group show may be little more than a collection of links to artworks housed on various computer servers, making it both exhibition and catalogue or anthology.

What do hybrid states or phenomena reveal? That many conventional categories are too clear-cut to represent the evolving realities they are supposed to describe. Witness the new, hybrid categories of "Infotainment" or "Edutainment," terms that have arisen to describe film, television or CD-ROM products that blur the distinctions between education and entertainment. Such terminology may be unappealingly awkward, but we recognize--or at least intuit--the reasonableness of this linguistic development: The new terms do attempt to describe a verifiable shift in the nature and categories of cultural production. To understand äda'web as such a significant harbinger of cultural change, it must be considered from multiple viewpoints--artistic, economic, and institutional.

From Soho to Silicon Alley

The most revolutionary artistic aspect of online art is its dematerialization. (Although it may share this dematerialized quality with videotapes produced by artists, video art in museums and galleries is often presented as a component of physical installation works.) Visual art is invariably associated in the popular mind with the creation of objects and distinguished from other dematerialized forms, such as literature, by its physical presence and relation to our physical sense of ourselves in the world. (This helps explain some of our varied responses to a gestural, human-sized Abstract-Expressionist canvas and an Elizabethan miniature.) Equally radical, a particular work of online art may look different to each viewer, depending not only on the size or quality of the monitor screen or wall projection, but on traffic conditions on the Internet and local networks that may determine, for instance, whether images are downloading quickly--or at all. Never before has there been a medium in which such chancy conditions can help determine the viewer's experience.

In 1998 it appears that few people are even aware of online art. (Blank stares have usually accompanied announcements of my interest in it over the past four years.) That's because the Internet is not primarily an art medium. In some senses, the history of photography is similar; it was not until the end of the 19th century that opinion-makers even considered the multipurpose technology as a potential art medium. But the photograph's nature as a materialized--if not unique--object allowed it to be exhibited in galleries and assume the aura of art imparted by the gallery itself. When Marcel Duchamp exhibited his "readymades"--everyday objects such as bottle racks--around the time of World War I, he similarly exploited, and helped formulate, the context-defining strategy that has allowed artists of this century to range so far afield.

Stated baldly, context is everything in 20th-century art. And this suggests one of äda'web's historic contributions: it provided the first (and arguably still the most important) online-art context. Its seriousness, ambition, and presentation of works by celebrated artists also helped legitimize it. Weil's interest in collaborating with several well-known artists unfamiliar with the Internet was controversial: some online-art pioneers regarded it as a heretical rejection of the medium itself, if not downright pandering to a celebrity-obsessed culture. But working with these artists also helped validate the entire online-art medium and stake a claim for the new technology as potential art turf. If the physical context of the exhibition space is missing, at least some familiar art-world types were already "there," inhabiting its creative spaces.

It is this nonobject status that has also made online art a ghetto still rather remote from the mainstream art world. Although at least one Web site has been sold to a collector, the medium's nature is inimical to the production of commodities and, not surprisingly, has attracted the attention of only a handful of art dealers anywhere. (Even single-channel videotapes by artists quickly found distribution through sales and rentals.) Yet producing online art can be arduous and expensive, particularly if it is not your primary artistic focus. It requires hardware, software, and the technical expertise to use it--äda'web was one of the few nonuniversity facilities to provide artists with this sort of support.

Nor did Weil have any commercial art-world models to employ in creating äda'web as a production facility. Instead, he turned to New York's burgeoning hightech industry. Silicon Alley's emergence and vitality in the mid-nineties stemmed from its proximity to traditional format content industries, including book and music publishing, the media, and advertising. Weil and Borthwick hoped, according to Weil, to eventually convince corporations of the value of online art "as a form of creative research that might make them better understand the medium they were investing in," and a means of positioning their companies as innovators. This was by no means a naïve stance in the heady days of 1995-1996, but like so many hightech undertakings, it was decidedly risky.

Silicon Alley has long valued art and artists. Many of those working in content and design firms consider themselves artists--or at least, artistic. The artful and idiosyncratic "look and feel" of the Web was partly created by artists. (In 1994-1995, eight percent of all Web sites were art-related; presumably the majority were the personal sites of artists.) As David Ross, director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, recently observed: "The digital domain is going to be more pervasive than TV. . . and the active involvement of artists is critical to developing the potential of this medium. The alternative is. . . a world of online shopping and spam. Artists have been involved early enough to affect the [online] vocabulary."

For many of us working in Silicon Alley, 1995 and 1996 were heady times. The frequently-invoked maxim, "Content is king" defined the moment. Large corporations were wasting enormous amounts of money creating ill-conceived Web sites. The playing field seemed level and the future rosy: writers, for instance, might publish online and be paid a few cents by each reader in a brave new world of microtransactions. Pundit Nicholas Negroponte declared 1996 the "year of electronic commerce." All this is still likely to come to pass. But in the meantime, a remarkable moment of innovation that married the experimental cultures of computing and contemporary art was undermined by the regression to the conventional television model of advertiser-supported content, which was imposed on Silicon Alley by the media, entertainment, and advertising industries.

The business plans--and focus--of many hightech start-up firms tend to change frequently, sometimes even quarterly. äda'web, too, evolved, and although it was part of a corporation, it never managed to sign up any commercial clients. Instead it operated--in typical hybrid fashion--like a nonprofit arts organization: äda'web commissioned, produced, and presented artworks, as well as solicited donations and offered memberships. Weil considered transforming äda'web into a nonprofit organization in order to secure newly available grant funding from the New York State Council on the Arts and the few foundations that were beginning to support online art in 1997. But the idea was complicated: äda'web, after all, did not belong to its founding innovator Weil, but to WP Studios and then Digital City. The clock ran out.

Ironically, when äda'web debuted in 1995, AOL hosted a live chat event for Jenny Holzer in its online "auditorium." (It's not very likely that Holzer would be featured on AOL in 1998.) Under President/C.O.O. Robert Pittman, formerly of MTV, AOL has passionately embraced television's mass-media business model. Today, cultural and entertainment "content developers" pay to have their products showcased on AOL; the company no longer produces its own content. And it is AOL that indirectly put äda'web out of business: Digital City Inc., the company that bought WP Studios, is owned by AOL and the Tribune Company.

Back to the Future: A Round Trip

Now äda'web "belongs" to the Walker Art Center, comprising one of the first additions to its growing Digital Arts Study Collection. Given the ambivalent attitude most American museums have displayed toward online art, this is a curious fate. Not a single American museums employs a curator of online art, although some have new-media or contemporary art curators informally acting in this capacity. A few museums have commissioned original online artworks (the Dia Center for the Arts' program stands out), but, for most, interest in the Internet has usually extended only to the doors of education and publicity departments. Of course, institutions are notoriously slow to respond to new phenomena, but the Walker Art Center is quicker than most. Under the auspices of Steve Dietz, Director of New Media Initiatives, the Walker is fashioning an ambitious online art and education program, that includes the upcoming commission of four new Jerome Foundation-funded Web works by emerging artists, to supplement a previous commission to artist Piotr Szyhalski. Such programming was a major factor in determining äda'web's move to the Walker Art Center, rather than to other interested museums.

What exactly has the museum acquired? Although no money changed hands, the Walker Art Center committed itself to providing resources for programming, such as this essay, which will help make äda'web comprehensible to a new audience. I have not seen the formal agreement transferring ownership to the museum, but presumably it allows for the concept of exclusive distribution, but not copyright, of the artworks produced by äda'web. Sooner or later the site will likely move to the museum's computer server and, at that point, issues including distribution of the artworks and projects that äda'web hosted, rather than produced, will need to be resolved. The donation also includes archival materials relating to the site.

But legalities that apply in the physical world often have little meaning online. The exclusive distribution is irrelevant if anyone wants to showcase, comment on, and/or organize an online exhibition about äda'web, or any work contained within it. To link äda'web to another site requires no permissions, just a single line of html coding. To those who are unfamiliar with online culture, the gift economy of the Internet and concepts of ownership (or borrowing) like these will seem porous, if not bizarre.

One of Weil's goals in donating äda'web to the museum was to ensure that in the Walker's hands, äda'web's artworks will remain together. (Even though--as with Matthew Ritchie's perennially unfinished work The Hard Way--the notion of a completed work isn't always easy to define in a medium designed for or capable of constant updating and tweaking.) But äda'web is more than merely a collection of online artworks or digital computer files. It is also the site's interface or "architecture," its structure and point of entry. äda'web's evocative interface--serial designs that were primarily the work of artist/designer Vivian Selbo--helped make the experience of visiting the site so satisfying. The interface, of course, provides navigation information and guidance, but rejects the straightforward table-of-contents approach that characterizes the typical homepage. Instead, surprises come in the form of animation and movement that make entering the site a delightful and active exploration, a taste of artful pleasures to come.

äda'web was also a social experience. It was a vital organization that supported the nascent online-art scene of the mid-1990s and operated as a virtual (and sometimes real) meeting place for New York denizens of the online world. These aspects of äda'web's contribution are both difficult to define and essential for understanding the project. An imperfect analogy might be the collaboration of Picasso and Braque that resulted in Cubism. The Cubist canvases exist on their own, but without knowledge of the creative process involved, an essential context is lost. The Walker Art Center's challenge will be to get the story right: to make both the work and its historical and social contexts accessible.

Finally, the Walker Art Center's acquisition provides validation of äda'web's importance. Few people realize how many intended donations are rejected by museums, much less solicited. äda'web's "avant-garde" artworks, and a particular moment of "avant-garde" creation, has been institutionalized within a larger narrative of 20th-century art. In the process, the Walker acquires the cachet of owning important contemporary artworks and äda'web acquires the prestige associated with the Walker. This is a familiar modernist progression; no modernist art form--no matter how ephemeral or immaterial--has eluded the grasp of the museum.

In our ever-so-contradictory postmodern era, however, the situation is far more complex than it once was: it would be sentimental and false to suggest that many artists would resist the acquisition of their work by museums today. In fact, it is more often than not a heady rite of passage (unless the artist is elderly and unjustly neglected). But in the case of äda'web, institutionalization signals not only arrival into the arena of art history, but also the end of an era. äda'web's acquisition by the Walker brings with it a melancholic sense that a vital moment--the birth of online art--has already passed. (Lest I be accused of romanticism, I want to point out that new art mediums arise only once or twice in a lifetime.) Even in our speeded-up century, it is astonishing how quickly this evolution from nascent to recognized art form has taken place.

Robert Atkins is the producer and editor of TalkBack! A Forum for Critical Discourse, the first American online journal about online art, and the author of ArtSpeak: A Guide to Contemporary Ideas, Movements, and Buzzwords; ArtSpoke: A Guide to Modern Ideas, Movements, and Buzzwords (1848-1944); and From Media to Metaphor: Art About AIDS. From 1996-1998, he served as editor-in-chief of the Arts, Technology, Entertainment Network, which produced television and online programming about the arts.

Robert Atkins, 1998. First published by Gallery 9/Walker Art Center for äda 'web.