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äda through the Looking Glass

Andrea Scott, September 1998
Like most work you see in a museum, äda'web fell down the rabbit hole of commerce to get here. The site was initially conceived as an entrepreneurial venture, and for three years it existed at the intersection of the art world and the burgeoning new-media industry. The archiving of äda'web within the virtual walls of the Walker Art Center reifies it as art, but it also underscores how the Internet blurs distinctions.(1) Attempts at defining the Internet tend to reduce it to binarisms. It is the map and the territory, the journey and the destination, a network of networks. In the case of äda'web, it was both the producer and the project. It was a commercial means to a noncommercial end. And like the Web, it was a perpetual work-in-progress. äda'web's parts can be summed up by the Lawrence Weiner text inscribed on the facade of the Walker's building: bits & pieces put together to present a semblance of a whole.

äda'web was founded in late 1994 by entrepreneur John Borthwick and curator and critic Benjamin Weil, who shared a conviction that the Web promised new paradigms for the production and distribution of art. Clearly, it offered an opportunity to bring art to an expanded, global audience. Perhaps more importantly, it marked the emergence of a new artistic medium. Their vision was to build a research and development lab, inviting artists (visual artists, architects, composers, filmmakers, and so on) to collaborate with experienced designers and programmers in an investigation of the creative potential of the Web. From the launch in May 1995 of äda'web's first project, Please Change Beliefs by Jenny Holzer, to its abrupt loss of financial backing in March 1998, äda'web collaborated on over 20 web-specific projects, with artists including Lawrence Weiner, Julia Scher, and General Idea, composer David Bartel, and fiction writer Darcey Steinke, as well as four collaborations with The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

The site took it is name from Lady Ada Augusta Lovelace (also known as Ada Byron), an accomplished scientist and the daughter of romantic poet, Lord Byron. In the mid-19th century, Lovelace wrote a set of operating instructions for a calculating machine designed by Charles Babbage. Over a century later she's become, de facto, the patron saint of software. (The United States Defense Department's eponymous programming language--ADA--pays homage to her as well). äda'web's working model was inspired, in part, by Bell Labs' Experiments in Art and Technology (EAT), where artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol teamed up with engineers in the 1960s. äda'web's process was accurately summed up one day by the proprietor of Mom's Cigars, our neighbor on 22nd Street. After hearing a description of the project, she said: "Oh I get it, it's a digital foundry." Exactly.

äda'web was born the same month that Netscape released its first browser--December 1994. The Internet itself has been around since 1961, developed at the RAND Corporation, based on a strategy of using existing telecommunications routes for communication after nuclear war. A decentralized network, it was designed to be reliable at all times.(2) With the advent of the World Wide Web, which put a graphical interface on what had previously been a text-driven vehicle, it was suddenly front-page news. The Web was considered a technological TKO with Guttenberg, Edison, and Marconi on the ropes. Here was a cultural, not to mention commercial, tabula rasa that would blow print, television, even the phone, out of the water. Excitement generated by initial public offerings such as Netscape fueled the frenzy and investors took risks on start-up Web companies hoping to ride the wave.

From its inception äda'web shared an office with another Web site backed by Borthwick and his partners, Total New York, the brainchild of four recent graduates of Penn. Though at first incorporated separately, the two companies were rolled up into a single corporation--Web Partners--by the end of 1995. The pairing of an experimental art lab and a urban zine might seem odd, but it was typical of Web start-ups at the time. Word, a New York-based experimental literary site shared offices and an owner with Charged, an extreme sports destination. Total New York adhered closely to a magazine model and was perceived as commercially viable by investors backing the Web Partners venture, while äda'web was seen as a loss leader. Clearly more cutting-edge than Total, äda'web nonetheless had great cachet among new media cognoscenti. Wired Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, and a host of others had written it up early on. MSNBC's television program, "The Site," featured coverage of äda'web on it's first show; the magazine Entertainment Weekly named it one of the top ten multimedia products of 1996. Together, äda'web and Total were seen as an attractive investment opportunity, and early in 1997 they were acquired by a subsidiary of American Online (AOL), Digital City.

Prior to the acquisition, the primary revenue strategy for äda'web was an online store called "exchange," which launched on Valentine's Day in 1996. Products ranged from books and videotapes to items created by artists with projects featured elsewhere in the site, such as pencils, caps, and T-shirts. "ädaphenalia," as this merchandise was called, generated the greatest sales. Visitors clearly wanted a souvenir of their experience, like honeymooners at Niagara Falls who go home with a set of commemorative spoons. While the store did generate revenue, it was not profitable, as maintenance costs outweighed earnings. Another revenue strategy was licensing content to other Web sites, such as Microsoft's Slate, which featured Matthew Ritchie's The Hardway. Online advertising in 1995 and 1996 was generally a no-cash arrangement, as when Sun Microsystems traded computers in exchange for an advertising banner. Corporate sponsorships met with limited success. France Telecom underwrote composer David Bartel's Arrangements project, but more often than not we ran up against the hard fact that commercial ventures are ineligible for funds earmarked for not-for-profit organizations. Support for the arts in a corporate context falls into one of two categories, either it is purchased outright for a physical collection or funded as a charitable deduction.

Once äda'web was acquired by AOL, it became increasingly clear that the projects on the site were being deemed too challenging for a mainstream audience and there was an interest in reining in our activities with artists. We proposed formalizing äda'web's role as a research division, but that was incompatible with the existing structure of AOL. So a business plan was drafted, with the aid of angels including a foundation executive and an investment banker, outlining the advantages of converting äda'web to nonprofit status. The proposition was that AOL would reallocate the funds designated for the operating budget of the site as the first gift to the nonprofit äda'web. The site would seek funding from other sources as well. AOL approved this scenario, and covered the legal costs of the transition. But on the eve of filing with the Internal Revenue Service, a decision was announced to close down both äda'web and Total New York. In a final act of generosity, AOL agreed to donate äda'web to a museum. A number of institutions were approached, but it was the Walker Art Center that wholeheartedly accepted the idea, free of contingencies (for example, "we'll take that project, but not this one") and agreed to archive the site in its entirety.

There's a computer error message that sums up the demise of äda'web: "the connection was terminated due to lack of network activity." But it was one mad tea party while it lasted.

1. For a thorough investigation of role of "virtual" art in the museum see The Shock of the View, a collaborative online salon hosted by the Walker Art Center.
2. For a succinct, engaging summary of the inception of the Internet, read Bruce Sterling's, Short History of the Internet (1993).

Andrea Scott was an executive producer of äda'web from 1995-1998.

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