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"ah, 'da process" . . . questions? some answers . . .

Vivian Selbo, September 1998
"äda'web is a research and development platform, a digital foundry, and a journey," thus reads the collectively written meta-description tag incorporated in the site's HTML code. "Here, artists are invited to experiment with and reflect upon the web as a medium, and as a means of distribution for their work. While we produce most of the projects you experience on our site, we also house co-productions, guest work, events, and source material on the artists and their galleries. ah, 'da web--always subject to change."

The file header hints at a process carried out by an unspecified we. From the outset the site deliberately masked the presence of the individuals working behind the screen. This cryptic stance was adopted to maintain a sharp focus on the work and to foreground the notion of the site as a space for exploration with a singular personality--äda. Only with diligent hunting and scrolling could a visitor eventually find a short list of first names with e-mail links @adaweb.com, and it changed over time.

How did this shifting we work? Generally, like obsessed autodidacts; specifically, without job descriptions; and typically, with a shared, intense dedication to enhance the collective pool of Web-related understanding touched by periodic creative discord. We answered questions with more questions. It went something like this:

"What is the initial concept? What kind of ideas are meant to be expressed or examined? What is the most important information to present? What type of experience is implied? How will it be arrived at? Who is the anticipated user? How will they find their way around? What will the user walk away with? What will they come back for? How will the experience be organized or structured? What kind of intrigue, drama, or entertainment will there be? What kind of system or software will they need? Are there alternatives? Is there any degree of change over time? How much flexibility is there? Is there timely information to display? How often will that information change? What materials will be displayed? How will they be presented? Is there a simpler way to do it? Is that the best way to do it? How does someone else do it? Who will own this project? Who is going to do what in its creation? Where will it sit in the site? What is the schedule? How will it work within the rest of the Web? Will it need to be updated? Does it work as expected? How will others find it? Does it require adjustment?" And always, "Have you seen this other site?"

That kind of inquiry should be evident in any Web production plan--idea, development, production, testing, and follow-up. Dialogue shapes a blueprint. What's unusual is that this exploration was conducted for and with an artist by a team that was not simply helping to implement, but also in some sense to cultivate, their concept. The resulting exchange often surprised and challenged both sides of the table. Together they conceived the necessary invention for translation. The äda'web team carried it out.

The engagement with this process varied with the artist. Julia Scher drew a loose conceptual map of Securityland on a very small Post-it note, regaled us with vivid theoretical rants and atmospheric descriptions of its zones, frequently visited and enacted her ideas in the office with hand-cuffs and in situ surveillance cameras, supplied an abundance of visual materials, scientific catalogues, her own texts, and many megabytes of sound files, but left the sifting and shaping of what went where to us. Doug Aitken had a specific idea of the loaded5x story plan, but its map came as a surprise. Ben Kinmont and Matthew Ritchie came in with tight storyboards that didn't change. Darcy Steinke's filmic musings inspired the peel-away design of blindspot. Homeport's Web page replicates a fax sent by Lawrence Weiner, whereas the texts in the Homeport Palace rooms were randomly assigned.

During the last year of operation, budget constraints severely limited the number of projects undertaken and much of the team's energies were redirected to the production of studio sites, promotional videos, and many business or strategy plans. When our concentration returned to the site, we directed it towards the fourth and final site interface, and decided to awaken the dormant/usage section. There, within /reach (yes, it's a bad pun), we included a credits page. It lists by full name, chronologically, forty-two talented individuals who worked in the office during three and a half years of collaborative endeavor, though it doesn't state precisely what each one did. The personnel inventory breaks down into thirteen people on the äda'web staff proper or freelance, eight within the larger studio technical or programming fold, and twenty-one ambitious interns.

So what is the collaborative process? It seemed only appropriate to ask for more opinions:

"Isn't it obvious? The corporate division of labor with its segregated production process doesn't allow for people who understand the language of technology to be involved in the decision-making process (e.g., the infamous Photoshop comps that are supposed to stand in for Web pages). The result is a product that has a form that does not reflect its function.

"The do-it-yourself ethic is wonderful but taking it too far results in a learning curve that can be exasperating and a waste of time. Why not ask someone who can supply you not only with information but suggestions? We're all scavenging for ideas at the moment--why do it alone?" --Ainatte Inbal

"Collaboration is like walking--a constant loss of balance followed by recovery. So you move forward." --Matteo Ames

"I love collaborative work. It means that I can be as pushy and irritating as I want to be with less brain-work." --Isabel Chang

"Great discoveries and improvements invariably involve the cooperation of many minds." --Alexander Graham Bell (via Cherise Fong)

"Collaboration basically allows for things to happen that would never reach the light of day, seul. Fire happens. Execution happens. It's different--it's gloriously different." --Julia Scher

Vivian Selbo was the interface director of äda'web. She is an artist and information architect based in NY. Her recent work includes killer @pp: it's all t@lk! the first part of an online project called partsofspeech; Vertical Blanking Interval; and Enclosed Caption Viewing. She also produced a portion of Predictive Engineering.2 by Julia Scher, The Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, and InterNyet: A Video Curator's Dispatches from Russia & Ukraine, The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

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