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[#DIGART] The Web Browser As Aesthetic Framework: Why Digital Art Today Looks Different

<p>How do we conserve digital art if the tools of displaying and experiencing it are always changing?</p>

by Ben Fino-Radin
May 8 2012, 4:19pm

This week we’re exploring the Digital Arts Market (or lack thereof). We’re asking the tough questions: What will it take for a sustainable digital arts market to form? Is that even a possibility? Can the digital arts make money? And will they ever be incorporated into the contemporary arts dialogue? We invite you to participate in the discussion in the comments section, on your own blog (send us the link!), and on Facebook and Twitter (#DIGART). Let's get the conversation started!

Collective cultural memory is the foundation on which the significance of a creative practice stands. As summarized in Emerson Rosenthal’s post for #DIGART week, online collections and exhibition spaces have been around since the pre-web BBS years—artists have been online since day one, and this is not to even begin to mention the computer-based creative practices that date back to the mid-20th Century. Then why, in the face of this history, do web-based creative practices (and so too, markets) seem to suffer from a case of eternal amnesia or perpetual newness? In this post for #DIGART week, I propose that an overlooked reality is that half the history of this medium lies in the discarded machines and software of the past.

When anyone sits down to code, they interface with and work within various abstractions and frameworks. For artists who make work for the web, the ultimate and final of these is the web browser—it is the point of delivery and consumption. It renders, encapsulates, and mediates the viewer’s experience of the web. More than a utility, the web browser is an aesthetic and cultural framework with implicit stylistic and functional biases. It is the white cube. It is a museum in flux, whose aesthetic paradigms have drifted over the course of twenty plus years. The web browser itself possesses inherent artifactual significance.

Vuk Cosic, History of Art for Airports, 1997

Much work produced in the mythological glory days of feels deflated when viewed in the modern browser for the simple reason that many of the qualities that defined this era's look and feel were inherent in the tools of creation and distribution—the browsers and operating systems of the early web. This is exemplified in a recent review of the Art Micro-patronage exhibition C.R.E.A.M., which included JODI's Goodtimes (1996). The critic cites a certain failing of relevance in reference to the JODI piece. This failing of course is to be expected, as JODI's early work lived and breathed the aesthetic of the software. Without authentic rendering, so much is lost. In this sense browsing the early web is quite similar to music—having the score or source code is not sufficient if it is not performed with the proper instrumentation. Without access to a work's original frame of reference, a live URL alone is not enough.

JODI, Goodtimes, 1996

In some ways this perspective is antithetical the notion of the variability of new media. In a white paper Rhizome published last year, I quoted early net.artist Mark Napier as saying:

"The computer language, operating system, and hardware form an infrastructure that supports the artwork, but they are not the artwork. The artwork is an algorithm, a design built on this infrastructure, which is constantly changing and rapidly aging. To hold onto that technology is to tie us to a sinking ship. We have to be nimble enough to jump to the next boat, and our artwork has to be adaptable enough to do that gracefully."

While these words hold true, as the web has aged, the degree to which artists were interfacing with the aesthetic and behavioural subtleties of the era's software has come to bear. A piece of hypertext—once sharp and hard edged will now render in harmless, anti-aliased Times New Roman. Heavily abused HTML tags such as are hardly supported. We are not separate from the machines we work within—the hardware and software come to influence us in ways often unseen in the present. Alexei Shulgin's Form Art (1997) presents an interesting case of aesthetic drift. Composed entirely of HTML form elements—buttons, text areas and the like, the work's look and feel is defined by the default GUI elements rendered by the viewer's browser and operating system. Our only way to accurately see what Shulgin saw when he constructed the work is to view it in the operating system and browser he used in 1997.

Alexei Shulgin, Form Art, 1997

Seen one way, this is somewhat elegant. When viewed on contemporary systems, the work will always appear new to the user, being built from the UI native to their computer. The significance of experiencing the work in its original form, however, is truly unrivaled. To interact with works at this level of authenticity requires virtualization, which is for most people prohibitively technical. In recognition of this, Rhizome is beginning to explore options for providing broader access to these authentic environments. In the continual efforts to contextualize and maintain the history of these creative practices, we must not divorce the work of the artist from the software—lest we lose the traces left by the artist.

Ben Fino-Radin is a New York-based researcher, digital preservation practitioner, and media archeologist. Currently he serves as Digital Conservator for Rhizome at the New Museum, managing the preservation of one of the oldest and largest collections of net art and New Media. You can find him on twitter, or at his blog.