New Interfaces, New Softwares, New Networks

Review from Rhizome (15/01/98)

An artist isn't just an artist any more. These days, with new technologies, it seems that an artist must also be a designer, and a programmer, and a business person, and a publicist.

Nowhere is that more true than on one particular fringe of net.art: the mini-genre of new interfaces, new softwares, new networks inhabited by "art works" like Paul Garrin's name.space project and I/O/D's Web Stalker. In fact, much of this work is so unlike traditional works of art that one might miss it on first glance.

Or maybe it's the *definition* of art that is morphing, and not art itself. As we witness the internet change, expanding its complex digital mass, we see that the web itself is a type of canvas--a base for myriad artistic projects. It is a space in which the distinction between art and not art becomes harder and harder to see, and a space which offers itself up *as art*. First it was the objectification of the interface (web site interfaces have already been sold to museums as art), now it is the web itself.

The cluster of servers that make up the name.space alternetwork--a web within the web that uses a different, more flexible (not to mention cheaper and non-monopolistic) addressing scheme--are a perfect example of this type of "new networks" art (see name.space.xs2.net or, if your system already understands name.space addresses, go directly to name.space). Control over naming is crucial for name.space architect Paul Garrin who considers it a type of poetic subversion to break out of the com/edu/net address suffix scheme. In a nettime interview Garrin writes: "one of the main concerns in my work has been the notion of the public vs. the private. Territory. Security. Privacy" (www.factory.org/nettime/archive/0703.html). As a vast alternetwork name.space is both an artistic and tactical success.

Is name.space really *art* when its primary goals are political rather than aesthetic? The answer is yes, but only because art and politics are inseparable in this instance. Name.space is a strategic intervention within the structure of the web. In fact Garrin calls name.space an "independent tactical network," with the goal of insuring that there will always be "a home for free media and alternative voices and visions on the ever changing internet." As a sculptor views her raw materials, name.space views the web--an object that is constructable and mutable.

I/O/D's hacker politics have been implemented well in the Web Stalker ( www.backspace.org/iod ). As a new type of "browser" the Web Stalker offers a completely different interface for moving through pages on the web. The user opens a URL, then watches as the Stalker spits back the HTML source for that URL. In a parallel window the Web Stalker exhaustively maps each page linked from that URL, exponentially enlarging the group of scanned pages and finally pushing an entire set of interlinked pages to the user. The pages are never displayed as they are in a conventional browser (Netscape/Explorer)--the closest comparison might be Lynx, the text only browser--rather, they are diagrammed or mapped in a deep, complex hypertextual relation.

I/O/D 4: "The Web Stalker", then, takes the idea of the visual browser and turns it on its head. Instead of showing the art on the web through interpreting HTML and displaying in-line images, it shows the web *as* art through a making-visible of its latent structure. As the authors write, "the Web Stalker is the first internet application designed by artists. It is a unique example of artists re-visualizing data-space at a deep level" ( www.backspace.org/iod/ArtPR.html)

I am still trying to adjust to I/O/D 4: "The Web Stalker". Outside of its artistic appeal, it is not clear to me if the Web Stalker is simply a computer science project or a real tool. It certainly would be a helpful tool if one needed to gather all the source code for a particular site, like say... the documenta X site! However, the Stalker doesn't ever give you any information about a remote site that you can't already get with a normal browser. So no extra hacking leverage here, just speed and thoroughness.

Another potential alternative to the conventional browser is PerspectaView (download from www.perspecta.com)--think hypertext on VRML steroids. The user literally *flies* through information with this interface. Although visually impressive, PerspectaView comes up short with a limited number of PerspectaView "spaces" available to browse (many of which seem to dead end in some sort of commercial venture) and a clear disinterest in the interface as artistic object. For better schooling in that category, check out work like Knut Mork's excellent piece of language morph poetry, "Solve et Coagula" (www.gar.no/sec).

The artistic focus on new kinds of interfaces and new softwares will strengthen net.art and redefine its relation to politics. But does that mean that the web itself is art, or that the web is political? Perhaps what really is happening is that the tactical media, in this case name.space and others, are, in certain contexts, being interpreted as giant art projects, i.e. there is an aestheticization of politics going on in netspace. (Woops! Didn't Benjamin in "Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" call that particular phenomena "fascism"?!)

Add the Thing's Connector 2.0 interface (www.thing.net) and take away the fascism. The new look at the Thing (New York) is an extensive interface that focuses on allowing communication between users. It requires a login, but Thing accounts are free and non-commercial (despite their claims of using users's statistical data for "world domination").

The Thing's Ricardo Dominguez thinks his interface is an aesthetic experience pure and simple. This experience combines both art and the idea of community--"in other words a PARTY that could overturn the frame of art and life--into a politics of everyday life," Ricardo noted in a recent email.

With a focus on connectivity between users, The Thing allows you to *see* in real time all the other users who are online, identified through their handles or simply as numbered guests. This is my favorite section of the Thing interface. It reveals what normally is hidden.

And here's the RHIZOME scoop on what users have to look forward to in the Thing Connector 3.0, the new interface to be rolled out for '98: "3.0 will allow members access to areas that guest won't have such as private chat, thread access to a meta-nettime yak scene, a 'temporary network' discussion between Blast and nettime, an INFOWAR discussion group, a FIKAFUTURA round table, a WestCoast scene line, a propaganda scene..." Blah, blah. I'm still hooked on the Thing's paging function, available now, where you can send messages instantly to any of the other users online. Brilliant!








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