Z I N E n
new media






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a journal of new media experimental visual literary theory practice


Ted Warnell


Features, reviews, papers

Musings on the term 'Web artist' by contributing writer Jim Andrews. In the second of his two part feature, Jim takes us into the art and mind of artist Diane Fenster, and reviews an extraordinary site by Web media firm Razorfish.

First published as A&T 07/24/97 at Art & Technology, The Mining Company, New York. Copyright © 1997 by The Mining Company and Ted Warnell. All rights reserved.


1997 JUL 24

Web Artist 2/2



Here's a golden oldie: 'Art doesn't progress though the materials change.' T.S. Eliot said something like that. Is it true? Does cinema, for instance, or photography, or recorded sound represent a progress in art? Or are they just changed materials?

It seems clear that art doesn't progress in the sense that art does not get better and better over time. This is different from many scientific bodies of knowledge, for instance. Compare physics three hundred years ago with physics today. Physics has progressed in a way that art has not.

But this doesn't mean that art should get cracking and progress in the same ways physics has. Physics and mathematics form relatively unified bodies of knowledge -- or are forever being drawn together into bodies -- and new results in physics and math draw on previous results in a way that doesn't hold when applied to successive works of art or even generations of art, though the debt artists acknowledge to previous artists is real. But one artist's work does not generally follow from a previous artist's work in the same sense that modern calculus follows from the work of Newton and Leibnitz, for instance.

Postmodernism follows from Modernism certainly in a chronological sense and Postmodern works are often reacting against certain modernist tendencies and yet informed by them and attempting to do something more capacious and better attuned to contemporaneity, and even expanding on questions first taken up in modernist works (such as Eliot's line) or reworking the questions or giving them very different answers. Yet even though this is true, the world of art is more discrete than the world of science that possesses a kind of continuity and progression -- even amid revolutions -- that is foreign to art.

    "To me, explorations of what seem to be an almost ideogrammatic or hieroglyphical language emerging, in part, from the experience of the contemporary graphical user interface (though that's only part of the phenomenon) are among the most fascinating areas of artistic endevour occurring on the Web."

I think cinema and photography and recorded sound -- all new forms from the twentieth century -- are not just new in their materials of celluloid, dark-room materials, and recording tape (now digital) etc. The interesting work done in those media is not translatable to an earlier media. The ways they mean, the world views they show, the sensory experience of them, the artistry involved is not reproducible in other media. Interesting work in any medium inhabits the unique dimensions of the medium steadfastly.

New technologies -- which are often artistic media -- are extensions of the senses or body or nervous system or memory or cognitive structures. The telephone is an extension of the ear. The car, the legs; the microscope and telescope, the eyes. Written language, the memory and the very experience of living.

Jean Baudrillard, the French McLuhan of the nineties, has remarked on the cinematic quality of his experience in America, of the cinematic quality of life in America. Artistic media are extensions of our cognitive structures for arranging and making sense of the world. They change us, change how we experience the world and ourselves. We make sense of the world, of our experience, by telling ourselves a story in the language, images, sounds, and songs we know.


So what does this have to do with Web art? Well, I take it that Web art will be as distinctive as photography or cinema or recorded sound in its status as an artistic medium. Of course, currently it can handle photography and other digital images but still is not suited to sound or moving pictures. That will change, presumably. But it also can contain text in a more crucial role than any of the above. And it can contain neath text (whether this is HTML or Java or Javascript or Jscript, or ASP, etc.) that enables types of experiences at least difficult to simulate in the other media. It is a multi-media and extremely flexible in its elements. The Web and the computer take all the electric artistic media of the twentieth century and amalgamate them into one medium. And throw in the telephone, live video, the postal system (only much much faster), television, the good old printing press, etc. At this point it seems to resemble an artistic medium less than a communications empire, perhaps -- but make no mistake -- it is a single medium.

Currently, the skills required to produce multi-media span the cultures of art and science, so Web artists tend to be unusual birds possessing not only the associativity of the artist but also the analytical and even programming acumen of the scientist. Consequently, a lot of relatively innovative Web art is synthetic of the cultures of art and science.

Often this translates into Star Trek with a line of poetry here and there and some fantasy art thrown in for good measure. But at a deeper level, the multi-media combination of text, image, etc. that obtains on the Web, the reintroduction of the written word into the whole modus operandi of what will presumably replace television, and the fusion the Web embodies of scientific and artistic culture, together with the active, participatory nature of driving the beastie as a user, all these factors pose to me a new kind of media literacy, a new kind of art, and an art that comprehends the logical and the emotive associations of artistry.

But before talking about an example of such a fusion (Neuromancical as it may be) allow me first to talk about a site emanating strongly from a less profoundly nerdy hemisphere.


Diane Fenster's site, The Attic Window, consists of five "Web installations," an impressive portfolio of commercial digital graphics, and a statement and resume which includes a link to an interview. Fenster is a master of Photoshop. Her compositions layer and blend photographic, scanned, and other elements in compelling juxtapositions suggestive of visual narrative or perhaps a more associative poetical form. Oh yes, definitely a more associative form: Fenster herself cites the influence of Dada and Surrealism upon her work. Certainly she has developed a seductive, poetically suggestive sensibility of association. She juxtaposes, layers, and blends images together much like poets overlay incidents, observations, and metaphors.

Each of the installations consists of many graphical works accompanied with texts that develop the theme of the particular installation in a literary vein. My favorite of her installations is Hide and Seek, which consists of thirteen "cantos". A canto, is one of the subdivisions of a long poem. Fenster's cantos, however, are quite short: they consist of one of her amazing graphics together with a short quotation from the Chilean surrealist poet Vicente Huidobro. However, each canto is also linked by a keyword to various far-flung sites on the Web (one link per canto).

Each canto follows the same format. They all contain an image together with a title Fenster has given the image. The title always has a word that is hyper textual which, when clicked, leads you completely away from Fenster's site (she doesn't even hang on with a frame -- good for her!). And each canto also has a quote from one of Huidobro's haunting, lyrical texts that often deal (sometimes simultaneously) with loss and cosmic gain.


And each canto contains the words "text in image". Indeed, though you must look carefully, the Huidobro text is contained within the image. Hide and Seek is an unusually Siamese conjunction of text and image and, as such, embodies a kind of deep experimentation in the new language-image emerging on the Web where language and image are joined at the hip to form new language, new image. To me, explorations of what seem to be an almost ideogrammatic or hieroglyphical language emerging, in part, from the experience of the contemporary graphical user interface (though that's only part of the phenomenon) are among the most fascinating areas of artistic endevour occurring on the Web. And Fenster's explorations are moving and emotionally resonant with the accompanying loss and discovery.

Loss of language as we have known it, loss of image also as we have known it. But discovery of new modes of living and experience. The writings of Plato contain a sense of loss in the transition to the written word. He knew what was being lost in the shift to a literate culture: the cognitive ways of the oral culture. Yet he pressed on nonetheless with his brilliant writing. So too are we experiencing a shift to the digital in matters of literacy and art. The multi-media nature of the shift, which blends the word and the image, sound, film, the telephone, the printing press, etc., into one medium carries with it deep changes in how people communicate and how we understand ourselves. New language, new mind.

Hide and Seek. What is hidden? What is sought? Well, Fenster is an artist and so lets you seek your own particular hidden meanings and associations. She approaches loss from two primary directions: romantic and bodily. The images in Hide and Seek often deal in parts of the body, often in various states of disrepair. It's about pain and loss and re-emergence, memory and forgetting, death and rebirth.

The content concentrates on these familiar elements of growing and waking up, going under again and breaking free. The final accomplishment -- the work itself -- is admirable. It grew into something rare and beautiful and wise and unexpected.


Razorfish is a very ambitious and thoroughly professional site featuring many different artists and a considerable body of work that takes several hours to surf completely. When I first visited, I had a tremendous sense of excitement about the site and the work there. However, on going back several times to write this article, I don't feel the work is as strong as I originally did.

The primary reason, I suspect, is that the work on the site lacks the sort of depth present in Fenster's work, often, though it is usually better presented in terms of the design of the pages -- and the comparison is a little unfair, given the quality of Fenster's work. If you have ever perused professional design magazines, you know the feeling. Most of the work is expert in technique, brilliant in color but, as happens too often in design magazines, one look is enough. It captures attention in the way beautiful advertisements do: briefly.

Nonetheless, the variety of the work, both formally and otherwise, the innovative nature of some of it, and the careful, beautiful design of the overall site are noteworthy.

Razorfish consists of six sub-sites:

    - the blue dot, which in turn contains work from sixteen different artists;
    - bunko, which apparently contains games (though I was never able to get any of these working);
    - theNvelope, which contains futuristic, multi-media presentations of an imagined (and disappointing) future of the Web;
    - this girl, situation comedy presented in various episodes;
    - typoGRAPHIC, an interesting type of Web essay on typography;
    - Disinformation ("the sub culture search engine").
Also, there is a sense of experimentation to the site sometimes, of their having tried to become imaginatively acclimatized to the Web as an artistic medium in its own right rather than just importing material from other media.

The most ambitious project in this vein is theNvelope. It consists of seven vignettes that oscillate between imagined immersion in the Web of the future to comments on the nature of the Web now. The project is ambitious in its use of Shockwave (a plugin from Macromedia). In one of the vignettes, we are apparently applying for a NuMate and are given the choice of at most nine appendages that may adorn our apparently synthetic NuMate. The graphics are supposed to be funny and the situation is supposed to be relevant.

In another, we hear of the destruction of the Web from a voice shouting about the general collapse of the Internet (set in the near future) and wasn't it good for eighteen months. In another, we're presented with a government page asking us to do our mandatory poll voting for the day on such questions as "Which subject should be added to the math requirements for the sexual reproduction license?" The choices are "topography (sic), fluid dynamics, and control theory".


Still, it isn't a salesman's pitch about the Web. It's a kind of an anti-sell pitching innovation. Razorfish is in the business of designing Web services. Superior sizzle.

Check it out for yourself.

The work of J.K. Potter in The Blue Dot is fascinating (still morphs). Also at The Blue Dot is some fine poetical work by Yael Kanarek (Love Letter From a World of Awe), great pictures by Jill Greenberg (The Manipulator), and Dick For a Day (various artists, site maintained by Yael Kanarek).

The typoGRAPHIC site is also rewarding for those with an interest in language and typography. Certainly it's the best thing I've found on the Web concerned with typography, along with Microsoft TrueType, a site on new Web tools of typography. A&T 05/29/97

And this girl is amusing and well done if slightly annoying in its wholesale adoption of situation comedy to the Web. Still, you get the impression she'll get that job she wants (if she already hasn't by virtue of her site). It's like grunge-nerd Mary Tyler Moore.


Expectations run unusually high for art on the Web, just as expectations run high regarding all things on the Web. Sites like Razorfish show some innovative elements amid a site whose primary imperative is to attract customers. So they must sizzle but don't really need the steak. They must be able to supply a look and feel and organizational coherence and strong function to their clients' Web sites. They aren't professionally interested in content, per se. But, then, strong art on the Web -- as anywhere else -- is a very personal endeavor, as seen in Fenster's site.

Perhaps it's encouraging, in a sense, that of the two sites, Fenster's is the more appealing. It's primarily done by one person rather than a very talented company. It can be a deeply collaborative medium, however, like film.

What is a Web artist? I haven't answered the question. But the question, at this point, is more valuable than any answer we might formulate. The possibilities remain open. The art is young and leaping.

The Attic Window

Razorfish: typoGRAPHIC



In part one of Web Artist,
A&T 07/17/97, Jim shares his thoughts on the Web, the page, futurism, and responsibility.

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Copyright © 1998 Ted Warnell. All Rights Reserved