When explaining to peers that I work in the realm of net art, the conversation always digresses to the earlier, simpler days of the internet. Often the topic of personal websites will arise wherein we excitedly reminisce over our personal webpages displayed on Geocities or Angelfire. At the risk of sounding like I belong in a porch-side rocking chair, the internet is not what it used to be. Exploring further into our recent histories, we find a charming past full of honesty and naïveté exemplified by users unaware of the magnitude of culture, life, communication and information (to name a few) the internet would come to represent. These preliminary mindsets naturally set the tone for personal websites in the early days.
Though the ephemerality of the internet has caused most of the early adaptor’s web pages to disappear including the beloved Geocities personal web pages, one project in particular, One Terabyte of Kilobyte Age, is devoted to providing current internet users a glimpse into the past via screenshots of those web pages. Beginning in February 2013, the creators of this project, Olia Lialina and Dragan Espenschied, have been posting screenshots from archived Geocities pages, queued for every twenty minutes on their tumblr website, One Terabyte of Kilobyte Age Photo Op. To give you an idea of the amount of web pages involved, as of February 2014, the project has enough material for the next thirteen years.
For Multi Voxel, I’ve curated a series of images from this salient archive. Exploring the archive, I was instinctually drawn to the pages that are most likely unfinished or abandoned. Pages that began by their users assigning a repeating background image, but providing no content. Perhaps these web pages were projects that were started and never finished, or maybe the content was removed by the creators as the internet changed. Regardless of their individual histories, the artifact remains, and through this series of screenshots, my goal is to open a discussion concerning pattern in art, legitimacy of web pages as art, and outsider art on the internet.
In 2009, Lialina and Espenschied published a book titled Digital Folklore. The collaborators described their concept of Digital Folklore in the book’s introduction, “Digital Folklore encompasses the customs, traditions and elements of visual, textual and audio culture that emerged from users' engagement with personal computer applications during the last decade of the 20th and the first decade of the 21st century.” Despite the book being published before One Terabyte of Kilobyte Age was launched, it becomes apparent while traversing the project’s archives that Digital Folklore applies to the Geocities screenshots. In the Multi Voxel exhibition, I was also aware of this concept, and focused on visual elements to create a cohesive theme.
The aesthetics of the web page backgrounds are defined by their default or template condition. Often these pages utilize the repeat property for html backgrounds which creates a patterning that would come to represent a generalized aesthetic of Web 1.0. Patterning also is exemplative of the internet’s potential as an egalitarian space, in that it allows for user experience of the pages to be similar regardless of the resolution or platform of the viewer. Further this motif provides the exhibition with its namesake, Multi Voxel. This term describes an analysis process for brain scans wherein the researchers map patterns in brain activity. This title was chosen because of the relevance between art and pareidolia, the psychological phenomenon of humans to perceive meaningful information in random data. Within an art context, the viewing experience of these patterns/ defaults/ templates may be deceptively simple, however this ‘empty’ or unfinished work provides the viewer with a contemplative space, wherein pareidolia may occur as the viewer projects their thoughts onto the work.
Inevitably, I must address the nature of these screenshots as art. This discussion of course invokes the tired ‘what is art?’ question. While the scope of this paper does not allow for such musings, I will argue here that both the websites and the screenshots that represent them are indeed art. This interpretation is supported by Brian O’Doherty in his 1976 essay Inside the White Cube, “Conversely, things become art in a space where powerful ideas about art focus on them.” While the space he mentions is the space of a gallery, here we are considering them in two spaces. First, the work is framed by Lialina and Espenschied’s archive and concepts of digital folklore, and secondly through my curation for Multi Voxel. Although these screenshots are not displayed in a traditional white cube gallery, they are still exhibited within an art world context, and as O’Doherty mentions, the viewers are focusing on these screenshots as art.
I understand how this perspective can be problematic, as it challenges our traditional notions of art and artists. Over time the art world has come to applaud and demand the celebrity status of ‘the artist’ and the myths surrounding them as evidenced by the 2009 London’s Tate Modern exhibition, Pop Life: Art in a Material World. But in Multi Voxel, not much is known about the creators of these web pages as that information is not logged in the original archive. Their anonymity and unique discovery of works aligns these website creators with outsider artists, working independent of the mainstream art paradigm. As our lives and the internet are becoming progressively integrated, these outsider internet artists become more relevant. Articulated well by (mainstream) internet artist Guthrie Lonergan in an interview with Rhizome, “Mostly I'm interested in the "Do It Yourself" thing juxtaposed with corporate defaults, the tension of an individual attempting to express themselves through YouTube, MySpace, Apple, etc., something exciting and full of life trying very hard to come through a banal structure.” This fascinating tension Lonergan describes is particularly apparent in the personal webpages of the early internet documented by One Terabyte in a Kilobyte Age and Multi Voxel, wherein the website creators are making their pages within a very limited environment, thus defining the beginning of personal and artistic expression on the internet.