PRINT November 1995



ALTHOUGH THE NET’S BEEN around since the ’70s, it’s still in an embryonic stage as a space for serious art. Ädaweb, a new World Wide Web site geographically based in New York, represents an attempt to address the art world’s byte deficit by commissioning virtual, site-specific, interactive “installations” from a number of artists (including Julia Scher, Charles Long, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and Renée Green) who would seem to have some relationship to the digiscene. When you call up ädaweb, you get a welcome screen with five kidney shapes labeled “ project,” “ influx,” “context,” “archive,” and “extension.” Clicking “project” brings up the menu of the site’s inaugural piece, Jenny Holzer’s please change beliefs, 1995. Activating one directory within this work brings up short black and white Quicktime movies of some of Holzer’s texts, which with a little tinkering could be captured and used as stylish screen-savers. Other subdirectories consist of columns of greatest hits from Holzer’s “Truisms,” 1977–87, “Inflammatory Essays,” 1979–82, and other series, presented in even plainer typography than in her early street-level posters. One list invites users to vote whether a Holzerism is in fact true or false; another encourages callers to “improve” selected one-liners or flip through “edits” others have entered, such as “A LOT OF PROFESSIONALS SMOKE CRACKPOTS,” “ABUSE OF POWER CHORDS COMES AS NO SURPRISE,” or “A LITTLE HOLZER CENSORS THIS LIST” (loosely based on her original “A LITTLE KNOWLEDGE CAN GO A LONG WAY”), as well as outright originals, Wellerisms, and other genres of flame.

Holzer’s piece demonstrates the current drawbacks of electronic distribution art as well as its possibilities. For one thing, it’s no wonder most of the interesting things in this space happen at the level of basic, untypographically distinctive text; unless you have a T1 line, getting anything pictorial through a telephone line is still like sucking Jell-O through a straw. More deeply, though, the king-size disparity between Holzer as the only nonanonymous contributor and her faceless “assistants” affects the tone of the project. Although Holzer’s bons mots lend themselves to parody because they were designed to be mock-banal in the first place, her originals tend to become “Bartlettized” (I don’t mean Jennifer Bartlett) in the process—further enshrined and seemingly even more famous than they are. Finally, there’s the preaching-to-the-converted problem. While the worldwide accessibility of the Web enables it to reach people who don’t usually make it to art galleries (or many other places, for that matter), one suspects that, if you don’t already appreciate a Holzerian level of irony, you won’t be hanging out on the board.

If the problems with please change beliefs are specific to Holzer’s project, those endemic to the äda site in general have more to do with the medium itself. The Net certainly offers the prospect of new patterns of involvement with artists—a more relaxed and longer-range interaction than that allowed in the formal space of the gallery. But clicking on the menu option “influx” to browse through incipient Web site-specific works brings up mostly grainy “in-case-you-missed-the-show” installation shots, some with drabs of meager point-and-click sound. Äda’s collection will presumably blossom as more bytes become available, but even so most artists’ work would have to change a great deal even to begin to approach a natural fit with the medium.

Like parties or panel discussions or any other refereed spontaneous time space, bulletin boards depend on locating an optimum interaction curve: if you tell everyone exactly what to do, it’s boring for both participants and onlookers, but if you give them total freedom, the site loses its reason to exist. Ädaweb’s attraction will be a function of the balance it strikes. Boards grow and decay depending on delicate fluctuations of interest, and a successful system operator is an editor, architect, technician, social director, and, in this case, curator rolled into one. Should artists be in charge of their own projects? It would seem that the most fruitful work on the Net would cast the artist as something of a sysop, putting the accent on the give-and-take with the user. Otherwise, the site is presenting work that could be seen more adequately via traditional delivery systems, like magazines or museums.

As the monitor screen gradually begins to encompass most other media, the synthesis may help isolate a definition of art in terms of attitude, a definition that is, paradoxically enough, no longer dependent on “medium.” Ideally, the Net will foster new structures that may eventually be seen as artistic but that we are currently unable to imagine. Fully realized multiuser interactive art may still be on the way, and probably from a long way off. Perhaps some current creations that are not typically touted as art, like quirky artificial-life programs or the vast Internet multiuser dungeons (or MUDs), will be seen in the years to come as artistically fruitful turf, a kind of communal folk architecture whose foundations are still in dispute. Ideally, if you call ädaweb even just to look around or complain, you’ll be helping to click-start the process.

Ädaweb is accessible through the Internet at

Brian D’Amato’s novel Beauty is currently in development at Touchstone Pictures. His first virtual-reality installation made its debut in 1992.