PRINT May 2002

Saul Anton

Data visualization, hypertext narrative, software art, alternative browsers, and games—adjunct curator of new media art Christiane Paul's Biennial roundup casts the Net wide, despite its modest (ten-work) size. Though she presents a useful overview of the dominant genres in the field, Paul's survey suffers from some of the same touristic eclecticism that plagues the broader show, even as her selections favor heuristic demonstrations of technological possibilities and a certain data formalism-two common—pitfalls for new-media art.

Some of the work in the show avoids these traps, for example, Riot, 1999 (all new-media artworks in the Biennial can be accessed through the museum's website,, a browser designed by Mark Napier, creator of the popular Riot downloads logos and brand names from across the Web and pastes them into a single window resembling a Jacques Villeglé décollage in reverse (instead of tearing away layers of posters—or, in this case, websites—it adds them), purportedly to disrupt the neat demarcations of the Web's corporate colonies. Yet this is finally no more than a symbolic gesture, and it feels curiously retrograde in a medium typically geared toward use-value. Far more effective is Josh On & Futurefarmers' They Rule, 2001, which adapts to the Internet the premise behind the late Mark Lombardi's six-degrees-of-separation maps of the international power elite. They Rule follows the money, tracking down the connections between high financiers and the transnational corporations they control. The site's dynamic interactivity allows you to quickly apprehend the three degrees of Warren Buffett's corporate influence, the Enron feedback loop, or the reason Michael A. Miles is one of the seven most powerful people you've never heard of. You can make and save your own maps of our oligarchs and click through to glean such invaluable information as which politicians get money and from whom.

Works like Lisa Jevbratt's I:I, 1999–2002, reveal a techie passion for the Web per se by visualizing what the Web “looks” like. Offering five ways to view portions of Web space as it existed in 1999 and 2001, I:I is indeed an interesting object lesson in the mutable nature of the interface. The most visually seductive work here, however, is Benjamin Fry's Valence, 1999, which displays correlations in large data sets—anything from a genome sequence to a novel to website traffic-id presents them as three-dimensional images resembling a solar system that you can zoom in on and circle around. This permits one t o quickly grasp relationships one couldn't “see” before. One could, for example, study the frequency with which the word evil occurs in the Bible. A word that appears only once lies at the center of the screen; words that appear often are found at the outer edge. The catch is that you need to know what you're looking for. The data set on view when I visited the Biennial was a genome sequence, which I couldn't make head or tail of. Both works are engaging but in the end feel like exercises in the visual display of information, ultimately a new-media formalism.

The same holds true for the hypertext narratives: Yael Kanarek's World of Awe, 2000, and Margot Lovejoy's Turns, 2001. Both offer sophisticated, engrossing visual interfaces that draw you into the narratives (Kanarek's is pre-written, Lovejoy's interactive). The problem is that hypertext—still seen by many as the silver bullet that will finally shatter the inherent linearity of narrative—is, in fact, the most linear form of all, because it actualizes relationships between different moments of a text in the form of a link, essentially flattening its figural play into a spatial relation, turning it into visual design. Paul's implicit argument is, I suppose, that data—and the Internet—should be understood as spatial rather than linguistic objects. Altogether absent from the Biennial is the sort of alternative model of new media offered by French artist Claude Closky's Do You Want Love or Lust?, 1997 (on Dia Center for the Arts's website,, which relies neither on technological bravura nor formalist aesthetics. Here one link leads to another based on semantic relations, creating a work that, to quote Jean-François Lyotard, “presents the unpresentable.”