An interesting email discussion developed among the judges for the 2001 Webby Award in the Arts category. We thought we’d make it available, in condensed form, both because we hoped people might find it interesting and also out of a desire to make these processes more transparent. The discussion excerpted below followed a conference call and an initial vote to arrive at a short list.
The short list included:
Lisa Jevbratt “1:1”
Marek Walczak and Martin Wattenberg “Apartment”
John Klima “Glasbead”
Mark Napier “Potatoland”
Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries
It bears noting that, earlier in the conversation, we decided to limit the category to net art projects (as opposed to other kinds of art sites or sites about net art) and to consider both meta-sites like “Potatoland” that include several works and sites like “Apartment” that are single projects in themselves.
Thanks to Marisa S. Olson for editing a long string of emails down to a manageable thread.
SARA DIAMOND: (Looking at the shortlist), it came down to two for me: Glasbead and Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries. Why? In their own ways, English aside as the language of discourse, they felt very special, somehow vulnerable. On one hand as an environment that allowed continual transformation of the source by others and exchange, and on the other, as a very personal, obsessive, painful and quite explosive reaching out. I cast away any proclamations of what is somehow foundational about the use of the web, i.e. does it operate on your hard drive once you down load, is it interactive versus declamatory and decided to go for pure affect. Why? I feel that there is SO little that catches my attention in a way that plays with language, plays with me and the source as desiring subjects, plays with communication in a formal way that also reflects on the endless chat(ter)on the web. Hence, I cast my vote for Heavy Industries Presents.
JON IPPOLITO: I’m in a quandary after reading the discussion of Apartment v. Heavy Industries [HI]. Sara’s remark that HI was vulnerable compared to the “emotionally debugged” Apartment struck a chord with me. I think given the choice I personally would spend more time exploring the Heavy Industries site. And there are some attributes of Heavy Industries that do match the ethic of the Internet. It’s easily accessible (more so, actually, than the Java-dependent Apartment). It’s global – witness the French and Korean translations of several texts. And unlike the minimal polyglot Apartment – which knows that “amour” belongs in the bedroom but not much more – HI brings the difference between languages into strong relief. For example, while the English texts remind me of speed-reading exercises, the Korean characters strike me as stroboscopic calligraphy. Yet let’s not forget that the vulnerability Sara accurately reads in HI is the narrator’s, not necessarily the author’s. Ironically, Marek, Martin, and Jonathan make themselves more literally vulnerable by allowing viewers to type in unedited sentences like “This project sucks.” Chang’s artwork is rooted in some sturdy traditions; its emotional impact relies on well-established narrative and musical conventions even while it plays off of them. Unlike Chang’s closed, linear narratives, Apartment is an open system – like the Internet itself. Openness in our culture is fragile, as is artistic innovation. And maybe it is the experiment in openness, rather than the compelling twist on a familiar genre, that deserves my vote…
CHRISTIANE PAUL: I’m deeply concerned about the message we’re sending with giving HI the top prize. We are all very immersed into this art form, so for many of us a work like HI (a net film one doesn’t see too often) may be refreshing. For the public at large and the artists, however, this may look very different. In many of the recent reviews of web-based art written by traditional art critics in traditional media, I’ve read the following again and again: what they considered to be the most successful pieces were the ones that were “finally” looking more like traditional art (“it looks more like painting”) and were “not about the technology” (which unfortunately most of the time meant not using the medium).
NATALIE BOOKCHIN: Why do I feel like I am back in the 1890s when Alfred Steglitz was vigorously promoting the essential formal qualities of photography in order to have it accepted as one of the fine arts. I wonder about this line of thought – that we must give the Webby to the work that expresses the so called “essential formal characteristics intrinsic to net art” to send the right message out to the arbiters of taste, the writers who will affect popular opinion. We are not considering for a minute one of the truly (still) potentially radical aspects of net art, and that is that it does not need the a-ok from the taste industry in order to reach millions. The channels are still open with net art, why are we trying to close them? Why is sissy fight in the game category in the webbys and the walker art center as art? net art can still flow through many channels and take on many guises.
CHRISTIANE PAUL: In how far is HI different from all the experimental and more abstract short films that use text and music? Why aren’t we considering Photoshop art, distributed via the Web? Because HI employs moving images? [….] I do not understand what makes HI net art other than its distribution medium (it’s one of many experimental movies using text and images and its main accomplishment in my opinion consists in the rhythm of text and music it creates). If there would be a category for flash movies and experimental short film on the Web, fine, that’s where it belongs and should get an award. HI is a very accomplished site of flash movies but has none of the qualities that distinguish net art from more traditional forms and in my opinion just doesn’t compare to what Apartment, Glasbead, Potatoland and 1:1 have to offer in that respect. I simply do not understand why these works don’t live up to a site of flash movies.
MARK TRIBE: I feel confident placing [HI] in the net art category largely because that is where it has been contextualized in practice. I believe it was intended to be experienced as (cinematic) net art, not as web cinema. I have always seen it as contemporary art, and it has been talked about as such on Rhizome and, I assume, elsewhere. Lots of contemporary art practices, net art included, blur the boundaries between disciplines. As we know since Duchamp, art is what which we think of as art.
SARA DIAMOND: I do think that one of the big acquisitions of interactive media, especially the web, is the ability to enhance and intensify dialogue [….] But I also think that there is a threshold that is special to web-based experience that is associative, accumulative, sticky, and that the HI work captures that practice and moment. Text has been so much a part of web culture, eclipsed by the visual, torn and redistributed by (buy) design. My penchants for HI (other than its post-industrial references) have to do with both its form, its concrete poetryness, and its relationship to narrative and hence emotion.
JULIA SCHER: Yes, for me, I couldn’t really shake [HI] off…her impact. and in spite of not offering interactivity offered other ideas around control/controlling. instead of my thinking…”when mousing i…” i’m thinking “while in this piece…” instead of my thinking “function keys” i’m thinking “these are all primary pages.” instead of thinking “identity/logo” im thinking “permanent descriptor of human experience” instead of thinking “confined piece to accomodate critical programming lack” im thinking “how largess is established and maintained throughout the work” instead of thinking “simply handled centered type chunk treatment” i’m thinking “amazing vertical rolls typography” On Apartment: for me the sequential detail, a wierd kind of accuracy (treatment of translation) stability-amongst-the-options, and legibility of Apartment are extremely powerful and convincing.
NATALIE BOOKCHIN: I think that (HI) ultimately does work as a net project; it is startling to see this raw and direct net “film” played on and taking over my browser and stubbornly giving us exactly what we don’t expect at this moment from this environment – no buttons to click, no place for user input. I’ve never seen anything like it before on the net. It is not a film that I would prefer to see off the net – like real player movies but rather, is made for this environment. The apartment is interactive, but [….] for me it is more impressive in what it could do than how it actually gets used.
CHRISTIANE PAUL: I don’t believe in definitions of a medium either – particularly if it’s a new and process-oriented one that constantly finds new forms of expressions and manifestations. However, I have doubts concerning our selection process and what we are comparing (and I guess this is why the definition issue came up). As far as I can tell, HI is the only project of its kind among all the projects we discussed for nomination because all the other ones matched the more “conventional” description of net art as open-system, interactive, rhizomatic, participatory, customizable and dynamic in the sense of time-based or incorporating real-time data (all of these to varying degrees, none of them a necessity). The interesting aspect of the whole HI issue is that what is perceived “new” and “unexpected” is the traditional and “conventional” in a new context. HI has its origins in traditional narrative and cinematic conventions but we never compared it to or even considered another project of its kind – be it a flash movie, a non-interactive narrative project or a project that uses the net as a delivery medium but could be shown on CD etc. Meaning, among all the apples we’ve been considering, we have one orange and the orange seems to be preferred to all the apples because it has qualities they don’t have.
MARK TRIBE: I appreciate Christiane’s concern that giving the award to HI could send the wrong message (because the work is not interactive). But maybe it’s time to forget about what net art is supposed to be and just focus on what we really like/ find interesting/ think is important as art.
CHRISTIANE PAUL: (Response to question: Can you live with awarding HI?) Had we judged (HI) among comparable sites, it may very well have been my #1, too. I’m not opposed to making the site the winner per se, it’s more about nominating it in the first place. I liked the fact that Young-Hae Chang is unpretentious and makes it clear [in interviews] that she doesn’t consider herself a writer, uses only 10% of Flash and learned it in 2 weeks (pretty much matches my experience, students acquire the skills you need to do HI within 2 weeks of the workshop). This isn’t meant as a criticism either, great art can be done with minimal means (conceptual art, minimalism etc.) and I believe it’s even more difficult to do a truly great piece with minimal means. But artists like Duchamp and Beuys (just beacuse these are the ones she mentions) pulled it off to open new perspectives on and radically challenge traditional notions of art. I don’t feel HI does that…