What Galleries Are Doing on the World Wide Web Why Net Art?

by Rebecca S. Cohen

I received a postcard from Lucerne this week, from a young friend on her first romp through Europe. She says, "I didn't even know this place existed until yesterday, and I'm already in love with it." That's how I feel about the Internet. One minute I didn't know it existed, and now I visit as often as I can. The galleries and muse-ums, in particular, provide my incentive to return.

The Internet, that international network of computers on which people share information in the form of words, images, and sound, is a big "place." My own interest is fairly narrow. Does art, that most human of activities concerned with aesthetics and craft, have a place on the Net? Is there any compelling reason for low-tech artists to pay attention to the high-tech possibilities offered by the link between computers, worldwide? Does the appearance of art on computer screens threaten the public's appreciation of "real" art or enhance the artist-gallery/museum experience? And is there a place for me?

If you think of the Internet as a globe made of criss-crossed links among computers, the World Wide Web is a pre-packaged tour of possibilities. Hypertext pointers -- bits of information commonly displayed as underlined and colored phrases which provide the "interlink" between documents -- let you move around from page to page, site to site in the same way that your mind darts from one topic to a related one and then on to a new idea. A kind of free-association for the computer literate.

You can access the Web through a variety of means. There are a number of local service providers and several national companies (such as America Online, Compuserve, and Prodigy) that connect your computer's modem with the greater universe of computers. The national company I use wooed me with 10 free hours online and a fairly easy-to-understand graphics package that encourages slow, self-guided tours. I started by trading e-mail with family and friends. Then I began to use the Web browser, searching for key words (topics) or a specific Internet site, such as the Austin Chronicle's address (URL -- universal resource locator -- / ). Now I wander from one Hypertext path to the next, taking small steps into new territory, then doubling back quickly so I don't lose my way.

The first time my Web browser asked me what word I wanted to search for, I typed in "art." There were an endless number of possibilities -- nationally and internationally -- related to my favorite topic. At first, my efforts were disjointed, disorienting, and mostly disappointing. It was like being lost in New York City: I couldn't find the good stuff for the endless distractions. I tripped into one blind alley after another. Then I stumbled into a Houston cyber-gallery displaying work by an artist with whom I was familiar. I compared the images I saw on my screen with my recollection of the actual work and began to evaluate how the computer represented the artist. At Viewtopia, an Austin cyber-gallery, I saw even more artists whose names and work I knew. I decided to do my research close to home.

This past September, two Austinites who received Computer Science degrees from the University of Texas in the mid-Eighties decided to start a "gallery." I understand the impulse, needless to say, having run a low-tech gallery myself for eight years in Austin. With a mix of righteous optimism and entrepreneurial lust, you convince yourself you can help artists sell their work as well as run a profitable business. Rather than renting space with tall white walls and buying pedestals for sculpture, Roxanna Nematollahi and Jonathan Lahr purchased access to the Net (through Zilker Park Internet), an imaging machine, a laptop computer for on-site demonstrations, a scanner, and a high-resolution monitor. Then they set about convincing art types to trust them. According to their introductory brochure, "The Viewtopia Online Art Gallery exhibits a variety of contemporary visual arts in a tasteful environment via the Internet computer network. We use state of the art technology to provide a friendly format with beautiful full-color images and descriptions of each artwork. We use the power of the World Wide Web to display art in a way that is versatile and easy-to-use."

Actually, Viewtopia is less like the traditional gallery and more like "an electronic art magazine where exhibitors can buy space," says Lahr. Viewtopia provides one-stop shopping for its audience. Visitors to their site (http://www.viewtopia.com) can view an extensive collection of artworks, accessing information by artist's name, medium, or subject. Prices are provided in some cases, but contact must be made with individual artists or galleries to make a purchase or see actual work. In this way, Viewtopia has no aspirations to replace "real" galleries or artist's representatives, but rather to provide an alternative advertising medium (complete with rate card) to expand the audience. "We put technology to work for you," they say, pointing out that the Web is available 24 hours a day and approximately 20 million people internationally have access to the Internet. Since early September, there have been over 21,000 visits to pages at the Viewtopia site. According to Nematollahi, she can pull out information about which individual pages were visited, but for now she has only raw data. There is no way of knowing if one single user accounts for a number of different page visits. On the other hand, Viewtopia has received e-mail from artists interested in their service from as far away as Siberia.

As an introduction to Viewtopia, Lahr and Nematollahi offered free imaging and time on the Web to several artists and organizations, hoping to lure them into cyberspace. Women & Their Work Gallery (W&TW) and the Texas Fine Arts Association (TFAA), as well as several individual artists, participated last fall. The remnants of that experiment remained last week, including 1995 exhibition schedules that had not been updated. I called W&TW's director Chris Cowden and TFAA's Sandra Gregor to ask what happened.

Both say the Internet is not a high priority on their organizations' agendas. Having been spoon-fed -- as they were by Viewtopia during its introductory offer -- they were unafraid to taste, but neither is looking for more. Gregor can envision listing TFAA calls for entry for juried shows, exhibition schedules, and membership promotions, but says TFAA is unprepared at this time to fully realize the potential of the Internet. Cowden agrees. Both, however, say they were impressed with Viewtopia's founders and their efforts. Viewtopia aspires to be "the art community's ambassador to the Internet," but the art community seems not quite ready to be represented.

Several artists I spoke with, like Connie Arismendi, don't have computers so they can't receive e-mail queries about their work or visit their pages after the initial demonstration on Viewtopia's portable computer. In Arismendi's case, the surface texture and other subtleties of her work are impossible to read on my monitor. I have seen "Vigil," a large (57" x 45") construction made of lead, nails, steel, and an oil lamp, in a San Antonio gallery, but even when I enlarge the image on the screen, I barely recognize the work. The romantic red glow from the oil lamp is reduced to a flat red blob in the middle of an even flatter lead gray background enhanced by a few linear marks. I can't perceive the artist's touch as she tapped and nailed shaped pieces of lead to the surface; I can't make out the mysterious reflection of the flame against the dull metallic surface. In fact, if I hadn't seen "Vigil" in person, I would have found absolutely nothing on that screen to compel me to seek out the artist.

On the other hand, Marian Haigh's antler basket reproduces like a charm, even on my inex-pensive Desk Jet black and white printer. Haigh's artist's statement, resumé, and a credible image of the work make me want to see more. But Haigh doesn't have e-mail. And her phone machine, when I called to inquire about her relationship with Viewtopia, wasn't working very well. I couldn't tell if my message was recorded. She didn't call me back. Haigh's meticulous control over her ancient medium (clay) doesn't carry over to her relationship with the Internet. It's a pity.

"Viewtopia provides you [the artist and gallery] with hassle-free access to the technology of today and the future," explains the brochure. Well, not exactly, but they're working on it. Lahr and Nematollahi, like a lot of regular gallery owners before them, rely on artists' slides and cooperation, which vary in quality and ability to represent the work. Viewtopia provides the artist with technical assistance and a relatively inexpensive opportunity to advertise specific work for sale and attract potential interest through artists' statements and resumés. There is the same advantage in being part of Viewtopia, as an artist might experience being represented by a gallery with other artists, except that the universe of potential visitors to an Internet gallery is far greater than those who might wander into an Austin storefront. Like photos in magazines, however, or slides mailed to potential clients, seeing reproductions of an artist's work on the Net without actual knowledge of its surface and scale provide a limited understanding of the art. Artists, galleries, and nonprofits might best benefit from the Internet's ability to provide timely information to a lot of people about changing exhibitions. A regularly updated, comprehensive Internet listing of exhibitions across the country would expand the audience for art and encourage new people, especially travelers, to seek access to specific artists and their work.

Of course, the enterprising (and computer lit-erate) artist can create his or her own home page site, as University of Texas professors Bob Anderson (http://ccwf.cc.utexas.edu/~bazooka/) and Lawrence McFarland (http://ccwf.cc.utexas.edu/~coyote/) have done. The interactive potential of the Internet to stimulate dialogue among artists or between viewers and artists is limited only by the number of people with access to computers. For three years, Anderson has been connected to a group of online artists (SITO) with whom he has done collaborative projects. They maintain an ongoing dialogue. He also teaches UT classes introducing students to the computer lab. He says, "The Internet and WWW has greatly increased my access to an international art community," and then adds, "the more I do all of this, the more I really love drawing with #2 graphite pencils on paper."

According to Anderson and other artists, arts administrators, and even Viewtopia's founders, the Internet is a fine medium for creative activity as well as for marketing art, but it is not intended to replace the pencil or clay or oil paint or other more traditional media. Even the introduction of the "Virtual Gallery" (relying on a 3-D format using virtual reality markup language -- VRML -- rather than Hypertext or HTML) which, I am told, is just around the corner, cannot replace the sculptor's experience guiding a chisel across wood or stone, the painter's layering and mixing color on canvas, the viewer standing dwarfed by Michaelangelo's "David" in Florence or the Sistine Chapel in Rome. Substituting the computerized arts experiences for the real thing would be like sipping "virtual" wine while lounging in the simulated October sunshine flooding a digitized piazza. Not quite good enough.

As for my own place on the Net, I conducted my "interview" with Anderson and several others via e-mail. My WWW travels have turned into a "working vacation," set in an exotic place. All you need is a computer and a sense of adventure to come along. Wish you were here. n

Rebecca S. Cohen is an arts writer and recovering art dealer.

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