Graffiti on the Superhighway

The Enigma of Visual Art Made for the Internet

The Austin Museum of Digital Art
The Austin Museum of Digital Art

The Red Fez on Fifth Street fizzed like an underground rave venue. Half the crowd bubbled high on a secret that they wanted to share. Wake up, their eyes told me, read the writing on the wall. Austinite Jared Tarbell was projecting lines of poetry at the wall, or rather, his PC was.

Tarbell's 6-Bit Generative Poetry Engine, based on Eastern philosophy, works on the principle that the binary balance of zeroes and ones in the computer reflects the binary universal balance favored by ancient Chinese philosophers. By interacting with the computer, the viewer will end up with words of poetic advice.

A circle had a series of white points around its perimeter. Whenever anyone double-clicked on a white point, a word or phrase representing a state of being ("contemplation" or "transformation threshold") sprang out of the circle. The fifth selection caused the circle to disappear and words of wisdom to fly through the screen in single file. Messages like "Why not now?" resonated in the surroundings.

6-Bit Generative Poetry Engine formed the centerpiece of Tarbell's contribution to the December 11 showcase by the Austin Museum of Digital Art (AMODA). The voluntary organization cultivates digital art, the creative side of the "new media." AMODA still seeks a building for its museum -- it has no permanent address apart from its URL In the meantime, they hold monthly showcases in clubs where computer images and digital film run concurrently with soaring music from electronic bands like Buddy System.

6-Bit Generative Poetry Engine was selected for the showcase by Harold Henry Chaput, president of AMODA, and his staff after they viewed Tarbell's Web site, Levitated fit AMODA's criterion for a Web piece because the artwork's beauty derived from the unique capabilities of the computer and the World Wide Web. Tarbell's site features clouds of animated cubes and photographic images of outer space. Options on the Levitated home page revolve on an invisible axis, offering themselves one by one like seats on a carousel. Tarbell and many other artists treat the Web as a new medium for the creation of art, an infinite space to display their work, and a marketing tool.

Chaput and a number of his colleagues at the UT computer science graduate school set up the museum in 1997 because they recognized a new era in art, the digital age, of which the Internet would be one medium. "One of the many wonderful things about the Internet," says Chaput, now AMODA president, "is that it gives schmoes like you and me the opportunity of doing things big. It doesn't matter if you're some pimply 13-year-old in your bedroom or you're Dell: Your Web site is the same size, on the same screen and gives you the same voice."

Case in point:, where visitors may download software to create their own animation. When complete, visitors may upload the animation to the site, to be displayed there at the theatre. One animated short recently donated to a character called Baby Moon wreaking revenge on the White House for sticking a flag on his mom's butt.

Chaput recommended this Web site and its inventor, Austinite Alan Watts. When I visited 16color, the software worked easily. I used the mouse to draw on the canvas, deciding not to experiment with the painting options. After completing the first frame, I moved the frame dial to "2." An outline of the previous sketch remained, so I traced over it. I produced a 3-second matchstick cartoon titled "Old Man, Desperate for a Smoke."

My creation turns out to require a little post-production; the seven frames tumble together so fast that test audiences have found the tragic and comic elements difficult to distinguish. Thankfully, Watts posts an e-mail address for inquiries about everything from technique to marketing.

"What 16color has done for many people is give them a place to have their work seen by thousands," says Watts. Watts' experienced eyes almost popped when he realized that the Baby Moon series was the work of a first-time animator. It transpired that the contributor, screen name K@boom, was a 16-year-old in El Salvador. Through Watts, K@Boom ended up doing some animation for Nickelodeon and had some of his 16color work featured in Cinematexas 2000.

Less cinematic, but just as interactive, is another site championed by AMODA. On it, a figure resembling an engineer's draught of an insect can be moved around with remote controls at the side of the screen. Controls include a faster/slower device, a steering device, and a gravity on/gravity off/gravity reversed selector. As the viewer, I enable the art to happen. When the viewer is at the controls, the fluidity of the creature in motion contrasts with the austere straight lines of the same creature when stationary.

The Museum of Web Art ( has collected some examples of graphics used by companies and individuals to draw hits on their Web sites. One imaginary wing of the gallery explores "Things That Change." The conceptual highlight of the Museum of Web Art comes through Window of Time, installed by Amy Stone in 1997. A digital photograph, taken from a boat at sea, shows palm trees overhanging a beach. Below the photograph, a digital clock marks Pacific time that causes the digital image to refresh automatically every time a minute is up. Visitors may experience the gradual disappearance and return of shadows. Stone has produced a landscape with the elusive fourth dimension of time.

Works like the Window of Time interest Chaput and AMODA. "We don't want to treat the Web as the new thing that comes around the block. 'It's the Internet! It's the be-all and end-all!' No, it's like any other medium, it's not a replacement [of canvas], it's an extension, an accentuation." To Chaput, the best analogy for the effect of the Internet and digital equipment on visual art relates to the birth of the camera at the end of the 19th century. "Before photography came along, painting was realistic. Everything was landscape, perspective. Then, [after the birth of photography], painting deftly moved in a hundred new directions." The president of AMODA sees digital art as a catalyst that will yield more fertile ideas about painting, sculpture, printmaking, and music of all kinds.

AMODA discourages computers for computers' sake. "The question we always ask of art on the Internet and on computers in general is, what's new here?" Chaput seeks experimental artists such as the Sodaplay team, who move art around, or Watts, who creates a community of animators, or Tarbell, who delves into chaos theory and Eastern mysticism.

Speaking to Wired magazine in December 1997, author, scientist, and artist Stephen Holtzman predicted a mass abandonment of oils and stone by creative people: "Expression has been the one constant among artists from the Stone Age until now. The only thing that has changed is the technology. Today, developing your own custom software is no different than learning to master oil paints. Frankly, it's a lot easier." Would I ever have finished "Old Man, Desperate for a Smoke" without the 16color software? John Rice of Web4mations, an Irish team who showcase digital animation on the Internet, shakes his head: "We think of a computer as an expensive pencil, by eliminating the need for hard copy animation cels, Flash [animation software, like that offered by 16color] means an individual can now do in a week what would formerly take a team of animators a year."

If the Internet redefines anything, that could be teamwork. As software and interactivity make the creative process more inviting, the audience jump onstage with the artists. "It's letting people do a lot more collaborative work," says Watts, "Like the two-man team of DnA production on 16color. They each do a segment of a movie, then pass it on and continue swapping it until they have a movie." Another UT computer science graduate student, Madelyn Starbuck, recently produced an opera for the Web: cyberopera. Members of Starbuck's Internet chatroom composed the libretto, suggesting characters and plot lines.

For all its open vistas, the Web can be claustrophobic. Artbyte: The Magazine of Digital Arts and Culture, shut its doors for good in November. Gabriella Fanning, the editor-in-chief of the bimonthly magazine, also edits Art on Paper, a magazine for more traditional art. "The problem with digital art is that most of the time it is not sellable. There were some pieces in the Whitney Museum (NY) 'Bitstreams' exhibition where the size was reasonable." Most of the pieces created for computer appeared as installations on projector screens. "Installations are good for museums, but for a collector, you would have to create a house just for the art," says Fanning.

The question of sale leads to the equally sticky question of ownership. Such freedom of interaction opens up the debate over the concept of ownership. Is it possible to own a cyber image? In the penultimate print issue of Artbyte, July-August, 2001, Douglas Davis, "Innovator in the Field of Visual Art and Technology," says, "There is no longer a clear conceptual distinction between original and reproduction in virtually any medium." is taking a French company to court for stealing their product, a colorful satire known as the "Powder Pink Girls." 16color also faced the jury in its earlier site incarnation, Web-a-sketch. "In 1998, I was sued by Etch A Sketch," says Watts, "They wanted to buy it [the Web site] for $500. I politely refused and they politely sued me!" This case is one of many arising from the role of the Web in the production and dissemination of art. Alan Watts of 16color is sick of hearing horror stories about copyright. "I think people inherently respect works of art and making it 'wrong' otherwise only entices them to get that rebellious spirit."

Jared Tarbell of Levitated actively encourages people to take from his Web site: "I haven't worried too much about copyrights at Levitated. It's implied of course, under fair creation laws, but since I'm giving all the code away (under open source conventions), and all these works will be obfuscated a few years down the line anyway (read: dead and gone), it [theft] actually is a beneficial process to spread the seed."

If art on the Web is shared so freely, how will it be sold? Will Sodaplay ever be able to sell a moving creature that lives on a computer screen? Will Web4mations take Paris in their lawsuit? Most crucially, if the Web is set to play a pivotal role in the future of the visual arts, who will own the rights to pieces like "Old Man, Desperate for a Smoke"?

Chaput cites other problems if art created for the Web remains stuck on personal computers. "There are a lot of drawbacks. When you go to a gallery, for instance, when you go to Austin Museum of Art or Mexic-Arte, you're walking into a space. You're getting yourself out of your chair, getting into your car or onto your bike, you're going to some new space. It prepares you to be receptive. But the Internet is so inundating, so blasting at you that your guard is automatically up." To Chaput, art is a communal experience.

The crowd at the Red Fez appeared to agree. They, like Chaput, look forward to a permanent physical space where AMODA can bring digital music, sculpture, and Web art, showing every color of the 16-bit rainbow. end story

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