Leonardo On-Line: WOW: Art for the Information Age

Leonardo On-Line: Words on Works

Art for the Information Age:
The In Our Path and ArtFBI Web Sites

 Jeff Gates


As Gilda Radner's character Emily Litella on television's "Saturday Night Live" show might have said: "What's all this fuss about the Infuriating Superhighway? How can a road make so many people so angry? It just lies there! You get on; you get off. What's the big deal?"

No, Emily, it is the Information Superhighway, not the Infuriating Superhighway. But, just as driving the freeways of a new and unexplored metropolis can be pretty confusing and somewhat intimidating, so can traveling on the Information Superhighway. What is in this Superhighway for us artists and why should we care?

At a recent Washington, D.C., "town meeting" organized to discuss the state of the local arts community, a gallery owner provided some statistics. In the 2 1/2 years the gallery has been open, it has had 17 exhibitions. Seven of the exhibitions were reviewed; only two were given more than a one-paragraph description. With odds like this, why do artists keep knocking our heads against this wall? Why not take some control over how and to whom our information is disseminated?

Information placed on the Internet has a potential readership of 40 million people (with 1 million new connections per month). As an artist, I can see the potential for new audiences for my work. In March 1995, I opened the In Our Path web site (http://www.tmn.com/iop/index.html). This site was based on my 12-year photography project documenting the building of the Century Freeway in Los Angeles. In Our Path was a natural outgrowth of the more traditional art process in which I was involved that incorporated the visual and social aspects of this public works project. The site also takes advantage of the unique nature of hypermedia, so that it was not merely an on-line gallery of the work.

As part of the greater project, I experimented with injecting an Internet component into two simultaneous exhibitions of this photographic series at two sites near the freeway. Exhibition viewers were asked to fill out an on-line questionnaire that asked how the building of the freeway affected their lives and their communities. Participants could view on-line other people's responses at the other site as well.

This experiment was of marginal success. Most people were not prepared to participate, nor were they able to envision actually adding something to what they saw on the walls. I began to rethink the nature of art in this culture, the purpose of "real" exhibitions and the relationship between technology and its social consequences. I continue to investigate these issues.

As director of Artists for a Better Image (ArtFBI), a non-profit organization I founded to study stereotypes of artists in the media, I find the Internet allows me another venue for audience and dialog. When ArtFBI opened its spot in cyberspace (http://www.tmn.com/Community/jgates/artfbi.html), it generated over 10,000 "hits" (user visits) within its first 3 months of operation! That is a lot of coverage for a small organization or for an individual. The web site is maintaining an average of 5,000 hits/month.

The information revolution is more than just the Internet and its residual hyperbole. It is a cultural shift from political and social systems that control the flow and content of information to one that offers individuals direct involvement in the development of the social structure. It also presents some intriguing opportunities. However, there are forces developing on the Internet that would like to substitute one form of control for another.

Artists need to be involved in the development of this medium. Its nature offers the potential for content providers and interpreters to reach large or very specific audiences. The pace and scope of these changes often seem daunting and infuriating, especially for those with no prior experience with the hardware of these new systems. However, the chance to reposition ourselves from the stereotypical fringe to a more central and valued position is worth investigating.


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