Art-Free Portals or Free Art Portals?

As competition for eyeballs becomes more intense online, the public's reliance on the guidance of marketing engineers and magical search engines is unlikely to favor independent content producers. The prominent Internet portals will soon be pitching music and movies, so even less attention will be focused on independent artists, authors, and modestly funded organizations. A need has arisen for popular portals that feature independently produced content. Lessons may be learned from the Open Directory Project -- a hierarchical list of links maintained by volunteer editors. Concerning the characteristics of an online art portal, there are many contentious issues; but the seeds of a solution are sown in dialogue, which has already begun.

Deciding how to orchestrate the politics of selection is a significant problem. Volunteer editors, as well as the temporary workers at Yahoo!, are not the best curators. Who should be paid, how much, and by whom are all important questions. Ownership of content is also controversial. In this regard, it may be helpful to distinguish between an archive, which must try to preserve works over time, and a portal. Since an art portal would serve primarily as a sign post pointing to other places, artists probably should not relinquish any intellectual property rights.

Last December (1999) a meeting took place in New York City involving 'net artists who were concerned about intellectual property, effective distribution strategies, and the shortcomings of both complete autonomy and contractual, institutional exploitation. There was a clear sense that shared interests were being discussed, and words like "collective," "policy," and "statement of principles" were used quite seriously. Little transpired afterward, despite enthusiastic, vague projections.

In April, 2000, a conference took place at the New York University Law School entitled "A Free Information Ecology in the Digital Environment." There were a lot of bright lawyers who discussed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, free software, ICANN, the constitutionality of the government's sale of the spectrum, as well as other intellectual property and communications policy issues. By the third day talk turned to lasting results that could be generated from the proceedings.

Several people proposed ambitious goals: rewriting copyright law completely, authoring a coherent set of principles about copyright, convening a constitutional convention for the Internet. It is too soon to tell what, if anything, might arise from such grand proposals. But the fact that free (primarily American) intellectuals were actively discussing cooperative strategies for achieving shared goals seems significant.

In presenting an artist's perspective at the Law conference, I focused on the threat to independent content producers posed by concentrated, simultaneous ownership of content and the means deliver it. Freedom to have a Web site means little if it is so obscure that the public will not find it. Another topic I addressed was the centrality of portals in influencing what people find when they surf the Web. The commercialization of reference material, as exemplified by the system of purchased keywords now being advanced by Microsoft and its affiliate RealNames, offers a rather good reason to organize alternative network navigation guides.

The Art Entertainment Network Web site explores this possibility. AEN is not a conventional portal because, instead of serving as a general starting point for information, it foregrounds art and online experiences. Still it is sufficiently portal-like to beg the question of whether AEN, or something like it, could develop a sizable group of regular visitors. In its current form, visitors to AEN are unlikely to return frequently because it was not designed to offer many of the most popular portal services, such as "buddy chat" and free email. Having already acknowledged by its very title the blurring of art and entertainment, is it surprising to consider a further hybridization with popular Internet services? It might be that an AEN would be more important if it could cast off its subaltern status, becoming more of an everyday starting point and less of a seasonal exhibition.

Even so, this rowdy portal is praiseworthy. While most portals are featuring content that will yield advertising revenue, AEN demonstrates an alternative model that emphasizes interesting links to remote sites. Unless one favors a culture of infomercials, portals should be comprised of links to other places -- not to content featured through marketing contracts or owned by the same corporation that owns the portal. As AEN's chief architect, Steve Dietz, has put it:

The "network museum" will be about the passionate points of view it can connect up, not, primarily, what it owns.
By the same token, the best news site on the Internet may be the non-profit Common Dreams Newscenter, which exercises fair use disclaimers to gather a wide variety of stories from various wire services.

All the fine words about rhizome structures aside, centers are emerging in Web space and both museums and artists must negotiate how close they will be to centers of attention. Statistics suggest that most people are beginning their online travels from one of a few places -- Yahoo!, primarily. And there is little reason to believe that recent media mergers and emerging Web/television systems will reverse this trend.

Despite the hackneyed navigation metaphor, there are few means of mid- and long-range foresight when traversing Web space. The space is symbolic and marketing now plays a substantial role in determining which symbols are prominent. Outside of cyberspace museums have more stature. At least in the cities, they stand proudly beside libraries and shopping malls. But online, when people begin their travels at the portals, the arts are hierarchically within or beneath the commercial exterior. It's as though the address of the museum -- and indeed all art and artists -- could be traced to the interior of the mall.

This is not to romanticize the epistemological superiority of museums, which Hans Haacke has called "managers of consciousness." After all, commercial search engines continue to deliver plenty of visitors to independent sites like Artcontext, whereas American contemporary art museum Web sites are more likely to sport links to the Intel or Deutsche Bank homepage. Although the ontological biases reflected in the various portal designs are often alarming, the onion-like hierarchical envelopment of subordinate categories is sometimes only subtly coercive. Other times active research is futile because the contents of the database are deficient. Not all databases are created equal. Appraisal of the various portals should involve, ultimately, consideration of the software, algorithms, and human reason used to establish, maintain, and reveal data. While this may not sound like the province of aesthetics, the arts will suffer if relevant decision-making is ceded to technocrats and corporate functionaries.

In an effort to spotlight the contours of the public sphere that is taking shape, both in software and the imagination, I have recently made an interactive artwork that deconstructs the "maps" that portal sites are providing for Web users. Responding to the popular desire to visualize the Internet, CultureMap offers a simple graphic presentation of search engine "hit" totals. Although these numerical totals are not a strictly objective measure of Web content, they are obtained using automated and impartial collection software. At the crossroads of abstraction, representation, and scientific visualization, the CultureMap appeals to popular fascination, while at the same time attempting to provide clear and useful indications of the character of the Web. It is an image system capable of assuming many shapes in response to the development of new content and the disappearance of old content from the Web.

With the Internet changing so fast, and given its enormous real and potential power, it is unwise for would-be cultural leaders to ignore the network's emerging characteristics. The Internet's future potential is closely related to people's conceptions and misconceptions about the network today. Fredric Jameson has written:

Whatever the historical truth of the hypothesis about the cybernetic revolution, it is enough to register a widespread belief in the populations of the First World states, for such a belief to constitute a social fact of the greatest importance, which cannot be dismissed as sheer error. (A Cultural Turn. Verso, 1998. p.172.)
Even as the Internet is being misrepresented, co-opted for marketing, and retrofitted to suit corporate imperatives, there remains a euphoria about its boundless potential and the diversity of its content. Consent to media mergers, monopolies, and imposed technical standards, has its foundation in these beliefs about the evolution of media. In the absence of suitable metaphors -- fueled by Hollywood, hype, and alarmist reporting -- the popular imagination of the Internet is charged with illusions. The mounting complexity of visualizing and measuring the Internet lends power to this imaginative dimension.

Although mapping Web content is both subjective and complicated, CultureMap reminds us that provisional observations can be made. The Web is not an immutable object; rather it is a symbolic system in constant flux. Notwithstanding the similarity of the dominant portals, the Internet has qualities that they obscure. Artists can work in modes that contribute to a popular understanding of the new digital media. Considering the important role such media now play in the formation of social ideas, values, and expectations, it is reasonable that artists and intellectuals concern themselves with how people find information. Despite their present visibility, there is no guarantee the best of what is now online will be easy to find in the future.

Proto-portals like AEN, Turbulence, Subvertise, as well as's (former) netart map, demonstrate ways of featuring independently produced online art. Perhaps none of them will evolve into a heavily used portal. However, having seen the rapid emergence of free operating systems, and having seen the World Wide Web itself appear quite unexpectedly, one can imagine many hundreds or thousands of artists contributing to Free Art Portals. In societies accustomed to a constant stream of fresh media offerings, a well organized effort would be necessary to compete with the richer commercial portals, some of which already evoke the specter of art-free culture. Probably these artless centers can be pushed, at least a little, to the margins.


© 2000 Andy Deck