New York Times

Web Works That Insist on Your Full Attention – New York Times

Web Works That Insist on Your Full Attention
Published: June 28, 2005

Rhizome, one of the premier platforms for Internet art, is taking stock of the last 10 years by selecting 40 of the 1,500 works from its online archive and exhibiting them in one small room at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, in its temporary quarters in Chelsea. The show, organized by Rhizome’s new executive director, Lauren Cornell, and its outgoing one, Rachel Greene, is called “Rhizome ArtBase 101.” You can also see much of it at

Putting on a summary show of Web art is an ambitious and risky thing to do. And indeed, one of the pieces in the exhibition serves as a kind of warning bell for such a project.

“Every Icon,” by John F. Simon Jr., is a grid made up of 1,024 teeny squares that can be either white or black. Watch it run and you will see every pattern that this grid could contain. Neat. “How long until recognizable images appear?” the artist asks helpfully. “Try several hundred trillion years.”

I don’t know about you, but I don’t have that kind of time. Which raises the question: what kind of art do you have time for? It’s a question that comes up over and over with art on the Web.

The 40 works in the show have been divided into 10 sections: Dirt Style, Net Cinema, Games, E-Commerce, Data Visualization and Databases, Online Celebrity, Public Space, Software, Cyberfeminism and Early Net Art. And for the museumgoer, some pieces have also been turned into eye-catching, but not all interactive, installations.

Each piece calls for a different kind of attention. Some wow you with their data crunching. Some try to make you politically aware, or at least wary. Others are just entertainments. Still, you’ll probably spend more time on any one piece here than most people would ever dream of spending in front of a Cézanne.

Certain works come right out and demand great gobs of your time. Overreaching is part of their charm.

“1 Year Performance Video,” by M. River and T. Whid Art Associates, asks that you “please watch for 1 year.” You will see “two artists living out 365 days in identical white rooms,” the site says; it’s an updating of “Sam Hsieh’s notorious ‘One Year Performance 1978-79,’ in which the artist isolated himself in a cage-like room for a year’s time.” In the new piece, you’re asked to put in as much time as the artists did.

That doesn’t mean you have to. Lots of pieces of online art loosen their grip on you once you get the point. And by the way, nearly every piece of online art does have a point.

Once you understand that “Nike Ground,” a proposed Swoosh monument in Vienna, is a hoax put on by the international art team, you can move on. (You don’t have to watch the video of the duped, outraged Viennese.) You can browse Damali Ayo’s “” site until you get the gist of the jest (corporate rate, $350/hour; calling someone “sister,” “sista,” “girlfriend” or “girl,” $150 a pop). And once you experience the online seductions of Prema Murthy’s “Bindigirl,” pressing little bindi dots to explore the goddess/whore duality, you’re free to leave.

Not all sites are so easy to exit. Some make you feel guilty about all the time and data that have gone into them. Others make you fear that you’ll miss something if you leave.

Amy Alexander’s work, “theBot,” which likes to complain about how hard it works – it keeps saying, “It’s not easy being a bot” – takes any search term you give it and robotically reads out quotes from its search, including a whole lot of http, slash-slash and www. You feel you should hear it out.

The same goes for Susan Collins’s “Fenlandia,” a site that tracks (at a rate of 60 pixels a minute) how one landscape in the Berkshires changes its appearance in real time. Don’t you think you should stick around until you see something, anything, move on the screen?

Thank goodness some online artists actually care about keeping things lively.

“The Secret Lives of Numbers,” by Golan Levin, has a compulsive pull. Feed it any number from 1 through 100,000, and it will tell you how popular that number is on the Internet and why. The number 900 is ranked 136, in large part because of 900 telephone numbers, the Saab 900 and the Ducati Monster 900 (a motorcycle). It easily beats 1650, which happens to be part of the name of a French ski resort and a laser printer, as well as the year Descartes died. One is the No. 1 number.

One of the big surprises of the show is that plot is still a great lure, even for online entertainments.

“The Intruder,” a game by Natalie Bookchin, uses plot as bait. To hear a short story by Jorge Luis Borges read out loud, you must progress through 10 levels of an arcade game. As soon as you master one level, you’re doled out a bit of plot while you play. Is it worth it? I don’t know. I was too busy shooting people and catching objects in a bucket to pay attention. The cognitive dissonance was memorable though.

“Super Smile,” created by a Korean duo, Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries, is easily the most propulsive object in the show. After a yellow and black smiley face swells to fill nearly the whole computer screen, a fast drumbeat drags you into a story told in all capital letters that crawl, nay, sprint, across the screen. Never mind that the story is a shaggy dog about a man who goes to work half naked. I dare you to leave before it’s over.

The most effective online works are at opposite ends of a time-grabbing spectrum. At one extreme are the big eaters. They won’t let go of you, and you don’t mind anyhow. At the other extreme are the quickies. You like them simply because they’re fast. You see the whole work, you get the whole point and you move on.

That is the appeal of “Flesh & Blood,” by the Internet persona Mouchette. You see a face smashed up against your computer screen. The tongue is out. The words on the screen inquire, “You want to know what my tongue tastes like?” Unless you’re up for licking your screen, you’re done here. It’s gross, but it’s fast.

Cory Archangel’s “Data Diaries” lets you quickly see what it looks and sounds like when your QuickTime player is tricked into reading the junk off your computer as a media file.

A flashing, buzzing graveyard of primitive, low-resolution animated animals, “extreme animalz: the movie: part 1,” created by the collective Paper Rad and Matt Barton, is instantaneously dazzling and nauseating. (By the way, the museum installation of this work, which includes real stuffed animals thrashing wildly and turning on spits once you approach, is fabulous, the hit of the show.) And no one will blame you for turning away from it after a few seconds.

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