Words and Pictures
Potatoland and Turnstile II turn them inside out
Glen Helfand, Special to SF Gate
Tuesday, July 22, 1999
Image overload seems to be the prime artistic phenomenon of the late 1990s. No particular visual trend has dominated the art world in this strangely pluralistic moment, so it makes sense that the most compelling and surprising artists are those who can grapple with and make sense of the many words and pictures we're constantly bombarded with.
Of course, the Internet is the quintessential venue for this turn-of-the-century approach to visual art. The Web is a vast and relatively untapped resource where artists can mine their inspirations, find unending supplies of source material and exhibit the processed results to a world-wide audience. It's a sea of visual information available to be reconfigured in collage form, tweaked with a few digital retouching tools, and used to make pertinent cultural commentary.
I recently landed on a couple of sites that manage to generate a little jolt of transgressive surprise as they use the more salient qualities of the Internet to reveal its ominous underside. Potatoland.org and Turnstile II both mine the rich, limitless pools of Internet data to separate form from content.
In the process, they break down the smooth facade of coherence that websites present to the world and reveal the more fluid inner structures. They make this virtual zone a bit less comfortable, but a lot more alive.
Potatoland.org is the splashier, more extroverted of these sites. It features a range of tools, many designed and programmed by Mark Napier, that function as virtual image appliances. The most recent of those available is called Riot, and it's essentially a collage generator.
It uses decontexualized, reconfigured elements from your three most recently visited websites, or that you've entered into the mix yourself, and turns them into oddly appealing visual compositions. For instance, the screen might first be wallpapered with repeating Yahoo! sunglasses, overlaid with unanchored Adult Check signatures, award seals or photographs of vintage ice cream scoopers up for e-auction. Click on any of the floating hypertext links, and a whole new configuration will begin to assemble itself.
The resulting abstract image fields in Riot may initially seem devoid of content, but it's a far more ripe and robust project than it first appears. The raw materials, and the mediated structure of the Internet itself, have deeper cultural meaning. What we find on the Web embodies dreams of a place where we can all get together, a democratic universe to which (nearly) everyone has access.
The Web is emblematic of our trust in technology as an economic and social savior. We believe in what we can see, but on the Internet, images are malleable, and as a site like this demonstrates, most anyone can go in and chip away at seemingly monolithic visions. When the mixtures of banner ads, government reports and personal declarations are taken as a jumbled whole, meaning falls apart. More becomes less. The void is revealed.
After all, what is all this information when it's not formatted and arranged by the more personal vision of a garden variety Webmaster or artist? Often it's just trash. The Digital Landfill, another element in the Potatoland arsenal, allows anyone to dump unwanted visual scrap into a fetid pit of electronic information.
In the Landfill you'll find layers of images -- often visceral or perversely sexual -- and texts -- crass advertising, outdated but often hilarious bbs postings -- with corresponding URLs listed to their left. Here again, information is layered, words atop pictures atop words in an immediate archeology of Web fare and the fickleness of our online interactions.
Poking through the contents of the Landfill is something like being a private detective looking for evidence in somebody's rubbish. If nothing else, the piece poses the mind-boggling idea of imagining your own desktop trash can as a compost heap. But does this fetid archive turn into something nourishing or is it just useless information?
There's nothing particularly groundbreaking about the visual aesthetic of the Riot or Digital Landfill screens. The energetic jumble of seemingly unconnected images and text, of various sized letters obscuring the meaning of words with over-printing, resemble any number of contemporary art works that critique media. They often echo the look of familiarly "edgy" television commercials with animated graphics.
What makes these pages interesting then is the smooth, automated, arbitrary manner in which the hybrid images are created. The programs harness a fraction of the digital cacophony by breaking down electronic walls between a few information channels.
It becomes a kind of Warholian painting machine: there's no such thing as a masterpiece in a culture so saturated with images. These programs make their point with a slick electronic seamlessness while totally eradicating the artist's hand. We don't typically approach these types of projects looking at the label to see if they're a Picasso.
Turnstile II, a project featured on the StadiumWeb art site, is a more elegant and literary deconstruction of Web space. Artist Maciej Wisniewski manages to bring an added layer of poignancy to the Potatoland approach by narrowing the focus and paring down the visual presentation. The site features a live scrolling text culled from random sites with an XML (Extensive Markup Language) application that functions like a directed search engine.
"An endless ream of 'content' is generated by the live culling of network 'objects' from HTML pages, live chat, email to telephone calls, faxes and incoming mail," reads the explanatory forward. The program looks for some rather resonant keywords like love and loneliness and pulls random lines from appropriate Web pages, freeing them from their visual entrapments.
The resulting, hypnotic text streams read like multi-lingual William S. Burroughs cut-up language or the results of some chance system created by avant garde composer John Cage. A sample few lines:
"Bad Want Ads Click Here!
It was September masturbate bigest [sic] and it as hell outside
Eyes like an infant staring me down
She'll take anything that's tied up in my glorious
De avklippta lockarna
I only want bad things for the world."
Click on any line and another Web browsing screen will appear, revealing the source pages. Often they turn out to be prosaic places like idahonews.com, goofy bbs sites or fetishistic sex pages.
No matter how crass these URLs or how tangential the love and loneliness content may be, Wisniewski focuses our attention on the hint of ennui that lurks beneath the surface layer of its presentation. The words are far more compelling out of their original context than in them.
It's that quality of pulling back and urging Web surfers to reconsider the implication of the standard, consensual rules for visual presentation on the 'Net that makes both of these sites so bracing. At the same time, the added layer of the Internet as social space, a place where commercial and interpersonal interaction takes place, nudges this kind of work into a new art arena.
The artists who create these projects carry the quotidian tenets of pop art, the self-referential, appropriated strategies of postmodernism, and the global impulses that currently beat through every cultural product to a new kind of practice that embraces everything as fair in the game of contemporary art.
Obviously these aren't the only sites that fit into this rich, developing arena of art out of overload. (The Web-crumbling Jodi.org is the classic example.) Part of the art form is the way these projects find their audiences. The network of people who actively pass along URLs for more challenging sites furthers the evolving process of these sites.
To that end, consider yourself a patron of the arts and please forward any like-minded URLs to the accompanying email address. The more the merrier.
Glen Helfand is a freelance writer, critic, and curator. His writing on art, culture and technology has appeared in The Bay Guardian, Wired, Limn, Salon, Travel and Leisure and nest.