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published: April, 2002

© Archives & Museum Informatics, 2002.
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MW2002: Papers

Internet: a dynamic, living archive of digital art?

Dew Harrison, Digital Media Research Centre, University of the West of England, UK



The acceleration in the use of the Internet as a platform for the production, showcasing and archiving of Digital Art is now evidenced by the number of sites out there. This developing art form, generated by rapid advances in new media and digital technology, provides a challenge to the researcher studying the field.  In particular there are issues for both curator and practitioner concerning temporality, aesthetics, audience and exhibition.

Through the AHRB funded 'Digital Arts Curation and Practice' project, virtual exhibitions have been curated at the Digital Cafe of the Watershed Media Centre, Bristol, which have confirmed the Internet as a successful medium for both presenting new works and archiving curated on-line exhibitions.  In particular the Net_Working on-line exhibition, 20-29 November 2001, highlighted the problems of curating such works on a large scale. 

Net_Working was an exhibition of Web works by national and international artists available to view online @ http://www.dshed.net/networking and on the large screen in the Digital Cafe at the media centre. The exhibition showed over 300 Web works covering all forms of artistic practice on the Web with submissions coming from places as far flung as Latvia, Thailand, Brazil and California.  This exhibition was presented at the CHArt annual conference at the British Academy, UK, 28 November 2001, and was further discussed in interviews with contributing artists from the South West UK region, through on-line chat arenas and through live link-up between exhibiting artists and delegates at the 4th International Conference of Modern Technology and Processes for Art, Media and Design in Bangkok, 28 November 2001.

Net_Working has facilitated the opportunity for researchers to fully interrogate the Internet as a live archive of activity in the digital arts. This paper concerns the organization, categorization, presentation, evaluation and analysis involved in the curation of  'Net-Working' from selection criteria to methods of presentation. There is  particular focus on the diversity of work apparent in this global exhibition. The paper will further discuss curatorial projects that have developed from this event, the problems of archiving and accessing involved, and how the media centre itself has developed new strategies for the presentation and introduction of on-line work to its visitors. These are all examples contributing to our understanding of changes taking place in the curation and practice of Digital Art.

Keywords: Internet, digital art, online exhibitions, curation, new media, archiving


It is the capacity of the electronic computer to encode a vast variety of information digitally that has given it such a central place within contemporary culture...artists love making and playing with the materials of culture, it was only a matter of time before they got their hands on the computer.
(Peter Lunenfeld, in Lunenfeld, 2000)

Museums, galleries and media centres have long been aware of the cultural investment apparent in putting their exhibitions online.  Artists realize that a URL for their work is accessible to 20 million people worldwide on the Web where space and time are collapsed, permitting interactive multimedia pieces to travel across thousands of miles and through international time-zones in seconds (or at least minutes).  With 40 million people keyed into the Internet, they can expect a huge audience with more exposure than any traditional gallery can offer unless they also provide an Internet platform.  Such a platform is not only for showcasing artifacts and objects 'on' the net , but also for bringing curated virtual exhibitions of works created 'in' the net to a public space.  The Internet is where artists are using a new medium as an integral part of their practice, and curators are being challenged to support and facilitate this.

The Digital Media Research Centre (DMRC) at the University of the West of England, Bristol, has been active in researching this aspect of digital art curation and practice through a 2-year project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Board (AHRB).  An established working partnership with the Watershed Media Centre (http://www.watershed.co.uk).  Bristol has provided this research with an arena for promoting and evaluating new media events, work-in-progress, and on-line exhibitions.  The Watershed began as a centre for showing film, video installations and photographic exhibitions and has now expanded into non-linear media and on-line work.  In November, 2000, the Digital Café was created as a physical space for showing interactive multimedia on a large screen together with 6 Apple Mac computers in an informal setting.  This new space has enabled artists and curators to enter into a direct dialogue with the public, which has informed the analysis and evaluation of the working processes involved in new media.  Research findings were then fed back to the Watershed and the Digital Café space altered accordingly to better fit both audience needs and working practice, where the focus is now on process rather than outcomes and exhibition.  An example of this cause and effect development is the Clark's Bursary for Digital Art.

Clark Bursary for Digital Art

The DMRC has been closely involved with the development of the Clark's Bursary for Digital Art since its inception in 1997 and has observed and documented the process, feeding the analysis and research outcomes back to the Watershed for implementation.  The bursary was formed with the aim of providing the opportunity for creative development in the production of new work in digital media; it is open nationally in the UK, but proposed projects should have relevance to the South West  region and be socially resonant.  The bursary is now entering its fourth year and is currently in the process of supporting four smaller projects which are to be undertaken throughout 2002 -2003.  A full report can be read on http://www.media.uwe.ac.uk/dml_frameset1.html

It has become evident over the researched span of the bursary to date that the emphasis for the creation and support of digital art has shifted from the production of outcomes and artifacts to research and development.  The intent of the bursary is to further the artist/s own practice, perhaps expanding into new media for the first time, and it is now understood that this may result in an event, or series of events, instead of the creation of an art object.  The Digital Café is a platform for these artists to engage the interest of the public and show their work in progress.  They are also encouraged to run workshops and seminars to expand interest and help their new audience to 'read' digital art while promoting and enriching their own work. The Watershed now provides both a 'lab culture'of technical support and, through the Digital Café, audience/user feedback in the creative process.  Thus it continues to develop its production and screening facilities to offer the artist dynamic user feedback and to offer the audience the chance to witness and contribute to the creative process.

The working method of  'lab' culture is now evident in many media centres and organizations where technicians work with artists to produce new work; however it is becoming evident that the most fruitful combination is where the technicians are artists in their own right and act as collaborators or co-authors rather than dispassionate programmers.  Centres of good practice which can be exampled here are PVA Org in Dorset and Hull Time-Based Arts.

On-line Exhibitions

The Digital Café has now been established as a main arena in the UK for showing on-line work.  This work is mainly that of the artists working on-site and the work collated through the curated international online exhibitions.  The first of these exhibitions was the 'Exchange Online' exhibition, 20 - 28 November 2000, curated by a DMRC research fellow to accompany the 'Exchange 2000' conference on research in art, media and design, 2 - 3 November 2000.  This virtual gallery of on-line work was the first large screening of on-line digital art work held at the Digital Café.  It was a small scale exhibition of 12 Web sites selected from 18 international submissions, a response to the 'call' for art work sent over the Web and by e-mail. There was the required selection panel of appropriate referees and a set of 5 selection criteria from which work was graded from 1 – 5.   The final number of choices was substantial, but small enough to be archived on 1 CD-ROM.  All the work could be viewed in one long, sitting equivalent to an afternoon spent viewing a conventional art gallery exhibition,  and the single front screen of 12  text URL choices did not tax the viewer too severely. Please see http://www.media.uwe.ac.uk/exchange2000/exhibition/

One year later the process was repeated in order to curate an on-line exhibition - 'Net_Working' - again at the Watershed's Digital Café to accompany the CHArt 2000 conference held at the British Academy (http://www.dshed.net/networking).  It is the difference in the curation methods and processes undertaken for each of these two exhibitions, determined by their variance in scale and range of practice, which will now be discussed.  It is intended that this comparison will indicate the challenge curators face when dealing with on-line work and will highlight the steep growth in the number of artists engaging with the Internet as a new media for their practice.   The organization, categorization and presentation undertaken for Net_Working is still in the process of analysis and evaluation.  Net_Working is now seen as an archive for further investigation.

Within a week of putting out the 'call' for work on 25th September across the Web, there were over 150 submissions The 'call' went out to media centres, artist organisations, networks and individuals.  The most lucrative places reaching the most artists are:  Rhizome.org which has an international following, Turbulence which covers USA and Canada and Rezone which serves Eastern Europe, however all those contacted have mailing lists and websites with a global audience..  By the deadline of 12th November, there were well over 300.  There are four possible reasons for this escalation in submissions of Web works for an online exhibition:

  • Further research within the year between the 'Exchange Online' and 'Net_Working' exhibitions had targeted the main Web sites where artists browse for announcing the 'call'
  • The announcement was timely, late September, post the summer break when people are eager to begin work again;
  • The exhibition title and theme was phrased well-enough to engage interest;
  • There has been a surge of net activity by artists within the last year.

A combination of all of the above is most likely although the greater weight must lie in the latter two.  It is evident that there has been an acceleration of artists using new media within their practice and the Internet can now support most elements of new media e.g. video, animation, sound, text, image manipulation, communication and artificial life forms.  Engaging interest without being over deterministic is difficult, the theme needed to be open, flexible, slightly ambiguous and intriguing enough to catch a diversity of practice.  The final call for work was as follows:

"* *  Net_Working  * *

Online but non-linear meshed and inter-linked net works for the Net. Collaborated clusters of single entities, caught in the Web where medium is content.

Trawling for content with Net works which are: collaborative, co-operative, interlinked, conversational, human, supportive, interdependent, organic, inclusive, expansive, joining, connecting, uniting, enriching..."

The surge in Net Art

The term 'Net-art' is difficult and damning in that it implies a flash aesthetic where style rules over content and all viewers have an attention span of 5 seconds; it still suffers from the stigma of nineties 'eye-candy'.   However, technological advances in hard and software, plug-ins and downloads have enabled the net to support a wide range of forms of art practice from video documentaries to artificial life.  'Net-art' is now too narrow a term to encompass the diversity of art forms apparent on the Internet.  Electronic Art Festivals such as ISEA and Ars Electronica have included on-line Net-art within their remit from its beginnings, and electronic art has an established place in 20th Century art practice.  Popper, in his book Art of the Electronic Age   (1993) traces this form of art practice from the Industrial Revolution and its influence on technical innovation, for example - William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement - through Futurism, Dadaism, Constructivism, Marcel Duchamp, Kinetics and Cybernetic art to the present.  He then states 7 sources from which contemporary technological art has drawn its inspiration:

  • Photography and Cinematography
  • Conceptual Art and Land Art
  • Light Art
  • Kinetic Art
  • Calculated and programmed art
  • Cybernetic Art
  • Electronic  Art

Out of these perhaps Conceptual art sounds out of place, with no direct connection to electronics and therefore computers, but with its intellectual and information aspects it could be aligned with the understanding of the computer as augmenting human intellect.  Here a line can be traced back to Duchamp and his promotion of idea over visual aesthetic.  Christine Tamblyn, 1990, argues in her paper 'Computer Art as Conceptual Art'  that computers were designed to augment mental processes as opposed to being visual or manual aids and that using the computer as a drawing tool limited its capabilities when compared to the postmodern attitude represented by artists extending  the purview of conceptual art.

The html coding which builds the Internet sites and interlinks those sites into a global communication network has developed from an initial idea in the 1930s.  The vision of Vannevar Bush, stated in his article 'As We May Think' in 1945 (Bush, 1945) was of the 'Memex' machine. This was to be an analogue machine built of cumbersome valves, levers and photocells.   It would have taken the form of a glass box , a desk with a desktop of images, texts and other notes contained within and shown on request as an aid to supplement the memory of writers and researchers. Memex was to be a machine performing information retrieval by association (in hypertext, a link).  It was to process selection by association rather than by indexing.  Bush based this idea on his understanding that the human mind was not confined by the classification and categorization of information archived in libraries etc., but worked in a different way and could be emulated mechanically to produce a useful tool - his 'Memex' machine.

The human mind does not work that way but by association.  With one fact or idea ‘in its grasp’ the mind snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by the association of thoughts in accordance with some intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the brain. 
(Bush, 23)     

Bush proposed the notion of blocks of text joined by links, and used terms such as 'links', 'trails', and 'web'.  His ideas influenced Douglas Engelbart who produced the 'Augment' system with the intention of amplifying human intellect, networked machines and the mouse.  He also influenced Ted Nelson who coined the term 'hypertext'.  These pioneers together with Tim Berners-Lee and his World Wide Web programme of HTML in 1991 have given us a new medium for contemporary conceptual art work.

The Internet, a sub-heading to Electronic Art, can be understood as just another tool that artists can use or as a medium integral to their particular thinking and practice. As technology has advanced to the point where the Web can support most forms of new media and contemporary art practice including all of Popper's sources listed above, the current surge in Internet work begins to make sense.

Curation and online exhibition

The wealth of submitted work for the Net_Working exhibition changed the curation methods applied previously for smaller on-line exhibitions such as the Exchange 2000 Online Exhibition.  These methods had been adapted from curation in the traditional terrestrial galleries where a panel of 'experts' would apply a set of selection criteria to the submitted works.  For example, the selection criteria for the Exchange 2000 show was

  • Visual aesthetic;
  • Depth of content;
  • Level of Engagement;
  • Originality;
  • Extent of furthering research/practice;
  • Ease of access and functionality.

For an exhibition on the scale of over 300 works, any selection criteria would have had to narrow down the choices to the point of negating perfectly good pieces of work in different forms, whereas an open submission based on the theme would sustain the diversity of new media practice now apparent on the Internet.  Having made a decision in favour of open submissions, the exhibition organizers (a team of five consisting of two UWE researchers, the Watershed events organiser, a new media artist and a Digital Café technician) then faced the challenge of how the exhibition was to be viewed.  How do you present 300 pieces of work on one monitor screen?  Few Net-artists are well known in the art world, with the possible exceptions of JODI, Mongrel, Craighead and Atkinson and a handful of others.  They are not so 'personality' driven as artists using more traditional media, preferring instead the anonymity of the Web and the temporary, ephemeral status of work on the net.  (Although this is beginning to change as Web art gains more of a foothold in the art scene).  Therefore searching by name would not be sufficient.

We approached this problem by investigating the nature of on-line art, concluding that:

  • Work on the Web is often intended to be short-lived and not realized as a piece to be permanently on show in a gallery or collection.
  • Time on a server may be limited.
  • Dynamic, generative work is difficult or impossible to archive if it only exists in a live state.
  • Interactive work requires a viewer to interact with, in order for it to exist in its live state.
  • A work only exists when the computer is turned on: if the URL is not well known or promoted, the work will not be seen.
  • Downloads and plug-ins are often required to experience the work fully.
  • From previous events it was evident that our exhibition viewer would be interested in
  • The type of work, whether documentary or animation etc.,
  • Where it originated from, country, culture etc., is important
  • Who created it, an individual, organization, team of specialists etc., must be clear
  • What the piece is about, content, narrative etc. is significant

The exhibition team of five organizers then took sixty sites each and proceeded to explore the options for accessing numerous Internet sites from the interface of a single screen, considering the above points. The team was to check each site for functionality, speed and ease of access, viewing time and pace of engagement.  They also took note of the content and form of the work on show.  These observations would both assist the interface design for the exhibition and feed further research into the challenge of on-line curating.

They agreed that providing the viewer with many methods of accessing the work presented was preferable to offering only one, and the exhibition can now be accessed through several choices:category; image; content; artist's name; title of piece and country of origin.

Collating this very specific information meant opening a dialogue with 150 artists in order to obtain the following within the time limit of one week:

Title of work; name of artist/s involved; country of origin; 200 word statement; descriptive sentence and a 100 pixel square 72 dpi jpeg image.

The artists were also asked to declare a category for their work.  It was necessary here to explain that this was clearly for reasons of navigation and not for 'labeling' purposes.  Where argument was expected, there was only support.  Artists engaged with the Internet as exhibition platform understand well the difficulties of interface and access.  The artists were offered a list of possible categories to select from and of course were able to extend this to more aptly 'catch' their work:

text/poetry; game; web narrative; documentary; film/video; sound; hacktivism; gallery; other.

Further categories have been added of

portfolio; organization; log/journal and multi-user domains.

Many chose the 'other' category; this may require further definition and discussion.

What we were in fact building was a database.  We were designing a retrieval interface screen for an information collection stored electronically.  Lev Manovich asserts in his paper 'Database as a Symbolic Form', 1998, that all Web site designers are actually designing databases. 

The rise of the Web, this gigantic and always changing data corpus, gave millions of people a new hobby or profession: data indexing.  There is hardly a Web site which does not feature at least a dozen links to other sites, therefore every site is a type of database.          

A database is a form of archive, but the Internet cannot offer digital preservation for long,. Servers go down, software and hardware platforms change, but the most difficult obstacle here concerns the nature of the database content.  Many artists choose the medium of the Internet for their work because of the temporality and ephemerality and ambiguity involved.  They prefer not to be categorized and classified; their sites are restricted to a life-span which they have set and which is integral to the work.  The work is a patch of generative algorithms which are triggered by the viewer logging on and are only alive when interaction takes place.  Any art database/online exhibition held on the Internet has to remain dynamic and open to change through the very nature of the content it contains.  All curators can do is to gather clusters of sites/work together into a database for a space of time.  The back-up archive for Net_Working is in process now.  Over 300 CD-ROMs have been sent out to the relevant artists with the hope that they will be able to return them with their work on and functioning.

The timespan of one week in which to build the site was (predictably) unrealistic, and artists continue to submit information.  During the 10-day large screening of the exhibition at the Digital Café, work was constantly put on-line as the support material came in.  E-mail was the fast, direct communication channel between artists, the curation team, and interested parties.  The dialogue begun in this format was extended to a live chat arena on the Web.  This event was to exist between 7.00 - 9.00pm on 26 November 2001; in effect the public forum continued throughout that night, allowing for different time-zones and the obvious need for artists to communicate about their evolving form of practice.  The archive from this will feed further research into on-line curation.

Other events organized to enable artists to contribute to the discourse concerning practice in new media were:

An opening event of presentations and discussion on 20 November 2001 to which there was a good turnout of the local artists involved in Net_Working.  This was well attended by the public and again was archived for future research;

A live link-up between delegates from the 4th International Conference on Modern Technology and Processes in Art, Media and Design held in Bangkok and a contingent of Net_Working artists at the Watershed,  28 November 2001, 10.00 -11.30am (Bristol)/4.00 - 5.30pm (Bangkok).

These two events, together with the opening evening and the presentation of this paper at the CHArt annual conference, has brought the 10-day exhibition much attention and it is envisaged that further focus on Net_Working will be given through a series of smaller exhibitions relating to the separate categories identified here.  It is crucial that all the submitted work is seen and appreciated as a significant array of the range and diversity of digital art practice, and if this is achieved, it will be inevitable that this exhibition will be understood as a curated database of the living, dynamic archive that is the Internet.  It is hoped that Net_Working will provide researchers with a fruitful case study for further research into both curation and practice in the field of digital art and new media.


Bush, V. (1945). As We May Think. Atlantic Monthly. 176 (1) July pp.641-649

Lunenfeld, P. (2000). (Ed.) The Digital Dialectic: new essays on new media. The MIT Press.

Manovich, L. (1998). Database as a Symbolic Form. Accessed January, 2002. http://www.manovich.net/

Popper, F. (1993). Art of the Electronic Age. Pub. Thames and Hudson.
Tamblyn, C. (1990). Computer Art as Conceptual Art. Art Journal. Fall, p.253.

Tamblyn, C. (1990). Computer Art as Conceptual Art. Art Journal. Fall pp.253-256