updated 8:05 a.m. 21.May.99.PDT
Web Museum, Yes, But Is It Art?
by Reena Jana
As Web artists struggle for recognition from their "real-world" peers, the one museum dedicated to the medium seems to avoid the avant-garde.
America's most reputable arts institutions, from the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis to New York's Guggenheim Museum, are clearly dedicated to collecting and showcasing Web art online. The fledgling, Internet-based Museum of Web Art -- also known as MOWA -- is not so forward thinking.
When it first went live in late 1997, the Museum of Web Art showcased simple designs of interface buttons and digital wallpaper. Glaring omissions included hypertext novels, mutated interfaces, and complex animations by cutting-edge, internationally recognized Web artists such as Shu Lea Chang or Jodi.org.
"So many sites break the boundaries from the real world," said Museum of Web Art founder Amy Stone, referring to sites run by museums like the Walker Art Center and the Guggenheim. Stone is a Los Angeles-based Web designer.
"Our goal was to create a comfortable place where visitors don't have to be challenged on every level, where they don't have to rethink their whole philosophy of life. Web art can be intimidating, especially if someone is new to witnessing this medium," Stone said.
While art critics, curators, and art historians devise nontraditional venues to present the new paradigm of Web art to the public, MOWA -- ironically -- still uses an interface that mimics the physical space of a traditional museum.
One segment of the site is a "wing," another is a "hall." The icon linking to information resembles a stack of paper brochures supplied at a physical museum's information desk. And visitors access MOWA's "exhibitions" by clicking on what appear to be hallways leading to galleries whose virtual walls display the Web art on view.
While it does feature the complex, expressionistic interactive piece "Millennium Diary" by the artist Giga, today's MOWA still casts a spotlight on rudimentary utilitarian designs such as wallpaper.
Its newest exhibition, which opened at the beginning of this month, is entitled Wallpaper Too and includes some witty animated pieces, such as Thomas James Allen's "Drive," a satellite-eye view of a network of traffic-filled streets.
Stone said that the current exhibition has a new, controversial component that will spark a needed dialogue between Web artists and audiences alike.
"The debate raised is over the usability of animated backgrounds in Web sites," said Stone. "Only the newest browsers will support them, which means not everyone can access them. But should artists' hands ever be tied by the limitations of the society viewing it? Certainly not."
Aaron Betsky, curator of architecture, design, and digital projects at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, agreed.
"Of course artists should not be obligated to make all their work available to everyone. They may wish to do so, but an artist can also choose how, where, and when she or he will communicate," said Betsky. "Some artists refuse to show some of their work at all -- it has the form of a personal exploration."
At the same time, Betsky said that the real question raised by the Wallpaper Too exhibition at MOWA is whether it's Web art.
"I would say that it is closer to, well, kinetic wallpaper, something that belongs in the novelty section of a Web-based drugstore rather than in a museum," he said. "MOWA shows some excellent designs, but I am not sure I would visit this exhibition as if it was art."
Stone defines Web art as "anything created for the Web, with a function that must be Web-related." She said that the Wallpaper Too exhibition is art, "Because it has been created [as] Web decoration." Stone pointed out that museums traditionally have recognized decoration as art.
Ultimately, though, Web art is in the eye of the beholder.
"That's for people to decide for themselves, just like in the real world," Stone said.
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