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Web Art Gets a Foot in Museum Door


In the days of dot matrix printers, some of the more patient people on the planet spent hours sculpting blocks of ASCII text to look like . . . well, the rest of us were never quite sure.

Digital art has come a long way since then. The Web has spawned dozens of sites devoted to interactive art of amazing complexity and subtlety--work created solely to be displayed online.

Like much about this still-evolving medium, art on the Internet is a long way from being clearly defined. Pieces range from cartoon strips to "digital minimal operas" to "Jodi" (, which apparently is software code presented solely for its aesthetic value. Hmmm.

Many pieces of Web art are little more than showy displays of multimedia wizardry, and others are utterly incomprehensible. So far, there doesn't seem to be much of a commercial market for Web art, meaning most artists are doing Web site design and other work to pay the rent.

But Web art does appear to be gaining a measure of legitimacy. Museums such as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis have begun acquiring pieces of Web art for their permanent collections. Displaying the works remains a problem for San Francisco MOMA, however, because the computers crash a lot, according to Aaron Betsky, the museum's curator of architecture and design.

But Betsky and others are optimistic. Asked if there's a Warhol of the Web waiting to be discovered, Betsky replied: "I'm sure of it. And it might happen quicker than you think. There's a lot of creativity winding its way into the electro-sphere."

Many of the museum's acquisitions aren't art sites but copies of commercial sites with striking visual imagery. These include the online magazine, and the work of San Francisco design firm Razorfish (

The pieces at Razorfish range from the serious to the frivolous, with the latter best exemplified by an interactive story about a character named Rabbit Rat, "a freedom fighter, part cockroach, part rat, part unruly squirrel and sneaky cat." The phony black- and-white photos of Rabbit Rat making his escape from a museum are hilarious.

One of the leading hothouses for Web art is, the online sibling of Wired magazine until that publication was sold earlier this year. Hotwired's RGB Gallery at opened last year and has carried 10 exhibits.

Unlike most online galleries, RGB pays artists about $1,000 for their submissions. Exhibits change about every six weeks. The latest is called "The Site of Hours" and is supposed to be a meditation on time, although the artist's message was lost on me.

As an artistic medium, the Web isn't nearly as accessible as plain old canvas. Many exhibits take forever to download and require plug-ins or browser accessories that many Net surfers will have to download and configure. But sometimes there is a reward for the trouble.

Some of my favorite Web art is at a site called the Remedi Project, a compilation of works from digital designers that can be found at One exhibit is like an endless postcard, with images of San Francisco rooftops scrolling across the screen under words from the artist.

Another piece, called Ultra-Clean, is a satire of television ads for household cleansers. "Look, extra cleaning bubbles!" it exclaims, offering images of a spray bottle aimed directly at the viewer and then a pink sponge the viewer can drag across the screen with the click of the mouse. While retro music jingles, a disclaimer warns that the product has been shown to cause side effects including nosebleeds, irregular heartbeat and kidney failure.

A pioneering Web art site was, which was nominated for two Webbie awards (like the Oscars for the Internet) before the site's funding from America Online ran out earlier this year. The site is still there to be viewed but isn't being updated.

Vivian Selbo, a New York artist who helped maintain the site, said it has been acquired by the Walker museum and will be "cryogenically preserved." Perhaps someday historians will look back on such pieces as the beginnings of a glorious new artistic age. Or maybe they'll just wonder what kind of drugs these artists were taking.

Times staff writer Greg Miller can be reached via e-mail at

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