Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Yeah, but is it art?

Many of you know that I am a big museumgoer. And this weekend was no exception: I managed to visit three excellent ones. One of them, the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, had a flyer about their upcoming video programming and that got me thinking about how we consume works of art in today's online world.

First off, I should tell you that I am not a very possessive and materialistic kind of guy. I don't like to have lots of things, other than books, and for the most part enjoy art for art's sake, for the opportunity to look at something unusual, beautiful, provocative, whatever. I haven't owned a lot of art works either: most of the time I enjoy seeing a picture or sculpture in a museum or gallery that I have seen a reproduction or read about, sort of like coming across an old friend that you haven't seen in a long time.

The museum's flyer mentioned a few works of art that are rather intriguing because they combine data visualization, virtual reality, 3D gaming environments and the Web into a new medium that leverages all of these but goes in a completely new direction. Most of the Web-based art that I have seen over the years is very static, drawing pretty pictures or using computer code to generate a series of images.

One show that I went to at New York's PS1 five years ago had some interesting uses of physics with art, but wasn't really about online works:

But when it comes to art that can only be viewed online, what is our role as art consumers? Should we want to "own" a copy, whatever that means? It is enough to have a URL that we can link to it, and hope that the link doesn't break over time? Should an artist maintain a server of his works, or encourage visitors to freely copy them? What happens when the software that supports the work becomes obsolete, or the hardware platform is no longer being manufactured? Should an artist attempt to use open source tools and methods so that others can modify, mashup, or extract his works? And what is really art, anyway? Dada dot com, here we go again.

As you can see, I had lots of questions, and not many answers. The notion about what are these new art forms started me to do some Web research about how visual artists are using the Internet today. Some of the early efforts involved using video games as a medium: the art form, as it were, was the artist as a director for the games' characters and creating new situations that were captured digitally.

But the really interesting stuff happens when you get an artist who knows how to program. An example of this is Sheldon Brown's Scalable City, which was shown earlier this year at San Francisco's Exploratorium (a truly wonderful place in its own right) and can be seen in this video online:

Jon Phillips, who is another artist-cum-programmer, talks about using the Creative Commons license to allow the public to freely modify his works. You gotta love an artist that on his blog ( publishes code to tweak his memory registers. He has begun an effort called, which sadly doesn't allow one to preview the clips very easily.

Not everything is about the visual arts either. John Keston's posts a new sound clip every day that will "inspire you, give you an idea or simply entertain" and the material is also CC licensed.

If you are in Kansas City on September 26, check out the evening lectures (Phillips will be there) at the Nelson-Atkins. I think you will find them interesting.

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About Me

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David Strom has looked at hundreds of computer products over a more than 20 year career in IT and computer journalism. He was the founding editor-in-chief of Network Computing magazine, and now writes for Baseline, Information Security, Tom's Hardware, and the New York Times.