BERKELEY, California — Whatever definition for art you hold dear, quality art often offers the viewer a chance to challenge that definition and a new means to look at the world. New perspectives are important: they disrupt our expectations, allowing for new ways of thinking, new dialogues, and new ideas. A particularly interesting genre of internet art offers the same possibility. Rather than the single URL-based work that links nowhere, works that embrace the internet’s networked structure allow us to engage and explore the internet in an entirely new way. These works give us new ways to browse.
Most recently, Japanese artist Akihiko Taniguchi created the “Big-Browser” (above) which allows you to surf the web at quite literally a new perspective. The completely interactive browser remains entirely functioning even while rotated and skewed. It looks as though it is made for someone just inside and to the right of your computer screen. Browsing the internet at this slightly new angle feels surprisingly awkward and foreign. Taniguchi’s work does ask a provocative question of the viewer: Why aren’t there more creative liberties taken in web design? In practice, however, “Big-Browser” is too weird to stand as a real replacement.
Another browser-based artwork is the classic “Google Gravity” by Mr. Doob (screenshot below; it does require Google Chrome to function). “Google Gravity” allows us to browse the most commonly used search engine in the world as it would be after physical gravity took its tole on the interface. The piece is a lighthearted ride but a short one. “Google Gravity” only shows the top four results on Google, and once you are off of the Google splash page, gravity returns back to its expected levels. I return to this work every so often just for a laugh; something is inexplicably hilarious about watching the omnipresent Google page falling apart at the seams.
Then there is All Too Flat’s new version of Google, Elgoog.im (Google spelled backwards) which, true to flipped name, allows one to explore Google as though it has been reflected in a mirror. Despite that brief laugh, this hard-to-navigate browser coincidentally offered a means for Chinese activists to bypass Chinese governmental firewalls, an unintended utilitarian use for what appears to be a one-liner. Of course, there is also the mirror-plus-gravity version of Google, that becomes nearly impossible to use. Maybe it was even better at breaking through Chinese censorship.
Art and technology collective Future Archaeology has taken the mirror concept further with “Moc.Elgoog”. This work was only realized briefly as a site specific rendition of Google that was available only to those viewers around Splatterpool Artspace in Brooklyn, NY during its showing. “Moc.Elgoog” not only flips the browser, but also inverts the search results, putting least relevant content at the top of the search engine. Probably not very useful as a tool (I would hate to see activists avoiding firewalls stoop to this level), the piece calls into question how value is determined and solidified by Google’s search algorithms. What important content are we missing by only looking at the first page of search results? How and who decided those results are the most important? These are important questions to ask as advertising companies seem to have the largest influence on Google and social media websites like Facebook and Twitter.
In a much more singular look at browsing habits, “I’m Here and There” is a 2011 work by Jonas Lund which allows one to watch, and if they choose, mimic the browsing habits of the artist in real time. The website simply displays the url that the artist is currently looking at, which is updated whenever the artist wanders to a new website. This provocative transparency is an aspect of browsing most of us do not want to embrace, and Lund’s commitment to it through this ongoing work is commendable in both its ideology and dedication.
I just spent some time following Lund’s travels through the internet, ranging from a YouTube video of Mounting a Tablet PC into a Computer Desk, to Twitter, to the Incredible Charts blog. The question arose in my mind: If I had found Lund watching porn while I was researching this article, would I have included that here? I’m not sure. Of course, he could simply go to a proxy site or open an Incognito window to browse whenever he doesn’t want the world to see.
Brad Troemel and Jonathan Vingiano’s new website “Surfcave” which was already covered on Hyperallergic by Kyle Chayka has taken what Lund started and made it social, focusing solely on images. This project is a study in transparency and an exploration of the visual environment of the internet. As a Surfcave user now, I have become more conscious of how my browsing habits might look to an outside viewer. I don’t want my Surfcave history to be filled with Facebook photographs of ex-girlfriends or something equally embarrassing. “Surfcave” gives me a slightly stronger sense of community while browsing, both in an act of sharing but also by being held liable to other members.
Of course, it’s not just the artists who have their hands in the mix. Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, and other sites are probably changing our browsing habits more than anything else. As more and more of us get our news from and share our own content through those social sites, how we move through the web has become an increasingly monolithic experience. I wake up daily and go through hundreds of images on my Tumblr, only wandering out of my dashboard if an image is engaging enough. I get much of my news from Facebook friends. Not only have I not owned a television or a had newspaper subscription for the past few years, I increasingly bypass online news sources, instead favoring recommendations I get from friends. As we’re increasingly stuck in our browsing habits, we need art sites like these to shake us out of our internet-induced stupor.