interesting article...

Lile Elam ((no email))
Tue, 28 Apr 1998 14:21:53 -0700 (PDT)

Webmasters, Not Old Masters
by Ian Christe

12:01pm 28.Apr.98.PDT

Shedding historical light on the
fast-changing and increasingly
commercialized process of online
design, the San Francisco Museum of
Modern Art will soon expand the
archive of Web sites held by its
department of Architecture & Design.
Next month, the museum's acquisition

committee is expected to add CD-ROMs
containing Razorfish Subnetwork and
at least one other site to its
permanent collection.

For the past year, offline versions
of the @tlas, Word, Speak, Funnel,
Adaweb, and Posttool Web sites have
been running in the SFMOMA gallery
on an appropriate design object, the
slick 20th Anniversary Macintosh.
Acquisition of Razorfish Subnetwork
will add a diverse handful of new
Web sites from the New York Web
publisher: Blue Dot, typoGRAPHIC,
Bunko!, This Girl, TheNvelope, and
Disinformation. Curators believe it
will better document work made using
Java technologies.

"Designers have moved into four
dimensions; they've added the
element of time," says SFMOMA's Thom
Semper. "We want to get there before
it becomes a commercial thing that
reduces it to a simpler, less
interesting form."

The museum is sounding the depths of
the Web's artistic legitimacy, and
seems to be setting a very
preliminary aesthetic canon for Web
development. Practitioners welcome
the institutional seal of approval.
After all, film existed for 50 years
before post-war intellectuals like
the editors of the French journal
Cahiers du Cinema legitimized it as
an art form. For a site like Word,
which ceased operation in March, the
recognition is especially welcome.

"Museums represent a different
standard," says Marisa Bowe, Word's
editor in chief. "The people doing
the choosing have deeper and broader
historical knowledge about the work
they're looking at than most
journalists do. They don't only
compare Web sites with Web sites,
but with all sorts of other
well-designed objects from various
periods in history."

Though the Whitney Museum in New
York and others are also acquiring
Internet-based work, the art world
remains confused about how digital
media will be collected and
preserved over the long term. Before
reaching the board approval stage,
the SFMOMA exhibit is chosen by
curator Aaron Betsky via a rather
subjective selection process Sempere
compares to "how you'd pick a good
pair of shoes."

Documenting the Web's pervasive
state of change -- that elusive
fourth dimension -- has become an
increasingly complicated subject.
Something as seemingly insignificant
as a video-compression codec might
prove historically valuable. If
cutting a site's links and
impressing its contents on CD-ROM
seems contrary to the fluid nature
of the Web, consider that SFMOMA is
collecting HTML as design objects,
not as media. Once in the
collection, the sites will not be
continuously updated.

"We're interested in where [a site]
is at a [certain] moment, and
holding that moment," says Sempere.

In February, the Getty Information
Institute launched an initiative to
nurture and standardize
record-keeping about the Internet.
Syracuse University has received
state funding for a similar project.
Still, it's entirely possible that,
rather than being preserved in a
museum as art, this decentralized
digital medium will emerge as its
own best cultural historian.

"The very nature of the Web
challenges the significance of this
activity," says Carl Goodman of New
York's Museum of the Moving Image,
whose own collection of online
artifacts includes an early one-page
version of what is now Yahoo. "All
we can do is stay informed, and keep
surfing. What we're gathering may
not be thought of today as art, but
our audience isn't out there now.
They haven't been born yet."

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