Proposed for funding to the Langlois Foundation
By Andy Deck
January, 2002


At the intersection of telecommunication software and art, Artcontext explores the aesthetics and politics of online experience. Through his work on Artcontext, Andy Deck deconstructs technocratic ideals and questions prevalent myths of progress. He contributes to the gift economy of global independent media as an artist, programmer, essayist, and teacher.

Sifting through the hype and thinly veiled coercion of the media industry, Deck seeks to preserve accidental freedoms that have fallen within reach. In the dynamics of familiar software, he finds compelling opportunities that have been ignored. He rebuilds inexpressive codes to conform to his conceptual and imaginative protocols. The unfamiliar results may invite comparisons, reflection, criticism, and revision.

Despite the diminishing expectations that surround Internet culture, Deck remains committed to developing contexts for art in the network. That means resisting technologies, licenses, and mentalities that would tend to undermine this important work. As a consequence, in some respects Artcontext is an act of resistance in progress.

But it offers more than an aesthetics of negation. Spurred on by the evident shortcomings of relentlessly commercial, American-style mass media (as well as by the elite inconsequentiality of private commodity art), Deck has sought to demonstrate alternatives to the consumerism and depoliticization that define most contemporary experiences with electronic media. Artcontext deviates from the passive and escapist norms of mass culture, mingling seriousness with play.

Rather than using the Internet simply as a venue for distributing images, Deck has pioneered interactive systems that position telematic visitors as contributing artists. Within Artcontext people can behave creatively, cooperatively or destructively; communicating and, at the same time, substantially modifying and revising what will be the experience of the site for future visitors.

Although this systematized creativity raises some skeptical eyebrows, works such as Open Studio, Icontext, and Glyphiti strike an intriguing balance between individual and collective authorship. Using collaborative image-making as a starting point, Deck's work calls attention to new roles that artists, viewers, institutions and software can now play in the creative process.


While dot bombs burst from sea to shining sea, Artcontext remains active. Rather than emulating business models that rely on advertising sponsorship, product marketing, or paid membership, Artcontext aspires to provide public art that is supported by the public. In a period of diminished public expenditure on the arts, Artcontext responds with a low-budget, low-bandwidth, cooperative model that leverages volunteer online labor as well as grants, commissions, and awards.


The diverse collaborative art projects available at Artcontext pose questions about authorship and intellectual property. Because most Artcontext artwork is completed by an anonymous public in the synthetic space of software, it remains ambiguous who made what, and where. Many people have contributed their labor to the site, which itself uses free software extensively. In the spirit of the GNU Public License, a kind of collective ownership is asserted. To promote the development of collaborative software, all major projects since 1996 have been distributed freely as source code to anyone affiliated with schools or non-profit organizations.


Artcontext avoids invading the privacy of its visitors. The site does not solicit information from visitors for the purpose of marketing. Artcontext does not require user-authentication, it does not track visits with "cookies," and it does not send "spam" email.


Fig. 1   Initial interface: a conventional and easy to use icon editing program


At first this Web-based artwork resembles many free online services. Indeed, the ostensible function of the site for many will be its ability to produce files of a particular type ("favicon.ico" Windows ICO files) that cause icons to appear in contemporary browsers (Fig. 2).
Fig. 2   ICO files have begun to give Internet
addresses a graphical aspect.
In this conventional service capacity it functions better than its competitors, which require software installation or the surrender of valid email addresses. Styled after Photoshop and identified as "ICO LAB", the initial interface invites confidence and goal-directed behavior.

Whereas it may be appropriate for tools to maintain a predictable form, poetics thrives on hybridization, metamorphosis, and surprise. Like the rabbit hole in Lewis Carrol's Alice, the sensible façade of ICO LAB gives way to a curious labyrinth of images that were left behind by the site's previous visitors. Confronted with the corridors of this unanticipated labyrinth, disorientation ensues. This harmless entrapment is part of what Guy Debord has termed "deceptive détournement."

Users who arrived expecting "productivity software" are put in the position of having to reevaluate what they thought they knew about software, and perhaps art, too. In the moment of doubt, when their goal-orientation appears to be at odds with the functioning of the software, beauty and fascination may intervene to compell exploration of alternative goals, perhaps even aesthetic goals.



By blurring "tool" and "online experience," ICOLLABYRINTH becomes a phenomenon that does not fit cleanly into categories like "graphics software" or "visual art." At first it resembles commercial software. Then, the carceral qualities of the labyrinth call to mind some popular three-dimensional quest games. But there is no apparent game. No profit motive. Conventional wisdom may find it too fanciful to be useful, and too useful to be art, as well. But this artful collision of utility and alterity is not without method.

Contributions from visiting artists provide ICOLLABYRINTH with visual texture and variety. Consequently, to involve people in the development of its labyrinth, the piece begins by imitating production software. Although it is possible to make an interactive artwork that does not rely on interface conventions, doing so forces those using the interface to contend with the absence of a clear modus operandi. Adopting some conventions of easy-to-use production software tends to help people to convey their ideas and feelings through the medium of software.

Nevertheless, the artistic presentation of familiar tools is bound to elicit some skepticism.

Many questioned whether Duchamp's ready-mades were art, too. He sought to overturn the redundant academicism that still dominated early 20th-century aesthetics. ICOLLABYRINTH continues the struggle against stale formulas in early 21st-century culture.

The truth of this assertion can be felt in the awkwardness of terms used to describe the work. Viewers are by turns "participants," "the public," "visiting artists," "users," or -- more clinically -- "interactants." Many of these terms reflect the shifting division of labor between the artist and and people on the "receiving end." But the paradigm of production and reception is itself contorted, if not completely overturned. The "artwork" consists partly of codes, but it would not be complete without public intervention, or "interaction." The emphasis in the work is more on process and system than on product. Indeed there is no physical product at all: only an expanding labyrinth of data.


In addition to its thematic involvement with collaboration, COLLABYRINTH addresses property and freedom in the electronic 'spaces' of the Internet.. What are the emerging attitudes about these issues among Internet users?

Part of the mystery of the Internet for a lot of newcomers must be that it seems to disprove the old adage that "you can't get something for nothing." Free games, free music, free pornography, free art. Media corporations are doing their best to change this situation, but the gift-economy is resilient. The FBI and "trade groups" have blitzed the news media with alarmist reports about how children don't understand that sharing digital information is a crime:

"It's always interesting that they don't see a connection between the two," says Gail Chmura, a teacher from Virginia. "They just don't get it." [1]
Perhaps the reason the kids don't "get it" is that they do understand that digital duplication lets two people have the same thing. Theft is at best a metaphor for the copying of data, because the original is not stolen in the same sense as a material object. Moreover, the values advanced by the trade groups are not historical constants. According to the Rutgers Professor of Urban Planning, Donald Krueckeberg, Native Americans tied the concept of property not to ownership but to use. "One used it, one moved on, and use was shared with others." [2] Add to this that taxpayer-funded research and free software have been as important to the development of the Internet as big business and commercial software, and it is not surprising that some ambiguity remains about the property status of the "dataverse" (Gibson).

Regarding property, COLLABYRINTH does not concern itself primarily with a project of persuasion. It stages a kind of participant theatre in which decisions about intellectual property affect the subsequent experience of the the work, both for oneself and for others.

COLLABYRINTH uses a mild deception to implicate the visitor in the casting of a sort of vote, public or private, for the status of their information in the network (Fig. 3). Similar techniques are used in cognitive psychology experiments, in which test subjects are sometimes led to believe they are being tested for one thing when in fact they are being tested for another. Choices made in the conventional graphics program have surprising effects in the altered circumstances of the spatial labyrinth, This recontextualization calls into question the meanings of the terms "public" and "private." By electing to save their icons as "private," people may assume that they will retain more control over the publication of the images. But saving "private" actually limits their freedom of movement.

Fig. 3   Save "public" or "private"?

The partisans of privacy discover that they were constructing, collectively, an enormous maze with exits blocked by warning signs that flash "PRIVATE" when triggered. Passage through the virtual corridors of COLLABYRINTH is thus conditioned by a series of logical gates that reflect popular attitudes about property.

The transition from a two-dimensional control panel interface to a three-dimensional simulation of space relates to beliefs about property. As Gail Chmura says (See sidebar), kids "just don't get" the equivalence of sharing data and crime. So she teaches them to equate the two by recourse to an analogy: stealing from a computer with bad security is as wrong as stealing from an unlocked house. As computer interfaces become ever more three-dimensional and immersive, the data- as-material-property metaphor may begin to feel more convincing. Noting the blurry borders between collaboration and play, and between data and property, COLLABYRINTH tries to tease out contradictory beliefs regarding the ownership and fair use of the Internet. What boundaries of ownership should apply in a network of free software and telematic collaboration? In what ways would a privatized Internet be inclusive of the billions of people who live on one or two dollars per day?

COLLABYRINTH presents these questions in the form of an artwork, confronting cultural values that are still being formed. Adopting the high-tech idioms of mass-culture (3D-computer game graphics, paint programs), it aspires to be thought-provoking but not elitist, balancing complexity with penetrable simplicity. It adds a critical perspective to the geometric perspective that is already beginning to affect our experience of data-space.


  1. http://www.landfield.com/isn/mail-archive/2000/Oct/0037.html
  2. http://www.sbs.utexas.edu/resource/onlinetext/definitions/landvalue.htm