Reconstructing public space.

At first the software resembles many free online services. Indeed, the main function of this site for many will be its ability to produce files of a particular type (“favicon.ico” Windows ICO files). Styled after Photoshop, the initial interface invites confidence and goal-directed behavior. In its conventional service capacity it works well enough. And it’s free.

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 Carroll’s Alice, the sensible fa├žade of the tool gives way to a curious labyrinth of images that were left behind by the site’s previous visitors. Confronted with these unanticipated corridors, disorientation ensues. This harmless entrapment calls for aesthetic interpretations that are typically absent from encounters with software.

People who arrive expecting “productivity software” are put in the position of having to reevaluate what they thought they knew about software, and perhaps art, too. Conventional wisdom may find it too fanciful to be useful, and too useful to be art, as well. But in the moment of doubt, when goal-orientation appears to be at odds with the functioning of the software, beauty and fascination may intervene to invite exploration of alternative goals, perhaps even aesthetic goals.

By blending tool, expression, and online experience, Collabyrinth examines the sea change that public space undergoes when it is reconstructed in cyberspace. What has gone missing from contemporary experience of the Web is that one seldom comes upon the unexpected. Predictable commercialism and the marginalization of independent media offerings has meant that people are more likely to be startled by viruses than by artists. Collabyrinth recalls the surprises of public space.

Noting the fuzzy borders between collaboration and play, between cooperation and conflict, and between data and property, Collabyrinth probes beliefs about the limits and potential of online interactivity. What rules of ownership should apply in a network of free software and telematic collaboration? In what ways do the appearances of software conceal unforseen purposes? As computer interfaces become more three-dimensional and immersive, can a public space be carved out of a maze of privatized softare? Collabyrinth presents these questions in the form of an artwork, confronting cultural values that are still being formed. Though the carceral qualities of the labyrinth resemble some popular “shooter” video games, the guns are missing. Confinement, creativity, and a striving for freedom are set against one another. Adopting the high-tech idioms of mass-culture (3D-computer game, paint program), Collabyrinth is intended to be thought-provoking but not elitist. Is it a model? As usual, if you don’t like the way it works, you are encouraged to rewrite it yourself.

Originally by Deck from Artcontext Wire on May 24, 2004, 10:17am

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