A hybrid of telecommunication software and concept art, Artcontext is focused on the aesthetics and politics of collaborative media. 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.


One characteristic that sets Artcontext apart from most other independently produced websites is its development of systems that use participation to generate new content. While this may not sound like a particularly artistic function, it may draw attention to the limited participation that prevails over the large majority of websites, artistic and otherwise. Prior to the emergence of the World Wide Web, hypertext theorists such as Jay David Bolter and George P. Landow waxed utopic about the authorial power transferred to the reader of an electronic text. But having grown bored of the inflexible ROM-based mazes of arcade computer games, this access of power did not impress me. Peter Halley has remarked,
At the keyboard, one experiences, in disembodied form, the same pleasant but rigid selection of options, the same unbending direction of pathways, and the same totalized ideological seduction that one experiences in the highly regulated physical spaces of our culture. ("Remarks on the Computer Landscape", Tema Celeste, 1993)

Despite the rather limited computer hardware commonly used today, the felt limitations to which Halley refers are primarily constructs of software. The emancipatory potential of reciprocal, communicative media -- as anticipated by Brecht, Benjamin, and Enzensberger -- has opened onto a new plateau whose architectures are understood as imperfectly as dreams by the non-programmer. Especially as it relates to the electronic networks, software development is a social enterprise that should concern more than just the "business community." But the sphere of technical expertise that gives rise to the most fundamental layers of software has little rapport with the arts. With respect to software infrastructure, while art may still aspire, as one of its foremost tasks, to "create demands which could be fully satisfied only later" (Benjamin), the demands that are being heard far more clearly are those of the advertising and entertainment industries.

The emergent movement to share software codes, and to develop them collaboratively through a gift economy, must be understood as a social movement of the highest order. Although it has the air of a specialist concern incomparable with justice and civil rights issues, the expansion of the sphere of software infrastructure whose codes are held in the public domain is vital to the future of independent media, art, and freedom of expression in the electronic networks. Artcontext allies itself with this social movement which has only begun to be named. By releasing source codes for artworks such as Icontext, Glyphiti, and Open Studio, as well as through the maintenance of public code resources, Artcontext encourages revision and appropriation of its interactive systems, at the same time resisting the closure and hierarchical control endemic to the burgeoning spectacular sector of the Internet.

Artcontext also attempts to engage those who are not technical specialists in thought provoking creative processes. Rejecting the dominant model of production for the Internet, which excludes the non-specialist from generative participation, Artcontext endeavors to build software systems that blur the boundaries between production software, entertainment, communication, and art. Sensing the exclusion of the public from inventive and critical roles in the development of interactive cybernetic systems, Artcontext makes passivity a primary problematic. Artcontext rejects a conception of "content providing" that gives the public only the freedom to select from among a set of predefined choices. Absent a capacity to change these choices, such superficial interactions offer little advancement over the television remote control.

Artcontext identifies with a media movement that encompasses both ham radio and the video porta-pak, seeking greater diffusion of control and influence among the users of media systems. There is a need for a technical practice that, echoing Benjamin's words, is useless for the purposes of corporate globalism in media. For all the technological advancements that have marked the past century, the prospects for a transition toward a more democratic media are nonetheless uncertain. The relentlessly vacuous media spectacle, whose course has been diverted by the rapid evolution of the digital network, comprehends no social ideal. Despite the encouraging "do it yourself" culture identified by the Transmediale.01 organizers, there remain daunting challenges for artists and intellectuals who would like to see the continuation of a paradigm shift away from the passive and escapist norms of mass media. Concentrated ownership of the telecommunications networks, corporate meddling with Internet protocols, and the tactical chicanery of the traditional media titans, are currently forging redecorated global media arrangements that will continue to marginalize the arts and aestheticize politics.

The ensemble of works produced for Artcontext.org embody a critical position vis-a-vis both the technical and aesthetic development of the Internet. Foremost this means an art that confronts structured passivity; but its concerns range from propaganda to the transformation of language, security, privacy, freedom of speech, autonomy, and intellectual property. Recognizing that the arts will not flourish in the electronic networks unless the micropolitics of software mediation become an acknowledged problematic in the arts, Artcontext attempts to articulate through words and codes the need for, and possibility of, an awakening from the nightmare of lousy, incorrigible commercial media.

© Deck 2000-2007