After 17 years online, the web artist Travis Hallenbeck mainly only visited eight sites and was especially addicted to Tumblr and Twitter. But what if those central sites were to vanish one day? For his Schlosspost web residency on the topic »Decentralization of Internet Art,« the disillusioned netizen set out for a walk across the Internet, blocking those sites from his browser for a month. He blogged about where he went, what he saw, and who he met. He started accounts on sites he had never been on and used them to make whatever art was possible. At the end of the residency, a video guide will show his experience in a wild and raw but also exhausting and directionless Internet, where so little evidence of people being online is recognizable, that the artist actually enjoyed the possibility of presenting himself as a person.
CH: For your web residency, you have given up Google, Wikipedia, Tumblr, Twitter, Pinboard, Facebook, YouTube, and Netflix. What is the goal of your residency? What do you hope for as a »disillusioned netizen?«
Travis Hallenbeck: When I saw the Schlosspost »Decentralization of Internet Art« web residency listed on Rhizome’s opportunity aggregator, I recognized it as a chance to get off Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr for a while. I shouldn’t need public attention or a grant to stop using those sites whenever I want to, but the associated guilt keeps me committed.
I’m addicted to Tumblr and Twitter and, to a lesser extent, the other sites. I use Tumblr and Twitter so much because I’m obsessed with finding users fully inhabiting the Internet (even if only briefly). Not only are more of these users on Tumblr and Twitter than I’ll ever have time to meet, but finding them is accelerated exponentially by deep, informal networks of favorites and reblogs. The experience of character, expression, and reference is so vivid that I feel myself being pulled deeper and deeper online through these sites. And I’m compelled to make art to relate or to refer to this experience.
My art work is low-res photos; techno generated in realtime on MIDI hardware; thumbnails collected on Tumblr, Flickr, Tinypic, etc.; public domain vector clip art; and Twitter as poetry, all native to the Internet but occasionally print-on-demand or presented in person.
Essentially, everything I make is small images and short phrases of text and music in grids that are difficult to look at all at once. They urge you to choose a path through in the moment (like the Internet itself), creating an engaged, emotional context that ideally opens into a kludge simulation of my memory or dreams.
My online addictions are dangerous for the obvious reasons, but I’m mostly concerned that it’s so risky to be complacent in such an unstable environment. Tumblr will be a wasteland one day, because Yahoo! will ruin it and sell it for scrap like GeoCities, del.icio.us, and Flickr. The fate of Twitter seems less predictable, but nothing would surprise me.
So, this residency isn’t inherently critical of my practice but about continuing it. I’m concerned with maintaining my thoroughly online experience. I’m not exactly addicted to Pinboard, Google, Wikipedia, YouTube, and Netflix, but they are auxiliary to how I use Twitter and Tumblr, and I’m seeking alternatives as backup.
I’m a disillusioned netizen because I was left behind when sites disappeared that worked so well for my process that they can’t be easily replaced. I’m still looking for a photo sharing site that I like as much as how Flickr used to be. I almost completely stopped taking photos after Yahoo! redesigned Flickr.
Facebook, on the other hand, is a problem not just for me personally but for the world. It’s a closed system that has too much control over what it’s users do and see online. Facebook may seem innocuous and even useful in the short term, but it will stifle innovation on the Internet just like Microsoft did for the PC. Perhaps Facebook’s current domination will encourage a really bizarre paradigm shift for the Internet like Google achieved in spite of the browser wars. Perhaps I can help.
CH: How are you trying to explore an alternative internet? What are your strategies and tools?
TH: In advance of the residency, I tried to research web portals and directories and locate search engines not based on Google results. I saved links that looked promising. I found lots of link rot. Bing’s the only major general purpose search engine that I’ve never used before, but I hope to find one more fundamentally different than Google.
I’ve used text and image search to move across the Internet, but simply following links from site to site feels more like walking. My strategy is brute force. I’m just clicking links for hours. My tools are cluttered text files and messy, commented off notes within possiblebitmaps.com/web-residency.html itself.
CH: How do you curate the content on your site, what do we see?
TH: When I proposed the residency, I thought I’d take a straightforward, narrative approach to documenting my experience and work. In actuality, the experience of navigating is so frustrating that I’m throwing posts together in shorthand to expand upon later. Some of the image collages are finished works, and the text annotations are mostly notes to indicate whatever I came across that’s still in process.
CH: You write: »I start accounts where I’ve never been, make whatever art is possible and link extensively.« Can you give examples? In what way do you create art?
TH: I’ve signed up for a couple accounts with sites (Wolfram Alpha, Dreamwidth, The Noun Project, Open Farm Game, etc.), but I misjudged how long it takes me to spend on a site before I can begin to call something I made with it art. So far, I’m mostly creating art with Bing Images and text and images found on link walks.
CH: You also said: »I’ll push myself to go as far and wide as possible and not obsess over any one place.« This reminds me very much about the dérive of the Situationists. How would you describe your walk or »rapid passage« through the Internet?
TH: I hadn’t thought about the project as a dérive. If my movement was more casual, like if I used a tool that clicked links automatically as I generally steered, it would be a dérive. Now, I’m looking for something like that.
CH: The evolution of the Internet is moving away from decentralization and towards centralization; in its form today, it can be easily controlled by institutions such as the NSA. How political is your project?
TH: I didn’t consider the project intentionally political, but I’m encountering a wider variety of actionable politics now. I’m considering leaving Gmail for Runbox, for example.
CH: You have now almost finished your residency. What have been your discoveries so far? What did you find, see, experience?
TH: My main discovery so far is finding it much easier to avoid using the Internet all day! The Internet feels wild and raw again, and it’s difficult and exhausting to face. So much web design is leaning towards a robot generated, clickbait, spam blog type of face, so I keep finding myself looking at sites as a junkyard of raw materials I can repurpose. I feel lost and confused while navigating, but taking images or screenshots of a whole page feels empowering. I see so little evidence of people online that I enjoy the possibility of presenting myself as a person.
CH: What will we see at the end of the residency?
TH: At the end of the residency, there will be a final post at possiblebitmaps.com/web-residency.html, a video guide to my experience. I’ll test out the framework for this guide in a show coming up in Stuttgart this Saturday, The Artist is Online. My residency webpage will be rapidly updated live from 7 PM to 11 PM German Time (1 PM to 5 PM EST).
Total Distortion, 2010