The Usability Chronicles


The Usability Chronicles is a set of examples not to follow. Each piece, as we have indicated, violates a long list of usability principles. Thus we've been explicit about what we don't like in the web design and web art world. In addition, the pieces violate our sense of web aesthetics, a much more difficult kind of fault to explicitly define. It seems fit, then, to briefly describe our aesthetics of web-based art and tell how we would like to see the genre progress.

Early net art, like the early work in any art form, emphasized the novelty of the medium. Many pieces were computer art about computer art. In some sense, the present work is part of that tradition. Yet in doing it, we want to suggest that the genre is ready to move beyond the self-referential stage to include artworks that are interesting as artworks qua artworks, not just as net art works. It is time, we believe, for web art with broader subject matter, much as paintings or films have subject matter related to the outside world rather than only related to the act of making paintings or film. To appeal to a wider audience (not that art should be judged by the size of its potential audience), the art needs to move people, needs to comment and represent people's daily concerns, thoughts, and desires.

Another feature of the early days was a constant pushing of boundaries. The browser was stretched to its greatest capacity. Sites were made that opened as many windows as the screen or the memory could possibly hold, that moved windows around just because it's possible, and that flashed all sorts of unpleasant and seizure-inducing messages on the screen. This was an important stage in the genre, because it did point out what can be done. These works were analogous to the paintings Jackson Pollock and De Kooning did in which paint was thrown or sprayed on canvas, in order to demonstrate that paintings do not need to be pretty pictures with invisible brush strokes.

Many people (non-artists) view radical experiments with scorn ("my three-year-old could do that"), but it is important to recognize that the legacy of these Abstract Expressionist works was a new generation of postmodern paintings, which combined a flouting of tradition with representational art. Likewise, net art, now that the initial stage of experimentation is over, should try to combine opposition to tradition with exploitation of artistic precedents. In other words, we should make net art that borrows notions of visual composition from the visual arts, borrows the traditions of directing and drama from film and theater, and borrows musical ideas from the classical and popular music traditions.

The first three pieces in this collection: Flash 99% Bad, Waste Disposal and Faces are parodies of web art which lack this universal dimension. Animation, video, and sound are used in a way which says, "Look what I can do!" rather than in a way which uses these technologies to do something beyond a demonstration of technical skill. Moreover, none of them is actually that technically sophisticated. Both of us have made previous work which uses (more) sophisticated programming and better multimedia content. (See for example, The Electronic Muse or Orpheus) We hope that this work nonetheless has value as a commentary on web art and its future directions even though it is not technically cutting-edge.

The Bar Game is somewhat different. It does have subject matter apart from computers (the singles' scene in Buffalo, NY), and we do think that it succeeds in representing that subject matter in an aceptable, if caricatured, way. However, this piece raises the question of taste: Is it appropriate to describe vulgarity by being vulgar onseself? Some people think that one should, and they make art that is designed to offend (for example the crucifix decorated with elephant dung which was exhibited by the Brooklyn Museum, and because of which Mayor Giuliani, a Catholic, threatened to close down the museum). We see the value in such works. However, when we actually started modelling the electronic elephant dung, we found that it contaminated us and no doubt will contaminate our users with its foul odor. The Bar Game, in our opinion, is a piece which meets usability guidelines, meets the goal of producing art which has content, yet which probably never should have been made (other than as an example of what not to do).

So are we restricted to making web art which is just conventionally, sentimentally, pretty? We think not, but there must be a balance between naturalism (which shows the grit of dirty reality) and the more low-brow goal of satisfying some aesthetic need or sense which the user already has. The question of how to do this is one we leave to our readers, whom we hope will produce brilliant works of net art with interesting content (including ugly content), yet which doesn't offend good taste.