Browser Ware
The Media Channel, April 11, 2001,

Sandra Villareal, a young Venezuelan with short dark hair, strode purposefully across the stage of Cooper Union's Great Hall in New York on March 29. She wore black, knee-length workout pants and matching top beneath a baggy, vinyl pants suit cinched horizontally with duct tape. She moved her hands sinuously through the air as if it were water, and after three minutes on stage, raucous rap music signaled the end of her performance. Not a Jean-Paul Gaultier model displaying the fashion designer's latest creation (or even a Gaultier wannabe), Villareal was a contestant in the Fourth International Browserday, a competition celebrating innovation in software design for information search-and-retrieval. Her "Tactile Suit" is designed to input her body's movement and temperature data and to electronically output it to other digital devices.

Her competitors at Browserday were the next generation of academically trained designers (no hackers here): 23 other students from New York, primarily, and the Netherlands, as well as a sprinkling of competitors from around the United States. (The predominance of New York-based contestants was a reminder that no travel funds were available for participants.) Organized by Dutch designer Mieke Gerritzen and new-media activist Geert Lovink, the first three Browserdays were held in Amsterdam starting in 1998. The New York incarnation was co-produced by Gerritzen's NL.Design firm and United Digital Artists, a Web development training company. Despite the relatively small attendance - barely more than 100 audience members for the pricey, $25-per-ticket event that consumed an entire Thursday - Gerritzen is determined to hold such a competition in California. And sooner, rather than later. "It's not really an annual event," she told me. "As you know, there will be a Berlin Browserday this year."

Annual or not, Browserday may be the most entertaining, ongoing new-media art event anywhere. It incorporates the performance pleasures of the Poetry Slam, the demo-or-die tensions of the software presentation or movie-script pitch and the out-of-the-box approaches to design we might associate with conceptual art. Affable MC Steve Johnson of Feed magazine likened Browserday to the "Gong Show," an American television classic that allowed the audience to gong insufficiently talented contestants off the stage. While Browserday certainly offered its share of turkeys, the three-minute long presentations of the mostly functional prototypes ensured that the audience was rarely bored. Although characterizing the demonstrations as uneven is an understatement, even the few inept ones helped reveal the current state of the art among those in their early twenties at a moment when the retrieval of information has advanced prodigiously, but the presentation of it has not. With computer programming-capable art and design students no longer a rarity, that's bound to change. A few observations about the event:

The future of the Web browser is hardly limited to software intended to tweak the design or page-publishing metaphor of the ubiquitous commercial software Netscape Navigator or Microsoft Internet Explorer. The most conventional browser featured at Browserday, a finalist called "Indra" by Noah Hendler and Todd Holoubec, presents search results in a handsome, honeycomb configuration of image and text that reminds us how visually impoverished the search lists amassed by Google or Yahoo are.

But two of the three entrants that appealed most to the audience - the judges' and audience's reactions rarely jibed - utilized new hardware interfaces that made them anything but conventional: Roel Wouters's "Scrtch Machine" enables users to access online news, home video and 12 other sorts of media and personalize its hip-hop presentation with a mouse that resembles an acrylic DJ's turntable, and Jonah Brucker-Cohen's first-prize winning "Crank the Web," which hilariously "solves" the problem of bandwidth inequity by awarding the widest bandwidth to the physically, rather than economically, fit. The user types a Web address into a commercial browser and then cranks up the bandwidth by vigorously turning the handle of a re-purposed boat winch attached to the computer. (What about a stationery bike interface to make browsing a truly healthful experience?)

In a hybrid era when artists write software or create browsers, they should probably - alebit confusingly - be termed artist/programmers/designers. Artists have been designing Web browsers as functional art for the past four years. In 1997, the London-based group I/O/D created the first artist-produced browser, which turned the connections between sites into three-dimensional maps. (It can be downloaded at A more recent alternative browser, "Netomat", by New York artist Maciej Wisniewski, creates a dizzyingly fluid collage of images and texts after a search is requested. ("Netomat" can be seen in the current "Data Dynamics" show at the Whitney Museum of American Art.)

Wisniewski's expressive approach seems to have opened the door for the new generation of designer/artist/programmers showcased in Browserday. The focus on the emotional impact of information manipulation and retrieval was unmistakable. Third-prize winner Marc Lin's "Flexible Navigation System" presents information panels scrolling in three-dimensions like a Ferris wheel on the computer screen. Siddharth Jatia's "Desktop-Browser" enables the creation of a wildly colorful or shimmeringly gorgeous desktop by automatically sorting your archive of bookmarks into red, blue and yellow containers and offering templates for color manipulation. Tae-Seoup Yun's aptly named "Emotion Browser" exclusively enables the locating of wrenching contemporary and historic films and other materials related to the movement to unite the Koreas.

There were other, more intellectual (and intellectualized) manifestoes on view. Luna Maurer's slick animation is, in her description, a "fictional approach to what a browser could be in the future." It offered graphically arresting, flashing words and concepts like "hybrid space to mirror reality," "community," and the show-stopping "the browser is the brain." (One is reminded of the community-oriented condition that characterized the World Wide Web - not to mention the Internet - prior to its commercialization in 1996.) Henk Jan Bouwmeester's "Mind the Gap" was more stimulating. The gap he refers to is the inherent technical or aesthetic limitations of story-telling, new-media art (and even recent tech) that allows for the imaginative presence of the users. With new and seamless technologies he foresees the troubling elimination of that gap, or in McLuhanesque terms, the erosion of our critical tools, shaping us into ever more uncritical consumers.

Three minutes isn't much time to present a comprehensive thesis about the relationship of society and technology, however. The most impressive entrants were technologically innovative. The second-prize winner was Koert van Mensvoort's "Active Cursor." This software makes a cursor slip or soar, tumble or fall. Approaching an image of a drawing of a tunnel, for instance, the cursor might pass through it. Or passing over a photograph of an ice skating rink, it would quickly slide. Mark Argo's wireless "TAP" provides a personal and public way of processing data. The personal way is a safe form of encryption for medical records and the like stored in a wearable device; the public format can connect the device into publicly accessible sources of information and display it as you wish. The small print at computer kiosks hard to read? Display it on TAP in any format or size you choose.

The most William Gibson-esque of all the presented projects was Demetra Baylor's "Telepathic Communication." In Baylor's world, portable devices will be replaced by the transmission of users' thoughts, through the optic nerve to a graphic interface visible on special contact lenses. Think "new information folder" and that brilliant rumination you had while running on the treadmill can be stored there! (According to neurological researcher and artist Warren Neidich, Baylor's system might be technologically feasible but only for the ultra-myopic. He also observed that in the future miniature monitors connected to glasses - which exist now - could emit light in such a way that a clear image might be projected on the retina.)

In addition to the intensity and diversity of the presentations, Browserday also offered keynote speakers whose participation seemed intended to provide moments of intellectual reflection contra the often frantic demos. Media critic Douglas Rushkoff aptly reminded us that by 1995 gigantic computing corporations essentially co-opted and dominated online information processing, from the Netscape Navigator Web browser (now owned by AOL Time Warner) to the Eudora e-mail reader (the model for Microsoft's Outlook). Microsoft, of course, derives its power from its interface monopolies controlling the functionality of our computers and access to the Net. And the Microsoft browser, of course, was at the heart of the U.S. government's ongoing litigation against the computer behemoth. Put another way, the development of new information browsers has been sacrificed to corporate profits. In a globalized world, this is precisely what student designers must confront. Speaker Bill Buxton, chief scientist of Alias/Wavefront, embodied this generational divide in an avuncular lecture that expressed equal concern for both the strangling effect of science and technology on society and the meaning of changing the color of your car at will. (Hello?) But he did lead with a quote from T.S. Eliot's "The Rock" that might be a mantra for any young designer: "Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?"

© 2003