A peeled banana. Rows of blue ashtrays lined up against a bright yellow background. A baby girl playing in the sand. Get the connection? Neither do I. Yet it is the very randomness of the electronic images displayed in Ben Benjamin's superbad.com one of nine websites showcased in the Biennial Exhibition, through June 4 at the Whitney Museum in New York City, that makes the site so intriguing. As you struggle to make sense of it all, you find yourself drawn deeper and deeper into its playful maze.
At once awkward and elegant, corny and profound, the Whitney's selections, which can also be viewed online at www.whitney.org represent a provocative slice of this nascent art form. Take Ouija 2000 by Ken Goldberg, a site that displays live video of a real Ouija board controlled by the collective mouse strokes of as many as 20 people simultaneously logged on to the site. Another piece, Every Icon, shows a seemingly simple-looking grid that is 32 squares high and wide. Its creator, John Simon, devised a program that cycles through the trillions of ways the grid could be filled with black and white squares--a metaphor for Net art's endless creative possibilities.
Among them are new forms of storytelling. Blindspot by Darcy Steinke is a multimedia tale about a nervous young mom taking care of her baby one night while she waits for her philandering husband to come home. As the story unfolds, you can hear her clock strike midnight, read meandering asides about her paranoid fears of an intruder and see the floor plan of her apartment slowly revealed onscreen. More ambitious narratives, such as Grammatron by Mark Amerika, which tackles everything from Cabala to virtual sex, come across as pretentious, thanks to lines like, "I ask of writing what I ask of desire...to move beyond death's link to false consciousness." Meanwhile, the group project Fakeshop, shown above, is a multimedia symphony of overlapping windows rhythmically popping up then disappearing onscreen in synch with a spooky sound track. Combining live performance art with videoconferencing, chat and graphics, it examines such diverse topics as biotechnology and online marketing.
For a medium whose greatest promise is in its interactivity, though, the Net art pictured can be frustratingly inaccessible. To view all nine works on a home PC, you must install as many as four software "plug-ins." Even on the exhibition floor, where a system was all set up, a visitor struggled to navigate through one work's flashing sequence of pink and gray screens, giving up after only a few seconds. Clearly, for all its potential, Net art still has a few bugs to work out.
--By Anita Hamilton