Blog and Pony Show

It's a Web phenomenon, but is it art?

Several months ago, I surveyed the Websites of nearly a dozen South Florida museums, only to find... not much of interest. The sites provide such basic information as hours of operation, directions, and descriptions of exhibitions. Otherwise, they serve as not much more than teasers, e-ads for the actual museums, with precious little art to look at on-line.

Since then, I have discovered the world of Weblogs, better-known as blogs. And now, the Palm Beach Institute of Contemporary Art (PBICA) in Lake Worth once again displays its ingenuity by giving us "blip... blah... blog," an on-line-based exhibition that can be accessed either from your own computer or through one at the museum's high-tech New Media Lounge.

But let me back up a bit for curator Jody Servon's introduction to the show, which explains the concept of blogs: "Although it is difficult to precisely define this powerful new medium, a Weblog or blog is an on-line journal created by individuals or groups to express ideas and present information in the form of Internet links and personal commentary."

Details

Click on the site's New Media Lounge button; the exhibition can also be accessed at the New Media Lounge upstairs at the Palm Beach Institute of Contemporary Art, 601 Lake Ave., Lake Worth, 561-582-0006.
Palm Beach Institute of Contemporary Art's Website, www.palmbeachica.org

Servon goes on to emphasize that Weblog creators -- bloggers -- are not necessarily technogeeks but rather people who prefer to bypass commercially created and run Websites. Bloggers control their own content, and their blogs are typically free of the annoying banners and pop-up ads that can make even the most fascinating sites a pain to visit (although they often link to sites full of such clutter).

Blogs, according to Servon, have experienced an enormous boom in the past few years, thanks to such sites as Blogger and Greymatter that provide free templates for would-be bloggers. With the highly vocal support of enthusiasts like journalist Andrew Sullivan, a senior editor at The New Republic, the handful of bloggers of just a few years ago multiplied first into the hundreds, then into the thousands (including his own blog at www.andrewsullivan.com).

With so many blogs out there, it's difficult to pinpoint just what makes up a typical blog, if such a thing even exists. Servon cites a 2000 article by Rebecca Blood called "Weblogs: A History and Perspective" -- found (where else?) on Blood's blog, www.rebeccablood.net -- that characterizes the early Weblogs as "link-driven sites. Each was a mixture in unique proportions of links, commentary, and personal thoughts and essays.... Many current Weblogs follow this original style. Their editors present links both to little-known corners of the Web and to current news articles they feel are worthy of note. Such links are nearly always accompanied by the editor's commentary."

The PBICA show features three highly idiosyncratic blogs, each of which can be reached by clicking on one of the exhibition's title words (which, in turn, pop up when you click on the New Media Lounge button on PBICA's main page). Servon cautions: "These blogs have been selected for use as points of reference for your interactive Web journey. In no way do these sites claim to be representative of the multitude of blogs on the Internet; they merely offer an introduction to a new forum for personal expression and social critique. The interests and personalities of the individuals responsible for these blogs are as varied as the format, the content, design, and the style in which they write."

The "blip" link takes us to the blog of James Luckett, a 31-year-old American living with his wife in Japan. The right third of the screen is a lengthy list of mostly obscure links, while the left two-thirds is devoted to a sort of daily journal by Luckett, with each day's entries including anywhere from one to a dozen or so items, most with links to other sites or more extensive entries. A recent item tagged "Too long in Japan" links to a long list of statements that play off the headline "You know you've been in Japan too long when..."

Luckett's most intriguing links involve photography (and indeed, the blog has what appears to be a subtitle: "Art, Photography, and the Uncanny"). One link takes you to a series of mile-by-mile photographs taken by an automated camera during a journey across America by Matt Frondorf. Another connects with Icelander Sigurdur H. Stefnisson's stunning photos of the Northern Lights. Yet another goes to a now-defunct virtual gallery called Partobject Gallery, which ran an impressive variety of shows by such artists as Man Ray and Brian Eno during its November 27, 1998-May, 19, 2001 run. The blog is full of many similar links.

The "blah" link leads to an enigmatic statement by 26-year-old blogger Heather B. Hamilton, who declares: "As of today, 22 April, 2002, I will no longer be updating this Website, dooce.com. There are several reasons that have led me to this decision, the biggest of which is that this Website has caused more damage and sorrow to my personal life than it has good.

"I can't take it anymore.... I will continue to be a subversive whiny bitch online, somewhere, under an assumed identity...." Hamilton leaves a link to her archives, however, which leads you to determine, after reading through dozens of daily entries, that some of her on-line tirades led to her alienating friends, family, neighbors, and coworkers, not to mention her getting fired.

The daily entries have such headings as "Reasons Why This Past Week Might Just Have Sucked" (number 10 is "I haven't pooped in four days") and "Overly Italicized Conversation Between Two Engaged Persons at the Gas Station." And when you link to one, you get a sort of sidebar along the left edge of the screen that lists what Hamilton is thinking, listening to, reading, enjoying, and feeling guilty about on that particular day, along with tips on how to annoy and charm her.

A link to a "Features" section includes such quirky items as five sets of photo galleries identified as "Women Who Make Me Question My Sexual Persuasion" (Kirsten Dunst and Kate Winslet are the two best known) and another section called "Celebrity Sightings from Readers Like You." The blog's visual components feature several series of highly variable photos by Hamilton and various collaborators and a series of masthead designs.

The exhibition's third and final section, "blog," links to www.cursor.org. It's the Minneapolis-based Weblog of 47-year-old Mike Tronnes, who's by far the most political of the three bloggers represented in the show. Indeed, his site is almost exclusively political in nature, with literally hundreds of links to sites related to an extensive array of topics.

A recent "issue" of the blog -- its format is much like that of a magazine -- featured Tronnes's long list of "Media Patrol" links down the center. On the right side (appropriately, it turns out) is a section devoted to right-winger turned left-winger David Brock's book Blinded by the Right, including an excerpt and links to more than a dozen commentaries, among them Frank Rich's from the New York Times and Hendrik Hertzberg's from the New Yorker. There are also links to a handful of interviews with Brock.

The rest of the site includes links to Middle East Media outlets, political columnists and cartoonists, even a mordantly funny satirical Weblog called "Osama's Bin Bloggin." A highly critical essay focuses on 9/11 widow Lisa Beamer's efforts to copyright her late husband's "Let's roll!" comment, already much-copyrighted by many other entities (and invoked, as an oddly slangy national motto, by George W. Bush).

As a teenager, I often went to the encyclopedia to look up something specific, then ended up spending hours following a trail of old-fashioned print links: "See also..." or "For related topics, see...." Blogging, I found, is a similarly seductive activity. The Internet is a vast, ever-expanding universe that seems poised to pull one in, perhaps never to emerge again -- an idea both fun and frightening.

But PBICA's introduction to blogs -- and curator Servon makes a point of saying it's only "a point of departure" -- is also a bit baffling. Of the three blogs included in the show, only Luckett's seems connected in any significant way to art, thanks to his passion for photography. Hamilton's often-bizarre ramblings may have a literary value of some sort, and Tronnes certainly manages to stimulate thought, debate, and discussion with his overwhelming collection of political links.

Blogs are by their very nature highly personal, which explains the quirks that distinguish these three. I can't help thinking, however, that Servon could have come up with other bloggers whose Weblogs not only exemplify the concept of this strange new medium but are also of more aesthetic interest.

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