A Net Art Idea Line

The creation of the World Wide Web introduced a unique tool into the world of Art - a tool that can serve either as a display venue, or as an infinitely flexible artistic medium (or as both). The Whitney Museum explores the interaction of Art and Web technology (and the evolution of that interaction) with "A Net Art Idea Line" - a site that is, appropriately enough, both catalog AND interactive art.

Part of the Whitney's "Artport", (a portal to, and gallery for, Digital and Net art) the Idea Line provides links to almost 200 recommended Art/Web sites - via a Java applet that maps the sites by variety and date of creation. Upon launching the applet, the Idea Line opens into its own --not quite full screen-- window. Along the top is a timeline (from "pre-1995" to 2001) and a keyword search (more later).

The middle of the window is dominated by a series of threads, representing various disciplines --or "themes"-- of online art, with the theme's title at the far right of the screen. At the bottom of the page is a brightness scale (each thread brightens or dims depending on the number of featured artworks in a given year) and a "Geometry" selector. This last option allows the visitor to view the threads in three formats; fanning out from an off-screen point of origin, bulging and contracting in response to the volume of artworks within, and the less artistic but easiest to navigate Flat arrangement - where threads simply move in parallel lines from one side of the screen to the other.

Though, saying that any thread moves 'simply' under ANY circumstances can be a bit misleading. Place your pointer anywhere in the window and things start migrating, mutating, appearing and disappearing. This can be disconcerting at first, intriguing as you adapt to the phenomenon, and annoying if your mouse movements aren't precise, but there's no denying that this is a unique navigational system.

Choose a theme of interest, let's say Animation, and place your pointer over the theme's title. Immediately the threads start shifting, and a chasm opens between the chosen theme's thread and the thread below - to make room for new content. (This shifting also means that your pointer will no longer be resting over the theme title, but as long as it remains within the newly opened space, the theme will remain open. If let your pointer stray outside said space -not a difficult thing to do- everything starts rearranging itself to show you whatever theme you've inadvertently settled upon.)

As the new space 'blossoms' into existence, Idea Line reveals the titles of all the Animation-based artworks within. Move your pointer to any of the artwork titles, and a pop-up box will appear with the artist's name and a short description of the work. - click on the title, and the work's website will launch in a new browser window. If the artist has more than one piece featured in the catalog, a right click (shift-click for Macs) will reveal pointers to all the relevant locations, and highlight each artwork's title within the theme spaces.

Finally, after viewing a website, Idea Line places a check mark beside the artwork's title - an especially useful feature for those not wanting to accidentally retrace their steps. (In addition to the large number of works available, the same piece can re-appear under more than one theme - for example, a Shockwave-based piece of political satire, would be listed in Shockwave, Humor, and Politics. Alternative locations of each artwork are indicated when you select any title.)

The keyword search (a small box, reading, "Highlight by title or artist") is a rather impressive execution of the 'auto-completing' variety - so as soon as it finds anything to match however many letters you've entered, it lists your options in a drop-down menu. (You can, of course, enter the entire title and move straight to your goal, but the auto-complete is a boon to those with spotty memories, as well as a useful vehicle for anyone open to a bit of tangential exploration.) Select an option from the results menu, and the threads will light up with indicators to all the locations of relevant artworks. When you're finished with each inquiry, "Clear Highlight" wipes the threads clean in anticipation of a new search.

Idea Line is an example of some truly cutting-edge navigation - though as entertaining as it is, it's clearly not for all situations. (Imagine Yahoo adopting this system, than imagine how quickly you'd remove Yahoo from your bookmarks.) There were a few bugs (one link, instead of loading "www.subtle.net/line/," loaded "www.subtle.net/line%20is%20a%20www%20site%20..." and so on, to the tune of 300+ characters) as well as some counter-intuitive design (indicator flags for artworks appear above theme threads, though one has to move below the threads to access them).

And for some reason, the applet window can't be re-sized to take full advantage of the screen space, so you may have to scroll down to access the viewing options, and scroll back up so that the top of artwork's pop-up windows won't be cut off.

But there is a good deal of gee whiz here - well worth the time of a visit. (Not to mention the gee whiz content of sites featured in the catalog.) And, if after playing with the Java navigation, you'd like something more conventional for a return trip, Idea Line also provides a text-only listing of its entire collection.

Net Art Idea Line can be found at http://www.whitney.org/artport/idealine/.

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