When holding an art exhibition that features the work of more than 100 artists, none of whom are Picasso or Van Gogh, how do you hold a visitor's interest long enough to appreciate the work? If the exhibition is online, one option is to make the interface engaging enough to draw web surfers in, user-friendly enough to keep them from leaving out of the frustration that can come with too many bells and whistles.
New York's Whitney Museum of American Art uses this approach in presenting its 2004 Biennial, and, with one small exception, it does an admirable job.
Companion to a physical exhibit that closes (May 30), the 2004 Biennial site has the online-only virtue of being accessible long after the real show has left the building. (The 2002 Biennial is also still accessible from the Whitney's homepage.) Presented entirely in Flash format, the site first confirms that the browser has the latest version of that plug-in installed (you'll get a friendly reminder to upgrade if it doesn't), and then opens a new window holding features that, while not necessarily unique, are unusual enough to catch the viewer's eye and sustain his or her interest.
Text is "drawn" on the page as a series of solid lines which retreat to reveal the words underneath. The main welcome page graphic rotates between three images, which change through a window shade effect - as opposed to a more typical fade or straight transition. Navigational options bounce down from the main choices at the top of the window, and as you prepare to select one, the others are covered in the same heavy lines that concealed the original text.
Of course, as distinctive as these attributes might be, the overriding reason for visiting the site will be to view the Art and Artists section. With 108 candidates to choose from, displaying the options in an intelligible manner presents a challenge. This is what the Whitney site does so well.
The Biennial site offers several paths of exploration, each of which will ultimately lead to a biographical page for a selected artist - with a detailed review of the artist's history, an image from the exhibition, and when possible, related links. (The exhibition images offer a "click to enlarge" option which, on many occasions, only seemed to open an image of the same size in the middle of my screen. This may just be a result of my small screen size, however, and surfers with higher resolutions will probably benefit from the feature's full effect.)
The first and most obvious method for exploring the exhibition is a basic alphabetical listing, from Marina Abramovic to Andrea Zittel - but in a slight twist, the alphabetical option is also available in thumbnail form, which is to say the artists are arranged in the same order, but the page displays images instead of names. Click on a thumbnail and a slightly larger image appears identifying the artist and his or her medium. Click on that image's "View" link, and the biographical page loads. Although the visual option takes a bit longer to load the first time, for those of us who would only recognize a few of the names in the list, it might actually be a more relevant method of exploring the exhibition, and -at least for the dilettante- is definitely more engaging.
But there's no need to feel constrained by alphabetical convention. Artists and their works can also be surveyed by Theme (Abstraction, Portraiture, Low-Tech Tech, etc.), while still retaining access to the Text/Visual options. In the Visual mode, relevant thumbnails arrange themselves beside the Theme Index, as the others swarm in grayed-out anonymity at the bottom of the screen. (In text mode, names do the lining up and swarming.) A similar approach is taken to arranging the works on the basis of their medium (Painting, Sculpture, Digital Art...), and as a final alternative (if you want to be absolutely thorough in your explorations), you can simply start at Marina Abramovic and click the "Next Artist" link at the bottom of every biography page until you reach Ms. Zittel.
In addition to perusing the art, visitors can interact with a Dialogue option - which uses an artificial intelligence guide to respond to viewer input with information about the show and additional resources. Much, of course, depends on your input. "Where are you?" returned a perfectly logical listing of the Whitney's street - though not city - address. "What is Digital Art?" on the other hand, resulted in, "Do you like the show?" and, "Click on the screen, and your icon will fly around the screen... Fun!"
Considering the visual nature of the exhibition, there is also a great deal of text at the Biennial site - including a 7-page Director's Welcome, four pages of Curatorial Introduction and some 60 pages of Curatorial Essays. Naturally, visitors aren't required to read all these articles, and the simple totalling of pages ignores the potential usefulness of their content, but the reason I point this out is that text -especially small text- is about the only thing that Flash doesn't do well.
It's tiring enough to read that much content off a computer screen when the letters are sharp, and for anyone but a dedicated enthusiast, reading it in the blurred and muddied text of Flash is too much to ask - especially if this comes after getting through the various artist biographies. Links to HTML or, even better, printer-friendly copies of the essays would have been a great help.
Still, in presenting a large collection and a wide variety ("Ranging from the apocalyptic to the ethereal, the fantastic to the political, and the sensual to the obsessive,...") of art to casual visitors, and in keeping those visitors' interest long enough to move them deeper into the site, the 2004 Biennial is an impressive success. And once inside, it reminds us that (with all due respect) there is more to art than Picassos and Van Goghs.
The 2004 Whitney Biennial can be found at http://www.whitney.org/biennial/.