Digital Folklore is still alive

Based on now offline source of more than 300,000 GeoCities personal users’ homepage, Digital Folklore  exhibition presented at HMKV offers an intriguing artistic journey celebrating collective spirit of users-creators of the vernacular Web. A new way of thinking the archaeology of media, conceived by artists Olia Lialina and Dragan Espenchied, and curated by Inke Arns, artistic director of HMKV.

In spite of its expanding growth, the Web galaxy suffered many casualties. From its beginning, thousands of sites and personal pages, fed by the same graphic lines, the same iconic patterns –Lolcats et autres GIFs animés– and the same shared and amateur’s community spirit, have been closed.

Their sources, when they have been saved, are yet a real treasure for artists and specialists of digital cultures particularly attracted by the human side of this technological common use. They clearly invite to discover the machinery of a still alive “digital folklore” that rises again from the current exhibition of the same name presented until the end of September at Dortmund’s HMKV. As a matter of fact, Digital Folklore is based on the archive “One Terabyte of Kilobyte Age“, which comprises the remains of 381,934 GeoCities homepages made by amateurs and personal users of the web between 1994 and 2009, in the pre-industrial era of the World Wide Web.

Exposition Digital Folklore

Curator of the event, Inke Arns, artistic director of HMKV in Dortmund, Germany, immediately thought to artists/experts Olia Lialina and Dragan Espenchied to lead the project. "I invited two artists, Olia Lialina and Dragan Espenschied, who have been working with this archive for a long time, to make a selection from it”, Inke Arns says. “Olia is one of the early pioneers, and certainly what we can call a net ‘folklorist’ artist, and Dragan is an artist and an experienced digital conservator who is leading Rhizome’s Digital Conservation program in New York since 2014.”

Media Archaeology: the use rather than the technology

Whereas digital culture starts to succumb in its turn to retro-fashion’s charms, the trio priors a different approach: media archaeology should not only focus on technical inventions and inventors/programmers/specialists, but should also comprise the work of users, so-called amateurs - i.e. those who actually created the vernacular Web with its very specific aesthetic

Exposition Digital Folklore

According to Inke Arns, “computer and net culture are only marginally determined by technological innovation. After all, it is irrelevant who has invented the microchip, the mouse, the TCP/IP protocol or the World Wide Web, or what was the rational behind them. What matters, rather, is who is using them, and to what avail. If computer technology has any cultural significance, it is indeed solely owed to its users.”

On this point, Inke Arns remembers her participation to a panel during Transmediale 2012, where she was debating with experts in media archaeology, Siegfried Zielinski et Wolgang Ernst. “They got into a fight about whether it’s important to be able to write code” Inke Arns tells. “Then Dragan Espenschied and Olia Lialina intervening from the audience by asking the media archaeologists precisely this question: ‘Is anybody of you interested at all in what *users* do?’. That really stuck in my mind.” 

Humor more than nostalgia

Concretely, the exhibition will show a clever merge of online pieces and more physical devices. “There will be a total of 21 works, about 8 will be online”, Inke Arns says. “The offline sources are varied: some will be accessible on old PCs, some will be projected, some will be on monitors, on analogue slide carousels, on flat screens, T-shirts, skirts and mini tablets. There will be even a selection of early manuals books!”

As we can see, much of the material will be presented offline. “Mind you Olia Lialina and Dragan Espenchied are working with the remains of 381.934 GeoCities-Homepages”, Inke Arns reminds. “They focus on web pages but also on single elements, e.g. animated GIFs like ‘under construction’ signs, peeman.gif, decorative background patterns - like light reflecting on a royal blue water surface, a fluffy blanket of clouds, a starry sky, etc. -, and goodbye messages. Some of these moving elements are turned into short videos in order to recreate the original functioning of the animated GIFs. Digital Folklore presents the entire universe of icons, animated GIFs, backgrounds, arrows, and buttons!”

No risks though that the exhibition turns into a kind of nostalgic feeling of period in which the Net was both more participative and less marketed. Humor seems to be the key point. “Isn’t Flexible Dancefloor Disco like a dance of the undead? A digital zombie parade? I find it incredibly funny”, Inke Arns claims. “What I also like is the fact that it is bringing together many tongue-in-cheek jokes of the time… I mean, the dancing Dude, the Hawaii cat, etc. It’s a kind of net humour repository, no?”

Anyone can make his mind on this one but there is no doubt for Inke Arns. “All these users’ own creative efforts are mostly derided as kitsch or general cultural waste” Inke Arns regrets. “Digital Folklore argues that this apparent aesthetic clutter, created by users for users, is the most important, beautiful and widely misunderstood language of New Media." 

Laurent catala

Digital Folklore, HMKV, Dortmund, du 25 juillet au 27 septembre 2015