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Why I Write for the Web

Description: There are two versions to this story. One is that I became a web artist by accident; the other is that it was inevitable. It was inevitable because I started to program at the age of eight, and rewrote a word processor with my father. Later I studied mathematics at Columbia and took computer science courses. I also studied poetry. A systems administrator by 1995, I introduced users to the web when it first became popular.

The accident that led directly to my practice of web art was buying a copy of Macromedia Flash in 1999 without knowing exactly what it was. I realized almost immediately that the software's multimedia capabilities allowed me to create an immersive experience of mental illness instead of a flat description.

Before learning web art techniques, I wanted to show people what was happening to me, but the only way I could imagine doing so was to have a room full of speakers and projectors. Such an installation was well beyond my budget. I viewed web art as a way to mimic installation art, democratising a genre that only well-funded professional artists could participate in prior to multimedia technology on home computers.

It was also very important that the work be presented on the web, because it allowed me to network and attract people to my site. For a person isolated by illness, it was liberating, a "coming out of the closet". I was able to turn my misfortune into art. The web is a wonderful place for people with disabilities, because others see only the side that you want to show; they don't, for example, see your body shape or whether you have showered.

I looked for work on the web in the new genre I had discovered but could not name. The feedback lessened my isolation and helped to develop my work for the web.

I made several pieces on the subject of mental illness, but tried very hard not to limit myself. I didn't want to escape the disability ghetto only to lock myself into a virtual ghetto. Nonetheless, my most frequently read web work is in this category.

Here my idea was to represent thoughts as sentences read out loud, and to trigger the sentences (apparently) at random to mimic the noise of involuntary thought which can haunt people with mental illness. Thus, as you move your mouse (when the program is in depressed mode), you hear obsessive repetitions of "I want to die" and "you hate me." There are also fragments of poetry that bear some relation to mental phenomena, from poets such as Rosemary Waldrop, Rod Smith, Liz Waldner, Geoffrey Young, and others. The poetry selections are dense, modern and evocative, not transparent descriptions of depression or mania.

The sounds of thoughts are supposed to be a mixture of what a depressed or manic person says and what they think privately. To give the impression that the thoughts are semi-voluntary, I programmed the piece to trigger thoughts when you mouse over a particular spot. That way, it is the user's own action which sets off the thought, but he or she cannot at first predict what will happen. Moreover, the layer of invisible buttons is so dense that the effect is of a continuously changing almost-random field of sound. This is a model of feelings which happen involuntarily, but which you can provoke by returning to some particular memory or thought.

The triggered thoughts are supposed to show the subjective experience of living in my mind, but I wanted also to describe mental processes as biological phenomena. Thus the screen shows a field of neurons, and there are sounds that symbolize the passage of a nervous impulse from the dendrite of a neuron, down the axon (long fibre) and across the synapse into the next neuron. I showed the contrast between mania and depression by colouring the depressed neurons in shades of grey, and using riotous colours for the manic ones. Because people experiencing mania are full of bizarre theories and plans I used phrases like "the colour of garbage bags secretly encodes deep secrets about you which are recorded by spies disguised as Chinese food deliverers".

Suicide: This piece tends to evoke strong feelings, both positive and negative. It describes a group of twenty-something women who were close friends and all suffered from suicidal thoughts. Outsiders are often shocked by the directness of the writing and the documentary nature. They seem to think that the only thing you can say about suicide is "don't do it", and are disturbed by descriptions of what it actually feels like to be suicidal. Although Suicide was created to educate people, I also solved a specific artistic problem - how to use a minimum of graphic elements and technology. I wanted the site to be efficient in the sense of loading fast, but also to be aesthetically efficient. The same graphic motifs (and some texts) are used in several contexts, to different effect. I choose plain HTML and JavaScript (for the small amount of animation/interaction) rather than proprietary technology such as Macromedia Flash.

Time Clock (featured in the journal of culture & technology): This piece was the product of random doodling on the computer rather than focused planning. I thought about all the missed opportunities in life, and this seemed a universal fact about being alive. I wanted the user to be able to play the internal dialog, essentially jamming to the rhythm of the biological time clock. I added emotionally resonant words and phrases. Each phrase is supposed to be somehow incomplete, open, like the incompleteness of a person's accomplishments that begins to dawn on them as they approach middle age.

This was an attempt to modify text in a smooth way (a mathematical way of saying that the text should change gradually) through a user interface. In addition, I was inspired by Author's do my homework online, example, in which the author re-writes a very banal story in many different styles. I therefore wrote a text about walking down the street in my neighbourhood in New York City, and then created four versions of the text: pretentious, simple-minded, sociological, and melodramatic. This piece combines my interest in mathematics (the idea of continuous change), writing, and my desire to write about the neighbourhood where I was born.

My goal was to make a textually-based work that uses techniques other than ordinary hypertext. So instead of clicking to get to a new part of the poem, all the text is presented on the screen at once in a field of words arranged in an apparently random order. The content is revealed by mousing over a word which highlights words scattered across the field which combine to form a sentence. I was also interested in exploring the non-linear aspect of multimedia. In particular, I was trying to make a work in which the text could be viewed in any order, generating a variety of readings of the work. At the same time, I tried to evoke a mood and some plot elements so that the poem had some core content and was not merely a random assortment of sentences. Finally, I included oral commentary on the work in the form of sentences triggered by hidden buttons.

There are several strands to my work for the web. 1/ Participation in and organizing communities on the web based on mutual interest, self-help and collaboration. 2/ Exploring technologies for their own sake (some of my more successful web pieces began as digital doodles, tinkering with some aspect of software). 3/ Interest in poetry and literature, which I also pursue through non-multimedia writing both in print and on the web. A final element is play.

I was lucky enough to approach the web art commuity at a time when it was very supportive and open to newcomers, and democratic in the way it allowed new artists to distribute and promote their work. Although the web seems to orienting toward more professional-minded projects - with work being done by large teams of specialists - I feel fortunate to have shared the experience with an open network of artists, writers, and programmers.

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User: thincomme72 (see all of thincomme72's photos)
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Date: 08/20/18
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