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March 4, 2002

ARTS ONLINE

If You Can't Join 'Em, You Can Always Tweak 'Em

By MATTHEW MIRAPAUL

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Matthew Mirapaul at mirapaul@nytimes.com welcomes your comments and suggestions.

whitney.org/artport



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It would seem that nearly everyone interested in art has an opinion about the Whitney Museum of American Art's biennial survey of contemporary work. Since the Whitney's selections for the 2002 Biennial were announced in November, artists, curators and gallery owners have been chewing over the choices, a discussion that will only intensify once the exhibition opens on Thursday.

One night last December, after conducting his own review of the 113 artists selected for the biennial, Miltos Manetas decided to set up a Web site on which he could publish his own thoughts on the perpetually controversial exhibition.

On a whim, Mr. Manetas, a painter who dabbles in other media, checked an online database of Web addresses. He was surprised to learn that no one, including the museum, had staked a claim on an obvious address: WhitneyBiennial.com. He registered it immediately. (The museum's Web site is at Whitney.org.)

Although Mr. Manetas, 37, has never been invited to show his work in a Whitney Biennial, he described the Web address's availability as a way for the museum to commission him subconsciously: "It was like a message from them: `Please bug us.' '`

The Internet has made it relatively fast and easy for anyone with a computer to bedevil entrenched governments, mammoth corporations and venerable museums. As these institutions embrace the Internet, they became more vulnerable, with their own online offerings ripe for criticism and parody, not to mention the embarrassing possibility that someone searching the Net will stumble upon a rogue site and think it authentic. This is the second Whitney Biennial to include nearly a dozen works of Internet-based art, so it seems natural that Mr. Manetas would opt to use cyberspace as his soapbox.

WhitneyBiennial.com goes online today, three days before the Whitney's real-world exhibition opens. But the plans have changed. Instead of Mr. Manetas's comments, his site contains 120 digital art works from 80 contributors. Each work is a small animated graphic, and the site allows visitors to take six at a time and combine them into an onscreen collage in which a yellow bird might collide with a spinning purple mandala.

This kind of interaction is not encouraged at the Whitney, where any attempt to mix and match the masterpieces will provoke the security guards. To drive this point home on the Upper East Side, Mr. Manetas has rented 23 U-Haul trucks that will circle the Whitney during a V.I.P. biennial reception tomorrow evening. Each truck will be turned into a mobile easel, with a computer inside projecting the site's works onto a curtain of fabric stretched across the vehicle's back opening.

Mr. Manetas said he envisioned the procession as a live version of "Broadway Boogie-Woogie," Mondrian's Manhattan landscape. Told that his convoy might be mistaken for a legitimate entry in the biennial, he said, "I want that."

If the museum is indeed bugged by these stunts, Maxwell L. Anderson, the Whitney's director, is not about to let on. He said of Mr. Manetas's efforts: "I don't know that too many other institutions of our girth would take all this with a sense of humor. There would be a bit of concern about the brand. But we don't feel that way."

Mr. Anderson also understands that the Internet provides a more public forum for the dissent that biennials often engender. He said: "I would suggest that since what happens on the Internet is a manifestation of any kind of human interaction, these sorts of exchanges were happening in smoky rooms during biennials in the 1960's, and we simply weren't aware of them. But there's nothing new about irritation with authority or an attempt to upend authority through guerrilla action."

Yael Kanarek, a New York digital artist, took a rocky landscape from her "World of Awe," one of the online works in the official biennial, and adapted it for Mr. Manetas's site. She said the digital medium's malleability made it possible for her to participate in both exhibitions, adding, "True, one is a bit stiff but all- powerful; the other is experimental and lively." Either way, she said, "I'm with my peers on both sides."

Mr. Manetas insisted that his site was not intended to be viewed as an alternative biennial, an Internet-era version of the Impressionists' Salon des Refusés. With so much attention focused on the museum's exhibition, he said, "I just wanted to use the Whitney Biennial as a free advertisement" for his ideas.

Mr. Manetas wants to make two points, neither of which has much relevance to the Whitney Biennial. As the site's collage function is meant to demonstrate, digital technology can empower nonartists to do creative things. In this environment, where anyone can piggyback on the work of others, Mr. Manetas is also concerned that the enforcement of copyrights will hinder expression.

Even if one accepts his statement that the site is not a direct attack on the Whitney, just using the address WhitneyBiennial.com implies an element of criticism. Peter Lunenfeld, who teaches media design at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., and served as one of Mr. Manetas's curators, acknowledged this. With online art featured last year in high-profile exhibitions at the Whitney and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, he said, the Net was losing its shaggy aesthetic.

"People are starting to get a sense of portentousness and pretentiousness coming out of the museum community, because that's what museums are good at," he said.

WhitneyBiennial.com is meant to restore some spontaneity to the Web. So, he said, `it's disingenuous to say that there's no critique involved," even if it is low on Mr. Manetas's priority list.

Viewed as criticism, though, Mr. Manetas's Web project does a disservice to the 10 online art works in this year's biennial, which are such a major improvement over the nine works selected for the 2000 Biennial that they deserve better than indirect ridicule.

Although the Whitney's biennial galleries do not open until Thursday, the Internet works already are online at whitney.org/artport.

Chosen by Christiane Paul, the Whitney's new-media curator, the works reflect a number of the genre's emerging trends. Benjamin Fry's "Valence," for instance, converts bland data — here, the genetic characteristics of a human, a fruit fly and a mouse — into appealing visual displays. Robert Nideffer's "Proxy" is a complex game that forces players to define their identity and confront monsters such as a hacker or, worse, a curator.

More significant, this year's selections actually use the Internet, unlike many of the choices in 2000, which could just as easily have been on a CD-ROM or a computer hard drive. If the previous biennial selections were an FM station with a preprogrammed musical playlist, Ms. Paul has opted for talk radio. Mary Flanagan's "Collection," for instance, culls tiny bits of text and graphics from the hard drives of all who download her software, then sets the data adrift on everyone's screen. It is the Internet's collective unconscious made visible.

The Whitney also has made the right choice in putting each work on its own screen, unlike in 2000, when the all the pieces were stuffed onto one computer. Five of the 10 works, however, have been clustered in a small room, as if the genre had not yet been accorded full biennial status.

The most effective commentary on the museum world's Internet aspirations is still an online project from the 2000 Biennial. RTMark, an anonymous group of online activists, altered its Web site so that visitors following a link to it from the Whitney site could submit a Web address of their own choosing. Sites like personal home pages would then appear as part of RTMark's biennial entry. An exclusive domain became a populist enterprise.

The project remains active today. A group spokesman said, "If anyone wants to be in the biennial, it shouldn't matter whether it's the last one or this one, so have at it."

The Whitney will continue to be a target for online tweaks and critiques like Mr. Manetas's, especially if it does not snap up the Web addresses that assist such activity. But perhaps you have your own opinion on this. If so, you can write to this freshly minted e-mail address: mirapaul@whitney-biennial.org.



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