5 min read

Sand Paintings and Forever After

I’ve been thinking about the last few contributions to the Danish Composers’ Society’s series on music and the internet and thought it was a good point to collect some of my thoughts on some of the issues that have been brought up:

There seem to be two poles of concern concerning the life-span of things placed on the web.

On the one hand creating things for the web has been likened to Buddhist sand mandalas. Hours of painstaking work poured into something that is ‘here today, gone tomorrow’. For some that might provoke feelings of dismay, for others it might be an aspect to embrace.

On the other hand one can acknowledge that even ‘real life’ stone and mortar cathedrals require constant upkeep and that ongoing maintenance of our web creations is a reality we had best come to terms with and plan for.

Concerning the technical aspects of the long term web it is important to distinguish between that characteristics of specific web browsers and the sites we view on them. Browsers come and go, that’s true, but HTML, the underlying language of the web is a fantastic, surprisingly resilient invention that is both backwards compatible and geared towards the future. Web designers have, over the years, given in to the temptations of adding further layers of code over and above the basic core of HTML and CSS because of the bells and whistles that these additions offer. Recently however a lot of attention has been placed returning to the core values of the web, particularly in light of ‘future proofing’ it, and embracing progressive enhancement as a best practice.

That brings us to the question of what the internet is. Here I would like to refer to a wonderful talk by Jeremy Keith in which he clarifies the difference between the web and the internet:

The web isn’t a physical thing. It’s built on top of a physical network which is the Internet, but the web itself is agreement. It’s a set of standards that we all agree to use. And so we get the World Wide Web, this fantastic, fantastic network, transmitting information.

The talk provides a wonderful overview of the historical development of standards and the implications of this for culture and communication well before the invention of the internet. In a more recent talk at the Beyond Tellerrand conference Jeremy again looks out over the edge of his plate and considers the state of the web and where we are headed with our creations on it, touching on important points such as accessibility and longevity, apps vs. the web. I highly recommend taking a look at the video.

The relevance of the web as a tool for communication and collaboration seems hard to dispute, indeed Jeremy emphasises collaboration as the main reason for its invention at CERN in 1989. Nevertheless I recognise Goodiepal’s reluctance to be sucked into the maelstrom that makes up today’s internet culture and claim that the exciting stuff exists outside of it – to make a distinction between art and culture. Yes, the artistic impulse exists in the individual who then brings it to life through some medium or another. The exciting stuff is what happens within us. The internet is one tool (and what a tool!) among many that provides us with a mirror so that we can get some kind of glimpse of what that internal stuff is. A step in developing our consciousness.

The potential ‘accessibility for all’ that the web offers brings with it a tension when it comes to artistic projects. The price for all that openness is the equal potential for distraction that needs to be balanced in some way. The temptation might be to make your site more like a full screen app and hide the browser bar, or go all the way and simply make it in the form of a native app – but that in turn detracts from general accessibility. You’re using the internet but denying the spirit of the web. A tricky balance.

Perhaps the difficult thing to create a space for on the web is an ingredient important to many artworks – solitude. Paul Auster, in his The Invention of Solitude describes something that has always fascinated me about works of art, whether they be paintings or novels.

Auster writes that:

Every book is an image of solitude. It is a tangible object that one can pick up, put down, open, and close, and its words represent many months of solitude, so that with each word one reads in a book one might say to himself that he is confronting a particle of solitude. A man sits alone in a room and writes. Whether the book speaks of loneliness or companionship, it is necessarily a product of solitude.

He goes on to describe how when sitting down in his own room to translate another man’s book,

it is as though he was entering that man’s solitude and making it his own. But surely that is impossible. For once a solitude has been taken on by another, it is no longer solitude, but a kind of companionship. Even though there is only one man in the room, there are two. Therefore, he tells himself, it is possible to be alone and not alone at the same moment.

This description of being ‘alone and not alone at the same moment’ is a fascinating aspect that seems very much at home when it comes to reading or writing novels or standing in front of a painting. In the case of music the historical development of the role of the composer has opened up this curious ‘solitary togetherness’ for a domain that was previously predominantly social. (In a concert situation the composition created in solitude is however, unlike the novel but similar to the theatre, experienced in a collective setting.) The internet provides a new twist to this tale (for all art forms) and I’m (still) wondering how this aspect might play itself out in the field of music.

This post was written in response to contributions to the Danish Composers’ Society’s fredagsbøn theme on web-art and is also published there.

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Hi, I’m <a rel="me" class="p-name u-url" href="">Rudiger Meyer</a>, a composer interested in the play between music, sound, and&nbsp;media.