User experience in the online archive of internet art

A guest blog post by Lozana Rossenova, a collaborative doctoral student with the Centre for the Study of the Networked Image (London, UK) and Rhizome (New York, USA)

The evolution of network environments and the development of new patterns of interaction between users and online interfaces create multiple challenges for the long-term provision of access to online artefacts of cultural value. In the case of internet art, curating and archiving activities are contingent upon addressing the question of what constitutes the art object. Internet artworks are not single digital objects, but rather assemblages, dependent on specific software and network environments to be executed and rendered.

My research project seeks to better understand problems associated with the archiving of internet art: How the artworks can be made accessible to the public in their native environment – online – while enabling users of the archive to gain an expanded understanding of the artworks’ context?

User experience and the ArtBase

In the fields of user experience design and human computer interaction (HCI), there has been substantial research done around issues of discoverability, accessibility and usability in digital archives, but the studies have focused primarily on archives with digitised born-analogue text- or image-based documents. Presentation and contextualisation in archives of complex born-digital artefacts, on the other hand, have been discussed much less, particularly from the point of view of the user’s experience.

Unlike digitised texts or images, internet art spans beyond the boundaries of a single object and oftentimes references external, dynamic and real-time data sources, or exists across multiple locations and platforms. Rhizome has recognised the inherent vulnerability of internet art since its inception as an organisation and community-building platform in 1996. The ArtBase was established in 1999 as an online space to present and archive internet art. Initial strategies towards presentation of artworks in the ArtBase reflected contemporaneous developments in the fields of interaction design and digital preservation. More recently the archival system has struggled to accommodate the growing number and variety of artworks in the ArtBase. Providing a consistent user experience in making artworks accessible brings additional challenges and requires further research into how users encounter and interact with archives of web-based artefacts.

Figure 1: View of Rhizome’s ArtBase from 2011 when the archive already had over 2000 artworks.

Beyond preservation challenges – such as an artwork’s technical dependencies on specific network protocols, web standards, or browser plugins – various interface design elements and conventions change over time. These influence how users navigate, interact with and understand context within the networked artwork. Interaction patterns and interface elements, such as frames, check-boxes and scrollbars, could all significantly impact or potentially change, and even render defunct, the user experience of an artwork. Examples that illustrate this clearly include works such as Jan Robert Leegte’s Scrollbar Composition (2000) or Alexei Shulgin’s Form Art (1997) [See Figures 2, 3]. Given these circumstances, new preservation and presentation paradigms are needed in order for the online archive of internet art to be able to provide access not only to an artwork’s html and css code, but also to the contextualised experience of the work.

Figure 2: View of Alexei Shulgin, Form Art (1997) in Rhizome’s ArtBase.

Figure 3: Presentation of Alexei Shulgin, Form Art (1997) in a remote Netscape 3.0 browser. The contextual presentation is crucial for retaining the original look and capacity for interaction of the work.

Web archiving and remote browsers

Recognising the limitations in the current archival framework to provide adequate access to a large number of historic artworks, increasingly the focus of preservation efforts at Rhizome has been on building tools to support the presentation of complex artworks with multiple dependencies. Recent developments in browser-based emulation and web archiving tools have been instrumental in facilitating the restoration and re-performance of important internet artworks, which have been presented as instalments in Rhizome’s major new curatorial project – Net Art Anthology.

Figure 4: First chapter in the Net Art Anthology online exhibition.

The remote browsing technology, first introduced in Rhizome’s oldweb.today project to emulate old browser environments, has facilitated the online presentation of historic internet artworks in contemporaneous environments, such as Netscape Navigator or early versions of Internet Explorer. Furthermore, the capacity to create high-fidelity archives of the dynamic web with Rhizome’s browser-based archiving tool, Webrecorder, has enabled the preservation of artworks based on third-party web services, such as Instagram and Yelp.

Figure 5: Choice of browsers and operating systems in oldweb.today.

Presenting artworks inside browsers running in Docker containers allows for the restaging of historic artworks in the original environments in which users encountered them, thereby providing oftentimes crucial contextual information to contemporary audiences (see reference to Form Art above). Meanwhile, the remote browsers in Webrecorder provide an environment for the recording and replaying of various internet artworks including ones that use Flash or Java, which are unsupported in the most recent versions of major browsers like Chrome, Firefox, Safari or Microsoft Edge.

Figure 6: Webrecorder archive of Dragan Espenschied, Bridging the Digital Divide (2003). Website with Java Applet.

Next steps

Recent developments in Rhizome’s preservation practices indicate that the online archive of internet art is not accessible or sustainable if it remains a single centralised platform. Instead, it could be reconceptualised as a resource, connected with and linking out to various instantiations of the artworks. Remote browsers, in particular, could become a powerful tool allowing presentation of artworks either as a link out of the ArtBase page into a new page running the emulated browser, or as an embedded iframe within the ArtBase page of the artwork. In each of these cases, users would encounter a “browser within a browser” presentation paradigm. A potential challenge here would be users mistaking the remote browser environment for other secondary representations (a static screenshot, for instance, a device commonly used to present web-based artworks). Providing a consistent and contextualised user experience across the system used to present the artwork and the archival record of the work requires addressing such challenges. In the coming months, we will be conducting further research into interaction design patterns of ArtBase artworks and behaviour patterns of the archive’s users, which will inform a redevelopment of the ArtBase interaction design framework.

A presentation of recent developments in Rhizome’s Webrecorder tool, the remote browsers technology and strategies for augmenting web archives will take place at the IIPC/RESAW  Conference (WAC) 2017 during Web Archiving Week, 12–16 June, 2017

IIPC Steering Committee Election 2017 Results

The following member institutions have been elected to serve for a period of three years (from 1 June 2017)-

On behalf of the membership I would like to thank all of those who have taken part in this election.

By Olga Holownia, IIPC Program and Communications Officer