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Mrs Everywhere

"That's What We Suspect Is Happening"

Gabrielle Taylor

i don't know why etiquette is as dead. Not just which fork to use, I mean the mechanisms for controlling the level of insult or hospitality. If one's going to offer offense it should always be intentional: that is a show of skill. Upsetting someone through gratuitous ignorance is amateurish.

This includes user interface design; a poor interface is hostile to the user and will drive them away. This is a broken coffee table left in the middle of the living room: obvious, regularly stumbled over, but nobody wants to invest five minutes effort to save six bruised toes. The laziness and ignorance are so willful as to be near-deliberate.

The case in point is 010101: Art in Technological Times, an exhibit by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art that debuted online on January 1, 2001. Their intentions are good: they developed an interface which they feel gives a better v-gallery experience and prepared a user guide.

Sorry, couldn't decide whether to laugh or curse.

Artists have produced some of the most amazingly ugly and unusable sites on the web. Though the situation has improved over the last year, it's astonishing that people who work in symbols, beauty and expression can be so fucking oblivious to interface.

Art is first about communication. The artist has an idea. He (or she, but later, later) does something to translate that idea into meaningful symbols. These symbols range from dried sunflowers to images chemically bonded to paper by light broadcast through a piece of plastic to, most mutable of all, words, images or music rendered in electronic form. The artist then either makes this work available to the public or not. If it is made available the artist has some hope, however stifled, that some member or members of the public will examine the work and perceive the original idea buried in the medium.

The very best art transcends the limitations of its audience and delivers a unique message which alters the participant's mind. The audience is necessarily a participant in the result because without a receiver, there is no way of knowing what, IF ANY, message was sent.

As McLuhan observes, message reception can be garbled. Shakespeare and Homer are not meant to be read: they are meant to be performed. When one reads them one takes on the work of both transmitting and receiving, and the latter is invariably stiffed. The audience is now lost because it has tried to access the art through a weak or inappropriate interface.

Interface is subject to unguessable local conditions. It is best to make it simple, clean, and workable under a maximum of probable situations. This returns us to the generic pronouns "he" and "him". Certain philosophical groups object to the masculine pronoun being the generic as also being repressive to women (or is that wymyn?). Alternatives proposed include "sie" and "hir" or use of "she" as the neutral pronoun.

"He" is a perfectly serviceable generic pronoun. Replacing it violates the rule of simple interface: it complicates for a murky reason. Dialectically, it makes me wonder what kind of woman would rather women became desexed and neutral when men are perfectly willing to be eunuchs on our behalf? I'd sure prefer men got their balls symbolically chopped off than that I got my cunt amputated.

010101 may have some of the most stunning works known to man buried under its horrible interface. However, the SFMOMA has misplaced its sense of aesthetic above the primary purpose of the site: to let people experience the art. Maybe the user guide -- once one finds it, and which most people won't read unless forced, which the SFMOMA would note if they placed their audience's experience above glitzy high-tech penis-waving -- makes the site a thing of beauty and a joy forever. Then again, with a third of the navigation options vanishing off the left side of my screen once I did painfully make my way in, maybe not. Whatever message 010101may have, I'm physically incapable of receiving it in my context -- which is a powerful symbol all by itself.

Gabrielle Taylor is a either a writer or a disaffected web consultant in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

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