Tobias Leingruber, Greg Leuch and Jamie Wilkinson, Artzilla.org (logo), 2007–present; platform for experimental browser software

“Skate the Web” and Other Metaphors

Tobias Leingruber

Metaphor Museum
To understand what “The Web” is, people always came up with metaphors. In the ’90s the Internet was called “Cyberspace,” the “Information Super Highway,” or more recently “Web 2.0” or “The Cloud.” Olia Lialina writes in her 2005 essay, “The Vernacular Web”:

[…] The Internet was the future, it was bringing us into new dimensions, closer to other galaxies. […] Space wallpapers made the Internet look special. This was obviously a space with a mission that other media could never accomplish. 1

The metaphor “Cyberspace” and its space wallpapers are long gone, except some fossils and glitter remakes that survived through Myspace. The Internet is no longer science fiction; it has become standard, like water and electricity.

Another metaphor that’s long gone is the “Information Superhighway.” Many Internet “surfers” might remember its fellow metaphors, like the slogan “this website is under construction” or animated construction workers hammering on Web pages. A legitimate descendant of the “under construction” signs came with the “Web 2.0” metaphor, a very technical one—the “Beta” button. Both symbols say the same thing: “We have a vision, and what you see is a work in progress.”

Surfing is out, the waves are gone
A metaphor still sitting in our heads since the early days of the World Wide Web is to “surf the Web.” It describes the user’s activity while accessing the Web. “Surfing” draws a picture of a cool person doing something quite stylish and spectacular.

Surfing as a metaphor also made sense because, just like a real surfer has to wait in the water to finally catch a good wave, the ’90s Internet user had to be very patient while waiting for the slow modem to load the next Web page.

We’re not in the ’90s any longer—there’s high-speed Internet, and the beautiful metaphor of surfing the Web is slowly fading out. Not because the flashy surfboard graphics aren’t hip anymore, surfing just doesn’t fit the technologically advanced “Web 2.0” theme.

The dominant way to find and access new content shifted from Web rings to search engines like Google or Yahoo. The “Web rings” we used to surf on don’t exist anymore; now we “browse the Web” through search engines. Websites seem to be perfectly sorted and indexed; everything is in order. We browse the Internet like we browse records in a record store.

In 2002, Henry Jenkins,2 book writer and department director at MIT, wrote:

Bloggers are turning the hunting and gathering, sampling and critiquing the rest of us do online into an extreme sport. We surf the Web; these guys snowboard it. Bloggers are the minutemen of the digital revolution.3

On a blog about “Car Metaphors,”4 Olia Lialina mentioned that this metaphor doesn‘t quite work, since for people living in a mountain region (like me), snowboarding really isn’t more extreme than surfing. Well, let me give it another shot!

Skateboarders and Hackers
More recently, with the rise of open-source Web browsers,5 something has evolved again. Open source Web browsers, like Mozilla Firefox or Google Chrome, allow you to influence the way you access websites. Through additional software, called add-ons 6 or extensions 7 based on the Web browser client, you can completely rearrange the way you experience the Internet.

Users no longer have to access information like the architect or designer of the Web service wants them to. You want a black background on Google, then change it to black. You don’t want to see any online advertisements? Install an ad-blocking extension 8 to your browser and they are gone. The owners of that website might not like it, but there’s not much they can do about it. They could temporarily disable your code by making it technically more difficult to access their content, but since hackers love those kinds of challenges, we’ll always find a solution.

I’m a street skateboarder, and street skateboarders, just like street artists, see amazing opportunities in public space while others might see nothing but boring concrete. Skaters are on a mission, and they have style. The streets belong to them. When you skate the streets, you use public architecture in ways the creators didn’t expect it to be used, and a lot of times don’t want you to.

A boring handrail suddenly becomes part of an art performance when a skater jumps and grinds it. The message of advertisements in the streets can get turned around completely just by adding a sticker saying, “You don’t need it,” 9 or “Available online for free.” 10

Since those actions don’t match the “normal person’s” behavior patterns, or are “against the rules,” sometimes skaters get into trouble with security officers. But getting banned from a space in public is not going to stop a skater from hitting that spot one more time with a badass kickflip.

Some people enjoy watching this and start hanging out on the streets with the skaters, something they might not have done without those artists shredding public architecture. Random people even applaud for the rare and amazing stunts they might see.

In the end, street skating, street art and Internet art are art in public space, the Internet being a virtual one. If you enjoy grabbing a skateboard to hit the streets and turn public space upside down, you might as well grab some browser code 11 and SKATE THE WEB.

This essay was originally posted at www.tobi-x.com on February 23, 2010.

Editor’s Epilogue
Tobi Leingruber’s skateboarding metaphor delineates an ebullient revolt against corporate, political or institutional attempts to control the public space of the Internet. This is important for thinking about art, which has long held a complicated relationship to public space.

Ever since the rise of public museums in the eighteenth century—during the period of democratic revolutions in Europe—most of us, interested and uninterested public alike, experience art in rarefied spaces that tell us we’re looking at art. Artist interventions intended to reveal or subvert the economic and cultural workings of museums over the past century seem to have actually strengthened the authority of these institutions. Museums have come to situate themselves even more forcefully between objects and viewers through didactic textual exposition, and the self-flagellation of institutional critique leaves little changed.

Even attempts to take art outside of institutions make a point of asserting their role as art—not visual culture—thus tacitly acknowledging the museum’s authoritative presence. Maybe that’s why attempts to de-institutionalize art by street artists like Keith Haring and Banksy come off as naively utopian now, since their “alternative” work in offline, non-museum and non-gallery contexts couldn’t help but catch the attention of the institutions around the corner and eventually ended up neutralized on their walls.

The Internet may make such anti-institutionalizing attempts easier and more effective (depending, however, on the future extent of institutions’ ability to control online space). Though viewers can distinguish between an art website and a non-art website most of the time, it’s not as easy when artists and non-artists display images made in similar ways in the same websites and spaces—a point I began developing in an online essay for Art Lies on 4chan image macros and artist surf clubs.12 Leingruber’s call to “Skate the Web” encourages the viewer to decide the shape of space, both public and institutional, to a considerable extent—you can visit an art institution’s website but change the browser code to view the site in the way you wish (for example, write a code that draws moustaches over every artwork and advertisement). Thus, everything can become art or nothing can—at least as far as you’re concerned.

—Ariel Evans, Assistant Editor

1. See http://art.teleportacia.org/observation/vernacular.

2. See http://www.henryjenkins.org.

3. Henry Jenkins, “Blog This; Online Diarists Rule an Internet Strewn with Failed Dot Coms,” Technology Review (March 2002), http://technologyreview.com/
articles/jenkins0302.asp (accessed May 14, 2002).

4. See http://www.contemporary-home-computing.org/car-metaphors.

5. See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BrXPcaRlBqo.

6. See https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox.

7. See https://chrome.google.com/extensions.

8. See http://adblockplus.org.

9. See http://antiadvertisingagency.com/2006/11/26/you-dont-need-it-stickers-2.

10. See http://fffff.at/available-online-for-free-the-sticker.

11. See http://artzilla.org.

12. Ariel Evans, “Skolar cat hidez bahind hiz nollege: Methodologies of Stupid (NSFW),” Art Lies (No. 66, Summer 2010), http://www.artlies.org/article.php?id=1894&issue=66&s=0.

Tobias Leingruber and Bert Schutzbach, Hoebot wall post, 2007; screenshot of automatically bitch-slapped student profile; http://tobi-x.com/studivz_crawler/; courtesy the artists

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