Form Art: Preserving the browser with


Screenshot of Alexei Shulgin, Form Art, Alexei Shulgin, 1997, From the collection of: Rhizome

“I was absolutely sure that art after the internet would never be the same” — Alexei Shulgin

With the arrival of the public web in the early 1990s, artists began to consider its potential as an artistic medium and a network for collaboration and distribution. One of these early “net artists” was Alexei Shulgin, whose websites and networked performances often involve participation by the public and a wry sense of humor.

Screenshot of Alexei Shulgin, Form Art, Alexei Shulgin, 1997, From the collection of: Rhizome

(Explore Form Art with the legacy Netscape 3 browser!)

Shulgin’s 1997 project Form Art used the most basic aspects of the web as material for playfully absurd artworks. Pleased with the results, Shulgin announced Form Art as a new artistic style, and launched a competition inviting other users to submit their own form art compositions.

Detail of Alexi Shulgin's Form Art rendered in different browsers, Rhizome, Alexei Shulgin, 1996 - 2017, From the collection of: Rhizome

Even when an old website remains technically intact, like Form Art, it can be rendered unrecognizable by changing software.

Form Art makes use of basic HTML elements such as drop-down menus and radio buttons–often used for filling out online forms and the like. The work was intended for Netscape 3, which was released in August 1996, and as web browsers evolved over time, the look and behavior of these elements has changed.

Screenshot of Alexei Shulgin, Form Art, Alexei Shulgin, 1997, From the collection of: Rhizome

Digital preservation keeps recent cultural history alive

Digital art and culture is often lost, when software stops working or data is corrupted.

Rhizome, a New York-based organization focusing on digital art, addresses these issues through its digital preservation program, which aims to ensure ongoing access to works like Alexei Shulgin’s Form Art. browser selection, Rhizome, November 2016, From the collection of: Rhizome puts legacy browsers at your fingertips is a sophisticated framework for running legacy browsers, like Netscape or Mosaic, in modern browsers, such as Firefox or Chrome. Users can select from a wide variety of once widely used applications to surf past versions of the web, drawing on data available from public web archives. Additionally, curators have the option to point these browsers at any URL on the live web, allowing carefully staged, fully functional presentations of internet art that would otherwise be inaccessible.

Screenshot of Alexei Shulgin, Form Art, via Netscape 4.79, Unix, Alexei Shulgin, Rhizome, 2017-05-15, From the collection of: Rhizome

(Use this browser in!)

Context is king

Form Art was humorous and playful, but it also invited serious consideration of the web’s interfaces—the onscreen elements are used to organize user interaction. “A computer interface is not a ‘transparent’ invisible layer to be taken for granted,” Shulgin noted, “but something that defines the way we are forced to work and even think.” Through, Rhizome can offer access to online artwork like Form Art in its original software context, illustrating how these interfaces, and the way we are asked to work and think as users, have changed over time.

Screenshot of Alexei Shulgin, Form Art, via Safari 5, Windows, Alexei Shulgin, Rhizome, 2017-05-25, From the collection of: Rhizome
Credits: Story was created by Rhizome’s lead developer Ilya Kreymer.

Form Art was presented in Net Art Anthology, Rhizome’s exhibition retelling the history of net art through one hundred works, in January 2017. Net Art Anthology is presented by Rhizome and made possible by a grant from the Carl and Marilynn Thoma Art Foundation.

Form Art is included in the Rhizome Artbase, a public archive of more than 2000 works of net art.

Rhizome is an affiliate organization of the New Museum.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not represent the views of the institutions whose collections include the featured works or of Google Arts & Culture.
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