"The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an
indefinite, perhaps an infinite, number of hexagonal galleries, with
enormous ventillation shafts in the middle, encercled by low railings.
From any hexagon the upper or lower stories are visible, interminably.
The distribution of the galleries is invariable. Twenty shelves —
five long shelves per side — cover all sides except two. One of
the free sides gives upon a narrow entranceway, which leads to another
gallery, identical to the first and to all the others."1
"...[I]ts shelves contain all the possible combinations of the
twenty-odd orthographic symbols (whose number, though vast, is not infinite);
that is, everything which can be expressed, in all languages. Everything
is there: the minute history of the futrure, the auto biographies of
the archangels, the faithful catalogue of the Library, thousands and
thousands of false catalogues, a demonstration of the fallacy of the
true catalogue, the Gnostic gospel of Basilides, the commentary on this
gospel, the commentary on the commentary of this gospel, the verdical
account of your death, a version of each book in all languages, the
interpolations of every book in all books."2
If Borges mythical library contains every possible book, the World Wide
Web often seems to contain every possible page.3
While the Web does not literally encompass every possible combination
of words and images, it has grown to such unmanageable proportions that
it often feels that way. To make matters worse, there is no Editor-in-Chief
of the Web, no silver-throated museum director's accoustiguide to steer
the uninitiated toward the Rembrandts and Flauberts and away from the
canned-in dog photos and uploaded jello recipes. Not surprisingly, the
incoherent and bad artworks encountered in most Web surfs far outnumber
the good ones: instead of an embarrassment of riches, you are left with
simply an embarrassment. Without an editor or curator as intermediary,
how do you cull the good stuff from the bad? What are the selection
What follows is a guided tour tthrough this electronic Library of Babel,
making stops at Web sites that embody different answers to these questions.
After test-driving a few of the more conventional means of information
delivery, the tour will try out some experimental models made possible
by the extraordinary engines of automation available on the internet.
1. Evaluate criteria
There are official searchers, inquisitors.4
Probably the most expedient way to locate a book in Borges' library,
as in any other would be to ask the librarian. The dreawback of this
approch, of course, is that different librarians have different tastes
and will recommend different books. On the Web there are already scores
of curated sites for visual art — sites such as äda'web (http://adaweb.com),
the Thing (http://www.thingnyc.com), and Talkback! (http://www.talkback.com)
— that essentially functions as librarians. The connoisseurs who
program these sites point users to texts and images they judge worth
browsing; simply adding a link on, say äda'web to an outside artist
project confers upon that project an air of legitimacy.
Some web-savvy archivists, however, have created their own thematic
sites rather than rely on someone else's official imprimatur. These
archives document everything from disasters (Cati Laporta's deadpan
Almanac of Disasters at http://www.westbank.org/~Calender/nstart.html)
to celebrity deaths (http://xochi.tezcat.com/~nurse/DEATH.shtml) to
bad art (the deliciously egregious Museum of Bad Art at http://www.glyphs.com/moba/).
Many of these archives share the express purpose of collecting what
would otherwise be lost to history. Artist Ben Kinmont's Web project
We Both Belong (http://www.adaweb.com/influx/kinmont), for
example, shows us his dirty dishes — and those of his collaborators.
In past projects, Kinmont has polled Wall Street workers to solicit
ideas for a sculpture, given away his paintings to people who signed
a testament to this act of generosity, and washed dishes at the Wadsworth
Atheneum in a public performance. Until his Web project, the only residue
of the attempts to draw ordinary people into the process of making art
has been the artists physical archives — signed statements, t-shirts,
and other ephemera. For We Both Belong, Kinmont solicited photographs
of people washing dishes; in return, he offered participants a diptych
of their photgraph framed together with a photo of himself washing dishes.
Kinmont then uploaded to his Web site the various images, along with
the letters that accompanied them and notes about the project (the "finances"
page lists his rent and expenses associated with the project), thus
helping to realize his utopian ideal of distributing the art-making
process to as broad an audience as possible. 5
The documentation of what has hitherto remained concealed is the sole
purpose of Antonio Muntades' File Room documents cases of censorship,
making it sort of card uncatalogue, a list of what cannot
be found in the library. A user can search the File Room by
date, location, medium, or grounds for censorship (political, religious,
or sexual). The 500-plus cases cited rage from the Oliver Comwell's
condemnation of John Milton's " Areopagitica, A speech for the
Liberty of Unlicence'd Printing" in London 1644 to the debate over
whether to ban Madonna's Sex book in the small town public
library of Downer's Grove, Illinois in 1992.
Other Web archives, meanwhile, focus on specific artistic subcultures
whose practices are unlikely to appear on the white walls of the Museum
of Modern Art or the glossy pages of ArtNews. Susan Farrell's
Web site devoted to graffiti, Art Crimes (http://www.graffiti.org/),
documents an ephemeral — and illegal — form of communication.
In addition to featuring digitized photos of graffiti from around the
world, the site's newest venture, The World Wide Wall, allows anyone
with a Java-enabled brouser to select a digital "surface"
— White and Red Brick, Stucco, and Train are among the offerings
— and spraypaint on it with the help of a mouse. Of course, the
transgressive thrill you get from spraying a few pixels onto the screen
of your personal computer hardly compares to the risk of being arrested
or run over by a train taken by real graffiti artists. And the practice
of tagging territory doesn't make much sense in a territory-less cyberscape.
If there is a digital soulmate to the graffiti artist it is not the
casual Web surfer, but another virtuoso trespasser: the cyberpunk. Both
the graffiti artist employ a flamboyant noms-de-plume (Futura
2000 v. Lex Luthor), a specialized vocabulary (tagging v. phreaking),
and cryptic language for communicating with their peers (illegible handwriting
v. the Pretty Good Privacy encryption algorithm). 6
Another project to archive the work of an invisible culture is Jumping
Lines (http://www.uampfa.berkeley.edu/exhibits/ jumpline/jlhome.html),
a website that documents examples of the art of the Maisin people of
Papua New Guinea. Although the Masin rainforest is about as far as you
can get from the subway tunnels of the graffiti artists, the curvilinear
patters of the Maisin's tapa paintings bear an odd resemblance
to Keith Haring's more abstract images. 7
This being said, the systematic working method they employ is something
of a cross between the Surrealists' exquisite corpse and Sol
LeWitt's combinatorial line drawings. The Maisin fold a cloth made from
pounded mulberry bark in four sections so that only one of the four
is visible. They then paint on one section at a time, trying to reproduce
the same pattern from memory on each. When the cloth is unfolded, the
slight asymmetry of the overall image betrays the inexact memory of
its maker, but at the same time it lends the composition a jaunty rhythm.
In the spirit of dedicated librarians, the creators of the above sites
diligently catalogue their subjects, cross-referencing cases or works
by geography, time period, and participants. Blast, on the
other hand, is a collaborative archive that deliberately avoids a catalogue.
Each edition of Blast takes two forms. First there is the physical
vehicle, ranging in shape from a finely crafted wooden box to a bean-shaped
plastic pod, which contains artistic multipes created by its contributors.
Second, ther is a Web site that bills itself as a "conversional
archive" (http://artnetweb.com/artnetweb/ projects/blast). The
idea of packaging together artistic multiples in various media dates
at least as far back as 1968, when William Copley published the SMS
portfolios, featuring such curiosities as lunch menus by Claes Oldenburg,
game cards by John Giorno, and phongraph records of Bernar Venet reciting
astrophysical data. What distinguishes the Bast vehicle from SMS is
not merely that it has a conversional electronic counterpart, but also
that it subsumes the identities of individual contributors into an verriding
theme such as drama or bioinformatica. The rolled-up pieces of paper,
miniature vials of liquid, or computer disks in the vehicles bear no
names or titles to identify their authors. Meanwhile, the conversional
archive Web page shows nothing more than a screen of colored orbs you
can click on to access texts vaguely related to the collaborative venture.
As its name suggests, Blast's disorganized presentation resembles
a library following an explosion, leaving a field of atomized fragments
for the user to poke through and try to identify.
2. Categorical criteria
In some shelf of some hexagon, men reasoned, ther must exist a book
which is the cipher and perfect compendium of all the rest.
One problem with relying on librarian to suggest which books to read
is that the Library is too vast for any single librarian to be expert
in the entire universe of books. Another is that a user's tastes my
not concur with those of the librarian at hand. That's why libraries
have card catalogues. Unfortunately, there is no single card catalogue
for the library of Babel, for no single librarian could possibly have
ranged far enough through the hexagons to catalogue all of the books
therein. Nevertheless, it is possible that individual librarians have
composed different, perhaps only partly overlapping catalogues based
on the information they have gathered. On the Web these librarians have
names like Lycos, Infoseek, Alta Vista, and Hot Bot. While none of these
search engins by itself could encompass the entire Web, the larger ones
claim to have catalogued tens of millions of Web pages. (There are even
megasearch engines like Magellan or SavvySearch that query more than
one search engine at a time — like a librarian who consults other
librarian's card catalogues. 9)
Unfortunately, the scale of the Web is so huge that a user can only
search by key words ("abstract" or "expressionism"),
date restrictions (1945 < %date% < 1954), or simple numeric calculations
(%price% < $250). If you're looking for somehting less quantifiable,
it's hard to do a focused search based on more nebulous criteria; a
Lycos search on the keyword gesture, for example, returns almost 10,000
While most of the search engines return verbal excerpts from pages matching
the user's criteria, artist John Simon 10
has pioneered a more schematic approach to cataloguing pages on the
Web. For the Space of Information exhibition held and the Bannf Centre
for Art and Technology in the spring of 1996 (http://www-nmr.BannfCentre.AB.CA:
80/WPG/spinfo/trippi.html). Simon created an "Archive Mapper"
that plots each Web site developed for the exhibition as a different
point graphed according to criteria selected by the user. For the graph's
horizontal axis, the user can choose from objective variables such as
file size or date. For the vertical, the user can choose from subjective
variables Simon assigned in consultations with the exhibition's curator,
Laura Trippi. Among the latter choices is the ratio of physical to digital
presence; for example, Laura Kurgan's plotting of the Bannf environs
using Global Positioning Stellites might rank higher on this scale than
Sophie Tottie's Web pages shoing comments about war superposed on images
of city streets. Once the user has chosen the x and y-axes, Archive
Mapper draws a scattershot cluster of colored icons representing
the Webspace; clicking on any icon brings the user to the page corresponding
to that artist's project. Unlike the home pages of such evaluative sites
as Talkback! and the Thing, Archive Mapper offers a nonhierarchic
view of artist projects, since no artist is given stylistic emphasis
in the design. Without a central list of links, no artist gets top billing
3. Generative criteria
A blasphemous sect suggested that all searches be given up and that
men everywhere shuffle letters and symbols until they succeeded in composing,
by means of an improbable stroke of luck, the canonical books....[Men]
would hide out in the privies for long periods of time, and with metal
disks in a forbidden dicebox, feebly mimic the divine disorder.11
Archive Mapper is the egalitarian because it represents every
existing site equally; the extreme of such an egalitarian approach would
be to represent every possible site equally. The best way to
do this is to write the books yourself — to become not just the
librarian of all the archive's texts, but also their author. This seemingly
impossible task can be begun — if not finished — by creating
a self-assembling archive. 12
To build this archive, you need only expand on the technique used by
the heretics in Borges' Library. Of course, it would take years of manipulating
metal disks in a dicebox to derive an entire book at random; on the
other hand, it only takes a few minutes of manipulating the metal disk
in a computer's hard drive to generate a book-sized chunk of random
text. In fact, to write a bot — a mini-program — that automatically
outputs every mathematically possible combination of letters and spaces
would require only a few lines of computer code. Load this generative
algorithm onto a laptop, place it in a briefcase along with a portable
printer, and you have the self-assembling equivalent of Marcel Duchamp's
protable museum, a sort of Bot en Valise. What might you see
if you opened this valise?
One possible answer to this question, John Simon's Combinations
(1995. http:www.interport.net/~gering/combo.html), would have made any
of Borges' heretics envious. Simon's Java applet starts from a reuced
vocabulary — all the possible combinations of four line segments
ins a square — that recalls the LeWitt wall drawings mentioned
above in connection with the Jumping Lines Web site. Once the
user has chosen the angles and placemnt of the four segments. Simon's
applet produces a grid of combinatorial drawings on the computer screen
or in a plotter printout. LeWitts assistants may be just as envious
of Simon's program as Borges' heretics: a LeWitt drawing can take a
team of draughtspeople weeks to complete, while Simon's program spits
out the grid of permutations in a matter of seconds.13
1 Jorge Luis Borges, "The Library
of Babel," Ficciones (New York: Grove Press, 1962), translated
by Anthony Kerrigan, page 79.
2 Borges, page 83.
3 Various authors have noted a connection
between Borge's library and the Internet, most recently Daniel Rubey,
"Mediating on the Library as Archive: From Alexandria to the Internet,"
Talkback! 1, December 4 1995. http://math240/ lehman.cuny.edu/talkback/Talk_html/CenterP-Rubey-1-capt.html.
4 Borges, page 84.
5 Before We Both Belong, Kinmont
had been suspicious of the Internet's capacity to reach people; see
Laura Trippi's comments in "The View from the Street," World
Art (Newark), no. 3 (Summer), p. 55.
6 Compare the proliferation of encription
in the digital age with its parallel in the myriad of languages afforded
by the Library of Babel: "cannot combine certain letters, as dhcmdchtd,
which the divine library has not already foreseen in combination, and
which in one of its secret languages des not encompass some terrible
meaning. No one can articulate a syllable which is not full of tenderness
and fear and which is not, in one of these languages, the powerful name
of some god." Borges, p. 86.
7 Larry Rinder, one of the curators
of the Jumping Lines site, goes so far as to claim it's hard
to believe that Haring didn't see works like these at some point. (http://vip.hotwired.com/ren/reruns/tapa/Background/index.html).
8 Borges, p. 85.
9 "Someone proposed a regressive
approach: in orer to locate book A, first consult book B which will
indicate the location of A; in order to locate book B, first consult
book C, and so on ad infinitum...." Borges, p. 85.
10 Most of John Simon's projects can
be accessed from his home page at http://www.users.interport.net/~jfsjr.
11 Borges, page 84.
12 As long as the items to be archived
can be broken down into discrete building blocks, such as the twenty-odd
letters and puctuation marks that make up the alphabet or the 256 pixel
colors that make up an 8-bit digital image, then there is a way to list
all the possible combinations of these building blocks, though the list
may not be finished in your lifetime (or anyone else's). Even if the
number of combinations is infinite, you can devise a procedure that
will eventually generate any given item in the set as long as the fundamental
variables are discrete. If, however, the variables are continuous —
such as pixels that can vary across a continuous spectrum of color —
then the list cannot be begun even in principle.
13 Simon's work plays havoc with the
notion that conceptual art is "pure information," for in the
computer an artist of the 1990s has a much better tool for creating
works composed simply of data than an artist of the 1960s ever had.
Nevertheless, Simon's work is not necessarily inteded to devalue or
upstage LeWitt's. The excitement of LeWitt's wall drawings in fact stems
from the contrast between the trivial instructions fro making them and
the remarkable presence they can achieve when executed in the right
architectural frame at the right scale. That the content of cenceptual
art lies not in the idea alone but in the tension between idea and execution
is the subject of my article "Where Did All the Uncertainty Go?"
in Flash Art (New York) 29, no. 189 (Summer 1996), pp. 83-87.