Catalogue, Deep Storage, Munich: Siemans, 1998, essay by Jon Ipollito entitled "Given: The Universe. Shown: Every Artwork", pp. 157-61.

"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."

"...[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."

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 criteria?

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.

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 (, the Thing (, and Talkback! ( — 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 to celebrity deaths ( to bad art (the deliciously egregious Museum of Bad Art at 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 (, 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.

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 (, 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).

Another project to archive the work of an invisible culture is Jumping Lines ( 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" ( 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 entries.

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 over another.

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.

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., 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.

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/

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. (

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

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.