I DID NOT FEEL SEPARATED I FELT VERY CLOSE EVEN THOUGH WE WERE THOUSANDS OF MILES APART AND I WAS SURROUNDED BY PEOPLE HERE I FELT CLOSE
This touching fragment—that presciently gets at why many of us still use the Internet today—begins Douglas Davis’s 1994 piece of web art, The World’s First Collaborative Sentence. Commissioned by the Lehman College Art Gallery and acquired by the Whitney in 1995, it is widely considered to be the first work of Internet-based art to enter the permanent collection of a museum.
The concept was simple enough: Kick off a sentence with a provocative prompt (courtesy of fellow new media artist Nathalie Novarina, who typed and entered the above from nearly 4,000 miles away in Geneva, Switzerland); post it on the web; then allow anyone with Internet access to add to it at will through an online form. Entries ranged from perfunctory to poetic to absurd: “WELL ISN’T IT JUST FUN TO WRITE TOGETHER LIKE THIS. . . . This is far too spontaneous for Canadians We prefer our Babel towers a little politer. . . . TECHNOLOGY WILL NOT ELIMINATE THE DECAY OF THE HUMAN SPIRIT. . . . boo boo boo boo yahoo yahoo yahoo . . . osram traktor, osram lada, da da da dada dadada da.”
Yet the coding, the hosting, and the sheer functionality of the project were far more complex than its interface—a simple white webpage splashed with black text and the occasional hyperlink—may suggest. By 2005, the piece was dysfunctional and warped, plagued with a rusty foundation that was no longer compatible with our current digital tools. Non-English characters were jumbled, the layout was off, links were broken, and the add form didn’t work.
The piece languished in its creaky and defective state for years but, in 2012, with requests coming for loans and a sense of responsibility to the artist, the piece, and the Whitney’s groundbreaking acquisition, Christianne Paul decided to take action. The now 80-year-old Davis was unavailable to advise on the project, so Paul herself oversaw the conservation, keeping the artist’s original intention in mind at every juncture.