Process is a new series that builds on the the themes of the Gray Area Festival 2020: Radical Simulation, using immersive worldbuilding to reimagine adjacent possible presents.. Process asks artists to narrate the chronology of specific works, from inspirations to iterations to incarnations. By telling the story of how new media art is made, Process spotlights the side of it which is soft, ever in flux, and most importantly, made by people.
“How do we exhibit internet art?”
This is a question Don Hanson has been grappling with for a while, he tells me. Hanson goes by the handle d0n.xyz. His handle is also the internet address to his website. He explains that when his handle is published online, sometimes it is automatically converted into a hyperlink, generating a bit of foot traffic to his site. Clearly Don understands how things work on the web, which makes sense, as he is a practicing internet artist.
“Does it make sense to take internet art out of digital space and put it into a physical gallery? Maybe not.”
We’re discussing a recent project Don has been working on with a small team for the past year called New Art City. It’s an online virtual exhibition space that runs in the browser. It’s not the scroll-a-thon kind with an endless grid of square PNGs and size 11pt font captions. Nor is it Zoom call. No — New Art City is a depth-realistic depiction of 3D space, an almost video-game-like experience set in a gallery space (or not), 3D models, virtual picture frames housing videos, and spatial sounds. On top of that, one can see diamond-shaped avatars wandering and jumping around the virtual gallery, veritable extensions of viewers tuning in from their homes. It’s also been popular. Art galleries and individual artists alike, from bitforms to Rosa Menkman, have used the New Art City toolkit to easily imagine and realize their virtual exhibition spaces.
Don believes in “not going against the grain of a digital piece.” If a digital piece is exhibited in physical space, or vice versa, then that piece is mediated and part of its essence compromised. His oeuvre is testament to practicing what he preaches. Take More Plants (2018), a chrome extension that places images of houseplants randomly over your browser viewport which can be clicked and dragged out of the way if it blocks something. More Plants is a piece endemic to the digital. Presented in a physical gallery it would be mediated, compromised, if it could exist at all, as a physical entity wouldn’t be able to impart an interactive experience, a crucial component of the work.
In March of 2020, Don was in the midst of an MFA at San Jose State University when lockdown hit, and suddenly he and his classmates were not allowed to gather in a real space to exhibit their theses. “The prototype was really born out of necessity,” says Don. All of a sudden a wave of public need aligned with his research. Art galleries could no longer show work in-person, so they turned to look for virtual alternatives. Now, his problem was everyone’s problem.
To actually create the online exhibition space, Don tapped Three.js, an open source library that allows developers to efficiently run 3D graphics in the browser. It was a tool he had already been experimenting for a few years already, and this knowledge allowed him to quickly iterate on designs and features for New Art City. He began with adding the ability to upload pictures, randomly disperse them in space, and the ability to walk around and check them out from all angles.
Right away understanding the scope of the project, Don brought on two collaborators, Martin Mudenda Bbela and Benny Lichtner to unite forces on New Art City’s development. Don tells me, “We were just three developers for a pretty long time, figuring it out, building stuff.” With early prototypes they would share drafts with a core group of other internet artist friends, iterate on their feedback, then another draft to a wider audience on social media for more general feedback.
At this stage an early prototype was used to exhibit undergraduate work at San Jose State University (SJSU). 30 students uploaded their works for their end-of-year show, during which they banged on the product as de factor beta testers. The New Art City prototype also ended up hosting the SJSU digital art department’s commencement, underlining to the trio the effectiveness of creating a virtual space with copresence. As interest continued to grow, the three brought on Sammie Veeler to lead external conversations in bringing on new exhibitors. A little later Christina Lelon joined the team to lead user research. Don emphasized that New Art City was a group effort all along, and not a one-man show. “I didn’t have to convince any of my team members to join this project. Everyone was excited to put the time in and help it grow.”
Don cited the “net.art” art group in the 90’s, who were early movers in the art genre called net art or internet art, and how they were a group early on to display their art online, in situ. New Art City is a work that builds on this legacy, but is different in that it provides an easy-to-use toolset: “What we’re creating is a reproducible format. This is a tool that can make many, many exhibitions.” For those who want to be able to put on an online exhibition, one no longer needs to code or hire a coder. The interface for those creating exhibitions in this toolset was designed to be accessible to non-coders. “It’s really like a content management system, just like a Squarespace, but it’s 3D.”
To date, New Art City has been the conduit to 30+ public exhibitions with more than 30,000 visitors from 120 countries. And they’re scheduled to drop 10 more shows in March with their first New Art City Festival. Its widespread usage is in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the mandated lockdown orders in many states. Traditional art galleries, historically averse to moving art online, could no longer show work in-person, and were forced to turn to virtual alternatives.
Don started New Art City as a way to replace the need for a space to exhibit art, but he now sees the project less as a way to replace the role of traditional art galleries, and instead offer an entirely new architecture for understanding digital art. If you take a look at the exhibitions currently up on New Art City, you’ll notice that there is a huge variance in the content shown. Some spaces attempt to mimic a real-life white cube gallery, others get into the experimental side of it, constructing hallucinatory funhouses, as a type of digital installation art. Which points to the amazing potential of New Art City which is not just showing art that could exist in the real world, but in showing art that could only exist digitally.
You can check out more of Don Hanson’s work at d0n.xyz.