I've been interested in the GEOCITIES for three or four years now. My artistic ventures into its material thus far have been t-shirt designs, a short-lived imitational blog, and the odd collage. I mostly just find it thoroughly interesting. You can -- for free! -- spend hours and hours spelunking through oocities.org, exploring mostly boring or broken links, but sometimes coming across absolute gems.
These are personal blogs long-forgotten, archives of strangers’ lives from 20 years ago you can glimpse into. Of course, you can do that now on any godforsaken social media site, but something about the medium of GEOCITIES is specifically endearing to me. Maybe it’s the archaeological nature, the sense of this all being abandoned and lost and buried. Maybe it’s the level of personalisation imbued in each blog, painstakingly coded by amateurs for maximum self-expression. Maybe it’s just the nostalgic nature of it all, the low-res scanned film photos, the kitschy flashing banners, the tiled backgrounds and Times New Roman. (Of course all this "nostalgia" would be false for me; I was born in 2001, a few years after the sites peak popularity and a few years before it was shut down.)
I chose to focus exclusively on the portrait and person. These blogs belonged to someone, a person with a dense and complex personal life, and a liveliness in their photos archived online. Each is going through some sort of experience that really happened, and there would be no way for me to know these people existed and went through these events and were with those friends if not for GEOCITIES.
I find the effect similar to viewing the Fayum mummy portraits, these Roman-style portraits found in Egyptian tombs by the sarcophagi of their subjects. The genre of painting was incredibly popular at the time in Classical Italy and Greece, but like the GEOCITIES archive, these depictions have only survived through a specific and relatively unlikely form of preservation -- Egyptian tombs and volunteer-moderated archives. The Fayum portraits have an incredible essence to them, you can really see a person in them, someone who lived and breathed and walked around. Some of these were painted while the subject was alive, kept on the mantlepiece for public display til their death. Others were painted shortly after passing, the artist surely having to interpret the corpse in a new life. I find this comparison very poetic as I depict people who are probably alive, and only their blogs are dead. The website and the archaeological site.
The works are arranged in a large cluster on the wall, equidistant from each other. I think this implicates some sort of connection between these strangers; if they were spread about a room it would still be a collection of portraits of strangers, but I think the question of who they are would be less pertinent. Without context, people have speculated I know these people personally, or they belong to a specific group or community. The only thing that ties them together is their existence on the same URL.
I saw Liu Shiyuan's "Almost Like Rebar" works at the NGV Triennial, a collection of seemingly random images taken by her and from online. These images are framed together, grid-like and repetitious, in a puddle of overlapping rectangles. The frames have more than a dozen straight edges and right angles. The squareness and rigidity of the frame confines these disparate images to a particular space, limited but branching out.
A broad range of mediums and canvases were used; oil on panel, charcoal on paper, gouache on board, and so on. I also worked in various different styles, blurring some people out, working in reductive strokes, or focusing in on small details. All these people are distinct of course! I think limiting them all to a single style and method would de-emphasise their individuality, and reduce them to mere subjects. I tried to imbue some sort of personality into the method for each work. Perhaps this is how they would choose to be depicted? Perhaps not. But I hope there is some sort of agency expressed in the diversity of it all.
Some methods came about due to the nature of the GEOCITIES images -- image resolution was a limited resource for the time. Pixelated images would be blurred out or the blanks filled in at my own discretion (a bit like trying to add life back in the depiction of the dead).
The only really unifying force is the colour scheme, limited to blues, greens, browns, and greys. Sometimes this was natural to the source material, sometimes I altered or reduced the colours for this continuity. I think this ties them together more, implies something deeper than just a collection of people. There’s also the contrast between computer-screen blue light and more naturalistic browns and greens. I also wanted a sort of melancholy, aged brown or beige paper, desaturated and decaying. There’s not much pure gleaming white, it’s all quite dulled, perhaps like old photographs.
My shrine grew naturally, starting out with some small studies of the photos I found most endearing, and building up and out based on the paper I had and the new photos I dug up from oocities.org, after hours of clicking on dead links. In the end my computer was host to a huge collection of .JPGs, .GIFs, and weird ones like .BMPs. I had to discern what pictures I did and didn't want to paint, where things would fit, and how to best deepen the effect.
Local artist Patrick Pound explored the collection and the archive as well, displaying vast arrays of objects and photos; bidding on eBay for pictures of strangers, taking cuttings from newspapers, and displaying things out of museum archives. I love the total diversity of his work, and the way the collections continually grow to fit a room. He describes the internet as "one vast unhinged family album,” and I couldn't agree more.
I’ve been encouraged to consider how much I need to disclose; I think the work can stand on its own without context, but the ideas of the archive, the internet, and the individual colliding are really deeply interesting, and that’s what I want the viewer to really contemplate when looking at the piece.
Marshall McLuhan’s 1967 book The Medium is the Massage is a look into the way mass media has altered our perception of the world. It seems just as relevant now as it was in the 60s, if not more. The move from print media to instantaneous, electronic media has expanded our viewpoint to be more communal, it compels empathy with the other, the distant stranger, as we now have the opportunity to bear witness to their lives. “The new electronic interdependence recreates the world in the image of the global village.” I wanted to look into this notion, to explore the digital community and get a real sense of these lives I would never otherwise be aware of, and to appreciate that I have the opportunity to do so. These people experienced these things on the other side of the world and before I was even born, yet I can still experience it with them.
And as for this blog as a form of display-- "You've put them back online!" -- I think re-digitising them is a sort of return, not necessarily a regression. I found the people through scouring the web, maybe people can find this project through their scouring as well? Fundamentally each of these people chose to present themselves online, show their lives to the world; online display is fundamental to all of us.
Finally, I will end with an excerpt from the last pages Don DeLillo's Underworld, a book about a lot of things and a lot of people, after which a minor character has died and entered an unexplained and unexpected internet-heaven:
Is cyberspace a thing within the world or is it the other way around? Which contains the other, and how can you tell for sure?
(Underworld was published in 1997, at the peak of GEOCITIES' popularity)