Applied Arts Magazine
Sites for Sore Eyes
by Gordon Macleod
"[...] Where commercial and promotional Web pages aim to inform and draw attention, Piotr Szyhalski has much loftier goals: to colonize the Web with good design. A designer, photographer and teacher at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, Szyhalski uses his site, called The Spleen, to explore the very nature of Web communication in an effort to raise its esthetic bar.
The Spleen is organic in both metaphor and structure. Using visual puns and rich symbolism, Szyhalski explores the mythology of the spleen as the seat of both negativity and creativity, juxtaposing it with the biological function of the organ as a cleansing filter. As the viewer enters the home page, the sepia-colored, medically accurate illustration fills with blood, representing life entering the site. This is accomplished not with complex CGI programming, but with innovative applications of two HTML commands that create layering and wipelike effects. The visitor who stays on the home page is treated to a kind of multimedia experience as the image shifts and morphs - a looping technique used throughout the site.
"It is important to claim large chunks of the Net for higher cultural expression," says Szyhalski, "because we are approaching a major threshold, where galleries and cultural institutions will have to move onto the Web. It's already happening slowly: The ADA Web (http://adaweb.com/) in New York has well known artists creating works specially for the Web. I hope these will have a domino effect on the medium."
One of the best features of the site is a set of 30 multimedia works Szyhalski calls "Electric Posters." The posters marry traditional Polish poster design with Web technology to form unique on-line art. Each poster is a sequence of three or more images, loaded sequentially, which add new type or graphic elements until a final picture emerges. "When working on this type of design, you must consider that the pieces will be displayed in groups, inevitably affecting the perception of each individual piece, and the elements that make it up," says Szyhalski.
The posters exploit a "bug" in the Netscape Navigator browser that forces the software to refresh the page background when it encounters a series of commands. (Netscape assumes a background is either a hexadecimal color equation or a graphic; it was not intended to cycle multiple back-ground images.) Since future versions of the browser may not offer this feature, Szyhalski may have to switch to server-push technology to achieve similar effects. However, his fortuitous discovery illustrates the potential of even the current limited tools in the hands of artists not afraid to explore.
Aside from the posters, the color palette of the Spleen pages is limited. Rather than use colors to dazzle viewers, Szyhalski employs them to reinforce structural territories within the site. He feels such restraint in the face of growing design options is important for the Web, not only because of bandwidth concerns, but for the sake of good design. In fact, he believes Web designers should view the creative constraints they face as a potential benefit. "Because the design capabilities of the current browsers are so limited, we'll hopefully spend more time thinking about what we are trying to accomplish conceptually. This forced return to basic compositional issues is valuable."
The mutating form of The Spleen, which literally changes before the viewer's eyes, reflects the fleeting nature of Web content. The site highlights the negotiated experience between creator and viewer, and the Web's nonlinear, circuitous navigation. The architecture of The Spleen also echoes its creator's outlook on artistic expression in general. "I am interested in the ephemeral aspects of art, its temporary existence and immaterial status. The Web is an ideal environment for such an ideological approach. A major problem with many sites is that they are either technologically advanced but have little to offer in terms of content, or they are content-driven but have no visual strength whatsoever."