Art on the Edge
by Phil Anderson
"Web sites are such a new thing that there's no precise language to describe them - terms like "gallery," "theater," "billboard," "channel" don't really apply. But Piotr Szyhalski of Minneapolis says his never-for-profit web site, The Spleen (http://www.mcad.edu/home/faculty/szyhalski/Piotr) is like standing on a busy street with a handful of flyers... when/if you manage to make eye contact, you might succeed with the delivery." He insists he likes this one to one interaction, adding that "audiences fulfill the promise of art, not artists."
However, attention has started to gather in the traditional media: Both the on-line HotWired and actual Wired magazine have pointed readers to Szyhalski's site. And for good reason. The Spleen wrestles with the elusive nature of public - and private - communication, demonstrating how thin the lines are between cheerleading, salesmanship, and more frightening forms of manipulation. A visitor first encounters an old medical illustration of this unexplainable (and usually dispensable) organ; clicking on "The Inward Vessels" leads to a number of areas, some of them narrative and tenderly memoir-like, some full of oblique exhortations. "The Will Power Clinic," for example, is a set of text instructions whose choices sound as much like New Age corporate training exercises as they do old-fashioned communist propaganda. "EIectric Posters" is a set of images that evolve over time. A "poster" titled "Dawn" first shows a cozy bungalow at night; a new background descends with the familiar rosy clouds; then a third background reveals parachutists landing. Instead of a misty poem ("Release all the deep things of your heart") the poster becomes about lurking fears ("and listen! As the world comes alive at dawn").
A Polish native who came here over five years ago, Szyhalski says he is a teacher, not an artist. He admits that the propaganda allusions could trace their origins to his native land, where "everything is a political act." Yet he avoided Army training (art school students were not drafted), and he points out that whatever the country, there are scant differences among forms of "propaganda, indoctrination, and all sorts of social ills."
In addition to his semantic interests, he has a fresh command of the budding aesthetics of on-line communications. His pages and screens have Heights and "depth," and mere clicking isn't their only feature. Szyhalski's current gripe is with the "default aesthetics" of Netscape, which he feels limit artistic expression. And don't get him started on "cyber" or "virtual," because those are "precisely the terms that make people think of art as confined within objects, as art being the object." Some of Szyhalski's non-electronic works are included in the current Situation Ethics II gallery show at MCAD (through Dec. 17), and he's created a new web site to accompany his exhibit.
Szyhalski was interviewed entirely via email for this piece. He enjoys the "purity" of the experience. "I make an effort to send; you make an effort to receive," he writes. "We flex organs we didn't know we had. . . (the site) is the triumph of thought over matter: The artwork actually does not exist!"