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Originally published in Technology Review, January-February 2000.

Digital Decay

by Nick Montfort

A review of
The Impermanence Agent by Noah Wardrip-Fruin et al., and
[Phage] by Mary Flanagan.

You're browsing a friend's home page and a short text about mummification appears just under his name. Don't panic — it's art. You're experiencing The Impermanence Agent, devised by Noah Wardrip-Fruin, artist in residence at New York University's Media Research lab. Wardrip-Fruin's work is one of two disturbing new interactive artworks that treat the theme of time and memory.

The Impermanence Agent appears as a small window with a scrolling story. The agent intercepts the Web pages you're browsing and uses text from your readings, over time, to modify the story. The Web pages you view also get altered. A funerary image might pop up in The New York Times. The banner title of Arts and Letters Daily might appear eroded of decayed, as if weathered by some electronic rain or television snow — all with the suggestion of the damage does.

When a word from your own browsing appears in the scrolling text, it catches the eye. The story about impermanence is being wiped out by text from your own readings. This is art that runs in the background, while you're looking at other sites. So occasional grammatical fallings are easily forgiven — you can simply appreciate those times when the result manages to trigger thoughts and provoke emotion.

The effacement of the scrolling story can also clue you in to what you've been reading online. After using the Impermanence Agent for a week, Wardrip-Fruin says, he asked himself: "Have I really been looking at technical articles all week?" Seeing the story entirely replaced with technical language made him "want to go read something from Project Bartleby or WordCircuits," online literary collections.

The Impermanence Agent embodies forgetting. Another piece of digital art treats a related theme. [Phage] demonstrates how things that have disappeared can resurface in unexpected and at times disconcerting ways, like repressed fantasies bubbling forth. Created by Mary Flanagan of the State University of New York at Buffalo, [Phage] scours a user's hard disk to find media fragments. then it spins recovered text and images across the screen to the accompaniment of sound snippets, also pulled from the disk. Though named after a virus (the biological kind), this stand-alone PC program does not alter existing files on the hard disk, now does it propagate itself without the user's consent.

Even if it's not infectious, [Phage] is dangerous; running this software is like looking through old diaries. It's impossible to know what fragment of an old, emotionally charged e-mail (which you'd rather forget about) might fly across your screen, having been excavated from your hard disk.

Flanagan, whose other works in progress treat themes of women and work, notes that the piece has a different focus than typical interactive art. "In most software and interactive works," she says, "the story is not about you." [Phage], like The Impermanence Agent, does make the story about you, by looking at content that you either selected or created. Unlike The Impermanence Agent, which by effacing one text with another reminds us of loss and forgetting, [Phage] can bring long-forgotten content from the hard disk back to light—reminding us that memory can sometimes be too persistent.

Both of these works forego the normal mousing and clicking for a more subtle — and highly effective — means of user influence. They both also pierce the "closed system" — the metaphorical museum — within which interactive art exists. They take the user's readings and writings and turn them into the art supplies of an automaton. Even with no or limited "intelligence," these compositors can provide a rare glimpse into the turbulent unconscious of our computers — our prosthetic minds.

The Impermanence Agent can be experienced at <>. [Phage] can be downloaded from <>. Both works were exhibited at Digital Arts and Culture '99, a conference held late last year at Georgia Tech.

article text 2000-01 / nm 2002-05