Annie Gérin

The Four-dimensional Monument: Public Art Futures on the World Wide Web

In the past, the monument usually appeared as a three-dimensional object placed in a public space. Built in durable materials, it was expected that its immutable meaning would last as long as its form. Around this monument, communities came together: the public spaces it inhabited transformed into physical sites of remembrance.

In the present, the expansion of communication networks and digital cultures have altered the spatial and temporal parameters of collective experience, and by extension, of memorial activities. With new communication technologies, public space has become fragmented, serialized and also strategically (if not universally) accessible. This conceptual shift provides unprecedented potential for the monument, particularly as acts of memorialization rely more than ever on virtual rather than physical communities. These fragile and changeable populations are linked by ideals, convictions and interests shared in time, rather than geographical proximity. These are the intended publics for many recent memorials (and memorials-in-progress) that overflow the locality of their origin to remember global causes such as September 11, December 6, Tiananmen Square, and the Aids crisis, to name a few.
In an age when the local has exploded, the Internet provides a medium in which public art can be created specifically for non-localized, interactive and lasting memorializations. Explorations of public art on-line indicate this potential in dislocating memorial activity.

For example, The Numbers and the Names by Mac Dunlop and Neil Jenkins, with a visual prologue by Annie Lovejoy (http://www.herenorthere.net/11.09.01, as part of the international collaborative art project …here nor there…) reveals the global pathos of the September 11 tragedy by using not the names of victims, but words generally related to terrorism or war. These words are drawn from Dunlop's poems 11.09.01 and The Numbers and the Names. The words float on a colourless screen, in an orbital movement circling a void (using the orbital engine programmed by Jenkins). The order in which the words appear is generated according to an inverse reading of the viewer’s IP address and those of previous visitors to the site.  By dragging the mouse the user can slow down or re-orient the dance of words but they cannot stop or reverse the process.

In its collection of IP addresses, this virtual monument maps a history of mourners who have visited the site in a progressive temporal weaving of poetic and programming languages. It emphasizes how the tragedy has had, and will continue to have, a history of commemoration far beyond Ground Zero. By avoiding the boundaries of physical and political space and incorporating temporally-based interactivity, it precludes jingoistic closure. It also indicates a paradigm shift: the memorial moves away from producing historic or aesthetic truth to engage instead with the conditions of possibility of remembrance.
This last point is crucial for the Tiananmen Mothers Campaign web-monument (http://www.fillthesquare.org), a site administered by Human Rights China, which hosts a virtual Tiananmen Square. Visitors to the site are encouraged to sign an e-petition requesting the (still denied) right to mourn the deaths of hundreds of youth peacefully and publicly. Each hundred signatures engender a bouquet on the virtual square. Since the victims’ kin have been prevented from building memorials or leaving flowers on the Square, the website provides a safe space for mourning. Furthermore, the potential of this monument to grow infinitely and to perpetually occupy virtual space offers a provocative alternative to the physicality of stone and metal monuments, which become fragile under regimes of repression.

In exploring the fourth-dimension, time, public art on the Internet creates unprecedented opportunities for remembrance. Stressing this aspect, Presence Forever: Perpetual Communication Machine (http://www.forevermore.com) by Yuri Shutovsky provides symbolic immortality for visitors who are invited to create memorials to themselves. These are not meant to be mute representations or lists of personal data: the emphasis is on eternal and ubiquitous communication. E-bottles carry letters into cyberspace for future connections with strangers. Personal messages can be sent ad eternam.   One may, for example, have flowers delivered to a grandmother’s grave annually for eternity, or a note can be sent to a grandchild in 2103. Users of this feature disappear into their memorial double by switching to a medium and temporal framework where memorial interactivity promises to last forever.
On this site, variations of future memories become the most actual part of the work. Because data files have no closure date, regardless of output or experience in any digital or print medium, a file is always open to modification. This reveals that the true asset of the virtual is located in its temporal possibilities. For public art, this also restores a sense of process, by demonstrating how meaning is produced in time through nomadic layering. The culture of immutable truth that once surrounded the sculptural memorial begins to fade in favour of a future culture of shared memorialization in any medium.

Annie Gérin
Assistant Professor
Department of Visual Arts
University of Regina
E-mail: annie.gerin@uregina.ca

(this article first appeared in Fuse Magazine, vol. 25, number 4, 2002)