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banner Monday, 3 December, 2001, 11:11 GMT
A web of visions
One of Davis's Flash creations at praystation.com
Millions of pounds have been spent on web design. But has it done any good for the casual surfer? And, come to that, is it art? BBC News Online's John Walton reports.

"Web designers believe they and their sites are important. They're not."

This is the stinging verdict from Jakob Nielsen the self-appointed web-usability guru who fires off influential edicts on what makes websites work.

But London's Design Museum has put his words firmly to one side and has taken the bold decision to hold one of the first traditional style exhibitions to focus solely on web designers.

Joshua Davis
Joshua Davis: "There's more to the web than shopping"
That the exhibition - itself a bit of a mixed bag - has gone ahead at all is a sure sign that the internet is maturing. And now it seems it is even classed as art.

Web Wizards

This comes as no surprise to the American pioneer of web design Joshua Davis who, along with Yugo Nakamura and Danny Brown, is one of the key figures in the Web Wizards exhibition.

"I'd always hoped I'd be in museums - it was a childhood pipe-dream - I started out as a traditional oil painter."


Confused? You will be ...
But the strange incongruity of plucking websites out of the ether and exhibiting them inside museum space is not lost on Davis, whose main creative outlet is the website praystation.com.

He told BBC News Online: "We [the other exhibitors] make things and then put them in a place that doesn't exist - so in some ways it's great to be in a venue and have a platform.

What is the internet for?

But having his work in a museum doesn't seem to mean as much to Davis as the opportunity to have a debate with the public about what the internet itself is all about.


I don't want to assume that everyone is the average idiot

Joshua Davis
"This is a different vision of the net - having it here is like saying to people - did you know that this exists? There's more to the web than shopping.

"I believe that the dot.com blow out was necessary and desirable. It weeded out some of what was useless - things like shopping for e-dirt, you know, buy dirt online."

It's a compelling idea that the web should be more than a virtual mall but whether Davis's Flash creations are to everybody's taste is moot.

At first click praystation.com can seem bleak. Instead of the interactivity conventionally expected in websites, the navigation can seem wilfully obscure.

Puzzled?

But scratch the surface and you might find that your patience is rewarded.

And if you find yourself a little puzzled at first you're in good company.

Matt Jones/ NTK.net's view of Jakob Nielsen
Jakob lives! The revolutionary Nielsen as Guevara, as viewed by Matt Jones and NTK.net
As Davis confesses: "If any of my work doesn't seem a little confusing to me, it's almost as if there's something wrong with it."

It's this kind of approach to the internet that would have usability experts like Nielsen pulling their hair out.

"I once sent him an e-mail - that he probably still has - saying that I'd beat him up if I saw him.

"But really the point is we're talking to very different audiences.

Holding hands

"He rubs me up the wrong way. By saying we should all embrace standards, he would create an internet where everything was concrete and unforgiving. His ideas don't promote growth, they stifle creativity. We are at opposite ends of the spectrum."

Warming to his theme Davis adds: "He wants to hand hold everyone through their experience of the internet - it's like saying everybody's stupid and that if the average idiot can use a website then a professor can use it too.


One day I will have a student who will totally surpass me

Joshua Davis
"But I don't want to assume that everyone is the average idiot."

How the work of Davis and his fellow web wizards will go down with the gallery going public will soon be clear.

Although no one can tell how long this medium - mainly Flash animation - will exist.

Even if it does survive it's impossible to say whether Davis and his contemporaries will be remembered as the pioneers of a major new art form or if they will be seen as footnotes on a journey that ultimately leads in different directions.

Referring to praystation Davis says: "I can't do this stuff forever - that's why I teach now. One day I will have a student who will totally surpass me and that's cool - but I hope he'll have been inspired by something that I set rolling."

And looking around at the world in general Davis is keen to point out how the web is making itself felt in other mediums: "Have you seen the commercials for the Sci-fi Channel - they are totally websites.

"We have brought new behaviours and systems and new motion with our graphics that is having an affect on print, broadcasting, and adverts.

"We have a new colour and a new movement. I guess we're the new kids on the block."

The Web Wizards: Designers Who Define the Web, is on at the Design Museum, London, from 30 November 2001 until 21 April 2002.

See also:

30 Nov 01 | New Media
Web wizards spin design show
30 Nov 01 | Reviews
Web wizards test technology
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