Celebrating the Bright Lights, Big GeoCities of the Early Internet

Screen capture from Cameron Askins' 'Cameron's World.' (Courtesy of the artist)

Graphic designer Helen Tseng and AI policy researcher Tim Hwang can’t quite remember when they first collaborated on an unusual project. “Was it the tiki thing?” asks Tseng. (That would be the Bay Area Tiki Society; Tseng designed the membership swag.)

“Or was it TableFlip?” Hwang says, referring to a daylong conference on the art and design of tabletop games.

Other joint ventures followed, including Gruen Day 2015, a celebration of 59 years of the enclosed American shopping center (a.k.a. the mall).

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Tseng and Hwang share an enthusiasm for under-celebrated, hiding-in-plain-sight topics, so it’s only fitting that the subject of their latest collaboration is a shared love for the early internet. Internet! A Retrospective, on view Oct. 22 and 23 at San Francisco’s SPUR, brings together artworks, speakers and objects tied to the scrappy era of Web 1.0, a time when the possibilities of the internet seemed hindered only by the low bandwidth of our cranky dial-up modems.

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“There was this sense of excitement and possibility we remembered from the late '90s and early 2000s,” Hwang says. “Now everyone’s excited about virtual reality, but there’s a lack of history in that excitement.”

Screen capture from Aanand Prasad's 'Geocities Forever.'
Screen capture from Aanand Prasad's 'Geocities Forever.' (Courtesy of the artist)

Tseng says she sees the aesthetics of the early web everywhere in design right now -- a mixture of nostalgia and unhistorical attraction -- but similarly, without much acknowledgement of the original content.

Because unlike other mediums and moments in visual history, the early internet is pretty much completely gone. Every now and then you might stumble across a webpage that looks like it came straight out of 1996, but those moments are few and far between.

No group of websites more strongly embodied the spirit and visual aesthetics of the early internet than GeoCities, a web-hosting service founded in 1994 that allowed users to build their own webpages for free.

Screen capture from Cameron Atkins' 'Cameron's World.'
Screen capture from Cameron Atkins' 'Cameron's World.' (Courtesy of the artist)

Some of Tseng’s earliest interactions with the internet took place on GeoCities. She’s particularly proud of a parody “under construction” page she built, complete with animated falling bricks.

When Yahoo!, which purchased GeoCities in 1999, announced a shutdown of the service in 2009, internet archivists and other hosting services rushed to both “save” the GeoCities pages and poach their customers. Several of the artists in Internet! draw directly from those materials to build homages to what artist Cameron Akin calls “the lost days of unrefined self-expression.”

Askin’s Cameron’s World, a web-collage of text and images from thousands of archived GeoCities pages is a catalog of those lost days. The effect -- a cascade of GIFs, cacophonous MIDI tunes and thematically-arranged visuals -- is at once overwhelming and exhilarating. Cameron’s World is so unlike the sleek, parallax-driven, Squarespace templates of today that it triggers a sense of acute loss.

Screen capture from Olia Lialina's 'on the internet everybody knows you had a dog.'
Screen capture from Olia Lialina's 'on the internet everybody knows you had a dog.' (Courtesy of the artist)

Similarly, Olia Lialina’s on the internet everybody knows you had a dog provides a seemingly never-ending slideshow of GeoCities homepages featuring pet pooches while a MIDI version of Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale” plays on and on and on. It’s boring, but mesmerizing, which could also double as a description of my own experiences with the early internet (AIM, anyone?).

Tseng and Hwang are interested in making those ephemeral, personal experiences visible. Morehshin Allahyari’s In Mere Spaces All Things Are Side By Side I is a video work that mines the Iranian-born artist’s Yahoo! chat histories from a four-year-long online relationship. The text of her conversations, plagued by evasive language and dropped internet connections, plays out against a bleak 3D-rendered interior space. “My slow and interrupted online being can not escape the oppression of the country I live in,” she types. “But persisting to be online every day is my only way of resisting it.”


It’s hard not to feel nostalgia in the presence of the early internet, but Tseng and Hwang hope, beyond that, Internet! A Retrospective provides a sense of context and continuity for the internet of 2016. As Hwang points out, the current iteration of the internet -- and its seemingly unfettered growth -- is just “another historical blip” in the Bay Area’s long history of digital connection.

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'Internet! A Retrospective' is on view at SPUR in San Francisco, Oct. 22 and 23, 11am-5pm, with an opening reception on Saturday, Oct. 22, 6-9pm. For more information and to donate to the opening night reception (proceeds benefit the Internet Archive), visit theinternet.show.

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