Internet Real Estate, Art and Power: The cases of Artsy and .art

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The forthcoming introduction of generic top-level domains (gTLDs)—which will replace the .com or .net suffix with specific words or terms, such as .food, .movies, or .microsoft—poses new speculative opportunities as dizzying as those of Zola’s 19th-century Paris.

The new gTLDs have been avidly discussed in specialty and popular media outlets, which stress the value of quick identification—.xxx for porn is a good example—and the limited options the 21 current top-level domains (.com, .edu, .net, and so forth) still hold. The new gTLDs will help organize websites according to affiliation, and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is currently considering applications to manage these top-level domains.

Last year, e-flux announced that it had put in an application to manage the proposed .art gTLD. The application fee alone was $185,000, and the successful applicant will pay ICANN a further $25,000 per year. There is clearly money to be made in top-level domains, but the management of .art may be more than a business; it holds within it the power to act as gatekeeper. e-flux’s involvement with the contemporary art community makes its application to manage the .art string plausible, and it drew a lot of attention to the suggested .art gTLD, which was largely overlooked by other important contemporary art institutions. But it also presents the organization with the opportunity to wield a kind of centralized power that seems incongruous not only with the egalitarian politics advanced through e-flux’s editorial, but also with the concept of the Internet as a shared resource.

Art, money, and politics are conflated in this Internet land grab. Arts organizations claim to wear their politics on their sleeves: conversations that celebrate the values of social utility and transparency are commonplace in the contemporary art context. As part of these conversations, we should consider the way we, as a community of individuals and institutions who create and care about and circulate around contemporary art, participate in the construction of a shared resource like the Internet, and who profits from this resource.

Fifth Avenue May Be In Syria: Artsy

Questions about the role of URLs in the way we use the Internet today regularly come up in the discussion over the new gTLDs. Are we paying too little attention to URLs? Are they still important? In some browsers, the location bar is no longer a command line, but a Google search, leading me to think of URLs as addresses rather than directions—which raises the question, do you get the Fifth Avenue address or the no-name one?

In January of this year, online art startup Artsy announced that it will change its URL—and concomitantly its name and brand—from Art.sy to Artsy.net. The company registered the art.sy URL in 2009, stating that it was the shortest English language domain that began with the word “art.” .sy is the country-code top-level domain for Syria, and when the US imposed sanctions following the outbreak of civil war in 2011, questions were raised as to the legality of the company’s continued use of the domain.

Popular demonstrations began in Syria in March of 2011; Artsy renewed its domain name registration via a Syrian company the following month, and the U.S. sanctions on Syria were put in place several months after that, in August 2011. Thus, Artsy is guilty of no illegality, merely a willingness to do business with an unsavory political regime for the sake of branding.

The company bought the artsy.net domain name in 2012 and prepared to slowly transition over 2013. But following a 36-hour blackout due to an issue with DNS servers in Syria, they decided to shift all activity to the Artsy.net address immediately, and accordingly changed its name. Artsy’s entanglement with the Syrian government should be a cautionary tale for companies looking beyond their borders without considering the political implications of an international transaction. Top-level domains are not pure abstractions, disconnected from any underlying political reality.

In an interview with Gallerist, Artsy’s president and COO Sebastian Cwilich said, “The world is a complex and dynamic place. A domain which makes sense one year can not make sense the year afterward. I think that, at the time we made the decision to acquire Art.sy, the current conflict in Syria was at a much different stage from where it is now, and I see no reason why we would have made a different decision.”

The use of country-code top-level domains for creative branding often poses thorny questions for global companies. Tuvalu, for example, has successfully capitalized on its .tv domain, while its people live an increasingly precarious existence as a result of climate change. The URL-shortening website bit.ly now redirects to bitly.com, because the .ly domain belongs to Libya, where political upheaval and censorship made addresses under the .ly domain difficult to hold on to. The use of country-code TLDs, then, involves several kinds of associations with the nations who administer them: financial, symbolic, and technical. That Fifth Avenue address may be important, but its important to consider who the landlord is, too. 

A New Kind of Investment: e-flux and .art

While Artsy’s management act as if their Syrian URL was irrelevant to their brand, e-flux clearly understands the significance of top-level domains. Built on the timely recognition of the Internet needs of the art community, the organization used its tech savvy to become a major player in the contemporary art scene. e-flux’s application to manage the .art gTLD has met with the approval of many cultural producers and exhibitors across the world, as well as some suspicion, as some practitioners wonder what qualifies e-flux to select those who participate in the .art domain. One of the really interesting aspects of e-flux’s desire to manage the .art domain is that it drew a lot of attention to the fate of the .art gTLD from the contemporary art world, as evinced in the addendum to e-flux’s application, which includes letters from critics, artists, gallerists, curators, and museum directors. If a different entity were to win the management of the .art domain (Deviantart is one of the applicants, for example), would the art world be as involved with the fate of the domain? It’s doubtful.

e-flux brings its know-how and its deep involvement with the contemporary art scene into this initiative, and it will dedicate a certain percentage of the revenue generated by the .art domain to support art projects. In the application for the .art domain, e-flux stresses its “understanding of the art community in its broadest sense.” And a sense of responsible authority seems important here: if the aspiration of the new gTLDs is to organize the Internet, then e-flux’s conception of the .art domain is subversive of this systematization. While the gTLD will be selective, e-flux sees the .art string—as it states in the application—as a potential leveling mechanism for a community in which resources vary quite widely.

Nevertheless, for one organization to be placed in charge of vetting applications for .art domain names could imply quite a serious centralization of online power. The introduction of the gTLD means that someone will manage it, but e-flux’s ambition here is to for the .art domain to become a cultural asset that is not merely sold off to the first and highest bidder; e-flux suggests that the .art domain will, with time, build up to become an “encyclopedic” resource that catalogs the field of contemporary art. But it is not clear how domains will be allocated. The organization has stated that ".art would not...employ any form of gatekeeping using aesthetic standards," but it has referred to "an international team of experts" who would supervise the domain.

In very different ways, Artsy and e-flux rely on the idea that there is money to be made in mapping visual arts online. While e-flux emphasizes its role within a very specific community of contemporary art practitioners, Artsy—with its Art Genome project—focuses its attention on making all art available on the Internet. The interest both institutions have in URLs is telling in relation to two aspects of the new .art gTLD: one, the branding possibilities it offers, and the second, the benefit it may or may not offer for the contemporary art community.

Despite Cwilich’s comments about the variability of URLs, the top-level domain implies a kind of permanence. Subscribers to Reader’s Digest know that they can always mail their checks to an address in Pleasantville, NY, even though the company has moved its physical facility. Similarly, users of a particular website expect its domain to remain unchanged. Yet the bodies who manage domain names are subject to change—island nations flood; corrupt governments fall; arts organizations change leadership. Why should we speculate that things will stay the same? Have they ever? Time seems to be the crucial element here. Will e-flux make .art a stable, sustainable, and valuable operation? 

The new gTLDs call for us to be more discerning. Assessing information online is an important skill in contemporary society; with the new domains, a site’s URL will be both a source of information, in terms of the affiliations of said site, and a telling aspect of its network. In the case of the .art domain, it will be important to note who is in and who is out. Not simply because it is vetted by contemporary art practitioners, but because we need to draw the right conclusions from it: the rarefication of URLs, as in the case of Art.sy, collides interestingly with highly commercial initiatives and is more revealing of an organization’s politics than we may have previously imagined. The structures that lie behind URLs have political implications, whether on the global stage or on the micropolitics of the art world itself.

[Ed. - Disclosure note: Rhizome is on e-flux's list of clients and has contributed to Artsy.]