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

By Orit Gat


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.]

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Tom Moody 2 years, 5 months agoReply

Are "new speculative opportunities as dizzying as those of Zola’s 19th-century Paris" a good thing? Bad? Pure hype? Orin Gat's article takes no position on e-Flux's attempt to corner the ".art" domain. An organization taking its name from a diffuse, rhizomatic conception of the Web might just say "whoa, wait a minute" to plans to have a single organization acting as gatekeeper for all of art. If this goes through will Rhizome move to Rhizome.art? What happens to all the artists on Facebook and their "like" economy? Isn't deviantart.com actually more of a democratic conception of art than e-Flux's insider-y mailing list?

Some of these topics were discussed on Paddy Johnson's and my blogs a year ago. See links below. In reply to being called out as a would-be gatekeeper, e-Flux's Anton Vidokle replied "we are not planning to curate the art domain." Is a gatekeeper the same as a curator? All one has to do is say "yes you are art" or "no you aren't art." I wouldn't call that curating but I'd call it gatekeeping.

Also, how about a little skepticism regarding ICANN's claims that the new top level domains will change the face of the internet? Vidokle thinks they will. Others have called TLDs a Mafia-like shakedown of nervous web businesses. Vidokle is paying $185,000 just to bid for the domain. That should make any art-lover nervous. "Trust the Party - we have the best of intentions for your art."





Michael Connor 2 years, 5 months agoReply

Hi Tom, I did read all of those posts while this article was in process, thank you for sharing them here. I think Orit added something new to the discussion through her bringing together of these two examples as indicative of a growing awareness of the underlying political structures behind the URL,

The article does indeed say "whoa, wait a minute." For example:
"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."

Also: dotorg for life baby. I am, like you, skeptical that the GTLDs will change the face of the internet, but I don't think the article advances the ICANN party line. The point of Orit's Zola flourish was to suggest that there is serious money involved, a point I think you'd agree with.

Finally, the question of a gatekeeper vs curator is quite a tricky one. While I wanted to support Orit in asking critical questions about e-flux' stewardship of the .art domain, I am happy this didn't turn into a straightforward argument on behalf of deviantart's bid, which raises its own kind of issues.

A few years ago I wrote a text 'A Manual for the Twenty-First Century Gatekeeper' … I admit that I was guilty of imprecisely defining my terms, but I would also argue that this follows common usage; the word 'curate' is now often used to refer to the act of selecting content.

One idea that came out of my research was that democracy tends not to be the most interesting process for the selection of artwork. The reason for this is that the selection or inclusion of an artwork typically tells an audience more about the selector than it does about the work. Selections made by large groups cannot be said to be more or less valid than those made by individuals or small groups, and they lack any sense of personal risk, of a passionate commitment made by an advocate on behalf of the work.

While I share your worry about the centralization of online art power in e-flux's hands, I also admire and enjoy their curatorial voice, and I'm not quite ready to throw my support behind deviantart…

In your post on the topic, your contrast between "web-based art culture" and the "gallery-based power structure" does elide some of these complexities. Granted, it was a short blog post, and I don't mean to nit-pick. But I'm glad that Orit chose not to offer up an easy resolution, because I don't think one exists.

Tom Moody 2 years, 5 months agoReply

Hi, Michael,
Thanks for the response. Orit Gat adopts a "on the one hand, on the other hand" style of writing that raises questions but stops short of taking a position on e-Flux's ambitions. It's good to hear from you that Rhizome won't use .art if e-Flux succeeds.
Gat asks a pertinent question: "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."
It would be good to see the logic of this explored a bit more. If deviantart or donuts.co won the domain, "art" as the art world knows it would go on pretty much as it has. Nothing on .art would be taken seriously. The furor (if it exists), then, is over the possibility that e-Flux won't be a deserving steward. That should be explicit in Gat's article.
My distinction in that blog post you mention between "web-based art culture" and "gallery-based power structure" wasn't as simplistic or Manichean as those quotes make it sound. Deviantart is closer to an IDEA of web-based democratic culture than e-Flux's fee-based mailing list of "top" museums and galleries, but that doesn't mean we should have a tyranny based on likes or stats. I think the best outcome would be if some art-clueless third party company won the domain. Here's what I said on Paddy's blog:

The beauty of art on the net is it's spread around sites like .fm, .com, even .biz. E-Flux has the potential with this scheme to be a new Facebook of art (in the sense of "you have to be on it to play"). It is already Facebook-like in its maintenance of an exclusive mailing list.
.art under E-Flux also has the worrisome potential to become a place of knee-jerk left orthodoxy: trolls, wingnuts, and future urinal-appropriators need not apply.
What are the alternatives? One of the above-mentioned business entities wins .art, turning it into a tacky, profit-oriented no-go zone for anyone with a creative bone, and art continues to thrive in a decentralized way.

Best, Tom

Orit Gat 2 years, 5 months agoReply

OK so now I feel inclined to comment because while I like to fact that Michael stands up for his writers, you seem unconvinced of my approach to this article. Here goes: I am not inducing that the gTLDs are a good idea from the fact that e-flux applied. In fact, I have no real interest in the gTLDs except for the fact that their introduction brought about a lot of good writing on a subject that I find very interesting: how to organize the internet.
I think the meaning of this article is in the conflation of Artsy and e-flux, but nevermind that. Here's the real point: I have no actual interest in criticizing e-flux for its decision to apply to run the gTLD. I'd be happy to do that if they actually win it, and once they start charting out what they'll do with it. In the meantime, my only goal in this piece is to point to some problematics and interests in these two discussions on URLs, branding, art, and money.
About democracy and the internet community: well, first of all, I'm totally unconvinced that some weird democratic taxonomy is the best we can come up with. And in the case of e-flux, I think their time/bank project is an interesting precursor to what may happen with .art. I thought the time/bank had a great chance of being successful because e-flux had a built-in community of people who are interested in alternative economies around it. Instead it's circulating as an artwork and continuous project that is more of an experiment than a real entity. Who knows if .art (which attracted attention via that same e-flux community) won't be the same.

Tom Moody 2 years, 5 months agoReply

Also, Michael, am not disagreeing that curation at this point is mere selection. Vidokle said "we won't be curating" instead of "we won't be gatekeeping" because he wanted to deny in advance that he'd be exercising "higher" levels of taste, which, of course, he will be. I objected to him (and Paddy) putting that word in my mouth, but let's cover all eventualities: if e-Flux wins .art they will be gatekeeping, curating, and curating by gatekeeping.

Michael Connor 2 years, 5 months agoReply

Tom, I concede that I over-simplified your argument w/r/t deviantart vs gallery-based art world, but I still think you're guilty of the same with regard to Orit's piece, as she points out.

To expand a bit further, I am interested in Orit's article not as a stance for or against e-flux's application (an issue you and Paddy have already offered excellent analysis of). The interesting thing is that whatever happens, participation in .art will imply an alliance with the domain manager, whether the wingnuts or with e-flux, in the same way that participation in .sy unfortunately implies an alliance with Syria - URLs map onto political relationships, inside and outside of the "art world."

And yes it does still seem like e-flux are planning to gatekeep & curate, despite Anton's protests to the contrary, but that's just a perception rather than a statement I could really back up…

Tom Moody 2 years, 5 months agoReply

Hi, Orit,
The time to discuss this is now. If, as you suggest, Deviant wins, this whole problem goes away.
e-Flux, by actively soliciting art and e-world support, is in effect asking us to gamble on whether .art will be a Socialist utopia (a la the Timebank) or a Communist hell (a la Facebook).
"Let's have the revolution and fix the bugs later" is not preferable to a "weird democratic taxonomy" that works reasonably well.
Best, Tom

Michael Manning 2 years, 5 months agoReply

I'd never make a website with a .art domain unless it could be like f.art but that violates domain rules right?


Twitter 2 years, 5 months agoReply

For the American registrant, domain names are historically apolitical and more of a fashion thing. It's startling to an American, to whom .com is little more than a suffix, when a TLD exercises some arbitrary rule over who gets domains. For instance – Domains ending in .uk are not available, only .co.uk. Domains in some countries require a domestic tax ID or local agent (Russia is an example). .Edu requires you to be an educational institution (but this was not always the case). .Cat is only available for people who speak Catalan. And so on.

The American's grasp of geography is tenuous. Can you find Tuvalu on a map? Or Niue? Does .ch correspond to China or Switzerland? There is greater danger with dot-art falling into the hands of someone who treats art with a capital A, as opposed to handling it as an empty signifier. Which is more American – the musty odor of the sacrosanct, or a yearly subscription fee? Which one will let me register golfc.art?

This discussion does not take into account where the TLD's servers will live – in a dry county or a wet one. .Tv was once administrated by the guy for whom the Android phone is named, and the servers lived in his friend's garage. An amusing anecdote:

"So what are you going to do about Rubin?" Kim asks, referring to a WebTV executive who at one point managed to get administrative control of .tv without the government in Tuvalu knowing about it. …

1996: "I was scanning the list of ISO 3166 country codes, and I was like, 'Wow! TV!'" An online database, though, showed that IANA had given administrative authority for .tv to Andrew Rubin, manager of communications software for WebTV. But Kim noticed something he thought was strange: No .tv names were being sold. So he called Funafuti. "I got in touch with the finance secretary, and I said this guy Andrew Rubin is not maximizing your revenue. And he was like, 'Who is Andrew Rubin?'"

randomgenerator 2 years, 4 months agoReply

Brizlaz 2 years, 4 months agoReply

Personally a corporation\organisation which publicly states …

"e-flux has applied for the rights to develop and administer the .art domain, with the hopes of maintaining and distributing such a domain in a way that emphasizes the quality, content, and educational and ethical values of the art community" [http://www.e-flux.com/announcements/the-art-domain/]

… sounds a lot more like a curator than a gatekeeper.

1. Quality - If they don't think your art is any good …
2. Content - Goes far beyond the 'What is art?' question.
3. Educational - Policing misinformation would not be a bad thing.
4. Ethical - what about art that challenges a taboo.

No Pomo 2 years, 4 months agoReply


Zoë Salditch 2 years, 4 months agoReply

^^^^ you win