8:27 p.m. 5.Sep.99

Fighting the Good Fight

Mark Tribe on Jeremy Rifkin and Olia Lialina

I'm trying to ignore pop genetic ethicist Jeremy Rifkin, whose talk is playing on loudspeakers next to our table to an overflow crowd. With his televangelical speaking style, reductive rhetoric and constant use of hyperbole, Rifkin is really getting on my nerves. More importantly, he discredits the legitimate positions he advocates.

But he is next to impossible to ignore.

The most exciting moments, as usual, came during the Q&A. Here are some highlights:

A young man stood up and asked a spokesman from Novartis, the life science giant, to explain why they are sponsoring the symposium. After a long, long pause, the Novartis representative took the mic. Here's how he explained Novartis' motivation:

"A company like Novartis, who pursues the idea of improving the quality of life will have to find new approaches and new technologies... technologies that can be a problem, as we heard from Mr. Rifkin, because on the one hand they create opportunities, on the other hand new questions and new concerns. It would be wise to take these concerns seriously. We can only overcome these concerns if we're open to discussion. In the past two to three years there has been discussion among scientists but not among the general public. I think it's necessary to discuss with normal people, people who don't have scientific educations, to bring about better understanding of what life sciences mean and contribute to a higher level of acceptance."

Next, he was taken to task by a couple of very articulate scientists, including one Germanic botanist with long white hair and a long white beard, who called bullshit on several of Rifkin's spurious assertions.

In the midst of all this, scantily clad Multiple Dwelling performers stroll through the crowd, handing out invitations to this evening's performance.

But I wanted to talk about Location = "Yes," Olia Lialina's new project at art.teleportacia.org. A former filmmaker from Moscow, Lialina's web-based work has evolved over the years from personal narrative (my boyfriend) to advocacy. In Location = "Yes," Lialina argues (almost as vociferously as Rifkin) that the location bar is an important and integral feature of many Web-based artworks, and that museums and other entities that play host to these works should not use the location="no" tag or frames to hide the location bar.

She gives several examples of sites in which the URL is significant: www.hell.com, www.entropy8zuper.org, www.0100101110101101.org, and gwbush.com. In each case, Lialina explains why the URL is important.

Lialina's argument is just one strand in a debate that's emerging as traditional art institutions try to figure out how to deal with web-based art. Museums and galleries evolved to exhibit objects in real space. Web-based artworks exist in the virtual space of the Internet. While it's a common tactic for commercial sites to obscure the URL's of sites they link to, it becomes problematic when the site is art and the URL is integral to the its identity or meaning. These sites are the online equivalent of site-specific installations; pull them out of context, and they are fundamentally altered.

While Lialina's cause may pale in global significance compared to Rifkin's, I find her approach is far more appealing. Rifkin does a disservice to those of us who, like him, would bring a critical voice to the discussion around genetic engineering.