Urban Exile
by Werner Hammerstingl ©1996

A stillness surrounds me. I sit in front of my computer. Outside I see windblown gum-trees in the fading light of a typical Melbourne winters day.

I'm logged on and about to enter the bright and colourful space of a virtual gallery. Netscape 2 is up and I scroll my bookmarks to find 'Urban Exile' (http://www.matra.com.au/~exile/ for those who've not visited). The homepage is loading and I have a few moments to drift away from the phone call and papers I dealt with moments earlier.

Virtual galleries are like that; you can just interrupt whatever you are doing, pay a visit and then get right back to work or whatever you did before. The homepage has loaded and I have entered a frames based environment where the scroll widow on the left is a long vertical frame containing icons . Each icon (a simple silhouetted figure of a helmeted nude male which appears Phoenician in origin) is obviously a hotlink to a site or event. The larger central frame features the floor plan of a circular building of eight rooms against a background of red cracked earth. The rooms are identified as: 'Private, Ceramics, Coming attractions, Current exhibitions, Digital Aesthetics, Periphery and Eartheart' . In the centre is a space marked 'Gallery Foyer.' Naturally, an invitation to venture into the 'private' room is too tempting. The artwork can wait. I arrive at Gray's home page, find out about his sexuality and his taste in decor and his partner (more detail/experience on http://www.matra.com.au/~exile/syn/). See how easily one can get sidetracked on the web. Another link, another button and suddenly you're travelling away from your intended destination at a meg a second.

It's time to start looking around the gallery. No cask wine here! No distracting acquaintances to run into unexpectedly. Well, lets go in! I'm asked if I've got the Shockwave plug-in and as it happens I don't. Might as well prepare dinner as I download this 2.1 meg file on the V34 modem. 35 minutes later I have Shockwave installed and I'm ready to go and have a look around. So, PCD is exhibiting right now! I know PCD. One of the cyberhippies in Sydney. PCD's a great guy who has well and truly paid his dues to the art world. He has been around long enough to remember when valves were being replaced by transistors and all the electronic gear started getting smaller. Great! I'm looking forward to navigating my way through PCD's assembled works. Graham Crawford and Gavyn Lister, the webmasters of Urban Exile used to run shows in a hardspace gallery in Newtown. Two years ago they began to duplicate these shows on the net. They very quickly realised that the difference in environment required a radical departure in presenting the work and the artist. A virtual gallery offers more and, at the same time, reduced options to the director / curator.

Graham and Gavyn are aware of hard- and software limitations in presenting work in virtual spaces and on a medium where large downloadable files translate into long waits for -who - knows - what - in the end. As I press dial buttons on a simulated telephone or remote (I'm not sure which) , I experience examples of PCD's work. I load option after option from the menu to find a random selection of works presented diversely as text, still images, slide-shows (...that's what shockwave was for ) and so on. I find a curator's statement which explained PCD's long and distinguished involvement with the Sydney fringe. Now I don't know how many of you have been to a virtual gallery or how often you re-visit, but I have discovered on repeated visits that the download of the next image is an experience which radically differs from a walk through in a traditional gallery. Each screen refresh is a strange strip-tease where the new image reveals a little more of itself. Each transition plays tricks with expectations and predictions. I dream away as the download takes place. Finally, when the image is complete and understood(?); the hunt begins again: 'what's next?'.

Urban Exile is one of few Australian virtual galleries (I believe it's also the first). It has the look and feel of a professionally operated space but none of the 'where's your chequebook?' or: 'ahh - there's another Art Almanac carrying art-student' assessment which greets many visitors of commercial hardspace galleries. Exile is commercial in the sense that works shown can usually be purchased on line. The site has become hugely popular. Recently Exile received over 2000 'hits' in one hour (which resulted in a major server crash). A visitor rate like that is only rivaled by blockbuster shows at major International public galleries. Yet Exile, that is to say Gavyn and Graham operate out of a tiny flat high above the hussle of Darlinghurst Road in the middle of Kings Cross with nothing more by way of equipment that the average home user would have, a PC a modem and a scanner. The rest is dedication and talent. There is more to say and more to explore but it's time to hit the "hard close" button on the PPP window. By now I've killed a couple of hours and in the meantime my work refused to run away to a better home so I guess I'd better get back to it....

©Werner Hammerstingl, Melbourne, 1996