In February of 2010, the Institute of Cultural Inquiry (ICI ) set out to redesign its website. We have always loved our quirky site with its amalgamation of images, words and links that often lead you in circles by evading answers with another question – a labyrinthine experience that seemed to mimic our projects at the ICI. At the same time, we knew that our website had grown cumbersome. For the last ten years, it often seemed to fall behind our thinking. The HTML tinkering that produced new pages always demanded a clear head and a fresh pot of coffee, two things that eluded us right at the time we most wanted the site to reflect the urgency of our work. When we began our redesign, we thought we would simply switch to the versatile and user-friendly WordPress application. Wouldn’t it be great to relieve our team of over-worked beavers who had toiled over the years to clear (and at times, create) our unique array of Internet “log-jams?” We dreamed of a site whose growth and flow required only a flip of a switch (or a click of the upload button) at the “dam’s office.”
Little did we know then that our move to WordPress would be less “rent a U-Haul” and more “let’s move Ramassess’ temple.” Contrary to our intentions, the business of building a new site occupied much of our thinking in 2010. By August, after countless meetings with our over-worked designer, the dedicated work of social media interns and rounds of discussions with associates and board members, we decided the best way to create a web presence that reflected the organization was to not just ‘migrate’ our old website (and really, even that process is never that simple) but to create a new website that interrogates ’websiteness’ as it relates to our small organization but also to culture at large. Simply put, the redesign of the ICI website became a full-scale Institute project – an entity that evolves along with and through the ideas from which it takes its shape. What you see here is the first stage of that redesign – not a finished product by any means but an ongoing process of self-discovery and questioning that at this moment in time best reflects not only what we have produced but also what we believe and how we work at the ICI.
The “show and tell” ICI Website: 1994-2010
Since 1994, when we first set up residence on the Internet, our ICI website has provided visitors with our mission statement; with a number of lists and photo galleries that presented places we had visited, places where we had shown our projects, an archive of dirt samples, of library books, of collaborators, of staff and friends; and a place to buy one of our books. Certainly this type of “show and tell” site with a shopping cart at the exit door is not the only website template used on the Internet, but it is the standard for art and publishing, the two fields in which the ICI most traverses, and perhaps because of this it has been our template. Over the years, our lists and galleries grew in length and in diversity but so did the gaps between these inventories. The heart of the ICI always seemed to be missing – the actions and ideas that drive our concept-based organization that are messy in their processes, that reward rhizomatic connections, that are held together by a shifting group of collaborators who favor acts of impromptu interpretation and re-interpretation instead of fixed, du jour theories. We vowed to try to tackle that elusive aspect with this new website.
Part I: The ICI News Blog
The real challenge was how to begin to think about our ICI processes – that is, to translate our activities that have traditionally operated in the grey zone between images and text and had therefore been difficult to describe with either just images or just text and then to translate that process into the language of the web without simply miming the latest Internet trends. We started with the basic questions: What is it that unsolicited visitors want when they come to our URL? We answered that question by drawing from our own statistics. Visitors want to gain valuable information about our location and the hours they might visit us. They want to know what we have to offer – exhibitions, books, or ways in which they can collaborate with us or support our many programs. Step one of the project was to set up a blog where web visitors could find answers to basic questions about today’s happenings without having to wade through documents and galleries about our past. In many ways, our news blog, “Offerings and Opportunities”, is the next iteration of the last ICI website except now in the more versatile and malleable WordPress-based program.
Part II: The ICI Laboratory Blog
As much as the Institute’s news blog offers the key information most visitors want when they visit a website, it still failed to capture the day-to-day activities of the ICI. In the process of providing the answers to questions we are often asked via our website, we amassed a list of questions we wished we were asked: NAQs (never asked questions), as we affectionately called them. Where were the questions we sometimes hear from visitors to our physical site after seeing a pile of books and objects on a worktable or something hanging in a corner of the room, questions like how do you work and how could I work or collaborate within that process? Or the questions we wish our potential artists contributors asked us, such as ‘how can my ideas be realized through acts of excavation, resuscitation and renovation instead of just innovation?’ Or, questions from curators or writers: ‘how can I present my work through processes that enact my thesis instead of just talking about it?’ We realized it was unfair to expect these types of questions (via the Internet) if we couldn’t offer a peek at the ICI processes that might invite these queries. We needed a place for our contributors and visitors to see how we worked. Which led us to the second part of our new website presence – the Laboratory Blog.
The ICI Laboratory Blog is another WordPress-based site we set up as an enactment not simply a representation of what we do at the ICI. Each “session” in the laboratory allows disparate elements to come together in a moment of inspiration, or doubt, sometimes through a mis-reading or mis-seeing that then sets in motion a series of connections—a favorite method of ours for jumpstarting ICI projects. Through this process, we hope to approach our archive through the back door, with revelations that surprise us, the builders, as much as they intrigue you, the visitor. In the months ahead, the lists we created on our previous website will be rebuilt through acts of thought that are accommodated, facilitated and often singlehandedly inspired by the Institute’s raw materials. By creating this very real workspace in a virtual space we hope that potential contributors, interns, volunteers and visitors will get a glimpse of how we work. We also hope it will be a place for supporters to begin a passionate commitment to our efforts so we can continue to provide one of the few free-standing laboratories in the United States for the study and promotion of visual culture.
Part III: The Satellite ICI Website
We are excited to begin work on the Laboratory blog. We have over 2500 books in our library and an equal number of items in our Ephemera Kabinett – the raw material from which the entries will spring. Yet, even with this work that will rely on our rich archives, we still felt there was something missing. For years we have embarked on field adventures: a hunt for the origins of madness in Berlin, Prague, and Vienna; a quest to understand the trauma of the Holocaust that led us from Auschwitz to Venice to Graceland; and our re-walking of W.G. Sebald’s third prose fiction, The Rings of Saturn, that resulted in our third book project, Searching for Sebald: Photography After W. G. Sebald. The ICI News and Laboratory blogs capture the work we do at the ICI site in Los Angeles but they still lack the feeling of our field work—of being in a remote site and happening upon a place, a book, a “stranger or the fool” whose wisdom, along with random wrappers, catalogues, photographs, videos, newspaper articles that litter their world leads us to an unexpected revelation. Similarly, they didn’t seem to represent the analogous experience of welcoming a visitor to our ICI space who (without prompting) pulls the last link of the puzzle we are working on out of her or his pocket. We wanted to hint at this unscripted process, by seeding the Internet with out presence so that web visitors could stumble on us in other venues.
Which brings us to the third part of this web project – the part that best replicates the web building and information gathering we do under the auspices of the ICI at remote sites. Just as we have done in projects like Traumbagger and Visualizing Race in America we wanted to set up a situation (or series of situations) from which we could gather information –data collected from a series of creative propositions instead of a plotted out scientific or statistical test. And so you will find aspects of our raw materials, parts of our collections, documentation of our past projects at these ‘off-site’ internet locations—videos of our acts; images of our projects; lists of our archives; bookmarks to our research interests; all which will act as wormholes back to the ICI landing page–our directory.
Part IV: The ICI Directory – The Hub of the Wheel
At the core of these three website trajectories is the ICI landing page, a directory with buzzer buttons that lead to the varied aspects of the ICI website. It will greet visitors who type in our URL or visitors who come to it through a link at one of our satellite sites. Once there, website visitors can “peek” into the ICI Laboratory or they can ring a doorbell to link to the ICI news Blog where they can garner INFORMATION and NEWS about the ICI or learn about our ICI PRESS. You’ll find direct links to all aspects of our new site and a few buttons and tags that lead to places that will be revealed in the months ahead.
We hope this directory and the sites to which it leads will entice our collaborators, supporters and visitors to interact with our site and not just consume it. We also know that for a period of time some of our trails might lead to dead ends. We will be working on the website over the weeks ahead to alleviate some of these obstructions. But we must warn you that some of the false paths will be there for the long run. The ICI does not generally take the easy, uncluttered road. We do acknowledge that our labyrinths can lead to frustration (as it sometimes does for us when we’re looking for something, right now, with no time for side trips). If after a few minutes of trying to negotiate our new Internet presence(s) you find yourself longing for our old website, you can visit the last iteration here. For a few months at least, you’ll be able to buy a book or find information about our past activities–a history that will slowly find a new place in our unfolding website project. While there, you’ll hopefully also see the gaps that led us to this project and you’ll take another stab at our new site.
For you and everyone else—bold adventurers and skeptics alike—strap in…the ride is just beginning.