The World's First Collaborative Sentence, Douglas Davis, 1994

Commissioned by the Lehman College Art Gallery, The City University of New York,
with the assistance of Gary Welz, Robert Schneider, and Susan Hoeltzel

Brief History

It began in December 1994, when the Lehman College Art Gallery and its director, Susan Hoeltzel, commissioned The World's First Collaborative Sentence as part of "InterActions," a survey of Douglas Davis' early work (1967-81) in a variety of media, from drawing, printmaking, and photography to performance, videotapes, and live satellite television broadcasting. Using a server provided by the City University of New York (CUNY) -- and working closely with professor Robert Schneider in the department of mathematics at Lehman College -- Davis documented the exhibition on the Web and created an entirely new work linked to the exhibition's theme.

Unveiled on December 7, 1994, the site was linked to a live performance in the Lehman College Art Gallery. Artist Nathalie Novarina, participating in the performance via phone from Geneva, supplied the Sentence's maiden image and its first words. In collaboration with Gary Welz, Davis designed the formal interactive structure of the Sentence.

In January 1995, Barbara and the late Eugene M. Schwartz purchased both the concept of the Sentence and the site itself. As a symbol of ownership, the Schwartzes received a disk that recorded the first days of the site, including the earliest contributions. The Schwartzes' generosity allowed further work to be done on the design of the Sentence as well as a revision of the introductory homepage that adds information about the meaning and intention of the work. Professor Schneider has maintained the Sentence on the Web for over ten years, breaking up the enormous volume of contributions into separate "chapters" (there are now twenty-one). Susan Hoeltzel, moreover, has actively encouraged the evolution of the Sentence at every step. The work was included in several interactive installations -- at the Kwangju Biennale in Korea in 1995, at the School of Visual Arts' "Digital Salon" exhibition later that year (which toured internationally), and in 1999 at the Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie (ZKM) in Karlsruhe, Germany (as part of the exhibition "net.condition") -- all of which attracted thousands of online contributions.

In 1995, Mrs. Schwartz donated the Sentence to the Whitney Museum of American Art. Davis commemorated the Whitney's acquisition of the Sentence by designing, with Vincent M. Spina, a logo -- W-M Music -- which now lives among the year 2000 contributions to the Sentence itself. W-M stands for "Wrap Music," a series of audio files that includes conceptual songmaking and historic sounds sent to the Sentence in its earliest days.

From its inception, the Sentence has received a torrent of words, sounds, and images, contributors having learned about the site by word-of-mouth, web-based references, or press attention. The appeal of the Sentence is that it gives the world a space in which to speak its collective and its individual mind.

As of early 2000, the estimated number of actual contributions neared 200,000 and incorporated dozens of languages. The only "rule" of the Sentence is that no one is allowed to type a period at the end of their contributions. Though ingenious users have occasionally found ways to break this rule, the vast majority have abided by it with great passion, criticizing those who discover ways to type a period at the end of a grammatically completed thought. The Sentence may well go on forever, or at least until a superior force or the limitations of web technology calls a halt to it.

As the skills of users have increased, the Sentence has grown to incorporate far more than words. In addition to texts, there are now photographs, video, sounds, graphics, and links to thousands of other websites, contributed by people of all ages and cultures. Among the contributions are musings, rants, lyrical poems, political and spiritual tracts, fragments of thought, and philosophical speculation, as well as occasional vulgarities. They address such concerns as art, literature, sexuality, religion, the nature of play, the meaning of the "sentence" itself, and the vaster subjects of life and death.

Douglas Davis is grateful to all those who are writing and designing the Sentence and regards them as fully equal collaborators. He also thanks the original sponsors of the Sentence at the Lehman College Art Gallery, the students of Lehman college, and Barbara and the late Eugene M. Schwartz.

"The Sentence has no end. Sometimes I think it had no beginning. Now I salute its authors, which means all of us. You have made a wild, precious, awful, delicious, lovable, tragic, vulgar, fearsome, divine thing."

—Douglas Davis, April 4, 2000

In 1995, the Whitney Museum acquired its first work of Internet art, Douglas Davis' The World's First Collaborative Sentence. Commissioned by the Lehman College Art Gallery, Bronx, New York, in conjunction with "Interactions," its 1994 survey exhibition of the artist's work, Sentence is an ongoing textual and graphic performance on the World Wide Web that is owned by the Whitney Museum but was maintained on the Lehman website from 1994 - 2005. The work was generously donated to the Whitney by Barbara Schwartz in honor of Eugene M. Schwartz, her late husband, who together had purchased the concept and a signed disk with recordings of the first days of the Sentence.

Visitors to the site may add their own contributions to the Sentence -- there are more than 200,000 to date, separated into twenty-one "chapters," in dozens of languages and with a remarkable range of images and graphics. Any subject may be addressed, but no contribution can end with a period, as the Sentence is infinitely expanding.

The World's First Collaborative Sentence is a classic work of Internet art. With its collaborative, polyvocal, multilingual, and boundless nature, the sentence has become a microcosm of the Internet itself. As a decidedly low-tech "multi-user environment" that allows for combinations of textual, visual, and aural components, it is a collective space which, in its broad array of voices and topics, achieves fluent transitions between the prosaic and the sublime.