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
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
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,
Douglas Davis, April 4, 2000
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.