Browser Art. Navigating with Style


The appearance of the Internet is largely determined by the browser display. A web browser is a client program that uses the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) to initiate the transfer of files from WWW servers on the instructions of the users. This intermediary activity is supplemented by a function for displaying the HTML code of the requested files. This representation proves to be the interface between the Internet and the users on the monitor. Since the introduction of the first graphical browser “Mosaic 1.0.3” on January 27, 1994, commercial browsers have interpreted web content somewhat differently, but they all remain committed to the page metaphor. As long as all browsers largely agree on conventions for the processing of HTML code an illusion of solidity or permanence of the web structure is evoked. The content is generated according to this expectation. But what if these instructions are interpreted differently than intended? Perhaps radically differently?

Starting in the mid-1990s, artists have been dealing productively with the typical design elements, structures, and functions of Internet browsers in their own software applications. These art browsers develop alternatives to the established metaphors, set different priorities, deconstruct or reorganize the infrastructure as an interface to the World Wide Web. They not only offer new modes of presentation but often add new functionalities and therefore encourage the scrutinizing and rethinking of existing categorizations.

The research project examines these artistic browsers and how they display Internet content, each in its own specific way. Conceptually, they can be understood as image machines. According to one resulting working hypothesis, these browsers can inform digital image theory due to their programmed substructure and their dynamic image composition. The project aims at making the seemingly opaque operations of the digital infrastructure tangible and understandable. But how can program mechanisms be inspected during their execution? How can the execution ot the program mechanics be observed in actu? To go beyond generalized structural diagrams – which only reflect a basic technical setting – this research project deals with the creation and comparison of time-based portraits of the respective effective way of working. This makes it possible to observe how the synthesizing of Internet content proceeds in a browser-specific way, to experience these hidden processes and compare them at the level of both their procedures and their functional mechanisms. In this way, the range of analyses is extended from the sensorially perceivable screen output to the processes of program mechanics. Thus, a hitherto unnoticed level of design can be taken into consideration and code-based differences between the browser examples will be better understood.

Besides the adoption of established art-historical methods, the project is characterized by the development of an additional creative-imaging approach. Coding enables the progress of the “procedural logic” to be observed systematically, caught in the act, as it were, using software. To be able to actually “watch” the browser executing the program a method of visualization must be developed. The uncovering of the individual functionality of the program mechanics is pursued by testing different available visualization and analysis tools, as well as by developing visualizations especially tailored to Internet browsers. Finally, the limits and possibilities of such a computer-based visualization as a methodical tool will be discussed. This approach is possible due to the combination or merging of methods and expertise from the fields of visual design, computer science, software studies, and art history or image studies for this project.


Inge Hinterwaldner, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology

Daniela Hönigsberg, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology

Konstantin Mitrokhov, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology

Martina Richter, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology