Panicking with Otis

Written for the Utne Reader, June 1995

Reviewed by Scot Hacker

Given that the potential for collaboration between individuals worldwide is now more manifest than ever, itís incontestably sickening that the notion of interactivity has come to mean little more than a series of passive mouse clicks. The SITO (a reversal of "Operative Term Is Stimulate") site has created not just a web museum (there are plenty of those), but a space for digital artists to create works in concert with one another, using the Internet as a meeting ground for a host of collaborative techniques.

While the site houses thousands of works by digital and traditional artists in static form, OTISí real potency lies in its "Synergy" projects, of which the "Panic" is its most pure example. Every Friday and Saturday night (beginning at 10 p.m. MST), artists log into an FTP server (ftp.otis.org/pub/PANIC) to upload and download "seed" images, which can be of anything at all -- from classic sepiatones to satellite photos to digitized fast food. Once on the artistís computer, images are enhanced, re-colorized, distorted, montaged, and otherwise augmented with commercially available paint and photo-manipulation programs. Finished images are then re-uploaded, allowing others to download and tweak further. During an eveningís course (perhaps best described as a spontaneous global surrealist collage party), a single "seed" may pass through half a dozen hands (and countries) in a few hours, often becoming an unrecognizable incarnation of its progenitor in the process. Needless to say, not every picture emerging from the other end of this meat grinder is a masterpiece, but many of the resulting images are utterly stunning, and few of them resemble anything that could be done with a brush and canvas. The hardcore group of Panic regulars are experienced pixel-pushing adepts, many of them professional artists, but donít let that daunt you -- the Panic atmosphere is congenial, and public participation is highly encouraged.

Other Synergy projects include the Infinite Grid, in which artists proffer up squares to be merged into an infinitely reconfigurable latticework template; the Arcana, in which Otisians co-create a deck of wildly varied and luscious tarot cards; and an Exquisite Corpse, which follows in the tradition of the dadaists by inviting artists to complete a predefined portion of an image after having seen only a fragment of its entirety.

Unlike many graphics sites, OTIS is more than just a mountainous collection of eye-candy. Itís a hedge against passivity, an ideology, a utility, and a righteous party.

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