A URL as a present

Yesterday I read about the art that Constant Dullaart makes. Many of his creations are actually websites, and if you want to buy the work, you buy the domain, with the content. After you’ve bought it, it’s your responsibility to take care of it, to make sure that it doesn’t break. Just like physical art. This solves a problem many digital artists might have with using the web as a medium. You can just sell the domain. Once the maecenases get used to the idea of owning and hosting a website we can start making real web art. Wonderful. This realisation came right on time.


In the beautifully designed Mobile Book you can find some illustrations by Mike Kus. The chapter about responsive design is illustrated by a work I particularly like. My wife liked it too, we didn’t like one of our walls in our hall, so we decided to paint the illustration on that wall. I ordered some stencils, painted the illustration onto the wall, cursed the inflexibility of the physical world, ordered some new, slightly smaller stencils, and finally repainted the illustration.


Now, I didn’t ask Mike for permission, I just painted his work onto my wall. So the least I could do was thank him for creating such a beautiful thing. I thought about sending him a book. But that’s boring. I thought about sending him a poster, but I don’t think these salads compare to the fantastic work he’s created. So when I read about the possibility of selling URLs, I realised that I could also give away a URL. I decided to create a semantically correct, responsive version of Mike’s illustration and give it to him. This is how it works: People with very old browsers will see a purely textual representation of the work while people with other less capable browsers will see the colours that have been used as well. Isn’t that nice?

Native web art

In one of his fantastic talks Bret Victor defines computer art as without behaviour, it’s not native. I changed that quote slightly to Without adaption, it’s not the Web. Anything on the web needs to adapt to the possibilities of the device and browser the visitor chose to use. If it doesn’t it’s not webby. Back to the illustration.

For people with big, modern browsers I used somewhat modern CSS to style the semantic HTML in such a way that it looks like the original illustration: Same layout, same order. For people with a smaller screen, the illustration is reflowed to fit within three columns. The illustration is laid out over two columns on the smallest screens. By my definition — since it adapts to its environment — this version of the work is webby. If you resize your browser window continuously, you are interacting with the work, and the work shows behaviour by reflowing the layout. So in Bret Victor’s terms, this is native computer art. Could it really be that this present is real, native web art?


I’m very happy that Mike actually likes the things I did to his work. He was excited about the painting, and he was excited about the semantically correct, responsive web version too. I was a bit concerned that he might not have liked it, you never know how people react. In that case I would have kept the painting on my wall, and I would still have given him the URL with its content. But I would not have written about it. And if he wanted to, he could have just deleted all of it. Just like physical art.

What is it? Size in ems Size in Pixels
CSS width of an iPhone 5s 20em 320
Width or height of many Android phones 40em 640
Width or height of many Android phones 50em 960