Pioneering Internet Artwork Rescued by the Whitney

Art Press Release from United States. Published by anonymous on Thursday 13 June 2013.

Pioneering Internet Artwork Rescued by the Whitney image

After a year-long project to restore a visionary work of Internet art, the Whitney has relaunched Douglas Davis's The World’s First Collaborative Sentence (1994). Comprised of more than 200,000 posts in a dozen languages, the Sentence is a living document of the Internet's evolution, capturing an early era of online communication.

The work is now viewable in both a historical and a live version, to which visitors can contribute again for the first time in years, at whitney.org.

“The Sentence, as plain as it may look today, is a truly visionary project in that it anticipated today’s collaborative online writing environments,” says Christiane Paul, Adjunct Curator of New Media Arts at the Whitney. “The project posed a few of the core technological and philosophical questions that the conservation of early net art has to address—how do we preserve the ephemeral nature of the Web and should we? The decision to create two versions of the project is an unusual preservation strategy, enabled by the potential of born-digital art to create multiple identical copies. The project creates one potential model for the preservation of early net-based art, which is rapidly disintegrating.”

Davis (b. 1933) launched the Sentence on December 7, 1994, as part of a survey exhibition of his work at Lehman College Art Gallery, which commissioned the piece. With the help of Gary Weltz and Robert Schneider, both Lehman professors at the time, Davis created a webpage through which people around the world could add their own contributions to the Sentence. Submissions were accepted by email, phone, fax, and even through the mail, with one caveat: they could not end in a period. The prescient work harnessed the collaborative nature of the Internet that years later would find its form in blogs, wikis, and social media networks.

The following year, the Whitney acquired the work through a generous donation by Barbara Schwartz in honor of Eugene M. Schwartz, her late husband. Mr. and Mrs. Schwartz had purchased the concept and a signed disk with recordings of the first days of the Sentence. The piece continuously expanded over the next decade, as it was included in the 1995 Gwangju Biennale in South Korea, and its renown spread within online communities. But over the years the Sentence disintegrated, its links broke (“link rot”), anachronistic coding made it hard to read, and it became impossible to contribute to it. “When Christiane knocked on my door and said she wanted to discuss ‘link rot’ I didn’t know at the time that it was a conservation problem. That came later,” said Carol Mancusi-Ungaro, associate director for conservation and research at the Whitney.

In early 2012, a team led by Paul and Mancusi-Ungaro, began the process of relaunching the Sentence. With the help of Farris Wahbeh, manager, cataloguing and documentation, and implemented by Ben Fino-Radin, digital conservator at Rhizome, along with the Whitney digital media staff, the team was able to restore a historic version. This version, displayed through an old browser, shows the Sentence as it looked at the time of its creation, with links to archived web pages retrieved through the Wayback Machine of the Internet Archive. In addition, the Whitney restored a live version of the Sentence, which allows visitors to contribute anew to the work, perpetuating Davis’s intent for the piece.

To view the “The World’s First Collaborative Sentence,” go to