The Gallery Electric
Reflections on the Digitization of an Art Teacher
Jay Boersma

Note: This article was originally published in 1994 in a special issue of Works and Days (Vol. 12, Nos. 1 & 2) titled "The Geography of Cyberspace" edited by David B. Downing and James J. Sosnoski.

The Gallery Electric course predated widespread awareness and use of the Internet, the World Wide Web had only just been born and the dotcom bubble was just beginning to inflate. Though the tools I used to teach The Gallery Electric seem archaic by today's standards, the issues raised are as valid now as they were then.

It’s 7:00 pm; my Gallery Electric class begins in one-half hour. Although this is week number ten, I am still very excited about meeting with the students and eagerly anticipate this evening’s discussion. I enter my office, close the door behind me, and log onto the Internet using simple terminal software. At the command-line, I type:

irc JayB, /join #GalleryE

The classroom is now established. A few more keystrokes and it is modified to allow only enrolled students to enter and a notification system has been enabled so I will know when students “arrive” on the network.

During the next thirty minutes, I re-read course-related e-mail from the past week. The topic tonight is the work of Lee Godie, a Chicago street-artist who paints on paper bags, cardboard boxes and other urban detritus. Godie, who at one time hawked her art/wares on the stairs at the entrance to the Art Institute of Chicago, has become a much-collected and controversial “outsider” artist. She is the kind of subject that teachers love because of the heated discussion and strong opinions her work generates.

I glance from the e-mail to another portion of the screen and see:

***login by JanetC detected

The first student has arrived and I “invite” her to GalleryE, our name for the virtual classroom in which we have our weekly meetings.

> Hi, Janet
<JanetC> Hi, did you get my Godie paper?
> Sure did
***login by TimR detected
***login by Chrizzo detected
<Chrizzo> Yo, Tim
<TimR> Hi, Chris

During the next few minutes, the remaining students arrive. They chat with each other just as students do before any class, oblivious to there being a few hundred miles separating them. The Gallery Electric class is in session.

The idea for teaching a course such as The Gallery Electric on the Internet evolved over a two-year period in which I spent considerable time exploring what the Internet was and what it offered me.

I am a photographer. What that means in this day of digital imagery is less clear than it once was, but my field of study at the Rhode Island School of Design was camera-made images and, although I now often use a Macintosh computer rather than a darkroom, my work continues to be “photographic.” Specifically, I create photo-montages which re-interpret historic events. To construct these images, I am constantly in search of source images and, upon hearing that the Internet contains archives of photographs, I began my initial net explorations in search of images.

I trekked blindly through the net not certain that what I sought even existed and certainly having no idea that the net itself would come to figure so largely in my professional and personal life. My search for images took me to the Usenet Newsgroups and the files. What I found there was a large selection of the sort of images that might adorn the dorm walls of college-age males—images described by one net user as “copyright.infringements.erotic.” These images were not useful to me in my artwork, but, as is often the case when exploring the Internet, although the material that I sought eluded me, the material I encountered while seeking was reward in itself.

In my early explorations of the Newsgroups this reward was the discovery that the Internet isn’t the “database” that I had thought, but is a community inhabited by a very large number of people many of whom have interesting things to say. I surfed through the hundreds of newsgroups with typical new-user amazement, reading everything from to alt.elvis-sightings, eventually settling on a few groups, such as alt.artcom and, that I found professionally useful, intellectually stimulating or simply entertaining.

From the Newsgroups, my exploration moved to LISTSERV Lists, the Internet equivalent to mass-mailings. Here again, I found not streams of data, but communications among people—people with whom I had common interests or who had expertise that they were quite willing to share. Unlike the Newsgroups where one specifically goes to seek information, the LISTSERV Lists send it directly to subscribers in the form of e-mail. In short order, I had subscribed to so many Lists, that my mailbox had hundreds of pieces of e-mail arriving by the hour. “Perhaps,” I said to myself, “I’m not quite as interested in all of these topics as I thought” and, as with the Newsgroups, my LISTSERV List subscriptions were pared down to a few that offer useful information or discussion specifically related to my art, teaching or personal interests.

A few months into this exploration, my daughter (who, by this point, was beginning to express concern that her forty-five year old father was turning into a “computer nerd”), was working on an eighth-grade research paper and said to me, “So Dad, if this Internet thing is so cool, can you find me some information on platypuses?” I explained that I could probably help her prepare a bibliography by doing a title-search of some libraries, but that most likely I would not be able to get her the actual text of any publications. With that disclaimer, we began a platypus hunt. About thirty minutes later, a photograph of a platypus was making its way out of my printer—an illustration for use in her project. The source for this image was a library in Sydney, Australia. This was my first realization of the truly international nature of the road I was travelling.

The method used to acquire the platypus image was File Transfer Protocol, a standardized way of obtaining items on the Internet. Of the hundreds of file transfer sites available, my daughter and I happened upon one in Australia with a small collection of images of native wildlife. Many of these sites exist and visiting them to see if any useful new materials have arrived is a part of my routine net itinerary.

During my initial travels on the Internet, I took the advice offered by Ed Krol in “The Whole Internet: User’s Guide and Catalogue” and participated primarily as an observer: learning net etiquette, conventions, and procedures. When I felt sufficiently educated to avoid the blunders that I had seen other neophytes flamed for, I began to participate in discussions and offer my own knowledge and experiences. Eventually I also began to offer my “art.”

The graphic interface of Macintosh computers lends itself to customization. The numerous icons and picture elements used by Apple and those who write software for its machines are easily redesigned or replaced. As a kind of electronic doodling while talking on the phone, I began creating new graphic elements for my machine. After accumulating quite a collection of these, I decided to donate them to the net community and undertook my first “upload” to a file transfer site. Shortly after posting my images to the Internet, my awareness of its global scale again increased dramatically.

From my original posting to a single site, collections of my art and graphic images have been re-distributed internationally. I recently, received e-mail from individuals in Japan and Canada seeking permission to distribute my work there. In addition, I’ve developed an electronic “cottage industry” serving computer programmers who employ me to design the visual elements for their applications. Although presently a very small cottage, this electronic graphic design service is indicative of tremendous potential.

As transmission lines become faster and storage facilities greater, the net is becoming a repository for a wide variety of works of art. The OTIS project, for example, is an electronic art gallery, a public access library of hundreds of images. According to its organizers, “OTIS is here to distribute original creative images over the world's computer networks for public perusal, scrutiny and re-transmission—to facilitate communication, inspiration, critique and to set the foundations for digital immortality.” Digital immortality aside, the OTIS project is an indicator that the Internet is rapidly extending beyond the limits of text-only communication.

A further example of this increased potential is the World Wide Web and NCSA Mosaic—an application created to navigate it. Although a bit slow for users without a direct connection to the net, Mosaic is an elegant blend of visual elements and hypertext navigation that provides a look at one possible future for traveling the net’s varied pathways.

Having spent three years (and more hours than I care to calculate) exploring the Internet and its tributaries, I have settled into a pattern from which I deviate as time permits. This pattern constitutes my net “stomping grounds”—the places I hang out most frequently and includes participation in several LISTSERV Lists on topics relating to my work such as the Desktop Publishing List and the Photoshop List (which I created after finding that one did not exist). It also includes subscriptions to a few online journals, periodic skimming of the art-related newsgroups, and frequent checking of several file transfer sites for useful graphics utilities, fonts or images. This, of course, is in addition to basic e-mail correspondence with individuals whom I have met on the net.

A relatively recent discovery for me has been the Internet Relay Chat system and it was this discovery that tempted me to conduct one of my classes entirely over the network. IRC allows for live, real-time, conversation among groups of participants. Although I had long seen e-mail as a workable way for students to submit written assignments, receive course materials, and engage in an interchange of ideas, I felt that the classroom dynamic was still necessary to add vitality and immediacy to the educational experience. Establishing a “chat group” using existing IRC capabilities seemed a plausible way to accomplish this electronically.

Since most of my teaching is in studio arts and the Internet is still a bit sluggish at transporting likenesses of large works of art, I selected a contemporary art survey course as the basis for an experiment which I called The Gallery Electric. (The university community is always pleasantly surprised when one of us “art types” makes a literary reference.)

I established this course as being taught entirely through the Internet with no preliminary introductory meetings. (For me, a portion of the adventure was in not meeting the participants face-to-face until the final class.) The subject of the course was to be contemporary art in the Chicago area so enrollment was limited to students who were within commuting distance of the city. Each week students were expected to visit assigned galleries and museums, submit written reports via e-mail to a LISTSERV list established for the class, engage in follow-up discussion and debate regarding their reports (also via e-mail), and to attend the live Internet-relay-chat group every Thursday night.

In addition to the usual academic prerequisites, I asked that students be experienced network users so that I could teach art rather than network technology. This was wishful thinking, however, and, as registration drew to a close, it became clear that an insufficient number of students could meet this criteria and the class began with half of the participants never having used a modem before. This lack of experience led to a first-night’s class that I will never forget and have frequently described as follows:

You are standing at the intersection of Michigan and Chicago Avenues at rush hour and on the southwest corner are ten people. Using only words, you have to get these people to the northeast corner. They are blind and don’t speak your language very well.

Through the exhausting juggling of simultaneous e-mail messages and phone calls, I guided the students, one-by-one, to the IRC virtual classroom where we were meeting. Seeing them all finally there and beginning tentative interaction with each other was a remarkably exhilarating experience. Class number two went considerably smoother and I was pleasantly surprised that, by class three, the technology had become invisible and we were on with the business of discussing art.

As I had hoped, the chat group format provided an important sense of immediacy and personal contact for the class. The students greatly looked forward to the weekly sessions as an opportunity to “be together” and they, surprisingly, came to know each other far more intimately than students in my classes generally do. The IRC method of communication has a few shortcomings, however, the most significant of which is the extremely rapid pace of conversation. The following excerpt is from a discussion of the Lee Godie exhibit mentioned earlier:

<JanetC> Is it the fact that her work is in the gallery that defines it as art?
> The question is not whether or not it‘s art - we could all die trying to figure that out; the question is whether it withstands critical evaluation, whether it communicated with any of us, whether we can learn from those who did feel moved by it, etc.
<ArthurB> My approach would be: What is her aesthetic, what is consistent about her examples?
<TimR> She was very consistent on most of the portraits...same face outline, same profile...
<Lizbe> I liked the simplicity of her art
> I was surprised that the faces, which at a glance are all made from the same template, were actually fairly individualistic and expressive
<DanaC> How would you distinguish between this notion of consistency and what someone else might call mannerism??
<TimR> this reminded me of a fourth grade art exhibit
>I felt too much emotion to consider it mannered work (though it certainly was repetitious...)
<Lizbe> Child-like art, perhaps, but with feeling
<DanaC> Do you think the feeling has to do with your knowledge of her life situations??
> No, I think that knowledge of her personal life got in the way, I had to clear it out of my mind before I could let the work in...
<DanaC> Agree, I just felt such a close mix there, it was hard to separate them
<Lizbe> I did not view her work as that of a “bag lady”
<ArthurB> Context in this situation is a whole lot of the meaning.
> I think she really liked the cast of characters she depicted, that there was affection for them...
<GaryFi> you could certainly tell the ones who were her friends...
<DanaC> I wonder if currently that's a mark of the "outsider artist" - a close sense of relationship with the subject, that allows for a less formal approach
> I think that part of the outsider appeal is the quest for sensation, the opportunity to experience another's craziness - that is what I was anticipating in Godie but, to be honest, her work won me over
> (But I still don't want to “hang out” with her much...)
<DanaC> That quest for sensation I find a little scary. Not in Godie, but it's there in the *marketing* of her...
> yes, the marketing's another whole story... still don't trust the art merchandisers, but after this show, I trust Godie a little more
<JanetC> I read the Tribune article - it said that about one fouth of her stuff is "good," one third is "ok" and the rest is junk
<Lizbe> It's interesting to read that she is so popular in Chicago - the article said that Chicago is a city for "Outsider Art"
<TimR> Why is that?
> Good question, what's the appeal of outsider art to Chicagoans?
<Lizbe> Is the Hammer gallery responsible?
<JanetC> We try to be avante-guard, ahead of New York...
<DanaC> Trying for all those years to have NYC take notice...
> in vain, of course
<DanaC> really
> wouldn't be NYC if it took notice!
<JanetC> They talk about her as an eccentric in the Tribune: seeing ghosts of Marshall Field
<DanaC> Quite a vision, for an "outsider," wouldn’t you say?

IRC chat requires that participants keep track of two to three topics of conversation while simultaneously typing a response to that which was just said. In order to follow the conversational threads, one must limit response length (or find that she has just typed a beautiful reply to something that is no longer being discussed). So, although the chat groups are exciting, they offer little opportunity to flesh out ideas or engage in considered discussion. This is where the LISTSERV list and e-mail come in.

E-mail correspondence was used in The Gallery Electric both to submit written reviews and to follow up on topics which surfaced during the weekly meetings. Students would read the previous class session logs as well as the weekly response papers and formulate replies at their convenience throughout the week. The following e-mail excerpts indicate the level of communication allowed by this more conventional type of writing. Again, the topic is Godie:

Date: Wed, 15 Dec 1993 15:05:38 -0600 To: Multiple recipients of list <galleryl> Subject: Response # 10, Lee Godie

Clifford Terry, writing about Godie in The Chicago Tribune (11/21/93) described her as "the most collected artist in Chicago," and as a "shrewd businesswoman."

This is an interesting re-seeing, if not outright invention, of Lee Godie. It turns out that she was the clever "businesswoman" because she would "relentlessly hawk" her works to anyone who wouldn't avoid her on the streets. Since she did this with "presumable, several thousand" items, she's a shoo-in for the "most collected" trophy.

But artist? Artist??

I would suggest that the art community, in its usual terror at missing something or being wrong, is simply cooperating with the art dealers, who have always been willing to sell anybody anything. The pressure on art critics must be tremendous. But what I see happening here is a collapse of judgment into reticence, which hides under the philosophic notion that anything can be art.

And it is also true that, as we can learn something from absolutely anything at all, there may be something to be experienced looking at a Lee Godie image.

But not much. There is a numbingly repetitive nature to her images, lines, colors, and compositions. As symbols they lack energy, as forms they lack substance. (I know that this makes them look modern; I recognize that she's the unwitting artistic descendent of Alex Katz. But that's not saying much.)

Above all, I think, one looks to art to be carried, with the artist, to a new place. To follow the artist in an exploration that is also a revelation of something we knew, but not quite, until the artist found a way of saying it.

Why is it so hard to say that with Godie this isn't taking place?

Date: Fri, 10 Dec 1993 23:48:28 -0600 To: Multiple recipients of list <galleryl> Subject: Lee Godie Review

Yes, this artist has led an unconventional life, but I saw art that was both inspiring and innovative.

I looked at the many portraits of women with their red lips, lush eyelashes, and smoldering gazes, projecting the bearing of flappers, vamps, and femmes fatale. It doesn't take long to realize that these glamorous ladies represent how Godie, herself, would like to look. She liked to take pictures of herself in photo booths, posing as glamour queens, and pinup models.

While the women are glamorous, the men are dashing, romantic figures. Her most common male images are modeled after her idea of Prince Charming. Her male and female portraits are similar in appearance. Both have exaggerated eye make up and rouged lips, and are often smiling, exposing unrealistic rows of straight large teeth.

Even though her subjects might be smiling, not all were "happy," probably mirroring her own mood swings. "Woman in Right Profile with Sausage Curls..." appears angry as she clutches the flower with clenched teeth. The "Red Head" on the other hand has a pleasant countenance. Most of her females have jewelry around their throats, and long pendant type earrings.

The materials she used to paint on were cast-off cardboard, window shades, Styrofoam fast food containers... whateve was at hand.

What was so compelling about her work? Even though she has had no formal training, her "simplistic" paintings moved me - made me feel. This statement, from one of the press releases about Godie aptly describes her:

"To step into her world is to suspend the safety of our own worlds and travel her out-of sync path of logic. Perhaps we will not be as equipped to understand her as to appreciate the levels of complexity in her and in others who society all too quickly deprecates."

Date: Thu, 16 Dec 1993 07:08:20 -0600
To: Multiple recipients of list <galleryl>
Subject: Lee Godie: Thanks Dana

Bravo! I could never have said what I was feeling so eloquently as you have said it, but you're right on the mark. Upon reflection about last week’s discussion of Godie's "works," I felt that we were unfocused and wondered why that occurred. I realized that, unlike the other artists we had seen, Godie's work did not give the class anything to talk about. There were no larger issues to be discussed. Your description of the vapid nature of Godie's pieces was excellent. I enjoyed reading your commentary much more than I enjoyed seeing the show itself. Godie gave us nothing, and anyone looking at the transcript from of last week‘s class would notice this right away.


As one would expect, student e-mail discussion was far more carefully structured, better reasoned and written in a more polished fashion. This opportunity for thoughtful expression offset the frenetic exchange of ideas in the weekly chat sessions and allowed for a more traditionally academic approach to the topics discussed. It is also in the e-mail discussion that students were most supportive of each other—offering assistance with net navigation, the expressing of ideas, locating galleries in Chicago, and so on.

Having taught The Gallery Electric one semester, I would describe it as a success and will offer it again in the future. All of the goals that I have in teaching similar courses in the conventional classroom were met using this format. Although I hesitate to call it the “wave of the future,” it is certainly a viable method for some educators to deliver some courses.

Beyond the obvious advantages to teaching via the Internet for institutions that emphasize distance education, there are several, sometimes surprising, benefits to the virtual classroom. When I began teaching this course, one of my associates expressed his opinion that it must be a very “cold and distant” form of communication. To those who are not regular network users, this assumption is not uncommon, but those who do use the net know that one can be quite touched by the words of others—even if those words are scrolling across a monitor. The students in The Gallery Electric course became very good friends in a very short time and, now that the class is over, many of them continue their electronic communication.

Unlike the conventional classroom, in a network-based class, every word said by anyone is “heard” by all participants—heard and recorded. All speak in an equal voice. This changes the classroom dynamic somewhat. In The Gallery Electric there were no “wallflowers” or non-participants in the discussion. While students sometimes consider simple attendance at class meetings to be adequate participation, in a network class if you are not typing responses, you are not visible. Students quickly sensed this and saw to it that they were adequately represented onscreen each week.

“Class participation,” that often specified but difficult to measure requirement of so many educators, is, in the electronic classroom, very easily quantified—it is all there in writing. Were one inclined to do so (which I am not) it would be quite possible to have the computer summarize class activity by student and present this information in any of a number of forms. (In jest, I told The Gallery Electric students that they would each receive a “pie chart” indicating their level of participation in class discussion.)

Three additional observations:

1. Good writing skills are absolutely mandatory for courses such as this. Since the entire course is taught using text, students have to be able to express themselves clearly in writing. Those whose writing skills are weak (as is, regrettably, often the case with art students), not only do not fare as well in the course but also enjoy the experience less.

2. If Internet Relay Chat or some equivalent live discussion option is used, class size must be kept small. With more than twelve participants, chat group discussion becomes chaotic and impossible to follow. Although I haven’t tried this yet, a possible remedy would be breaking the class up into smaller discussion groups which report back to the LISTSERV list.

3. Having taught using this technology only once, my initial impression is that it is more demanding of the instructor’s time than conventional classroom teaching. The number of pieces of e-mail generated by a small group of students in a fifteen-week period is quite impressive. And many of those pieces require a response from the instructor. I found that I spent a great deal of time at the keyboard individually interacting with the students who received far more one-on-one contact with me than they would have otherwise. Although they appreciated this, I, at times, found it difficult to manage. It is likely that, as I teach this course and others like it in the future, I will devise a way to limit these demands just as, in the past, I reduced the quantity of e-mail I receive by unsubscribing to less important LISTSERV lists.

The Gallery Electric has been a very positive experience for me. A natural extension of my Internet wanderings, it has allowed me to integrate my professional commitments with my personal interests in a way that serves me, my university, and my students. All of this and it is still convenient for me to check alt.elvis-sightings from time to time to see at which shopping mall the King has shown up lately.

<DanaC> Will anyone be at the Art Institute on Sat.?
<Lizbe> I hope to go on Friday
<noreenb> Tim & I are going Tuesday.
<DanaC> Well, look, if you change your mind and go to the Art Institute, I'll put on a mum from my garden. Little white one. Look for me.
<JanetC> I'll look for you
<DanaC> Great
<noreenb> Are we signing off?
<DanaC> I need to.
<JanetC> it seems we're getting tired...
> yes, it suddenly seems to have hit all of us.
<JanetC> but excellent discussion tonight
<DanaC> So, Good-night??
>Be sure to follow this up with e-mail ok?
<JanetC> everyone did a good job!
<GaryF> Thanks all, good night
<DanaC> Good night
> 'nite
<JanetC> Good night Gary
<JanetC> nite
<Jay> nite
<chrizzo> Bye all
<Lizbe> bye everyone
<JanetC> bye, Chris
*** Signoff: noreenb (GalleryE)
*** Signoff: DanaC (GalleryE)
<GaryF> This is like the end of the Waltons...

Jay Boersma