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Remember how online art used to be one of ballyhooed features of our new and improved lives on the Internet? We talked of visiting faraway museums, browsing rarely seen masterpieces, hyper-annotated with curatorial notes and historical contexts. Similarly enticing was the promise of new media and art site-specific to the Internet

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The reality in 1999 isn’t so intoxicating. While progress can be seen, the online branches of many museums have done little more than digitize catalogs, which are fine for archiving but poor for expanding our interaction with art. And while virtual salons for artistic digerati abound and hybrids such at Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center, Tokyo’s InterCommunication Center and Karlsruhe’s Zentrum fur Kunst und Medientechnologie are definitely headed in the right direction, the Web has yet to produce a Guggenheim for new media. There is no Sistine Chapel for the digital-era Michelangelo.

A few problems common to other areas of the Net plague the online art world. The obvious one is financing. Conventional sites can try to subsist on advertising, but who wants an ad for Amazon.com cluttering his view of the Mona Lisa? Similarly, in the hierarchy of funding, cyber projects are given low priority, and Web-specific artworks aren’t exactly collectible (at least not in the current mode of thinking).

The issue of copyrights is also a major barrier to museums who want autonomy over reproductions. Perhaps one day we’ll pay a royalty to download a Jasper Johns reproduction. Until then, we’re looking at low-resolution approximations.

Finally, there is the problem of synergy. Engineers don’t always make the best artists and vice versa. High-tech creativity won’t blossom until more trans-genre collaborations occur. This doesn’t mean that visual artists need to start learning how to program in Java or that the curators need to understand cgi scripts, but some overlap has to occur, and soon. There appears to be too much talk and too few collaborations between art and telecommunications.

One obvious solution is patronage, which isn’t exactly a new concept to the art world. Not surprisingly, technology companies have been the forerunners in online corporate sponsorship. As IBM has flexed its computing muscle on Web sites for sporting events, Intel has taken a similar tack by making a $6 million donation to the Whitney Museum in New York. What they received in return is the high-profile honor of hosting the Web site of the Whitney’s massive show, “Our American Century“.

The Whitney and Intel have done an impressive job of adapting the show to the Net. Since the show’s scope is so wide and begs for contextual supplements, the museum has the perfect excuse to splurge on its Web site. The sprawl of history, culture and politics is neatly represented in a screenlike, scrollable timeline. Click on a painting and you’re presented with various options. In some cases, it’s the ability to zoom in on details, in others you can watch a video clip. You can also choose to listen to a guided tour, presented by the show’s curator.

Despite the organizers’ best intentions, the actual depth of content is a bit underwhelming. Given the size of the topic and the availability of resources, I expected more — more pictures, more background, more commentary. I hope that for Part Two of “American Century” the site’s designers will study the click-through patterns of visitors to Part One.

While some people look for edification in art, I prefer art that engages. That’s why I went to Hell.com.

Though the details are sparse, Hell.com is a nebulous enclave of Web designers who put up temporary projects at their site, “a private parallel Web.” Claiming squatter’s right to a higher ground, they intend to milk the cachet of exclusivity. They have cordoned off the inner sanctum with an imposing velvet rope — pop-up warning messages, a non FAQ (“there are no answers”) and buckets of attitude.

Those who still wish to enter must sign up for a guest list and they will be notified of events (by someone@hell.com, of course).

Their latest project is “skinonskinonskin” — “A DHTMLove affair by Entropy 8 and Zuper!” For a hint of the two gifted people behind it — Auriea Harvey and Michael Syman — check out their creative merger site (www.entropy8 zuper.org/), or their individual sites, but I recommend just diving in head first.

Skinonskinonskin isn’t an exhibition per se. The site’s creators emphatically state that it is not art. So what is it? “What you think it is.” It’s an experience and “it’s real.”

Skinonskinonskin is a dynamic document of a relationship, a particularly intense one. It’s a public diary of emotions, musings and memories, annotated by animation, sound and text, colored by surreality and powered by lots of Javascript. Experience it for yourself, preferably alone, with the lights down and with only the sound of your heartbeat on the soundtrack.

Those looking for graphic titillation, however, should look elsewhere. These Web designers probably aren’t ignorant of the inherent come-on, but this isn’t a skin show. They have, however, adopted the financing method of the Web’s seedier sites: pay per view. Guests have to cough up $7.50 to gain admittance to this site for 48 hours.

Skinonskinonskin isn’t for everyone, but it’s hard not being intrigued by the seductive interface. The designers have utilized the unknown X factor of multimedia, the exploratory potential that comes from leaving people to their own devices. More than just being oblique, they’re encouraging our curiosity.

At Cyberart99 symposium, held last month in New York, an art event organizer said that art doesn’t have the same pulling power as an Evander Holyfield boxing match. “Pay per view is doomed,” she was reported as saying to the New York Times. Maybe she hadn’t been to Hell.com yet. They say it isn’t art, but it costs less than lunch at MosBurger, and is 10 times as filling.