Art by Calef BrownONCE AGAIN, THE SAN FRANCISCO AND NEW YORK arbiters of Geek Chic have slighted their poorer relations down in Los Angeles. It wasn't an overt snubbing, or even an intentional one. It's just that last month's annual Webby Awards, the event heralded by the press as the "Oscars of the Internet," just happened to be as San Franciscocentric as ever, with a cool school lunchroom nod toward New York. As Webby founder and "digital diva" Tiffany Shlain summed up the Bay Area's Romulus status in computer culture, San Francisco is the "birthplace of . . . the digital revolution," and a New York connection remains essential to bicoastal harmony (New York comedian Marc Maron was tapped to emcee). But no bones at all were thrown to the backwater Gaul of the digital revolution, Southern California -- even though most new-media Internet jobs are located in L.A.
But Los Angeles new-media workers were determined to enjoy the Webbies on their own terms -- black turtleneck sweaters, Elvis Costello specs and urban attitude be damned. So on the night of the festivities (three nights before the real, non-Internet Oscars), they secured a hall in Marina del Rey, hired caterers and (no-host) bartenders, and even rented a Hollywood-style searchlight.
They, to be more precise, were the Venice Interactive Community, a kind of Rotary Club for L.A.'s up-and-coming new-media people, demographically skewed much younger and far less dorky. In fact, anyone doubting Venice Interactive Community's hip creds need look no further than their official logo, in which the letters VIC form that internationally recognized symbol of cosmopolitan urbanity, the martini glass.
Several hundred digital revelers showed up for the to-do, billed reassuringly as "VIC @ the Webbies," despite Marina del Rey's remote proximity to the actual event going on 380 miles to the north. Boardroom-style projectors and movie screens were set up to bring the Webbies live, via "streaming" Internet video networking, to the partiers.
After the crowd was properly lubricated, the Webby hour arrived, and the screens lit up. Unfortunately, not with "a dazzling celebration of the medium's best and brightest" but, rather, with a series of Microsoft's Windows Media Player error messages. Ironically, but not surprisingly, the small platoon of techies, engineers and sys admins on hand could not persuade new-media technology to cooperate in this celebration of itself.
VIC's executive director, Brad Nye, joked nervously about technology being "the bane of our existence." Sporting chinos, a ponytail and a cultivated patina of razor stubble, Nye resembled the embodiment of what Northern Californians and East Coasters like to refer to as the "SoCal laid-back" style. Summoning that mixture of fatalism and party spirit that is also the SoCal style, he added offhandedly, "I knew this party wouldn't go on without a technology glitch," and then melted into the crowd to engage in that more reliable method of networking, the analog interface.
At one point, after the partygoers had turned back to the buffet table and the business of distributing their business cards like dandelion seeds to the wind, a blockily digitized and frozen image appeared onscreen. It was either San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown or a Rockum-Sockum Robot. Looking up at the screen, Tony Winders, a VIC board member, president of InterActive Agency Inc., and a "committee chair on Digital Coast Roundtable," pronounced the evening a good omen. "I'm tickled that we're actually doing this!" he enthused, his boyish blond locks resembling Elroy Jetson, all grown up. "The San Francisco and Los Angeles interactive communities spend a lot of time commuting back and forth between those two cities. And now technology is bringing us together." He gestured toward the screen, where Willie Brown's digital block had been knocked off and replaced by yet another error message. "We're close to delivering on the Web's promise of bringing people together."
Oh, so who won the Webbies? We never found out that night, although I later read that Amazon.com and PBS (dot org) took home awards. If you go to the official Webby Web site (http://www.webbyawards.com) you can access an archived video feed of the actual Webcast. I tried, but with Net congestion backed up thanks to all those insomniac Star Warstrailer downloaders, I still couldn't get the streaming video to, uh, stream.
TO THE UNWIRED WORLD, BIL KEANE IS BEST KNOWN as the cartoonist responsible for the heartwarming "Family Circus" cartoons, a panel a day in 1,500 newspapers worldwide highlighting the precious antics of Billy, Dolly, Jeffy and P.J., those melon-headed moppets who say the darndest things. On the Internet, however, Keane is better known as a maestro of interactive literature. No other cartoonist has had his oeuvre so interactively reinterpreted by smartass wags bent on putting bad words into the innocent mouths of precocious babes.
"The Dysfunctional Family Circus" Web page (http://www.spinnwebe.com/dfc/) has been soliciting alternative captions to Keane cartoons for years, but you won't find the latest in Keane interactivity on any flip parody Web site. You'll find it on Amazon.com. The online bookseller has a policy of allowing readers to write book reviews, which has proved to be a boon for postmodern Keane-ist expressionism. Someone signing on as "Sir Arthur H. C. W. Cholmondeley-Upham-Lee, OBE" convened the salon last month with a review of Keane's tomes titled "Keane's Christian existentialism shows true mastery."
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"Keane," wrote Sir Arthur, "depicts his blazingly erudite, occasionally brutal truths through the unique choice of his inimitable medium -- stark black-and-white drawings of American suburban and family life. Interestingly, Keane chooses to add colour to his works one day out of seven -- the Sabbath, a clear nod to the Judeo-Christian ethos."
Several days later, "A reader from Illych, Russia" chimed in, "Keane has changed. Let's follow him. In the last three decades we have followed Keane from his dingy beginnings of SoHo subway grafitti to last year's dangerously provocative show at the Guggenheim (Mr. Warhol watch out!!)."
Within a week, half a dozen critiques had been posted, most gangly with graduate-studies syntax. "Although not as intense as 'Jeffy's Looking at Me,'" wrote a deconstructivist from Mississippi, "this text poses Keane's remark of the other: not me/I don't know. As Foucault once remarked: Jeffy is the extension of the apparatus, the ill-fitting shoe, the intertextual echo of a system trapped within itself, struggling to exist."
True to its promise, Amazon.com hasn't censored the occasional unfavorable comment: "Where is the fin-de-siècle angst that gripped Keane's earlier work?" asked a critic from Missouri. Are Jeffy and P.J. just doomed to wander in a Beckett-like trance through a world devoid of gravity (in a metaphoric sense) and possibility? . . . Mr. Keane clearly has lost his edge, and now seems to be pandering to the lowest common denominator."