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Like tourists in ancient Pompeii: notes on the digital grotesque

by Jill Gasparina

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“I love my web

And that's a fact

Guess while this loads

I’ll grab a snack”1

The grotesque is a perfect object of study for our age. You can delve into a complete online reading of the old psalters, laden with drolleries. You can wander onto the erudite blog of a placid young researcher living in Australia, but who has generously documented her visits to grotesque sites in Europe. You can leaf through a multitude of books on Google Books from all periods dealing with the subject. You can download a vast quantity of high-level academic books, consult major texts on Wikisource, or watch videos on Domus Aurea on YouTube, now closed to the public. And like the bizarre creatures in the margins of medieval manuscripts, the trolls of the grotesque are never far away. There is no stable definition of the “grotesque”, only a list of symptoms (eccentricity, monstrosity, hybridization, comedy, decoration) that carry with them a dense set of questions about the subversive ability of the style, the writing of history, the existential value of the absurd, the hierarchy of major and minor arts, and the aesthetic dignity of the decorative.

The grotesque also conveys a modern history, that of the unbridled spread of information and the standardisation of an aesthetic, thanks to what historian Daniel Headrick calls the “technologies of knowledge”.2 The story is well known: in the late 15th century, the chance discovery of an ancient classical manor buried under Renaissance Rome revealed the existence of an ancient decorative style, which started to circulate throughout Europe. “What was discovered in the grotta during the Renaissance,” writes Jonathan Rousseau, “was called the grottesca, and its subjects were copied, adapted and spread under this name throughout all of Europe through mural painting, tapestries, drawings, and etchings.3 The grottesca, rediscovered by the Modernists, told us about the circulation of information during the Renaissance, through textual and above all visual media that was widely disseminated. Already, the Medieval drolleries were deployed in the margins of manuscripts, proliferating in an anarchic manner on the pages of codices: archival tools, for the classification and dissemination of information.

I would like to focus here on a contemporary, modern and exoteric form of the grotesque, a mass-disseminated grotesque, produced and distributed by digital technologies, and that can be found specifically on line. I’m talking about the whole host of decorative themes on tumblr, hybrid and monstrous creatures, eccentric collages, hysterical GIFs, memes, psychedelic rainbow wallpapers, and glitter graphics. In digital culture, a text exists that tells a similar story to that of the re-discovery of the ancient grotta in the late cinquecento. I’m referring to “Still there, part 1: Ruins and templates of GeoCities”, the story by Olia Lialina, a pioneer of net art, and to her exploration of the archives of GeoCities, the free web hosting service created in 1995, which became extremely popular in the late 1990s and that contained, upon closure, nearly 40 million personal pages.4

In 1999, explains Lialina, GeoCities was bought out by Yahoo!, which definitively closed the service ten years later. A vast chapter of the history of web culture suddenly became inaccessible, in a phenomenon akin to, as she puts it, a veritable  “digital massacre”.5 Between Yahoo!’s announcement of the closure of the service, and its effective closure, a few months went by, however, in which a group of archivist-activists, The Archive Team, managed to copy and archive a portion of the information from these personal pages (1.2 million of them) and bring these together in a gargantuan torrent of nearly 1 TB that could be freely downloaded (at least for those with sufficient storage space). It was uploaded a year after the closure of GeoCities, on the anniversary date. Olia Lialina, along with artist Dragan Espenschied, then downloaded this file and immersed themselves in the archive, occasionally playing the role of restorers: “Sometimes we managed to find the pictures in a different folder and we were able to restore the page. If we didn't find anything, we tried to imagine what it might have looked like judging from the file names and surviving page elements.  And sometimes, we just looked at the remains, like tourists in ancient Pompeii.6

The description of these decorative themes, found in these personal pages, is liked in Lialina’s work to that of grotesques, a “free and comical painting7 as Vasari describes it: these are “the ‘Under Construction’ signs, outer space backgrounds, MIDI- les, collections of animated web graphics and so on.8

Lialina takes these grotesque forms seriously, in a movement that recalls Théophile Gauthier, or Charles Baudelaire, and their writings on the “second-rate poets"9, scorned by pedants, based on which they construct their laudatory reading of grotesque poetry.10 She analyses them as a popular cultural practice, which is very widespread, produced by “users, many of whom, contrary to popular belief, were not teenagers or geeks, but professional housewives in their fifties.11 Here, amateurs of all kinds have replaced the poetae minores.

She also interprets them as the conscious manifestations of enthusiasm for the budding web technology. Concerning the “Under construction” signs, she thus writes that they were bearers of a “very important message, because it was crucial to really insist on the idea of constant development and change12 which was later opposed by the notion of an increasingly professionalised, standardised and disciplined web, a finite product devised by designers for clients and not by the users, now dispossessed of the possibility of building the web themselves (before being dispossessed even of their personal pages, removed without their consent). As for the outer space screensavers and wallpapers, she analyses them as allegories for the hopes of the users confronted with an inchoate web: the futuristic collections are not justified only by “their taste, but by the hope that the new medium was offering. The Internet was the future, it was bringing us into new dimensions, closer to other galaxies.13 “[M]y favorite things in the world are animated GIF files and starry sky wallpapers,” she writes, “I just like the way they look and I like them as a reminder of fun times when the users made a travesty out of the worldwide digital network.14

To my knowledge, in the texts that she devoted to the vernacular web, Lialina never used the word “grotesque”. However, here, she lays the foundations of a theory of a digital, web-based grotesque. For Lialina, there are two forms of grotesque in online practices. The original grotesque, that of the amateurs’ web of the 1990s, described above. And the version that succeeded it, from the late 1990s, which belongs to the professionalised web, then to the web 2.0, a network that, as users, we can no longer build, but only decorate and fill with content. “Just like clothing styles come back into fashion so do web designs,” writes Lialina.15 But, she adds, it’s simply on a “visual level” that things re-emerge. The opposition that she proposes between the star wallpapers and glitter GIFs, which could easily be confused, is crucial in this respect: “there is a huge gap between these two. Starry backgrounds represented the future, a touching relationship with the medium of tomorrow. Glitter decorates the web of today, routine and taken for granted.16

So the popular version of ‘90s grotesques, proliferating on the web 2.0, in blogs, tumblrs, Facebook posts and tweets is largely ironic. It functions as the marker of the would-be technological and aesthetic superiority of our age, for which GeoCities has become the ultimate synonym of digital bad taste. The grotesqueries have resurfaced, but on a purely visual level, stripped of their original concerns, the defence of an open, programmable and above all, visible, technology. Their meaning has thus undergone the same derivation as that of the grotesques: a substantive referring to a genre of painting, the term “grotesque” became an adjective in the 17th century, “often pejorative, synonymous with bizarre, extravagant, ridiculous, caricatural, or parodic.17

When we dive back into the 1990s, we understand how the (then) new medium of the web represented a promise for the future, for which the starry wallpapers, the “Welcome to my homepage” enthusiasts, unicorns, and spangled chat rooms, and construction site banners constituted remarkable creations, detailed grotesque allegories, the promise of an open medium, visible and perpetually under construction, which today’s standardised web seems to repress. What this analysis of the evolution of the grotesqueries of the web shows is that we are caught in a strange and paradoxical movement: while access to the tools of digital production, publication and dissemination has increasingly been democratised, and no company has a monopoly on the production of content any longer (to the point that we’ve invented a term, the “prosumer”, to refer to this new position, since the production and consumption of cultural content have now merged), access to programming has simultaneously been reduced.

If we extrapolate from Lialina’s approach, we can formulate a theory of the digital grotesque that would apply to the users of all digital technologies. The digital grotesque would be present when the architecture of the web becomes self-reflexive, when we decide to manually adapt the parameters, or in short, anywhere designs and/or effects crop up that are designed to render a given digital technology or technologies visible, whatever that technology might be.

The list of digital grotesque practices is long, and the purpose of this short text is not to enumerate them. But you can find a foreshadowing version of it in the use of “spinners” and video collages, in the special effects and composition of images in television shows by Jean-Christophe Averty. Averty hardly ever worked with a computer or digital mixing consoles prior to the 1980s, but from 1964 onwards he systematised video collages with the help of Max Debrenne, a special effects technician, inventing a spectacularly synthetic and decorative – grotesque – aesthetic for French television. Star backgrounds, thick clouds, blue and green waves, and whirling hearts confer an electronic pictoriality to his images, which flaunt their mode of fabrication. The effect is always visible, to a comical degree.

Closer to our era, we also find traces in Arnaud Dezoteux’s bizarre games of video postproduction, in the decorative eccentricities of Jeremy Bailey’s video inlays, the self-proclaimed “famous artist of new media18, in the deliberately impoverished fluro typographies of Justin Lieberman’s collages, or in the lucid idiocy of the hundred or so websites made by Claude Closky since the late 1990s. One of the most recent explicitly revives the grotesque tradition. Uploaded in 2016, Bestiary19 thus proposes that users produce drawings of mythical and monstrous creatures (phoenix, unicorn, centaur, amphisbaena, parandrus, crocotta, yale, muscaliet, manticore, dragon, griffin). To do so, the user must connect numbered dots, so the position is generated randomly. Each time a dot is connected, a new dot appears. There is no preconceived drawing. It’s up to the user to decide when the drawing is complete and when the creature seems to have been revealed sufficiently.

“The computer of the future should be visible,20 affirmed Lialina in November 2015. In the same year, Google published the DeepDream21 code, a programme designed to generate grotesque imagery automatically (it gave rise to many other online image generators that offered users the possibility of simply uploading an image to transform). Here, we can identify two distinct positions using computer technology, a producer’s position (amateurs who programme their own pages) and a consumer’s position (who use the web as it has been designed for them, without programming it). From one model to the other, we pass from a vision of the computer as a visible, programmed, and re-programmable technology, to that of the pre-existing, pre-programmed, and “invisible” computer.

I have no notion whatsoever of programming: it’s absolutely grotesque.


  1. Deborah Lee, user of GeoCities, cited by Dragan Espenschied in “One Terabyte of Kilobyte Age”, 2011 http://blog.geocities.institute/archives/1614
  2. See Daniel Headrick, When information came of age, Oxford University Press, 2000, p. 4 “Information implies an assemblage of data, such as a telephone book, a map, a dictionary, or a database-not random data, however, but data organized in a systematic fashion. If we were to undertake the study of information, our task would be unending. Instead, let us focus on a more manageable concept, the study of information systems. By systems, l mean the methods and techniques by which people organize and manage information, rather than the content of the information itself, Information systems were created to supplement the mental functions of thought, memory and speech. They are, if you will, the technologies of knowledge.”
  3. Jonathan Rousseau, “Grotte, grotta, excavation, grottesca, grotesque”, in Isabelle Ost, Pierre Piret, Laurent Van Eynde, Le grotesque: théorie, généalogie, figures, Facultés universitaires Saint-Louis, 2005, p.52
  4. Source Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yahoo!GeoCities
  5. Olia Lialina, “Ruins and Templates of Geocities”, 2011-2012
  6. Ibid. “Sometimes we managed to find the pictures in a different folder and we were able to restore the page. If we didn't find anything, we tried to imagine what it might have looked like judging from the file names and surviving page elements. And sometimes, we just looked at the remains, like tourists in ancient Pompeii.” 
  7. Giorgio Vasari, Les Vies des meilleurs peintres, sculpteurs et architectes, 1568, chapter 27 https://it.wikisource.org/wiki/Le_vite_de%27_pi%C3%B9_eccellenti_pittori,_scultori_e_architettori_(1568)/Capitolo_27 “Le grottes che sono una spezie di pitture licenziose e ridicole mol to, fatte dagl'antichi per ornamenti di vani, dove in alcuni luoghi non stava bene altro che cose in aria.”
  8. Olia Lialina, “Vernacular web 2”, August 2007 http://contemporary-home-computing.org/vernacular-web-2/
 «the ‹Under Construction› signs, outer space backgrounds, MIDI-files, collections of animated web graphics and so on.»
  9. Théophile Gauthier, Les grotesques, “l. François Villon”, Michel Levy Frères, Paris, 1853, p. 1 http://gallica.bnf.fr/¬ ark:/12148/ bpt6k107893t/f16.image
    “ces poètes réputés mauvais sur le jugement d'un pédant de college” [“these poets deemed poor based on the judgement of a school pedant.”]
  10. “As for the grotesques figures that antiquity has handed down to us,” writes Baudelaire, “the masks, the bronze statuettes, the muscular representations of Hercules tout en muscles, the little Priapuses with bronze tongues curling upwards and pointed ears, with prodigious brain boxes and phalli – as for the latter, on which the fair daughter Romulus innocently ride astride, these monstrous mechanisms of generation, decked out with bells and wings, I believe all these things have a deeply serious intention.” In Charles Baudelaire, P.E. Charvet (trans.) “Of the Essence of Laughter”, Baudelaire: Selected Writings on Art and Artists, CUP Archive, 1981, p. 149.
  11. Olia Lialina, “Ruins and templatesof GeoCities”, op,cit.
  12. Olia Lialina, “A vernacular web”, January 2005 “This was a very important message because it was crucial to really insist on the idea of constant development and change but the sign was wrong. The association with broken roads and obstacles on the way didn't illustrate the idea of ongoing development. Around 1997 the sign turned into a meaningless footer and became a common joke. Even the mainstream press wrote that the web was always under construction so, after a while, people stopped putting it.” http://art.teleportacia.org/observation/vernacular/uc/
  13. Ibid. “Their desire to make the web look like the futuristic backdrop of their favorite pieces was justified. Not only by their taste but by the hope the new medium was offering, The Internet was the future, it was bringing us into new dimensions, closer to other galaxies.” 
  14. Olia Lialina, “Vernacular web 2”, op. cit. “If you ever talked about the Web with me -or talked with me at all- you probably know that my favorite thing in the world are animated GIF files and starry sky wallpapers, preferably animated as well, l just like the way they look, and l like them as a reminder of fun times when the users made a travesty out of the worldwide digital network.”
  15. Olia Lialina, “Vernacular web 2” op. cit. “Just as clothing styles come back into fashion so do web designs. On a visual level things reappear.”
  16. Olia Lialina, “Vernacular web 2”, op. cit. “There's a huge gap between these two. Starry backgrounds represented the future, a touching relationship with the medium of tomorrow. Glitter decorates the web of today, routine and taken for granted.”
  17. Philippe Morel, cited by Jonathan Rousseau, op. cit, p. 47
  18. https://www.youtube.com/user/jeremybailey06
  19. http://www.sittes.net/bestiary/ 
  20. Olia Lialina, “Not Art&Tech. On the role of Media Theory at Universities of Applied Art, Technology and Art and Technology”, November 2015 http://contemporary-home-computing.org/art-and-tech/not/
  21. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DeepDream

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