Published: Feb. 20, 2012

When you hear someone say they are dancer, immediately an image of a person performing on a stage in front of an audience appears in your head. Generally, our view of dance as an art form tends to exist within a narrow scope that is bounded within the diameters of the stage. According to this view, posting dance performances on the Internet simply allows performers to post filmed material, originally performed live, online for the masses to view.  So, really, the art of dance only occurs live and the web is just a place for old, recorded performances to be re-viewed, right? No. Within the arts, there is a growing trend known as internet art, in which artists are creating pieces where the Internet is their primary medium as opposed to the stage or the canvas.

Professor Michelle Ellsworth, an instructor of Dance in CU’s department of Theater and Dance, encourages her students to move beyond the stage by viewing the Web as a new performance platform, possessing its own unique capabilities and limitations. Just as television changed the way people received the news and consumed entertainment, the Internet provides new opportunities for dancers to alter the many preconceived notions about their field.

Students involved in the university’s Theater and Dance program are eligible to take part in a two-semester long independent study, overseen by Professor Ellsworth, during which they develop their own website. The young artists enrolled in this program elect to create an online portfolio, an internet art space, or a combination fusing the characteristics of both.  As part of this process, Professor Ellsworth said she is “encouraging them to think of [the websites] as free-standing art pieces for web art purposes so it isn’t just a self-promotional tool.”

Unlike a live performance, internet art can take on numerous forms and configurations. Some artists, like Professor Ellsworth herself, create online spaces extending their live performance into the digital realm by uploading videos of their performances and other complimentary material.  Internet art challenges the idea that a dancer’s work only occurs in front of a live audience: these websites are meant to be viewed as their own free-standing performances, continuing to exist long after the curtains close.

Engaging in the creation of internet art will push the student’s perception of dance beyond the confines of the stage as they will create work solely geared for 2-D viewing within the dimensions of a computer screen.   As we spend so much time on the web, Professor Ellsworth argues, “It’s so much part of our experience. I can’t imagine the extent to which I spend on the Internet not seeping into my work and my work not seeping back into it.” It is only natural that the web enters into an artist’s work as its influence permeates into the mundane aspects of our day-to-day lives and part of their job is to respond to the cultural changes of their times.

During the first semester, the individuals work closely with a web developer to create the design and architecture of the website, and then in the second semester they will create the actual content. Discussing the use of these websites, Professor Ellsworth noted, “the person I’m working with on the back end is creating a content-management system so that they can change their videos, so they will not be static…I want them to be completely free standing, so that the architecture of the website gives the students a lot of flexibility in changing content.” It is essential that the design of the website provides the students with the ability to easily change and alter content as they are creating pieces of art, continuously evolving as their artistic imagination reaches new levels.  If a painter could not add more colors to a piece of work, then their work would never advance. The same idea applies in this medium: if the students do not possess an easy mechanism to upload new content, the internet art could not progress as they develop as artists.

Before working with a web designer was incorporated into the course, dance students produced their own websites using free blog sources such as wordpress or blogger, but these tools could not gratify the young artists’ visions. Reflecting on those early creations, Professor Ellsworth lamented, “The parameters of those websites were so set that they look rather similar and oddly standardized. It was hard for them to express their individuality or their aesthetics in those pre-made, pre-fab, free sources.” As her students are artists, she knew these freely available blogs confined their development and growth within the visual arts; she wanted to provide her students with the tools to fulfill their own perceptions about internet art. Or as Professor Ellsworth put it, “have the website manifest their own aesthetics as opposed to conform to those of wordpress.”

Clearly, the Internet will not disappear anytime soon; it will continue to evolve and become even more entwined into our lives.  The goal of teaching, as Professor Ellsworth explained, is that the classroom should be relevant and beneficial to students' future endeavors. Students and teachers must embrace the technological changes of our times as these new developments are reconfiguring many of our preconceived notions about the world. Certainly, enrollment in this program is preparing students for the new frontiers they face upon leaving college, which is ultimately the very purpose of higher education.

To look at some example internet art pieces, click some of the links below to view Professor Ellsworth’s own creations.

To look at a student example, click the link below.

Professor Ellsworth received an ASSETT Development Award for the Spring 2011 semester. This grant helped fund the web developer for this independent study. Development Awards are given out each semester to CU professors using technology in their courses to push education into the 21st Century.