How the Fight to Own .Art Illustrates the Art World’s Inherent Contradictions

Beginning February 8th, a fresh wave of arts institutions, dealers and artists will apply for entry to a new frontier of the art universe: the online web domain .art. That’s when the preferred access period begins for a hand-selected group of “important arts organizations and professional members of the art world,” each of which will receive invitations to register their very own web address ending in .art.

The entity guarding the gates, UK Creative Ideas Limited (UKCI), bills .art as “the art world’s exclusive domain,” an unsurprising claim for an industry that’s often characterized by wealth and rarity. But the art world is also potentially limitless, including everyone from students to street artists to Instagram auteurs, raising the question of who gets to delineate the boundaries for inclusion.

That tension, between exclusivity and democratization, mirrors many of the contradictions within the art world itself. And as more arts institutions, artists, art lovers, and art dealers move online, the struggle over who claimed the .art domain provides an illustrative case study in how those tensions get resolved.

The story begins in 2012, when the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) announced that applicants could request new top-level domains, or “TLDs.” Companies and organizations applied for ownership of a TLD of their choosing (1,930 proposals in total, ranging from .netflix to .love), which would grant them control of the domain and allow them to charge for its use. The process required applicants to submit a number of documents, including a mission statement and financial records that prove the entity’s ability to successfully operate a domain registry.

Ten groups applied for .art, making it ICANN’s fourth most contested domain name after .app, .inc, and .home. Perhaps due to the $185,000 application fee, a majority of the interested parties were commercial.

But there were two “community” applicants, New York arts organization e-flux and online art-sharing platform DeviantArt. (The two eventually endorsed each other in 2014 in an effort to strengthen their claims to the domain.) Entities applying for community designation must demonstrate that they will use the domain name to serve the needs of the community they represent, said James Cole, senior global communications coordinator for ICANN, a determination made by an outside group hired by the corporation. If an applicant’s community status is granted, it is automatically prioritized over commercial applicants.  

Russian tech entrepreneur, venture capitalist, and founder of UKCI Ulvi Kasimov stressed the potential of .art’s “brand” in an interview, calling it “a highly desirable segment of the internet with a potentially limitless user base.” E-flux founder Anton Vidokle, on the other hand, proposed a more grassroots approach to the .art domain. He envisioned an impartial council of arts professionals governing the distribution of .art addresses, channeling 10% of profits to grants and funding for under-resourced cultural institutions or projects.

In its application, e-flux claimed to serve what it called the “art community in its broadest sense,” a sentiment flatly rejected by ICANN’s evaluators, who described their vision as lacking “the clarity and delineation required of a community” specified by ICANN’s guidelines.

“The membership as defined in the application is overly dispersed and unbound,” reads the 2014 evaluation report, which ultimately refused both e-flux’s and DeviantArt’s requests for community designation.

In the end, UKCI beat out other commercial applicants in a private auction in 2015. The outcome is not unusual: Of the 1,215 domains that have been delegated, 51 have gone to community applicants. Cyrus Namazi, vice president for ICANN’s domain name services, noted the numbers reflected a broader application pattern. Fewer than 100 out of the over 1,900 overall applications ICANN received in 2012 were from entities seeking community status, he said.

But while the primacy of commercial interests may be innocuous in more explicitly commercial fields, Vidokle worries it could prove problematic for what he sees as the exceptional realm of art.

“This probably means that the internet sees art as no different from all other things: hotels, cars, tennis, pets, and so forth,” he said. “The challenge...will be to find a way to maintain the extraordinary, paradoxical character of art and not let it be flattened into merely another category of stuff.”

For now, Vidokle is choosing to work alongside UKCI as it launches .art. The entire e-flux mailing list will receive an invitation to join during the preferred access period, he said, which begins next month. After it closes in early May, new .art domains will be registered on a “first come, first serve” basis.

Some of the early .art adopters’ websites, including Fondation Beyeler, the Marina Abramovic Institute, and Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum, are already live, while others will go up in the coming months. In the meantime, Kasimov is carefully patrolling the “online neighborhood” of which he is the unofficial mayor.

“Our aim,” he said, “is to make .art the ultimate mark of belonging to, and identifying with the art universe.”


—Abigail Cain and Anna Louie Sussman


Correction:

An earlier version of this article listed the senior global communications coordinator for ICANN as James Coles. His name is actually James Cole.

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