Turn Your Browser Into An Art Gallery

<p>Browser plug-ins turn your browser from drab to fab!</p>

Julia Kaganskiy

Who would have thought that the lowly web browser could become an art medium? Most of us take our browser software for granted—using Firefox, Chrome, Safari or even (heaven forbid!) Internet Explorer as web information portals and nothing more. That is, of course, what these browsers were designed to do, but in the hands of hacker artists, they are capable of so much more, adding new functionality and customization capabilities to the browser platform.

Artists have been working with browser add-ons for several years, but recently the increased push for open browser development from both Mozilla (makers of Firefox) and Google’s Chrome have spurred renewed creative energy in the realm. Some artists, like Tobias Leingruber, who is an add-on ambassador for Mozilla and runs an art add-on repository called Artzila are speculating that browser add-ons are going to experience the same surge in popularity that we’ve seen with mobile apps as users look to add more features and customization, both practical and playful, to their browsing interfaces.

We decided the time was ripe to take a look at some of the most inventive browser add-on art projects to date. The best part is, all of these art pieces are available for you to download and install on your own browser, completely free of charge, to “own” and enjoy at your leisure. Here’s a round-up of some of our favorites.

A webpage deconstructed with Shredder by Mark Napier.

Let’s start with an oldie but a goodie, the Shredder by Mark Napier (above) is one of the earliest examples of add-on art. Originally released way back in 1998, this plug-in creates original abstract compositions by deconstructing the HTML code of any web page. The resulting images, which look like the remnants one might expect to find after a satisfying paper-shredding binge, are Napier’s commentary on the precarious nature of the HTML infrastructure that powers the web.

One of our favorite pieces is Add-Art from artist Steve Lambert, which replaces banner ads on websites with art curated by Lambert or one of his cohorts. The plug-in effectively functions as art work and art gallery at the same time. Shows are updated every two weeks and feature contemporary artists and curators, the current show features works selected by Chris Fallon of the Partisan Gallery. We love this add-on because it serves up a double dosage of awesome—it gets rid of annoying banner ads and offers up fresh contemporary art in their stead.

Below is a video demonstrating how it works:

But add-ons aren’t just there to improve upon the aesthetic qualities of the web. A recent work called Google Alarm from artist and internet researcher Jamie Wilkinson caused quite a stir in the online community when it was released last month. The add-on was designed as an artistic commentary on Google’s data farming of user information, and sounded a visual and audio alarm every time a user’s personal information was being sent to Google’s servers (we can attest that this happens with disturbing, and annoying, frequency). No person in their right mind will likely keep this Firefox add-on installed on their computers, but Wilkinson certainly proved a point.

Video of Wilkinson’s demo below:

Another artist that's been making a splash in the browser plug-in arena of late is Greg Leuch, creator of the Shaved Beiber, Black Oil Plug-In and the Ex-Blocker plug-in (the latter two were done in collaboration with creative agency Jess3). Leuch found a formula that works—helping users hide unappealing information such as mentions of Justin Beiber, BP Oil, and your dreaded ex—and decided to run with it, creating three very popular plug-ins in the process. Taken collectively, they are an interesting reflection on popular culture and the tapped out information economy.

Leingruber, who’s Artzilla platform catalogs many other such add-on projects, is also a prolific add-on artist in his own right. A project he created in grad school called Pirates of the Amazon catapulted the young designer to international attention by creating a Firefox plug-in that promoted free (illegal) downloads on Amazon’s own website. While the project parodied the current imbalance in the information economy, the folks at Amazon didn’t see the humor in it and Leingruber very narrowly escaped legal persecution. His most recent project, Webmarker, is a little more harmless—it’s a Firefox plug-in that lets users write on any webpage. A kind of virtual graffiti, the notes, drawings, or tags created with Webmarker are visible to everyone else who visits the webpage (so long as they have the plug-in installed).

Screenshot of a Webmarker creation.

It’s unclear whether these kinds of projects will ever evolve past their current “niche” status, but for the time being, those in the know can turn their web browsers into a veritable net art gallery. If and when they do catch on, you can say you sported these plug-ins “way back in the day.”