Olia Lialina's Most Famous Net Art Piece Turns 15

<p><i>My Boyfriend Comes Back From The War</i>, the death of the frameset and other Web 1.0 magic.</p>

Aug 9 2011, 4:15pm

Moscow-born net.artist, film critic, curator, journalist, educator, and animated GIF model Olia Lialina is celebrating an anniversary this month—the 15th birthday of her most famous piece of net art My Boyfriend Came Back From The War (MBCBFTW).

The black and white interactive browser-based work chronicles the story of a couple reconvening after war. The multi-frame artwork follows a kind of disjointed conversation through a series of hyperlinked text and images that unravel a story line that alludes to love, longing and betrayal, drawing on the inevitable stress that comes when relationships are forced apart and tested. This charmingly simple yet poignant work, along with the overwhelming sense of nostalgia for the early days of the web one gets from visiting her online art gallery, made us wonder what making net art was like before numerous HTML advancements started wiping out older webpages and allowing for hyper-real web graphics.

Unlike fine wine or vintage couture, which generally grow better with age, the internet runs on a completely different wavelength where modernity and innovation are the major driving forces and measures of quality—meaning that only the most recent webpages have the best chance for survival. We chatted over email about how MBCBFTW has influenced today’s net art community, and how newer versions of HTML are affecting early net art pieces.

Olia Lialina as an animated GIF model.

The Creators Project: Can you describe who you are and what you do in five words or less?
Olia Lialina
: Net artist teaching web designers.

Your most renowned net art project My Boyfriend Came Back From The War turns 15 this August, why do you think it’s garnered so much attention over the years?
I was very lucky—it got a lot of attention immediately. The reason is that it was very different from anything that existed online at that moment. Not only visually, but also conceptually. It was not a website, but a story told [through] the browser and made explicitly for the browser.

What was the initial inspiration behind the work?
I was inspired by HTML frames. The tag < frameset > was introduced early that year. It allowed [one] to build websites that would consist of more than one HTML document present on screen at the same time. The initial idea of the developers was that it would lead to better navigation and performance of websites. That a menu would be in one frame and the content in another, and this way you can click a link in the menu, and it will open another HTML document in the assigned part of the screen, without a need to reload the navigation bar. Sort of like Web 1.0 magic.

One should say that this tag didn’t make web surfing any faster or easier. [It was] the opposite. Frames were confusing users and search engines, and drove developers crazy. It was one of the most controversial web design features, hated by many from the very beginning. Earlier this year it was removed from the HTML 5 standard. So, now it’s history.

Anyway, it was not the usability part that fascinated me, but the idea that the screen could be divided and a story could fork and then come together again.

Screen shot from MBCBFTW (1996)

What emotional response or insights (if any) did you want people to take away from it?
Let me put it this way… I never expected that it would provoke emotional responses. I thought that hyper-narration is a good form to convey an atmosphere of difficult conversation—short sentences that become a mosaic of other short sentences when clicked on. It can become tense or sad or full of hope. I chose what I thought would be a proper scenario for such a conversation, two people trying to talk to each other after being disconnected by war. What I didn’t take into account was that my audience would see it as a true story (my story) or would identify with the situation. The mid-1990s were not only time when a lot of people got online, it was a time when a lot of countries in Eastern and Western Europe were at war or just came back from the war.

Do you think that “My Boyfriend” has been influential for other browser-based artworks?
I can’t really say if somebody was influenced. I know that its form is recognizable and that’s why its suitable for appropriations. One of the most dear remakes for me is the Chilean version of MBCBFTW, made in 2005. It is a tribute to the 40 soldiers of the regular army who died crossing the mountains that winter. The artist took the structure of my work but filled it with imagery, facts and emotions related to the tragic event.

Tribute to Antuco soldiers by Ignacio Nieto (2005)

Actually the number of remixes artists have done of MBCBFTW over the years is quite impressive… do you have a favorite?
I’m grateful to all the artists and fans who made one. There are some that are really gorgeous. Auriea Harvey and Michael Samyn made a flash version of it. It was dynamic and with sound, it became very popular. JODI made the MBCBFTW Wolfenstein game modification, which was an extraordinary experience, and still is. You go though this story by shooting and killing. I really love the VRML (web 3D) version by Dragan Espenschied, because it is so well done and makes a very strong, very skeptical message about [using] 3D in the browser.

How has your relationship with the internet changed over the years as technology has become more advanced?
My relations with the internet were getting closer and closer. In the 90s I tried to make things that would look different from [other sites around] the web. In the beginning of the century, I became more aware about the culture around me and today all my artistic and research work is concentrated around vernacular web culture. I write on Digital Folklore and make projects that praise WWW users.

Concerning technological advancement: internet connection became much faster which is sort of a trouble for my older works like MBCBFTW or Agatha Appears (1997). I didn’t plan that you could click through them in some seconds. So maybe I should put them offline and show them on 15-year-old computers with a modem connection, or modify the web server to make them work slower.

Agatha Appears, restored 2008.

You said in an interview with Josephine Bosma in 1997 that “If something is in the net, it should speak in net.language.” Can you explain what exactly net.language is? Does the definition change?
What I meant in 1997 was that users should not just use the web to publish their stories, but to make web stories. Not to upload videos (well, didn’t make a lot of sense back then anyway), but to make net films. In other words, produce stuff that is medium specific. I didn’t know this term in 1996, but this is what I wanted to express. I teach students to do it now, to respect the medium they are working with and go to its limits.

Do you worry about preserving your work, or do you restore most of your work to be able to withstand new versions of HTML?
I don’t really worry about the preservation of my own works, though restoration is something that keeps me constantly occupied. Many of my works were based on features that browser developers considered being bugs and were removing those bugs in newer versions. So, I have to find new tricks to keep them alive. Art.Teleportacia gallery has to be updated and upgraded often. Agatha Appears is something that demands constant attention. Two years ago the project was brought back to its full life by a trained digital art restorator, but again some new browsers are not happy interpreting the files. Surprisingly, my oldest website MBCBFTW is still doing fine. I only had to update the email address when I changed it.

What are you working on currently?
Right at the moment, Dragan and I are digging though the Geocities archive and reporting our findings on One Terabyte of Kilobyte Age. With [my] students [at Merz Akademie] we just made a great—a bit sad—exhibition < /frameset >, a tribute to the fired tag. It was quite a strange and risky thing for me to suggest to young designers to work with frames in 2011, but the designs and experiments they produced are the best tribute to the frameset. If people at The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) would see what you can do with frames now, they would keep them.