A Season in Hell

Cluster meets Kenneth Aronson, conceptual strategist and founder of Hell.com
Domenico Quaranta

hell
Turin as “Villa Hell”. Courtesy Kenneth Aronson.

The Hell.com case explodes in 1999. The media start speaking about a strange website, as black as the Ace of Spades and without any visible contents. The Wanderer must digit his e-mail address: if he’s lucky and if the waiting list isn’t too long, some day after he’ll be invited to enter. Hell. According to the legend, the Founder registered a domain in August 1995. For a few months Hell was empty, a black hole on the web. The Founder then rounds up a community of friends, artist friends, who decorate the domain with artwork that they want to keep “private” far from indiscreet eyes. The residents. Hell becomes a “private parallel web”, “an anti-web that sold and promoted nothing and was not accessible to the public”. However an address such as this couldn’t go unnoticed for long. The waiting list grew unbelievably long, creating serious organization problems for the Founder. He was surrounded by Business tycoons who dreamt of the Big Portal, with “Abandon your hope, you who enter” written on the threshold. Then the unexpected happened: the Thieves arrive, they descend into Hell and copy the contents, republishing them on their website. The Thieves are in actual fact Guerrillas who are fighting for web freedom, the sharing of art and life. “Their” Hell.com is a free parallel web, accessible to everybody”. The war opposes two different life concepts and the wounds are still open.
Today Hell is still there, but it’s not talk any more. Cluster sought out the Founder, to ask him what he thinks of it all now.

DQ: When did you enter the net for the first time? What was your first impression?
KA: 1994. From the very first www grey pages with blue hyperlinks it was crystal clear that this medium would be an historically unprecedented incubator for shameless self promotion, viral commercialism, worthless content, greed, smut, and garbage.

From the very first www grey pages with blue hyperlinks it was crystal clear that this medium would be an historically unprecedented incubator for shameless self promotion, viral commercialism, worthless content, greed, smut, and garbage

DQ: I always looked at Hell.com as a paradoxical ‘freedom island’, paradoxical because its freedom is the opposite of the traditional freedom of the net: it comes from closure, not from openess. Do you think there’s still a place for – and a need for – such islands?
KA: Idealistically I surely “hope” that there is something more profound in humanity than the “selling” of ideas, and products that no one needs.
Every other living species on the planet drinks ONLY water. Yet humans have invented tens of thousands of beverages… amazingly millions of people are employed as a result of the artificial demand to ship designer water from one part of the globe to the other. So perhaps our species is really that pointless.

DQ: Some years ago there was a rumour that you would sell the domain. You registered no-such.com, and there was even an online auction. But hell.com is still hell. Why?
KA: Hell.com is a private project, however it was located at the most visible address on the web.
This was a negative for us, but has a large value… which could be exchanged for resources to help further the goals of the project.

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In senso orario Clockwise 0100101110101101.ORG, 0100101110101101.ORG / HELL.com, 1999. Courtesy 0100101110101101.ORG. Alcune screenshot da Some screenshots from Hell.com; courtesy Kenneth Aronson.

Unfortunately, I held off announcing the sale as a favour to a journalist friend who I promised could be the first to publish a piece for the Wall Street Journal… During this time the dot com crash happened and what was worth 8 million became saleable at only a couple of million… so i decided to wait until the market recovered.

DQ: And why, after a year (1999) of attention, did hell.com fall into silence?
KA: Hell.com is about creating a new possibility for humans. As a community it is made up of people of all disciplines from a variety of fields. The press discovered the visual web aspect and incorrectly assumed that it had something to do with art? which was the antithesis of what the project is about… To the public THAT became what Hell.com is… This has never been the reality..and when that phase of the project was completed… people just assumed that it disappeared. Which was exactly the point of moving the project off of the domain in 2000.

I surely “hope” that there is something more profound in humanity than the “selling” of ideas, and products that no one needs

DQ. About open vs closed, public vs private: how did you perceive the copy of your “private web” by 0100101110101101.org? And what do you think about it now, in the light of the evolution of the net and of their recent work?
KA. I am unfamiliar with their work, as I don’t follow net.art… but I think I already answered this with my first question… on what my first impression of the net was.
But actually I always thought that 0100101110101101.org was an Italian PR firm and that they were pulling a marketing stunt… To establish their firm.
It annoyed the hell out of me that they “appropriated” the work for commercial gain of some of our members who were incredibly talented “nice people” struggling to survive.
Now that they are claiming to be “artists” is a sad disappointment, I thought that were much smarter than that. Artists historically have stepped on each other in attempt to get a few scraps thrown from the table of society but in an arena that at best creates products that are worthless… The fact that they did all of this for just ego… is masturbation.

DQ. What is Ken Aronson doing now?
KA. The exact same thing though far less visibly ;-
I am pursuing the journey that I started in 1995… assembling people of talent, vision, and intelligence to create an alternative reality.