Ephemerality and the Internet: On Response to a Request

Response to a Request is an art appreciation website, which was recently founded by Irish art critic and writer Rebecca O’Dwyer.  The website provides a platform for writers to engage in sustained visual analysis in an original and experimental setting. Once a fortnight, a new writer, often invited by O’Dwyer herself, chooses an image of personal significance to reflect upon in considerable detail.

Whilst the written content of the website is highly engaging and insightful, the publishing concept behind Response to a Request makes it an interesting model to examine. Unusually for the internet, the website contains no archive which means that each text and image set only stays online for the duration of a fortnight before disappearing, leaving no technological footprint behind.

Intrigued by this concept, I emailed Rebecca to find out more behind her reasoning for this.

“I wanted to instil a sense of urgency around the texts”, she writes in an email to me. “Secondly, I wanted to make the space as pared down as possible. I guess [it works] to reduce distractions, and to focus the reader on the text and image. Also, I think a lot of art writing sites – and, the internet in general – are unnecessarily cluttered, and not at all conducive to reading”

As a reader of the website, I find the lack of archive to be a persuasive reason to read each post as soon as they appear online. Despite the function of the archive as a place to keep things safe for the sake of posterity; paradoxically, the website’s failure to include one actually makes the posts seem more precious and compelling as they won’t be around forever.

In this regard, I began to think about the concept of ephemerality and technology, and why there might be a compulsion towards this now in a hyper-archived, networked world. Of course, the most obvious example of this mode is Snapchat, which in its transient nature permits moments of un-self-conscious sharing, in doing so allowing for what is arguably a more ‘authentic’ representation of the ‘self’, unlike the posturing present on Instagram’s blocky picture archive or on Facebook’s historical timeline.

Indeed, Snapchat has been compared to being ‘like a secret’ in that the momentariness of its images creates a vulnerability not so readily available on other social networking sites. In a fashion, I think that Response to a Request’s lack of archive offers a similar space to its contributors and readers alike in that it enables an intimate discussion, one which will not be endlessly circulated and re-posted.

However, when I asked Rebecca whether her website could be considered as a highbrow version of Snapchat, she was quick to dismiss this, instead writing: “The format might be similar in a superficial way, but I don’t think Snapchat in any way highlights the importance of the singular image, or indeed of looking. That sense of pause, which I’m trying to create, is not there with snapchat: the image in hand is only one in a sequence, and each image exists only in relation to the one that preceded it, and the one that comes after. Its images are disposable, rather than ephemeral.”

Even so, there is still perhaps an interesting discussion to be had around the radical potential of an internet without archive.

Kathryn O’ Regan