Elliott Cost of Gossip's Web

by Meg Miller and Laurel Schwulst

Meg Miller: OK so here we are in Laurel’s kitchen.

Laurel Schwulst: And Meg’s kitchen.

MM: The idea for this interview came about in this kitchen, because I was sitting here wondering about what to do next for the blog and Laurel had the suggestion that I email Elliott.

Then when we talked over the phone, Elliott, you were saying that your website, Gossip’s Web, transformed from something that was primarily being used for personal research, and mostly just a Google Doc, into something that was public facing when Laurel was your roommate in San Francisco. You were working on it in your kitchen and she came over and asked you what it was, and you felt compelled to build it out more.

So maybe me can start by talking about what Gossip’s Web is and what you started that day.

Elliott Cost: It began in the kitchen, as you pointed out. It actually started with a different site that was just a list of artist websites. I ran that for a while and all these people who were on the list emailed me wondering, “What is this? Why am I on this?”

MM: What was it?

ER: Just a list of artist websites I admired.

LS: What was the URL?

ER: Artistswithwebsites.com. [laughs] I think maybe that was also a reason that I retired it. It was a little too generic.

MM: And you wanted to move on to this new idea? Or you were just tired of maintaining it?

ER: I thought it was a little strange to list all these artist websites, because it was an extremely broad category. I know that there are some Are.na channels that attempt to encapsulate artists who make websites. It was hard to determine who falls into that category, and a lot of artist websites are kind of vague. Also, the domain expired.

At the time, I was starting a project space in my apartment, so Gossip’s Web was a way of doing research for VI Dancer, to see exactly what type of website the space needed. The idea behind Gossip’s was to just list project spaces or apartment galleries that I admired.

MM: This was in the apartment that you and Laurel shared?

ER: Yeah. Laurel was living there at that time. Going back to the idea of a kitchen as a work space: the other day, I was thinking about how many websites probably started in the kitchen. They’re often communal spots, and it’s a bit nicer to work in a communal spot than in your room.

MM: That’s definitely the case for this apartment.

LS: That house [in San Francisco] also didn’t have a living room really, so the kitchen was the true central spot of the house. And my room specifically opened up into the kitchen, but also it had a window that opened up into VI Dancer. Which was this kind of porch, inside-out space. It was more inside than outside; it was covered.

Why did you end up calling your website Gossip’s Web?

ER: Gossip and Web, those two words, sounded nice together. I’m also interested in gossip as a concept, since it’s kind of perceived negatively like with Tabloids, that kind of thing. I wanted to reclaim it as a positive way of sharing things. But I also don’t like the word “share,” which a lot of web companies will use generically because it works across the board. I thought it would be interesting to use gossip instead.

And then with Web, I was thinking of it as a network for gossip. Like, what if you could see gossip happening in real time?

LS: And it’s possessive. It reminds me of Charlotte’s Web.

ER: Right, Gossip is this character. I’m always interested in websites having characters.

LS: Like Craigslist.

MM: That’s not possessive, though.

ER: But I do like to think of it as his list.

Also in regards to gossip, I think a lot of people come to the website through word of mouth. Even when I was building it, it wasn’t until Laurel saw it and said, “What is this?” that it gave me the impetus to make it live. From that point on, I never checked the analytics; I don’t really know how many people come to it. At one point I made a Twitter, but I never felt like that was quite right for it. I thought I needed to make internal tools for it, but not appendages, like a Twitter or an Instagram.

LS: Especially since it already has the web within it. People are clicking links and finding out about other websites.

ER: It’s a system within itself.

MM: It also seems like the kind of thing that would not normally be connected, right? Because they’re small projects and they’re everywhere, so you’re doing the maintenance of actively bringing them together. Have you been hearing from the spaces listed on the site?

ER: I hear from project spaces sometimes, and other people will submit spaces to run on the site. There’s a phone number at the bottom that is a Google Voice number. I think people are a little afraid of it, but people have texted me.

LS: Have you gotten calls to it?

ER: I don’t think I’ve ever gotten a call. But it’s always possible.

LS: Why is Gossip’s Web’s background green?

ER: Well it hasn’t always been that color green. I changed it to a lighter green, but then I showed Laurel and she wasn’t a fan of the redesign, so I reverted it back to the original color. It was a little too slick.

Gossip’s has always been a design challenge, and I’m actually fine with keeping it how it is. I have moments where I think I’ll try something out, but at the end of the day, I just keep coming back to the way it is now.

I was also thinking about how color can brand a periodical. For instance, how the Financial Times is always printed on salmon pink or how phone books are often printed on yellow paper. The paper color becomes a distinguishing trademark over time. It would be amazing if people referred to Gossip’s Web as “the olive green pages.”

LS: What’s the line across the top of Gossip’s with the + sign?

ER: Recently, I rebuilt the back end of the website using a static site generator called Jekyll. So what’s running across the top is the latest commit to Github. In a commit message, I’ll put a + and the latest space that I’m adding, or if I’m retiring a space, I’ll say that as well. I also put up an API recently that people can potentially use.

LS: How are you hoping people use the API?

ER: I don’t know, I’ve never made an API. I thought I’d just put it out there and see what people make of it. I’d be interested if someone just made a whole different version of Gossip’s Web.

LS: Gossip’s Web II.

ER: Yeah! I don’t think of the site as mine or that I should copyright it or anything like that. It’s more of a collection of other people’s stuff. I’d definitely be interested in other people doing something with it.

MM: I know you said at some point that you were trying to look ahead to the future of Gossip’s Web and what it would look like. Are you waiting to see what other people make of it?

ER: After making the design change that I ended up scrapping, I thought, “Maybe I shouldn’t work on this anymore; I should just leave it how it is and see if someone comes along with a suggestion.” I’ve thought continuously about adding filters to it, narrowing things down. But I also like that it’s just this list that you have to command F to search for something. It’s very static.

LS: I noticed for a little while there was a “News” section. That was impressive, because it meant you were actively combing through these tiny sites for upcoming events. Big galleries have event listings like this, and there’s that app called See Saw that aggregates them all. But what a nice thing to do for these small spaces that have to do everything themselves.

ER: That makes me want to bring it back. It was pretty archaic: I was manually entering the events. I think I would subscribe to every space’s mailchimp newsletter and just copy-paste that over.

There was also a point where I had my friend Quintessa Matranga write for the site. Quintessa interviewed Shahan Assadorian about his website Archivings which is an index focused on garments and scans of fashion magazine clippings. It was interesting how the interview sort of bridged the gap between these two web indices.

LS: I find Gossip’s valuable because these websites that exist for small project spaces, and therefore their associated websites, sometimes don’t last long at all. It’s nice to know someone is watching. I notice you update lost sites by putting a slash through them.

ER: I started notating which spaces have disappeared. I’ll strikethrough the URL if they’ve either retired and I know that, or if the website goes down. I’ve debated a lot about how it’s moderated and how people add to it. Right now, it’s just me moderating it, so if I find an interesting site I’ll add it.

One of the tenets I started with was to never put a gallery on the index that has an artist roster. From working in a gallery in the past, I’ve seen how representation can really blind gallerists from what’s happening outside of their galleries. It also makes it harder for outsider artists to show in spaces. I’ve been wary of collector-run spaces or established galleries that run project spaces on the side. I’ve always felt that Gossip’s should link to outsider or marginalized gallery spaces. As Laurel pointed out, apps like See Saw or Contemporary Art Daily are already catering to well-known spaces.

At one point there was a site on Gossip’s that was just a group of collectors showing work from their own collections. A friend emailed me and asked why I decided to put it on there. The truth was that I had no idea it was even a collector group. Sometimes it’s hard to know from a distance what these things are. I guess that’s why gossiping in art communities is actually really important. You learn things that otherwise wouldn’t be apparent.

LS: It’s probably obvious to say, but what’s unique about these project spaces is that they’re resisting the white cube on purpose. They embrace their wild, weird inconsistencies. The art for these spaces is a living thing, and it’s going to die like a living thing, rather than being this timeless thing in a sterile white space that no one can touch.

ER: I’ve always been interested in websites that are not built by professional web designers. The professor or artist at their kitchen table who is just fumbling through the steps and all of a sudden their site is live and I happen upon it. That’s how I got into making websites, it was just me and my best friend making fake companies.

My first website was called E-News.

LS: Elliott News?

ER: Yeah. It was just a list. I actually just took the New York Times, view sourced it, and copy-pasted it verbatim, but I changed the NYT logo to my own logo. That was when I was 11 or 12.

I ran another website during college called Landing that became strangely influential for the websites I’m making now. It was just a list of links that all of my friends at the time were adding to. I was making physical things in school—objects and paintings—and then there was this link list that we were running when we got home. It felt as though it was a secret chat log, yet it was completely public. I’m sure if someone came across it they would have been pretty confused. I learned a lot about my friends at the time through it, and it would frequently come up in our conversations. We would say “I’ll post it on Landing later.” I liked how small the network was and how you had to guess who was posting because it was all anonymous. It depended on us seeing each other in real life. I really like the idea of social networks with just a few users.

MM: I wanted to ask you about your tendency toward making lists. A lot of people like to make lists as an organizational tactic, but it seems like your dedication to lists goes further.

ER: I’ve always thought of lists in more of a group list way. That’s how I’ve approached all my projects over the last few years. During school, I was working alone a lot of the time and it felt extremely limiting. After school, all I wanted to do was collaborate. I organized some exhibitions at my apartment and elsewhere, but recently I’ve come around to making websites again. I also have this longterm collaborative project with my friend Sean Tatol. It’s sort of a roaming project called Extensive Index. It began as an attempt to inventory a public rooftop garden. Lately, its become a method of tracking other extensive indices. I also started a website recently where a group of my friends and I write reviews of websites. I’m really excited about discussing websites in public with people, although, weirdly, it’s still not really socially accepted. There’s so much anxiety over talking about your public persona on the Internet, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Your website can also be your room.

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LS: I admire the way you approach websites, embracing their flexibility and generative nature. You’ll have an idea for a website or a name of a website, and then you just make it, rather than wondering how it will fit into everything else. The idea that websites can live and die, and they often die when you stop wanting to pay them off—that’s really freeing.

ER: When I originally built the site, I was working at a gallery in San Francisco as the registrar and archivist. I think that working there in that capacity started to spill over into my personal work. I now default into a sort of maintenance role with a lot of the projects I start.

LS: Would you call it maintenance or would you call it gardening? [laughs]

ER: Yeah, gardening’s good, too. I guess I’m the digital gardener for Gossip’s Web now. Since I was a child, I always wanted to be a maintenance person for a website.

LS: When you were a kid what did you think that that would look like?

ER: I thought of it as being in the background of something.

LS: I think that’s beautiful. There are so many creative people in the world, especially in our sphere, and lately I’ve been thinking people should be more creative in how they insert themselves into a project, or into relationships. For example, maybe you shouldn’t start a project space, since there are many, but instead you could do something more valuable by considering more thoughtfully how you interact.

MM: Being a connector, you mean?

LS: That’s one solution.

ER: There are a lot of spaces on Gossip’s that I feel like don’t even need to be project spaces. They’re just interesting websites, and I feel like being a project space almost limits them in a way. I’ve debated a lot if Gossip’s should always be just project spaces. I think there should be that physical tie to the websites listed.

LS: I saw a site called Nobody Likes Being on there. I have a feeling I know who’s behind that. Can you talk about the reasoning behind it being included on the site?

ER: A few of the sites on the list are pretty much artist’s projects. That particular one was made by Joel Dean. I was persuaded to add it to Gossip’s because he described it to me as a roaming project space. At first I thought the website was just a precursor to the space, but it turns out it’s kind of in a limbo now. He’s not really a web designer but he taught himself enough to create this amazing site. I’m kind of glad it was never finished.

There’s another space called Bebi Space started by Yannick Val Gesto. I think it recently went down, so I need to strike through it. It was just a 3-D model of a gallery that Yannick would then render actual physical pieces inside of. I’d never seen anything like it so it felt appropriate to go on Gossip’s.

Gossip’s has been going on long enough now that I’m committed to maintaining it. I can’t say that about all my projects though. I think it’s healthy to retire or sunset things when the time comes or let them phase-out on their own.

Elliott Cost is an artist and designer living in New York. He builds websites and bells at Bell Kiosk, is the registrar for Gossip’s Web, a repository of apartment galleries, and is one part of Extensive Index, a mechanics group with Sean Tatol.

Laurel Schwulst is a designer, artist, and teacher living in New York.

Meg Miller edits the Are.na blog.