The latest in an ongoing series of reviews, edited by Orit Gat, which give critical attention to online artworks and exhibitions.
Rachael Archibald: Carnate (in-pinking)
Ongoing on Paper-Thin.org
The rocks, mottled pink with swaths of darker brown, are spinning lazily around the room. One large boulder floats into me, careening off to bounce between the low floor and ceiling of the broad, cream-colored space. I spend a few minutes chasing the rocks, sending them flying around in abrupt directions. One smaller chunk seems to always be hovering at about head height, and veers off when bumped with a quicker spin that feels slightly more satisfying. They’re shiny, layered bits of stone, maybe some type of pink granite, lumpy and irregular but still highly polished, reflecting the gallery lights off their surface. Penned in at the center of the room by a triangular arrangement of wall segments is the largest of the rocks, orbiting slowly. As it turns, its lower third passes right through the floor. This mass isn’t moved so easily; instead it kind of carries you with it. I position myself, as much as is possible, on the gyrating stone and soon I’m juddering up and down, occasionally bumping into the ceiling, or at times given an odd fragmented view, seeing only jagged portions of the rock as it apparently passes through me.
Rachael Archibald, Carnate (in-pinking) (2015)
The title of Australian artist Rachael Archibald’s digital installation Carnate (in-pinking) (2015) suggests a body—flesh that has not yet been formed through the process implied by the word "incarnate." This is perhaps appropriate given that I am fumbling my way around a virtual reality gallery, noodling between my mouse and arrow keys, trying to avoid staring askew at the ceiling and walking sideways into the walls. The thing that seems to be embodied is more of a part entity, a displaced narrator; not quite a first-person immersion, not quite an avatar, but just enough that any time I think and write about this I have to suppress the urge to encase everything in scare quotes: "I" "stand" "on" the "rock"; "I" "bump" into the "wall." In some ways, I could say that bopping about in Archibald’s helium-filled geology installation is more intertwined with the work itself than, say, watching film documentation of Warhol’s 1966 pillow-shaped Silver Clouds, which is the only way I’ve ever encountered that piece. But then it also feels slightly unfair to say that it wasn’t as much fun as working my way through the childish wish-fulfillment of a room filled with white balloons for Martin Creed’s Work No. 200: Half the air in a given space (1998), or indeed any premium playground ball pool. Each of those instances has their own varying relay between physical interaction and imaginative interaction; the peculiar kind of satisfaction found "here" in Archibald’s installation is less about the fact that I can "touch" the art and watch it whizz round the room than the glazed distance felt from my own activity. What Carnate does give us, though, is a fairly light meditation on presence, weight, and the attendant contradictions of a digital sculpture.
Paper-Thin, entrance screenshot (2015)
A long, necessary, aside on place: Archibald’s installation is housed in one section of an expansive flat-ceilinged building, with the square columns and high windows of a former industrial space. There is track lighting lining the skirting boards of the walls and large theatrical spotlights hang from the rafters. The floors are white and glossy. In the central lobby where you enter the building is a square light well above a corresponding water feature, with a white, angular abstract bust floating mid-air. Archibald’s is the fourth and most recent addition to Paper-Thin, a platform (they refrain from using the word "gallery") for permanently housing online artworks within an all-too-familiar contemporary art structure. Visitors are plonked down in the lobby and left to explore the space, where each artist’s project is housed in its own cavernous room. Paper-Thin runs on Unity, a gaming platform that provided the basis, if you remember, for 2008's Off-Road Velociraptor Safari, or, more recently, Angry Birds 2. We roam around in first-person mode, a set of floating eyes. I can’t help but think of playing Myst or 7th Guest (both from 1993, and probably a handy indicator of my age), where you’re deposited as a clueless, amnesiac protagonist in a strange unfamiliar world—but this time I’m cast in yet another art gallery partially filled with a few big artworks. It’s sort of as if they’d done a version of Wolfenstein 3D (1992) set in Basel’s Schaulager (a private museum conceived of as a "viewing warehouse" where works from the collection are permanently installed in their own rooms).
While creating a long-term home for new digital works by younger artists seems like a timely, even necessary gesture, there’s something about the way the rocks cast their shadows on the shiny floor, and the way the columns reflect off the gently rippling water. If you have a look around, strafing from one gallery to the next, all the projects so far are of a similar ilk: representations of sculptural installations which rely on the appearance of textured surfaces to create their effect. So far, Paper Thin’s version of digital art to be preserved is a mimetic pun on the physical world. What this glossy pun suggests, firstly, is that we want to feel comfortable in our virtual realms. But more insistently, it also reasserts the importance of the visual and the hierarchy of perspective in a realm where such attributes are simply arbitrary. As it is, the works strum pleasantly enough on the irony of making ornately un-physical works for a showily un-physical space; hopefully, the site’s future collaborators will push at and mine its all-too-literal boundaries, and leave us with more than that sense of scare quote detachment.
For a proper intro to the event, please check out: GAMERZ Part 1. Playing is a serious business.
Second and last chapter of my report from the GAMERZ festival, one of the very few French festivals that doesn’t play it safe nor stiff with a programme that endorses the unexpected, a laid-back atmosphere, a few famous names but also an impressive line-up of fresh talents. Plus, it’s in Aix-en-Provence so as the French say “y’a pas photo!” (which means something like ‘it’s a no-brainer.’)
The first part of my report from the festival covered the artworks dealing directly with gaming. From the games inspired by Stanley Kubrick to the installation that virtually kills you as soon as you enter the (physical) exhibition space.
This second part of my notes cover the works that remain playful and ingenious but that experiment with the interfaces, languages, tensions and dynamics of technologies:
Balint Bolygo, Trace II, 2012. Photo by Luce Moreau for GAMERZ
Balint Bolygo, Trace II, 2012. Photo by Luce Moreau for GAMERZ
Balint Bolygo, Trace II, 2012. Photo by Luce Moreau for GAMERZ
Balint Bolygo, Trace II, 2012. Photo by Luce Moreau for GAMERZ
Balint Bolygo‘s Trace II is a mechanical 3D scanner that slowly draws a 3D mapping of objects placed on it -in this case a cast of the artist’s head- and translates the undulations onto a rotating cylindrical surface. The device functions like a mechanical computer reduced to its bare essentials: the code or program is a 3D plaster object, the mechanical parts are the hardware and the screen takes the form of paper and pen.
Trace II’s topographical mappings evoke images generated by high technologies such as MRI scans, 3D scanning, etc. The difference is that this kinetic sculpture is an open structure where the workings are visible and easy to read, allowing the viewer to reconnect with the process behind the image production. This transparency in the mechanism and process is so unexpected nowadays that it becomes strangely fascinating.
PerlinRocks is a small factory that manufactures small rocks. The 3D printer slowly and tirelessly prints little rocks in compostable plastic. Each of its creation is slightly different from the other, just like the rocks you find in nature. For some reason, i was incredibly moved by this quiet mass-production of small artificial artefacts that will eventually dissolve into nature itself.
The work uses Perlin Noise, an algorithm that was originally developed for the movie Tron back in 1983 to add video noise to the 3D layers. Now used in creative coding applications and games, the algorithm is often used to recreate natural shapes in 3D.
The artist writes:
The name of the piece could be “this is not a sculpture (but an algorithm)” as a reference that the emphasis of the piece is not about showing the result, because it could take many different form, but the fact that behind any generative work there is an algorithm, and here I took Perlin Noise, one of the most versatile, well known, and most used Algorithm, a algorithm so great that we could from times to times swear that it is actually the algorithm that orchestrate some parts of the nature around us
Cheng Guo, Mouth Factory. Photo Luce Moreau for GAMERZ
Cheng Guo, Mouth Factory, 2012. Photo Luce Moreau for GAMERZ
Cheng Guo, Mouth Factory. Photo Luce Moreau for GAMERZ
Cheng Guo, Mouth Factory-5 Sequences that demonstrate a different application of the apparatuses
Mouth Factory is a set of machines designed to be operated by the mouth. By wearing one of the instruments, you become a piece of the instrument yourself. There’s a ‘tongue extruder’ which squeezes out Play-Doh at the push of the tongue, a drill operated by chewing, a vacuum forming tool that allows you to mould objects by inhaling, a lathe to spin and cut a piece of wood, etc.
As a comment on human enhancement, Mouth Factory is investigating news modes of production. The aesthetic of the devices is quite striking. Each of them recalls dental braces, only even more oppressive and distorting for the features. Besides, if used regularly, the instruments will leave their mark by gradually modifying the features of the human face.
Paul Destieu, Archive d’une frappe. Photo Luce Moreau for GAMERZ
Paul Destieu, Archive d’une frappe. Photo Luce Moreau for GAMERZ
Paul Destieu, Archive d’une frappe. Photo Luce Moreau for GAMERZ
Archive d’une frappe (Archive of a hit) is part of a research exploring the materialization of sound and musical forms.
The work visualizes and make tangible the unfolding of a given gesture performed by a musician playing a drum. Once captured, synthetized and 3D printed, the hit on the musical instrument is extracted as a physical counter-form both from the interpreter and the drumstick.
Scott Sinclair and Pierre-Erick Lefebvre, The Superusers, Anaglyph 3D performance, 2015. Photo Luce Moreau for GAMERZ
Scott Sinclair and Pierre-Erick Lefebvre / The Superusers, Anaglyph 3D performance, 2015. Photo Luce Moreau for GAMERZ
The Superusers had a spectacularly hypnotizing multi-screen installation to be viewed with 3D glasses. The work attempts to capture the thrill and science-fiction nostalgia of early 3D films whilst also embracing the failures of the technology.
Each screen shows the creation, propagation, and destruction of a separate digital cosmos. Faceless satellites gracefully dance and sing atop an alien landscape in a disturbed sense of synaesthesia. These objects are then pushed through a flowering of ‘trailspace’ where they meet and bind to highly mutated versions of themselves, starting them on a path to overpopulation and Designed-To-Fail ruin. Like a self-sabotaging assembly line, depictions of smooth geometry continually commit suicide in their failed in their efforts to surpass the complexity of natural forms.
Jonah Brucker-Cohen, Alerting Infrastructure!, 2003. Photo Luce Moreau for GAMERZ
I can’t believe Alerting Infrastructure! is almost 13 years old. The pneumatic jackhammer is hanging by a wall, getting into action and drilling each time someone visits the festival website.
The amount of structural damage to the building directly correlates to the amount of exposure and attention the web site gets, thus exposing the physical structure’s temporal existence……This way visitors to the physical space can get a sense of how many online visitors have come and gone and experience their presence as the walls slowly deteriorate.
Point O, a title which refers to the point of origin within a geometrical space, aims to reveal the architectural tension of the space. Two loudspeakers are suspended by metal cables at the centre of a room which constitutes the Point O. Micro piezoelectric materials capture the vibrations of the loudspeakers into the taut cables and turn them into audio signals within the loudspeakers, generating audio feedbacks.
More photos from the festival:
The Vasarely Foundation, one of the main exhibition space of the festival. Photo Luce Moreau for GAMERZ
Inside the Vasarely Foundation, one of the main exhibition space of the festival. Photo Luce Moreau for GAMERZ
Gamerz festival. Photo Luce Moreau for GAMERZ
Emilie Gervais, *So Happy I Could Die (Lady Gaga cover)*, site web interactif, XIV. Photo Luce Moreau for GAMERZ
Emilie Gervais, *So Happy I Could Die (Lady Gaga cover)*, site web interactif, XIV. Photo Luce Moreau for GAMERZ
Gamerz festival 2015. Photo Luce Moreau for GAMERZ
Emmanuelle Grangier, Link Human / Robot, performance, vernissage du Festival GAMERZ 11, 6 novembre 2015. Photo Luce Moreau for GAMERZ
Nao, Monkey TURN, performance, GAMERZ 11 opening, 6 novembre 2015. Photo Luce Moreau for GAMERZ
Nao, Monkey TURN, performance, GAMERZ 11 opening, 6 novembre 2015. Photo Luce Moreau for GAMERZ
Philippe Boisnard and Arnaud Courcelle, Shape_of_Memory, 2015. Photo Luce Moreau for GAMERZ
Philippe Boisnard and Arnaud Courcelle, Shape_of_Memory, 2015. Photo Luce Moreau for GAMERZ
Now on the front page, shawné michaelain holloway presents three new electronic music compositions. This is the seventh work presented as part of Real Live Online, curated by Lucas G. Pinheiro and Devin Kenny and copresented by Rhizome and the New Museum.
From the exhibition narrative:
The cover of shawné michaelain holloway's just-released album "BROWSER COMPOSITIONS: 3 UNRELEASED SELECTIONS is a gradient that fades, top to bottom, from white to black, an image that suits the music's dark tone. Discordant synth is layered with rhythmically looping samples and keyboard noodling; Solaris-style soundscapes give way to feedback loops that reach eardrum-blowing crescendos. Though they draw on the highly fetishized sound of the synthesizer, these works were primarily made using the most accessible of instruments, a web browser.
A People’s Art History of the United States. 250 Years of Activist Art and Artists Working in Social Justice Movements
A People’s Art History of the United States. 250 Years of Activist Art and Artists Working in Social Justice Movements, by artist and author Nicolas Lampert.
Publisher The New Press writes: Called “important” by renowned art critic Lucy Lippard, A People’s Art History of the United States introduces us to key works of American radical art alongside dramatic retellings of the histories that inspired them. Richly illustrated with more than two hundred black-and-white images, this book by acclaimed artist and author Nicolas Lampert is the go-to resource for everyone who wants to know what activist art can and does do for our society.
Spanning the abolitionist movement, early labor movements, women’s suffrage, the civil rights movement, and up to the present antiglobalization movement and beyond, A People’s Art History of the United States is a wonderful read as well as a brilliant tool kit for today’s artists and activists to adapt past tactics to the present, utilizing art and media as a form of civil disobedience.
Asco, Decoy Gang War Victim, 1974. Photo: Harry Gamboa Jr.
Danny Lyon, Poster—Is He Protecting You? Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee poster, about 1963
The book tells the history of artistic and popular resistance and recounts events that have changed society from the bottom up. Some of these events were initiated by activists who used visual tactics. Others by trained artists who joined a cause and anchored their art within an existing movement.
Each chapter zooms in on a specific political combat and explains with great details the tactics employed at the time by the activists. The tactics that triumphed but also the ones that flopped. Because it singles out specific political struggles instead of providing us with an all-encompassing survey of activism art, the book is also as an inspiring call to action for more artists to respond to contemporary crises and for more activists to use art in their interventions.
Nicolas Lampert is a talented writer and his book will take you on a memorable ride. One that goes from clergymen supporting the abolition of slavery to The Yes Men challenging unethical corporations. From women fighting for the right to have a say in politics to artists campaigning for museums and galleries to exhibit more women and people of color.
A People’s Art History of the United States is an invigorating book. It reminds us of the real impact that visual art can have on society, especially when it forgoes established art institutions, and roots itself in the communities and movements that push for social change. A book like this one is opportune and necessary at any moment in history and particularly in ours.
Stories, struggles and images discovered in the book:
Description of the slave ship Brookes, 1788
In the late 1700s, abolitionists in England and USA used lithographs and illustrations in their fight against slavery. Their strategies differ though. In the USA, slavery was part of fabric of life and the campaigns there were more about moral persuasion. England had very few slaves on its soil so slavery was a more abstract concept for citizens.
In 1787, a young English clergyman called Thomas Clarkson started to investigate conditions of slave transport. He interviewed sailors, obtained equipment used on slave-ships, such as iron handcuffs, leg-shackles, thumbscrews, branding irons and even got seamen to testify before the Parliament. But it was an image that had the biggest political influence: the architectural rendering of the slave ship Brookes. Based on a detailed plan of a slave ship, he had an image drawn of chained black figures loaded on the ship, a view no English man could see when slave ships were docked in the harbours. The striking image was combined with texts that detailed the men’s ordeal, creating a sense of empathy for African slaves. London abolitionists had it printed on thousands of posters, and, in the years that followed, the diagram circulated in broadsheets, pamphlets and books in Scotland, France and the United States.
The graphic agitation produced results: the House of Commons passed the law against slave trade in 1792.
Richard Throssel, Interior of the Best Indian Kitchen on the Crow Reservation, 1910 (via Met museum)
Edward S. Curtis, Sioux chiefs, 1905
Another chapter looks at widely circulated historical photos that shouldn’t be taken at face value. The text brings side by side the works of white photographer Edward S. Curtis and the one of his contemporary, the lesser-known Native photographer Richard Throssel (Cree.)
Curtis portrayed Native people as untouched by white society, even though, at a time he was working, the reservation system and forced acculturation were firmly in place. Many of the scenes in his photos are staged, they erase any intrusion of modernity and perpetuate the ‘noble savage’ myth that people who bought his photos were so fond of. His images correspond more to what you would see in a Hollywood western film than to the reality of reservations.
Throssel, on the other hand, had been formally adopted by the Crow and his images of the tribe are the ones of an insider to the culture. This, of course, gave him additional credibility. He did produce staged image as well though. But with another objective, the one to discourage traditional living habits that were thought to be one of the main causes of diseases. Although they belong to a federal campaign to address the spread of diseases, his images responded to immediate needs and acted as a form of community activism. By showing Natives into more modern settings, they also offer a more realistic portrait of the Crows than the ones made for white tourists.
These two examples of approaches show the importance of looking at social conditions, politics, funding and motives behind images.
Jesse Washington, an African-American mentally handicapped teenager lynched in Waco, Texas, on May 15, 1916. He was accused of raping and murdering the wife of his white employer. Photo via DarkVictory’s fascinating flickr account
Another chapter zooms in on the personality of civil rights activist, author and editor W.E.B. Du Bois. The first African American to earn a doctorate at the University of Harvard, Du Bois was also one of the co-founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1909.
Du Bois fought against a society characterized by segregation. At the time, the black working class was seen as a threat to the economic well-being of white working class and its members were demonized as being rapists.
This climate led to race terrorism, and in particular to lynch mobs that threatened African Americans, Jews, gay people, immigrants, catholics, radicals, labour organizers, etc. Some 4,742 people were lynched in US between 1882 and 1968. The vast majority of them were black.
Du Bois aimed to change the situation through the NAACP publication The Crisis. Progressive ideas were not only communicated through articles but also by photos showing successful African American businessmen, college graduates and other images aimed at uplifting the spirit of African Americans. The publication also printed horrific drawings and photos of African Americans being lynched. The images were accompanied by eyewitness accounts that aimed to provoke the federal government to eradicate the crime.
Du Bois also organized public actions such as large scale parades, silent demos, and the boycott of D.W. Griffith’s film The Birth of a Nation which portrayed black men (some played by white actors in blackface) as half-wits and sexual predators.
Lynching flag flying at NAACP headquarters, ca. 1938. NAACP Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
Along with the anti-lynching campaign, in 1920 the NAACP began flying a flag with the words “a man was lynched yesterday” from the windows of its headquarters in New York city when a lynching occurred. Threatened to lose its lease, the NAACP had to discontinue the practice in 1938.
Suzanne Lacy, Three Weeks in May exposed the extent of re- ported rapes in Los Angeles during a three-week performance in May, 1977
ASCO, First Supper (After a Major Riot), 1974. Photo: Harry Gamboa Jr.
John Fekner, Groundwork: The Anti-Nuke Port Stencil Project, 1988. Image via justseeds
Miné Okubo, Waiting in lines, Tanforan Assembly Center, San Bruno, California], 1942. Part of Citizen 13660, a collection of 189 drawings and accompanying text chronicling the artist experience in Japanese American internment camps during World War II
Emory Douglas, Minister of Culture and revolutionary artist for the Black Panther Party, March 9 1969: ‘All Power to the People’
Emory Douglas, poster from The Black Panther, December 19, 1970, (copyright 2013 Emory Douglas/Artists Rights Society [ARS], New York
Now on Rhizome's front page is Amalia Ulman's The Annals of Private History, which takes the form of an illustrated, subtitled lecture outlining a liberally fictionalized history of the diary for a viewer who is issued occasional instructions: "Lift your right leg. Lift your left arm straight to the sky."
In Ulman's telling, diary-keeping is historically demarcated as a feminine practice. Held under lock and key, the contents of the diary (which might include discussions of rape and complex social and emotional issues) were kept safely out of public discourse, out of the sight of patriarchs who felt vexed by the thoughts and ideas of young women. "Diaries," according to the video's narrator, "are swallowed by the beds girls write their journals from."
The lecture goes on to consider the practice of the diary in the age of Tumblrs and vlogs, which partly threaten the diary's enclosure from public discourse, even if practitioners sometimes continue to think of their blog as a private context. Following a collage of voices culled from vlogs about plastic surgery and pregnancy, the narrator concludes,The least documented thing is the most interesting, but it is gone faster, forgotten and erased forever, like it never happened. And mistakes, same mistakes again, always the same mistakes for ever.
This is the sixth work presented as part of Real Live Online, curated by Lucas G. Pinheiro and Devin Kenny.
Since 2013, Rutherford Chang has documented himself playing Tetris on the Nintendo Game Boy 1,747 times in an effort to become the number one player in the world. Chang's best effort of 614,094 points puts him in second place worldwide, according to ranking site Twin Galaxies. Chang livestreams his efforts online on the Twitch platform, where gamers broadcast their gameplay while viewers look on, and archives them on his site, gameboytetris.com.
Through Thursday of this week, Chang's gameplay is been presented for one hour each day at noon on the front page of Rhizome.org as part of the online exhibition Real Live Online, copresented by Rhizome and the New Museum and curated by Lucas G. Pinheiro and Devin Kenny.
In November 2015, Chang wrote a letter to Nintendo Power magazine, which appears below. In it, Chang explains his single-minded pursuit: "Game Boy Tetris is such a profoundly simple yet infinite universe unto itself that I have dedicated myself to its mastery, and no longer have capacity for other 'games.'" The letter was not published, because the magazine had folded three years prior. There is an air of futility and obscurity surrounding Chang's mission, but the project seems to offer itself as a metaphor for many, if not all, human labors. For now, though, the record still beckons.
This is the second in an ongoing series of reviews, edited by Orit Gat, which give critical attention to online artworks and exhibitions.
This word, “biennale” (or biennial) has become a little painful. Sometimes it means “serious exhibition,” at others it stands for “survey.” But The Wrong Biennale, the digital art biennial organized by David Quiles Guilló, is neither of these things. Its closest cousin, perhaps, is the open submission exhibition, with all the wild variations in quality that suggests. The Biennale, accessible from a centralized website, includes 100 curated pavilions (read: around 100 different websites and some bricks-and-mortar spaces where events and exhibitions are held) and over 1000 artists, and its aims are chiefly scale (enormous) and plurality (global, diverse, not limited to sanctioned artworld spaces). That sounds fine when I write it, but I didn’t enjoy interacting with this exhibition—and not because I’m not interested or well versed in looking at art online. In browser space, with 22 tabs open, even the most conscientiously directed attention can stutter and drift after a matter of seconds. Not only was each pavilion on a separate website, but many of the individual artist projects within each pavilion were on other websites, or on Vimeo, or required that a viewer download large files from Dropbox, or any variety of new, sometimes suspect applications. I downloaded some .exe files, which I couldn’t open on my Mac. Sorry this is nearly as dull to read as it was to do. I recognize that a reliance on such platforms is chiefly financial, a greatly increased scale (this second iteration of The Wrong is roughly three times bigger than the first) with no budget to speak of, limits what can possibly be seen and how, and the experience that creates is one of wading through slow, sticky digital space which is frustrating. As an outsourced exhibition there is no coherence in design, theme, quality, or really anything at all. And while this does in effect reproduce the conditions of the internet itself, the whole project gives me that familiar feeling of ¯(°_o)/¯
After a few hours of browsing many unremarkable videos and digital collages, I decided to go in hard and look at a virtual reality pavilion entitled “Wronggrid: L'art en Simulation,” curated by Frère Reinert and Ellectra Radikal. I had to download various applications and join something called Francogrid (not so different from Second Life). This simulated artworld is chiefly populated by virtual sculpture—giant heads, impossible forms or architecture, or world-building installations that cohere most readily in a simulated environment. An artist using the name TTY made a roomful of red and pink sculptural figures that alternatively flashed with black light while words THE HUMAN COMEDY dangled above them from the sky presumably to create the effect of a hellish party. I fell off that platform through the sky into other worlds featuring sculptures that I couldn’t identify, such as some giant upside down carrots, but as the teleporting device kept losing connection to the grid I left with little more than the impression that looking at art in a world-building environment suggests three dimensional shapes rather than images, videos, sound, or performance (though these may be interesting, where they exist).
To look to a specific pavilion that produces something of a net art trope, CALL.IO.PE, curated by Morehshin Allahyari, is focused broadly on internet poetry, and gladly includes a couple of medium-specific contributions that address browser space. Ying Miao made a series of pleasant, melancholic gif animations in which a browser error page appear on a wallpapered desktop. These have all the hallmarks of a particular form of cute netty aesthetics—overdone affect rendered in sparkles and tears, low-res stock wallpaper, generic graphic imagery from various outdated O/S, animated Word Art—and yet even such trite sentiments as “Flowers all fallen / Birds far gone” have the ability to raise some form of checked-out emotion when such sentimental designs are seen against the miniature horror vacui of a browser that says “This page cannot be displayed.” In Sam Kronik’s video Consensual Vibes, a group of people dressed in blue jumpsuits play word-association games in a giant geometric hole in the desert while they sit around a wooden machine. At the end of the game, the machine appears to perform a kind of poetic Tinder operation, picking up on “consensual vibes” in the participants’ language, and eventually producing a printout that reads “it’s a match!” on certain spoken words—“BODY + PATENTED MEAT”—which are then paired like a hot couple on a dating app. It’s heavy-handed, sure, but perhaps flags up the ways in which “poetic” uses of language might have partly developed out of the various forms of needy advertorial for the self on social media. One’s virtuosity with language is a tiny currency that can be used to accrue forms of attention: sexual, commercial, professional.
Poetry and the experimental virtuosity with words that have also been ushered in by the widespread use of emoji, ASCII, acronyms, instant messengers, and so on, is perhaps also flagged in this pavilion by Heather Murphy’s contribution to the project, The Honesty Initiative, which purports to be a Government-funded chatbot who attempts to learn the difference between honesty and dishonesty. When you chat to the bot, whose name is Abraham, he actually says things like “Time does not exist,” or “The Government made me this way.” The Government! LOL. It’s almost quaint to imagine that we have this monolithic organization when in fact what we are facing is rendition, outsourcing, contractors, agencies, and so on. Talking to Abraham is fun for a second, but the banality of his statements lacked anything textually experimental, or for that matter, lyrical. As a form of poetry it brings to mind the Q&A form of Anne Carson’s “Ghost Poem” (2011) which suggests fuller potentials, fears, and joys of talking to a being outside easily graspable ontologies:
Q what about moods
A the edges are freezing
Q is that good
Q is it crowded
A are you joking
On the subject of ghosts, a last Pavilion of note: “Not Found, A Broken Net Art Exhibition,” curated by Cesar Escudero Andaluz and Mario Santamaría. The pair identified various net art projects that had died online, suffering a common fate due to lack of resources or archival care, and simply made a list of broken links and project descriptions. These included Gerardo Suter’s 1999 project TranSistus which (according to the surviving description) was apparently a simulation of a fictional virtual United States–Mexico border crossing via containership, used as a site for exploring a character’s memory retrieval, and Thompson & Craighead’s 2002 conceptual online shop project DOT STORE hawking a variety of lighthearted product ideas and readymade net generated produce (other people’s e-cards, gif tattoos). Stumbling across their own project listed in “Not Found,” the pair resurrected the site as a ruin open for browsing. Products on sale included “TEACH BIRDS 2 SING,” an audio CD designed to help mimicking bird species adopt mobile phone rings, which is a phenomenon I remember people talking about around the turn of the century. Imagine finding one of those birds now, calling out Nokia ringtones from 2002. Our vocal chords have learned the language of other machines now, little bird.
Now on Rhizome's front page is Antonym of Direction in the Curiosity Gap, a one-act play and hyperlinked script by Shireen Ahmed.
Text from the artist's everyday online conversations were repurposed as the script for this absurdist play. The play was read aloud for the first time, on camera, by Real Live Online curators Lucas G. Pinheiro and Devin Kenny. Throughout the performance, Ahmed stood with her back to the camera, conducting internet searches based on words in the script. A screen recording of this online activity is embedded within the video documentation of their cold reading. The video documentation and hyperlinked script can be viewed at antonymofdirectioninthecuriositygapaoneactplaybyshireenahmed.com.
The artist notes that "language spoken through and from the web becomes full of ambiguous possibility, but also sterile, a sad sort of neutral, the kind of contentment that traps."
This is the fourth work presented as part of Real Live Online, curated by Lucas G. Pinheiro and Devin Kenny.
Rhizome is thrilled to announce today that The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has awarded the institution a two-year, $600,000 grant to underwrite the comprehensive technical development of Webrecorder, an innovative tool to archive the dynamic web. The grant is the largest Rhizome has ever received and arrives at the start of its 20th anniversary year in 2016.
The Webrecorder project will be led by Ilya Kreymer, who with this grant joins Rhizome as Lead Developer, in conjunction with Dragan Espenschied, the organization's Digital Conservator. Additionally, the Mellon Foundation support will fund the hiring of a second software engineer, a design lead, and a project manager to ensure this initiative's thorough realization.
Led by Dragan Espenschied, Rhizome's award-winning digital preservation program supports social memory for internet users and networked cultures through the creation of free and open source software tools that foster decentralized and vernacular archives, while ensuring the growth of and continuing public access to the Rhizome ArtBase, a collection of 2,000+ born-digital artworks.
"In 1999, Rhizome founded the ArtBase, a distinctive collection of technically diverse born-digital art. In 2009, recognizing the fragility of these system-dependent works, we created a digital preservation program to care for them. In 2014, we recruited Dragan Espenschied to rethink how individuals accessed and experienced the collection. Last year, we partnered with Ilya Kreymer as part of an institutional commitment to developing new tools to archive an increasingly complex web. In 2016, our 20th anniversary year, we look forward to leading further innovation in the field of digital preservation through the Webrecorder project," said Zachary Kaplan, Rhizome’s Executive Director. "We are grateful for the support of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation."
An early version of Webrecorder is available at webrecorder.io. The free service allows users to archive dynamic web content through browsing, and to instantly review that archived content and download their own copy of it. Anonymous use is open to all, but those who wish to host a public or private archive collection on the site can request an invitation for that offering, available on a limited basis. Webrecorder is built with open-source tools and is released under the Apache open-source license at: https://github.com/webrecorder/webrecorder.
About the potential impact of Webrecorder, Rhizome's Artistic Director Michael Connor said: "The things we create and discover and share online—from embedded videos to social media profiles—are often lost, or become unrecognizable with the passage of time. Webrecorder, with its ability to capture and play back dynamic web content, and its emphasis on putting tools into users’ hands, is a major step towards addressing this, and improving digital social memory for all."
Webrecorder will complement Rhizome's other major digital preservation research on "Emulation as a Service" (EaaS), jointly led with the University of Freiburg, which enables users to understand and access legacy software and operating systems via a modern web browser. A tool related to EaaS is oldweb.today, created by Ilya Kreymer with Dragan Espenschied, which uses a similar approach to connect websites from multiple existing web archives, including the Library of Congress, Stanford Library Archives, Rhizome ArtBase and the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine, to contemporaneous browsers like Mosaic and Netscape Navigator. In the two weeks since its release, oldweb.today has seen over a 1,000,000 visits and widespread coverage in the press, including in Vice, Forbes, Die Zeit, Der Spiegel, Gizmodo, and Quartz.
Read more about the Webrecorder project
Why (and how) our museum started collecting Vines, by John O'Shea
After VVORK: How (and why) we archived a contemporary art blog, by Michael Connor
In the New York Times: A Dynamic New Tool to Preserve the Friendsters of the Future, by Vindu Goel
Browse artworks captured with Webrecorder
Artist Robert Adrian (1935-2015, also known as Robert Adrian X), founder of what was likely the first artist-initiated online community, passed away in September. As 2015 comes to a close, Rhizome is republishing the following excerpt from Josephine Bosma's indispensable book Nettitudes: Let's Talk Net Art in which she recalls meeting Adrian at an event in 1993 and learning about net art for the first time. (For a more complete treatment of Adrian's career, see Armin Medosch's moving tribute, published in October on thenextlayer.org.)
It was the summer of 1993 and the internet was only slowly finding its way into the public consciousness. I was visiting V2_, the Institute for Unstable Media, because I was interviewing artists who worked with the body. The body was V2_'s focus for that year. Adrian was introduced to me as "the initiator of the first email network for artists," a network he had produced as early as 1980, and had served as the basis for the earliest net art projects between 1981 and 1983. I was introduced to a history of art in computer networks I had never heard of, and I could hardly believe that it had already been in existence for over ten years.
Robert Adrian (left) at The World in 24 Hours (1982)
Like so many others, I knew about cyberpunk, the new wave in science fiction made famous by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, and had even read their books in the 1980s. The "cyberspace" they described, however, was (and is) largely fictional. Robert Adrian X described a history that was much different from the all-encompassing, seamless immersiveness of Gibson's Neuromancer universe. Adrian's was a virtual environment made up of clunky machines and very diverse social groupings that barely fit together, between which connections sputtered and soared unevenly, but through which dazzling and moving shapes unfolded. I had been looking for a kind of art that matched the irregularly dispersed but provocative media landscape of which I felt a part.
The vista that unfolded through the words and works of Robert Adrian X revealed an embodied contemporary and interdisciplinary practice that hit home. I decided right then and there to focus exclusively on art in the context of the Net. I wanted to learn how art, culture, and human nature would develop under these new circumstances.
Poster from The Art of Being Everywhere, held at V2_, Rotterdam, in 1993.
Bosma's conversation with Adrian, one of the first interviews she ever conducted, is published below. (A more thorough discussion of Adrian's work can be found in his 1997 interview with Tilman Baumgartel, published on the email list nettime.)
JB: What are you going to talk about this afternoon?
RAX: Basically about artists using communication technologies. There has been a lot of work done in the field over the last ten years, none of it very successful. Now we're looking at a new technology and hoping it will go better in the future.
JB: What is this new technology?
RAX: I suppose it is the old technology which has got much cheaper and much more sophisticated, and the telephone system has become more flexible and better. It means that there has also been a change in how people think to some degree about operating with each other over telephone lines. I think there has been a change in society which allows artists to work without putting themselves in the center: working with other artists, working with groups of artists, working with a public who is not really a public but collaborators if you like. People who come into a communications project are more likely to take part than they used to be.
The World in 24 Hours (1982)
JB: The audience has changed?
RAX: Audience is a difficult word because you get this concept structure with 'audience' of people sitting quietly and watching. But with communications projects by artists, or by anybody else for that matter, they are not interesting if you do not participate. So people tend to not sit and watch. They tend to either go away or try to join. A new kind of relationship is developing inside the society itself too.
JB: Would you call an artist in this context more an initiator?
RAX: That is one of the roles an artist can have in this new kind of environment, an electronic environment. It is pretty hard to find any specific place where artists fit. Lots of other people don't seem to have much place in this new kind of technology, but artists are perhaps among the few people who can find some ways to use these technologies without working for a large corporation and find some creative use for this kind technology. That may be one of our roles.
JB: Does this make art also less focused on itself, l'art pour l'art as they say?
RAX: It is very hard to identify anything what happens today as art in the traditional sense of the word. The technology gets to be about itself. Technology for technology's sake, which is the condition of much of the technology we're using. In the development phase it tends to be technology developed by technicians that are used to just talk about technology. Now we want to penetrate some of these systems and talk about other things, while using that technology. We find a lot of resistance among the technicians. For artists to work in such an environment there is no tradition. There is no art about art there. Our problem is to discover if art is possible at all, if there is any place for artists in these systems. If I didn't think there was I wouldn't be doing it, but if I am asked straight up I have problems saying where the art is.
JB: So you couldn't give me examples of how art inside the technology has links outside the technology?
RAX: I would not assume there was an inside or outside to technology. The way our culture has changed the last ten, twenty, maybe the last fifty years it is completely defined by technology. So anything an artist does with technology is central to the whole culture. There is no inside or outside any longer. There are none of these distinctions, which we are used to with industrial cultures.
The World in 24 Hours (1982). Photo: Sepp Schaffler
JB: Are you saying this art is more connected to society?
RAX: It is not easy to define those things in this environment, because we need to clarify what society is. Society has changed so much in the last decades that one has trouble using the same vocabulary as before. We lost a whole lot of vocabulary we brought from the arts and other disciplines to talk about society, about work, about social issues. The reality is that none of these words mean what they meant before. They don't mean anything. We can't talk about progress. Who believes in progress?
JB: How do you approach this problem?
RAX: Approach is good. I find myself in the middle of a problem, which is only now becoming clear, now we've come to see that something really serious has changed. As an artist one experiences that personally because if you are making sculptures or paintings: nobody cares about these things anymore. Only buyers and sellers care about them. They became products and very boring products mostly. So what do you do as an artist when you find that everything you like doing is more or less meaningless? Either you go on because you like doing it, which is like Winston Churchill doing his watercolors or Prince Charles, an amateur artist. You do it because you love it and you don't care if it is important or art. Or you quit and you try to find out what's happened to the culture that we can go on making something like the kind of art you've done in the past. I have worked in communications media parallel to working as an artist making sculptures for example. I did the same work in two different ways.
JB: You are an artist?
RAX: I am an artist. I am not anything else. I have nothing to do with technology. I don't like technology even. Gerfried [Stocker, now director of Ars Electronica, who is also at the event] is the technologist. But he is a musician. He does not like technology much either. He's a trained communications engineer who left his job and has been working as a musician. He makes robotic devices and large-scale sculptures and interactive environments. He comes to this kind of work out of the technology towards art, and I come out of art in the direction of technology as an artist. We work together on this particular project, but I also work with other people and so does he. Where ever I am needed or I need somebody I phone around until I find somebody who can do something for me, and I get calls from people who say they need this or that.
JB: I just interviewed another artist [David Blair] who said that what he feared most in the future of art and the new technologies was 'the loss of biological presence'. Can you imagine an artist has a problem with loosing something he can touch, physically?
RAX: That question really opens up a whole box of problems. The biological presence is something that you can't help but have. No matter how much you think you have none, your brain is operating biologically, it can't be helped. Flusser among others has talked about the silicon culture and the carbon culture, silicon culture being thinking machines or computers and electronic devices and carbon culture being vegetable, animal, biological culture. The distinction is, I think, not as clear as one thinks. The machines we've built, it is probably true that they are disembodied, they don't have bodies in the sense that we mean they are more or less pure thought or pure idea.
Fax received during The World in 24 Hours (1982). Photograph: Robert Adrian.
JB: But that is still a material, the machine. When an artist works in a network for instance the piece that occurs or the performance that occurs is only in the screen or only in cyberspace, right?
RAX: Well yeah. Cyberspace is really difficult. It is William Gibson writing novels. Cyberspace has become a very useful way to describe a space that may or may not be there. It does not stop you being a biological entity when you use technology. The thing that is missing from all of these works, whatever you call them, is some sort of product. In none of these is there some sort of tangible product. That is missing from the art using these technologies. The machines are on: the product is there. But it is not a product, because you turn it off and it is gone again. It is not the piece of tape, it is not the disc, it is not whatever storage mechanism you use. It is only reproduced whenever the machine is on. Then you get the whole chain reaction: it is only there when the power is switched on. The power is only on when the machines are running to make the electricity going through the wires. One comes to the question where this all lies because the machines control the power generation, that is their main role. Computer technology distributes electricity, so you already have now a sort of parallel power structure or infrastructure, which is none biological. But our position in this situation can be nothing but biological. What we have to get used to is an art which has no physical property, non-objective art. If art is going to be meaningful it has to be involved with these new technologies, but these technologies do not produce that kind of thing any longer. They are not mechanical or physical devices. These are devices that produce electronic data and this does not have any physical property.
JB: What is the network you are going to be talking about here?
RAX: This is a network for cultural exchange. It is meant to be universally available. It is supposed to be interactive and it is part of a network of private bulletin boards called Fido, the Fido net. There are about 500,000 users in the world of this network, but it is a real amateur net. It does not cost anything, just phone up into your local bulletin board and sign on. But it is not easy to use. Well, it is uncomfortable let's say. Sometimes the messages get lost, they come a long way. But on these boxes there are all kinds of information. You can put your own information. It is self-publishing. It is also messaging, sending messages to each other. It is also dealing with software. Its main purpose in the beginning was to talk about software among technologists. But now I have to stop because I have to prepare for my talk.
JB: Good luck. Thank you!
On the front page of rhizome.org this week is a performative video work by artist Zach Blas that articulates a position of resistance to the internet via plagiarized texts.
This video begins with the familiar interface of the Macintosh OS X desktop, with only one folder shown, labeled "contra-internet." The user clicks over to iTunes, plays the song "Get Off the Internet" by Le Tigre, and then opens a series of PDFs of theoretical and political treatises, copying and pasting selected passages into a new text document and then using the find and replace feature to rewrite their meaning. Texts by J.K. Gibson-Graham, Fredric Jameson, Paul B. Preciado, and Subcomandante Marcos that originally opposed economic and sexual hegemony are repurposed as part of a manifesto against the internet itself, critiquing its logic and suggesting possible alternatives.
This is the third work presented as part of Real Live Online, curated by Lucas G. Pinheiro and Devin Kenny. It follows IDPW's Internet Bedroom, a twenty-four hour livestream in which participants connected to a group video call while sleeping, and João Enxuto and Erica Love's Waiting for the Internet, which documents the long wait for internet access at a public library in Atlanta.
On the front page of rhizome.org through December 28 is a new video work by the artist duo João Enxuto and Erica Love that portrays internet access as a basic necessity that is distributed unequally.
The video observes patrons waiting to access the internet at Central Library, a public library in downtown Atlanta. The library, designed in 1969 and finally completed in 1980, was the last built project by Bauhaus-trained architect Marcel Breuer. On the morning of November 25, 2015, the wait for a free computer station at Central Library was 40 minutes. This video documents that wait.
This is the second work presented as part of Real Live Online, curated by Lucas G. Pinheiro and Devin Kenny. It follows IDPW's Internet Bedroom, a twenty-four hour livestream in which participants connected to a group video call while sleeping, suggesting that there is some kind of social possibility to be found online. Waiting for the Internet shows that access to this potential remains far from universal.
Tung-Hui Hu’s A Prehistory of the Cloud, published by MIT Press in August 2015, is a necessary excavation of the material infrastructures that undergird the fantasies of freedom proposed by cloud connectivity. Hu charts the evolution of the user as a synthetic identity, providing useful tools for thinking through the ways in which distributed networks have announced and celebrated the supposed liberty of ubiquitous coverage while reconstituting otherness, social partitioning, and paranoia through the ambient dissemination of control. Drawing widely from artistic explorations of DIY cartographies and clandestine topographies of information exchange from Ant Farm’s Truck Stop Network in the early 1970s to the recent work of Trevor Paglen, the book talks through the ways in which hacktivist subversions of the network may not be as effective as they appear at first, and seeks to address the real impact that data sovereignty may have on the bodies of those it seeks to locate and implicate in extra-judicial techniques of power. We met in the suitably bunker-like confines of London’s Barbican Centre to discuss Hu’s ideas, his personal experience as a network engineer, and the pressing issues faced by artists seeking to explore cloud labor platforms.
JS: There’s a great moment at the beginning of the book where you describe a desire to gauge your own proximity to the cloud by looking into the end of a fiber optic cable, an action that could have had catastrophic consequences for your eyesight. It’s a fantastic image that jolted me to recognize how this is an embodied interface, characterizing the user as a potentially vulnerable node. What drew you to the cloud as an object of study, and how did you decide to begin mapping a technology that at first appears diffuse and elusive?
T-HH: I have a different answer almost every time I answer this question, and the one I’m thinking of now comes down to the data center. In the late 1990s, we were trying to find a place to collocate some servers. We were driving to a new facility on the outskirts of Washington D.C. where they had just installed the latest security equipment which involved a “man trap.” You entered a sealed room and operated the system through hand recognition, but you were literally unable to leave this chamber until you had been authenticated. There were bollards there to protect you from car bombs, and, you know, this was America before 9/11; although these structures exist in other countries, there’s an incredibly odd and paranoid wave of security thinking here where the body is literally caught between the walls and the wires of a data center. I’ve been interested in computer security for a while. I enjoyed finding bugs in security systems and publishing them, even before laws and regulations about whether or not that was okay or not had come into effect. But I remember thinking that this was just the oddest place: there was a farm with horses on the one side, and on the other, this strange security fortress.
For something like ten years after that I tried not to think about digital networks or computer science. I did my post-graduate work in film studies, which I thought of as a refuge. I didn’t want to write about a subject that seemed almost autobiographical or at least overly literal. What drew me back in were questions about the medium of film, which was becoming digitized at the time and as a field was having this anxiety as to whether it was being replaced by digital media. For me, film was also a way of thinking about the intersection of visibility and power. And I was looking at structuralist pieces like Anthony McCall’s Line Describing A Cone (1973), which reminded me of fiber optic cable. So my initial impulse to write this book was aesthetic: the blurriness of the cloud, the way in which it produces both radical visibility through packet inspection, and obscurity as well. Part of the challenge of the book was to take moments like the one you described, peering into the fiber optic cable, and see if I could draw something more theoretically interesting out of it. I like your reading of it as a way in which the bodies are entangled with the wires, because that’s one of the first cases I look at, where the telephone operators and the labor unions are implicated in a paranoid definition of what a network is.
JS: Reading the book, it was interesting to note your tripartite identity as a poet, network engineer, and professor of literature. Could you tell me something about how those identities might be hybridized, and how their inter-relationships might provide interpretative tools for addressing the cloud? My initial thoughts on this were that you’d be pretty well disposed to analyze the hyperbolic rhetoric of ubiquity used to promote cloud computing.
T-HH: Until a year or two or ago, I tried very hard to keep these identities separate. The first academic paper I wrote when I was studying architecture was dismissed as an extended prose poem. From thenceforth it was very important for me to separate those lives. When I lived in Berkeley—across the bay from San Francisco—that was where I was an academic, and San Francisco was where I was a poet, and never should the two meet, right? But poetry is also a way of noticing patterns, of looking for events and images that rhyme or have associations. And maybe there is a kind of poetry in the juxtapositions of history: the place in the Utah desert where the telephone network is sabotaged is also the place where the artist group Ant Farm imagines a network out of truck stops; the bunker in Virginia built to house the US financial system in the event of a nuclear attack is now the place where the nation’s film reels are kept in cold storage.
It’s also true that code is a form of rhetoric. I studied Chomsky and grammars when learning how to write programming languages in asking how you’d actually parse and understand language. There’s even that glib idea that code is not just efficient, but also elegant. An elegant solution to a problem is maybe not unlike the way that a poem is a more elegant way of getting something across in a very short and compressed form. I don’t know if I totally buy that; the truth is that it’s hard for me to reconcile these identities; because this book has taken up so much of my life for the past five years, my poetry has actually come closer to academic writing. I’m currently writing an essay about the political punishment of objects. In the sixteenth century there was a bell that was put on trial for treason and flogged. It had its clapper torn out and was sent into exile. Some political questions have crossed over from this book into my poetry, where there’s a kind of freedom from the rigor which I hope is present in the book.
Andrei Pandre, data visualization
JS: I remember stumbling into a cloud force computing AGM a few years ago and was shocked to see how the company had been using pseudo-therapy groups to address workers resistant to the cloud. They were encouraging testimonials much in the way that Alcoholics Anonymous meetings do, demanding confessionals and prompting non-users to actively perform the guilt of non-participation! You devote a significant portion of the book to a discussion of the developments—from batch processing to time-sharing—through which the figure of the contemporary “user” has evolved. It’s a notion that seems key to your ideas surrounding how power could be seen to have become distributed in an ambient sense, laterally, through the figure of the user whose participation in the network is tantamount to a kind of self-regulation. Could you unpack this idea of the user a little? How is an understanding of that singular mode of subjectivity crucial to an understanding of how the cloud is currently reorganizing power?
T-HH: That’s so apt to compare it to an A.A. meeting! Some of those management techniques are so odd. I once toured Google’s campus, and they were showing us all of these odd sculptures and said, “look, you may not realize this, but this is art and in fact many of our engineers are artists because we go to Burning Man! And because we go to Burning Man, and because we make art, this makes us more productive workers.” It was the linking of art and neoliberalism that every academic tries to hint at, but they were saying it unabashedly. But to get back to timesharing, there’s a larger transformation in labor that the Italian autonomists are pointing to, moving out of the factory and toward a system where the worker has to take part in the production and management of self, as well as of the company. The specific idea that time-sharing creates is multi-tasking, where you no longer have to submit a job in batches to your computer; you can work alongside it, splitting your time with that of the computer. What that does, however, is reshape the idea of work time, since now everything can be a problem to be broken down and computed. The people who were in Stanford’s A.I. Lab (in the ’60s) are now also very excited about the fact that leisure time can be work time; that you can now be working on problems you think are really interesting like playing Spacewar, and how to render a torpedo effectively, but using that ultimately as a way of furthering productivity.
The user is a deeply synthetic creation, right? The identity of the user is actually very odd if you look at it historically, because it really means a way of dividing up a shared resource. You’re all sharing the same computer and yet you think of this as private. The journalist Steven Levy says, “it’s actually like making love to someone knowing that they’re making love to many other people.” How we think of this now as a model for individuality is very bizarre—perhaps a matter of forty years of indoctrination. Every user has become a freelance laborer, every user is out for themselves, everyone can affiliate themselves with whatever company.
This sounds great in theory, but the very end of the book takes up this idea of the “human as a service”—a technologist’s phrase, not mine. It means that we should all “Uberize” ourselves—not just to drive cars, but to let every moment of our day be monetized by an app. The gruesome literalization of the “human as a service” is the captcha workers who are asked to prove that they’re human over and over again, every ten seconds. If all we need is to get proof of humanity, then we can make that a service and we can outsource it to Bangladesh and have that done for us for two dollars per thousand captchas. It’s confusion between what is really an economic idea of accounting for how much time we are using, which is called the user, and the idea of the personal. We’re now reading the user as an “I,” as a confessional subject; at the meeting you mentioned, participants were supposed to confess their failure to use. It’s a gross misreading and it also leads to problems where we approach as political problems not from the point of view of collective action, but from that of the user, which, again, is a fake thing. So, we download apps to ensure a user’s privacy and think that that ensures our privacy, and that’s a very different thing altogether.
JS: One of the most interesting and pressing arguments you make is the claim that subversion, through various hacktivist strategies, is a wrong-headed approach that is in fact anticipated by the recuperative, expressly neoliberal structure of the cloud. There are a couple of instances you give, from the data-mining of NATO bomber locations in Libya by radio frequency hackers to Paglen’s photographs. These are instances where supposedly oppositional stances are re-incorporated into martial or governmental networks as a kind of market research. Could we talk about some of the dangers implicit in the assumption that the cloud can be subverted?
T-HH: It’s funny, I was reading about the history of the Mass Observation project, which was founded here in the UK in 1937, and how they eventually became a market research firm. This is no discredit to Paglen’s work, which I find really important—but when he tracks down these CIA agents and photographs them from a thousand meters away, the result is that they look like the perfect portrait to be hung in a CIA agent’s office in Langley. There’s a literally duplicative method there of xeroxing and copying. The idea of resistance through the use of tools of surveillance, watching the watchers by using the same tools that they have and trying to counter them by adopting their tactics, even fighting sovereignty with sovereignty: all of these tactics are only reduplicating the structure of power that is animating the cloud.
Geert Lovink points out that hacktivists do their mods and capitalism says “thanks for the improvement, our beta version of this has now been improved by you helping.” A Dutch radio frequency hacker helps hacktivists find un-secured military channels of communication and right-wing critics initially jump on how terrible this is, but then he responds by saying, “oh no I’m trying to help Nato, I’m trying to help the effort.” That’s the risk: resisting using the same framework only serves to reinforce the framework. Saying that the state is wrong and that we need to fight back against the state is a misreading of what Foucault tells us about power, which is that power is not one entity that imposes it on you. Rather, everybody is involved in producing this system of power; power is relational. How are we going to talk about this? I think we need something besides or outside of the framework itself.
JS: You make a terrifying proposition in the analogy you draw between data sovereignty and practices of extrajudicial torture, namely that extraordinary rendition transposes the network architecture of the cloud directly onto practices of torture. In this sense, the data center isn’t too dissimilar to the internment camp in the way it leads us to think about the infrastructure of imperialism. At one point you quote Fredric Jameson, who characterizes conspiracy as a “poor man’s cognitive mapping.” I wondered to what extent the conspiratorial had come to constitute the general ambience of network culture, and whether or not there was any agency there that would mean we might be able to reclaim something from the conspiratorial in the sense of a strategy of anticipation or resistance?
Matthias Hopf, point cloud visualization
T-HH: I think conspiracy and paranoia are just what the cloud needs, if I can ascribe the cloud agency. The system works like a massive pyramid scheme—we all need to believe that it’s everywhere in order for it to be everywhere. I remember talking to someone who knew Facebook was a problem, but even she became annoyed when one of her friends left Facebook: “What do you mean you left Facebook, we’re all on it, we all agreed to be on it, so why do you get to opt out?” That’s the mechanism that the cloud employs; we assume that everybody is a user, that everybody is on it and freely engaged in these practices, and we feel personally offended when that’s not the case. Now, of course, the cloud isn’t everywhere, this is a particularly Western view and that’s why the book takes America as the prime example of this way of thinking. Americans think freedom means market freedom and the free movement of goods, and get violently offended when this is not the case. Our model is basically that if you’re not free, we will bomb you until you are free.
The idea of conspiracy, as Jameson tells us, is totalizing. That’s the idea of The Cloud, rather than the clouds; there is one cloud that we are all supposed to subscribe to. I think that’s the reason why paranoia about security is always part of the way that the cloud is produced, rather than unmasked or exposed. This is one reason why understanding some technical aspects of the cloud—the way it fails and doesn’t cover much territory—could change our image of it, away from one totalizing entity. Oddly enough, given my examples, the book’s goal is to get us away from simply talking about paranoia or even control, which is the dominant model now in new media studies. My problem with the “control society” model is that not only is it totalizing in the way that the cloud is totalizing, but it distracts us in some ways from looking at the real violence that’s been happening all along, so that if we start thinking about gadgets and the way that life is optimized and produced, then we forget the flip-side of that, which is the way that death is also meted out.
JS: Your final chapter, “Seeing the Cloud,” ends quite positively with a prompt to artists to become icondules—people who have an expressed faith in images. But you’re keen to stress that images aren’t just a case of making the invisible visible, but are points of mediation between an abstract totality and “the frame of human experience,” as you say. Could you explain that for me? What would the pragmatic implications for an artist be?
T-HH: I’m personally uninterested in what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick calls “the epistemology of exposure,” which suggests that if we find the evil thing and take a photograph of it, we’ll somehow undo the structure of violence. Many of the supposedly secret inner workings of the military and internet corporations alike—such as their data centers—have been intentionally made to be seen. And as the artist Walead Beshty says, a lot of what this art does is just to take really problematic structures and re-animate them in order to punch a hole in them and knock them down.
On the topic of mediating between the abstract scale and the human experience: one specific thing is that the cloud entails the idea of nudging us to interact with it in real time, and what "real time" means is that we ditch the past and even in some ways understand the future as a hollowing out of the present. What happens is that the cloud narrows our temporal window of experience. And art can play with duration—it can think not just about history, but also outside of the year-long or six-month window that we normally use to talk about the cloud. Furthermore, the cloud, as we know, isn’t just a technology, it’s a fantasy made by people. One of the directions in which artists could productively go is trying to understand what it looks like outside of the western imagination. I’ve been seeing projects recently on the Mongolian internet, and ways in which Native American communities are connecting, and they’re fascinating because they’re not at all traditional examples of plugging in and being part of the cloud. These other kinds of internets are areas that haven’t been talked about enough. Something of a similar experience occurred recently when I was at an artist’s residency in the Santa Cruz mountains with twelve of us sharing a satellite connection. If you know the geography of California, it’s exactly where fog rolls in and hits and interferes with the signal. So I could very much sense the cloud coming as I was writing about the cloud, in these moments where my internet connection would stop working. I’d look outside and see a miraculous line of fog.
These days, I’m writing on forms of art that don’t necessarily practice resistance, which I think is often gendered—the heroic guy versus feminized consumption practices—and I think there are a lot of interesting art practices that investigate refusal or desistance or what I’m thinking of as recessive actions; these are all ideas I’m beginning to call “lethargic media.” But as long as we focus on the structure of power rather than the gadgets, that’s a step in the right direction.
I don’t know what a good model, or a new model, for an artist would be, but provisionally I would start with a passage from Claire Bishop’s Artificial Hells, where she talks about the virtuosic artist as the ultimate flexible, mobile worker. A human resources manager would interpret that as essentially the ability to manage things. Some digital artists even describe themselves as managers of data. The conceptual poet Kenneth Goldsmith, who has been getting a lot of deserved criticism recently for appropriating the autopsy of Michael Brown as a poem, thinks of himself as managing language. There’s a real bodily dimension to that for people of color, for example, and maybe they don’t want their language managed by some white dude. The artist as knowledge worker that Bishop describes aligns too well with what neoliberalism—and I hate using that word as it’s the thing we’re all very keen to beat to death—wants. It’s very similar to the knowledge workers that the National Security Agency would like to hire.
Despite this, I’m interested in artists who would use cloud labor platforms to produce their work. I’ve been writing a piece that revisits Cory Arcangel’s Untitled Translation Exercise (2006), where he sends the script for the slacker film Dazed and Confused to an outsourcing company in Bangalore, and asks them to re-dub the script. It’s basically a bad joke, that they all have “funny” Indian accents rather than American accents, but as problematic as it seems I actually think it stems from an assumption of complicity. That question of complicity is central to a new book my colleague Anna Watkins Fisher is writing on parasitism; one of her points is that if you take a company like FedEx, their call centers are staffed by people in Tijuana who have been deported from the U.S. but then been hired by a U.S. company because they have really great American accents as a result of living in the U.S. for so long. So there’s this relationship between the host and the parasite, the system needs the workers it expels. In a similar way, for us to pretend that we’re standing outside of the system and that we can critique it is silly. What do we do if we start from a place of complicity? What actions then result? What kind of place would that be to make art from?
"I do not believe that knowledge is embedded in documents, just as beauty is not embedded in objects. Beauty and knowledge are created by joining and creating complex relationships between creators, viewers, contexts, histories, etc."
—Harm van den Dorpel in an interview with Annet Dekker, "Choosing Complexity," for Metropolis M.
Now on the front page, Harm van den Dorpel’s project Deli Near Info is a social media website, established in 2014, that anyone with a Twitter account can join. It exemplifies a non-linear, intuitive "surf," or way of adding, finding, and connecting user generated content—particularly images, gifs, and text. External webpages including links to video and sound can also be embedded.
Harm van den Dorpel, Deli Near Info (2015)
Deli Near Info is derived from "de-linear," which represents an alternative approach to the ubiquitous timeline-based, scrolling social media sites, which place newer content at the top. Van den Dorpel believes this kind of linear organization of content is “only about the now,” and does not allow the user to cultivate memory by making associations over time. Rather than hashtags or other metadata grouping the content, in Deli Near Info the pages are formed based on subjective choices made by multiple contributors. Additionally, unlike the majority of social media platforms, Deli Near Info offers no template for the content, which can be moved, manipulated in size or transparency, and animated with functions such as "Haunting" or "Dripping."
Deli Near Info is a development of Van den Dorpel's past site Dissociations, a kind of open studio which gathered the artist's own work alongside found material that often informed or became part of his artworks at a later stage, emphasizing transience and mutability. Dissociations also assisted Van den Dorpel in his practice, in that the back end he programmed formed associations among his works over time based on his selections: out of three images the back end displayed, he would click on one that didn’t fit. Thus, over time, the program formed more intelligent groupings.
Deli Near Info, like Dissociations, uses server-side software to facilitate the creation of multiple lateral connections among artworks. Using these sites as well as other online works by Van den Dorpel offers a heightened awareness of how much the reception of any content depends on the design and programming of its context. A "surf" through Deli Near Info exemplifies a more organic path through content—one driven by the interest of the viewer, rather than the site's own timeline or algorithms.
Turbulence.org Commission: Flight Lines by Ellie Irons and Dan Phiffer:
Flight Lines is a computer vision project that monitors the sky not just for customary birds and planes, but rapidly multiplying drones and increasingly frequent extreme weather events. Emerging from an interest in the ecology of the Anthropocene, Flight Lines is an effort to document the skies as they are today, with the knowledge that they are rapidly evolving and have variable characteristics in different locations at different times.
Irons and Phiffer have created a network of cameras across New York City. Each camera location has its own particular ’sky signature’ that is revealed through algorithmic processing, which would otherwise remain invisible. As you watch, your computer renders the videos into a series of silhouetted frames that trace the arcs of objects that move through them; birds, trash, flying machines. The paths generated by this process are its “flight lines.”
Watch the sky, or leave your browser window open while you attend to other tasks. Either way, you will accumulate hours of processed footage that will provide Irons and Phiffer with material for a series of paintings and videos that respond to this aerial ecology.
Ellie Irons is an interdisciplinary artist and educator based in Brooklyn, NY. She works in a variety of media, from walks to WIFI to gardening, to reveal how human and nonhuman lives intertwine with other earth systems. Recently she has been an artist in residence at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory and the Institute for Electronic Arts at Alfred University.
Recent exhibition venues include Wave Hill, the Queens Botanical Garden, Pioneer Works and the Center for Strategic Art and Agriculture in New York City, Flora Arts and Nature in Bogotá, Colombia, and garden projects at Sure We Can, a redemption center in Bushwick, and 1067 PacificPeople, an art center in Crown Heights. Her recent writing is published in Feral Research, Landscape Architecture Futures, and the Brooklyn Rail.
Ellie teaches part time at the City College of New York and Brown University. She studied Environmental Science and Art at Scripps College in Los Angeles and received her MFA from Hunter College, CUNY.
Dan Phiffer is a new media hacker from California, interested in exploring the cultural dimension of inexpensive communications networks such as voice telephony and the Internet. Dan is currently a fellow at Columbia’s Tow Center of Digital Journalism, and has had projects exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, MoMA PS1, and SFMOMA.
Ellie and Dan have collaborated on a variety of projects over the last ten years, including work with the collaborative group Future Archaeology and individual pieces ranging from public sculptural installations to web sites. They share an interest in the intertwining of technology, ecology, and public access to information.
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