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The Rhizome Blog and Rhizome News

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    Petra Cortright. RGB,D-LAY, 2011. Webcam video file. Edition of 5. 1 AP. Courtesy of the artist and Steve Turner Contemporary, Los Angeles. 

    Last night, Rhizome was the beneficiary of the Paddles On! auction at Phillips auction house. Curated by Lindsay Howard and co-organized by Phillips and Tumblr, the auction brought together works under the banner of "digital art." While the sale of artworks that engage with digital technology is nothing new, there was something remarkable about the scene last night. Magda Sawon tweeted that it was "like parents forgot to lock the house & the kidz had a great party!" (She also added, "One day it may be their house or they burn it," but that's just typical gallerist-auction house repartee, we're sure.) Every lot was sold, and perfectly-coiffed bidders competed not only over digital prints, sculptures, and Petra Cortright's digital painting, but also over Jamie Zigelbaum's interactive installation and Rafaël Rozendaal's website. Rhizome was the grateful beneficiary of this frenzied activity; we received 20% of the proceeds, with the other 80% going to the artists, and when the last gavel fell, nearly $18,000 had been raised on our behalf, which will help us continue to expand our efforts to commission, contextualize, and conserve technologically-engaged artwork.

    At the start of the evening, I hosted a panel discussion titled "Collecting Contemporary Art Means Collecting Digital Art." The title was intended to be (to borrow artist and panel participant Jenn McCoy's phrase) both generous and provocative. Generous, because it sets up quite an inclusive conversation, in which it's possible to think not only about people like Casey Reas and Rafaël Rozendaal as digital artists, but also Takashi Murakami and Andreas Gursky. But it's also provocative, because it suggests to collectors that if the work on their walls doesn't engage with digital technology and the issues that it raises, it might not be that contemporary.

    For the panelists, the title was also provocative for its use of the phrase "digital art." Many artists for whom new technologies form a central part of their practice do not describe their work in these terms. On the panel, Jenn McCoy suggested that digital art is not a medium; after all, no one describes themselves as an "analog artist." Steve Sacks, owner of Bitforms Gallery, later told me that he thinks of digital code as an artistic medium rather than "digital art." But in the context of the auction, the phrase "digital art" came across as an interpretive descriptor rather than a material one. While all of the works included did involve digital code at some point in their process, so does nearly every contemporary photograph; what differentiates these works (and holds them together as a grouping) is their critical engagement with varying aspects of digital technologies.

    During the panel, Sacks also argued for the alternative term "new media," as this suggests more of a continuum of practices based on artistic experimentation with new tools, encompassing not only digital artists but also electronics tinkerers of the 1970s or biotech artists who work with DNA. While "digital art" connotes engagement with a specific technology, "new media" has its own specificity, reflecting an interest in the expanded creative possibilities afforded by new tools. Panelist Rafaël Rozendaal defended the use of the term "digital art" instead of "new media," but his particular interest in it related to the potential for digital work to circulate online. This is an interesting point, because the phrase "internet art" or "net art" has often been used to describe the work of artists who use the internet as a medium, but many artists today are simply using it as a space in which to connect with an audience and circulate their work.

    At Rhizome, we describe our field as "artistic practices that engage technology." This phrase, while useful for connecting various kinds of stances together, will never end up as the title of an evening sale. It seemed clear that collectors were interested in engaging with "digital art."

    A few hours before the panel, Annie Werner, arts evangelist of Tumblr, published this post:

     

    This basically summarizes the perspective that many artists have had about digital art for decades, including many whose works already circulate on the market: Peter Halley, Andy Warhol, David Hockney, Lutz Bacher, Laurie Anderson, Keith Haring. The fact that digital art can be sold, and the fact that collectors have been historically resistant to it, is an old and cyclical conversation. One recent eruption took place on the pages of Rhizome in 2008, following a post about Holy Fire: Art of the Digital Age, an exhibition that presented a number of artworks that were currently available for sale. One of the more memorable contributions to that discussion came from Tom Moody:

    We don't agree with Moody's characterization of digitally-derived objects as "souvenirs"—after all, digital prints and digital celluloid films were produced and circulated widely before it became convenient to display digital works on screens—but we share something of this weariness with having the same Groundhog Day-like conversations. So it's refreshing to think that we may be leaving this conversation behind and entering a strange new one. Instead of championing a field that has been somewhat neglected by collectors, we may now find ourselves addressing new levels of interest in owning technologically-engaged art. If this is the case, our task will be to continue doing what we can to raise consciousness about the history of the field and champion underrecognized and emerging practices within it.

    Updated to include the fact that 80% of sales went to artists and 20% to Rhizome.


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    The latest in a series of interviews with artists who have developed a significant body of work engaged (in its process, or in the issues it raises) with technology. See the full list of Artist Profiles here.

    Harry Sanderson, Human Resolution (2012). Installation view at Arcadia Missa for PAMI, London. Digital video, perspex, monitor.

    Harry Burke: Your "Human Resolution" project, which you exhibited as part of PAMI last year in London, comprised of a 3D hologram projector and accompanying sound piece, which translated the body of the viewer standing before it into a glitching but uncannily faithful grayscale projection (3D object). It was an attempt to reinsert the body into ubiquitous computing environments, which are too often conceptualized as immaterial, virtual, or idealist, and to re-emphasise the corporeal within the predominantly visual regimes of these technologies. Do you think it was, in this regard, successful?

    Harry Sanderson: I think that rather than reinsert the body or to attempt to repair anything, it was an attempt to exhibit a kind of a lack that occurs when something is represented in that sort of way. There is a common conception that images work on a flat plane, for example in a regular movie file, and this was an attempt to show how imaging technologies are moving beyond that into something that actually apprehends physical space. It wasn't just a grayscale projection but it had depth; it would turn and you would see that it understood the contours of your body in a way that's much more physical. 

    HB: It's an attempt to materialize the space or spatiality of the image?

    HS: More the increasing sophistication of cameras and surveillance technology, and that they're no longer just about recording flat planes of colours; they are now cognizant of the distance things are from each other. It goes along with more sophisticated algorithms for interpreting the movement of things which are driven forward by the need for facial recognition software to keep track of people or be able to tell more about a subject from an image of them. This ties into the stuff I'm doing with "Unified Fabric" (opening at Arcadia Missa on October 15th), which includes being able to extract someone's pulse from a regular video file using (Eulerian) video amplification software.

    HB: How important do you think it is for an artist to interrogate these technologies as they're being developed in corporate or military environments? For example, the video augmentation technology is a month old, and there's an interest of yours in taking things at this nascent point and attempting to interrogate how they develop, or insert a criticality into their use before it becomes fully codified.

    HS: I think when a technology is nascent you're able to see things about it that you won't be able to see when it's become fully integrated. There was an amusing moment a few years ago where one of the X-Men movies was leaked before the effects had been finished. It was this hilarious file because it was these actors acting before green screens—blocks had been filled in but the textures weren't there and there were all these gaps. And it was really interesting to watch the film in that way. It was a disaster for the film because people got to see how bad it was. That's what it's like with these technologies—they're still a bit funky, and not fully slick, so you're able to show them in a way that enables you to see what's happening. And in the flaw of that, in the fact that it doesn't totally integrate or work, there's some capacity as an artist to reclaim a little bit of agency. 

    HB: This seems like a different approach to an artistic attitude towards technology that's developed in some parallel scenes—artists who hang out at tech conferences, for example—where new technology is much closer fetishized than critiqued.

    HS: Personally I'm not so enamoured with the efficacy of these technologies, and their place within global power structures—often materialized as forms of interaction and surveillance. To ignore this strikes me as extremely dangerous. It's straight valorization. Tech conferences seem like a place for just shopping. I'm also shopping, but I'm looking for something beyond that process, which is why the "Unified Fabric" render farm is kind of an odd piece. It's almost like a diagram. It is an attempt to foreground the process of production, and present artworks as part of a chain of production that relies on the consumption of power and resources, rather than existing in an immaterial realm of data and thought. We're building a small supercomputer that will render videos by six artists—Hito Steyerl, Clunie Reid, Maja Cule, Takeshi Shiomitsu, and Melika Ngombe Kolongo & Daniella Russo—with the installation including an accompanying sound piece.

    I suppose it's a really tricky position for anything that tries to be politically engaged—the inevitable credibility you give to the objects you take as the basis for your critique. You appropriate technology in an attempt to show it in a critical light but at the same time you reproduce those conditions.

    Image: "Rare Earth Production." Published in Harry Sanderson, "Human Resolution," MUTE (4 April 2013).

    HB: I think things can be beautiful at the same time as being explicitly political or critical or whatever. How you stop something from stagnating aesthetically is trying constantly to reawaken yourself to what its source is. For me, this ties back to the idea of exploring the image as a tangible, physical 3D object, an idea which also comes across in your MUTE text, also titled "Human Resolution," in which you argue for the need to recognize "the exploitation and violence required for [digital technologies'] continued production". All your works seem to involve a specific move that isn't about exploring the face value of an image but instead the different ways it instantiates meaning and relations of various kinds. In contrast with the argument you make in the article, in which the image ties us to other people, the Human Resolution installation focuses attention back on the self. When people are looking at the projected image of themsleves in Human Resolution, are they looking in a mirror, or is there a better analogy by which to think about it?

    HS: I think it's an abstraction of the self that reveals the way the "self" can be so quickly annihilated by representation.

    HB: How should we respond to that?

    HS: Well, I don't really think it's my place to say how people should respond to that. I merely thought that it was something worth putting out there. I respond to it by attempting to make work that expresses an increasing criticality toward what it is embroiled with, and by trying to be more politically engaged in my everyday life. There is an alternate way of thinking about things, and I found that resisting apathy and an "oh well technology's always exploitative so you should just get over it" mentality was a positive thing for me—for both my work and my well-being. It's more interesting to not get over it. That's why I can't answer the "what can we do" question because I find using technology to critique a problem more interesting than having a technological solution. I'd rather be engaged in a struggle for something than have any kind of solution where we can make a better internet or a better credit card or something.

    HB: It's the same process of not critiquing the problem but improving it…

    HS: Yep. A nicer capitalism.

    HB: We should talk about Haptics, where artist Yuri Pattison invited you to make a touchable 3D hologram within his Faraday Cage project (a Faraday cage is a 19th century invention that blocks out external electric currents, which Pattison recreated as a residency space in SPACE Studios). What's the difference between this work and Human Resolution

    HS: Funnily enough, they're basically the same setup. I think that the Human Resolution show is a lot more interesting for me. Haptics was just a straight desire to reproduce this technology that I'd heard about, which was this touchable hologram, which I thought was potentially quite beautiful: that you could touch something that was a simulated object hanging in the space of a gallery that wasn't actually there. I found that more poetic and emotive and moving, in a more personal sense; something that would be touching, somehow. The promotional video for that technology contained one line that was "a floating image in mid air is no longer just a dream." There's this desire to give technology a physical form so there's at least there's something that will push back at you. I think I found that profound, in a way, because it means that people still desire each other, even if it's so mediated that they just desire to create some kind of holographic representation of something. It still speaks to a genuine desire for conjunctive social experience.

    Human Resolution's a bit more negative, saying "look at you here as nothing but data". There's that Ashbery poem we were reading the other day where he says "much that is beautiful must be discarded so that we may resemble a taller impression of ourselves." There's a constant aspiration toward this image we've created of ourselves that we can't ever quite get to which is this, I suppose, want or desire: the "big other." You can't ever get it, you can't touch it. And data and Cloud computing perfectly fits into that as an ideological form because it's completely inaddressible. 

    The work is also counter-narrative in a way—it's not a finished work, it requires the presence of somebody to be there; it's not a film, it's not a sculpture, it's not a thing. Even if what it's exposing is quite a dehumanizing, digitizing process, it's still an artwork that's activated by the viewer's presence. The desire to make machines instantly responsive to the body plays on a strange sort of humanism, which is so close to digital property protection. We have these swipe screens and fingerprint scans under the remit of protecting oneself against identity theft, but it's also the protection of private property, which is inseparable from force in some sense.

    In terms of the image used, in both, they're again playing on these ideas of touch and communication. I find it interesting because it references what you're doing with the object as you try and get the image to come out of it. You're kind of implicated in the image as well.

    Flexible Display, 2013, CSM, London. Video installation: digital video, projector, water vapor, wood, plastic.

    Age: 26

    Location: London 

    How/when did you begin working creatively with technology? Started making websites when I was 15, because of getting an internet connection, and so taught myself HTML by copying and pasting stuff from other websites. 

    Where did you go to school? What did you study? Central St Martins—Fine Art.  

    What do you do for a living or what occupations have you held previously? I've worked in shops, a petrol station, the Tate Modern, and right now in a pub. 

    What does your desktop or workspace look like? I just work wherever I am / I don't have one. Right now I share one large desk with my flatmates and we have some plants which is great.


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     David Karp (Tumblr) and artist Ryan Trecartin at Seven on Seven 2010. Image credit: Renny Gleeson. 

    Rhizome's Seven on Seven conference series heads to the Barbican Centre in London on October 27. The event brings together artists and technologists to make something new together in one day, presenting to the public for the first time in the conference the following day. We're particularly proud of the lineup for our first London event, which includes luminaries who Rhizome has written about, followed or supported for some time: 

    Susan Philipsz + Naveen Selvadurai (Foursquare, Oscar) 
    Jonas Lund + Michelle You (Songkick) 
    Mark Leckey + Daniel Williams 
    Graham Harwood + Alberto Nardelli (Tweetminister) 
    Aleksandra Domanović + Smári McCarthy (IMMI) 
    Cécile B. Evans + Alice Bartlett (BERG) 
    Haroon Mirza + Ryder Ripps (OKFocus) 

    Hot on the heels of Mayor Bloomberg's assertion that London, not Silicon Valley, is New York City's biggest tech competitor (we'd like to think ally is the more appropriate word), the city seems a natural fit for the event's first international foray. In its new location, Seven on Seven's underlying goal remains the same: to bring criticality and thought to the development of technology in culture, and promote further dialogue between the two contexts. 

    Tickets available from £35 on the Barbican's website


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    Forms (2012) by Memo Akten and Quayola. Image Credit: ISFF 

    The Imagine Science Film Festival, now in its sixth year, has grown in the hands of organizer Alexis Gambis from a small discussion group among friends to a multi-venue mélange of screenings, discussion panels, and interactive installations taking place across New York City and New Jersey. This year's festival opening was held at Google's offices in Manhattan and debuted a line-up of short films organized around the evening's theme, "The Art of Code." The program selections were remarkably diverse, speaking in a variety of ways to both the focus of the evening and the festival's larger mission of encouraging dialog between scientists and filmmakers to bring increased awareness of the sciences to the public.

    The rhythm of the program pulsed between generative visuals and more humanist takes on the code theme. The opening film, Forms (2012), by London-based artists Memo Akten and Quayola beautifully articulates both through a series of visual studies on human biomechanics. The animation's extruded lines mass together to suggest the human form in Duchampian progression through motion. Another animated film, Abbau (2013) by Masahiro Ohsuka from Japan, uses scientific formulas and diagrams as graphical elements. It is less an explication of the theorems on offer than a typographical celebration of their elegance in hand-drawn animation. Among the narrative films in the program, #PostModem (2012) stood out for its humorous mashup of visual references used to interpret futurist Ray Kurzweil's theory of technological singularity. Directors Jillian Mayer & Lucas Leyva call the film "a series of cinematic tweets" that uses science fiction imagery and pop-music videos to suggest Kurzweil's description of a time "when humans transcend biology."

    If the opening night is any indication, festival-goers can expect a run of imaginative and provocative selections in this year's Imagine Science Film Festival, happening now through October 18.

    See the full festival listing here.


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    Mute, Vol 1, No. 22 ("The Art Issue"), including CD-ROM of JODI, Untitled Game (1996-2001). 

    Rhizome's erstwhile Conservation Fellow, Lisa Adang, has published the results of her material analysis of JODI's Untitled Game (1996-2001), and her findings are both more concrete and more nuanced than much of the extant scholarship.

    By way of background, Adang points out that JODI began working with game "modding" around the same time as they began working with the web.

    Although they may be best known for their web browser-based works, in this early period, JODI also experimented with the alteration of game code using two hugely popular computer game sources: Wolfenstein 3D (1993) and Quake 1 (1996), both developed by John D. Carmack, John Romero and the team at Id Software based in Richardson, Texas. Wolfenstein is widely recognized as the first fully rendered three-dimensional polygon game environment, a technique that allows objects and walls to appear to wrap around the player's perspective, realistically block the player’s sightline, and recede into a vanishing point that shifts with the main character/player's perspective. Characters within the game are also comprised of polygons, and sprite images occur on instances such as the firing of a weapon, scaling to suggest proximity and perspective.

    Adang's analysis focuses on JODI's series of mods for Quake 1, collectively titled Untitled Game, using the version that was released with MUTE Magazine's "Art Issue" (pictured above) in 2001 as her case study. She delves into not only the perceptual experience of the work, but also its source code, leading her to draw conclusions that contradict my own description of the work, which was admittedly based on far less in-depth analysis, but still widely circulated. In particular, she takes issue with my assertion that the work reflects a subtractive approach, arguing that their alterations were more varied and complex than that. For example, she notes that certain aspects of the mod make visible aspects of the game which would otherwise be hidden, such as the source code. With regard to the famously minimalist "Arena" mod, in which everything onscreen is entirely white, Adang argues that:

    all of the elements from Quake are present in Arena, including a fully rendered 3D space. They are invisible simply because they are devoid of value and hue.This includes the presence of polygonal walls that restrict navigation and respond perspectivally, as well as the files linked to the presence of objects and characters within the game. The sounds of Arena are also remnants from Quake.  

    In addition to its value for curators, artists, and writers who want to learn more about Untitled Game, Adang's paper is also a powerful argument against "screen essentialism," suggesting that focusing only on the perceptual experience of a born-digital artwork, rather than its underlying code and its relationship with the surrounding technological environment, may result in misleading or incomplete conclusions. Mea culpa.


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    Nate Hill, from the series Trophy Scarves (2013).

    To the extent that people know his name, Nate Hill is a controversial figure in the internet art world. He gets into bizarre, seemingly one-sided fights with art blogs, sends fake computer viruses to his press contact list, or generally puts people off by relentlessly focusing his web projects on "white women"—the most recent example being Trophy Scarves (2013), a photo series in which Hill, who is biracial, poses wearing a tuxedo while nude white women are slung across his shoulders as if they were recently slain wild animals. Like many, I found myself turned off by some of these projects, but, nonetheless, wanted to know more: the satire was clearly there and he was prolific. I also liked how committed he was to being an artist and how thoroughly he followed his artistic voice, no matter where it took him. In a growing series of conversations with Hill, what impressed me was how consistently every project revolves around the idea of a performative "character" and how committed he is to the idea that his artistic voice is channeled through these different characters. I quickly learned that the majority of these characters aren't even internet-based, but performed in public, on the streets and subway cars of New York. Be it online or in New York City, though, these works share a common motivation to be catalysts for disruption, to interrupt Hill's daily passage through networks of various kinds. While I can't justify everything Hill does, after speaking with him regularly and engrossing myself in the work, I am convinced that he is, in a strange way, a significant artist, as well as an interesting if unacknowledged heir to David Hammons and Andy Kaufman, whose projects Hill cherishes. Because he so frequently invokes the idea of character, I thought that to write about Hill necessitated describing him as a character in a fictional style—a mode of prose that I've been experimenting with recently. What follows is an impressionistic story following a few hours in the life of Nate Hill.  It precedes two upcoming projects: a live reenactment of Trophy Scarves and "Lights: Nate Hill and Ann Hirsch," a performance event I am curating at Interstate Projects on November 2nd.

    Nate stood in the doorway to the East Harlem apartment that he shared with his wife, Alex. He flashed her a big, overly happy smile when she walked up to him and held it in place as though he were posing for a picture. Alex tilted her head a little, observing Nate's face. They shared three seconds of silence, the corners of Nate's mouth feeling sore from stretching. Eventually, she gave him the look—the one with the glasses where she leans in. "What?" he said to her, laughing, "Why are you looking at me like that?"

    "Nate…"

    "No, seriously, what?" he laughed. There was a redness around the corners of his mouth.

    Her eyes tilted to the side. It looked like she might say something, but she just shook her head and instead mumbled something like "You know why…"

    Nate said, "What was that? I didn't hear you," and ran his hand over his mouth. Alex shook her head again and said, "I'll see you later, alright?" as she moved to close the front door on him. Nate reached for it, but it was too late. Damn, he thought. Damn damn damn. She just slammed the door on me. She just did that.

    He reached into his jeans pocket, but didn't find whatever he was looking for. He thought he heard two people yelling in the street. Or were they laughing? There was a scratch on the door that he hadn’t noticed before. Nate imagined what Alex would say if she was still standing there talking to him—probably something like, I can't live in a fantasy all day like you can, Nate. Something about how she has to get ready for her world, the real world with the stressful day job that allows her to have a savings account and talk with a straight face about the financial implications of parenthood—a topic they'd been actively discussing as the next stage of their lives together. Nate was interested in all of this stuff. He said that to her ten minutes earlier, when they were standing together in the kitchen…of course, he said, he was always happy to talk about any of these issues, but right then, listen, baby, he just…he had to go and do his art—his art…in the subways…he had to go and do that one project where he acts like a bum and tells people conceptual art ideas and then solicits imaginary money which won't pay for anything. Haha. Don't you understand?…It's kind of like a joke about conceptual art, Alex, as, ah, a commodity where, like—okay, New Yorkers would get this, he said to her…because of the art world in New York…and the subways…and the homeless people on the subways…and do you remember how I was telling you about this one artist named David Hammons who did projects like this…and David Hammons was black, Alex, and I'm half black…and…listen, it's art and people will appreciate it someday because it's really, truly good and it's what I want and why don't you want me to have what I want?

    At that, Alex slammed her hand on kitchen counter. "I don't want you to have what you want?" she said. "Are you fucking kidding me with that right now, Nate?"

    Standing at the front door, he looked at the scratch and wondered how long it had been there. He whispered, "Why don't you want me to have what I want?" one more time so that only he could hear the words. And that was it. He listened to the latch slip to the locked position and he ran his hand over his shaved head and down over his oversized glasses. His neck craned down and he looked at his clothes. There was a stain on his shirt. He felt like his pants were too small for him. He walked down the stairs, opened the door, and hit the street—116th Street; car horns, sun reflecting on garbage bags, hydrants trickling, the spice of halal trucks preparing for the lunch crowd that would arrive in a few hours. He took a breath and closed his eyes and tried to clear his mind. He opened his eyes and realized that it felt good to be on the street, and that after a few seconds he'd nearly forgotten about his problems with Alex; "nearly" because she was still there, in the air, in his world, like architecture you'd never notice but nonetheless feel as a presence.

    Nate walked in the direction of the subway station. He lived half a block from the 6, which he took daily to his job as a fly caretaker—yes, he took care of flies that were used in scientific experiments at a medical laboratory off 68th Street. As jobs went, it was pretty decent. It didn't pay a ton (enough to live on reasonably well), but it allowed him to keep his own hours so that during the day he had time to do what he really wanted, which was, like he just told Alex, his art. Although it's not really true that he wants to do his art. A lie, even. It's more that he has to do it. It was only when a project was over and done with that he took any joy from making it.

    The stain on Nate’s shirt glistened.  From the look of it, it could have been a semen stain, but was, in fact, just cooking oil.His hands squeezed into his pockets and he thought about how he had felt better when he left the apartment building a few moments ago, but now everything seemed terrible. He kept telling himself that. I feel terrible, I feel terrible. Why didn't Alex want him to do what he wanted? I mean, God, what is wrong with her? But here he was supposedly doing it and…He walked to the train and passed some guy in a business suit talking on an iPhone about how "Bloomberg gutted" some other guy, and another guy in a purple FedEx uniform looking depressed and hunched over on his way to work. Nate heard the guy mumbling something in Spanish and then in English, "I'm so hung over yo, but that shit was awesome yo." Nate looked around. Was that guy talking to me? No, he wasn't talking to anyone. He's crazy. Everyone in this city is crazy. Nate looked back to the FedEx guy and realized that he wasn't hunched over and that he didn't even say anything, he was just going about his business like a normal, everyday person—Nate had imagined the whole thing. It wasn't the guy who was crazy, it was him—Nate. He then realized that the thing he had heard about being hung over probably came from his own mouth. Wait, was that possible? I don't speak Spanish and I'm not even hung over. Whatever, he thought. He passed a storefront and saw his reflection. The handsome guy in his mind's eye wasn't there. He was replaced by this nervous-looking tall dude with bad posture. Terrible, Nate repeated in his head, everything's just endlessly terrible. He looked at his reflection again—oh, good, there was that handsome guy again, okay, I knew you were still there. He saw these two kids without shirts cracking up laughing. They were pointing at another kid who was choking and the kid's eyes were watering until he was finally able to hack a peanut shell from his windpipe up into his mouth and out onto the street. The two kids watching him were dying laughing. One of them, Nate noticed, had a chipped tooth. There was a scream in the distance. Probably laughter. A siren blared and stopped, blared and stopped, the guys driving the ambulance were just running red lights.

    Nate crossed the street to the downtown subway entrance. He looked around. This part of New York was kind of hard for him to describe. A little south was fancy—the Upper East Side. A little north was more East Harlem proper. Where he was, it was, I don't know, it was just New York. Uptown on the East side. A gentrifying Harlem. Bodegas, places to buy pizza, get your nails done, Duane Reades, Bank of America branches. There were people trudging along on their way through life. Come on, people, wake up and do something, I can't do this all on my own, he had once announced to them all, but no one heard what he said.

    Before he headed down the stairs, Nate thought someone screamed again. He couldn't tell if they were laughing. He looked further uptown to see if he could figure out what was happening, but couldn't see anything. Looking up there, he remembered how in this one project he did, he had painted his face white so that it was, like, "white face" and he wore a business suit and carried an umbrella and went into Harlem. The character was called the "White Ambassador," and he would speak up for white people and tell black people not to be racist toward white people, and how his mom was white, and how he resented jokes about how white people smell like wet dogs. It was provocative material and visually intense—the White Ambassador was scary to look at. The art of the piece, though, occurred in the exchange, the dynamic that ensued between Nate's character and the people with whom he interacted. There was a lot going on. A lot of satire and sincerity and joking and boiling anger spilling in too many directions. In another project, he went downtown to the Upper East Side and he dressed up as a McDonald's employee with glasses and his McDonald's uniform tucked into a pair of dark slacks. He rode a bicycle around and threw out free cheeseburgers, singing the McDonald's jingle from the TV commercials—ba, da, ba, I'm lovin' it—and yelling "Free cheeseburgers! Free cheeseburgers!" It was all kind of adorable. The catch was that he had taken a sizeable bite out of each one of the cheeseburgers and wrapped them back up so that people would at first smile and say, "Oh, what a nice young man, so kind to pass out these free cheeseburgers like that," and then they'd open up their cheeseburger and be like "Oh!" So he was a villain. That's what he called it—a "villain." He had a whole series of villains. Heroes, too. Before I had said that the art of the White Ambassador character occurred in the exchange between people, but maybe it's more accurate to say that in all of Nate's work the art occurs on some general level, out in public space as if New York City itself was his artistic medium. The city was, visually speaking, one of the most diverse places in the world and, in turn, his work in New York often probed issues of skin color, asking unsettling questions that hit viewers the way art, as opposed to, say, an essay or a list of stats, can hit someone. He didn't just want to do theatrical performance art. He wanted to do something that he thought of as "real." This city needed him, he thought…or maybe he needed the city. Maybe he needed it to be the city of his fantasies so that he could keep on living here and making art and just keep on going. Or, no, maybe the city needed him. Or, no, maybe he just needed to keep going. Or, no; or, no; or, no.

    Nate walked down the stairs to the station. Before he swiped his Metrocard, he noticed there weren't many people on the platform—an indication that he had just missed a train and the next one would be a while. He was caught at the turnstile behind a college-aged kid with a huge purple backpack who was having trouble swiping his card. Even though Nate wasn't in any particular hurry, he almost said to the kid, come on, man, just swipe it; you're not doing it fast enough. Tokens would be better for tourists, he thought. When Nate first moved to New York, you could still use tokens. That was in 2000. He was a different person then. He moved to NY wanting it to be everything that antiseptic Florida wasn't. He wanted the weird, bohemian fantasy that he'd seen in movies and the feeling that you were in a special place—a place that mattered. But it was the Giuliani/Bloomberg era. It was the post-9/11 era. A lot of money. Superficiality. Paranoid security measures. New York seemed more like an uptight, oversold luxury product than a place to live, at least for artists, at least for Nate. So he took it upon himself to be one of those crazy, provocative New York people that he imagined lived here and came up with a whole cast of characters: Bouncy Ride Dolphin, Punch Me Panda, Dropout Man, Wolfie, Death Bear, and the Milkman, not to mention all the stuff on the internet. The Milkman was an interesting one. It was something he performed on an almost daily basis—it was subtle enough to blend in, but if you let it, it could be unnerving. The Milkman wore a white suit, white milkman's hat with black rim, black bow tie and he carried a case of miniature wooden milk bottles. "Milkman, milkman," people would say. They came up to him, inspecting him to make sure that they got that it was indeed a joke costume, and then they grinned and said, "Are you supposed to be a milkman?" And he would look at them with a cutting gaze. He was a half-black man in his early thirties wearing a milkman costume and, the way he looked at you when he wore the costume, something was implied. People were shaken by the fact that it wasn't simply funny and they had to interpret what, if not laughter, it was making them feel.

     "Pardon the interruption, ladies and gentlemen…" Nate waded through bodies and an array of annoyed expressions on the downtown 6 train. In the right mood, the frustrated, disquieted cattle shoot atmosphere of the crowded 6 inspired him. People were more primed to be affected by someone causing a ruckus, someone like him, with his subway bum character—"the 6 Train Louse." Before he could get more into his memorized spiel, the car came to a screeching halt in the middle of the tunnel, hurling Nate into a large woman who gave him a dirty look. He made eye contact with her, but avoided her at the same time, almost looking through her. She smelled like she had been dousing herself in perfume. Just as quickly as the train had stopped, it picked up again, hurling him right back into the woman's beefy arms. She raised her handbag and said she'd smack him if he didn't cut it out. He had to get out of there. Get into character, he told himself. So he started over. "Pardon the interruption, ladies and gentlemen. My name is Nate. I'm an artist…" The woman's perfume wasn't letting him think straight. He thought it was settling into the pores of his face. It was overwhelming. He moved further down and took a breath. Alright, better. The rattle of the train gave his words a beat. "For spare change, I can't sing, I can't dance, but what I can do is share some art ideas I had with you today." The screech of the wheels finished his sentence with a flourish. In a mumbled rush, he announced, "Rodeo clowns, one per block, overlooking violent neighborhoods, breaking up fights with their traditional tactics. And, ah, catch a fish in the East River and run it to the Hudson before it dies." And that was it—those were his two ideas. He had hundreds of these little art projects, some of them not-so-good, but many, if not most, kind of great. He looked around at the people on the train. No one paid him attention; he was just another distraction from staring at glossy ads for Monroe College and getting where they had to be. Without missing a beat, he continued, "If you could find it in the kindness of your hearts to give a small, imaginary donation—no real money please, no real money please—for these ideas, it would be greatly appreciated. Thank you." One young guy looked up at him, laughed, and shook his head. "Shit's wack" he said. It pissed Nate off; he pushed through the rest of the car and entered the next one.

    He got right back into it: "Pardon the interruption, ladies and gentlemen…" Some people in the second car looked up. He'd seen one or two of them before. Good. That was part of his big idea. He wanted to become a subtly surreal recurring character in peoples' commutes the way that homeless people on the trains and busking musicians can function. By that point, he'd done this character on the 6 train nearly a hundred times.

    He told the same art ideas about the rodeo clowns and the fish and then kept doing this for five more cars again and again. A couple more people recognized him. If they were with somebody, they gestured to them. Doing this was therapeutic for Nate in a way—as he got into the rhythm of it and let the cadence of his script interact with the noise of the train and the occasional positive reaction, he felt a knot in his chest that he didn't even know was there loosen a bit. By the time he'd gotten to the 59th Street stop, his delivery had become perkier and he got a few people joking with him, handing him imaginary dollar bills, playing along. He laughed a little and said, "God bless," and left. It felt good to be doing his art. I said earlier that he never enjoyed his art, but that wasn't true. When it was going well, he enjoyed it. He was working to be that guy, the subject of local lore, the one whom people had seen a couple times and then their friend says, "Yeah, I saw him once, too," and then, as Nate's fantasy continued, someone else says, "I saw him before, too, but he was dressed like a milkman." And then they trade more stories about Nate and how he made them think about things and feel things, sometimes unpleasant things, but important things, about race or New York, that they hadn't felt or thought about before. Nate realized then that everything he said to Alex about how this subway piece was conceptual art about conceptual art as a commodity or whatever was bullshit. It wasn't about any of that stuff. It felt good to be so real at that moment. This wasn't for art world people. It wasn't about art. His work wasn't so fucking small minded. Fuck art people. Fuck "art." He did things, he told himself, for the real people out there. His people. Because he was real like them.

    "Pardon the interruption, ladies and gentlemen…" Nate began again, feeling really high about himself, but stopped when he noticed an actual old homeless guy in the car holding out a hat, asking for nickels. Nate looked down at his clothes. His pants didn't seem too small anymore. They seemed to fit perfectly. He rubbed his mouth and abruptly stopped doing his bit. At the next stop, he got off and sprinted a few cars ahead so that he wouldn't have to see that old man again. "I'm so full of shit," he said when he walked into the new car. All these people can tell that I'm full of shit. Actually, they couldn't tell anything. They didn't care. He decided not to be in character anymore. It was over. Someone got up and he sat down. Nice. All he wanted was to sit down. The phrase "shit's wack," kept replaying in his head. This subway piece, he thought, should stop soon. I've done it enough, it's not really meant to happen that many times. Besides, it's more interesting in an art context. Nate sat up a little straighter. He felt his spine protest. I mean I'm not just a guy on the street doing a character here, anyone could do that. In this one, I'm connecting it to capital-A art. It's about conceptual art. It's smart and funny. A real breakthrough for me. People will talk about this in the future maybe. In front of him, Nate saw two middle-aged women—tourists from, he thought, Germany, but couldn't be sure. He heard one of them speaking German or what he thought was German and then she said something about "Chris Burden" and "New Museum." Chris Burden, thought Nate. I know that name. Right. Of course, the artist Chris Burden. He shot himself or had himself shot or something. Isn't that right? Nate loved that guy. And the New Museum, that's right, someone he knew had mentioned something about a Chris Burden retrospective at the New Museum. Was that happening right now? Chris Burden, yeah, thought Nate. Guys like him. Vito Acconci, William Pope.L. I'm one of them. I'm part of a tradition. He looked at the people on the train. These people have no idea that I'm part of a great tradition, he thought. Nate looked at the stain on his shirt. He looked at a young woman furiously taking notes. He wished he had his headphones. He just wanted to listen to rap music. He thought about his work being in an art museum and that seemed fun. At the end of the day, his work wasn't about the street, he thought; it's more about art, or…he didn't know. He rubbed the corners of his mouth. One of the German women was staring at him. He made eye contact with her and she kept looking at him like he was on exhibit. He wanted to tell her to stop because it was incredibly rude, but he also took a weird pleasure in it. So fine: he would be the young, black American who was thinking young, black American thoughts. He looked at her again. The eyes of people from Europe were different than Americans' eyes. There was an oldness—not in age, but in a different way. She and her travelling companion got off the train and Nate turned around and looked at his reflection in the subway window. There was, he told himself, an oldness to me, too. Or, at least, I think so. He took a breath and imagined that at that moment he was accepting his destiny as a timeless artist or something. He almost laughed. He knew it was bullshit, but he thought maybe it was true, too. He couldn't tell. Just make your work, Nate, get better, he told himself. That seemed right. 

    New plan: He was going to get off at Spring and walk over to the New Museum to see the Chris Burden retrospective. Nate imagined his own name in big letters at the New Museum, just like Chris Burden. A career retrospective. With all of his characters and all of his projects on the internet and everything. It would be called "Nate Hill: Heroes and Villains." No, that was too cheesy. He had to be cooler than that if he was going to be a real, serious artist. Well, he'd figure that part out later. He walked up the stairs onto Spring and Lafayette and walked a block in the wrong direction. He always got confused in this part of town. Everything was so expensive. He thought about how it was like twenty dollars to go to the museum and he didn't want to spend that much money. Who would? He passed by a woman who must have been a runway model. He thought about how he didn't even like Chris Burden. That's not true. Actually, he didn't know that much about the guy's work. He was an artist, he was probably good. Nate cracked his knuckles. What do I want? He thought about Alex slamming the kitchen counter when she got mad at him.

    Nate went back to the Spring Street station and headed uptown. He didn't do his character or anything; he was just staring at an ad for Apex Technical School. There was a black guy in the ad who was smiling because he had just gotten his degree in Industrial Air Conditioner Repair or something like that and would now be making a real middle-class living. Nate was cracking his knuckles. Someone told him to stop, so he stopped. He got off at 116th Street and went up to his apartment. He looked into the bedroom and the kitchen and said, "Alex?" and he slammed his palm on the kitchen counter. He took out his phone and was about to start writing a text, but stopped. He threw his phone into the sink and a drop of water obscured the screen. It looked like a rainbow. He peered through the mini blinds out onto the street. He thought he heard someone yelling. It was probably laughter. 


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  • 10/18/13--07:05: Running a Marathon
  • Douglas Coupland, I Miss My Pre-Internet Brain (2013). Pigment on lacquered apple plywood 22" x 17". Courtesy of The Daniel Faria Gallery, Toronto.

    With the Frieze Art Fair now in full swing, London is undeniably where the art world is at. For those not exhausted by art fairs and panel discussions about postinternet art, we encourage you to keep up the (pun intended) pace for the 89plus marathon at the Serpentine on Friday night and all day Saturday. Curated by Ben Vickers, notable vestment-wearing participant in yesterday's "Post-Net Aesthetics" panel organized by Rhizome at the ICA, and forming a part of Hans Ulrich Obrist and Simon Castet's long-term research project of the same name, the marathon focuses on concerns facing the generation born in or after 1989—those "Younger than Rihanna," as Harry Burke put it in an article for Rhizome—who have never known a world without Tim Berners-Lee's world wide web, or with the Berlin Wall.

    A diverse range of performances, talks, screenings, and installations will consider the subjectivities that have emerged in this period in history and offer speculations about the future. Notable participants include Zaha Hadid, Brad Troemel, Jake Davis aka Topiary, Hito Steyerl, Smári McCarthy (Icelandic Modern Media Initiative), Douglas Coupland, Harry Burke, and Le1F.

    For those not in London, the event will luckily be livestreamed via the 89plus Clubhouse, beginning at 2pm EST / 7pm GMT today.


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    Post-Net Aesthetics, a panel organized by Karen Archey and Rhizome that took place at the ICA in London last week, picks up the discussion from Rhizome's Net Aesthetics panels of 2006 and 2008, both of which sought to examine the state of contemporary art engaged with the internet. This edition was organized as a discussion of the term "postinternet," and it reflected a shared sense that the term's usefulness has perhaps run its course. By way of putting it to bed, panel participant Josephine Berry Slater suggested that the "post" was problematic, in its suggestion of sequentiality. She referred to Peter Osborne's critique of Lyotard's Postmodern Condition, in which he suggested "transmodern" as an alternative term to the equally problematic "postmodern." Likewise, Slater suggested that "transinternet" might be a useful term for artists. Ben Vickers suggested that beyond postinternet, artists have a whole range of critical stances with regard to technology available to them. These include stacktivism and the new aesthetic, as well as the radical refusal to use technology or even to make art. (We'd suggest printing this out, before signing off for good.) The full video of the panel is well worth a watch.

    For those reading in search of a definition, we offer this: the term "postinternet" has come to describe a wide range of artistic practices that engage with the internet as a ubiquitous presence in society and culture, rather than solely as an artistic medium. The panel's chair, Karen Archey, made reference to a definition offered by Frieze London's director Matthew Slotover as part of a discussion of current trends among the commercial art fair's galleries:

    There are many works that relate to new forms of communication or have images appropriated from the Internet, for instance. It's not necessarily Internet art per se—it's more dimensional media, looking at using the tools of the Internet era to make sculptures and video, for instance. But generally speaking this is very much the current trend. 

    Postinternet stances assume that the creation, distribution, and reception of the work of art have all been reconfigured by network technologies. Perhaps unfortunately, postinternet art has come to be associated with certain techniques and styles more than any particular critical position. These include the blending of digital collage with digital painting in 2D prints, videos, or sculptural objects, and the appropriation or adoption of glossy commercial aesthetics, images, and products. 


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    UBERMORGEN, Perpetrator i (2008) detail. Pigment Print on Paper, 220 x 146 cm.

    Edward Snowden, MMO gamming sweatshops in China, torture as participatory art, madness, and the troubled life of a Guantanamo Bay prison guard. The diverse research-based practice of Swiss-Austro-American duo UBERMORGEN makes a sustained assault on the notion that individual autonomy, liberty, privacy, and agency remain intact in advanced capitalist societies. Birthed in the mid-'90s heyday of highly politicized net.art, their project shatters the myth that democratic freedoms are being facilitated or enhanced by modern network technologies. Userunfriendly is Hans Bernhard and Lizvlx's first major solo exhibition in the UK as UBERMORGEN. Ambitious and impeccably installed, the duo has assembled a collection of shocks and reveals: projects that expose the surreptitious methods of coercion, and the subtle mechanisms of control prevalent in institutions of authority, from hospitals to supermax prisons. 

    The exhibition begins quietly. Along the left hand wall of the first gallery space is a series of five identical routers. This is Net.Art (2013), an elegant solution to that age-old conundrum: how to authentically display internet art in a gallery context. The method is called OFFLINE ART, a format devised by German artist Aram Bartholl wherein individual routers in an exhibition space each make a single web-based artwork accessible over wifi. Directly opposite these five pleasantly blinking minimalist boxes are the four large images of Oldify (2013), in which elfin, female cartoon avatars have been aged by tweaking a pixel here and a pixel there. They look like wrinkled digital debutantes, surreal tween-authored counterparts to Cindy Sherman's 2008 society portraits. 

    UBERMORGEN, Superenhanced (A Parallel Universe) (2013) Installation view at Carroll/Fletcher. 1 Split-Screen, 2 CCTV Cams, 2 Players, Pre-recorded Performance, Tortureclassics Performance Movie, Lamp, Handcuffs and Chains, Hood, iPad and Casing (excluding Software), 2 Chairs, 2 Steel Hook. 

    Past the safe territory of this trickster-like prelude is the dark core around which Userunfriendly and Carroll/Fletcher's four white cubes turn. Superenhanced (A Parallel Universe) (2013) is a stark and disquieting installation, performance, and participatory work. The void in the gallery's brutal central concrete stairwell has been changed into a compact, high-walled, ceilingless interrogation room. Viewers can look down into the space from the first floor, or descend the stairs and crawl through a tunnel on their hands and knees until they get inside. This act of crawling, of being in the position of supplicant, has a psychologically transformative effect. It is a short, claustrophobic transition enabling the participant to suspend disbelief and get into character. 

    Inside the interrogation room are handcuffs, two chairs, and a tablet computer. Participants, including regular gallery goers and performers invited by the artists, have a choice of two roles: handcuff-wearing prisoners or interrogators who administer torture based on instructions that appear on the tablet's screen. There were no participants or performers in Superenhanced during my visit to the gallery, and no plucky stranger keen to play the victim to my oppressor, or vice-versa. Perhaps this was a lucky break.

    Elsewhere, monitors relayed CCTV footage of previous activity in the interrogation room. In one, a naked man sits as an interrogator berates him; a scene reminiscent of the Stanford prison experiment of 1971. As in that infamous event, there is a sense that Superenhanced allows participants to slide out of themselves and into their roles with disconcerting ease. 

    UBERMORGEN, Do You Think That's Funny? (2013) installation view at Carroll/Fletcher. 4 Beagle Bones, Snowden Files (encrypted), Glass front Fridge, Club Mate, 4 Tables, 4 Chairs, 4 Netbooks, Ethernet Cables, Amnesia OS, Manuals, 1 Split-Screen, 4 CCTV Cameras, 4 USB Flash Drives.

    From there on in, Userunfriendly continues its stark and blackly comic exploration of the deep existential shadows of modernity.  Psych|OS (2002), is a series of photographs and documentation recounting Bernhard's "total mental breakdown," an episode caused by the artists heavy use of recreational drugs. Perpetrator (2008) is a photographic portrait of former Guantanamo Bay prison guard Chris Arendt, screaming in a transparent room within a room, while Do You Think That's Funny (2013) is an installation built around encrypted data allegedly given to the pair by Edward Snowden during an interview with the harried whistleblower at a Vienna Airport.

    Today, net skepticism, with its inherent critique of neoliberal governmental and institutional tendencies, policies, and procedures, is de rigueur amongst artists and critically-engaged thinkers with even a basic awareness of digital technologies. But while the allure of appropriation and the ease of digital image production encourage legions of artists to produce work solely in and of the digital, Ubermorgen continually traverse the lines between virtual and corporeal life (yes, it still exists), bureaucracy and its effects. What remains central to their near-twenty year long practice of hacktivist, conceptual, and net.art is a concern for the contemporary human subject: fragmented, irrevocably telepresent, psychologically unstable, and everywhere under siege. 

    Userunfriendly runs through November 16, 2013 at Carroll/Fletcher.


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  • 10/24/13--08:41: The Age of Drones
  •  
    Detail from ESSAM, Drone Campaign Poster (2012).

    If the epoch of a technology is signaled by the simultaneous appearance of new potential uses and looming ethical questions, then without a doubt we've entered the age of the drone. In mid-October, individuals from the drone industry, aviation policymakers, lawyers, engineers, makers, activists, and artists gathered at the first Drone and Aerial Robotics Conference (DARC) in New York City to draw together the swarm of questions and possibilities that this technology engenders.

    Defining "drone" is no small part of the problem. Those who work in the industry shy away from the "d-word for many reasons, not least of which is the image of the "drone strike." The US government is using the more innocuous acronyms of UAV (unmanned/unpiloted aerial vehicle) or RPA (remotely piloted aircraft) to simply evoke the technology's long-accepted use as surveillance tools—with which to guide other weapon strikes. But an acronym makes for crappy branding, and it seems the word drone is here to stay.

    And yet, we're not any closer to defining what a drone is. A drone is a quadcopter that fits in the palm of your hand. It's a massive flying wing, rigged with solar panels so that it can orbit the atmosphere continuously. It is the Mars rover Curiosity, it is a Roomba, it is a driverless car. It is the mapping software running on your flying machine, or it is the smart phone that is used to control it. A drone is all of these, and a drone is the collection of social issues that accompany these technologies, as autonomous algorithms, ubiquitous surveillance, and flying weapons make their way into our cities and skies, changing our way of life for good.

    When you bring together all the people who have a stake in this definition, you get a very interesting conversation, but not a very coherent answer. Throughout the talks and sessions of DARC, it became clear that each set of interests has a different idea of what drones mean, and there is not a lot of common ground between them.

    For example, Michael Toscano, the head of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (UAVSI), what some might call the "drone lobby," views drone problems as a marketing issue. "Predators are what people think of when they hear the word drone," he said during his talk. In his view, safety and privacy are the two biggest issues facing the industry—but from the perspective of perception. His solution is to focus on shifting the discourse around drones so that the public stops thinking of Predators and instead visualizes the safety and security of machinery. He didn't mention how drones would actually be used to further privacy and safety, other than the often-repeated caricature of drones as a "humanitarian and policing tool," with no case studies to back up that assertion.

    On the other hand, you have Code Pink and other allied anti-war protesters, who turned out to heckle Toscano and to educate conference attendees about the drone strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, and other countries, those acknowledged by the US military and those not. Drones, to them, are just another "symptom" of the military-industrial complex, and in this way, a potent symbol for their anti-war protest campaigns. However, their passion was not shared by the engineers at the conference, who simply view their drone-related projects as part of the much wider commercial aerospace industry.

    Screenshot of Twitter exchange between the author and Code Pink.

    The engineers who attended the conference think of drones in the contemporary terms of software, hardware, platforms, and users. Buddy Manchini, director of research and development for UAV platform developer Airware, spoke in his talk about making drone software as compatible cross-platform as cell phone apps. Until there was some operating system unity, he argued, drone applications would not be able to spread as widely as they could, just as it was with desktop computers and cell phones.

    Lawyers in attendance viewed drones in terms of a much older operating system—jurisprudence. Brendan Schulman, who represents a number of commercial drone clients, thought that it was the use of military drones that caused the FAA to begin crafting rules for the previously unregulated use of remote control vehicles. John Kaag, a professor of philosophy from UMass Lowell, was more concerned about the legal terrain from the perspective of the public, and how the introduction of drones into public space shrinks the expectation of privacy even more than technology already has.

    And then there are the artists. Drones have certainly been buzzing in art, as seen in the varied cultural output of figures such as Trevor Paglen, Honor Harger, James Bridle, and Natalie Jerimijenko. Jerimijenko and Bridle spoke on a panel at DARC, along with the writer behind Twitter account @drunkpredatordrone and the artist ESSAM, who had recently been arrested by officers from the counter-terrorism task force for his parody NYPD drone posters. One of the primary goals of drone-related art, these speakers concluded, is to raise awareness about drone-related issues. And they certainly have done that—ESSAM's recent arrest being only the most sensational evidence. But what is the next step after awareness? The panel was not so sure.

    DARC certainly proved that there is a burgeoning awareness of drones, as drones themselves develop out from their military origins. There are many trajectories here. While the different voices at DARC could easily outline the next steps for their own projects, no one had a conclusive idea on how these should all be linked together into one concept of "drones," and what it ought to be. The commercial drone industry has the power of money behind it. The makers and engineers have their knowledge of the cutting edge technology. And artists, activists, and lawyers are investigating the ethical issues raised by drones, each in their own way. But between the politics, the money, the tech, and the ethics, drones are still elusive, not willing to be contained by any one of these systems.

    Nor should we expect them to be. No new technology is going to be simple. Technology interacts with society by cutting across it, by veering off at odd angles when it strikes a particularly jagged facet. But we are responsible for these ricochets. Tech investment and development is not agnostic—those who make things are always ethically responsible for their potential, both good and bad. Artists and activists are driven by ethical aims—but they must navigate the complicated systems of technology, and not simplify things for their benefit.

    There are people out there in the world, flying drones and being overflown by drones, making drones and being killed by drones. A proper definition of drones is not going to end this, regardless of which interest ends up defining the public's understanding of this nascent technology.

    A drone is a technology—in its most basic sense, a tool. A tool is going to be used, its usage will change over time, and the ideas we have of that tool will come from how it is used. Likewise, a tool's use will shape us, as a society and as individuals. We have to think about how we are going to use drones to better understand drones, and ourselves. Perhaps the uses that will best reveal this are out there already, among the various camps in attendance at DARC. But perhaps they still wait to be invented.


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    The latest in a series of interviews with artists who have developed a significant body of work engaged (in its process, or in the issues it raises) with technology. See the full list of Artist Profiles here.

     

    Steve Roggenbuck.

    LD: You recently posted AN INTERNET BARD AT LAST!!! (ARS POETICA) on YouTube about your vision of poetry on the internet. You talk about the importance of poets harnessing social media as a powerful way to change the life of someone else, anywhere in the world. Why is it so important for you to share this message at this time?

    SR: the importance of sharing this message now is that our whole society is currently struggling to determine the role of these social platforms. corporations are trying to learn how to make money from them, families are trying to learn how to stay connected through them, everyone is asking "what value can there be in a 6-second video?" and it's all moving so fast, Vine blew up to 40 million users in its first 7 months. but the poetry world has largely been ignoring social media, mainly just using twitter and facebook to post links to standard, plain-text poems. my message is this: if our job is to move people with our language, these platforms give us endless and powerful new ways to do that. the tools to make our language visual and auditory have been democratized; the ability to maintain actual relationships with hundreds of our closest readers across the world is now a reality. i have no publisher, i've only been working at this for ~3 years, and my poems reach thousands of people each. i think social media represents the biggest set of new opportunities for poetry since the printing press.

    AN INTERNET BARD AT LAST!!!" (ARS POETICA) (2013)

    LD: The democratization of communication and language is apparent in the content of your work too—if someone came across your YouTube channel they could think you are a motivational speaker or maybe a Belieber. You could kind of be both those things, but you seem removed from being either. As a poet, would you differentiate yourself from the Belieber subculture (for example) and how they utilize social media to communicate? I guess I'm asking if you feel more connected to links to plain-text poems or to hashtags written by Beliebers? Additionally—are pop culture and humor also democratic tools to share poetry with a wider audience?

    SR: in terms of the style of writing, like the sense of humor and the care put into imagery, i stil relate more to old-school poets: i stil passionately work to keep my sentences interesting and new. in terms of social media usage, i relate more to the beliebers. much of the poetry world has a knee-jerk reaction against anything that can be considered "self-promotion" or "marketing," and that's a huge limitation on community building. beliebers don't have that reaction, so they jump right into the pursuit of cross-connection and network building, the whole #teamfollowback thing, shouting each other out, etc. the strength of the belieber community on twitter is unreal. for a while Lady Gaga had more "followers," but if you looked at the number of RTs and faves, her community was never nearly as engaged as Justin's

    also yeah i think humor is a tool to share poetry with a wider audience, although there's already been a long history of funny poetry if you know where to look. my early favorites were e.e. cummings and charles bukowski, and they both have a lot of funny poems. the flarf movement is probably the funniest thing that's happened to poetry; sharon mesmer and k. silem mohammad, for example, are very funny flarf poets i'd recommend.

    BE YOURSELF ("PART 2: THERE ARE NO TACTICS" ... EXTREMLY RARE VIDEO AT THIS POINT) (2012) Made as part of Vlogtober.

    LD: Ok, so using terms from the marketing world—was Vlogtober[1] a successful content-driven campaign for you?

    SR: overall vlogtober didn't work well for me. it was too much. i was touring and constantly working on the next video--i didn't have enough freedom to follow my excitement on new ideas or stay connected with my comunity on a personal level. i'd like to do shorter bursts of extreme focus like that, but a whole month was too much. in terms of whether it worked for marketing.. i dont think it was a big success--none of the videos from that month have gotten over 10,000 views. i was too focused on quantity, maybe the quality kinda dipped? on the positive side, i was able to add a lot of variety and depth that i sometimes miss when i'm just creating a couple videos per month.

    LD: You seem to be implying that you equate view counts or retweets as a measure of success for a piece of work. Do you consider your work "successful" only via internet metrics or do you think about the importance of your poetry on other terms?

    SR: "success" to me is making peoples lives better. i do care about quantity as part of that, i want to reach a lot of people. but the quality of the impression is also important. and there's a lot to consider in "quality" of impression. does the piece simply make a person smirk once, or is it really going to shake them, make them reconsider their life choices, or really shape their identity? numbers can be misleading; some sites are optimized to get clicks and even shares, but their content is kind of just filler, it doesn't have much effect on you. the most accurate measure of success i have is the folder of screenshots i keep where people have told me, "your outlook has changed my life," "your work has meant so much to me," etc.. in those cases i know my work has mattered because people felt strong enough to tell me directly !

    LD: Did touring for an extended period allow you to decide on future plans and what you want your focus to be? Was it during this period that the idea for Boost House[2] came into being?

    SR: yes! i noticed from all those different settings on tour, i really like doing my work in party-like environments, places that are busy with activity and many friends at once. if i'm doing work alone in a quiet space, i sometimes get lonely. i like to have my social life interwoven into my work experience, and vice-versa, so i'm never lacking either. in mid-2012 i came up with the idea of starting some kind of vegan co-op house with my writing friends, and gradually the other details of boost house came after that :)

    LD: Are you worried Google will monetize or sell your videos while you end up with no intellectual rights?

    SR: it's frustrating that youtube can identify when i use copyrighted music, and they put adverts before those videos, to give money to the record labels, etc. i've been trying to warp the music i'm using now, sometimes reversing it or slowing it down, so i can keep them ad-free. ultimately the only people who "own" the work is the viewers tho.. once it has reached them, and they've seen it, it's moved them, impacted their day or even their personality.. that's the artwork i think. the video is not the actual artwork for me. something like that. the impact the videos have had on people already is real and significant, regardless of wat happens to the actual videos now, they could all get deleted, and their impact is still seeping pretty far into the world :)

    Age: 25

    Location: couch surfing the u.s.a.

    How/when did you begin working creatively with technology?

    in 2010 i became very interested in some websites like Hipster Runoff and Pictures For Sad Children. i loved how their internet format allowed them to reach so many people, even though their style of humor was very similar to what i loved in flarf poetry. around the same time, i had some teachers in my MFA program who were very dismissive about my internet- and flarf-influenced poetry, which drove me to do it even harder. i really came to identify as an "internet poet" in response to how easily my teachers dismissed it; i wanted to assert in response that it is valuable, perhaps more valuable than print work, because it's able to become so regularly integrated into my readers' lives.

    Where did you go to school? What did you study?

    i went to Central Michigan University for undergrad in creative writing, then i started a poetry MFA program at Columbia College Chicago, but i dropped out half way through.

    What do you do for a living or what occupations have you held previously?

    currently i make money from selling books and shirts, and doing readings at universities. in the past i've made money as a writing tutor, i've driven tractors and trucks on a farm, and i've cleaned tables at a college dining hall.

    What does your desktop or workspace look like?

    my desktop is messy, i never look at it; i just search to find files.. i don't have a consistent physical workplace, i just use my laptop and phone in a chair in a library, or in someone's apartment :)

     

    [1] In October 2012, Roggenbuck and Daniel Alexander (SNCKPCK) collaborated to post a YouTube video every day throughout the entire month. Vlogtober is a grassroots event where any user on YouTube or Vimeo can take part by posting a vlog every day in October.

    [2] Formative plans for Boost House are that it will be a publishing house and a residency space: boosthouse.livemylief.com

     


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    Rhizome is pleased to announce that Seven on Seven London, at Barbican Centre on October 27th, will be streamed live, 7AM through 1PM8AM through 2PM EST. The particpants in this first international iteration of the annual event include many notable practitioners that Rhizome has supported over the years: 

    Susan Philipsz + Naveen Selvadurai (Foursquare, Oscar) 
    Jonas Lund + Michelle You (Songkick) 
    Mark Leckey + Daniel Williams 
    Graham Harwood + Alberto Nardelli (Tweetminister) 
    Aleksandra Domanović + Smári McCarthy (IMMI) 
    Cécile B. Evans + Alice Bartlett (BERG) 
    Haroon Mirza + Ryder Ripps (OKFocus) 

    Through the development of collaborative proejcts, Seven on Seven aims to promote ongoing dialogs between art and technology. Remember to stream the conference online on October 27, or find it archived at that location anytime thereafter


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  • 10/29/13--07:35: Lingering Patience
  •  
    Jon Rafman, A Man Digging (2013), Single channel HD video

    Jon Rafman uses the intricate tableaux of Rockstar Games' Max Payne 3 as cinematic source material for his new machinima work, A Man Digging (2013). In this meandering and Robbe-Grillet inflected narrative, Rafman ruminates on the simulated sunbeams glinting through favela windows within the game, a melancholy sunrise in a deserted subway car, a heavy fog over a slate grey harbor. He can only do so, however, after killing every character—whether enemy or bystander—in the scene. In this way, Rafman makes visible the tension between the game as object of contemplation and the game as a continuous stream of connected events.

    Although many makers outside of the industry have used video games as source material—Peggy Ahwesh, JODI, Eva and Franco Mattes, and Phil Solomon, to name a few—A Man Digging highlights a particularly frustrating issue in contemporary game design: namely, a pushy Artificial Intelligence system that goads the player into constantly responding to the checkpoints, achievements, and goals that are all in the service of what tends to be called a game's "narrative." Although these events don't necessarily develop plot or characters, they are seen as central components of driving (or forcing) the player toward a sense of completion and finality that can only be accomplished through linear gameplay. As a result of this insistent narrative-centric design, players are prevented from exploring the potential for triple-A games to take on the unique, interactive potential to create contemplative and self-reflective video game environments.

    When playing Rockstar Games' Red Dead: Redemption, for example, I was always bothered by the way the game would interrupt me. Atop my horse, I’d want to admire the stunning vistas of the simulated Southwest and watch the cotton-tuft clouds hovering above big-sky country. The designers—or at least some of them—clearly wanted me to gaze upon this virtual splendor, just as one would meditate on a painting by Thomas Moran or Albert Bierstadt. However, the game’s AI would continually interfere, summoning cougars or coyotes, escaped convicts or roadside bandits, to ruin my perfectly good respite. Perhaps this was also some historical accuracy intended by the designers of RD:R, subtly educating players that the West in 1911 was still teeming with chaos. In other words, if you sat still for too long, you’d get eaten alive.

    But the same style of “pushy” AI can also be found in Bethesda Studio’s Skyrim. Beneath every moonlit aurora borealis that shimmers across a creek bed lurks a malevolent frost dragon. In such a situation, a player can never become just an ordinary spectator, focusing attention on the game as a perceptual challenge and an aesthetic experience, but instead must always play the hero. In these moments, games abruptly breaks the focus on their immersive graphics in order to insist that the player take action. The environment is presented only for the sake of distracted consumption, not for contemplation. Instead of rewarding a player for becoming invested in the beauty of the game environment, games punish the player if they deviate from the primary goal at hand.

    Irrational Games, Bioshock: Infinite (2013)

    Rafman’s piece does not explicitly address the need to undermine narrative, but it does suggest that games could be built to accommodate a more contemplative player. To date, games typically only reward a player’s focused attention on their environment through cleverly placed “easter eggs” or some kind of “achievement.” In Bioshock: Infinite, for instance, a curious player deviating from marked checkpoints will be rewarded with brief vignettes. These cut scenes sometimes offer up narrative information, such as the receipt of a telegram containing instructions for the game's character, but they are at their most captivating when they simply allow the moments of respite and aesthetic contemplation, offering insight into the overall patina of a game world.

    This being said, some artists and developers have designed games that revolve around fleeting moments in order to create spaces for contemplative play. Most of these titles reward players for slowness, or prolonged stillness. These games also entice players to think about the game as an ongoing process, enticing players to come back to it after several months of not playing. Within these games, a domineering AI doesn't interfere with the whims of a player, and as a result these games encourage players to think about games in a way that isn't primarily focused on narrative.

    Tale of Tales, The Endless Forest (2007)

    A fitting example of this is Tale of Tales’ Endless Forest (2007). This interactive screensaver allows players to control an elk-like creature through various locations and vignettes under a dense, mythical forest canopy. Players interact with other elks over a network and communicate through non-verbal gestures like bowing, stomping hooves and dancing. Although interaction is a central component of the game, an equally important element is the way the game rewards players for free-ranging exploration and stillness. In order to activate certain areas of the forest, the player must remain still, allowing their avatar to come to full resting position. The longer the player remains in these calm states, the more the scene reveals itself to the player.

    On top of rewarding players for their stillness, Endless Forest also entices players by integrating an element of downtime that few games would usually implement. The more time a player has spent online (either allowing their computer to remain passively connected, or in exploring the forest), the more their avatar visibly ages and matures. At first, the player's elk is only a fawn, but as the game records their participation, the avatar grows into a sagacious beast. This element of Tale of Tales’ design indicates to the player that their prolonged experience of stillness and rest – both on the part of the player and on the part of their computer going to sleep – will result in noticeable character development, suggesting that patience and contemplation are virtuous qualities of a player.

    Another notable example can be found in the critically lauded Journey, developed by thatgamecompany. In this title, players awake in the desert surrounded by gravestones and ruins. As the player moves toward intricate and massive slabs of broken masonry, they encounter floating pieces of fabric that encircle them and provide temporary flight. As in Endless Forest, players find anonymous companions with whom to explore the ruins of this game. Through activating eroded altars, pillars, and frozen columns of fabric with their avatar's voice, the player uncovers a simple narrative about an ancient civilization that sought refuge in a distant illuminated mountain peak. The player then works alongside their unnamed partner to reach the summit through perilous trials and dreadful conditions.

    thatgamecompany, Journey (2012)

    During this relatively short adventure, players can either choose to advance from scene to scene without the assistance or company of a sidekick, or else collaboratively explore the environments of the game. As the game progresses, however, players have to stick together and sing to one another to enliven each other’s spirits in order to avoid freezing into immobility. This simple gesture brings players together, not just to assist one another, but also to playfully communicate a mutual bond that could only happen through a networked video game.

    The beauty of Journey does not just come from its incredible visual design, or from its lack of a pushy algorithm. Its gameplay allows players to collaboratively linger in luscious surroundings. The simple joy of gliding alongside your companion across the glimmering sands of Journey’s environment is captivating in a way that is richer for being shared. Within certain moments of the game, the camera is purposefully positioned to focus the attention of the player toward vast romantic vistas. During one particular scene, players speed along a sloping dune through a once-palatial space, catching glimpses through sun-soaked archways of an abandoned city nestled in the valley below. This moment references the popular game motif of an anxiety-driven downhill chase scene, but here it has been repurposed as a meditative experience for contemplating the unforgiving forward march of time.

    Similarly, Ed Key and David Kanaga's Proteus also uses the motif of a meandering landscape in order to ruminate on the passage of time. Proteus, however, is less concerned with narrative than Journey, in that the primary experience revolves around exploring soundscapes generated by a low-bit, procedurally generated island. The player encounters various creatures and totems that have specific tones that all contribute to a vibrant, synthesized soundtrack. The score then dynamically changes as players explore the topology of the island. Like Endless Forest, players are encouraged to stand stationary in specific moments of the landscape in order to affect the visual and aural experience of their surroundings. One such instance involves standing within a circle of figures that resemble shaman of some sort. After watching the sunset, the distant stars shimmer vigorously and further texture the nocturnal harmonics.

    Ed Key and David Kanaga, Proteus (2013)

    As the player explores the island further, they find a concentration of circling particles that creates a portal into another season on the island. Each season then has its own unique sound, adding new layers and new interactions to explore. In Fall, the falling leaves from the trees blip upon hitting the amber colored ground. In Spring, the light showers create twinkling arpeggios that lilt atop the dense chords of blossoming flowers. In a nod to Vivaldi's masterwork, Key and Kanaga offer a new aural texture for each season. In doing so, they invite players to consider the changes that occur to the landscape and to themselves, while frolicking through luscious hilltops and valley meadows.

    All three titles create contemplative space within the video game as a way to challenge and present alternatives for Rafman's digging man. The structure of Endless Forest rewards stillness and open-ended exploration, in marked contrast with the irrepressible, attention-demanding narratives that occur in triple-A titles. Journey builds on this strategy with a structure that encourages collaborative lingering, engendering shared contemplative experiences within a simple narrative structure. And Proteus abandons narrative entirely, while offering a rich sensory experience. In particular, Proteus suggests that the affect of the virtual environments presented in games is not solely dependent on their graphical similitude to the physical world. Instead, all three of these games offer oases of respite within a wasteland of aggressive blockbusters, creating contemplative spaces in which to approach a kind of interactive rapture.

     


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    Courtesy grouphab.it and Harm van den Dorpel.

    An extended and altered version of this text will be published in... You Are Here: Looking at After the Internet (Cornerhouse Books 2014), edited by Omar Kholeif.

    Earlier this month, Rhizome presented a panel discussion at the ICA in London titled "Post-Net Aesthetics." Following in the wake of prior panels (titled "Net Aesthetics 2.0") which were organized by Rhizome in 2006 and 2008, this edition was precipitated by the recent discussion of postinternet practices by a number of art institutions and magazines, including Frieze. We invited a longtime Rhizome collaborator, critic and curator Karen Archey, to chair and organize the panel, and what emerged was a wide-ranging and extremely generative conversation in which participants began to articulate some of the shifts they'd seen in artistic practice in recent years, while critiquing those shifts and their framing as "postinternet."

    One dynamic to emerge from the panel discussion is an intergenerational tension that has played out in comment threads on Rhizome and Facebook. This tension was in evidence even before the panel in, for example, a response by Mark Tribe (b. 1966) to a question about postinternet art for an interview that was published in Art in America in September:

    Internet art was a movement that arose in 1994 and waned in the early 2000s. Post-Internet artists stand on the shoulders of Net art giants like Olia Lialina, Vuk Cosic, and JODI, not in order to lift themselves higher into the thin atmosphere of pure online presence but rather to crush the past and reassemble the fragments in strange on/offline hybrid forms. See also: New Aesthetic.

    Examples of efforts by postinternet artists to "crush the past" are numerous; one example can be found in "The Image Object Post-Internet" (2010), in which Artie Vierkant (b. 1986) wrote, "New Media is here denounced as a mode too narrowly focused on the specific workings of novel technologies, rather than a sincere exploration of cultural shifts in which that technology plays only a small role." While Vierkant is using the term "New Media" rather than Tribe's "Net art," he does so in an effort to articulate a new relationship with technology in contrast with preceding generations. 

    It should be noted that, within postinternet discourse, there are many who do cite the importance of art and technology precursors, such as Karen Archey, Chris Wiley, and Hanne Mugaas in the recent Frieze roundtable. Equally, established curators and artists like Tribe have, even while acknowledging the conflict between "postinternet" and its precursors, done a great deal to support emerging artistic practices. In this article, I hope to build on this existing dialogue to further encourage ways of thinking about recent artistic practices engaged with the internet as both distinct from and connected to recent histories of art and technology. To do so, I discuss several works by Olia Lialina spanning 1996 to 2013 in relation to Marisa Olson and Abe Linkoln's Abe & Mo Sing the Blues (2005) and the exhibition "Brand Innovations for Ubiquitous Authorship" (2012), in order to show how the problems associated with generational shifts also played within an individual artist's practice. In this discussion, "postinternet" emerges as a useful term for tracking artists' shifting relationships with the rapidly-changing cultural objects we know as "the internet," in that its definition has changed so dramatically since Olson's original articulation. 

    The reference normally given for the first use of the term postinternet is a 2008 interview, but Olson remembers using it as part of a 2006 panel organized by Rhizome. In an email discussion that was printed in TimeOut New York in 2006, she wrote:

    What I make is less art "on" the Internet than it is art "after" the Internet. It's the yield of my compulsive surfing and downloading. I create performances, songs, photos, texts, or installations directly derived from materials on the Internet or my activity there.

    As critic and curator Gene McHugh has pointed out, this was an early articulation of what Olson would call a "Post-Internet" way of working. The term has since evolved considerably, sprouting an array of differing use cases that would take considerable effort to catalog in full. As a result, today one often hears the criticism that "postinternet" is a vague neologism, but for Olson, it had a specific meaning, referring to a mode of artistic activity drawing on raw materials and ideas found or developed online. 

    Abe & Mo Sing the Blues (2005) screenshot from:www.linkoln.net/abeandmosingtheblogs  

    One example of making art "'after' the Internet" is Olson's 2005 collaboration with Abe Linkoln, Abe & Mo Sing the Blogs, an album in the form of a blog. Each "track", or entry, consists of the copied-and-pasted text of a found blog post, a link to the original post, and a link to an MP3 in which either Linkoln or Olson sings the the post. Authors of the found posts included music critic Sasha Frere-Jones, artists Ubermorgen, someone named Glue Factory Bob, and Eggagog, the mysterious author of Internet classic "THIS IS FUN TO MAKE A BLOG ON THE COMPUTER WEBSITE." Abe & Mo Sing the Blues now functions as an archive of the blog form at what, in retrospect, feels like its peak moment; in many cases, the posts used as source material are no longer online. The website draws together source materials and offers them up for the analysis of a visitor; removing the posts from their original context strips some of their original meaning (what is Frere-Jones is talking about when he says "Look at all the fives. It's like a five factory?). By rendering the posts opaque, Olson and Linkoln make them available as internet objects of study for an observer who is positioned (at least temporarily) on the outside. At the same time, though, by using the blog posts as readymade scripts for a series of performances, Linkoln and Olson inhabit these objects, or perhaps the objects inhabit them; they allow them to move through their body as performed songs. This is a kind of mimicry, but by investing their performances with emotion and energy, Linkoln and Olson participate Olson and Linkoln's artistic project can be seen as an attempt to come to an understanding of a quickly-evolving internet culture from a perspective that is both inside and outside of it.

    If "making art 'after' the internet" in 2006, then, involved being a participant-observer of an emerging internet culture, then many other artists of the time also worked in a similar mode, including other participants in the first "Net Aesthetics 2.0" panel, hosted by Electronic Arts Intermix in New York and organized by Lauren Cornell for Rhizome. (The other participants were Cory Arcangel, Michael Bell-Smith, Caitlin Jones, Wolfgang Staehle, and myself.) The "2.0" in the title was, in part, a slightly facetious nod to the hype surrounding "Web 2.0," a term used to describe the increasing use of centralized services rather than independent websites to share and access content online. It was clear that the web's culture was changing: social networking sites were growing in popularity, and YouTube had launched the previous year. In broad strokes, these changes meant that many more people were making and sharing content online, and they were doing so through a smaller number of channels.[1]

    But in addition to this nod to changing conditions on the web as a whole, the "2.0" was also a provocation, pointing to a shift in the ways that artists were engaging with the internet. This can be seen not only in the work of artists like Olson, who came to prominence well after the initial, heroic phase of web browser-based art, but also in the trajectories followed by artists who were associated with that initial period, such as Olia Lialina.

    In the 1990s, Lialina's work often took the form of web pages that used various elements of the nascent language of the browser for narrative purposes. In My Boyfriend Came Back from the War (1996), Lialina used HTML frames and hyperlinks to tell a story that opens out across nested HTML frames; in Agatha Appears (1997), she used changing URLs as a narrative device; in Anna Karenina Goes to Paradise (1996), she queried three separate search engines (Yahoo, Magellan and Alta Vista) to narrate the searching undertaken by her titular character.

    In 1998, Lialina described her interest in the web during this first heyday of net art:

    At that time [1996], I spoke of the Internet being open for artistic self-expression, that the time had come to create Net films, Net stories and so on, to develop a Net language instead of using the web simply as a broadcast channel….[2]

    With this text, circulated to the artists, writers, and internet thinkers of the nettime mailing list, Lialina announced a shift to working as a net art gallerist. Shortly thereafter, she launched the website art.teleportacia.org, which offered a series of single-page web-based artworks for sale to collectors for $1000 to $2000 each. Lialina later said she was "not really intending to become a gallerist, so the next exhibition, Location=Yes, was not about selling." She may not have been selling, but she was acting as a champion for the practitioners of the emerging artistic language of the "Net."

    Increasingly, Lialina's focus seems to have included championing not only the work of self-described artists, but also the work of the many non-art identified internet users who also were crucial in developing this "Net language." This interest was manifested through talks and illustrated essays, such as A Vernacular Web: The Indigenous and the Barbarians (2005), which celebrated the popular forms of self-expression on the early web and critiqued the more truncated forms of online expression offered by the centralized services of the Web 2.0 era. This shift can also be seen in a collaborative project with her partner Dragan Espenschied, With Elements of Web 2.0 (2006), consisting of a series of aluminum prints that bring together tropes of the vernacular web (outer space backgrounds) or even older forms of cultural expression (a spiral notebook) with iconography of the Web 2.0 era, such as the Google Maps navigation buttons.

    With Elements of Web 2.0 (2006)

    A decade separated With Elements of Web 2.0 (2006) from My Boyfriend Came Back from the War (1996), and there is evidence of a changing set of concerns in Lialina's practice. While the early online work was keenly engaged with the problem of articulating a new artistic language through the internet, Lialina increasingly began to respond (in her solo and collaborative artistic practice, and through her writing) to the wider conditions of cultural production and circulation online. It isn't so much that her artistic project changed. It's the web, and the critical discourse around it, that changed. Commercial companies structured vernacular uses of the web and profited from them long before the advent of Facebook, but with the rise of Web 2.0, they started to get a lot better at doing so. And by 2006, the time of the first "Net Aesthetics 2.0" panel, coming to grips with this changing internet landscape seemed like a most pressing task for many artists. Artie Vierkant characterized this shift as follows: "Artists after the Internet thus take on a role more closely aligned to that of the interpreter, transcriber, narrator, curator, architect."

    Both Abe & Mo Sing the Blues and With Elements of Web 2.0 (2006) reflect the artists adopting this role. For their series, Lialina and Espenschied appropriated materials harvested from the web; they presented these materials as solid objects, as aluminum prints rather than digital codes and liquid crystals. While their tone is markedly different from that of Olson and Linkoln's website—melancholic, where Abe & Mo is celebratory; contemplative, where Abe & Mo is participatory—the series can also be thought of as "art made 'after' the internet," per Olson's formulation. Olson's "after" was connected to a historical shift (to re-state it, the explosion of online creators on centralized web services constituting an internet culture in which artists increasingly acted as participant-observers) but it did not refer to this shift; it wasn't marking out an epoch. Instead, it referred to a delineation within the artist's practice, which could be experienced in everyday time, not historical time: "I surfed, and then I created art." Maybe it was just a convenient way of referring to a more general structural boundary between artistic practice and internet culture. Art outside of the internet.

    After Olson's 2006 formulation, of course, the cultural conditions of the internet continued to change, rapidly. It's not popular, these days, to ascribe cultural shifts to the appearance of a new technology rather than shifts in perceptual regimes or economic models[3], but let's just say it: the iPhone was released in 2007. Olson's language of making art "after" being online, though surely not meant to be taken literally, initially suggested a perceived boundary between time spent online and off. This boundary was eroded with the proliferation of smartphones and the growing pressures of an attention-based economy. And so Olson's concept of making art after the internet no longer applied in the same way. There was no after the internet, only during, during, during. The artist could no longer realistically adopt a position on the outside.

    In this context, it no longer makes sense for artists to attempt to come to terms with "internet culture," because now "internet culture" is increasingly just "culture." In other words, the term "postinternet" suggests that the focus of a good deal of artistic and critical discourse has shifted from "internet culture" as a discrete entity to the reconfiguration of all culture by the internet, or by internet-enabled neoliberal capitalism.

    Many of the artists who are working on these questions are acting less as "interpreter, transcriber, narrator, curator, architect," and more as fully-implicated participant: Ann Hirsch performing as a cam whore, Auto Italia South East setting up a workspace for immaterial laborers in a major London real estate development, Ed Fornieles' manipulation of other people's social media profiles. One useful example of this shift is the 2012 exhibition "Brand Innovations for Ubiquitous Authorship" at Higher Pictures, in which "a large group of international artists were asked to produce an object using a custom printing or fabrication service such as CafePress, Zazzle and Walmart, which delivered the objects in sealed boxes directly to the gallery." These rules circumscribed the process of artistic creation entirely within the more or less truncated forms of customization available on the internet; one might reasonably draw the inference that all forms of creative production are similarly circumscribed. The process was made visible through a series of YouTube videos in which the gallerists documented the "unboxing" of each artist's work, fresh from the factory, entirely unseen by the artists up to that point, wrapped in bubble wrap or immersed in packing peanuts. The videos were given slightly macabre titles (Unboxing Marisa Olson and Unboxing Jon Rafman), equating the artist with their product and conveying the impression that the artists' names are also brands.

    Unboxing Maria Olson at Higher Pictures, filmed by Artie Vierkant (2013)

    Unboxing Jon Rafman at Higher Pictures, filmed by Artie Vierkant (2013)

    As much as the Unboxing videos highlighted the artists' participation in digital economies, they also highlighted the objects' participation in such economies. Through exclusion, the videos call attention to the highly organized systems of authorship, production, and distribution that brought these objects into existence, and brought them to the gallery. They do not try to represent these systems, only to represent their participation in them.  

    The strategy of calling attention to these systems of production and circulation is not limited to the world of solid, stable objects. Here, we can return to the work of Olia Lialina. Lialina's past online work has often made creative use of the URL, and she has also written about the importance of the URL in creating the context in which an online artwork exists. The most notable example of this is her work Agatha Appears (1997), one section of which involves a series of pages, each featuring an identical image of a woman, that moves the user from one URL to the next, each one adding a bit more narrative information. The current version of the work uses the following URLs: 

    http://www.coryarcangel.com/agatha/goes_on.html

    http://www.johannes-p-osterhoff.com/agatha/makes_stupid_things.html

    http://www.tema.ru/agatha/has_no_idea.html

    http://www.irational.org/agatha/wants_to_teleport.html

    http://www.tobi-x.com/agatha/teleports_and_teleports.html

    In summer 2013, Lialina released another project in which the URL played an important role. Summer (2013) is a short animated loop in which the artist swings from a playground swing that is seemingly fixed to the top of the browser window. Each frame of the animation is played back from a different website, and so the browser must re-direct quickly across a number of websites, such as:

    http://1x-upon.com/~despens/olia/summer/

    http://www.newrafael.com/olia/summer/

    http://www.entropy8.com/olia/summer/

    The URLs in Agatha Appears are used as by Lialina a creative tool, while those in Summer are modified by the artist in the most generic way possible, through the addition of her first name and the title of the work. Thus Lialina's use of the URL here, rather than offering a means for creative expression, merely highlights one aspect of the network in which her work circulates. In this, it has something in common with the "Brand Innovations" project, which also seeks to highlight the networks in which the works circulated. In contrast with that exhibition, though, Lialina chooses to circulate her work in a network defined partly by friendship and shared interests, not solely economics and production. Lialina's work calls attention to the work's reliance on a network of friends, a kind of autonomous zone in which her image circulates, in contrast with the endlessly implicated position of "Brand Innovations," which calls attention to the artworks's reliance on a network of logistics and manufacturing, and no such autonomy is assumed to be available to the artist.

    In Olson's articulation in 2006/2008, the term "Post-Internet" positioned the artistic creation process "after" or structurally outside of the internet, while acknowledging that the artist was a compulsive participant in internet culture. In the more recent example of "Brand Innovations," artistic creation is more explicitly tied to a system of circulation of brands and images and objects, an internet-enabled neoliberal ether. The outside is not presumed to exist. Lialina points to this problem, but her response is to try to set off a semi-autonomous zone defined by networks of friendship and trust; the artists of "Brand Innovations" do not assume such autonomy.

    This fully-immersed position has interesting implications not only for artistic creation, but also for the circulation, reception, and discussion of art. In other words, it has interesting implications for me, a writer a and curator. I wanted to write this text in a way that would appeal to olds like me (I'm not really an old, except in internet years), and so I assumed a serious voice, I tried to stick to the facts, I tried not to make too many grand and unsubstantiated claims. But, this kind of writing somehow feels inadequate for a discussion of postinternet practice; it assumes a critical stance outside of art and internet and even neoliberalism, when in truth I am immersed in all three. So although the word "postinternet" is now about to collapse under the weight of its overuse, even though its position inside of the digital ether may be easily mistaken for a lack of critical politics, I still think there is something true and interesting and complicated about this refusal to buy into the assumption that artwork, artist, audience, and art worker can assume autonomy, and I'm still grappling with this in my own practice as a writer and curator. Even as they criticize the woolly discourse around postinternet art on forums and social media and in the pages of art magazines, I hope the other olds are doing the same.


    [1] For an excellent contemporaneous critique on this term, see MUTE Vol 2, No. 4, "WEB 2.0: MAN'S BEST FRIENDSTER" (January 2007).

    [2] Olia Lialina, "cheap.art," Message to Nettime-l mailing list, January 19, 1998.

    [3] See, for example, Jonathan Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, New York: Verso, 2013. p 36: "This pseudo-historical formulation of the present as a digital age, supposedly homologous with a 'bronze age' or 'steam age,' perpetuates the illusion of a unifying and durable coherence to the many incommensurable contituents of contemporary experience."

    Updated 11/1 to add the sentence, "Equally, established curators and artists like Tribe have, even while acknowledging the conflict between "postinternet" and its precursors, done a great deal to support emerging artistic practices." 

     


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  • 11/04/13--08:24: This Thursday, A Fresh Start
  • This Thursday, the Rhizome community will come together in the New Museum Sky Room to re-imagine its future. A future less bound by the nitpicking criticism of the past, the hand-wringing, the self-doubt. This is our promise to you: a profound sense of human connection, an art that can bridge the cultural gaps in an interconnected world, an app for every social problem, a better wave, a more sustainable and democratic glass of champagne. Are you brave enough to come with us on this journey?

    Tickets begin at $50 and are on sale here. Follow us on Instagram for continuing updates. 

    Ed Fornieles's New York New York Happy Happy is part of the Performa Consortium program. Proceeds benefit Rhizome's 2013-2014 program.


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    The Beggar's Opera at the 4th Athens Biennale, AGORA . Source.

    If you thought the Greek economic crisis had faded into irrelevancy, think again. Greece may not dominate headlines as it once did, but here, issues of value, capital and labor are fermenting, combusting, imploding, and reforming in ways that have international significance. The 4th Athens Biennale (AB4) has broached this reality head-on by installing a biennale in the old Athens Stock Exchange building that closed in 2007, and by taking as its title the word AGORA, which has come to mean "marketplace" in modern Greek, but which, in ancient times, referred to a gathering space that had overlapping social, commercial, and political uses. In order to create a space of true and viable exchange in a building once defined by power imbalance and manipulation, the biennale was organized according to a radical system. Instead of a single curator, the exhibition was organized by some forty people who responded to an open call put out only six months ago. The result is an electrifying example of networked culture in practice; of collective action enacted within what is arguably still an institutional frame of the art world itself, an agora. To get a deeper understanding of AB4's aims, and to learn how this all worked in practice, I caught up with Poka Yio via email after visiting the exhibition during the opening days. An artist himself, Yio is co-founder of the Athens Biennale along with Xenia Kalpatsoglou and Augustinos Zenakos, and a co-curator of the current biennale. 

    Stephanie Bailey: Can you talk about how the 4th Athens Biennale was organized in only six months, and through an open call inviting not one, but many curators? 

    Poka Yio: When asked what, in our opinion, a biennale is, our answer is: "an X-ray of today." But what is today? In the past, the two-year period was perfect to put together such a big endeavor as a biennale, but this has changed dramatically. Now we are witnessing an unprecedented acceleration of history, and creators, theorists and all sorts of analysts fail more and more to grasp it. The financial analysts have failed to overcome the crash, the political theorists have failed to arm us with the political means to withstand the social pressure without the loss of civic and human rights, and art fails to present "today" in its meta-language.

    The distance between the colossal sociopolitical changes and "us" makes our theoretical tools almost useless. Working with a single curator, as is the norm for biennales, is not enough anymore. From our point of view, a biennale has to make sense foremost of the context of the host city and then, if true to itself, it may as well be meaningful in the broader art universe. What is the point of creating a biennale in Athens or Istanbul, for example, both places that are friction points of titanic cultural and political tectonic plates, to come up with an exhibition that could easily be produced anywhere in the world?

    The condition in Greece—and I mean the economic reality, the shrinkage of the middle class and then its extinction, the overall collective mood, the xenophobia and so on—has changed dramatically just in the two last years. We have noticed at least four distinctive major changes in the collective spirit. No foreign curator, unless he would be willing to spend two full years with a huge team of collaborators, would have managed to capture this phenomenon and come up with a relevant, meaningful outcome. Halfway in the course of organizing the 4th Athens Biennale we understood that we had to take a 90-degree change of course through uncharted waters in order to meet the situation in Athens. That was a lucky turn because we had to speed up and sprint in order to catch the train of change and achieve synchronicity.

    SB: How did you formulate the systems within which this curatorial approach would unfold? 

    PY: We first made an assembly of creative forces coming from art, but also from social sciences and the media. Curators from Greece and abroad joined in, and the full team numbered more than 35 people in total. It was divided into three teams after the popular game  "Rock" (theory and curation), "Paper" (communication and curation), "Scissors" (production and curation). We worked together and in teams. We had long exhausting workshops and weekly meetings that were designed to both produce the framework of the 4th Athens Biennale, forge a common ground as well as engender a collective spirit between people with diverse backgrounds. What we came up with was a double blow to the standard biennale format: first the conclusion that a biennale is not an exhibition, it is an event, and second, the 4th Athens Biennale was not a finalized exhibition or event, but a device. The 4th Athens Biennale was to become a device that would host actions, collectives, works and so on. It would act as an outer shell: a new convention between the public and creative forces. If the public turned its back on it by not inhabiting this AGORA then it would have failed. 

    The Paper Team meeting in preparation for the 4th Athens Biennale, AGORA. Source.

    SB: The politics involved in bringing this together—from rejecting the concept of the single curator, all the way to mediating the many voices that are included in this biennale: How has this worked within the framework of AGORA?

    PY: The major difficulty when working with creators is overcoming the main barrier of the ego. We have all been used to working individually with the exception of architectural groups and art collectives, but we had none of those in the AB4 team. So we had to intensively mould a collective working model and a collective spirit. This was easier than we thought, since the urgency of the situation and the limited time left no space for unnecessary arguments or conflict.

    SB: Let's talk about the concept of the Agora itself – can you tell me how the idea of the agora as a place of political, cultural, economic and social exchange has changed and evolved during the course of AB4? I also wanted to ask about the notion of networked culture that this biennale capitalized on so as to come into being—it feels like it was an attempt at putting a working model into practice; a horizontal mode of organization that also reflects on the movements that have emerged since the economic crash of 2008. I'm thinking here of course of the Indignados movement, which emerged out of Spain in 2011 and travelled to Greece after that, modeling itself on the Tahrir Square occupation, and which preceded the Occupy movement by months…

    PY: The device that we came up with, AGORA as a place of exchange and creation of values came naturally. We were working with the building of the former Athens Stock Exchange, an amazing space—a church of and for the capital—where exchange of monetary values took place. The echo of the traders' shouts can still be heard in it. This public yet private space, operational just seven years ago and currently out of use and full of traumas literally and metaphorically, was the perfect allegory for the condition of Greece today: once cocky, now devastated. A major lesson and compass has been the Indignados movement in Greece, Spain and elsewhere. From their example, we understood that most people wanted to participate rather that be shown things: to be part of the change rather than be drawn into violent change.

    SB: So, how does culture fit into this in terms of dealing with the challenge of networked cultures as an antidote or response to the current system?

    PY: Culture is a value, but this value should be equally formed from bottom up and not imposed from top to bottom. We reinforced this belief through the open call that we first introduced this year. The question or thematic premise of AGORA was distilled in a single question: now what? This is what we have asked ourselves, the participants of the biennale and the public. Lastly, by designing the main space as a public agora, complete with a Pnyx—the ancient Athens hill where the public assembly took place. It has been made from Euro-pallets and by including a communal restaurant, we have created a space for the people to inhabit. We minimized the presence of artworks in the main space of the former Stock Exchange to maximize the presence of live events, such as workshops, lectures and performances. This may be the evolution of the model of biennales in general. 

    SB: That AB4 has engaged directly with the concept of the marketplace suggests that while we are dealing with local questions when it comes to thinking about something like the Greek crisis, we are also dealing with macro-level questions, in that it was really the global markets that engendered the current crisis. What are your thoughts on this in relation to the theme for AB4?

    PY: Greece is now widely perceived as a huge experimental laboratory. Analysts and the global public have set their eyes in the chemical reactions taking place here and wait for the final result. We are not "PIGs"—we are Guinea Pigs.[1] This painful reactor that Greece is, gives us the power to be in the melding process. It is not enough to be energetic. We have to be drastic.


    [1] PIGS is a derogatory acronym for Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Spain, the four European countries hardest hit by sovereign debt during the Eurozone crisis.


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    Thomas Struth, Hermitage 3, St. Petersburg (2005).

    I. Amazon 

    Amazon used to have literary ambitions. In the late '90s, the company hired professional editors who commissioned and wrote thousands of reviews a week, as well as features, interviews, and previews of forthcoming books. Later on, when the retailer began to intersperse the paid reviews with user-generated content, it retained this vision, thinking of user reviews as submissions to a literary magazine that would give the site the aura of an independent bookshop, populated by an erudite staff and clientele. Rick Ayre, then Vice President and Executive Editor of Amazon, described the tone and use of the content on Amazon.com to the New York Times in 1999: "If you spend a lot of time on the site, I hope you get a sense of the quirky, independent, literate voice, and that behind it all you're interacting with people, and that it's people who care about these things, not people who are trying to sell you these things. My mantra has always been 'the perfect context for a purchase decision.'"1

    Today, almost all content on Amazon is created by users. This may be the single greatest triumph of the customer-written product review over the work of professionals. In keeping with the small, independent bookstore feeling that the site tried to convey early on by providing shoppers with information about a book as well as the ability to buy it, the reviews evoke word of mouth recommendations offered by peers.

    The amazing thing is that this system lasted even as the site grew from a relatively cohesive community to an online juggernaut. Amazon introduced the user-generated reviews when it was an experimental commercial entity. Its shoppers were a self-selecting group: people who, as the New York Times put it, were willing to be "so free and easy with their encrypted credit-card numbers" to be early adopters of online shopping. It wasn't that small of a group, really—by 1998, Amazon had more than six million customers—but it had a sense of community. The fact that user-generated reviews have stood the test of time through the incredible leap in our perception of the way we communicate, shop, and browse material on the internet is telling. Like Amazon itself, the user-generated reviews are no longer limited to the literary field. Amazon's founder Jeff Bezos started off selling books on the site because they are stable products—you know what you're getting and it's easy to compare to the exact same product somewhere else. This stability generated a sense of security in Amazon clients, allowing the product reviews to function as broadly applicable recommendations, not simply testimonies about unreplicable experiences. Now we frequently rely on user reviews to provide accounts of much less concrete things, on Amazon and off, from service at hotels to that new sandwich at the café down the street.

    One of the lingering traces of Amazon's early ethos, its vision of a combined online bookstore and magazine, is the fact that these accounts are described as reviews (as opposed to a more quantitative-sounding term like "user feedback" or "ratings"). Now that Amazon has shed its literary ambitions, what style of writing does it promote? What type of criticism? Today, when so much of what we do online is read—and sometimes write—reviews, how does that alter our understanding of what criticism is?2

    II. Yelp 

    I recently reread Jennifer Allen's excellent short essay "Death Becomes Them" in frieze. Apart from the lovely insertion of a scene from Ratatouille where the food critic Anton Ego describes the work of criticism ("In many ways, the work of a critic is easy, we risk very little…but the bitter truth we must face is that in the grand scheme of things the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating itself"), Allen discusses the "macabre business of art criticism" and its untenable nature. In trying to justify the practice of contemporary art criticism—and the many discussions thereof—she turns to the community of critics, delineating the fact that discourse about art is now created simultaneously in exhibitions and their reviews by the same people: the curator who freelances writing criticism. The rise of this critic-curator sure does complicate the question of who is writing—and for whom.3 To begin to get to the bottom of this, frieze also ran a survey of art critics titled "Who do you write for" on its blog last year. The London magazine, which has played a central role in documenting and analyzing what has been widely discussed in the past ten years as post-critical criticism, or simply, a "death of criticism,"4 contacted twelve critics who write for different outlets, from blogs to newspapers and magazines, asking them about the public they have in mind when writing reviews. None of the respondents discussed any kind of direct relationship with readers, be it via letters to the editors, comments sections online, or social media. The assumption is that by existing, by being written and printed, a review is already valuable. There is no need to ask the readers if they found it "useful, funny, or cool" as Yelp does, or "helpful," as Amazon phrases it. The writers did discuss their sense of mission and responsibility, their idea of making a contribution to a field or creating documents that would become useful with time, and the way culture is generated by conversation.5

    "For me, writing criticism is not about producing critical discourse. It's more about thinking through what is wrong with the art world as it is," explains writer Brian Droitcour, who is currently working through some of these problems by writing reviews on Yelp, the website that hosts user-generated reviews of storefront businesses. Unlike other sites that prominently feature reviews, Yelp does not sell objects or facilitate services—it simply organizes and facilitates the creation of user-generated content. For nearly two years, Droitcour has been writing reviews of art galleries and museums on Yelp. Not that this qualifier is necessary, but Droitcour has written for several art magazines, and in the past wrote reviews for Artforum.com, as well as articles for Rhizome. His embrace of Yelp started as a kind of joke: "I was talking to someone at an opening about the Ai Weiwei show at Mary Boone Gallery, and we were trying to figure out if it was still open. When I Googled it, one of the top results was a Yelp review and I was like, 'Oh my god, I really want to review galleries on Yelp.'" Part of the attraction was the ability to adopt a more direct style of critical writing. (Case in point: "There are dozens of places in Chelsea to see decent art in favorable installation conditions. Don't waste your time here." [From a review of Family Business, April 2013.]) Droitcour says the more he wrote on Yelp, the more these reviews morphed into a process of questioning the role of the critic and the nature of criticism, and a way to get outside of the process of value-creation that most writing about art participates in. "As an art writer, when you write a review at times you feel like it's just giving the gallery something to publicize, another page in the binder, another line on the CV for the artist. I was just super frustrated with reviews," Droitcour explains. Yelp reviews, generally speaking, are not included in such binders.

    In a writing style that picks up on both the casualness and directness of reviews on Yelp, Droitcour manages to avoid many of the pitfalls of art reviewing, those traits (convoluted sentences, overly grand claims, reliance on jargon) that have led to the many essays putting art criticism to death. Could Yelp be the answer for some of the stylistic issues with criticism? It's hard to ignore the prevailing tone in Yelp reviews. As they refer largely to experiences, they are highly subjective; every other sentence begins with "I," and they include a lot of storytelling and little information. ("I went with two of my friends who live for this sort of place.") Droitcour picks up on that style—developed to describe food, drink, beauty, or shopping—in a very conscious way. "It was like the art was made for the brand of the place and beyond that it's unremarkable. Two stars is 'meh' and that was how I felt about this gallery. First lol, then meh" (Venus Over Manhattan, review from October 2013). Droitcour's use of language is not just an attempt to make his reviews accessible or to participate in Yelp culture: it's meant to inflate certain propensities of Yelp syntax in order to point out both the absurdities of value creation through art criticism, as well as the evasiveness of a lot of writing about art. "I think user-generated content is imitating the discourse of PR, advertising, and journalism," Droitcour concedes, "but at the same time it's something that's more individual and personal and doesn't belong to a body of discourse in the same way that criticism does."

    Although the personal nature of user reviews is central to their appeal to Droitcour, it is their descriptive content that is often valued by readers. In a survey of Amazon reviewers, 90 percent of them said that a concise description of the content of a book is an important factor in making a review useful. So much of writing about art, too, has traditionally been about description. This is especially true when reviews are published after the fact, in magazines that will hit the stands a month or two after a show's close. On the one hand, these descriptions will one day provide crucial primary information for researchers (especially with contemporary work, where installation shots do not always do the display justice). On the other, they also lead to the questionable tendency to write reviews that can be best described as a shopping list of what's there (Peter Schjeldahl said it wonderfully that in the 1970s criticism "became a matter of just keeping track of things, making taxonomical systems").6

    These shopping list reviews rely heavily on flair. In a roundtable of art critics published in October magazine, writer James Meyer explains the role of writerly style in magazine writing:

    The word "writerly" is used to describe a criticism which, having pretensions to the literary, is valorized for its tone of sensibility and its capacity to seduce, to sell a magazine. It is not writerly in the Barthesian sense of a disruptive kind of writing. On the contrary, the belletristic model, as one finds in the current Artforum, or in a collector-oriented publication like Parkett, could be described as antiwriterly in ambition. And because it often concerns the author's "feelings" or personality, belletristic writing of this kind tends to avoid a sustained reflection on the art. This style is supposed to appeal to readers; it keeps the magazine afloat. All well and good—but at what cost?7

    Often, the cost is nonsensical writing for the sake of writing. The Yelp style, in contrast, describes personal taste in a way that is uninhibited by the need to demonstrate one's expertise. Sure, a lot of reviewers qualify their pieces by rhetorical gestures that point to a certain amount of experience ("I go to a lot of restaurants," "I've lived in this area for twenty years"), but all in all, even though writers on Yelp or Amazon have a sense of the structure of criticism, their use of language is a mixture of tropes of professionalism, the language of press releases (not to mention outright plagiarism), and unrestrained personal claims that stand in for arguments ("This is my favorite lobster roll in town"). This slippage is one result of the explosion of participation in criticism. But just as formalized criticism informs the style of writers on Yelp, maybe part of its candidness could seep back into other kinds of reviews. 

    III. Positive/Negative

    One of the strongest statements in a review is its subject. For every review a magazine runs, countless exhibitions went unnoticed. Not having space to cover everything is one of the virtues of the magazine. It's selective. Yelp, meanwhile, could potentially include every storefront in New York City. How do the economics of criticism change when something traditionally scarce becomes so abundant? Reviews turn symbolic capital—attention and critical writing—into monetary capital. The brilliance of Amazon's introduction of the user-generated reviews is that the company could monetize something that it needn't take any responsibility for. While the integrity of many—maybe even most—reviews on Amazon can be questioned, the effect of having original (or semi-original) content pertaining to the product sold reaches beyond the actual constituents of any single review.8

    Yelp is often seen as an enemy of small businesses.9 It's so easy to take down a place via a negative review that it often motivates disgruntled clients to write, even if they do not habitually contribute to Yelp. Similarly, Amazon reviews recently made the news after a group of Michael Jackson fans self-organized on social media to bombard a new biography of the singer with one-star reviews. The New York Times reported that "The fans, who call themselves Michael Jackson's Rapid Response Team to Media Attacks, say they are exercising their free speech rights to protest a book they feel is exploitative and inaccurate."10 The fans' sentiment that it is their privilege to use Amazon reviews as they see fit (that is, in order to take down a book some of them presumably haven't read because they disagree with its premise) is indicative of the way we conceive of user-generated reviews as discursive apparatuses. Thus, even though a lot of user-generated reviews draw on the language of advertising, they can be extremely disruptive to branding. Could art criticism make a similar move? And could Yelp, or sites similar to it, propose a subversive location for such criticism that is not as dependent on market forces?

    Artforum.com's reviews section is framed as "picks." While the in-print reviews for the magazine introduce a multiplicity of voices, both negative and positive, the online reviews are shorter, published more quickly, and almost always positive—that is, they are recommendations. Droitcour too admits to largely writing positive reviews on Yelp—"Most of my reviews are four or five stars. The thing is, I like art. My writing on Yelp is not about making fun of the art world—it's about problems with art, but it's also about trying to figure out what people respond to, or ways to respond to complex things in everyday language. If I were to write a negative review then I'd think a lot about it." Artforum.com's Picks have different goals than the magazine's reviews section: they aim to offer timely, original analysis of work while alerting readers to worthy exhibitions as they happen. But they don't allow the critic much latitude. Negative reviews have certain benefits; they allow a writer to engage with art in a way that isn't only cheerleading. Is it really possible to develop a coherent, lasting voice when all one writes is positive reviews?

    We trust each other on Yelp. The reviews have the caché of word of mouth recommendations, and even when considering their marketing-like language, they do not necessarily reflect the intentions of the brand in question. This subversive character of the user-generated reviews can be completely seamless and unintentional, since the reviews are often rooted in the gap between expectation and experience—and users seeing this gap as the content other people may look for. A high-end fashion store won't appreciate Yelp reviews discussing the value-for-the-money of its products (since what it sells is not the products but what they represent), but a reviewer may feel like that is exactly the kind of information he or she is looking for in reviews of said products, since the brand identity is already common knowledge. Yelp seems to try and minimize brand-driven content—it's no accident that one of the feedback options on reviews on the site (all feedback buttons are positive, by the way) is "useful"—as the assumption is that readers are scouring it for a certain kind of data.

    Could there be a similar subversiveness in formalized art reviews? What would that read like? A number of the essays and conversations on the aforementioned death or crisis of criticism refer to an absence of clear criteria for judgment as the number-one sign of said death. It seems like when art critics have nothing to say, they revert to saying very little, an amalgamation of prior knowledge slapped onto new work because that seems like the stuff of art history. I've seen a number of writers confess to wanting to write "around" a certain topic, a shifty way to not take responsibility when writing about a subject. If formulaic writing on art is a way to cover a lack of things to say (Polly Staple marvelously termed "binary fluffing" the routine use of oxymorons that seem as if they'd mean something, but are actually devoid of all content: "complexly simple," "ironic and clear," "unequivocally ambiguous"), then maybe relying on experience can be one model for a form of writing that focuses on looking at work, similarly to the way restaurant reviews are a good archetype for writing illustrative, description-oriented prose.

    IV. Professionalization

    Droitcour sees a political possibility in Yelp. "I read about the Soviet Union in the 1920s and ideas of amateur criticism that emerged then, when people were asking questions about what the goals of Soviet culture should be: to educate everyone and bring them to the same level of bourgeois taste, or let people do what they want and be amateur artists?" If bringing everyone to the same level would result in homoegeneity, Yelp holds a potentially radical political proposition in that it allows everyone to be an amateur critic, to voice ideas and opinions, even if that goes toward writing mainly about lifestyle, restaurants, and so forth. There is a kind of overindulgent, privileged tone to a lot of Yelp reviews, but a large part of the motivation for writing them is social. In their survey of the top thousand reviewers on Amazon, sociologists Trevor Pinch and David Kesler asked what motivates them to write. While the top results were self-expression and enjoyment, a "sense of community" was also key, as well as the idea that it is "clear that altruism in its own right is very prominent," with users citing "educating readers on other topics" and "introducing others to writers they might not otherwise know" as motivating factors.11

    If we socialize via criticism online, could reviews reshuffle social relations? "You can escape politics as a theoretician, or as an art historian, but not as a critic," says theorist Boris Groys in an interview with Brian Dillon. "This politics excludes absolutely the possibility of being representative of the public, in whatever sense you understand that. Instead, it presupposes a certain obligation toward artists, curators and so on. You mention people that you like, and you don't mention the people you don't like."12 What Yelp offers, then, is a way out of this impasse—a possibility of not just being obligated to professional colleagues, but a sense of belonging to a public. But however democratizing and promising this may sound, it is not an alternative to peer-reviewed, remunerated writing. Contributing to Yelp is not professionally motivated—it is, in fact, the ultimate hobbyism, which is exploited by the corporation.

    Thinking about the role of reviews today, Droitcour ties the work of the professional critic to capitalism and the market. "I'm not saying Yelp is going to smash this system, of course not. But it can be seen as modeling a weird mix of exploitative forms but also ones that are destroying these other oppressive regimes." But it also means that the labor relations on Yelp favor deskilled workers as contributors. They promote a writing that relies on a shared versus contingent experience: the critic is no longer an expert coming in to contextualize, but rather, a member of the institution's presumed audience. In the best-case scenario, this feeling of community produces criteria.13 But it also allows for a sloppy, irresponsible style and lack of editorial oversight. So much so that restaurant critic Hanna Raskin wrote Yelp Help, a how-to book about writing online food reviews, explaining that she firmly believes that "our culinary culture would be tremendously enhanced if users of online reviewing sites such as Yelp, Urbanspoon, TripAdvisor and Voice Places had the tools they needed to produce valuable write-ups of their meals."14

    The questions of labor relations and ethics in online criticism seem undetachable. Since reviews on sites like Yelp and Amazon can be anonymous, the writers do not necessarily have a sense of personal culpability for their writing (which leads to the aforementioned attacks on Yelp as the enemy of small businesses), but since they are not paid, there is also no quality control—not only for style, but also for fact checking and plagiarism. Amazon reviews redefine plagiarism in relation to utility—Pinch estimates that about 1% of the reviews on the site are plagiarized (in full or in part)—as one result of said lack of responsibility is that once language is deemed useful for one object of review, it can be shifted to another. Moreover, not paying writers while controlling the content allows sites that feature contributed reviews to arrange information on the site in ways that align with advertising and other corporate needs without heeding to any conditions posed by the writers, since they are not contracted employees. Deskilled, unremunerated labor also means a loss of any control over how one's intellectual property is presented.

    V. Not Dead Yet

    The reason to consider Yelp, Amazon, or similar websites' relationship to criticism is rooted in a historical moment in which users' accounts of an experience or a product began to be framed as reviews. As with many other online concepts that caught on, these contributions were framed as "reviews" early on and came to define our continued use of the term for years to come. (See: Facebook's "like" button.) Amazon's use of the word "reviews" means that our expectation of criticism is now tied to a practice that is only loosely related to the formalized practice of writing reviews for print. In this time of "quiet crisis" of criticism, the standing question is whether Yelp is a solution or a problem.

    Now that Amazon has launched its secondary-market art store (as old fashioned as its approach is, with information like "signature location" and the visualization of the work "in a room," above a modernist-inspired couch, it might quickly catch up to other commercial entities like Art.sy, Artspace, and Paddle 8). Artspace, for example, invests a lot of energy into creating original content about the works on offer, as well as features and other writing around art (sounds familiar, like the early days of Amazon?) If the expansion of discourse is to include formalized and vernacular criticism, maybe we should envision a Rotten Tomatoes–style aggregator for art exhibitions. (The possibilities for a playful title for such a site are endless.)

    In an essay about art criticism today, writer Diedrich Diederichsen describes a dream world of high art, where

    human production is not measured and debated on the grounds of normative ideas and criteria. This dreamworld—in which art exists outside of the rules of cultural industrial production—is not pleasant. It is a hellish, petit-bourgeois dystopia in which people play games without winners and the idea that anything is preferable to anything else is grinned away by zombies who avoid conflict by all means.15

    (Note the deadly language, again.) What Diederichsen points out to is the need to tie contemporary art, or "high art," to the larger cultural production—he uses The Simpsons as an example. I suggest a similar expansion of the practice of writing to include Yelp, rather than The Simpsons. To say that Yelp democratizes criticism is too popular a term—and too problematic a wording when discussing an economy of free labor and the large corporation that benefits from it—but by changing around who is in and who is out of the reviewing game, it does shake up the structure of criticism.

    Are professionally-written art reviews still a resource? The variety of outlets for criticism have made one style of review—the magazine review, published months after the fact—into what one critic has called "the oil painting of art writing."16 Magazines do provide a larger context—by relating to the history of any particular journal, to other reviews therein, and by a close reading of who-writes-where and a mapping of affiliations—and a sense of continuity and commitment to publishing that few websites can compete with. All these factors point to their usefulness as documents for the future, but the real question is, can they still be relevant in shaping contemporary discourse? Yelp, surprisingly enough, provides one answer in its promotion of taste rather than professional affiliation, and in addressing a broad user base. While an online review assumes a kind of shared knowledge—when reading a review of a Michelin-starred restaurant, a reader brings in an idea of the kind of standard these restaurant uphold (white tablecloth, silver, wine lists) as opposed to the review of a pizzeria (large ovens, plastic tables, quick service)—art reviews must make more of an effort to bridge the gap between those who are in the know and the uninformed. The layering of the practice of criticism to include the deskilled online space makes for different expectations from reviews. If, for example, the difference between a nonprofit and a commercial gallery isn't really considered in a review, how can a writer address anyone but the informed, the initiated? I am not calling for us to abandon magazines in favor of unpaid, irregular writing on Yelp. Rather, I am saying that the openness of the approach of some writers on Yelp—and the demands that the proximity to one's audience on Yelp pose to write clearly and directly—could be valuable. Reading permeates into writing. We should become better readers of Yelp and similar outlets; we should start finding influences, examples, and dialogue in new places.



    [1] See Peter de Jonge, "Riding the Wild, Perilous Waters of Amazon.com" in The New York Times (March 14, 1999): http://partners.nytimes.com/library/tech/99/03/biztech/articles/14amazon.html. The article is a now-amusing account of Amazon's early public image, describing Jeff Bezos's "political genius for telling each of his divergent constituencies exactly what they want to hear. To his employees he holds out the rare chance to create from the ground up an entirely new medium that will reshape the world for the better. To his online visitors he offers a kinder and gentler form of commerce, in which a community of customers, armed with the right information, help one another make the purchase that is perfect for each one of them. And to Wall Street he presents a lean, mean virtual juggernaut that, unburdened by such anachronisms as sales clerks, operating hours and inventory, will run circles around any brick-and-mortar dinosaur, whether it be Barnes & Noble or those Arkansas boys from the Wal-Mart Stores." 

    [2] A quick note on terminology: while I use "criticism" interchangeably with "reviewing" because I see the latter as a critical practice, in this essay I consider only one kind of writing—the art magazine or newspaper review of an exhibition, a work, or any other specific project—rather than all work of critics writing on the arts (longer essays, art historical books, and so forth), even though those clearly fall under the rubric of criticism.

    [3] Jennifer Allen, "Death Becomes Them," frieze 114 (April 2008). See https://www.frieze.com/issue/article/death_becomes_them/

    [4] In fact, it progressed pretty quickly from "A Quiet Crisis"—the title of an essay by Raphael Rubinstein (Art in America, Vol. 93, No. 3 [March 2003])—to "death," discussing the demise of the profession in an overstated, playful tone (because clearly, no art critic wants to be buried alive in his or her own writing) as in Allen.

    [5] The latter is a direct quote from Hans den Hartog Jager. See the entire series of contributions in frieze: http://blog.frieze.com/who-do-you-write-for-a-survey-of-art-critics-in-the-media/

    [6] Quoted in "A Quiet Crisis," 2.

    [7] "Roundtable: The Present Conditions of Art Criticism," October 100 (Spring 2002): 216.

    [8] See Garth Hallberg, "Who Is Grady Harp?" in Slate (http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2008/01/who_is_grady_harp.html) and Trevor Pinch and Filip Kesler, "How Aunt Ammy Gets Her Free Lunch: A Study of the Top- Thousand Customer Reviewers at Amazon.com." See here: http://www.freelunch.me

    [9] Yelp has been organizing town hall–style meetings with small business owners across the country in an attempt to allow businesses to voice their concern and convince them of the company's merits. The result seems far from convincing. See, for example, "Yelp gets an earful from L.A. business owners" on the L.A. Times (http://articles.latimes.com/2013/aug/21/business/la-fi-yelp-town-hall-20130822).

    [10] "Swarming a Book Online," http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/21/business/a-casualty-on-the-battlefield-of-amazons-partisan-book-reviews.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&

    [11] Pinch and Kesler, "How Aunt Ammy Gets Her Free Lunch."

    [12] Brian Dillon and Boris Groys, "Who Do You Think You're Talking To," frieze 121 (March 2009). See https://www.frieze.com/issue/article/who_do_you_think_youre_talking_to/

    [13] I thought this was a very interesting point made by George Baker during the October roundtable cited above:"I would like to hear more about the question of criteria, about criteria "after quality," not just from David but from James and Helen—from a younger generation that has not had as much public discourse to develop what their criteria are. My criteria are not single or unified. Sometimes they are formal and sometimes political. They are deeply reactive, in two senses: reactive to a transformed field of artistic practice that it is still the task of the critic to attempt to delineate, but also reactive to the difficult situation in which the critic and the artist now operate, where certain types of work and certain types of aspirations are judged by many as cashiered, over, finished. So one criterion that is really important for me perhaps only comes into view as a criterion at all in the current situation, as a function that I think criticism today has to hold onto ever more tightly. Namely, to bring into public discourse practices that are being silenced." See "Roundtable: The Present Conditions of Art Criticism," 210.

    [14] See Hanna Raskin's blog post about the book in L.A. Weekly, "9 Ways Not to Make an Ass of Yourself as a Food Critics," here: http://blogs.laweekly.com/squidink/2013/07/yelp_help_hanna_raskin.php

    [15] Diedrich Diederichsen, "Judgement, Objecthood, Temporality," in Judgement and Contemporary Art Criticism, 83.

    [16] "The review is by now the most musty of master forms, the oil painting of art writing," Tirdad Zolghadr, "Worse than Kenosis" in Jeff Khonsary and Melanie O'Brian, Judgement and Contemporary Art Criticism (Vancouver: ArtSpeak/Fillip Editions, 2010), 15.


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    Wangechi Mutu, A'gave you (2008). Mixed media collage on mylar, 93" x 54".

    The violent and ambiguous encounter depicted in A'gave you (2008) encapsulates the force and intent of Wangechi Mutu's collages, the highlight of her ongoing retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum. A blue, thick-rooted, and out-sized version of the New World monocot bends to a violated female pseudo-cyborg. Her eyes, cheap black speckled pearls, are replicated in the plant's ovary. The kneeling figure's torso, head, and left arm are thrown back in disinterested submission; her right arm is lost to perspective and/or trauma. Gold sparkle and blood explodes from her chest as she births, or pisses, a long, fat strand of bright yellow-orange which forms a new root-system beneath both her and the plant.

    Mutu's strangely lucid mixed-media mylar pieces contort the sexualization of black women in consumer society into glittering, gorgeous grotesques. The twin pieces 100 Lavish Months of Bushwhack (2004) and Misguided Little Unforgivable Hierarchies (2005) feature female figures hobbled with hippo hands, faces stitched together from pornographic images, golden skin, and exploding motorcycle high-heels. They also depict differing levels of power among multiple exploited figures. The End of Eating Everything (2013), Mutu's first foray into animation, features the head of Santigold gnashing a gyring flock of black birds with bloody chompers. Slowly, the plane Santigold exists on expands to reveal that her face leads a massive she-planetoid, comprising writhing limbs and embedded, useless machinery, powered by her/its own gaseous effluent. The piece is truly disconcerting and accentuates Mutu's often overlooked theme of ecological disaster.

    Wangechi Mutu, The End of Eating Everything (2013).

    Mutu's sketchbooks, some of which stretch back as far as her undergrad years at Cooper Union, are also on view; one of the displayed pages reads: "in Your mind you envision Yourself a butterfly But you still find yourself on your knees." Her figures, assembled commodifications only human enough to be complicit in their own subjugation, could be seen as an expansion of this phrase: spiky hope born of spangly misery. Sometimes this is made too obvious. Yo Mama (2003) is a kind of non-portrait of Nigerian politician and human-rights activist Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti vanquishing a serpent. This Mutuization of the political/social mural has little of the impact of her less triumphal pieces. 

     

    Wangechi Mutu, Yo Mama (2003) Ink, mica flakes, pressure-sensitive synthetic polymer sheeting, cut-and-pasted printed paper, painted paper, and synthetic polymer paint on paper. 59 1/8 x 85 inches

    In a 2010 interview with Daily Serving, Mutu stated she attempts to use "the aesthetic of rejection, or poverty, or wretchedness as a tool to talk about things that are transcendent or hopeful..." The encounter depicted in A'gave you is both transcendent and non-consensual, and the plant's intentions are inhuman, unknown. The warrened figure can still bring forth the new, strange, and beautiful, but only through further violence against the self.  

    The curatorial text accompanying A'gave you connects Mutu's work to Afrofuturism, "an aesthetic that uses the imaginative strategies of science fiction to envision alternate realities for Africa and people of African descent." When looking at a work like Mutu's A'gave you with this concept in mind, the implication is that the strange and violent birthing process she depicts suggests a new type of life, a radically different and therefore potentially liberated future. But in addition to opening up such readings, thinking about Mutu in relation to Afrofuturism also helps to situate the work in relation to other practitioners.

    The term "Afrofuturism" was coined by Mark Dery in his 1992 essay "Black to the Future," which asked why so few African-Americans have created SF when they are "in a very real sense, the descendants of alien abductees," whose bodies are all too often impacted by the tech of "branding, forced sterilization, the Tuskegee experiment, or tasers." Dery posed the question, "Can a community whose past has been deliberately rubbed out, and whose energies have subsequently been consumed by the search for legible traces of its history, imagine possible futures?" Dery's 1992 answer was that one had to look outside the fiercely protected boundaries of the SF genre to find examples of this. Within SF proper, Afrofuturism's scope was, until recently, limited to a small number of practitioners. Dery could only name four African-American SF authors, including Octavia E. Butler and Samuel R. Delany, whose 1998 essay "Racism and Science Fiction" enumerates still relevant intra-genre problems. But examples of Afrofuturism can be found in disparate snatches from literature, popular music, and visual art: Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, Romare Bearden's collage work, the "pie-eyed, snaggletoothed robot" in Jean-Michel Basquiat's painting Molasses, and the various output of Jimi Hendrix, George Clinton, Sun Ra, and Herbie Hancock.

    Over the past two decades, Afrofuturist discourse has expanded, and Ytasha L. Womack, author of this year's primer Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture, has a much broader and deeper field to draw from. Authors such as Nnedi Okorafor and N. K. Jemisin explicitly write SF. Womack places Octavia E. Butler as one of the sides of her "Giza-like pyramid" of Afrofuturism, emphasizing her "central feminine narratives" as integral. DJ Spooky, Erykah Badu, and Grace Jones are amongst the plethora of cited musicians. A self-conscious and passionate fanbase has developed via Listservs, cosplay, and sites such as BlackScienceFiction.com. Womack posits contemporary Afrofuturism as challenging the nature of black art as only "washed in fatalism, southern edicts, or urbanized reality." Instead, Afrofuturism "inverts reality," offering a myriad of wormholes into alternate histories through which futures unbounded by trauma can be realized. 

    Kara Walker, Burning African Village Play Set with Big House and Lynching (2006). Painted laser-cut steel.

    Just outside the entrance to the retrospective is a small pice by Kara Walker, Burning African Village Play Set with Big House and Lynching (2006). Black steel silhouettes in the style of Victorian paper panoramas assemble a confusion of violence and rape; even the setting, Africa or the antebellum South, is uncertain. Walker's method of heightening historical atrocity creates what Hari Kunzru recently referred to as an "endless carnival of cruelty that seems to be taking place in a sort of cultural Never-Neverland, somewhere between Gone With The Wind and hell." Walker and Mutu both produce ravaged, if dissimilar, figures. The latter's bodies have been invaded and taken over by color and texture, the former's utterly reduced to black shadow; all have been hyper-sexualized, though Walker's slaves have engorged genitals, not motorcycle feet.

    Walker's statement that "a black subject in the present tense is a container for specific pathologies from the past" shows her intent: not to satirize slavery, but to focus only on the racist theories and caricatures invented to justify it, without offering any exit narrative. Womack mentions Walker only once in Afrofuturism, focusing on the "infamous nature" of her "harshly criticized work." It would be a misrepresentation to say Womack disapproves of Walker's approach, but it is certainly not the optimistic, transformative work which Womack wishes to emphasize. Mutu, who strangely goes without mention in Womack's book, exists somewhere between these two polarities. Her depictions of suffering and domination are subverted by the violent ecstasy of their imagining and her gestures toward alternate, unknown modes of life.  

    Science fiction necessarily speaks to the time of its creation, the author interpreting through distortion. This is exactly what Mutu accomplishes: her grotesques are our present. 




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  • 11/18/13--09:05: 3 Videos by Hamishi Farah
  • Surfers' Paradise was an artist residency and exhibition that took place in Melbourne from 1–10 November. Fifteen Australian artists created, documented, and uploaded artworks to the internet over the course of the event. Following are works contributed to the project by Hamishi Farah (who seems to go by first name only); the full selection of works can be seen on the project's Tumblr catalog.

     

    Hamishi Farah, Balance (2013).

    Hamishi Farah, Multi Culture (2013).

    Hamishi Farah, Brownness (2013).

     


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    Left: AOL, about the time the internet and I first met. (Remember that sonorous modem music? The sound of the future!) Right: AOL now (yes, it's still there). With lotsa "headline news" on household health hazards, amazing pet stories, and shocking-yet-true dramatic personal episodes of total nobodies.

     

    I.

    I should probably start with a brief, unflattering jaunt down memory lane—unflattering mostly to my old college buddy, the internet. See, I came of age as a graphic designer in the early 2000s, when the internet was a vastly different place—virtually (heh, virtually) unrecognizable. I'd only ever had an AOL email account. I'd never sent a text. MySpace hadn't even dethroned Friendster yet as king of social media (a term no one had ever heard), Facebook was still just a glint in young Zuck's eye, Twitter was a looong way off, and a camera phone was the must-have device du jour (bonus points if yours didn't have a little antenna you pulled out to get reception).

    That is, until the first-generation iPod dropped. Right on the heels of 9/11—which led everyone to predict that Apple's sexy little white music box (amazingly the size of our undergrad packs of Camel Lights) was doomed to fail, in the ensuing market slump. Of course it turned out that there was no stopping Steve Jobs, who was still healthy, feisty, and widely regarded by me and my school chums as our Design God. Apple could do no wrong as far as we were concerned—and the iPhone was still six years out. But that beautiful first-gen iPod didn't really interact with its unfortunate-looking cousin, the internet. Ol' internet was, for the most part, an aesthetic dump: 256 colors. No custom fonts. No CSS styling or HTML5 gewgaws. The best-looking sites featured those Flash-animated splash pages with terrible MIDI-loop sound—all a huge, fussy annoyance, even then.

    You're not gonna believe me if you weren't there, but the biggest, ugliest internet culprit of all back then was none other than Google. (Yes, children, almighty Google.) For us early-2000s design kids, Google was a joke and an anachronism. It was the big busted elephant in the room, because we all still used it religiously anyway, despite its face that only a coder could love. How could something so repulsive, so glaringly un-designed, be so useful? So powerful? So inevitable? Google 1.0 (or whatever it was) went against everything we were being taught about the importance and certain ascendance of beautifully crafted design solutions. And our 40- to 50-something graphic design professors were of little help; they sure didn't have much of an answer when we pressed them on the Google paradox. Every design student's dream back then was to "fix" Google. To use an acceptable typeface, to ditch the kiddy color combo, the bubbled-out effect and the nasty drop shadow, and get with the program that Jobs & Co. were busy championing. 

    Left: Shield your eyes! Google circa 1998, when I was typing in "art/design colleges NYC," then clicking "I'm feeling lucky." Right: Duh. Today's pared-down, souped-up Google.

    This digital-design crisis was all going down right after that other doomed craze popped—when every graphic designer was like, "Instead of making this into a book, let's make it into a CD-ROM!" Well. Thank the Lord I didn't go into CD-ROM design as a way to get ahead.

    So, that's what was up around the middle of my sophomore year, when I had to decide whether to specialize in straining to create things of beauty onscreen, venturing down the graphic design department's "Digital Track," or whether I'd stick with their traditional Communication Design curriculum. (Ha!—"traditional communication." If I only knew then what I know now—would I have taken that Digital robo-route? Or run the other way, screaming?)

    In any case, given how the look of the internet (not to mention my trusty flip phone's interface) depressed me so, I spent the next two-and-a-half years learning to design books, posters, logos, magazines, and the like. (My one junior-year elective in Web Design had me banging my forehead against the keyboard repeatedly. Trying to write code to create things I could make by hand in a fraction of the time felt like figure drawing with a joystick controlling a robot arm that's holding my charcoal. No, thank you.)

    Left: Okay, who remembers the slow agony of texting on a numeric keypad, before every phone in the industrialized world had the full QWERTY experience? Minds were blown when we started using T9, which predicted our thoughts and we no longer had to key in 4-4-3-3-9-9-9 just to say "hey." Right: The first glimpse most of us got of the earth-shattering iPhone.

     

    II.

    Flash forward ten quick years. And just look at the internet now (I guess you are, if you're reading this)—at how far that undergraduate ugly duckling has come! It's like he snuck up from behind and— Oh my God, he's gorgeous! (Really, you guys: His looks are seriously freaking me out.) When did this happen?

    Well, the iPhone was a pretty huge leap for the digital-design underdog. Going from that ubiquitous Nokia/Samsung flip-phone icon menu to the first iOS skeuomorphic interface—where the notepad looked like a real yellow legal pad, the calendar had those darling ripped-paper edges, and the compass looked like it was off an old ship—was like Dylan going electric (or what I imagine that earlier moment of awesome awakening to have been). And now that we've all got HD retina displays on all our devices, that early photo-realistic interface trend has topped out and—with the recent release of iOS 7—the industry's moving toward a beautifully pure graphic sensibility of crisp iconography. (Think: the YouTube app icon going from a little old-timey television to a clean white-on-red "play" button. Or Windows 7's interface of brightly colored cascading squares of information.) To say nothing of the elegant site designs now possible with the killer combo of CSS, JavaScript, HTML5, custom Web fonts, and millions of colors—no longer shackled by the tyranny of hexcode. In ten short years, digital's gone from unbearably clunky to jaw-droppingly cool. 

    Meanwhile, back at the ranch: here I am, still designing books, magazines, business cards, and newspapers (newspapers!) for a living. (Do you see where I'm going with this?) I look around at print design these days, and—compared with what they're up to in digital land—can't help feeling like we've fallen massively behind, aesthetically speaking: The unfortunate "refresh" of Paul Rand's elegant UPS logo in 1993 to a bloated, chunky shield (with that fugly glint of highlight, no less!) Or the death of Massimo Vignelli's timeless American Airlines logo earlier this year in favor of that hip slash-y thing they're using now. And don't even get me started on the busier-is-better logos of America's sports teams. Every day it seems there's another distinctive logo-mark being dumbed down. Put through the sausage grinder to come out the other end as a bland Helvetica-style type-in: just straight-up spelled-out company names in some friendly-looking, "approachable" rounded-off sans serif in a splashy color, that any untrained eye can plunk down and copy-paste as needed. (See below, exhibit A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I)

    Logo evolution by grapheine.com/blog

    And oh, magazine covers: Shall I just accept that your former glory is lost forever?

    Here's one theory behind all this: The print design industry becomes more and more sickly and anemic as the rocket-fueled web siphons off all the best and brightest design talent. No?

    There's this beautifully inspiring example from another paradigm shift, articulated by Oscar Tuazon in his contribution to castillo/corrales' Social Life of the Book series, "Making Books" (2011). Tuazon wrote, "Painting started to get really interesting at about the time photography came along." So—why has the opposite been true with print design, in the age of the internet? Sure, I come across new and beautiful print pieces now and then. But for the most part it's generally bringing me down. Nothing as magical going on, I'm afraid, as the dawn of Modern Art, when photography took over the heavy lifting of image-making, and painting was free to soar. Instead, what we have is a desperate race to the bottom.

    And not only is print, on the whole, rather uninspiring these days. I'm also worried to death that my means of making a living might very well evaporate in the next six months or five years or by the time I hit forty, when I'll finally have to break down and try to land a job as a barista.

     

    III.

    So—duh—if I really feel this way, constantly looking over my shoulder these days, why not just hop off my sinking loser-ship and head on over to the digital cool kids' table? If I'm feeling so utterly left behind, having such severe anxiety about that missed college-age fork in the road, it's not too late to turn back. Right?

    Well, to be fair, this condition does come and go. Some days, I'm positively over the moon about what I do for a living. Like when I'm exhibiting alongside other print creatives at the New York Art Book Fair. Or when the first print proofs of something I designed arrive back from the bindery. But other days—like when a client has ordered up a ninth revision of a cover I'm working on, with no end in sight—it feels like I'm rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Or when I see the amazing things the New York Times is up to with dynamic online storytelling, using integrated multimedia and parallax scrolling, I feel like I'm just diddling and fussing over my print layouts while Rome burns.

    The other thing that's stopping me, besides this waffling back-and-forth, is that I kind of worry that it might be too late for me to "go digital." (I mean, Dylan was only twenty-four when he made his seismic shift—a totally acceptable age for reinvention.) Maybe—maybe—I could get over my revulsion to code if I just force myself to stomach it long enough. (Like getting over blood-squeamishness in nursing school?) But even if I bite the bullet and start signing up for continuing-ed classes or get online-certified in CSS and HTML and JavaScript and WordPress and whatever else, will I really be able to compete with all the twenty-somethings out there, throwing themselves at Silicon Valley VCs like all the single ladies after that dude from Twilight—all dying to be the next Hottest App Out?

    Or is the answer that I'm really just a Luddite? 

     

    IV.

    The thing is, I may still work mostly in print, but I really do feel like one of those digital creatures—you know, "platform agnostic," "digital native," all that—in just about every other aspect of my life. (Maybe why I'm not such a gung ho spokesman for print's vitality?) When I'm honest with myself about my own media consumption patterns—how I mostly get my fix of news, art, movies, humor, recipes, gossip, music, et cetera, et cetera—they're almost all coming at me through my laptop at home, my desktop at work, and my phone everywhere in between.

    And not just my enjoyment-media and culture-bonbons—my multiple screens are also the portal through which I file my taxes, check the weather, schedule a dentist appointment, pay my gas and electric and cell phone bills, figure out if I qualify for health insurance, procrastinate, hate on Ticketmaster, skip over other people's toddler photos, try to land cheap airfare, get driving directions to that Pennsylvania wedding, and yes, sometimes look at porn. True, there's so much that's visually impressive about the internet these days. But there's also so much interaction with it that is utterly mundane. The screen that used to be such a treat—a site for pleasure and for toying around—I now associate primarily with work and boredom. What used to be a happy, endlessly surprising and engaging place is now where I go to order Chinese food or deal with my credit card company. So, now, when I think about getting creative, the screen is definitely not the place I wanna go to have my fun.

    In fact, in my personal life these days, I seem to be primarily doing battle against the internet: trying to keep it at bay so I can get some quality creative brain-work done. Or trying to be at least a little less dependent on my smartphone than on oxygen. Or seeing if I can spend an entire Saturday without booting up a single screen. Come to think of it—is my digital-design anxiety all that different from my personal struggle against the digital tsunami? Of whether or not to commit Facebook suicide? Being a little bit disgusted with myself by how much I crave all those little jolts of internet affirmation? (Voice in my head: "This new post of cat doing something stupid or this pic of my beautiful brunch will surely surpass my previous record of fifty-three likes, nine comments, and twelve re-posts for that snarky quip about the New York Times site being temporarily down. Oh, please, please, please." So pathetic.)

    Back to business: I've tried, recently, to man-up and get serious about making the digital switch—bleary-eyed nights spent suffering through Code Academy or Coursera lessons on front-end development—and it's about as enjoyable as TurboTax with a cold. Just 'cause I work in print media doesn't mean I'm not staring at a screen all day, every day in my cubicle, eyes burning by the time I look up for my ritual three p.m. coffee. The last thing I wanna do when I finally get home and make time for my own creative pursuits is open up my laptop for a little more screen time. It seems, for all my internet lust, my pleasure zone has shifted back to analog: my previous college amour.

    Which is maybe why—for all my career and creative digital anxiety—I can't bring myself to embrace the land of screens and code. On the one hand, the internet has become this intoxicating, necessary, sometimes beautiful and magical place. But still, when I want to get creative (aka have fun), I run the other direction from any and all screens.

    (Am I just talking out of both sides of my mouth? Or—more likely—just overthinking myself into a neurotic knot?)

     

    V.

    Okay, confession: I'm actually writing this on an old manual typewriter. (Ha! What do you think of that?) Yup—this past summer I bought this sweet Olivetti off Craigslist (which has amazingly retained the look of that old Google 1.0 we so disdained in college). I took my new baby to a typewriter repair shop (yes, they still exist) for new ribbon and a tune-up. And here I go, happily working at the cutting edge of the nineteenth century.

    What does it mean that I prefer the clickety-clack of my heavy, oily, dusty, smelly, unconnected typewriting machine, even when I have an iPad sitting, breathing, silently waiting, alive, right next to me and my typewriter on my desk right now? 

    How dumb is that? I sometimes scold myself. Like right now. Why are you writing an article for an "online journal of art and technology"—on a typewriter? Well, because it's fun, I argue back to myself. And I like the clickety-clacking sound of it. Pushing the paper roller-thing back after the bell dings at the end of each line (which, truth be told, I sometimes mistake for a new text message coming in).

    But why, self? What is this impulse that cherishes antiquated analog forms when I have a shiny black iPhone 5 and a sleek chrome fifteen-inch MacBook Pro and even an iPad all turned on, sitting, waiting, breathing, alive—right here beside me and my clunky unconnected typewriting machine, on my desk? I know full well the advantages of working onscreen instead of the page. You don't need to tell me that that's where the money and the power and the glory are in graphic design, for ever and ever. I know all of that. But somehow. Still. I prefer to sit here, clacking away. While Rome burns.

    I wonder: is this fraught relationship going to carry on and consume me for the rest of my (hopefully long) creative life?

    You know—as I'm writing this, I really do feel like I'm painting the internet as some crazy lover I've been carrying on this tumultuous relationship with, ever since college. We had our brief drunken fling, then broke it off and went our separate ways. But now he's back in town, taking over my turf, and I keep running into him everywhere. (I haven't told him this, but I secretly love what he's done with his hair! And that wardrobe? Mmm.) Plus, I'm totally envious of his new job and all his über-hip friends. But when we end up talking one-on-one at a party or the few times we've sloppily hooked up, the morning after I'm sure we're really not right for each other. Yet still—for whatever reason—I go on cyber-stalking him. And being totally smitten. And wondering if maybe, just maybe, one day…

    Come to think of it, perhaps that's not far off? Yeah—he's this mega-powerful, mega-successful, mega-cool older (younger?) lover I can't ever quite bring myself to quit for good. Or else surrender to utterly and completely? So, we keep it up—he always indifferent to my wild fits of passion—as we have been doing, these dozen years or so. Our sloppy, love/hate, "it's complicated" affair.

    Whew, that feels better.

    So, now that I've got a handle on it, does that mean I'm gonna stand up from my dusty oily typewriter and run out into the streets, declaring my unrequited internet love? Then buckle down and take clear and deliberate steps toward embracing Monsieur Internet, whole hog?

    Um… Not really, I'm afraid. No. Me and the internet—that's not really our thing. I think it may be better to keep things between us a little bit messy. And a whole-lot interesting.


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