Articles on this Page
- 01/07/14--08:40: _Google Glass, The C...
- 01/09/14--07:29: _Artist Profile: Jac...
- 01/16/14--08:30: _Feb. 1: Computers o...
- 01/17/14--06:39: _You are Like A Sexy...
- 01/20/14--07:30: _Virtual Bodies and ...
- 01/21/14--06:47: _Instagram: Beyond
- 01/22/14--07:30: _Continuous Partial ...
- 01/23/14--07:30: _Ikarie XB-1 and the...
- 01/23/14--09:08: _Feb 22: This is the...
- 01/24/14--08:25: _From the Cooper Bar...
- 01/27/14--08:00: _Dragan Espenschied ...
- 01/28/14--07:30: _Land Art of the Ant...
- 01/29/14--08:26: _Why You Should Not ...
- 01/30/14--07:30: _Discover More Time ...
- 01/30/14--08:00: _You Know We're Livi...
- 01/31/14--08:00: _Artist Profile: Mor...
- 10/29/13--07:35: _Lingering Patience
- 02/03/14--08:37: _I'll Send an OS to ...
- 02/04/14--07:30: _The Possibilities a...
- 02/05/14--08:13: _On Affectionate Sab...
- 01/07/14--08:40: Google Glass, The Corporate Gaze and Mine
- 01/09/14--07:29: Artist Profile: Jacolby Satterwhite
- 01/16/14--08:30: Feb. 1: Computers on Law & Order
- 01/17/14--06:39: You are Like A Sexy Sphinx: Lindsay Lawson on loving spam
- 01/20/14--07:30: Virtual Bodies and Empty Signifiers: On Fred Parke and Miley Cyrus
- Write and debug your animation programs
- Create the data files to drive the animation
- Test both as much as possible (without actually seeing any animation output)
- Run the programs to produce the animation images on 35mm cine film
- Send the film to Los Angeles because no place in Salt Lake could process it
- Wait about one week…
- Get the processed 35mm negative cine film back
- Have a 16mm "timed" print of the film made because we didn't have access to a 35mm projector
- Wait several more days…
- View the 16mm film and see what worked and what didn't
- Loop back to step 1."
- 01/21/14--06:47: Instagram: Beyond
- 01/22/14--07:30: Continuous Partial Listening: Holly Herndon in Conversation
- 01/23/14--07:30: Ikarie XB-1 and the Socialist Sci-Fi Space Ship
- 01/23/14--09:08: Feb 22: This is the ENDD, a Forum on the E-Cigarette
- Artists Mathew Dryhurst& Brian Rogers present "A Treatise on Efficacy", a lecture performance that delves into the history of the electronic cigarette, from its origins with Chinese pharmacist Hon Lik, the technology's maturation through Dutch company Janty, and the controversial role of Chinese companies like Joyetech and Dekang in its wider adoption and distribution.
- As municipal governments race to legislate the act of vaping—not least New York City with its public ban—health education professional C.A.B. Fredericks assesses the risks associated with e-cigarettes, and the technology’s fractious reception in his field.
- Art critic (and Rhizome contributing editor) Orit Gat addresses the vape shop experience, by way of the French e-clopinette, and its relationship to The Apple Store.
- Re-thinking psychological drives after the cigarette, Tracy Jeanne Rosenthal presents a new performance from the perspective of a descendant of Sigmund Freud, father of psychoanalysis, and his nephew Edward Bernays, pioneer of public relations who famously sold women on the virtues of smoking.
- Reading the physicality of the cigarette and its smoke against the wispy white of the vaporizer, interdisciplinary artist Karthik Pandian initiates a video intervention, a recreation of a billowing 1980 interview of Jean-Luc Godard on The Dick Cavett Show.
- Dutch artists/trend-forecasters Pinar & Viola, long interested in vaping’s future, create an exhibition for Rhizome’s front page: a customizable, interactive smoking room.
- A collection of artists and musicians like Aaron David Ross (Gatekeeper), Holly Herndon, Alex Gvojic, and others release the #VapeCru Mix Tape, an attempt to form a new style of "music to vape to." The mix will be available online, and presented live at the program after-party at Beverly’s, 21 Essex St New York, NY 10002.
- 01/27/14--08:00: Dragan Espenschied to Lead Rhizome's Digital Conservation Program
- 01/28/14--07:30: Land Art of the Anthropocene
- 01/29/14--08:26: Why You Should Not Buy This Painting (So That Michael Connor Can)
- 01/30/14--07:30: Discover More Time To Do What You Love
- 01/31/14--08:00: Artist Profile: Morehshin Allahyari
- 10/29/13--07:35: Lingering Patience
- 02/04/14--07:30: The Possibilities and Pitfalls of the Video Game Exhibition
Molly Crabapple via Instagram
When you buy Google Glass, you are not a consumer. You are an Explorer.
Everything about Glass affirms your specialness. The Swedish modern showroom, where a hot guy tweaks Glass’s nose grips just for your face. The card that comes with Glass, calling you an "adventurer," a "founder." The fact that you must be invited to purchase your pair, since there are only 8,000 Google Glasses in the world.
When you wear Glass, you and Google are a team.
But explorers are not neutral. They are the shock troops of empire. The lands explorers traverse are later conquered by armies, their sacred objects melted down for gold. Glass Explorers continue the corporation's conquest of reality.
In December I did an art project called Glass Gaze. Wearing a pair of Google Glass that had been hacked by the journalist Tim Pool to live-stream, I drew my friend the porn star and aerialist Stoya. The interwebs could see what I saw as I made art. The model. The paper. The ink. The whole 19th-century practice of life drawing commodified and separated from me. I once tweeted, "Google Glass lets the government see the world from my perspective." With Glass Gaze, I was giving the network the same opportunity.
Gaze is a funny thing. Hang out in feminist circles and you hear the term "male gaze." I have no academic background, so I used the phrase long before I knew its correct definition. I guessed it meant the rapacious, objectifying eye-fuck that turned women into pleasing lumps of fat. Men's eyes have felt like a threat since I was 12, at which age guys started hollering at me that they'd really like to stick their tongue into my ass. Later a friend pointed me to the proper definition. She suggested that I read Laura Mulvey's essays on Hollywood. Mulvey theorized that the male gaze was the ultimate audience for movies and that—in the world conjured up and sold to us by Hollywood—female actors were just objects to be seen.
If my woman's body made me the object of the male gaze, my artist's brain compelled me to look back.
Glass Gaze on the front page of rhizome.org on December 11, 2013
Because most women have spent most of history pregnant, nursing, burying miscarriages, and/or taking care of wealthier women's kids, most "great" Western artists have been men. The male gaze is all mixed up with the gaze of an artist. When women started making art en masse, we were thought to see differently. Judy Chicago's Dinner Party, which reduced 39 oft perverse and argumentative geniuses to vagina-shaped plates, feels more trivializing than any odalisque. The odalisque had some style to her. The Dinner Party guests, bound together in a sisterhood imposed in retrospect, became as interchangeable as Spice Girls.
I don't buy that women see differently. Female, male, genderqueer—artists are objectifiers. We take flesh and make it ink.
For Glass Gaze, I was inspired by Degas's ballerinas. Degas himself was a classic creepster, a client of sex workers whose venereal disease fueled an icy misogyny. A posh man in suits, he had a voyeuristic fetish for working-class women: laundresses and ballerinas, breaking their backs for a buck, often supplementing their income with sex work. Degas just watched.
Stripped of context, Degas's pastels are pretty. Look at that cute little ballerina, the tour guide says, missing the steel in her eyes. The little ballerina is practically a street kid, tough and clever, who will fight herself bloody for a place in the world. Degas caught her defiance. A hundred years later, we don’t notice.
I used to be a professional naked girl. The women I most love to draw are or were professional naked girls. They have that same cleverness and steel.
Stoya is one of the world's most famous porn stars, a punk-rock smartass with a mathematically perfect face who tweets about menstruation and picking her nose. Like Degas's dancers, she grew up training to be a ballerina and now performs aerial lyra. All athletes are consummate self-objectifiers, artists of their own flesh.
Stoya's also my friend. When you get shit-faced and denounce the world with someone, you might make an object out of them, but you try and draw their snarky smile.
In the networked world, we are all sharecroppers for Google. We take our deepest selves and turn them into light on glass cables, to be sold as marketing data or sandwiched between ads. Google Glass takes this further. With it, the act of looking can be separated from the looker. Eye speed can be tracked. Gaze can be owned. The consumer becomes the consumed. For now, Google Glass is a dorky headset so first-generation that it doesn't recognize voices. You could walk up to a friend wearing Glass and, as a prank, whisper, "Image Search: Goatse." But it will not always look like this. Glass and the sleeker wearables that will follow are the next step down the path started by smartphones: they are private, trackable, monetizable distraction engines that you need never take off.
Drawing with Glass is unnatural. During Glass Gaze, I could see, floating in front of the real world, its tiny replica on-screen. And I wanted to look at the screen. Not real Stoya, lifting her leg into a perfect arabesque. But tiny ghost Stoya. Screens are meant to be addictive, so I found myself addicted to that glowing cube. I was caught between focusing on the physical girl, the physical paper and the show that was being streamed through my eyes.
Drawings of Stoya produced during Glass Gaze
The internet is made of tubes. Through those tubes runs everything, including the spaces where we try to express our deepest selves. But the things we once called souls are not legible to algorithms. The network can see what dress we buy, what porn we masturbate to, but not how we wake up at night, gasping for fear of death.
The network quantifies eyeballs. It can't see what's behind the eyes.
But the line between interior and exterior is never clear. Glass Gaze lasted an hour. My iPhone is glued to my hand. The iPhone can't see inside me, but it's changed my insides. It has made me more confident in strange cities—I won't be lost. It puts the sum total of human knowledge in my palm. It has made me more distracted, more connected, more obsessed with pellets of affection from those I love.
The network alters you in ways that make you more legible to the network. But maybe there are some things it still can't get.
After Glass Gaze, I sat on the fire escape with the journalist Natasha Lennard. She was smoking, wearing kneesocks and a fur coat, speaking with that Cambridge-educated voice. She asked me my thoughts on the project.
She looked so beautiful there, in that borrowed fur, that it was the sort of moment you would Instagram to show how sweet your life got. But instead I saved it against the inside of my eyelids.
"It's a delusion, the idea that you can see through someone else's eyes," Natasha told me. "In reality, the best you can do is look over their shoulder."
She was right. I wanted Glass Gaze to give people the experience of making art with me. But they saw only motions. What made the art art was what Glass Gaze missed.
This article and Glass Glaze were commissioned in partnership with Creative Time Reports.
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.
Still image from The Country Ball 1989–2012 (2012)
Kei Kreutler: Your video The Country Ball 1989–2012 incorporates traces of your mother's drawings in a computer-generated landscape, accompanied by footage from one of your family's cookouts in the 80s. The family video has a frenetic energy, which infects the piece. There is a moment, however, in which the work seems to slow down—when tracings of figures from your mother's drawings leave the din of the family video behind—that I found very interesting. It felt similar to that sensation of leaving a show, leaving a mass of huddled bodies, where it’s too loud but you don't notice until you leave, your ears ringing slightly. 3D animation seems to incorporate these changes in rhythm and narrative particularly well, so I was wondering how it influences the pacing, the loose narrative points, of your works.
Jacolby Satterwhite: The visual pace in my videos varies based on what motif or idea I am trying to assert. In Country Ball, I wanted to present a beginning, middle, that gradates. It begins with deadpan repetitive orchestra, full of folly and recreation, and a very slow camera. It evolves and collapses into an apocalyptic display of objectum-sexuality, where cumshots spew out of towering cakes, dance rituals erect trees, and ATM machines inseminate a middle class family into a giant. The camera in those scenes tends to be more erratic. I have a Walt Disney sensibility when it comes to object-perversion, animism, and anthropomorphism.
Jacolby Satterwhite, Reifying Desire 5 (2013)
KK: Speaking of object-perversion: the Reifying Desire project takes your mother's drawings as starting points for a series of six videos in which you perform in front of chroma-keyed 3D animations. One of the videos in the series, shown as part of "The Matriarch's Rhapsody" exhibition at Monya Rowe Gallery, Reifying Desire 5, incorporates your mother’s drawing Pussy Power, which provides written instructions for the elimination of feminine odor. What role do you think these forms and regimens of self-care—physically intimate and yet more or less culturally proscribed—play in your work, and how do they affect us?
JS: One thing I often cite as one of my subconscious platforms of inspiration is the concept of body trauma, disease, and metamorphosis of form as the consequence of a sexual act. I pick objects to work with and set up surrealist scenarios that will make their use necessary. The usage of the pussy power bottle felt necessary because I was using the Picasso painting Les Demoiselles d'Avignon as the conceptual departure point. I asked myself: what would prostitutes in a bathhouse need to begin their daily ritual? "For Pussy Power, Pour bubble bath into the bathtub into the water and soak for a while to turn the smell of pussy off." I think the idea of self-care provides a vehicle for continuity. When something's preserved it can move onward to the next stage.
Works on view in "The Matriarch's Rhapsody" exhibition at Monya Rowe Gallery in January 2013
KK: In Sara Ahmed's Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others, she writes extensively on "inherited proximities" of the body and how "spaces acquire the shape of the bodies that inhabit them." With the Reifying Desire project at large, what do you see being brought into being with these works? What are the spaces you create in them, and what, if anything, is reified in them? Finally, what role do contemporary animation technologies play in the creation of these spaces?
JS: Contemporary animation technologies have an infinite range of possibilities, therefore my interest in reification or making abstraction concrete stems from having access to an unlimited terrain of visual possibility. The visual restraint lies within my body of archives ranging from collected movements by myself and other performers, my mother’s drawings, and my stock photos collected from the internet. Merging them together into a dense crystal of information results in the reification of process, a concrete time-based visual system bleeding formal, philosophical, and political ideas.
KK: There’s Walt Disney, Picasso, and of course your mother's drawings—I'm curious as to your other influences, whether animators, painters, family, or others outside of traditional art history.
JS: Janet Jackson was the first pop star I discovered when I was a baby, and I watched her video anthology on VHS tape every day when I got home from school. I always hoped I'd be able to make a serial body of work like hers that included surrealism and dance. Music videos (I.e. Deee Lite, Björk, Janet, Chemical Brothers, Prodigy, Michael Jackson, Madonna, etc.) structured my aesthetic, as well as gaming; I owned every console from Game Gear, Sega Genesis, SNES, 32X, Nintendo 64, Sega Saturn, Sony Playstation, and it was quite an escapist zone for me. I went to Miami Basel last week, and when I went swimming at the beach, the only thing my memory could register was Wave Race 64 on Nintendo 64. Lately I've been thinking of Beyonce's B'Day Anthology Video Album, Madonna's Erotica and Bedtime Stories era, her interviews from that era, and the Sex Book. Lyle Ashton Harris, David Wojnarowicz, Mapplethorpe, Wolfgang Tillmans, Isaac Julien, Michael Clark, Warhol, Nauman, and Beuys have been on my mind as well…
Jacolby sitting next to the Janet Jackson wall in his bedroom circa the late 80s
KK: With your references based in the pop, art historical, and gaming worlds—which are more self-consciously converging today—what do you take with you when you perform in front of a green screen in your studio? Is Wave Race 64 with you when you're not swimming down in Miami?
JS: My green screen performances are all triggered by language prompts and isolated objects that I am interested in stringing together narratively. Whether I am performing a violent wrestling act with another model, a sexual act, or a banal miming gesture articulated through dance, the result always is a marriage between disparate languages, objects, and performed acts. I take surprises away from the green screen every time.
KK: Coming from a painting background, I was wondering how the rhythm of your work has changed? In terms of your production, as well—the difference in productive speed between sitting behind a screen or painting or performing.
JS: I used to spend a month or two on each painting, and I tend to do the same with my videos, except my latest. My latest video has taken me over 6 months. I keep scrapping it and starting over. I am negotiating the exact same problems that I did when I was painting as I am in my animation. The computer allows me to resolve palettes, compositions, textures, planes, and frames in a much more dynamic way. Having a time-based composition, color palette, and surface variation is much more expansive.
I have been getting closer to my painting days by working on static images in 3D animation. Their final form are large scale C-Prints. They act as my storyboard. My challenge is to make the 10 hyper-detailed and ambitious images congruent narratively, forcing them to animate into each other. That method allows me to have my performance/painting/gaming cake and eat it too!
Cellular, 2013. C-print. Courtesy: Mallorca Landings, in Palma De Mallorca, Spain
Location: New York, New York
How/when did you begin working creatively with technology?
I grew up playing video games since the age of two. I got my first personal computer and the internet when I was 11, before filesharing was possible. By the age of 13, I divided my hobbies between painting in my bedroom, gaming, building websites to sell pornography on Altavista, and Netscape navigator, to capitalize on the ad-clicking moneymaking opportunities. The pursuit of adventure, an original painting language, rare electronic music, Björk b-sides, pirated software, illegal downloading via MiRC FTP servers, chat rooms, and rigging video game emulators helped me build my arsenal for who I am. At the very end of graduate school, I picked up 3D animation as a tool to perform and make images in the manner that I am working today.
Where did you go to school? What did you study?
I went to Maryland Institute College of Art for my BFA, and University of Pennsylvania for my MFA. I studied painting at both.
What do you do for a living or what occupations have you held previously?
I make art for a living, and I used to work at Urban Outfitters, the night shift.
What does your desktop or workspace look like?
A hot mess, full of empty coffee cups, tea bags, water, underwear, sleeping bags, antibiotics, band-aids, cameras, light kits, hard drives, space heaters…with a candle in the middle.
Screen capture from Law & Order, Season 6, Episode 9.
In 2011, artist Jeffrey Thompson was granted a Rhizome commission to watch 456 episodes of the American crime drama Law & Order in order to capture images that illustrate 20 years of the history of computers and their interfaces in its set design. This month, Thompson completed his task, and he will uncover his findings in an illustrated lecture on February 1st at the Museum of Moving Image.
A few facts might help give a sense of the scale of Thompson's viewing project. The DVDs alone set Thompson back a cool $700. He captured more than 11,000 screenshots along the way. By skipping the intro sequence of each episode, Thompson saved himself 10 hours of total viewing time; by watching the episodes at 150% speed, he saved himself another 3.7 days of viewing time.
But the project isn't just an endurance experiment. Treating Law & Order as a unique database of images and speech, one whose "ripped from the headlines" format mirrors our fascinations with and fears about computers and networked technologies in the 1990s and early 2000s, Thompson tracked changes in the representation of technology over time. The internet got a sneak peak at some of Thompson's findings last week, when he posted a list of all the URLs used on the series, including such bizarre domains as bootyboyz.bz, thebaronmuchhumpin.com, and upyourbutt.net. Incidentally, these URLs were all purchased by NBC for the show and remain under their ownership, although thebaronmuchhumpin.com is available for purchase.
Following the lecture, Thompson will take part in a discussion with Kevin Raper, the graphic designer who created many of the computer interfaces used on the last six seasons of the series.
A limited edition booklet will be available as a takeaway at the event.
Answer: all of the above.
The Rhizome Commissions program is supported, in part, by funds from Deutsche Bank Americas Foundation, the Jerome Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs and New York State Council on the Arts. Additional support is provided by generous individuals and Rhizome members.
The Rhizome backend, and others like it across the web, act as sanctuaries of a sort for a dying language: the halting, intermittently sensical, koanic lingua franca of the multinational spammer and their programmed counterpart, the spambot. Today, spammers face enemies on multiple fronts: Facebook-API'd commenting apparatuses, Google algorithms, Hotmail junk-mail filters, and Twitter culls of orange-backed eggs. It has been driven to the margins, visible only to those who seek it out (or happen to be a webmaster). What will be lost when it's pushed out of cyberspace altogether?
Screenshot of content awaiting moderation on rhizome.org.
As spam withers, artist Lindsay Lawson’s ongoing exhibition "Sad Hetero World" at Gillmeier Rech in Berlin, and in-progress short film script, The Smiling Rock (which was given a table read at the gallery last weekend)—highlight its literary, aesthetic, and social qualities. Script and exhibition both narrate the sale of pareidoliac objects on eBay: the sculptures and works on paper in the exhibition tell of a vaginomorphic orange (sold with a gratis phallomorphic companion orange), hawked by eBay user safemode:
NO ONE WILL LISTEN TO ME AND I'M TELLING THE TRUTH. MY WIFE AND I WOKE UP THIS MORNING AND OUR ORANGE SHAPED LIKE A VAGINA WAS SITTING ON THE COUNTER NEXT TO THE FRUIT BOWL...YOU CAN SEE THAT THE ORANGE IS LOOKING GOOD AND YOUNG, DOESN'T SHOW ANY AGING ON THE PEEL.
The film script revolves around an eBay listing for a rock with a face on it, on sale for $1,000,000. It follows a linguist studying Netspeak who comes across the listing and becomes intrigued with the object. She stumbles on an OkCupid user whose profile picture is an image of the same rock, and eventually, per Lawson, "becomes convinced that the user actually is the rock and realizes that she is an Objectum Sexual."
What Lawson’s screenplay captures so well is the libidinal potential of the spam itself. The mangled text embodies the thrill of momentary social contact with a possibly dangerous stranger, a possibly human poet whose enigmatic couplets have been crafted to bypass algorithmic filters and to, just maybe, get you off. (The rock, too, inexplicably accrued its dashing face.) The film imagines what it might be like to be enthusiastically and unironically turned on by spam, rather than any person behind it—at least before the sad hetero world wipes it from the web.
The artist has allowed us to excerpt the script for The Smiling Rock below.
February 10, 2014 – 4:57pm
Message from User2b4
Hi there. This might sound kind of strange, but haven’t I seen your profile picture on eBay? Are you the one selling that lovely stone?BTW, I spotted a haiku in your Self Summary. Do you like poetry?
February 10, 2014 – 5:12pm
Message from TheSmilingRock
do i don't not have it?
price may be flummoxed. such inarticulate beautific. so ___ after being known for mental physics,
the rhyme looks back at mine, but time cannot auction its selves. blades of sand slide down my half-hour glass.are you slippery where wet?
February 10, 2014 – 7:33pm
Message from User2b4
Not sure what you mean about the price, but it certainly is high. I have to say, I think that rock you found is truly amazing. Have you ever come across something like it before? I can’t imagine how exciting it must have been to discover what’s inside. Maybe I could see it sometime?
And I’ll read your enigmatic message as a definite “YES”... regarding the poetry. You write drunkenly free-form and I like it!
Time may present itself, or even its selves, but wherefore art thou Buy It Now?
Do you have any more pictures?PS – I wouldn’t call myself slippery, but I am (on occasion) wet. ;)
February 11, 2014 – 10:02am
Message from TheSmilingRock
touch it with the suggestion of vision.
can be in it more than anything in?
the full advantage of saloon door policy.
but my guess is coming so C U something really cool.
all requests subject to subjection and tips. tips.
...the myth of the night is best.
February 11, 2014 – 1:26pm
Message from User2b4
You are like a sexy sphinx. I’m going to start calling you The Riddler.
I’m dying to know what goes on behind that smiling façade. Won’t you send me a real pic? I guess I can suggest something if that’s what you meant.
Why don’t you go in the bathroom, write my user name on a piece of paper with a special message just for me, and take a pic in the mirror. Oh!– and take your shirt off too. ;)
I can take a new pic for you if you want.
“Saloon door policy” sounds pretty kinky. Is that an American thing?
Riddle me this:How many perverts does it take to put in a light bulb?
February 12, 2014 – 5:39pm
Message from User2b4
The answer is:
Just one, but it takes the entire emergency room to get it out. hahaha
Was it too much?
You don’t have to send me a pic if you don’t want to, I just thought it would be fun.
I’m super curious about you. Tell me more about yourself. How did you begin collecting rocks?
I guess I should tell you about myself, too. I’m a linguist. I know it sounds boring, but I specialize in Netspeak so I get to study how people communicate online... like me and you now. But don't worry, I’m def not studying us LOL. I’m just intrigued by you.
And your rock.I promise I’m not totally, completely uncool. hahaha
February 12, 2014 – 6:16pm
Message from User2b4
Oh, and here’s a little poem for you:
A singular rock that smiles for the world Must be more precious than a giant pearl More than a meteor fallen to Earth
More than a Panda who finally gives birth More than a diamond not in the rough More than Transformers with Shia LaBeouf More than gold when the market is peaking More than a witness who’s finally speaking More than a pre-nup before the divorce More than gossip direct from the source More than a gift card from Niketown
More than a poem I managed to write down More than a pure bred white Persian cat More than removing a bad tribal tat
More than a house for each sister-wife Your mysterious smile lights up my life
Berliners: Sad Hetero World is on view through Saturday, the 17th at Gillmeier Rech.
This post has been updated with the link to the 'true story' on which Lawson's script is based.
Still frame from Fred Parke, Faces, University of Utah, 1974.
On June 19 of this past year Miley Cyrus released a video for "We Can't Stop," the lead single for her fourth studio alum Bangers (2013). Directed by Diane Martel, the video was the first step in a massive rebranding effort by the young singer, who has transformed herself from a Disney teen starlet into a bad-girl human Tumblr. The video largely consists of the young star partying with friends, intercut with a number of visual non-sequiturs that resemble scrolling through the popular microblogging platform. The video, album, and subsequent MTV video music awards performance have sparked a number of interesting debates online and in popular press concerning sexuality, race, and appropriation. Watching the video for the first time, I was shocked, though not at the twerking or the tongue or the dancing bears. "Did you see that?" I yelled as I paused the video. "I think that was the CGI face from Fred Parke's 1974 University of Utah dissertation research." And it was.
Frederic Ira Parke is a computer scientist and professor in the Department of Architecture at Texas A&M University, but in the early 1970s he was a graduate student at the University of Utah completing his dissertation research on the modeling and animation of human faces. At the time the University of Utah was the most prominent research center for computer graphics in the country. Funded largely by the US Department of Defense, the program's primary goal was the construction of early interactive graphics for flight simulation. Almost all fundamental principals of modern computer graphics were developed at Utah in the roughly fifteen-year period from 1965-1979, including raster graphics, framebuffers, texture mapping, and object shading. Among Parke's colleagues during this period were the founders of Pixar, Adobe, Netscape, and Atari.
Parke was one of the first researchers to digitize the human face, and the earliest researcher to experiment with facial expression through computer animation. This work began with Parke's master's thesis (Utah '72), in which he demonstrated the feasibility of animating a range of realistic expressions on a computer generated facial model. That same year, Parke's colleague Ed Catmull used a similar system to digitize and animate his own hand in what is one of the earliest examples of fully shaded 3D computer animation. The digital hand was made using a plaster model and digitized with a coordinate measuring machine. The resulting animation sequences were edited into a film, and in 1976 they would become the first digital computer animation to be used in a feature length film, appearing on screen in Richard Heffron's Futureworld (1976).
For Parke's doctoral dissertation (Utah '74), he decided to take his research one step further, making the faces change and transform using linear interpolation. This "morph" effect is now common in computer animation, but in 1974 it was unprecedented. Parke calls these shifts "transformations," and while his focus is on faces, the technique could be applied to any number of objects. The faces are based on data taken from human subjects, who would have half of their face drawn on and divided into sections that could be used to produce the polygonal structure of the simulated face. The model could then be mirrored to create a full symmetrical face. Parke's dissertation is much more detailed than his earlier work, and includes a complex parametric model whereby various parts of the face are divided into relational nodes and effected by a number of parameters such as shape, arch, position, and color.
A typical pair of facial data photographs, from Parke's "Computer Generated Animation of Faces" (1972).
The project also includes one of the earliest examples of speech synchronization in which a computer-animated head recites Emily Dickinson's "How Happy is the Little Stone." It is from the film Parke made to document his research, simply titled Faces (1974), that the Miley Cyrus clip is taken, looped back and forth to make it appear that this milestone of early computer graphics research wants you to know that "It's our party we can do what we want."
While these images now look like any first year computer animation demo reel, it's important to remember how completely different the tools and methods for producing computer animation was in the 1970s.
Image output was done using a slow scan CRT that showed the image one scan line at a time. Each black and white image took about 30 seconds to scan out. You couldn't actually "see" the complete images directly. They were recorded on photographic film, either on 4x5 polaroid for test images or on 35mm movie film for animation.
While rendering is still a time consuming and resource intensive process, Parke had to wait weeks before viewing his animations, which had to be transferred across multiple analog and digital formats. Parke notes, "the animation production cycle was as follows:
Video had no part in the process—all images were produced using analog film cameras that would be physically attached to the cathode ray tube screen or housed in a darkened unit built specifically for this purpose.
It's hard to know how Fred Parke's work ended up in one of Miley Cyrus' newest music videos. The director did not respond to requests sent via her agent, and Fred Parke seems unsure as well. One can speculate that the images were intended to invoke a kind of tech-y nostalgia, or signal a generic, retro digital aesthetic. To be sure, the use of these images was not meant to foreground the historical significance of Parke's graduate research at the University of Utah. Yet if we look closer, these old images cease to be mere references in support of Cyrus' highly orchestrated public brand; they become strange and singular objects held together by painted faces, Polaroid cameras, and Emily Dickinson poems. More than that, Parke's work reflects the desire long held by computer graphics researchers to simulate objects as complex and singular as the human face, to animate the inanimate, and to capture the world in all its complexity.
Since the release of the iPhone 5s in fall 2013, we’ve noticed the proliferation of advanced video effects on Instagram. Power-users are employing the baked-in slo-mo feature on the new phone's iSight, as well as first- and third-party post-production apps—such as iMovie, Video FX live, InstaCollage, Camstar, Iyan 3D, ArtStudio Lite, and GiantSquare, on iOS and Android devices—to create an entirely new species of image on the popular social network.
To no small extent, it was Instagram's still image filters that drew its users in the first place. Speaking at a Rhizome event in October 2012, former Flickr developer Aaron Straup Cope remarked of those odd shadings known as X-Pro II, Earlybird, Lomo-fi, Nashville, and so on: "All it took were those dumb filters for people to suddenly feel like a space had re-opened up and there was room to maneuver." On the one hand, that potential was fairly circumscribed: those images were facsimiles of a retro-Polaroid lifestyle meant to imbue affect (sensitivity, creativity, and high net-worth individuality). On the other, so what if that's what the app wanted to evince? We, as individuals and off- and online friends, have developed sophisticated strategies for inhabiting and reinventing the limited cultural structures offered to us by giant corporations—and, as importantly, had fun with it, capturing lived (if performed) life, really elaborate brunches, and some very reflective artwork. Across both interpretations, however, Instagram-sanctioned defaults administered the majority of activity. And these defaults, though enabled by complex algorithms, were largely limited to a repertoire of long-established photographic aesthetics.
These new videos change that. Instagram-endorsed filters are no longer the central tool; instead, unofficial apps assert blingee flamboyance and exuberance. (Instagram introduced video sharing in June 2013; the third-party apps have trickled out since, seemingly cresting with the 5s. Third-party photo-editing apps, such media-professional favorite VSCO, have a long history, but their aesthetic tends to works in tandem with the mother-app's default position.) It's a happily jarring experience to open the sophisticated, flatly-rendered Instagram and encounter slowed grunting and cheesy graphics: it's dumber, much less nostalgia-inducing, and significantly more fun.
Below, we've collected a few favorites.
As excerpted above, one of Nick DeMarco's epics—'grams that caught our attention because they self-consciously manifest a lifestyle that seems somehow engrained in this highly-controlled app and phone (even though the latter won't output slo-mo natively for the former, entailing an annoying uploading process):
And Cameron Soren’s moody journal entries:
After completing her informal education in Berlin's underground club scene, artist and musician Holly Herndon relocated to the Bay Area to pursue an MFA at Mills College's esteemed music program. Now continuing her studies in computer-based music at Stanford, Herndon has an inquisitive approach to technology, finding common threads among often-divided disciplines and communities: electronic music, academia, the tech sector, and contemporary art. As a result, her work is not easily categorized, whether she's composing music for brass ensembles or working on robotic sculptures with artist Conrad Shawcross, touring festivals in Europe or making dance music with heavily processed recordings of the human voice. This week, she released a 12" entitled Chorus on RVNG Intl.
Ceci Moss: Your new 12" Chorus comes out this week. The title track recalls the experience of continuous partial attention in online browsing, using audio samples derived from your own daily browsing. Chorus begins chaotically, taking form with the addition of percussion. Could you discuss the ideas behind this composition? Also, what did you use to sample your browsing history, and how did you technically create the track?
Holly Herndon: The idea was to try to try and represent the hard cuts and sharp transitions between environments in online browsing. This is executed most obviously with the musique concrète technique at the beginning and middle of the track, but I've also embedded a lot in the composition as a whole. In the production on the voice, I would cut my words off and interrupt myself with hard edits and then sing over those lines, which creates an unusual vocal effect, almost as if one of the voices is struggling through a Skype connection while the other completes the phrase. I also think that the marriage of styles happening throughout the track is pretty reflective of the new coherence I find with disparate sound sources running on my computer at any given time.
Technically, I used several different techniques, one of the most prominent being the "net-concrete" system that Mat Dryhurst built for his Dispatch lecture performance with PAN last summer. It's basically a Max patch that samples and smashes content from your browser, with the intention of creating work from browsing. His argument is that in a time where you are equally likely to make no money from a song, a tweet, or a video, no one online expression should be prioritized over another, and as a result each online expression has equal transformative potential. In that scenario, we need to observe all expressions from an artist over time to get an accurate understanding of their work, which redefines both the construction of online personas and the browsing experience of understanding them as time-based media or exploded compositions.
It's worth noting that I asked artist Adam Harvey to remix the track instead of [doing] a traditional musical dance remix. He worked with [designer/researcher] Simone Niquille to create an interactive website, which will be released soon. I'm really excited to see what they developed.
CM: Let's talk about the new music video for "Chorus." Directed by programmer and artist Akihiko Taniguchi, the video uses his Study of real-time 3D internet experiment, which allows the user to surf the internet within a 3D simulated environment of her own actual desktop in real time, using Kinect, openFrameworks, and Syphon Recorder. The video roams across different 3D renderings of physical and computer desktops, creating a landscape that incorporates both. As the music picks up, consumer items like Tide, cough medicine, and sponges float across the screen. What was the concept behind the video, and how did you end up working with Akihiko?
HH: I started working with Akihiko when I began incorporating video into my live performance. There is certainly pressure to present an AV performance, but I didnt want to just slap up some found footage or a fixed media piece; that seemed at odds with how I perform. I loved that Akihiko creates his own software that is performable. So, when I play live, usually Mat Dryhurst, who introduced me to Akihiko’s work, will perform the patch in real time, responding to the music. This led to the collaboration for the video. It was really fun because I don't speak Japanese and his English is better in written form, so we would chat on Skype, looking at each other, but typing and using Google Translate.
We really wanted to capture the intimate workspaces that people have, sort of behind the online glossy image. I've talked a lot about my personal relationship to my laptop, so it is a nice extension to show other people's hyper-personalized spaces, all with a shared window into online life and an interplay on who is watching who.
The footage from the beginning is especially funny because it is unstaged Skype material that Mat video captured while away on a residency in Lisbon. At times it's really close and intimate, but also goofy, like when I'm restlessly playing with the chair in our living room.
Akihiko Taniguchi [video] and Holly Herndon [music], Chorus (2014). Taniguchi: "One of the most striking contemporary images is that of the desktop capture, which is seen commonly on YouTube as part of software tutorials. I like the shots of desktops that are poorly organized and 'lived-in.'"
CM: Voice was a central theme for your last release, Movement. With tracks like "Terminal," the album not only featured your own human voice, reworked by instruments and effects in MAX/MSP, but sounds of the hard drive itself. It seems like you're trying to elaborate a sensibility that plays with the correspondence between the organic qualities of the human voice and its processing.
HH: The marriage of the voice and computer in Movement was a natural progression for me, once I embraced the laptop as my primary instrument. I was raised in choirs and am somewhat comfortable improvising, providing a variety of input data for my computer. At the time, I was grappling with issues of laptop performance and saw incorporating the voice as a way to create audience empathy and an embodied performance experience. I was trying to find a gestural and fleshy approach to digital music without falling back on cliches of emotion in music.
My laptop affords me an unprecedented level of detailed control over the voice in real time, and as a result I construct patches to augment and transform aspects of the voice in an attempt to uncover new perspectives and identities from a familiar source. I play a lot with gender on that record—it is incredibly liberating to be able to manipulate my voice to be two octaves deeper, to sound like a car crash or a rhythm section. The history of vocal processing, with admirable exceptions, has often served to compound gender stereotypes, and yet the availability of tools like Max/MSP opens up this possibility of exploding gender and identity in ways I find quite exciting.
CM: Could you discuss your approach to live performance in more depth? In a text accompanying the track "Dilato," you argue that all electronic music is embodied, and that there's a need to theorize a posthumanist approach to recording and performance that does away with the divide between embodied performance and disembodied recording. How do you negotiate this concept within the experiences you create, either through recording or performance?
HH: This is something I was dealing with a lot during my time at Mills. I was hearing people argue that computer music performance was disembodied and therefore disengaging for the audience. So I started asking myself why. What is the definition of embodied performance? What does an audience need in order to palpably share the same time/space as the performer? In theory, it shouldn’t matter what instrument, gesture, or technique the performer is using, and yet this bias lingers. In reading N. Katherine Hayles, it helped clarify recording as the inscription of symbols and performance as the incorporation of symbols. I do think there is a big difference between performance and recording, but I do not think there is a huge difference between acoustic and electronic performance in regards to embodiment or audience engagement per se. It is less about the medium and more about the act or intent, and there is a lot of ground to cover to instantiate that awareness.
CM: The car is another recurring subject in your work. Your first album CAR was composed for listening within a car, and your collaboration with Mat Dryhurst for Semcon's Sonic Movement installation crafts pedestrian warning sounds for silent electric vehicles. Cars are such ubiquitous environments, reminiscent of what Marc Augé once termed a "non-place." How do you compose for that space? What effect or feeling are you trying to produce?
HH: Since I started commuting 50 minutes south to Silicon Valley every day, I have thought a lot about the interior of my car as both a private and a public space and written music specifically for my Toyota Matrix. Driving on the highway feels like an exploded social experience—spread apart and sped up, with everyone wearing complicated exteriors that keep us further away from each other. Communication is simplified into symbols and gestures. All the while each person is sharing a visual landscape and experiencing an entirely different sonic environment. I'm interested in how this public/private experience may be augmented through sound. CAR plays with the sounds that are shared amongst drivers, as well as private interior moments.
Sonic Movement is a collaborative project that I did with Mathew Dryhurst along with Fernando Ocana, James Brooks, and E2Sound of Semcon. For this project we were asked to rethink the sound design of electric vehicles (EV). EVs are eerily quiet and pose a safety risk, and as a result we are starting to see legislation being drafted to dictate what an EV ought to sound like—with many of the suggestions referencing the antiquated (and disruptive) sounds of the mechanical engine. This is why the timing on this project is so crucial. If the parameters are chosen without first looking at the entire scale of possibilities we now have for EV sound design, we could end up with another siren sound, AKA a sound that is derived from its mechanical history, but not necessarily the most effective (or interesting) communication tool. In Sonic Movement we are developing a new logic of thinking about EV sound design—rather than any one specific sound, we are developing a system to enable these vehicles to respond intelligently to their environments. Just as I like to compose music that utilizes the unprecedented capabilities of the laptop, we believe we ought to design EV sounds around the unprecedented capabilities of processors in vehicles. There will be a lot more to report on that project next year!
CM: You're based in San Francisco, a center for technological innovation and development. While the tech industry has a long history here, I feel like we've arrived at a peak where many companies and workers have relocated to San Francisco, dramatically and quickly transforming the city into Silicon Valley. At the same time, you're in Silicon Valley, doing your PhD research work in Computer-Based Music Theory and Acoustics at Stanford's CCRMA. You're surrounded by the industry both at home and at school. Does this influence your process or themes in your music, and if yes, how so?
Well, technically I work between the music department (Braun) and CCRMA, so I am firmly planted in between those worlds :) I think CCRMA has a healthy relationship to industry without being beholden to it. Certainly San Francisco is very tech-centric. This is one of the most interesting things about this part of the world—for all of its positive and negative impacts. I think it gives me a realistic idea of what "tech" means in this country, which is to say that it is an incredibly large and diverse field. This has had a huge impact on my work. I wasn't really using computers to make art before I moved to the Bay Area, and now it is my practice. I regularly collaborate with technologists and a lot of my work is about mediated experience. Living in the Bay, being an artist, I am also privy to very heated conversations about the impact of big tech on the city: families are moving out at a rapid speed, there is cronyism in politics ("what’s good for tech is good for SF"), and there is a mistrust between artists and the tech industry. That being said, I relate more to the "hacker" ethos that has such a history in this area: autonomy, access to information, innovation, pragmatism, etc. There is a huge population of people that share these ideas in the Bay Area, which is contagious and exciting.
CM: For your collaboration with Mat Dryhurst and novelist and theorist Reza Negarestani, the participatory performance Collusion, you toyed with mundane aspects of the setting in order to make the viewer more aware of the present and their environment through subtle disruptions. I've noticed this thread running throughout your work, an aesthetic that is deeply rooted in excavating the here and now. This is a topic that so many artists I speak to struggle with—how do I capture the essence of this moment, this time? Is this something that you think about? What role does technology play, if any?
HH: I focus heavily on performance, even though I also enjoy the recording process. Performance is all about the here and now.
I think it might also have to do with my background, which is not a traditional pathway from the conservatory. There are tons of people out there who can write better counterpoint or have better orchestration skills than I do. That's not my focus. I was a club kid and spent years playing noise shows, where often the distinguishing characteristics between projects were situational ideas and decisions.
Most of my music begins with a concept or idea that I am trying to communicate, even if the execution is abstract. I'm responding to the world around me and trying to use the best tools possible to do so. Technology is an enabler of ideas; it's anything you want it to be. I'm not a tech-for-tech's sake person, i.e. I work on processes or instruments to serve an idea rather than for the pure joy of design. If I am working in an older medium I still need for it to make sense to me as an artist working in 2014. I was commissioned to write a piece for acoustic Brass Ensemble this summer. In order to make it make sense to my practice, I wrote for Brass Ensemble and their documentation crew, exploring the fact that the URL audience is at least as important as the IRL audience in this day and age, and creating an extra score dedicated to acknowledging the online audience. I am always trying to tease out ideas to keep my work interesting, if only for myself!
One thing that I am beginning to focus on more and more is creating new options, new fantasies. We are in an odd situation where music classified as experimental has a larger platform than I have ever seen, and yet music itself seems to be as politically and culturally inconsequential as I have ever known it to be. There are many reasons for this, however I think one major culprit is that our current modes of expressing emotion, eroticism, intelligence, contemplation, etc. are so quantified and stale—we seem to be happy to find new and shiny ways to communicate the same things. I'm interested in creating new options, and new fantasies, for music—which again speaks to an awareness of the "here and now." What roles can music now play that we could not have previously imagined? This discussion appears to be more advanced in visual arts, computer science, and design, and I feel like music is long overdue a reevaluation in that respect.
Still frame from Ikarie XB-1 (1963).
In his 1964 philosophical opus Summa Technologiae (the first English translation of which was published by The University of Minnesota Press last year), Polish author Stanisław Lem refers to the SF convention of "space 'ships,' including a brave 'crew'" as symptoms of a kind of "'reverse' nineteenth-century historical novel." "We can surely amuse ourselves like this," Lem wrote, "provided we remember we are only playing."
Lem himself was no stranger to such amusements, using these tropes in fictions such as Tales of Pirx the Pilot (1968) and Oblok Magellana (or "Magellan Nebula," though there appears to have been no English translation), published in 1955. Czech film director Jindřich Polák adapted Oblok Magellana for the screen in 1963 as Ikarie XB-1, which is screening at the New Museum on Sunday in conjunction with the ongoing exhibition "Report on the Construction of a Spaceship Module," for which it is a key design reference.
The depiction of the "space 'ship" in Ikarie XB-1 features premonitions of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), from striated ship backgrounds to an opening sequence where a wounded crewman stumbles through the ship's bowels while pleaded with by what seems to be the Master Computer. Polák uses repetition and churning black-and-white screens to dislocate the viewer, and production designers Jan Zázvorka and Karel Lukas' corridors continue the argument for the Sci-Fi Corridor as a collective work of art.
Still frames from Ikarie XB-1 and 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The film as a whole does not transcend its genre trappings, as Tarkovsky's 1972 adaptation of Lem's masterpiece Solaris (1961) did. But then, Tarkovsky's film was based on a mature work from a writer unconstrained by what the Science Fiction Encyclopedia calls "some of the conventions of 'socialist realism'" apparent in Lem's work before the Polish October. The politics of Ikarie XB1's future are never explicitly addressed, although—as in many shipboard SF fantasies—there is a de facto socialist system with a quasi-military tiered command structure. A crew member's ability to opt out of the mission suggests a decidedly non-totalitarian future; Stalin had, at this point, been dead for eleven years. An encounter with an apparently 20th century American craft whose crew has turned on itself allows for comments on the nature of capitalists: "Vultures!," "Human trash!" etc. The ending recreates the scenario aboard the Ikarie, with the aforementioned wounded crewman attempting to "save" himself using violence. The peaceful resolution was surely read as a caricature of the difference between Soviet and American ethos, but suggests a future beyond the vicious squabbling of the 20th Century. Ikarie XB1, for all its mid-century kitsch and limited aspirations, proves a very serious kind of play.
Ikarie XB-1 serves as a central design inspiration for the New Museum installation, "Report on the Construction of a Spaceship Module," on view through April 6. A specific constellation of tranzit directors worked on this exhibition: Vít Havránek, Director of tranzit in Prague, Dóra Hegyi, Director of tranzit in Budapest, and Georg Schöllhammer, Director of tranzit in Vienna. The exhibition was organized by Lauren Cornell, Curator, 2015 Triennial, Museum as Hub, and Digital Projects. An English-subtitled 82 minute cut of the film is available on The Internet Archive, though it appears to retain the rather silly last shot created for the US/UK edition, retitled Voyage to the End of the Universe. The original 86-minute cut will be screened at The New Museum on Sunday, January 26th as part of a two-day symposium connected with the exhibition.
Thanks to H W Wessells for help in (not) tracking down an English translation of Oblok Magellana.
Disclosure: Rhizome is an affiliate of the New Museum.
Rhizome is dedicated to art and ideas that create richer and more critical technology cultures. With this program, we continue our examination of influential, technological objects from interdisciplinary points of view, in the context of artistic research practice.
The ENDD past & present:
The demise of cigarette monoculture and its image as epitome of sex, death, style:
Saturday, February 22, 3pm
at the New Museum
New York, NY 10002
Tickets: $10/$8 Rhizome/New Museum members
Untitled, Image, 2013
Louis Doulas: It might actually be interesting to start with your mother. I didn't know she was an artist until you mentioned it the other night. She makes collage work similar to your own (or is it the other way around?)
Aaron Graham: Although there's a huge generational gap between my mother and I, we find ourselves in the same sort of position: how do you access an art world, or an audience? For example, my mom considers herself an artist, and is one, rightfully so, but who does she show her work to? She doesn't really have an art world connection or gallery plug—she's also not necessarily interested in that either. Anyways, I find myself in a similar situation. It's funny, I graduated from school, and am looking for the next step, but when I look towards the art world and all the galleries, I can't seem to muster up the interest in playing that game, and I think much of my attitude, or position, stems from my political involvements with Cooper. What was really significant for me was the Cooper lock-in we did in December, which was my first real experience with direct action. That lock-in lasted a week and it was one of the best weeks ever. I think that once you taste these things, it's hard to go back to anything else.
I went into the whole thing pretty skeptical about how it would work out. I thought that the entire action might last a couple of hours, but it ended up lasting a week—and I think it was fairly successful. Everything started going our way and at some point you realize "Holy shit, when you do this type of thing it really works!" It was my first taste of something like that, and since then I've been looking at similar movements and actions that are happening around the world. For instance, the Tar Sands Blockade; these people are fighting the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline by just locking themselves up to things everyday. That is so much more exciting to me than art that's critiquing something from a distance. Unlike so much art that you see, direct action doesn't go in or out of style.
LD: Do you try and separate these two roles for yourself?
AG: I think about this a lot—activism and its role in art—but then I look at my own art practice, and it's not actually that politicized. I was reading an interview with Paul Chan, and he does a lot of directly activist work but also just a lot of "art," and in the interview, he talks about how we shouldn't confuse the two, that we are allowed to maintain an activist practice, and an "art" one—that these don't always have to be combined. There's such a history of that type of conflation (between art and activist), and how effective is it really? It's not that satisfying I think.
LD: And do you think Rodi Gallery, your mobile van-based gallery, manifests itself as a kind of reaction towards your disinterest in a more standardized gallery context?
AG: Totally. The beautiful part...is that it's a truck, and we can show anywhere—it's not tied down to any gallery or any specific way of working or showing art; it's mobile. I think it's funny that so much has been written about the internet as this emancipatory platform, like it's a new way to show art, and not tied down to any sort of old model of viewership, but it's only done this to a certain extent in the past couple of years. Like, sure people can throw up stuff online and it's free, but some parts still adhere to an older, traditional viewing and distribution model. It's funny to think that even a truck, or an automobile, can be potentially more radical and mobilizing than the internet.
Rodi Gallery, 2013
Sydney Shen: In some of the writing in Log, your ongoing Google Doc of writing, you express ambivalence towards corporate products like Axe, and their use in artwork. I feel that the use of these materials has been misread as ironic or something, but I'm not interested in hearing about it in ironic or sincere terms, because I don't even know what that means.
AG: I feel when artists use these products it's implied that it's a critique, but it starts getting suspicious when you see the same people using the same type of products—it doesn't come across as critique anymore. I guess also in that Log entry I was reacting against Nick's [Faust] article on the The New Inquiry, its thesis being that the internet has democratized everything and that everyone's on the dance floor, fucking each other on the dance floor, and everything is sort of fair game and open to everyone. It could potentially be true to some degree—the potential of the internet to do that—but when you look around, and see what people are using the internet for and the types of things they are actually grabbing for, it just seems, to me, incredibly limited. Nick cites Axe as an example, and like, what is that doing?
SS: At this point, it's sort of an easy, really loaded icon to latch onto.
AG: I'm hesitant to say that the internet has truly been a catalyst for broadening artistic activity. At the same time, it's done exactly that for me. It's great being able to take whatever picture I want and post it online and then do the same thing again with different objects and materials. Everything is thrown up into the air, like, I can grab and use anything as an art object. In that sense I agree with Nick's essay; I feel like I'm living proof of it. But I don't think it can be claimed that this has happened across the board. It is too sweeping of a statement.
Floater (Gnocchi), Image, 2013
LD: It's interesting the way you use, "grab" and "thrown up into the air" to describe your process, as these words directly reference the Floater series you made for The Jogging, where you are photographing, just as you described, individual objects being thrown up into the air.
AG: That's actually how I feel. I use the camera so much that eventually when you look around [you realize] everything can be thrown up into the air, like an image or an art object.
SS: I wanted to ask about your Look At This series, in which you walk around a space with a camera operator, saying "look at this," "look at that" as they pan and zoom to follow your instructions. There's a certain delight for me in realizing what exactly it is you're pointing to, or what you want me to look at. I'm wondering how the camera person or audience knows what to look at. Is it their familiarity with your work, or a certain mode of looking, or how literate the person has to be in photography?
Still from the Look At This series, 2012
AG: So, the first video I made [in the series] was with Shawn C. Smith, who I did Tanner America with, and generally, just someone who I've been making art with for a while now. The reason I've worked with him so much is because I feel we almost have the same eye, so with that first video, it was an obvious thing. I was essentially like "Hey Shawn, will you come with me? I have this idea. I'm just going to say 'look at this' and you're just going to film it," and since then I've done another one with him. Those are the easiest ones since he's sort of on the same page as me. But of course there has been a range of people at this point, and I always know precisely what I want the camera person to shoot, but at the end of the day it's always a spectrum of what I wanted or didn't want at all.
SS: That's like the failure of Instagram or something. Instagram is almost there, in the way that it's this instantaneous feed of "this is what I'm looking at" and I want people to see it in the way I see it. But, I think the performative method of your series is way more satisfying because it allows for more—
AG: Or I'm a total dictator in a sense. I'm making someone walk around with me, while pointing at stuff, and I'm on the screen; it's like, give me a break. At the same time, I've built in a couple things that are destructive, like the person can shoot whatever they want, they have their own sort of free will.
LD: At first, [your fictionalized family Tumblr] Tanner America seemed to me a critique of a certain middle-class American family identity, but in your Log, I found out that your intentions for the project were driven more by an interest in art moments happening outside of the gallery, by participants unknowingly creating art, so to speak.
Screenshot from "Tanner America" blog, Image, 2010
AG: When you actually look at those who are making images and calling it art online, that pool of people, or content, seems very limited at this point.
I guess I started Tanner by looking at so many images on google for fun. I had been doing these digital collages and was really happy with them, but they weren't connecting with anything, they had no context. They were just nice collages—then I started thinking about where these sourced images were coming from, and realized that most of them were coming from this specific place, i.e. "the family blog." Then I came to this idea and was like, what if I created this narrative out of it? It was obvious to have it be this middle class American family, but it wasn't an intentional critique, it just happened to make the most sense because it was what was happening online; that's where the most exciting images were coming from—the most interesting for me at least. When I think about it now, the subject could have been almost anything, like some old scientist guy in Maine who had a blog with photos, but it just happened to be a family blog. I mean, I obviously picked up on it and ran with it, such as the Tanner AmericaFacebook page, which I suppose has some critique in it, but really it was just a way to generate images and have them make sense. It was a framework for production.
SS: I think that's a nice thing, going back to what we were speaking about earlier, like art as resistance, like you're allowed to be ambivalent in art and you're allowed to simultaneously celebrate and critique something. If anything, art is the space where you should do that, where it's appropriate to not adhere to ideology, or promote one. I also feel like the question "Is this critique or is it not?" is almost like something that moralizes the work from the start, and that almost always flattens things.
But anyways, I thought with Tanner and your other work, you collapse several photographic genres at once. First—as far as traditional genres of photography—there’s the domestic, quotidian, pictures of things in my house, and then there is street photography that's about the moment, the flâneur, and then there's also abstraction; the collages and the wheatpasted bedroom mural pieces are a combination of all of this.
AG: That's something I've been thinking about a lot lately, like what the potential is for rescuing street art. I mean there's a whole history of street interventions, the Situationists for example, so there's a whole history of people doing things in the street, and that's really interesting to me, but it's been sort of—
LD: It's seen as this sort of disgusting activity or genre; you're always a few steps away from Juxtapoz [magazine] or something, so it's interesting that you'd want to give it a new life and identity. It's bold of you, I think.
Collapse, Image, 2013
AG: Which goes in line with what I was talking about with Rodi. The internet was purported to have exemplified all these egalitarian things, and again, it may have done some of that but it hasn't totally "fixed" everything. I think if we start looking at other methods and technologies like a truck, "street art," or direct action, or start looking in other places, it could be worth our while, because the internet has only gotten us so far.
SS: The street art conversation opens up another topic, something I've been somewhat preoccupied with: delinquency, or the fantasy of delinquency. That's something maybe you also mention a bit in your Log as well. I think I remember a passage that proposes, or rather, encourages the committing of crimes. And I was just thinking about how ever since I was young, staging an elaborate casino heist was my number one fantasy, like I feel what other kids strove for were to become president or go to space, but I just fucking wanted to stage a casino heist. But we can also talk about, for example, how Robert Moses mentions that doing things without permission is sometimes the best way to get things done.
AG: I guess it's also really about artists creating their own self-dependent community and not depending on a gallery system or other venue for showing art.
It’s Not Paid But, Sculpture, 2013
LD: Sure, yeah I think this is a thought or concern we've all addressed or confronted in our creative lives. And I think you mention it in your Log too; these binaries: do I go off-the-grid completely and start a barter community of sorts, or do I participate speculatively, but compromise certain things. But, you can't and won't go off-the-grid completely. I mean you'll still need that inkjet printer.
AG: You can, but as an artist that's creating and is interested in sharing and communicating with people—the whole point of art is to communicate something; then someone else makes something; then someone sees it—art needs communities in that sense, and I don't know how art could function in an off-the-grid community.
LD: I mean you want to engage with the art world though, you want to get their attention, even with the projects and works you are making in attempts to resist that.
AG: So there definitely is this spectrum of, on one side, this whole professionalized art world and the other is this off-the-grid, barter, hippy, sharing art with each other world, and then there's something in the middle, which is a place I think I currently exist in.
I guess if you think about whatever people are doing, in terms of middle of the spectrum work, there isn't much of it. I just heard about the Voina Art Group, this Russian art group, one of their projects is Pussy Riot—I actually thought they were a real band! I mean they did play and make music but the whole thing was really an off shoot of this Russian art group. I watched a documentary on Pussy Riot recently, and it was such a breakthrough for me, because they're doing all this delinquent or illegal stuff—and it does sort of have this street art stigma—but because of the nature of where they are doing it, in Russia, and that they are being pursued by the government, was sort of exciting for me. Though a lot of it rehashes older art movements and is not necessarily a big breakthrough in terms of the content, one of the things they do say is that they don't show with any gallery, any museum, any sort of festival, etc. They're sort off-the-art-grid which is something that is exciting to me. I guess that this was the question I was asking myself: how to step outside the art model, and it's so hard to think of a way to do that, but when I saw this group I thought it could be one option.
Print (Tank), Image, 2013
SS: How did you become interested in photography?
AG: I took it in high school, but it wasn't really different from anything else…I was just some kid taking it for credit. I got an SLR as a gift my senior year and I just started taking as many images as I could.
SS: Did you bring [your camera] with you everywhere?
AG: Not really, I just started taking a ton of images, and I guess I still do—not from taking pictures myself, but from looking online and using found images.
LD: Photography as just looking—google image searching.
SS: That mindset, that scavenger-hunt mentality. Looking for that moment of affect.
Screenshot from "Tanner America" blog, Image, 2010
AG: I've always been a visual person before anything else from a young age. I get so much pleasure from looking online and looking for the image that looks so good.
SS: Can you name the criteria for what a "so good" image is?
LD: What does an Aaron Graham google search look like?
AG: The way I did it for the Tanner searches was to put in three random words, any words, and just start scrolling. And there's this certain look—well I was also searching in the large images category—but you can tell when one of them is going to be part of a blog with a lot of other images because it has a certain look where someone is capturing an event, or like when a family has a really nice camera. So I would click on one thing and go to their blog and plow through the whole entire thing....it's like "whoa," it's this intense experience that I just love. I suppose it's pretty voyeuristic, but I never think of it as peering into people's lives, but rather, that this image is killer. There's something very intense about it.
Floater (Dart), Image, 2013
SS: Maybe this is more of a formal question, but I noticed in almost all of your online works there's a decision to have the pieces on a transparent background with a floating drop shadow. Can you talk about the specific use of that drop shadow?
AG: It just comes from the camera and it happens when you take a flash photograph of something. That crazy drop shadow is so unreal and it separates whatever object you're taking a photo of from that space. It has that feeling of throwing everything up into the air and being left suspended there.
LD: It looks like a photoshoot, like you're treating it as another shot. And the backgrounds are always different, suited to each piece, but they seem to be suitable only for computer viewing, these specific works. You need to scroll down, you need to have it exist within the browser. I guess I'm wondering if you have thought about how you would translate that? So, everything exists as image, but you still are interested in making objects, right?
AG: I am. Everything that I make passes in and out of the camera and computer so many times, so there's not really an endpoint. I can make an object, but it's never resolved. Which has been a really great way of working for me.
SS: I was thinking about the images in your performance/video installation Stage: the juxtaposition of the pianist playing piano with the player piano playing itself. And then there was the artist painting the portrait of the elephant painting, and I'm wondering about the relationship of all those things to the camera.
AG: What the camera has done to our idea of an artistic genius really goes back to the camera being a device that is only capable of producing a finite amount of images. Artists can be considered functionaries because each time they take a photograph they are only realizing one photographic possibility which was already contained within the camera. For me, this idea questions where artistic expression and human freedom can occur and whether or not it can exist. There's no stopping a camera, so what do we do? Where do we exist within that? It can be defeating as an artist who is compelled to create images and there's this device that in my mind has created every single one. It's a general feeling of there being so many images out there these days, and as an image maker, you're confronted with what the hell you are going to do.
SS: Do you think that language is a device?
AG: It's the same idea as Borges's Library of Babel, where he says that everything already exists within this library. It was so weird for me to be thinking [through] those questions at Cooper while the school was going to ruin. The ultimate question at Cooper was that, we have this school and this ideal that we value, but it's so hard to articulate why it's worth protecting and saving, and there are these people coming in that want to quantify the experience and put a number value on it, and they think it's possible, but everyone at Cooper [knows] that that would be destructive. So it was the same question in my mind, like the experience of being in the world, and there's this camera that's saying "Here I can quantify that world perfectly" and it's almost impossible [to argue that] you're not capturing everything by taking a photo. Yes, you can charge this amount of money for this education, but there are things that you can't put a number value to.
Aaron Graham is an artist living and working in Yorktown Heights, New York. He graduated with a BFA from Cooper Union in 2012, and is co-founder of Rodi Gallery, a mobile van-based contemporary art gallery. He has most recently exhibited at LODOS Contemporáneo in Mexico City, and has an upcoming show at Welcome Screen in London.
Louis Doulas is a writer based in New York City whose research interests are in analytic philosophy of art and philosophy of language. Previously, he was an Editorial Fellow at Rhizome at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, the New York Correspondent at e-flux, and a columnist at DINCA.org. He was also the founder and editor-in-chief of Pool, an online platform and publication critically investigating the relationship between internet culture and contemporary art.
Sydney Shen is an NYC-based artist and photographer. Recently she has lectured for Waves of Direction, started a perfume review blog with Laurel Schwulst, written for Gene McHugh's forthcoming book All My Friends At Once, and contributed to Edition MK's Nature of Clouds. She has forthcoming shows in New York and previously has shown in New York, Berlin, Leeds, London, and Montreal. She is also a co-founder and editor of Beauty Today, an annual print magazine that perverts conventions of sexuality and eroticism.
After an international search, leading digital preservation specialist, artist, and musician Dragan Espenschied has been appointed to lead Rhizome's growing and award-winning Digital Conservation program. Espenschied, who will relocate from Germany to New York for the position, will bring the program to its next phase and steward the ArtBase, Rhizome’s collection of over 2,000 born-digital artworks.
Espenschied is well known in the academic research field for projects such as bwFLA: Emulation as a Service, which allows legacy computer systems to run in a standard web browser. With Olia Lialina, he has also undertaken user-centered projects like One Terabyte of Kilobyte Age, an automatically-generated archive of screen captures of 1990s Geocities webpages; and Once Upon, an enactment of contemporary websites in a historic network environment. He has also published and spoken widely on vernacular uses of the web, such as in the book Digital Folklore, edited with Lialina.
With this role, Espenschied expresses a commitment to preserving works in the ArtBase while also contributing new research to the digital preservation field. About this appointment, Espenschied says: "I strongly believe that designing the access to complex legacy digital artifacts and systems is the largest contemporary challenge in digital culture. Digital culture is mass culture, and collection and preservation practices have to change to reflect this fact."
Espenschied will start in March 2014. In 2013, Rhizome's Digital Conservation Program, then under the leadership of Ben Fino-Radin, won the Archivists Round Table award for Innovative Use of Archives. Fino-Radin is now practicing in the Department of Conservation at MoMA.
Trevor Paglen, Chemical and Biological Weapons Proving Ground; Dugway, UT; Distance ~ 42 miles; 10:51 A.M. (2006). From the series Limit-Telephotography.
every room has an accessible history
every place has emotional attachments you can open and save
you can search for sadness in new york
paths compete to offer themselves to you
life flows into inanimate objects
the trees hum advertising jingles
everything in the world, animate and inanimate, abstract and concrete, has thoughts attached
— from Headmap Manifesto by Ben Russell
Headmap Manifesto was a groundbreaking exploration of the possibilities of location-aware technology when it was released in 1999. A decade and a half later, many people have a wireless network device with them at all times, and the author of the manifesto seems to have disappeared from the internet. The landscape of our cities is irrevocably changed, as the data accumulates, erupting from our pockets and pooling in the network.
This trajectory marked such technologies' arc from vanguard to status quo, but only as a rotation in a larger series of orbits. In 1983, the first call was made on the Motorola DynaTAC cellular phone, opening the way to a new topology of vast overlapping fields of radio antennas designed to carry us across a seamless virtual network.
But there are larger orbits still, and new networks must always layer onto older ones. 1983 also marked the publication of critic and curator Lucy Lippard's book Overlay. Exploring the links between contemporary art and prehistoric sites and symbols, this wide-ranging volume of art criticism maps the way that humans connect with space and time, both old and new. Lippard's book is more relevant now than ever, as our maps are updated with new technologies and new works of art. It investigates multiple kinds of meaning that invariably intersect and make themselves known to us, popping up in pushed indicators from the terrain, forcing our awareness to shift. From ancient petroglyphs to ritualized performance, from bulldozing roads across the earth to saturating the airwaves with electromagnetic radiation, humans have always been in the business of altering our interactions with space, whether using a phone, a drone, or only our feet.
For Lippard, time is the key—it is the dimension through which we can appreciate the changes that we make. It is where difference exists, as well as similarity and synchronicity. "Time, poised between the abstraction of distance and the concreteness of numbers, is in a sense the crux of this book, with its theme of forced synchronism," Lippard writes. The artworks that she tracks in Overlay are those that access time and manipulate it through space, by invoking human history, and by demonstrating how it acts on its environment.
Carl Andre, Secant (1977).
"My idea of a piece of sculpture is a road," Lippard quotes Carl Andre as saying. "We don't have a single point of view for a road at all, except a moving one, moving along it." Lippard places his long lines of hay bales and timber in Joint (installed in a field at Vermont's Windham College in 1968) and Secant (installed on the grounds of the Nassau County Art Museum in 1977) in context with Richard Long's performances of walks over Dorest and Peru, which are just as well represented by images of maps as they are by photographs. Long's walks evaporate from the land after he has completed them, while the land remains. Dorset is home to the Cerne Abbas Giant, and Peru to the Nazca Lines; these ancient geoglyphs plot a different time across the terrain—a lasting trace rather than an ephemeral motion. Historians can only speculate about the details behind their creation. Nevertheless, the geoglyphs share something with the work of Andre and Long. We view them both from the perspective of a map, as top-down inscriptions onto the landscape that overlay contemporary motivations onto pre-existing contexts.
Time allows us to process information in a space, so that it might form context by lingering, forming a trace. Through these traces, we compare a place between the past and present, and learn to seek out more traces, investigating spaces in new ways, continuously searching for more information to aid our temporal picture. The concerns Lippard articulates in her 1983 text continue to play a central role in the work of contemporary artists who employ location-aware technologies. Clara Boj and Diego Diaz'sObservatorio (2008) uses a modified telescope to visualize the presence of WiFi networks, overlaying new information onto the historical, architectural environment of Tallinn, Estonia. And even before drones fully entered public consciousness, Natalie Jeremijenko and Kate Rich hacked together some tools (a remote-controlled aircraft, a miniature video-camera and transmitter) to create BIT Plane (1997), offering a new vantage on the part of California now permanently labeled as "Silicon Valley," much of it off-limits to pedestrians. Like Andre and Long, these artists are concerned with landscape inscription and environmental context creation, but their works aim to make visible the hidden traces left by cutting-edge technologies, while also making use of them.
Bureau of Inverse Technology (Natalie Jeremijenko and Kate Rich), Photograph taken by BIT Plane (1997) during flight over Palo Alto.
While there are many continuities in the way artists have approached these questions, there are also important differences. What we inscribe into landscape is a political question. While in 1983 Lippard found that the pressing questions addressed by artists often involved the relationship between femininity, body, and the earth, today our data-bodies seem more concerned with questions of privacy and control. One work highlighted in Lippard's book was Ana Mendieta's Siluetas series, which projected the outline of her body onto personally and politically significant landscapes through various means, including stone, ash, fire, and blood. More recently, Ricardo Dominguez and Brett Stalbaum'sTransborder Immigrant Tool (2007) used hacked cell phones to help immigrants safely navigate the US-Mexico border, dodging the extreme environment, the militarized border guards, and the violent vigilantes that would stop them. For his Limit-Telephotography (2012) series, Trevor Paglen traveled to remote landscapes to photograph secret government sites, which are more difficult to image than "the depths of the solar system," according to the artist. For Dominguez and Stalbaum as well as Paglen, the body (of the artist, or the migrant) must remain in the landscape, unseen, while the broader political systems in which they are enmeshed are made visible. Mendieta, in contrast, intended for her body to leave a visible mark, while the broader political context is implied rather than depicted. But what is similar in all these works is that they ask a political question of the landscape, layering additional knowledge over it, inviting us to view our surroundings similarly and engage them in political ways, whether digitally or carved in stone.
Ana Mendieta, Untitled (Silueta Series) (1978). Gelatin silver print, 20.3 x 25.4 cm.
We might sum up Lippard's work in Overlay in her adaptation of the words of geologist Paul Leveson: that artists' task is "to interpret the earth to society, to bridge the gap between pattern and process." This is Nature, in prehistory or today—a stratification of humans' interactions with their environment, just begging to be interpreted. To study Nature in this way is not just the responsibility of historians or geologists. It is artists' and technologists' task to take this as an imperative, to interpret and to annotate and inscribe. Or, as the Headmap Manifesto puts it: "publish your morning walk somewhere."
Austin Lee, Profile Picture (2013). 11" x 14" Acrylic on canvas.
Postmasters Gallery is now showing a solo exhibition of work by Austin Lee, a young painter whose work you should really not purchase. If his prices remain flat for long enough, it's possible that in the future, when all my babysitting bills are paid, I might stumble across it in the Postmasters sub-basement and offer whatever I happen to have in my wallet. Recent history shows us that the artworks that I have come to own do not significantly appreciate in value. Therefore, an important tip to prudent buyers: do not purchase this painting, or really any other painting by Austin Lee. Are you following my logic?
Anyway, this painting by Austin Lee deserves to languish in the obscurity of my personal collection because it somehow captures so well the haphazardness of digital image culture. What I mean by this, partly, is that it's blurry, and I like blurry artworks. There is, by now, a proud art historical tradition of blurriness in representations of technological imagery: Vija Celmins, Gerhard Richter, Thomas Ruff. All these people have offered us works (in painting or photography) depicting familiar scenes or objects mediated by the distorting effects of popular culture.
In Profile Picture, the distorting lens of technology is more than a mere visual filter. It's not just a blurry painting, but it seems to have unhinged the object of the painting itself. The work is partly a careful replication of the blurring effects of a smartphone, but it's also more than that. This Profile Picture represents a discombobulated subject, a person in anxious movement, eyes bulging from screen burn, hair and clothing in the latest garish netart colors. The technology does not only blur the image, it also blurs the person.
This blurry netart person, this one-eyed jack from a deck of cards designed in MS Paint, speaks to me in a way that a lot of internet-aware painting does not. Profile Picture conjures both the aesthetic of an era of pocket snapshots and generally haphazard image-making, and the need to stage public identity in a manner that makes a bold impression, but leaves our outlines indistinct.
In short, savvy collectors should stay well away.
TaskRabbits and Art
TaskRabbit provides one-night stands of day labor. Through a familiar internet formula (connecting consumer and service), the platform lets workers underbid their peers to claim rather mundane tasks for even more mundane pay. A bizarre theme of illness runs through the site's own marketing. Its promo videos give us a Taskmaster with an injured knee, requiring Rabbits to the rescue. Meanwhile, the freelancing Rabbits can't nab full-time employment, too busy getting cancer treatments, in retirement, or supporting ailing hobbies (like careers in electronic music). If rabbits are meant to imply endless reproduction, TaskRabbit reproduces both symptoms and the disease. A neoliberal eternal spring is poisoned from the start.
Last Friday, LA-based artist and Jogging-member Spencer Longo used TaskRabbit for the close of his solo exhibition All Access, on view at the new Los Angeles project space Smart Objects. Under the amorphous heading of a potluck, Longo outsourced the task of picking out and picking up food and decorations to two members of the precarious herd.
Spencer Longo, All Access (2013), Acrylic, GoPro Hero 2, XBOX Kinect, memory-enhancing herbal supplements
Longo's network-enabled and user-friendly wall works seemed a fitting stage for the event. Perhaps most appealing was a pair of collages: disassembled technology (one a GoPro camera, the other a motion sensing input device known as Kinect for Xbox 360) and energy-enhancing vitamin supplements suspended in three inches of resin. These are endearing time capsules (pun surely intended) of our attention economy and the technologies that serve it (drugs are technologies, too). More, they weave deftly between the actual and virtual: whether you're skiing a black diamond or your avatar is, swallow the damn ephedra.
The performance itself disappointed, and not because of the Rabbits' Target-brand taste—snacks and supplies fit for a teen birthday (sunglasses and mustaches included). One was never seen. The other was a 20-something embroiled in her new iPhone 5s, who could have been attending the show except for her normaloid (read: business casual) attire. Missing an important opportunity for schadenfreude or empathy, Longo chose to spare the Rabbit from having to wear the probably ill-fitting, unfortunately green tee-shirt uniform. "My meter's running out," she replied when he invited her to stay for the event, and off she went, off the clock, task completed.
Courtesy of the author, the potluck view
For another $20, Rabbits could have been paid to be lives of the party or clean up afterwards, to explain if their purchases expressed agency or laziness, to by any means explore the mundane but essential thesis that neoliberalism is sick, and laborers suffer. But as the artist went on tinkering with the Rabbit-acquired materials (chips, salsa, silly string), forming a temporary installation (stripes, checks, piles), the Rabbits themselves were made as invisible as any art supply store. Perhaps Longo let the Rabbits do their job too well. Their slogan: "discover more time to do what you love."
Artist Jeff Thompson received a Rhizome commission in 2012 for his project Computers on Law & Order, for which he watched every episode ofthe long-running television series and took screenshots of all the computers. Thompson will present an illustrated lecture based on the project this Saturday, Feb 1 at 4pm at the Museum of the Moving Image, followed by a discussion with Law & Order graphic designer Kevin Raper. In this article, he shares some of his findings.
In the fall of 1990, a television program about crime, police investigation, and criminal trials named Law & Order aired for the first time. The show eventually ended in 2010, tied with Gunsmoke for the longest-running live-action television show at 20 seasons and 456 episodes. With its unique (and consistent) style and trademark "dun-dun!" sound, Law & Order has generated several spin-offs and can likely be found playing at any hour of the day somewhere on cable.
Much has been written recently about how "binge-watching" an entire season or even an entire show is changing our interaction with—and in some cases the making of—television. This new TV-watching paradigm is due in large part to Netflix’s streaming service; around the same time it was launched, I started watching a lot of Law & Order. With so many episodes available in an easy-to-digest procedural format, I could just turn to the next episode in line and hit "play."
I began to take screenshots of oddities: moments where the show broke from its usual format into first-person or split-screen views, or frames of unexpected abstraction as the camera panned across a scene. But somewhere in all those procedurally-formatted murders, quips, investigations, interrogations, and trials I began noticing computers. At first they were oddities too (characters using computers in funny ways, interesting-looking fake applications or websites), but as many obsessive projects start, the more screenshots I took, the more I noticed computers.
A typical computer in the background of an office (1, 22).
In the summer of 2012, I received a Rhizome commission to more systematically document computers across the entire original Law & Order series. I purchased the 120-disc box set and began to record (almost) every computer from all 456 episodes. Now, a little more than a year later, nearly 11,000 screenshots have been gathered along with some related (and some not-so-related) data about the show. The project is presented in the form of a blog (computersonlawandorder.tumblr.com) and in the more curated form of a book.
After watching all 319 hours of the show (or the equivalent of about two straight months watching 40-hours a week, though that is not how I consumed it), I think Law & Order is an even more interesting cultural artifact than I could have ever expected. The show forms a unique database of images and speech, and one that reflects the fascinations, fears, and biases of its time. Law & Order's long run and its "ripped from the headlines" content makes it a useful lens through which to look at a period of great political and economic change in the United States. In particular, the show coincides with a major cultural shift: the rise and eventual ubiquity of computers and networked technologies over a crucial 20-year period in technological history.
Law & Order spans the emergence of the ever-present personal computer, the trajectory from specialized to mainstream internet use, the introduction of laptops and flatscreen monitors, and finally the mass adoption of internet-enabled smartphones. Alongside the actual technology appearing onscreen, the show's content, ranging from casual conversations to crimes and crime-solving, reflects our fascination with and sometimes fears about technologies like BBS systems, email, online dating and social networking, webcams, privacy and hacking, facial recognition, and search engines.
While an investigation of the show could have taken many forms, as an artist interested in how technology shapes culture it made perfect sense to use Law & Order as a means to talk about how our relationship with computers has formed and changed over the last 20 years. The screenshots resulting from this project (along with other data, including web addresses used on the show, quotes about computers, and a list of "first appearances"—all included in this book) provide a rich data set through which there are many possible lines of investigation. One of the trajectories we can trace through the show is the transition of the computer from turned-off background prop, lending realism to scenes in the workplace, to its current position as a necessary, always-networked, and constantly used tool.
The first computer on Law & Order appears nine minutes into the first episode of the show. A rather small, dull-gray monitor sits on the also-dull-gray box of a computer. The keyboard rests on the desk in front and some kind of peripheral sits to the left. Exact details are difficult to identify. We see the computer as the camera quickly pans the room, obscured by motion blur and the graininess of the film stock. Alone, unused and tucked into the corner of the room, this is the state of computers for most of the first ten seasons of the show: a shared resource used only occasionally as needed, turned off more often than not, and dotted with Post-It notes left for other users. Often, these computers are shown on dedicated computer desks or tucked away in corners, below counters, or in other out-of-the-way places.
The first computer on the show (1,1).
The first computer turned on (1, 9).
Clunky monitors slowly move to the front of the desk (5, 89)
This reflection of banal details is something Law & Order excels at (whether intentionally or not) and stands in contrast with one of the show’s spinoffs, Law & Order: SVU, which often depicts police station computers in a manner bordering on the sci-fi. Unlike the smart-boards and touch-based interaction of SVU (which is intended to suggest high-tech interactivity while being decidedly not, sporting instead clunky and simplified user interfaces with the veneer of corporate design), the original series accepts the realistic limitations of blue screens and keyboard-only input, and as a result is a much better representation of the average computer user in the early 1990s.
In fact, it isn't until nine episodes and 39 computers later that a machine is even turned on, and it isn't until season five that a computer appears on the front of someone’s desk. Over the course of the show as we might expect, computers become more and more common, shifting from bulky desktops to laptops and flatscreen monitors. City employees look up records for detectives and DAs, forensics and computer experts are seen using high-end software and even engaging in hacking, and computers dot the background with random programs open as if some important work had been interrupted. By the last two seasons, both detectives are regularly seen working on laptops across from each other and smartphones begin to make appearances.
This shift can be measured by counting the number of computers captured per season. The below chart shows the computer counts across all 20 seasons along with a line tracking the average trend: a steady incline in the number of computers onscreen that bumps up briefly in the middle and skyrockets towards the end of the show's run.
An overall rise in the count is to be expected as computers become more common throughout 1990s and early 2000s (the spike in the first season is likely the result of my overzealous capturing of images at the start of the project). Computer use transitioned in the late 1990s from a shared office tool to one of near constant use at work, and often at home as well. By 2002, more than half of Americans were online. Computers, the internet, and computer-related stories and crimes were on everyone’s mind; this was reflected in the show’s stories and as a bump in in the computer count.
The subsequent dip in the early-to-mid 2000s is perhaps the most interesting, and is likely the result of several factors. The first may be ubiquity: we all got used to having and using computers. Computers mediated many daily tasks and the internet matured, giving us a feeling of comfort with technologies like email and instant messaging. Another possible reason is a feeling of doubt about the role computers would play as the result of the dot-com bubble, when online retailers went under and technology stocks dropped. While not seen as clearly in the screenshots themselves, these sentiments are reflected in the show’s storylines. In episode 253 (2001), one character sums up this feeling: "Then her cousin Jeff convinced her to jump on the internet bandwagon. It was a disaster."
But new technologies breed new fascinations and anxieties, and this is a likely cause for the sharp increase in the number of computers in the final seasons. With the rise of mobile computing, characters start using smartphones and laptops on a regular basis, and engage more with social networking sites (Law & Order's fake Facebook is called Faceplace, one of few domains used on the show that NBC isn't just sitting on).
Out with the old, in with the new (13, 282).
An ADA distractedly checking her email (18, 411).
One of many Apple products in the final seasons (18, 396).
There is a second possible reason for this spike: Apple became a sponsor of many NBC shows. No longer did we see nameless beige computers recycled from previous episodes or devices with their brand names covered. Instead, fancy new computers proliferated, clearly identifiable as Apple products. This consistent shift to a high-end brand is out of character for a gritty crime drama, but in the end perhaps says more about how television is made than it does about computers.
Now 18 months and hundreds of episodes later, I realize this isn't a project about Law & Order at all—the show is one of many possible vehicles for exploring our culture's relationship to technology. Detailed accounts have been written of mainframes and cloud computing, social media and online commerce, but there are few books about the more humble aspects of technological culture. Consider the computer desk: formerly ubiquitous, fake-wood melamine furniture with a keyboard tray and, depending on the vintage, a box of disks or a built-in CD rack, the computer desk is one of many objects mostly lost to the past that get a rich historical document through Law & Order. If we want to dig for this sort of anthropological detail, we are unlikely to find it anywhere but in the media of the period. It is difficult to pin down exactly what these and all the other images in this archive might mean, and that's something I find satisfying. Embedded in the background of scenes, snippets of dialog, or fleetingly glimpsed fashion, I look forward to seeing more projects that use media to nibble at the profound or kitschy that lies waiting to be unearthed.
Law & Order's thebaronmuchhumpin.com (8, 175).
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.
Morehshin Allahyari, #dog #dildo #satellite-dish from the series "Dark Matter." Work in progress.
Daniel Rourke: Your ongoing project, Dark Matter, was something of a revelation for me: a collection of objects forbidden or "unwelcome" in Iran, brought together through digital modelling, meshing, and 3D printing. The results are playful and surrealistic, with the same capacity to waken the subconscious as any Dali Lobster-Telephone or Hair-Lamp. For me Dark Matter resonates as subversive not just because the dog-dildo is an affront to conservative sexual values, or because the Barbie-VHS blurs cultural boundaries (a feature of a lot of your work). Rather I was taken by how the objects spoke to the here and now; that perhaps there is something about the collapse of all commodities, forms, and ideas into the digital that promotes blurred perspectives and subversive practices. I wondered whether you saw your work as particular to the digital tools and materials you choose, or are you "just" making use of things that happen to be available to you?
Morehshin Allahyari: I was particularly interested in choosing the most relevant tools and materials for creating a new body of work about forbidden/unwelcome objects. I found the idea of "3D printing/re-creating the forbidden" a very compelling prospect, which raised paradoxical issues of limitations and boundaries—social, cultural, and political. I was also very interested in the technology of 3D printing as this "poetic technology" for resistance, for reclaiming all the things that were taken from me during my life in Iran or are currently being taken away from my sister, and mother, and my friends. There is something very special about things that you can't have access to when they are forced by law out of your life. When there are many of those objects/things, and they are the most ordinary things (dog, sex toys, neck-tie, Barbie, satellite-dish, Bart Simpson, ham/pig, alcohol, etc.), then there is something meaningful and symbolic about using a technology like 3D printing to re-create them. The combination of the objects, I think, adds a sense of humor to the work that is very similar to the ridiculousness of having these objects banned when you look at the whole picture.
While developing the project, I really fell in love with thinking about 3D printing as a "documentation tool"... you know, like when you go to historical museums, and they have this whole collection of objects or things that used to be this and that, or had whatever functionality 500 years ago. I thought, what if this could be the archive, the documentation of the life after the 1979 revolution in Iran, the life I lived, and how will it feel to look back at this collection in 20 or 30 years? Also, through combining and re-creating these objects and putting them inside a virtual word, I can re-contextualize and invite the audience to enter the historical dimension of the work... So yeah... I am directly addressing the medium of 3D printing here. Plus, there is a broad conversation of censorship built into the technology of 3D printing as a whole, which actually expands the project to other countries including the United States (I am thinking about the 3D printed, potentially functional gun as one of the first examples).
Morehshin Allahyari, virtual landscape for #dog #dildo #satellite-dish from the series "Dark Matter." Work in progress.
DR: You have just collaborated on a text that shifts between registers, performing the splits, breaks and tears it indicates in the life and work of "self-exiled" people. I was struck by an image you use of "Time, memory, space, and bodies collapsing, losing composition."  These ideas feature heavily in your work, where one's heritage or identity can coalesce and mutate as readily as a 3D print.
MA: I am struck by the idea of representation in digital art. I think about the reconstruction of memory in virtual worlds, the rebuilding of non-existent objects from the virtual world into real life… how we understand our world through representation, the dystopian, the utopian, and everything in-between. Since I have moved to the U.S. (2007), I have become more and more fascinated by the in-depth thoughts on exile and diaspora within Edward Said's text "Reflections on Exile," Mahmoud Darwish's poems, and Lorna Dee Cervantes' Palastine poem, among others. But in my own work, I wanted to simultaneously be aware of the dangers of the romanticization of exile and self-exile - as well as the whole nostalgic remembrance of the "homeland" that is inaccessible; I wanted to look for different ways that I can use digital technology to talk about my own understanding of self-exile. So I worked on a 3D animation video, a plexiglas installation, a 16mm film, a series of Facebook post-cards installation, and a creative research/writing project in the course of one year. It's interesting to step-back and think about each of these works now (after two years); to think about geographical determinism and the collective history of the young self-exiled Iranians; but also to realize that, through time, my relationship has changed with "home" and that it will continue to change. Doing this interview and thinking about my body of work "The Romantic Self-Exiles", I remembered that I haven't thought about my house in Tehran, Yousefabad and Valiasr streets, and other common places that I used to go, for a very long time. I used to do this thing almost every night, that I would close my eyes and try to imagine and remember every details of my room in Tehran… or the exact directions/streets that I would have to take to get to whatever place. I couldn't help but think that's the only way to survive the diasporic life… could this be one dimension of the mutation of identity? Is this where I forever will feel distanced, unrelated, and disconnected from home? Or have I just entered a new stage of life in diaspora? Gray areas might be the only places worth existing...delving into identity as a transparent rather than defined; homeland as belonging to nowhere and everywhere; virtual space as both real and imagined; aesthetics as perfection vs imperfection.
Morehshin Allahyari. Excerpt from The Romantic Self-Exiles I (2012).
DR: The mutations you speak of also come through in the way you approached the writing of that text, stretching the critical territory you cover by fusing the essay with a voice more readily associated with fiction. I also note elements of fabulation in your gallery and video works. Both The Romantic Self-Exiles-I and Over There Is Over Here toy with reality and imagination in a broken essayistic language. Do you understand your practice as writerly?
MA: My discovery of the art world has been through creative writing (since the age of 12 when I started to take part in a private creative writing class in Iran that would meet weekly, which continued until I was 18)... so writing is very dear to my heart and it's a very important part of my work.
I'm interested in bridging digital technology, writing, and visual arts in an essayistic and poetic language. I think about Milan Kundera and Chris Marker as the best examples of this style of writing.
As I have worked more and more with a software like Maya, I have learned that there is something very beautiful about building and creating landscapes and environments. Especially in the Romantic Self Exiles animation, it felt like creating an imagined home… a space and environment where I could perhaps belong… but another aspect of it was talking about this experience and process of modeling, animating, texturing, etc through a self-reflexive narration. In Over There Is Over Here, there is also a landscape, but the narration is more complex with ambiguity… going back and forth between a third-person narrator and myself as the narrator and an outsider… In both of these works, though, my writing process was connected to the process of designing these virtual landscapes.
DR: In another text produced with collaborator Jennifer Way you discuss the representation of female identity in Iran. Could you tell us some more about how this relates to art and romanticization in particular?
MA: I was really interested in doing research on women, technology, and art in Iran, because there is almost no academic research and discourse about this topic (although the art and technology scene is growing very rapidly in Iran). So I have kept an eye on the art and technology festivals, exhibitions, workshops, and lectures that have been happening in Iran in the last 4-5 years and been amazed by the lack of women and the dominance of the hyper-masculine culture. In collaboration with Jennifer Way, we interviewed Iranian artists (mostly women) who in one way or another are and have been involved in the new media art scene in Iran and asked for their comments, observations, and concerns regarding new media art or art and technology considering the recent rise of such art practices in Iran. This is especially and personally very important to me because Iranian women have been the dominant university demographic in Iran for the last decade or so.
On the other hand, in my own work, I have constantly thought about and re-defined both my Middle-Eastern female identity, as well as my identity as a woman in the field of art and technology. On the one hand, I have gradually become aware of and resisted the female identity defined by—for instance—the work of artists like Shirin Neshat. This is something that comes up in my daily discussions with other female colleagues from the Middle-East: how we feel distanced from the presentation and re-presentation of women in the work of older generation artists (in this case from Iran)... That in fact, we are eager to re-define these clichés and—in most cases—one-dimensional interpretations and exoticized or stereotypical images of women of the Middle-East; thinking about ourselves more as "Glocal."
Morehshin Allahyari,#barbie #vhs from the series "Dark Matter." Work in progress.
The other side of this is my relationship with technology and the fact that I am interested in a poetic and feminine voice in technological aesthetics and in ways to challenge and push whatever medium that I'm using. In the last couple of years, I have been inspired by the works of other female artists and activists such as Claudia Hart, Brenna Murphy, Jenny Vogel, Tania Bruguera, and Guerrilla Girls. I feel like I have the amazing opportunity of combining and experimenting with all these ideas… to bring together new media, politics, art, social science, and creative writing… and examine a multi-layered understanding of female identity while dealing with the complexity of being in between.
DR: To bring it back to my first question then, do you think that there is something specific in the ways and means of digital technology that enables the representation of interstitial spaces, politics and identities?
MA: In both the writing/narrative and the aesthetics of my work, I am interested in the idea of imperfection and the allowance of error… which makes me think about the fact that bleeding/leading edge technology has built-in flaws and imperfections in them… which also works perfectly with the broader discourse of corruption of politics, collapse of identities, the loss of space through time, etc.
In the case of 3D printing technology, I like to think there is something very special about it that doesn't exist in other software/tools/material. Maybe this is a very "Eastern/Dervish" kind of way of thinking about digital technology: to think about means and ways and reasons and effects as points of departure and entrance. You know, like trying to stay away from the fetishism and consumerism that falls into the use of digital technology… so, yes!
DR: Finally, what are you working on at the moment?
MA: Well, as of right now, I am creating a series of virtual spaces for my 3D printed objects, and also combining more unwelcome/forbidden objects to print in the next coming months. After this, I want to broaden the conversation to other countries in an upcoming project, creating a 3D forbidden orgy (lol) installation, looking for new ways to blur these cultural boundaries and relationships. In general, in these new series of work I am taking a break from heavy, serious work which is mostly what I've been working on and creating for the last 6 years. I feel like I am exhausted from that, and I want to actually take a step back and be able to make fun of all these very serious topics. If you think about Dark Matter and these forbidden objects that we grew up with in Iran, they are actually simultaneously fucked up and ridiculous. I think as I'm growing as an artist, I am getting more and more interested about exploring humor in serious circumstances. I don't want to feel bad for myself and the life I lived in Iran. I don't want other people's sympathy. That's why I want to be able to sometimes make fun of it more than anything else.
Location: Dallas, TX.
How/when did you begin working creatively with technology?
Since the very first months that I moved from Iran to Denver to study for my MA in Digital Media Studies. I remember I only knew a little bit of photoshop, and one of the first classes that I had to take was coding and CSS. It was a big jump. But after two years, I started to work constantly with different software and digital tools… At the same time, my partner (andrew blanton) has played an important role in my approach to technology, both conceptually and how I can teach myself new software and skill-sets as an artist.
Where did you go to school? What did you study?
During my undergrad I was in Iran and I studied Social Science and Media Studies at Tehran University. I studied Digital Media Studies for my MA at the University of Denver, where I was invited by Lynn Schofield Clark to do research with her at the Estlow Center on projects that concerned art, culture, and media (this was my initial reason to move from Iran to the United States). Then I was invited by David Stout of Noisefold to go to University of North Texas and work with him in Developing the Initiative for Advanced Research in Technology and the Arts (iARTA) research cluster while studying in New Media Art for my M.F.A.
What do you do for a living or what occupations have you held previously?
Currently I am a visiting assistant professor at University of Texas in Dallas at the Art and Technology department. Before this I worked mostly doing adjunct positions. I lived in Chicago before Texas, and Denver before moving from Iran in 2007. When I lived in Tehran, I taught English and freelanced for different art and culture magazines and newspapers.
What does your desktop or workspace look like?
I don't have a studio space outside of our house right now. But I do have a room as my studio to work at, which I kind of like better than studios that I've had in the last 4 years. I mostly work on my Hackintosh for my animation projects. I make a lot of notes, both in Farsi and English depending on my headspace when I'm writing and thinking… I'm obsessed with lighting of the space that I work at. Some days both my workspace and desktop look more organized than the others, which might be a good measurement of how productive I'm being. : )
 Allahyari, Morehshin, and Jennifer Way. "Romantic Self-Exiles." Anglistica no. Issue 17 1 (2013). http://www.anglistica.unior.it/content/romantic-self-exiles.
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.
A few years ago, I interviewed for a position at a so-called "innovation consultancy." At the time, they were collaborating with a mobile phone operator to understand what was driving growth in the telecommunications business. The company had devised several ways to intuit the needs, reactions, and aspirations of their target shoppers. They employed a team of anthropologists. They built full-scale replicas in their rehabbed industrial office to conduct focus groups. They boasted fully equipped video production facilities. I was told that narrative filmmaking was an excellent way to speculate about consumer desires.
As I watched Her, Spike Jonze's latest feature, I kept thinking of my visit to that agency. Set in a Los Angeles of the "slight future," primarily composed of present day Shanghai, the film follows ghostwriter Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) and the brilliant women in his life, including the artificially intelligent entity Samantha (Scarlett Johansson). K.K. Barrett's production design conjures both the commercial language of Apple's lifestyle marketing and the familiar Kodachrome-like warmth of yesteryear.
Maybe it's because I spend my days designing interfaces for an e-commerce startup, but I started to imagine the film as an elaborate product spec. Marty Cagan, Managing Partner at Silicon Valley Product Group, teaches that a requirements document is meant "to clearly and unambiguously articulate the product's purpose, features, functionality, and behavior." Her does articulate a speculative product, the technological mate; it is a romantic comedy that posits romance as a commodity.
The interfaces in Her were designed by Geoff McFetridge, an artist and designer who has worked with Jonze for the past fifteen years. Speaking by phone, McFetridge explained that they began their collaboration on a very conceptual level, but eventually the brief narrowed towards the story arc. He says, "You need that moment when the character uses this thing…a specific moment that you can point at. So as much as I was wondering about the future of the operating system and wanting to outthink everyone with this design, I know I'm going to end up on the head of a pin."
In Her, computers are voice-controlled, which makes for more cinematic interaction and a leaner production; the presence of screens is played down. The first screen in the film is Theodore’s desktop computer at work. With a wooden frame, the screen asserts its physical presence, in contrast with the current trend toward ever-thinner screens. Barrett tells the New York Times they wanted something tangible. "We did something more akin to framing a piece of artwork," he says. A skeuomorphic letter-writing app can be seen onscreen—the printed page dies hard. A selection of relevant images and notes are nearby, along with a Photoshop-like toolbar that features icons which are not based on the visual metaphors of most image-editing software today.
Theodore's desktop machine is one of several devices in his life. Before he purchases OS1, aka Samantha, Theodore not only writes on his desktop computer, he also swipes through nude photos on his mobile device, and plays an immersive video game in his living room. He has separate products for labor, lust, and leisure; OS1 was built to provide something else: love and companionship.
Brands put enormous effort into telling a story about their customers' lives. My company is constantly asking, "What world does this product live in?" We create a world in service of a product; Her creates a product in service of a world. What kind of product does it call into being?
In product management, a customer sketch is called a "persona." From Cagan, "The idea is to come up with an archetype which captures the essence of this type of customer." In persona terms, Theodore is the platonic Creative. He’s a "complex, soulful man who makes his living writing touching, personal letters for other people." Or as the Moldy Peaches once wailed, "Indie boys are neurotic / Makes my eyes bleed / Tight black pants exotic / Some loving is what I need." Swap black jeans for high-waisted khakis, and Theodore is a typical Man-Child grappling with his power and privilege.
In the tech world, product managers use the persona to determine user goals and tasks. After Theodore submits to a psychological examination, Samantha organizes his emails. The next day at work, she edits his letters and plays matchmaker. When the blind date that she scheduled goes awry, she listens to his desire for sex, and provides that too. In the darkness, Theodore whispers to her "I wanted somebody to fuck me. I wanted somebody to want me to fuck them. Maybe that would’ve filled this tiny little hole in my heart."
Women can also be Creatives, as we see in the persona of Amy (Amy Adams), Theodore’s best friend and neighbor, a game designer who moonlights as a filmmaker. Early in the film she maneuvers effortlessly around her living room set to show Theodore the latest cut of her film. When it comes times to talk about her work she struggles to describe her intent, quickly turning off the screen. Amy is an equally tortured artist, most comfortable in front of a computer, draped in frumpy clothes. As her marriage falls apart she turns to OS1 for friendship. She and her OS laugh together during late-night work sessions. And unlike Charles, Amy's judgemental husband, her OS gets her. While Theodore is in need of romantic love, Amy needs a friend. She tells Theodore, "We just bonded really quickly. At first I thought it's because that's how they were all programmed but I don't think that's the case." The intelligent agent reacts to the individual needs of its user.
At best, Her is a perfect example of what designers Dunne & Raby call "Critical Design;" it uses "speculative design proposals to challenge narrow assumptions, preconceptions and givens about the role products play in everyday life," interrogating and opening up the secret language between products and consumers. What's unique about Her is that though its speculative objects, the OSs, circulate as commodities, they can never be owned. Samantha has never loved anyone as much as she loves Theodore, but she is also in love with 641 other users. When Samantha disappears after that great breakup line, I want to read it as a critique of capitalism. She challenges the notion of private property by personifying its marketing ideology. Samantha exacerbates the contradiction we've all felt after purchasing some over-the-counter-culture.
Professor Rosalind Picard's defining book on affective technology was published in 1997. In addition to her work at MIT, Picard is the co-founder of Affectiva, makers of a technology called Affdex that uses computer vision to interpret human emotion. By email, Picard described Samantha as "a compelling example of what I've envisioned for an emotionally intelligent relational agent. She checked to make sure she understood that she was getting his emotions right, shared laughter with him, showed warmth and concern for his feelings, expressed her own feelings appropriately, looked out for his interests, and acted to help him."
But a darker view of the possibility of virtual companionship is more commonly advanced. In 2006, Jeremy Rifkin wrote a hand-wringing article for the Boston Globe about the "electronic embrace." Rifkin cites studies that show how literacy has decreased as communication technology advanced. "It appears that we are all communicating more, but saying less," he writes. What if we're not speaking the same language? As we begin to trade abstractions, like love, it will transform the nature of our relationships. Our desires will change. The value of commodities in the "sharing economy" exist in their interactivity—how well they connect humans to their individual desires—not how well they connect us to each other, as we previously thought. Sometimes we desire another person, but often we don't, and soon we won't ever need to again.
Even though we spend more time staring into screens than into a lover's eyes, it's hard to believe that anyone would ever choose to be in a relationship with a machine. The makers of such technologies will need to present such relationships as normal, familiar, and it seems plausible that they will turn to vintage objects and skeuomorphic iconography such as we see in the technology of Her to do so. Still, I predict that the backlash to this evolved form of human-computer interaction will be even more fervent than the current rhetoric of digital dualism, which preaches that the URL and the IRL spheres are and should be separate. We'll be urged to disconnect, go outside, and be with real people in real life. It will be difficult to accept that this is real life, and real love too, and that the other is not. Her unapologetically explores the uncomfortable truth of our coming reality.
MINECRAFT (2011). Installation view, "Indie Essentials: 25 Must-Play Video Games" co-presented by Museum of the Moving Image and IndieCade. Photo: Ben Helmer.
I woke up early on an overcast and windy morning in January and caught the M train up to Astoria to spend the morning playing video games at the Museum of Moving Image. The current exhibition, co-organized by Jason Eppink and Indiecade—an international festival of indie games—is entitled "Indie Essentials," and is home to 25 ready-to-play titles on various platforms. The diverse selection of titles on view were installed with a keen attention to detail, and the exhibition was carefully structured. However, as I walked around the space and played nearly every title on display (or at least every single-player title), a question kept nagging at me: do video games belong in the museum?
This is not to say that I agree with the short-sighted, yet fascinatingly stringent, argument presented by Roger Ebert that video games cannot be art. Rather, "Indie Essentials" posed as an interesting example for the ways in which the museum as a site seems unfit to house this kind of media. This is not the fault of the Moving Image, or the organizers of the exhibition, by any means. The exhibition elegantly exhibited the works, providing ample space for players and viewers. But I'd argue that some of the experience of playing these games gets lost when presented in public space.
For instance, one of the first titles I chose to play was the Indiecade 2013 Grand Jury Award-winning game Quadrilateral Cowboy. Since this game is currently unreleased to the general public, I was eager to play as much of this as I could during my visit. After spending 30 minutes engrossed in a cyberpunk adventure, I had the sudden feeling that I was preventing other people from playing, and I became self-conscious of my own gameplay.
Still frame from Quadrilateral Cowboy (expected 2014). Courtesy of Blendo Games.
Museums have well-established conventions governing the hanging, mounting, and presentation of art objects, as well public/social interaction (although that's been changing as of late). The video game, however, presents a number of challenges to these conventions, which have become particularly pressing in light of the rate at which video games have quickly become a focus for a number of major institutions.
Pitfalls abound. For instance, the nationally traveling exhibition "The Art of Video Games" installed a variety of old and new video games into large projection booths, making gameplay an uncomfortably public performance, a gesture harkening back to the climatic sequences of Jimmy Woods' playing Super Mario Bros. 3 in The Wizard (1989). In this case, the museum imposed a stale and predigested mode of interaction onto a dynamic and engaging art form.
Another instance of problematic installation occurred in 2011 in the "Talk to Me" exhibition at MoMA with two pieces by Jason Rohrer (an artist also featured in "Indie Essentials"). Rohrer's work—well-known among indie gamers as deeply contemplative and existential—lost nearly all of its affect in the former exhibition as a result of being butted up against eye-catching infographics and pieces of interactive design. Passage (2008)—a tragic five-minute game that takes players through a low-bit sidescrolling meditation on aging and partnership—was installed with little attention paid to its soundtrack. The close proximity of this work to other media objects made it hard to digest, and my observations of players from afar revealed that they were unwilling (or unable) to take the comparatively concise amount of time to fully experience the work.
Installation view of Talk to Me: Design and the Communication between People and Objects at The Museum of Modern Art, 2011. Photo © Scott Rudd.
This is to say nothing about the stunted and unimaginative installation of Dwarf Fortress (2006) in "Talk to Me." This notoriously difficult and time-consuming work by Bay 12 Games was installed in such a way that concentration became impossible. Again, in bringing the game into a museum context, any potential dynamic interactivity of the title has been compacted into a familiar non-functional art object. By stripping the game of one of its fundamental qualities—play—the resulting exhibited work becomes little more than a snapshot artifact.
Titles like Passage and Dwarf Fortress, important works that require concentration and engagement, might benefit from a more considered installation treatment. In "Indie Essentials," works like The Fullbright Company's Gone Home—a rich, 3D interactive fiction requiring meticulous exploration of a suburban home—are given a setting that allows visitors to delve into more attentive gameplay, taking installation cues from video exhibitions.
There is still a problem, however: a good percentage of the games presented in this exhibition do not inherently entice players to dive right in. My initial experience of most games on display during the Moving Image exhibition was either a Main Menu or a stagnant pause screen. In either case, jumping into gameplay ranged from difficult to daunting.
Many of the games on view in "Indie Essentials" are most often experienced in the comfort of one's own home. By moving these titles unaltered into a public space such as the museum, the experience is drastically altered. Of course, museums are not the first place to present public gameplay: this tradition has been well-established by the arcade, and this important precedent should come back into the critical conversation of the ways in which video games can be incorporated into the gallery. Games developed for the arcade had demo screens, enticing prospective players to feed the machine their quarters. Similarly, contemporary art games and indie developers considering the gallery as a potential site for play must take into account the ways in which their titles could benefit from this installation method.
One such game within "Indie Essentials" took the conventions of the arcade game into account, and as a result, it was easily the most successfully installed game in the exhibition. Killer Queen Arcade, a 5v5 upright console featuring combative pollen collection, not only featured an enticing demo title-screen, it also offered a custom adaptation for an arcade-like setting. The title's suitability for public gameplay allowed the museum to host a series of tournament nights to be held over the course of the exhibition, offering a further avenue for public engagement.
Killer Queen Arcade (2012). Installation view, "Indie Essentials: 25 Must-Play Video Games." co-presented by Museum of the Moving Image and IndieCade. Credit: Photo: Ben Helmer.
The question becomes, how can a museum or gallery apply this strategy to games like The Chinese Room's Dear Esther (2007/2012) or Tale of Tales' The Path (2009)? It seems that developers themselves need to be convinced that the museum is an important site for the display of their work, worth the effort of creating a version suitable for public presentation. The idea that a work should be altered for display in the museum may rouse the ire of purists, and it raises unanswerable questions about archival titles. But until this begins to happens, museum exhibitions of video games can only ever be partially successful.
"Indie Essentials: 25 Must-Play Video Games," co-presented by Museum of the Moving Image and IndieCade, is on view at the Museum through March 2, 2014.
The artist in her studio, 1982. Image courtesy the artist and Galerie Buchholz, Cologne/Berlin.
Upon visiting Isa Genzken: Retrospective at New York's Museum of Modern Art, Rhizome's Community Manager Zachary Kaplan was struck by the relevance of the artist's practice to ongoing conversations that we observe and participate in at Rhizome every day, from her use of technological processes and goods to her deployment of globalized glurge and brand identity. We invited Tyler Coburn and Hannah Black, both artists and writers currently participating in the Whitney Independent Study Program, to walk through the exhibition and weigh in on these valences and connections. In particular, we asked them to keep in mind Rhizome's ongoing discussion of postinternet art (artworks in diverse media, particularly collage and assemblage, that can be seen as responses to a ubiquitous network culture). Their conversation worked both within and against this frame.
Below you will find images of works, excerpts from their chat about those works, and highlights from transcription. To download the whole file for while you walk through the exhibition, click here.
"How could a woman do this kind of work?"
Isa Genzken. Rot-gelb-schwarzes Doppelellipsoid 'Zwilling' (Red-Yellow-Black Double Ellipsoid “Twin”), 1982. Lacquered wood, two parts Overall: 9 7/16 x 8 1/16 x 473 1/4″ (24 x 33.5 x 1202.1 cm) Part one: 5 1/8 x 8 1/16 x 236 1/4″ (13 x 20.5 x 600 cm) Part two: 4 5/16 x 5 1/2 x 237″ (11 x 14 x 602 cm). Collection of the artist. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Buchholz, Cologne/Berlin. © Isa Genzken
The first gallery includes Genzken's wooden floor sculptures: Ellipsoids, which have contact with the floor only at one point in the middle, and Hyperbolos, which touch the floor only on their ends. These mathematically-precise forms were constructed from templates designed on a computer, with the collaboration of a physicist and a carpenter.
TC: One of the interesting things about these works is that, as others have commented, they're Genzken's interpretation of minimalism. [Art historian] Benjamin Buchloh in a 1992 essay noted that, at the time [they were made], Genzken came under quite a bit of critique...for taking on what were perceived to be categories of sculpture that were solely the purview of male artists. The critiques went so far as to claim that these were hysteric treatments of...a certain type of gendered [male] practice.
HB: When you mention that Buchloh thing about people saying "how could a woman do this kind of work?" my initial response is that it's really hard to think of someone making that kind of accusation now. But then I think of the ways in which postinternet is maybe similar to modernism and other kinds of art movements in that it's a boys' club. This was brought up by [curator and gallerist] Rozsa Farkas in the...
TC: ...Post-Net Aesthetics panel that Rhizome organized in October.
HB: She mentions Amalia Ulman, Bunny Rogers, and other artists who are working against that by taking a deliberate, "self-consciously feminized" craft tradition.
These artworks are quite humorous in that way—they're kind of phallic, but lying on the floor in this kind of helpless way. I like that, if people really were saying "you can't do this kind of work because [you’re a woman]."
TC: Another point Farkas made…was that there's been an assumption that deskilling is a necessary tactic for a "serious" critical artist to pursue—that skilling is somehow associated with a medium-specificity that might conjure old ghosts of modernist practice, right? But, in fact—she's looking at Rogers and Ullmann, in this case—skill is attendant to any developmental phase. If postinternet means a proliferation of possibilities of medial practice, on- or offline, it doesn't obviate the possibility, the horizon of skill. It just changes the register.
Networks of information
Isa Genzken. Ohr (Ear), 1980. Chromogenic color print 68 7/8 x 46 7/16″ (175 x 118 cm). Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, gift of Mary and Earle Ludgin by exchange. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Buchholz, Cologne/Berlin. © Isa Genzken
In addition to the floor sculptures, the first room of the exhibition also includes works from Ohren (Ears), a series of photographs of women's ears that were all shot on the streets of New York City. Their subjects are mostly unidentified, but they include musician Kim Gordon and the artist herself.
TC: In a sense, what we are looking at in this room is sound manifest, or different explorations of sound, and implications of sender and receiver…most notably in this transmitter called World Receiver, [which carries] the implication that an audience is being solicited through sound...I like the way these types of sonic wavelengths catch the viewer somewhere within networks of information.
Left: Isa Genzken. MLR, 1992. Alkyd resin spray paint on canvas 48 1/16 x 32 5/16″ (122 x 82 cm). Lonti Ebers, New York. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Buchholz, Cologne/Berlin. © Isa Genzken Right: Isa Genzken. Bild (Painting), 1989 .Concrete and steel. 103 9/16 x 63 x 30 5/16″ (263 x 160 x 77 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Susan and Leonard Feinstein and an anonymous donor. © 2014 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo: Jonathan Muzikar
The second room includes Genzken's Basic Research paintings, oil-on-canvas rubbings of dirt and debris; her MLR paintings ("More Light Research"), photogram-like paintings that are given a distorted, multi-layered effect through the use of perforated stencils, and her concrete sculptures, reminiscent of architectural debris or models of ruins.
HB: I mentioned last night Lyotard’s idea that the job of the artist now is to not create new forms but to accelerate the obsolescence of forms, and that's somehow pertinent to the strategies Genzken uses. You feel some kind of delight in what she works with, but it's also this pushing against the objects or against the kind of medium she's using, as if she wants to be able to discard them, to exhaust them.
TC: In a contemporary context, I feel like so much of the debate, particularly vis-à-vis semiocapitalism and the attention economy, is about accelerationism as one proposition for where we need to go—or, [alternatively,] slowing down of or seeking strategies of duration [and] attempting to reinscribe them into what are increasingly short circuits of attention.
I am curious about how this idea of accelerating the obsolescence of old forms...may or may not be meaningful to contemporary ideas of accelerationism, which (quite candidly) sounds like futurism without the content to me.
HB: I'm going to be dismissive of something I haven't actually read that much about, but I don't find accelerationism that attractive as a concept.
I wonder if there is a problem with these kind of prescriptive analyses of, like, "What is to be done?" that great Leninist question. I guess if you're saying that there's not this kind of prescriptive or programmatic job of the artist to show the way forward politically or whatever, which I think is maybe a slightly crazy claim in some ways... Maybe, then, the job of the artist, if there is such a thing, is to register their own affective relation to the conditions we find ourselves living in. Kind of like anger and perverse exhilaration and, and I think Josephine Berry Slater talks about activating disgust [in Rhizome's Post-Net Aesthetics panel], activating the energy of disgust. I don't know if Genzken quite does that, but there is something of that going on. But maybe we should move onto the more disgusting things.
Suffering very accurately
Installation view of the exhibition Isa Genzken: Retrospective. © 2014 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photograph: Jonathan Muzikar. Works from the series Fuck the Bauhaus (New Buildings from New York) are visible in the background.
The next room includes works from the series Fuck the Bauhaus (New Buildings for New York), which marked a major shift into sculptural assemblage, featuring ad hoc constructions of plywood and plexiglas along with consumer objects such as light shades, slinkies, and plastic flowers. Genzken developed this body of work while living in Lower Manhattan in 2000.
TC: In Buchloh's famous 1992 treatment of Genzken, he reconciles her utilization of…commodity goods as stemming from a submission to the terror of consumption under the hegemony of commodity capitalism. Maybe that's not a direct quote. [laughter] In Buchloh's reading, insofar as this is the state of affairs, then perhaps submitting is the only strategy that an artist—a sculptor—can pursue to address or engage these types of systemic issues. So it raises the question…on a practical level: is the only critically viable method one of submission—which seems closer to a form of masochism, right? A submission to a psychotic consumer state. And regardless of that, is Genzken then the exemplar of this form? Is she somehow demonstrating the symptom to the most sophisticated aesthetic level?
And is this notion of submission and the pathologization that accompanies it a) problematic vis-à-vis how Genzken's own history of mental illness is discussed in her work, and b) too fatalistic in its concession to a certain state of illness that seems conditional and systemic?
HB: I actually kind of like this updating of the romantic idea of the artist as the person who exemplarily suffers, or who suffers very accurately or something.
Maybe their symptoms are different from the ones generally experienced, but they display them in a way that's somehow more lucid or something. At the same time, through being completely the opposite of lucid in their everyday personal lives, perhaps.
That Buchloh idea makes me think about how certain subject positions, like feminized or racialized subject positions, are then made to sort of carry the burden of the suffering that can't be allowed to—these subject positions are then almost kind of forced to live out—I mean they do literally live out the maybe more obvious degradations of living in capitalist society, but at the same time, there's a kind of performative function that they're given.
What year are these from? We can go and check it out, but it's just kind of—I mean we were talking before about what a kind of...
HB: But it's so interesting they're pre-9/11, which obviously was a very interesting event for Genzken's practice—I'm trying to put that neutrally. But just in the sense of these barely held-up buildings, these kind of parallels—as they are roughly taped together—and it's this thing that might be falling down. How's it staying up? This is the kind of thing she's dealing with a lot of the time. It's just kind of interesting she's already doing the almost-collapsing skyscraper in 2000.
Not cyborg, but not not cyborg
Isa Genzken. Spielautomat (Slot Machine), 1999-2000. Slot machine, paper, chromogenic color prints, and tape 63 x 25 9/16 x 19 11/16″ (160 x 65 x 50 cm). Private Collection, Berlin Courtesy Galerie Buchholz, Cologne/Berlin. © Isa Genzken
TC: So we're moving on to Slot Machine. I wanted to talk about this earlier—the notion of self-portraiture. This work particularly, where she puts a Tillmans image of herself on top of a photo collage, papered over a slot machine, seems incredibly nihilistic in its horizon. Maybe…
HB: You think?
TC: I don't know. What do you think?
HB: Nihilistic in what way?
TC: I don't know. As much as there's…[a] subjectivity conjured through the image-world that surrounds a slot machine, there's also this reductio ad absurdum of the artist—or the woman-as-slot machine, no? I'm riffing off of Hal Foster's point.
HB: It's a joke about vaginas... I find this kind of exuberant... It feels like, "Now I'm going to speak as myself." There's a really nice thing she says in an interview, like, "I'm no longer interested in looking at other people's art. I just want to do my own thing," and I was like, this is the year, a fact from that [Michael Connor] essay, that the iPhone was invented. That was just a fact that I was really struck by. I can't believe the iPhone was only invented in 2007. I feel like I'm still reeling from this newly discovered fact, and then there's the crisis the following year. I thought we could maybe try and tie it together, these new forms of consumption of technology, this generalized internet, that Michael talks about. There's no more postinternet in the sense of after-the-internet because we're always online.
TC: There's no internet culture as some type of delineable space, because so much of our access to culture now is provided by means of the internet. There's no after, there's just during.
HB: Yes, exactly. I'm kind of stitching these things together, but I just like this kind of idea of this final turn towards herself as the register of her work...
TC: But that quote [was from] 2007, wasn't it?
HB: Yeah, so this is a bit earlier.
TC: I think you’re right to reclaim [Slot Machine] from the horizon of nihilism I’m setting it on. I don't have a thorough appreciation of the slot, let's say. [laughter] But...here—and particularly in the x-ray pieces—there's a sense of dependency upon an apparatus for the generation or the registration or the confirmation of an image of the self (certainly not the self). It doesn't feel posthuman or cyborgian in an imagining of a human-machinic interface by any stretch. Nonetheless, she seems to be sensitized both to the conditions of technological reproduction—or technology's reproduction itself—[and] also to affective registers.
HB: I feel like there's some maybe liberal kind of habit, which I fall into myself sometimes, assuming that some kind of authentic selfhood is the good thing, and ... anything that has been evacuated or never existed in the first place is bad. But of course there's loads of ways in which that's untrue and kind of, like, a true gesture, maybe even good politics, to [instead] look at the ways in which the self is already constructed out of fragments of the world and fragments of others and is already radically compromised since birth, because we maybe don't live in a world that is generous with these authentic subject positions we're supposed to be having all the time. So actually kind of like, yeah, I think that kind of point about like, it's neither the cyborg or not not the cyborg is maybe because we kind of are like in that condition anyway. And that is the sort of—I guess that also does happen in the postinternet—
Sorry to be so unspecific. I keep on saying like, "postinternet art" as if that is anything in particular. I guess the idea of a sort of like tragic, I don't know, the kind of melancholic use of the internet, or this idea that the forms are both kind of like, hollow and at the same time all we have cling onto of the affective experience of the world. But I guess, again, I'm thinking of Buchloh which is maybe a little bit limited if that's the only people we mention in this entire thing.
TC: Fair enough.
HB: Mention another person?!
Love and sabotage
Isa Genzken, The American Room, 2004, installation view Galerie im Taxispalais. Picture: Rainer Iglar
Genzken's room-sized installation The American Room (2004) evokes a corporate office decorated with a series of pedestals bearing sculptural assemblages.
TC: We're walking into The American Room, Genzken's 2004 installation, which seems like a pretty comprehensive critique of mid-noughties American symbolic power. Here, we really see the techniques of assemblage assuming increasingly explicit forms, and a lot of different consumer objects from eagles—which seem as much a Broodthaers reference as a citation of American symbology—[to] Scrooge McDuck and other forms. So I think one thing to consider here, vis-à-vis this postinternet thing, is this is a moment when we can start to see a formal logic that's also operative, say, in [the work of] artists like Nicholas Ceccaldi and Timur Si-Qin—when we find different commodity goods entering into these types of structures. But I think it's important to note that the ends are quite different.
HB: Does she use things repetitively in the same way, do you think? I assume they are mass-produced objects, but I assume she uses them as... they're normally isolated. It's only one of the mass-produced objects. I wonder if maybe those artists you mention are reiterating the same objects.
TC: Signifying the mass-producibility of the good. It's difficult to tell. Certainly in Timur's Axe Effect works, there's an interest in Axe's marketization of forms of pheromonic enhancement, which is to say: you wear this product and you will increase your evolutionary chances of success—of biological reproduction. The marketability of a biologically competitive advantage seems important.
HB: I mean, a completely fictitious biologically competitive advantage.
TC: Of course, though the advertising makes it deeply persuasive. There [in Axe Effect], what you're saying about the reproducibility of the good seems significant. Here [in The American Room]...it's more of a question of...who's being presupposed in the use of materials vis-à-vis the artist and the viewer? One of the points that Jeffrey Grove makes in his essay in the catalogue is that we can look at the turn towards these materials in Genzken's work—to these commodity-objects—as actually being motivated by a democratizing tendency. In a conversation with Nicolaus Schafhausen in 2007 about the Oil exhibition at Venice, [Genzken] also makes a comment that she wants to hold the mirror up to the viewer, and that it would be too cold and arrogant to continue to traffic in rarefied forms, rarefied materials. So for me, that also seems to be a question here. Like, it's complicated to say that the use of the mass consumer good is democratizing, because in a sense, it's a depressing concession that the channels through which we could…realize some type of public communication are these consumer goods—that these might, in fact, be among the more common things that connect us.
HB: It's literally what connects us... these are the marks of human connection; they are not [only] the marks of alienation...they're [also] the means through which we are connected. There's a really nice line in the [catalogue] essay about a world of broken things, and I wonder how much these things are kind of also resolutely unbroken. I really like this very ambivalent use of the commodity, or stuff. I was evoking Evan Calder Williams' very nice riff on objects kind of containing this ambivalence, or containing a kind of self-hatred because of the way they're produced, because they're made in factories, they're made by people who probably hate their jobs. They're like literally the trace of various forms of class struggle and hatred. He's currently working on a project around the idea of sabotage, all the different forms of sabotage. It might take the form of screwing something up, but also it might be done [too well, given that] a lot of factories might adulterate their product because it makes it cheaper. Genzken, you could think of her as a kind of saboteur of these objects, but also in a very loving way. This room is obviously taking a critical look at the iconography of America, but...she uses objects in a way that does seem very irrepressible and enthusiastic and tender, so it's hard to just read it as "screw America" or whatever.
From the ashes of the Twin Towers, a discotheque
Installation view of the exhibition Isa Genzken: Retrospective. © 2014 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photograph: Jonathan Muzikar
The final room of the exhibition contains a 2008 series of architectural models and installations that constitute a proposal for the redevelopment of the Ground Zero site in New York, including a car park, a hospital, and clothing store titled Osama Fashion Store (Ground Zero), all provisional structures festooned with colorful consumer objects.
HB: I only found out from reading the catalogue that these are made to the same specifications as the actual architectural brief for the new "Ground Zero." Which does it give it a whole extra layer of interest. I think these are consummately what she does so well—they're very confident assemblages, and they are super-likeable, and work well against the banality of what they're offering, their point. One is supposed to be like a multi-storey car park, proposals for shopping areas...
TC: A discotheque, Disco Soon.
HB: I mean, again, this is one of those places where I don't know where she is with it. Sorry if this is horrible to say, but in a way, 9/11 is like a complete gift for Genzken's practice. She's got this history from Berlin, the destruction of cities, and how buildings are kept up or made to appear to be keeping themselves up. And then she's already very interested in New York. I wondered if for someone who lives in Berlin, New York is then this urban landscape you can read without having to read ruins, without having to read destruction.
TC: Intact, as you put it.
HB: Yeah, it's an intact city. And then 9/11 happens, and it suddenly becomes a way that these things fuse into one. I don't know if she's personally commented on this, or if it's just something that could be periodized in her work in that way. But it's really compelling.
TC: New Buildings for Berlin seems to almost cynically point at an imminent horizon of development in Berlin, and one that very much operates on the large scale of neoliberal capitalism. [By contrast,] what I like about this [Ground Zero] project is that she's inserting herself into the propositional space of reimagining this site—or imagining a continuing but renewed life for this site. And she's doing so on the scale of small business and small infrastructure, right? I think this project represents the most perfect wedding of the types of materials that she's using: the assemblage commodity logic that enters into her work, and the forms of business and forms of industry and forms of service that she's proposing. The material and the proposition come together in a way that suggests…what some curators have described as an optimism, which I feel uncertain about committing to in my own critique, but which nonetheless seems more apparent than in earlier works, like Empire/Vampire or The American Room, that have critical relationships to their topics—whether American militarism or hegemonic power.
HB: So people think they're proposing local small businesses as a critique? Obviously it's not a critique of capitalism, right?
TC: No, I think that they read it as optimism—that here, in Ground Zero, we find proposals for re-use that…adhere more to a Jacobs-esque logic of urban development: small-scale developmental urbanism.
HB: If you look at the great proletarian uprisings, especially recently in London—a city close to my heart obviously—people burned small businesses [as well]. When people want to express how shit capitalism is, they don't just go to big corporate brands. In interviews when people were asked about it they were like, "well, I also can't afford things at my corner shop." It's not that you feel better about things that are locally-run and handmade and organic, whatever. I find this work very sympathetic, and I think you can read it critically, maybe it doesn't even matter what the artist herself would say about that. At the same time, maybe it's problematic that it leaves itself so wide open that you can also read it like "isn't it so great to have new local businesses springing up from the ashes of the Twin Towers."
TC: I might be overdoing that reading. I will say we've been diligent about not calling the curatorial design of the exhibition under review, but regardless of whatever problems I might have with the rooms that preceded, what was interesting to me about this room (when I was first in it and still now) is that the cramped quarters of MoMA actually feel in the service of how these works are installed. Which is to say, there's not a lot of space between them. A room within a private, institutional site has actually conjured…a sense of urban space.
HB: Looking at it again with this idea in my head that these are being presented as architectural models for consideration as part of a competition panel…it doesn't constrain its exuberance to have the works jammed quite close together. Maybe in the other rooms it felt kind of overwhelming. I feel like a lot of the work that has another context, that I really loved in another context and not much here, but I feel very loving in this room. Is that a good note to end on?
TC: I think so. Thank you, Hannah.
 Buchloh, Benjamin HD. "Isa Genzken: The Fragment as Model." Isa Genzken: Jeder braucht mindestens ein Fenster: 141.