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Articles on this Page
- 02/05/14--09:17: _Launching Rhizome's...
- 02/06/14--07:34: _Welcome to Your New...
- 02/07/14--07:30: _To Program a Prose ...
- 02/10/14--10:30: _I (No Longer) Have ...
- 02/11/14--09:01: _Getty Images: Still...
- 02/12/14--07:45: _Community Campaign ...
- 02/12/14--09:01: _Dating Advice Needed
- 02/13/14--10:41: _TEDxVaduz: Towards ...
- 02/14/14--07:22: _Shia LaBeouf: Is th...
- 02/17/14--07:17: _Artists in the C A ...
- 02/18/14--07:00: _Bitcoin and the Spe...
- 02/18/14--11:42: _Always Evolving, Hi...
- 02/20/14--09:42: _Before and After Ub...
- 02/21/14--08:58: _Welcome to the Inte...
- 02/21/14--12:00: _Wavelength: The VAP...
- 02/22/14--11:50: _Watch 'This is the ...
- 12/13/13--10:07: _48 Artists (and Rhi...
- 02/24/14--08:46: _Hey: Your data-driv...
- 02/25/14--07:12: _I Mean Business: th...
- 02/25/14--11:23: _A New Office for Rh...
- 02/07/14--07:30: To Program a Prose Machine
- "Deleted Cities" in the Rhizome Artbase.
- "New in the ArtBase: Twilight Screensaver (1991) for Atari TOS"
- "Olia Lialina, 'Summer'" (2013)
- 02/11/14--09:01: Getty Images: Still Kinda Sexist?
- 02/12/14--07:45: Community Campaign 2014 — Donate to Sustain Commissions to Artists
- 02/12/14--09:01: Dating Advice Needed
- 02/13/14--10:41: TEDxVaduz: Towards a new future through a moribund format
- 02/14/14--07:22: Shia LaBeouf: Is there genius in his endgame?
- 02/17/14--07:17: Artists in the C A S C A D E: Kari Altmann and Rhizome's Insta
- 02/18/14--07:00: Bitcoin and the Speculative Anarchist
- 02/18/14--11:42: Always Evolving, Historically Rooted — Rhizome Needs Your Support
- 02/21/14--08:58: Welcome to the Internet Smoking Room
- 02/21/14--12:00: Wavelength: The VAPECRU Mixtape
- 02/22/14--11:50: Watch 'This is the ENDD' Live from 3-6pm EST
- 12/13/13--10:07: 48 Artists (and Rhizome) remember when...
- 02/25/14--07:12: I Mean Business: the e-cigarette store and how we sell technology
- 02/25/14--11:23: A New Office for Rhizome (Means Even More Reasons to Donate)
Had we taken this Chris Burden piece (Tower of Power, 1985) from the New Museum recently, we'd be set.
We're launching our six-week community campaign today.
Will you make a donation this year?
As Rhizome's Director, I'll kick off this year's campaign by answering a question I'm sometimes asked: What will Rhizome's role be in the near future, when "art and technology" has fully embedded itself into "contemporary art and culture," in no small part due to our efforts over the past 17 years? Will there be a need for this organization's focus?
Today, I'm asking you to contribute to Rhizome, in order that we can help keep this conversation moving forward. Organizations like ours require continued, yearly support for our core programs in order to survive. Give today—you'll receive a gift, and a shout-out during a 24-hour IRL/URL telethon on March 19—but, more, you'll enable us to continue our work, online and off.
Photo: Andreas Nicolas Fischer.
A kind of cold weather antipode of summer's "Love Parade," the Transmediale 2014 media arts festival was a beacon of light in the long dusk of a Berlin winter. As a twist on the usual curated exhibition, this year's festival opted for an ad-hoc "Art Hack Day" (AHD) approach, where submitting artists were expected to create new and original artworks in the span of two days (and nights). Opening the exhibition with a more down-to-earth feel, AHD ultimately resembled a DIY, garage-style party instead of a highbrow exhibition space.
I was invited to participate in AHD along with 90 other international artists to create projects based around the festival theme of "Afterglow," a natural phenomenon that occurs in "deep twilight," right after sunset, when dust that is suspended in the stratosphere captures the sun's rays. In his introductory speech, festival director Kristoffer Gansing described this moment as one of both reflection on the recent past and anticipation of what will happen in the day or days to come. Evoking the passage of time and the prevalence of dust, the title also refers to the advent of waste and the postdigital question of how to account for the large amount of electronics we consume on a daily basis.
In addition to the AHD exhibition, three artists were invited to install existing works to complement the hacks, rounding out the main space of the Haus Der Kulturen Der Welt (House of World Cultures, or HKW) with a lively mix of surveillance diatribes, personal data acquisition efforts, and cultural stampedes of mixed medium and introspection. The goal of the festival was to imagine ways to make data tangible again by exposing the undercurrents in global surveillance, government conspiracies, and our increasingly technology-dependent, database-driven lives.
Jamie Allen speaking about CRITICAL INFRASTRUCTURE, Transmediale 2014, Photo Credit: Transmediale 2014.
One of the invited projects, Jamie Allen and David Gauthier's Critical Infrastructure, filled up much of the main lobby space of the HKW with archaic-looking yellow survey tripods typically used by urban planners when developing infrastructure projects. Visitors could look through the viewfinders to see visualizations of data sets, ranging from how many Facebook "Likes" had been registered on the venue's wifi network to information harvested from the internet, such as the percentage of the global population who exhibit worry. Critical Infrastructure was a comment on the increasing surveillance of our daily online lives by major corporations who mine this data to sell to advertisers for commercial profit, as well as a survey of the information pathways traveling through the conference itself. Allen called this a "collection of digital data detritus" that makes visible the sheer excess of data collection around each participant—more data is collected by the NSA and other data agencies than could be put to any imaginable purpose—and serves as a general critique of data, dramatizing the gulf between the measured world and lived experience.
Bruce Sterling, who gave the opening keynote, went on his typical rant about how artists are forced to create work from things they can't control, such as GPS and data surveillance networks. He then explained that the NSA was present at the birth of computation as a form of information gathering and as a control system. Sterling believes that this methodology has now transferred over to corporations such as Google, Facebook, and Amazon, who are mining their customer's data to feed into a growing advertising algorithm that will ultimately target us for ads before we know what we want. This realization was coupled with the prognoses that "the rot of data is our heritage, stop pretending that bits don't decay, the internet of things is at hand, and that corporations such as Apple, Microsoft, Dell, Facebook, and Google are impositions that destroy [one's] self-respect and self-esteem." This type of prophecy was evident in most of the panels, speakers, and overall discussions around the conference floor. It is precisely the fact that these kinds of future-facing topics abound at Transmediale that makes the festival a much more interrogative platform and exchange layer for visitors, artists, and attendees than most of the other big media art festivals around the world.
Enriching this theme of controversy and infiltration were talks and presentations by NYC-based artist Trevor Paglen and Berlin-based filmmaker Laura Poitras, who famously holds a copy of the full disclosure of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and is working on the final film in a trilogy about post-9/11 America. Paglen is interested in developing new ways of seeing by uncovering the contradictions between materiality and secrecy. His work documents the visible traces of top-secret activities: photos of classified locations and equipment, such as military space telescopes that spy on unassuming populations from the sky, or the NSA campus itself.
Screen capture from device displaying messages sent from PRISM: The Beacon Frame (2013), Julian Oliver and Danja Vasiliev.
Both speakers sketched an eerie backdrop to the surveillance-related project PRISM: The Beacon Frame by Julian Oliver and Danja Vasiliev. The project's software, running on a small computer in a darkened gallery space, searched for devices in its vicinity and broadcasted messages to them. As it did so, it projected a log of its activities through a rotating glass prism onto the gallery wall, resulting in a shifting, refracting flow of data. Since the artists were not only looking for computers but also cell phones in the gallery space, it would send SMS messages to anyone present with ominous messages, such as "Welcome to your new NSA partner network," followed by a link to the project. A real-time log of these activities was then projected through a rotating prism onto the gallery wall, creating a light show from the surrounding technological landscape.
While perhaps coming across more innocuously to those in the know, the project nevertheless scared someone enough to report it to the German Police, who instructed the festival's curators to shut it down. This controversy, although rather benign for a festival used to taking so many risks, was the ultimate compliment to the artists—since perhaps the greatest form of success for a surveillance project is to have it shut down by the authorities.
Ceremonial Chamber by the Portland, Oregon-based artist collective MSHR (Brenna Murphy and Birch Cooper; pronounced Mesher), is a sculptural installation and an instrument that plays both light and sound. It features light and audio feedback systems with an interactive element consisting of an incandescent light table powered by a color organ that breaks the light into three color groups. The project is entirely analog, with an audio input into the organ that turns lights on and off based on the pitch, which ultimately creates a feedback loop on the sound. The aesthetic beauty of the piece lays in its visual design: the table? was decorated with motifs evoking totem pole art and hieroglyphics. MSHR performed the instrument twice during the festival, wearing space age eyeglasses that simultaneously conjured past and future.
MSHR Performance, Transmediale 2014, Photo Credit: Elena Vasilkova
The Art Hack Day component of the festival, organized by San Francisco-based artist Olof Mathé, LEAP (John McKiernan, Daniel Franke and Kai Kreuzmüller) and transmediale, featured various pieces all created in three days of hacking, exploring, tinkering, and making. Responding to the theme of "Afterglow," artists aimed to create projects in a three-day stretch that took into account the ephemerality of data in an age where data-gathering is all important to any aspect of life online. One of the standout pieces of this component was Dennis Debel's smoke signaling device for the iPhone, which allows its user to send smoke signals from the phone itself, which are then transmitted via the built-in camera and read on an app on the receiver's device. Debel is convinced that there is a better way of achieving personal communications than centrally-controlled social networks. "To me, the internet doesn't exist anymore," said Debel at this artist presentation, "it's now become a system to help companies gain revenue with your personal data."
Other projects in the field included Bit by Bit (BbB) by Justin Blinder and Benjamin Gaulon. Subtitled as a "Cloud Shrinking" project, it fused the artists' interest in digital waste, attempting to delete user-generated information from the internet. BbB displayed the latest PasteBin.com uploads and simultaneously sent a ceast-and-desist email to its author to take the content down. The file was then projected onto glow-in-the-dark inkand a few seconds later, immersed in black space, causing the file's information to "fade away" to invoke its deletion from the cloud.
My project in collaboration with Michael Ang, an interactive installation titled PrintCade, used recycled arcade joysticks and buttons from the 1980s to control an old printer and generate sound. The project aimed to reimagine discarded technology as a hybrid video game console built into the physical world.
As the festival wound down, one of the central themes to emerge was how long we must persist in a technology-dominated society where we ultimately have little control over how our information is disseminated and spread over the vast data landscape of communications networks. The myth of the blameless user or clueless Internet Service Provider was debunked in both the three-day AHD event and the presentations of countless speakers, who kept reiterating the theme of privacy being stolen from us by the companies and organizations that are also trying to earn our trust. Perhaps it would be best summed up in the words of usability expert Donald Norman, who poignantly spoke about how Google's power is not with its search algorithm, but its advertising empire that feeds on the masses: "[Google] has lots of people; lots of servers, they have Android, they have Google Docs, they just bought Motorola. Most people would say 'we're the users, and the product is advertising,' but in fact, the advertisers are the users and you are the product. They say their goal is to gather all the knowledge in the world in one place, but really their goal is to gather all of the people in the world and sell them." Taking this perspective as its starting point, Transmediale remains one of the most controversial and auspicious risk takers left in the mainstream media art festival circuit, and this year's festival further enforced that distinction.
Nanni Balestrini, Tristano, copy #10750 (Verso, 2014).
In order to program a poetry machine, one would first have to repeat the entire Universe from the beginning—or at least a good piece of it.
— Stanislaw Lem 
"All directions are of equal importance." This is the second sentence in the second paragraph on page 88 of my copy of Nanni Balestrini's 1966 novel Tristano, #10750. You cannot read this novel, unless I lend it to you, as each of the 10,000 copies Verso publish this month contain different iterations of the same text.
When composing Tristano, Balestrini used a computer algorithm to shuffle the sentences of the ten paragraphs which comprise each of the ten chapters. The exact methodology is not clear, but it was likely similar to the process he used for an earlier computer-manipulated text, Tape Mark 1 (1961). For that work, snippets of Lao Tzu, Michihito Hachiya, and Paul Goldwin were divided into fifteen short phrases and then remixed combinatorially by an IBM 7070 and a program comprising 322 punched cards to create short texts, each a unique sequence of ten elements.
Nanni Balestrini, flow chart for Tape Mark I (1961). Published in Jasia Reichardt, ed. Cybernetic Serendipity: The computer and the arts (Studio International, 1968).
In the case of Tristano, his process allowed for 109,027,350,432,000 different possible variations. A single variation of Tristano was published in Italian in 1966, its text "a mixture of original prose and text borrowed from guidebooks, atlases, newspapers and other artistically marginal sources," according to the publisher. For the text to make any sense at all post-scramble, it had to be, as Balestrini’s neoavanguardia comrade Umberto Eco writes in his forward, "'prepared,' like pieces of lego, each already designed to fit together with other pieces in multiple ways." As a result, there are a limited number of set-pieces, and all proper names are "C," leading to such delirious formulations as, "In the month of July C went on a trip up the river on the ship as far as C and on his return he decided to abandon C." This sentence also serves as a neat summing up, as near as I can tell, of Tristano's "plot," which is ostensibly based on the Arthurian legend of Tristan and Isode.
The "plot" isn't really the point, but the most readable and pleasurable outcome of Balestrini's game, at least for #10750, are its accidental mini-narratives. Some examples:
This being done we hoisted jib and mainsail kept full and we start boldly out to sea. Twenty minutes later we climbed on board. Vomiting over the side leaning on the ropes. Dark blue of the panorama. Ten seconds.
A long thin rivulet of water slowly advances on the asphalt. She moves slowly under his body. The woman answered no certainly not.
Languidly undulating surfaces lack of watercourses the frequent outcrops of rocks that emerge from the fine layer of red earth which nonetheless supports rich crops. The scar on her stomach was visible in the faint dusk light. I'm so happy you came. Let's try another position.
Each mini-narrative dissolves back into the overarching form, usually quite quickly, although #10750 features one which lasts as long as a single paragraph save one sentence. The frustration this generates highlights formless chaos as the pre-history of every narrative, as well as the unholy formal dance of writer and reader required to create meaning.
Other moments of coherence take the form of meta-commentary interspersed throughout, such as:
You could even start from another episode and obtain a slightly different story. Though the question is rather irrelevant.
The provisional nature of the assemblage of the materials from different sources not connected together by integration but by association.
The other possible interpretations are endless but at the moment this is the only reality that belongs to us.
Tristano is still, at least nominally, a novel, one where the voice and temporality can change not only every line but within every line. Thus, ascribing these gnomic pronouncements to some "authorial voice," or taking them to be "statements of intent" or "ironic self-criticism," would be inadvisable. It is tempting to compare Tristano to hypertext fiction, which seems to be undergoing something of a resurgence with Twine, an open-source tool for telling interactive, non-linear stories. And both do indeed seem to be interested in extracting and making visible the "rules" which govern modern and post-modern lit, breaking narrative down into its consituent elements. However, hypertext fictions places great value on "exploring" the possible sequences of these elements, while each iteration of Tristano is fixed, concrete. The computer has already explored; we merely have the path.
Instead, Balestrini's experiment focuses on attacking the twin myths of the creative genius and culture as property. As Eco writes, "The creative man will not, then, be he who has deduced something new ex nihilo, but he who has identified it, by intuition, by trial and error, by chance…" Balestrini's algorithm might limit the scope, but this work of creative identification is still shared between the author and his readers.
Tweet from Brian Droitcour, November 6, 2013.
 Stainislaw Lem’s short story "The First Sally (A), Or Trurl's Electronic Bard" (collected in The Cyberiad, 1965).
"I Have a Website." JPEG version of screenshot from One Terabyte of Kilobyte Age Photo Op.
One year ago, a system developed by artists Olia Lialina and Dragan Espenschied began taking screenshots of now-defunct GeoCities webpages from the late 1990s as they would appear on hardware and software from that time. Every twenty minutes, a new screenshot is automatically uploaded to their Tumblr, One Terabyte of Kilobyte Age Photo Op. Friday marked the one-year anniversary of the project; to celebrate, Espenschied restored the three most reblogged and liked home pages posted there, as tracked by Lialina. This article covers the why and how of this restoration.
It may seem strange to say this about the likes of "Cute Boy Site" or "Divorced Dads Page," but the remains of the GeoCities web hosting service are a vital part of our cultural legacy. In its dial-up heyday, GeoCities was where non-specialist internet users made their first-ever webpages. Today, it exists as a vast, if partial, repository of the anxieties, hopes, and dreams of those creators, and offers a snapshot of the early popular usage of a now-ubiquitous cultural form, the webpage.
In 2009, Yahoo! pulled the plug on the GeoCities service, and millions of pages nearly winked out of existence entirely. This near-miss can be seen as a reflection of broader cultural priorities that undervalue the contributions of mere internet users, and as a stark illustration of the cultural cost of an overly onerous copyright regime, which makes public institutions reluctant to download vulnerable content for preservation purposes. Thankfully, renegade archivist groups the Archive Team, and others of their ilk, stepped in. Employing what they call "distributed preservation of service attacks" (a play on the more malicious "distributed denial of service attacks"), Archive Team harvested nearly 1 terrabyte of data from the GeoCities servers before they went dark, and seeded the data as a torrent.
When it comes to aging, crumbling digital artifacts, capturing the data is only half the battle. One must also provide access to this data, and doing so poses a number of thorny issues, both conceptual and technical. For the past year, artists Olia Lialina and Dragan Espenschied (Rhizome's incoming Digital Conservator) have been working through these problems for their project One Terabyte of Kilobyte Age, which re-performs the Archive Team's GeoCities data for preservationist purposes.
According to Espenschied, strategies for offering access to these pages can be "measured on two axes: authenticity… and ease of access." For example, "Graphical authenticity on the pixel level means that a GeoCities webpage will render exactly as it would to visitors in the time the page was published." To achieve this, one has to factor in the many ways in which our technological context has changed, as with the rise of anti-aliasing. As Espenschied explains, "All current operating systems render characters with smoothed out edges, and this is reflected as much in current web design as the historic aliased pixel text display influenced the web design of the past." You are almost certainly reading this article on an operating system that displays smoothed, anti-aliased text.
Aliased pixel text display, with blocky, unsmoothed edges.
Then there's MIDI, which was a popular audio file format on the early web. MIDI tracks only store musical notation, rather than recording sound waves, allowing complex melodies to be conveyed via relatively tiny file sizes. When MIDI files were played back, they drew on a library of existing tones that were stored in a user's sound card. These tones have changed as sound cards have become more sophisticated.
Here's a MIDI file, which you can listen to through your own sound card. Here's the same MIDI file as it would have sounded through an AWE sound card, which was popular for DOS and Windows PCs. The card featured a "sound font" in which each instrument was represented by a tiny piece of audio data that was manipulated in real-time for pitch, volume, etc. Since creating a "sound font" that is this versatile and complete—at least 128 virtual "instruments"—is quite laborious, the same set of sounds was used in many sound cards and improved for later versions.
To replicate the sound, Espenschied used the software synth TiMidity, which includes a version of the AWE "sound font" that enthusiasts had ripped from the card. This software probably comes across slightly differently from an original AWE card, but it gives a closer approximation of the late-1990s sonic experience of a MIDI file.
Another issue is that that GeoCities URLs have all expired. A URL (such as http://www.geocities.com/SouthBeach/Lagoon/8322) is a crucial element of the experience of any given page, coloring how it is understood. Some pages might not even work correctly when installed on a different URL, if they include linked files with addresses on a GeoCties server. To present webpages with their original URLs intact, a proxy server must be used, which would simply redirect requests for GeoCities pages to the server where they are stored.
Displaying a webpage from an expired domain with its original URL requires the use of a proxy server.
Finally, as Espenschied observes, screens have changed drastically. All graphical output looks very different on CRT monitors and their specific surface-to-pixel ratios than it does on contemporary flat screens. When looking at historic webpages on a 800×600 pixel 14" CRT screen with a 60Hz refresh rate, it becomes clear why many people decided to use dark backgrounds and bright text for their designs instead of emulating paper with black text on a white background.
Thus, the most "authentic" access to a page from the GeoCities archive would involves historic hardware, historic software, and a proxy server—for most users, an unrealistic scenario.
To bring the GeoCities project to the broadest possible audience while presenting it in a way that is as consistent as possible with the original visual experience, Lialina and Espenschied set up an automated system that takes screenshots of GeoCities webpages and posts them to a Tumblr, One Terabyte of Kilobyte Age Photo Op. In a nutshell, the system loads pages in a virtualized, period-appropriate hardware and software environment and captures screenshots at 800x600 pixels. The Tumblr represents a trade-off between authenticity and ease-of-access.
For the one-year anniversary of One Terabyte of Kilobyte Age Photo Op, Espenschied restored three GeoCities websites that Lialina had determined to be the three most popular. These restorations involved a certain amount of interpretation. As Espenschied writes,
The pixels generated by contemporary browsers are not the same as the ones rendered by a 1997/98 browser, the URLs are not the original ones; however, the interactivity comes close to the original, the graphics look fine enough and are animated. As a bonus, a first time in website restoration, the embedded MIDI files have been transformed into audio recordings using TiMidity and a Soundblaster AWE32 instrument set.
The three restored webpages and Espenschied's notes on each are presented below:
All material except the counter image was present in the Archive Team’s Geocities torrent distribution. The missing image icq.JPG probably never was uploaded by the user; it is not present on any public GeoCities mirror.
The counter image was lifted from the Wayback Machine. The original URL, http://www.geocities.com/cgi-bin/counter, was probably working with browser referrer information to assign the counter to a certain webpage. The Internet Archive’s web crawler saved the counter showing 0000 over a few years. We will not be able to reconstruct the number of visitors to the page, but at least we can imagine how it looked.
The MIDI file embedded in the page, a version of Celine Dion’s "My Heart Will Go On," is heavily damaged and produces strange noises when played back via TiMidity. I haven’t verified how it would be interpreted on a legacy system, but since the MIDI file specification is not met in this file it will for sure not reproduce a perfect version of the song. (The file is damaged or not present in all public mirrors of GeoCities.)
This simple home page posed no further problems. "As Long As You Love Me" by the Backstreet boys was conserved in a perfect MIDI version. The missing imagedevlayy.jpg never left the author’s hard disk, it is referenced outside of the homepage’s root directory in a folder called "Annies GirlClub."
From Divorced Dads, the Archive Team's copy only contains the main page. I took some missing pages and this from reocities. The downside of reocities is that there is no Last-Modified header delivered from the server. The upside is that the original HTML is less modified than on the Wayback Machine. Thankfully Wayback delivers original Last-Modified dates in extra HTTP headers, so I was able to transfer this metadata to the reocities copies.
The banner on the bottom was replaced with a generic banner ad from this particular banner exchange service from 2003, as found on the Wayback Machine.
The top of the page features a Java applet called "GeoGuide" that is referenced on many GeoCities home pages. Unfortunately, Java applets have posed issues for webcrawler-based archiving, since they are opaque blobs of code that might load further resources, for example images or object code libraries. Most crawlers wouldn’t even download the applet files because of the low likeliness that they would work later. There is no public mirror of GeoCities available that contains this applet, and until now no screenshot or other form of documentation of GeoGuide was found.
The counter used to be delivered from a personalized URL,http://www.geocities.com/cgi-bin/counter/jacquestheman, the first time it was checked on the Wayback Machine in 2003 was already producing a "file not found." Since GeoCities moved their user tracking to a separate server, visit.geocities.com, I decided to look there and indeed found four zeroes printed in a nice font, still alive. This might be the counter the page’s author customized for himself, or it might not be.
All sub pages use a non-standard font called “Paramount” <FONT FACE="Paramount">. A metadata tag <META NAME="GENERATOR" CONTENT="Mozilla/4.01 [en] (Win95; I) [Netscape]"> hints towards Windows 95 being the platform the pages were created on, but there is no information available about what this font might be. There are some freeware fonts with that name, but no font of such a name was ever included in for example the “Microsoft Plus” packs for Windows that gave users extra features and fonts; Microsoft Office never shipped with a Paramount. Since the choice of font would be too arbitrary and the likeliness of page visitors having exactly this font installed in 1997/98 to actually see it is very low, I decided to leave the browser’s default font in place.
Portrait of a confident businesswoman
This week, LeanIn.org and Getty teamed up to release a new collection of 2,500 stock photos that aim to "represent women and families in more empowering ways." The need to do this was quite clear; stock photographs had become something of an internet sensation for their lingering embrace of a range of visual clichés, many of them sexist, such as the notorious "Woman Laughing Alone With Salad." As depictions of broadly-applicable situations and people that could be used in a wide variety of publications, particularly for marketing purposes, stock photographs claim to represent generic ideals for easy illustration. Their effect is, in fact, the inverse—it is specific ideologies they illustrate, in order to continue their reproduction.
This ideological function has made stock images important raw material for many artists and internet commentators over the last few years, resulting in a cottage industry of image essays and Tumblrs that have taken on meme status. The website Know Your Meme cites the blog Awkward Stock Photos as the first "curation of awkward stock images," but an earlier and genre-defining example is artist Guthrie Lonergan's The Artist Looking at Camera (2006):
When this video first came out eight years ago, it was hard even to assimilate, let alone address, all the layers of class, race, and gender stereotypes embedded in Getty's depiction of artists and their work. It has become easier to understand over the years, easier to look at, as we've collectively worked through the weird implications of stock photography.
As this discourse began to crystallize, its critique took a new turn with the Rhizome-commissioned DISimages project, a fully-functioning stock photo website created by artists. DIS re-imagined the "generic ideals" represented by stock photographs through the lens of polymorphous identity, gender-wise and otherwise. Some individual works, such as Maja Cule's Laughing Alone with Salad series, directly address Getty Images tropes. More generally, the photos decimate the coherent identities of Getty's subjects, who can be so neatly categorized, more accurately reflecting the way in which identity under neoliberal capitalism is continually assembled and re-negotiating from existing cultural fragments, many of which are brands.
Mature woman with long, gray hair looking away
The results of Getty's partnership with LeanIn do not match the sophisticated understanding of identity that we see in DIS, but mostly they're fine. We see different body types and races, different types of jobs, more real-looking social interactions. But there is still something very specific, and OK, a bit personal, that bothers me about this new, "empowering" representation of women and families. The modern Getty woman goes to Crossfit and surfs and jogs. She works at home on a computer, in a factory, in a hair salon. When she's young, she's beautiful, but not oversexualized. When she's old, she radiates strength and inner peace. Her husband watches the kids, as do teachers and grandparents.
It's more interesting, though, to think about what's missing. Nowhere in this collection of 2,500 images are there any representations of formal child care. Adults with children are identified as pediatricians, mothers, fathers, and grandparents, but never as babysitter, nanny, or au pair. LeanIn is a world without day care.
These images come down in the middle of the "debate" about whether women "can have it all," whether they can balance children and career. Some people have argued that they can't, others have argued that they can. The most pernicious argument is represented by the phrase "Lean In," which suggests that women can have it all, if they just try harder.
Two women doing pushups with dumbbells in gym
Of course, this whole discourse is problematic through and through. First of all, in a more egalitarian society, we would be asking, "can parents have it all?" Second of all, it's a kind of class war to place so much emphasis on individual parents' responsibility, diverting attention from a broader issue: the lack of high-quality, state-supported child care. As it is, only the very affluent or those with ever-present, completely healthy grandparents can have a realistic family life and financial stability in the US today. Until we have that, parents never will be able to keep up with the constant labor, professional and affective, expected of them, and this burden is borne disproportionately by women. In the face of deep structural issues in American society, "Lean In" whispers in women's ears, "You're not working hard enough" (and, well, "You should be working to sustain our dominant class paradigm"). By omitting the most essential ingredient to the happiness and mental well-being of a parent of any gender—child care—this photo collection supports that socially destructive message.
Getty Images' "Lean In" collection may have moved past the outdated sexual politics of "Woman Eating Alone with Salad;" now they reinforce the conditions that keep women oppressed in a more insidious way. How contemporary.
Ann Hirsch, Playground (2013). Photo: Oresti Tsonopoulos
Your Gift Means Rhizome Can Commission Artists - Donate Today?
A message from Ann Hirsch, 2012-13 Commissions Awardee:
When I received a Rhizome commission, it gave me what it has given so many others: a truly unique opportunity to realize an otherwise-unlikely, ambitious artwork. Donating to Rhizome during its community campaign sustains its commitment to emerging artists, ensuring that others will find meaningful support for their work when it matters most.
New York City can be a challenging home for an artist. There's a lot of competition, exorbitant living expenses, and hardship. For me, financial pressures meant that I could only afford to do small-scale projects, essentially making work at the same level at which I had been operating since receiving my MFA.
A Rhizome commission changed all that. It gave me the funds and, importantly, the institutional support to pursue my largest project to date, Playground, a two-person play. Working with actors, choreography, stage lighting, creating a set and a full artistic vision truly helped me develop and grow as an artist. When the project was ready to be premiered, Rhizome's sponsorship enabled me to debut the work in the New Museum theater.
For artists like myself who do not make gallery-ready work, it can be impossibly hard to get someone to take a chance, believe in you, and fund a project. Rhizome did this for me, as it has for many other artists I admire. A gift today will give Rhizome the ability to support artists as significantly as they supported me.
For the past few days, using a special algorithm we call "first come, first served," we at Rhizome HQ have been busily setting up blind dates (or trying to). This is not only because we want our community to have love and be happy; it's also a way to celebrate the launch of Lauren McCarthy's Rhizome-commissioned iOS app Crowdpilot.
Crowdpilot lets you "crowdsource your social interactions" by audio-streaming them and soliciting advice from your friends, or from total strangers, online. You can download Crowdpilot for free on your iPhone, or you can listen to others' dates, and offer advice to them, by logging in to the project website.
Tonight, from 6:30pm-8:30pm EST, we'll be presenting Crowdpilot as Rhizome's third fullscreen frontpage exhibition (following Vince McKelvie and Molly Crabapple). Visitors to rhizome.org will have the opportunity to listen to, and advise on, any ongoing Crowdpilot sessions that are in progress at that time. We arranged two blind dates, but you can also join in as a dater: just run the app during that time, and it will show up on our front page.
Crowdpilot builds on an earlier experiment called Social Turkers in which McCarthy employed Mechanical Turk workers to advise her during the dating process. The app version includes an option to hire advisors via Turk, but it's also possible to use it to solicit realtime advice via social networks and the website.
From McCarthy's original proposal:
This piece talks explores potential futures through the creation of situations that are real in the present. I question the direction we are heading with the development of augmented vision systems and networked mobile applications. However, it is not meant to be purely critical -- embedded in the performance is a suggestion of a networked humanity that uses its collective wisdom to improve people’s ability to interact and form relationships. Most importantly, the piece is meant to question how we define our identities, and what freedoms might come from clinging to these ideas a little less tightly.
Download crowdpilot here. See you tonight!
Crowdpilot is a collaboration between Lauren McCarthy and Perceptor.
Femke Herregraven speaks at TEDxVaduz, Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein, Dec 2013. Via DIS.
TEDxVaduz was held at Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein in December of 2013. Designed and organized by artists Simon Denny and Daniel Keller, the event seemed, at first glance, like a well-organized parody. But the list of speakers included an array of legitimately exciting artists and thinkers—Peter Fend, Andi Götz, Femke Herregraven, Michaela Hogenboom Kindle, Michael Littger, Michel André Maréchal, Katja Novitskova, Emily Segal, and Regula Stämpfli—convened under a relevant theme, "Radically Open."
From the outset, it was clear that TEDxVaduz aimed to work both within and against the context provided by the TED brand. Denny opened the event by giving a brief history of TED and the TEDx conferences. Keller provided the current context of TED, its format and the recent criticism due to presentations that relied on pseudo-science. Denny highlighted the elements of the TED brand that match his and Keller's interests, such as Silicon Valley and tech entrepreneurialism. Denny also noted that the backdrop, a tag cloud comprised of most used words in TED talks and the floor graphic of an island shaped like Vaduz, was a collaborative design by the two.
TEDx Vaduz involved speakers with various professional backgrounds, working legislatively, empirically, theoretically, and artistically. The event's 12-minute time slots proved a real challenge as the format required extreme compression of months, and for many of the speakers years, of research. Many of the artists who spoke actively observed present trends to speculate on abstractions of the future. With artists presenting alongside other professionals, it became evident that radical claims within theoretical or academic research fields no less imaginative and playful than those made by artists. A few of the highlights are summarized below.
Femke Herregraven, an Amsterdam-based designer and researcher, presented various concepts that run through her areas of research such as geographies of avoidance and finance's ability to carve out new geographies through spatial organization. Her research is drawn from places of legislation and the ambiguity of language in administration, which leads her to the materiality of secrecy and silence of exchange in her design projects.
Regula Stämpfli, a Swiss-born political theorist based in Munich, started her talk by saying that in Switzerland, she is known to be quite outspoken. In her bio on the TEDx site she quotes the Neue Zürcher Zeitung referring to her as "the pain-in-the-neck from Brussels," whereas her students have called her "the Lara Croft of Political Science." Appropriately prefaced, her talk pertained to the politics of how women are represented in the sphere of governance, the auto-categorization of women on online platforms like Google, and scientists' lack of reflection about their gendered analysis on society. One quote from her first slide read:
1 cliché is laughed at
100 stereotypes raise eyebrows
1000 commonplaces becomes science
10,000 mentions Google auto-completes.
Emily Segal, an artist and brand consultant based in New York, spoke about the luxury brand, its relationship to scarcity, and luxury's ability to also be mass luxury. Segal addressed discomfort and what makes us uncomfortable about consumption, which relates to luxury brand's reliance on scarcity in a place of mass crisis. She traced the fundamentally uncomfortable path of luxury itself, which leads to a search for specialness, which leads to a search for authenticity, which leads to the luxury of choosing utilitarian non-specialness, summarizing the formula of the MA-1 bomber jacket, a status symbol of not being special.
Michel André Maréchal, a behavioral economist based in Zurich, presented his research in laboratory and field experiments with corporations, non-profits, and governmental organizations. In particular, he focused on the economic and behavioral aspects of crime, offering possible alternatives to imprisonment concluded from behavioral analysis of group identity formation. Openly stating that his cross-disciplinary research can be considered experimental, his empirical findings were very narrative and at times statistically whimsical. He closed with this remark about imprisoned environments strengthening criminal identity:
Reminding criminals of the fact that they are criminals triggers more dishonest behavior. Reminding bankers of their professional identity triggers more dishonest behavior.
In his recent TED talk about the problem with TED at its recent conference in San Diego, Benjamin Bratton criticized the placebo politics and misdirected faith in technological answers embodied by the KONY 2012-stained TED brand. Where TED is meant to anticipate solutions to global problems, it really never addresses underlying structural issues, focusing instead on neatly packaged ideas and gadgets ready for airdrop in to any crisis zone.
Can we conclude that TED is a pointless outgrowth of venture capital blindness? Perhaps it isn't entirely devoid of possibility. While we critics fall into cynicism about futuristic solutions to current problems, there is a need for other ways to think about the future. The question, "so what now?", is becoming inescapable. One crucial problem with the TED brand isn't a lack of ideas, but the sameness of its presenters' positions. While bringing people together from different expertise is valuable, it's only beneficial if these ideas also have room to be in opposition to each other and the broader world.
Variously mocking its host brand and using it critically, TEDxVaduz served as an alternative to the general expectations surrounding a TED talk. Each person's presentation was a performance in the sense that giving a presentation is always a performance, but there was no pushing of a recently published book or listing a long tail of founded companies. The variety of positions represented resulted in a considered curatorial project within the widely debunked and soon-to-be dated format of TED. Indeed, the TEDxVaduz strategy of occupying an outdated structure and opening it out to new possibilities might offer a key to the broader problem of how to refocus discourse about the future away from technological solutionism.
Hollywood has come to regard the likes of LaBeouf as disposable freelancers: cheap relative to more established stars, there to fill space between the explosions the summer audience really wants to see.In December, LaBeouf used work, without giving credit, by the illustrator Daniel Clowes in his short film, "HowardCantour.com."LaBeouf is currently sitting in a Los Angeles art gallery wearing a paper bag over his head that says “I AM NOT FAMOUS ANYMORE,” and while you could quibble with that statement based on all the press he’s been getting, there's one sense in which it's true: LaBeouf has now become infamous.
Titled #IAMSORRY, the installation features the actor sitting alone in a room with a bag over his head, while audience participants pass through one by one to witness LaBeouf's contrition.Many are saying that this is another example of LaBeouf’s plagiarism, citing a piece by Marina Abramovic where she sat silently while audience members were welcome to do whatever they want with a group of objects, including knives and a loaded gun.When asked her personal opinion of the piece, Abramovic said that the actor was being "manipulative."
Upon entering the exhibit people are told to choose an object from a selection that includes a whip, Transformers toys, Hershey's Kisses, a pair of pliers and a bowl of notes containing Twitter comments about LaBeouf.There are things like a "Transformers" toy, a whip (he starred in 2008's "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull"), Hershey's kisses, a bottle of Jack Daniels whiskey, a bottle of cologne, pliers, a ukelele and a copy of Daniel Clowes' book, "The Death-Ray."There was no photography allowed, but the implements include a leather whip, a pair of pliers, a vase of daisies, an Optimus Prime Transformer toy, a bowl of Hershey’s kisses, a bowl of folded slips of paper containing tweets about LaBeouf, a large bottle of Jack Daniels, a small bottle of Brut cologne, a pink ukulele, and the graphic novel The Death-Ray by Daniel Clowes.
Once an item is selected attendees are ushered into a second room, in which LaBeouf sits, silently, at a table, with a paper bag on his head.I sat down.I brought in a stem of daisies and laid it on the table.I ask him if I can take a picture. No response.Right before I got up to leave, I pulled one of the mean tweets out of the bowl and read it aloud to him.
As I stand in the alley afterwards, I pull out an audio recorder and mumble some notes, and I'm sort of surprised to find my voice so tremulous.The whole thing may be deeply ingenuine, but it was genuinely disturbing: sitting across from LaBeouf, whose head-bag is ragged and tear-stained, I found it impossible not to have empathy, to feel ashamed of myself for participating in a public emotional flogging (nevermind that it was orchestrated by the punished, nevermind that it may be even less sincere than Dumb Starbucks).I’ll be honest: in the moment after I took that picture, I actually felt something real.But was he sorry, or was I?
Kenneth Goldsmith is a writer and curator based in New York and an artist and writer based in Los Angeles.
#softcontrolabstracts 2012-ongoing @softmobility @karialtmann
In recent years, a central challenge for Rhizome as an internet-based organization has been adjusting to the C A S C A D E (to expand on a phrase coined by Gawker Deputy Editor Max Read), the torrent of feeds that more or less constitute the contemporary (though rapidly changing) internet. Most of our traffic comes to Rhizome via these feeds—Facebook and Twitter, of course, and the new ones that are angel-invested into reality every day. Still, we don't jump onto every rapidly popularizing forum; we have one of our own to cultivate.
All of this is all to say that we never had a compelling reason to start an Instagram account, or, let's say, a compelling way in which to use the platform. But this changed last fall, when artist Ed Fornieles suggested that he launch and operate an account on our behalf as a way of layering up the "character" of Rhizome for his LARPesque gala, New York New York Happy Happy. In the weeks leading up to the event, his posts staged a descent into moneyed debauchery (champagne, neoclassical painting, Macklemore) and creepy biotechnologies (cloning, intense photos of eyes). It was an oddly charged experience for us at IRL Rhizome, at times agonistic: one image was taken down for infringing Insta’s Terms of Service (it was a guy’s bethonged butt with the text "Believe in the Booty") and we asked Ed to take one or two down for broaching our (flexible to a point!) sense of institutional responsibility.
#radicalsugery #rhizome #youngforever #robotbodies
But as NYNYHPHP wound down, we found ourselves unwilling to kill @rhizomedotorg. We appreciated the way Ed reworked the C A S C A D E to sophisticated narrative ends, and the the idea emerged to regularly turn over this feed to the artists we cover and support. Cameron Soren followed, the significance of whose blingee-inflected videos I've already discussed.
Since December, Kari Altmann has run the feed, posting slick and unsettling visual promises of fluid, biomorphic technologies merging with the natural world. For eight weeks, Altmann has sketched a sophisticated image-cipher for distinct threads that wend across her practice through tags such as #serviceindustry, #Todaysemoji, #vitalcontent, #abundance, and on, as applied to images culled from the net and IRL.
In keeping with the intertextual nature of her work, Altmann used the Insta residency to test out new ideas in preparation for Soft Mobility Abstracts, her recently launched project with the New Museum, of which Rhizome is an affiliate. The Insta images expand strategies Altmann developed on Tumblr, with blogs like Garden Club and R-U-IN?S: when a post catches on with other users, it evolves; photos and videos appear in other users' feeds and tags crop up in new contexts. Thus, it formed part of a practice composed, as Lauren Cornell writes in that project's description, of "open fields of visual culture," of cascading posts across multiple platforms in conversation not only with one another, but also with other users who for whatever reason just "get it," if in their own way.
Through the framework of the C A S C A D E, Altmann draws out some shared, half-articulated understanding of our future. Her instagram posts make use of sci-fi cinema and technology advertising, but they aren't straightforward parody or critique. Instead, they fully inhabit the contradictions of a profit-driven advertising culture that evokes real human desires and fears, and of the corporate-owned fora in which these emotions are given voice. In short, Altmann's work embodies the contradictions of the C A S C A DE itself, and in doing so, opens up a different kind of conversation about the future.
Don't miss #softmobility on @rhizomedotorg through Wednesday and elsewhere throughout the month. After that, Bea Fremderman, an artist in NYC and previously of Chicago, will take over the feed. We're looking forward to liking her posts.
Kari Altmann, image from Soft Mobility Abstracts (2014).
When I tell my close friends—who know of, and share, my anti-capitalist anarchist views—that I own some cryptocurrency (my current holdings equal something under 10 USD) I get the same sort of looks that I did when I told them in 2009 that I used Twitter. "How can you support that libertarian bullshit?"
BTC is not entirely straightforward, and falls into a new category of the economic uncanny. But basically, it is a peer-to-peer database that lists a number of units of value, or coins, by unique addresses, and assigns them to personal owners by more unique addresses. The database makes sure that only the right coins are assigned to the right owners by keeping a single list of who owns what, called the blockchain. It also makes sure that the blockchain cannot be falsified, by placing the transactions between pieces of a complicated code, which are called the proof of work. Since every computer on the network is simultaneously generating the proof of work (and is rewarded for doing so by being given a fraction of new BTC according to the amount of work they are doing, in what is called mining), it would take a computer that is more powerful than all the others combined to mess up the record. So, through this peer-to-peer verification system, the record stays legit, without needing the need for a centralized bank to be in charge.
It may sound arcane, but if Bitcoin was a commercial beta release, it would be a runaway success. Even with recent fluctuations, the total value of the cryptocurrency is still over eight billion USD, it has spawned many third-party startup firms attempting to offer products to use with Bitcoin, and there have been more copycat cryptocurrencies, "altcoins," than anyone can count. And at least we know why Bitcoin is valuable, unlike most social media startups: People pay money for it. It's as simple and old fashioned as that.
But bitcoin is supposed to be about something more than just money. There is an ideology that is part of the Bitcoin service; one can not help but download it along with the electronic wallet. However, this ideology is not exactly what it is often made out to be. Bitcoin is supposed to be the killer app of a libertarian dream—it is purportedly 1) a digital currency, 2) a means for conducting anonymous transactions, and 3) an egalitarian, peer-to-peer economic system that will render obsolete the need for fiat currencies, cash, wire transfers, bank accounts, and any other current financial framework that happens to be unpopular. And it fails to live up to all these promises.
Bitcoin isn't quite a currency; it's a wholly new sort of financial instrument, functioning differently than anything with which we are familiar. A currency is a tool for the circulation of value, which through the force of the market becomes the only way that the vast majority of people can offer their labor in exchange for the necessities of life. If businesses start paying their employees in BTC then it might be a currency; until that time it is more like day trading, or stamp collecting. At the same time, it is entirely intertwined with conventional currencies, banks, and legal structures. Cryptocurrencies rely on the ubiquity of expensive graphics processing cards produced by capitalist companies under state-negotiated international trade laws. Thus, they simply cannot be the lynchpin of anti-government sentiment they are made out to be.
Even in the blackest markets of the internet, there are many early-adopters, but no fully-adopteds, no one who can claim to have entirely disengaged from fiat currencies and infrastructures, or from mainstream capitalism. Bitcoin might have benefits, but currency still has other benefits. People like their financial transactions to have authorities to whom they can appeal in times of crisis. They may buy pizzas with Bitcoin or stake disposable amounts on arcane, high-risk investments, but their 401k is in dollars.
Traders at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange during the 2008 financial crisis, from Marc Boulos, All That Is Solid Melts into Air (2008). Still frame from two-channel video.
Cryptocurrencies are a weird and unfamiliar sort of financial machination. This weirdness can be a benefit. When investing in any particular altcoin, there are new variables to consider. How many people are currently mining it? What is the structure of the mining payouts? What are the reputations of the pools currently mining it? All of these questions affect the altcoin's stability, and its potential for success. This isn't like comparing one company to another or one currency to another. Each new altcoin is new financial vehicle with a mechanics that may be completely different than all that came before. Real currency is based on the presumption of stability, but cryptocurrencies are experiments. No one knows which is best, until it succeeds. This is an experiment in which the data has only just begun to come in.
I've been exploring cryptocurrency for a few years now, attempting to get a handle on what this experiment is all about. I've watched from the sidelines, trying to see what this small pocket of the internet is like, in the same way mainstream America watches The Wire so that they think they understand the "drug game." I've mined a bit of Dogecoin (DOGE). Some Lottocoin (LOT). I mined Kanyecoin, before it became Koicoin (KOI). I mined a coin called "42," the gimmick of which is that there are only forty-two of them. At one time or another I've owned Bitcoin, Litecoin, Freicoin, Globalcoin, BBQcoin, Catcoin, Megacoin, Neocoin, and a number of others that I don't remember because I bought and sold them on exchanges within a day just to play the market and never even installed a wallet. I'm making less money than I would with a well-constructed fantasy football team or March Madness bracket, and I've won more at a casino by putting a quarter into a poker machine. But I'm learning a thing or two about how all this works.
I get a good amount of the altcoin gossip, and hear what is going on elsewhere. It is the usual darknet stuff of your new-normal cyberpunk future—hacks, DdoS, pre-mining scams and ego battles between various IRC bots and sock puppets. Things reached a head recently with a so-called "Chinese Dogecoin pump-and-dump" scandal, which I have yet to really unravel to decide whether it was a real scheme, just xenophobic trolling, or some combination of the two. There is often talk of a conspiracy between the high-traffic mining pool owners, and the developers of some of the common software and coins being released.
Is there some collusion behind the scenes to manipulate various altcurrency prices, and to hack and scam people? Undoubtedly. There is money to be made, there are lots of newbies who think a cryptocurrency is some sort of online lottery, and there is no regulation. So if you want to ask if there is horse meat in these altcoins, the answer is, somewhere, yes. If I had any advice on what one's altcoin politics ought to be, I would say, the politics of mistrust. Encrypt your wallet, watch your back, and invest in strong servers.
Does any of this mean that any participation in cryptocurrencies is inherently unethical? I don't think that is clear. No workers are having their labor stolen from them. No one is being physically harmed with ill-gotten altcoin gain (that we know of). There is no categorical exploitation within cryptocurrencies, certainly not compared to fiat currencies. Eight billion USD is a lot of value, but only relatively. That's greater than the GDP of Benin, but less than 1/100 the GDP of Indonesia. It is only a few years' work to a Silicon Valley angel investor or a drug cartel, and a minute fraction of the student loan industry. But aren't cryptocurrencies bad for the environment by using tons electricity? Sure, they use electricity. But it is not nearly as bad as everyone thinks it is. (I estimate that Bitcoin uses 2x more electricity than every iPad in the world, but ¼ the electricity of all the flat screen TVs sold in the first quarter of 2012.) And compared to the ecological disaster than is American's consumption of chicken wings, I feel that vegetarianism is probably a stronger political decision than directing an inordinate amount of attention to the environmental costs of running your GPU overnight.
On the other hand, while many commentators argue that cryptocurrency has the potential to enable new forms of collective behavior, none of the efforts to realize this potential have really panned out yet. Namecoin is an altcoin designed to serve as a DNS registry, which is perhaps one of the few "coins for good" that actually makes sense, even though it may just be useful in theory. Riecoin, a coin based around attempting to prove or disprove the Riemann hypothesis with its proof of work, has just launched—but is not old enough to give an indication as to whether either goal might be attained. There is a document registry service utilizing the Bitcoin blockchain to certify that particular documents existed at a certain point in time. But by only certifying the title of documents and not the content itself, the service has far less utility than a notary public, and it is hard to see exactly what point this serves. Zedcoin was developed as an in-game cryptocurrencies for zombie genre games, as potentially being a more decentralized alternative to Second Life's Linden Dollars, but other than having its own branding, it's hard to see the purpose of using one's GPU for mining the coin rather than playing the game. Chase Bank has reportedly patented their own cryptocurrency design, which will purportedly result in lower transaction fees than credit cards offer, but meanwhile, no one is going to download the source on Github to start mining it. A service has been announced that adapts Bitcoin and Torrent technology into a secure communication tool, but it is too new, and the jury is still out as to whether or not it will work.
My reasons for being involved in cryptocurrencies are not based on sweeping visions nor utilitarian schemes. Even the most radical anarchist, in struggling against the appropriation of surplus value through the alienation of labor, is sometimes forced to move some commodities around in order to live in this world. "Master's house" and "master's tools" notwithstanding, the rent is due. The only alternative is heading off into the hills, or living the life of a begging monk. You need to take part in the larger economy of the world in order to survive, and so you are forced to participate in that system. You buy your groceries in the United States in USD because you are paid in USD. Your political views are not decided when you are forced into a market.
The same thing goes for voluntary markets; joining a market is not a politics. Just as buying groceries with dead presidents doesn't invalidate your radical ideas, downloading a cryptocurrency wallet does not transform you into a seasteading libertarian. The decision to participate in Bitcoin, in other words, means less than your conduct within the bitcoin market. To be truly anti-capitalist, one must understand the range of markets that exist, so that one can choose the right behavior in any of them. The right behavior can only be a choice within the conditions of the market.
Lawrence Weiner, Hour Note Prototype (2009).
Cryptocurrencies are not a market that anyone is currently forced into. (The rent is still due in dollars, not Dogecoin.) It is a sideline deal, like a timebank, or a regular poker game. People make weird deals all the time, but a weird deal does not a currency make. In this era of late capitalism, tangential, voluntary-markets are proliferating—thanks in no small part to the technology which makes many of them possible.
But this phenomenon is not strictly an effect of digital technology. Bartering, for example, is a voluntary market that has co-existed with capitalism for hundreds of years. Or consider this: People use Tide laundry detergent as drug currency. It is relatively expensive, not too hard to shoplift. Combine the high value of the brand name with relatively low margins made by the retailers, and you get a burgeoning grey market in which small shopkeepers don't think too hard about buying a discount load of washing detergent bottles out of the back of someone's trunk for cash. Who is conducting unethical behavior in the context of this market? The drug users looking to get a quick five bucks? The retailers who are just trying to make a profit running a store? The customers who are so loyal to the brand that they'll pay inflated prices? Or Procter & Gamble, who in 1946 invented alkylbenzene sulfonates so good at washing clothes in a gentle machine, completely changing the way that we do laundry? This is how markets develop—through the accretion of many individual decisions, some borne of greed, others of necessity, others of sheer invention. If there is some transformative social potential in cryptocurrency, it will emerge from a collusion of behaviors occurring under unique conditions, in the context of experimentation and risk.
For now, this is a speculative technology, and there is plenty of speculation. This is a most basic period of evolution, a time of big ideas and unbridled greed. Most of the aforementioned altcoins aren't even really planned, they are just cloned and released into the wild to see how they do with a little bit of extra marketing and a few tweaks to the block pattern. This is an Accelerando dimension, where you can make a new listing on a financial exchange by tweaking a few lines of code and uploading it to Github. Kanyecoin flopped, not just because of the legal pressure from the music star whose likeness it stole, but because someone got greedy and DDoS'ed all the smaller pools on the opening day, driving miners away to other coins. Dogecoin has survived, despite being birthed from a meme—because its large coin capacity and random block rewards that make it more fun to mine. The true Hobbesian SF fantasy is happening in the competition between altcoins, because nobody really knows what makes a good altcoin, until they see who emerges from the cryptocurrency mining Thunderdome.
The technology will continue to evolve, as people continue to figure out exactly what it is for, what people will adopt, and what will make them money. To what extent will it produce collective, communal behavior, and to what extent will it merely reproduce the harsh logic of markets? Will cryptocurrencies end up being peer-to-peer in any more significant way than a drug market or a stock market? These questions are still unanswered in a satisfactory way.
The beta release rolls onward, as the human species continues to see what it can do with all of this wonderful technology it has created, mostly as it tries to make a buck off of its fellows. This is evolution, I guess. Not of human beings, who actually trend towards altruism and organization. But of technology, which is always adopted first and foremost by those who are attempting to leverage gain out of it. Can we make it a business? Can we make it a weapon? Can we convince others it is a business or a weapon, by investing our accumulated capital in it, to accumulate more capital? This is capitalism's eternal demand, the logic of capitalism. Technology, on the other hand, whether attempting to replace the current means of currency, transportation, or communication, is a tool, neither good nor bad, and certainly not neutral. We use it, but it also changes us as individuals and as a collectivity, and we probably will take a long time to understand how.
Still frame from Cory Arcangel, Various Self Playing Bowling Games (2011), as featured in Cory Arcangel: Pro Tools, curated by Christiane Paul for the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Rhizome puts the future of new media art in dialogue with its past — support the conversation, donate today.
Rhizome has been online since 1996 and I have been lucky enough to witness its growth from an informal email list to the organization it is today.
What I appreciate about Rhizome is that even as it continues to evolve and reinvent itself year after year, seeking out emerging ideas, artists, and areas of practice, it remains firmly rooted in a historical context. This can be seen not only in its pioneering work in the field of digital preservation, but also in programming and writing that finds contemporary relevance in media archives and brings different generations into dialogue.
Rhizome is a vital link between the past, present, and future of art and technology.
Support them, as I do. Give today.
— Christiane Paul, curator and scholar
Beginning in 2009, artist Jason Simon worked with media scholar Cynthia Chris to investigate various distribution channels for artists' films and videos. This collaborative research has fed into Simon's own work, which draws on curatorial, documentary, and installation practices to reflect on the same issues of moving image circulation. In this interview, curator and writer Jacob King discussed this research with Simon in relation to his recent solo exhibition at Callicoon Fine Arts in New York (Nov 10 - Dec 22, 2013).
Jacob King: Can you tell me a bit about your project with Cynthia Chris and how it got started? It seems to me that, today, amidst both an unbridled expansion of the art market and a rapid digitization of moving images, there is an amazing degree of uncertainty as to how a given film or video might circulate.
Jason Simon: From Fall 2008 through Spring of 2009 I was living in Paris and teaching in Copenhagen, and I reviewed a show by a Danish artist named Pia Rönike for Bidoun. The show included her film Facing, from a Kurdish story, a black and white art house style dramatic featurette, which screened continuously in a Paris gallery. Although it wasn't a new phenomenon, I had never been more struck by this displacement of cinematic aesthetics into a gallery environment, and this started a long, slow percolation of questions about shifts in infrastructure.
At that time, UbuWeb was gathering extraordinary attention and dividing communities along lines of access and rights to historical and contemporary artists' media. It was in the range of responses to Ubu that I saw new positions being formed. How institutions and artists felt about Ubu in 2008 told you a lot about where things were going. I came back to the US and my job at the College of Staten Island, where I teach with the media scholar Cynthia Chris, someone who also has an extensive pre-academic and professional history with artists' media outlets like Women Make Movies, Video Data Bank, and Printed Matter, and we decided to pursue some of these questions together.
JK: What questions have you and Cynthia have been asking, and who you have been speaking with?
JS: The two initial questions I had in mind when I returned to the US were: what accounts for the differences between European and North American distributors in their relationships to non-academic partners like UbuWeb, galleries, and museums; and how does one see a video after it shows in a gallery? These are medium-specific questions about infrastructure, which are different from the more interpretive discussion that accompanied video's wholesale migration into fine art exhibition venues. In Europe, pre-recession public money permitted non-profit distributors who grew out of an education market to adapt quickly, to embrace UbuWeb, to partner with galleries in placing and supporting editioned video works in collections, and to stream their catalogs. In the US, meanwhile, you had distributors resisting both Ubu's free-access model at one extreme and the galleries' economy of scarcity at the other extreme. This [economy based on scarcity] was clearly not sustainable, and since then, in the global recession, you could almost say the worlds have reversed: public money has disappeared from so much of the European non-profit video world, while the legacy American distributors, at least the ones that are left, have been steadily adapting. As a topic it mushrooms enormously, but Cynthia and I managed to conduct interviews in this time of transition with artists and distributors and gallerists, which were useful for us, if quickly dated.
JK: I sense that much of the uncertainty you describe stems from a conflict between two economic understandings of a film or video: on the one hand, the cinematic model, where a fee is paid to screen a work (either in a single screening or "looped" in an exhibition); and on the other hand, the model which comes more from photography, where a work is "editioned," with the purchase of an edition of a film or video generally conferring unlimited screening and exhibition rights to the owner of the work (or to whomever the owner might "lend" his or her edition), without the payment of any fees to the artist. In film, this distinction is material: in the former situation, what is exchanged is a print of the work, while in the latter, it is a dupe negative, from which prints can be produced in perpetuity for the purposes of exhibition. But with HD digital video, no such material distinction exists—one digital file is just as "original" as another and can be copied indefinitely.
The overlap of these two models can result in some strange, seemingly arbitrary situations. For instance, a museum or small non-profit that borrows a work from a distributor like Lux or EAI would have to pay screening fees, while a commercial gallery that exhibits the same work, and offers it for sale in an edition, might pay no fees. I wonder, do you have a sense of when film and video began to be editioned? Or in the case of 16mm, when artists and galleries started selling negatives and not just film prints?
JS: Those two economic understandings you point to can be mapped according to how far or close the contexts are from both cinematic and pedagogical structures. The second contradiction you point to (that the non-fee paying venue has greater access to original or master quality sources) is yet another anecdote in just how byzantine and unregulated the art market is. The entire economy of gate-keeping distributors is rooted in analog, that is, pre-digital, culture. Breaking that mold without destroying their economy is the puzzle, and perhaps the solution lies somewhere in subscription streaming portals.
As for finding early examples of editioning media works, this is a popular scavenger hunt: most recently Erika Balsom, but others too, have been looking at this and other questions related to early video and artists' films. When Cynthia and I were at the Castelli archives at the Smithsonian looking at the distribution business papers, we saw a few instances in the 1970s where pricing of video works had interesting evolutions. The Chicago dealer Donald Young had an influence on the process, which you can see in his exchanges with Leo; Donald was a pioneer video dealer, and in his case I was very interested in the later evolution of Bruce Nauman's Good Boy Bad Boy. That piece is from 1985, the year that Castelli-Sonnabend Film and Videotapes closed, and is an edition of 40. The gallery staff was very helpful in determining with me that it was Nauman's first editioned video piece—but even saying that is fraught. Nauman had many unique moving image works and installations that preceded Good Boy Bad Boy, and he had an earlier vinyl LP of a video sound track that was a limited edition. And even GBBB was initially part of a larger unique installation. But I would still say that GBBB is his first editioned video work: in 1985 it cost $1,000, by '89 it was $4,000, and by the last time I asked at a booth showing it at an art fair it was $250,000. Art/tapes/22, from the mid-1970s in Florence, Italy, was also a hub for arte povera videos, videos coming from the Castelli-Sonnabend Videotapes and Films Catalog, and Bill Viola was actually working there. I didn't know much about them, but I saw sales certificates for tapes, some as unlimited editions for $200 or less, some as editions of 20 for $1,000.
Bruce Nauman, Good Boy Bad Boy (1985).
Important to me about Good Boy Bad Boy is that its release coincided with the closure of the Castelli-Sonnabend video catalog and its dispersal to Electronic Arts Intermix and the Video Data Bank. The main reason for the handoff was that Castelli-Sonnabend Videotapes and Films could not keep up with either the institutional demand or the changes in technology. EAI and VDB were just better equipped and prepared to handle the business, and built into that business was the fact that the necessary generational loss between an analog original and an analog copy was also a security; a bit of piracy protection and salesmanship that facilitated rentals of screeners and sales of heavier-duty archival sub-masters. But that security has been taken away by HD digital technology, and at precisely the moment at which these distributors were given the rights to a historical archive which could serve as a reliable source of revenue, artists started to distribute their works as editions, sold by galleries. Your example, that a work distributed by Lux or EAI could be obtained by a gallery for free and then sold by the gallery as an editioned work, is a particularly suggestive sequence of events; I would be interested in seeing new contracts or license agreements designed to connect distributors more with editioned works.
JK: Could you talk a bit more about the Castelli-Sonnabend Videotapes and Films catalog?
JS: So many of the artists showing with Leo Castelli and Ileana Sonnabend in the 1960s and '70s made films and videos that were central to their practices, and the galleries supported them by creating a spin off enterprise to handle that work: to manage the tasks of making and sending out copies and developing the catalog into its own business. That business followed the non-commercial film distribution model of lower cost rentals and sales for single screenings, at schools and libraries and museums and art spaces. Artists were paid royalties from the typical fees of $50 to rent a tape for a night or two, or $250 to own it. If you bought it, by the mid 1970s, you got either a reel-to-reel videotape, or (a little later) a 3/4" U-matic cassette, and in the case of a film you received a 16mm release print. If any individuals were collecting these then, it would have been rare; rather, most of the clients were non-profits or libraries.
The catalog itself became a significant document of video's centrality to a conceptual vocabulary; it was three-hole punched and unbound, so it could be updated with supplements for new works that you added into your own binder. At first just the Castelli or Sonnabend gallery artists like Nauman and Vito Acconci and John Baldessari were included, but gradually it expanded with more filmmakers, especially more women. By the 1980s, the catalog was widely circulated to art and film departments at schools, as well as all the museums and sites where this work could be programmed: it was a standard reference. When I finally got a copy, from Bill Horrigan at the Wexner Center, the writing jumped out at me for its unadorned and attentive style. A number of writers covered the 16mm film entries, but all of the video entries were written by the filmmaker Lizzie Borden: she seemed to never use an adverb, and instead reproduced the observational style of the videos themselves when describing what goes on in the tapes. I was interested in the literature of video art publications generally—rental and sales and exhibition catalogs that took video's medium-specificity for granted, with all of the political, aesthetic, and technological assumptions intact. So many of these catalogs—the CSV&F, The Donnel Media Library, the Filmmakers Co-Op giant red book, Canyon Cinema, V Tape and Art Metropole in Canada, and the dozens of others that were standard reference volumes—now have this Rosetta Stone quality as the last printed compendiums to list and describe [artists' film and video as] a fairly contained culture before it exploded into an unfathomable ubiquity of artists' media.
JK: Your recent show at Callicoon Fine Arts in New York included a facsimile of the complete Castelli-Sonnabend Videotapes and Film catalog which you produced as an artists' book. Alongside this you also presented a photograph of a 16mm film canister of Chris Marker's 1962 film La Jetée, which was distributed by McGraw-Hill Films for educational screenings, and the three Video Against AIDS VHS tapes from 1989, which are actually reproductions that you produced by scanning the covers of the original videotapes, now nearly impossible to locate (let alone purchase) because so many libraries and archives have trashed their VHS collections wholesale.
Each of these items functioned as an invitation to consider a superseded structure of film and video distribution, and a corresponding site of reception: the cinema, the classroom, the home. The final element in your show—actually a collaboration with Josiah McElheny—comprised five glass and wood "projection" windows which you installed in the rear wall of the gallery, and which made this white cube all of a sudden take on the possibility of becoming a cinema, and suggested various ways that galleries or museums now give shelter to moving images. In her recent book to which you alluded earlier, Exhibiting Cinema in Contemporary Art, Erika Balsom stresses the relative novelty of this last possibility, and she cites the year 1990 as a kind of inflection point, with the introduction of digital projectors making possible expansive video installations that could enter museums and galleries on the scale of painting and sculpture. I wonder, what was the first video work that you exhibited in a museum or gallery space? How was it displayed? And how was it distributed or sold?
JS: The first video I showed was in the 1989 Whitney Biennial—it was called Production Notes: Fast Food for Thought and was a half hour tape about high-budget TV commercials that I had worked on.
Production Notes was selected for distribution by the Video Databank while I was still a grad student in San Diego in 1988, which was a precocious honor at the time, and for a long while the royalty stream from it was significant. But there was always an ambiguity about its circulation in fine art versus non-profit media circles. Museum curators would sheepishly tell me they were buying it for the education department because it was so popular in media literacy efforts of the time—I was clueless about editioning videos, but I guess by then they were already aware of the potential. It's a tape very much in the mode of 1980s appropriation art and commodity culture critique, but educators seized on it too. I also showed it that same year at The Collective for Living Cinema, when I premiered a collaborative film that I had made with Mark Dion, called Artful History: A Restoration Comedy, about fine art restoration. In both venues, at the Whitney and the Collective, before the age of affordable video projection, you had film screening rooms outfitted with CRT video monitors flanking the film screen and/or distributed among the seats on pedestals.
I mark 1989 as the year that film and video began to share screens, or, more precisely, venues, and as the beginning of the end of a self-contained media-art culture more or less independent of the art market. Video Against AIDS is also from 1989, and proved more and more fascinating as it proved harder and harder to find. The story behind these tapes is that Bill Horrigan (who is a regular source of inspiration for me), and John Greyson were commissioned by Kate Horsfield at the Video Data Bank to co-curate an ambitious program of AIDS activist media art. Important to understand about the context is the degree to which ACT UP and AIDS video was changing the landscape of film and video culture in general: you couldn't stand on the sidelines of the culture wars, and AIDS video was suddenly the prime shifter of media art culture. And with that program too, you had this booklet that accompanied the tapes, entitled "Using Video Against AIDS." Like Lizzie Borden's description of the earlier videos in the Castelli-Sonnabend binder, or like the discussion prompts printed on the inside of the film can forLa Jetée, these are writings addressing teachers. In all three you find this directed, intimate, discursive bond between avant-garde art works and a pedagogical economy. Bill and John did an amazing job of parsing the work and making a coherent case for artists taking on an urgent public mandate. But it was only distributed on VHS, and most VHS collections, even those in major libraries, have disappeared.
JK: In your show at Callicoon, I should point out, in addition to presenting reproduction of the Video Against AIDS VHS covers in a wall-mounted vitrine, you also screened the Video Against AIDS VHS tapes on a small monitor in the space. This strikes me as a means and site of distribution very far from the pedagogic economy for which these tapes were originally produced—for circulation to schools, libraries, and cinemas. If the gallery gives these no longer available VHS tapes a kind of visibility and contemporary life, I wonder what the trade-offs might be: what is sacrificed when these videos enter the white cube, digitized and looped continuously? I'm thinking of some particularly egregious (almost comical) examples I've seen: for instance, Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman looped on a cube monitor (not even the right format for the image) in a summer group show at a gallery in Chelsea not too long ago. I'm sure we all have lots of examples like this. Sometimes I wonder if film and video is often shown in exhibitions less with the expectation that people will actually watch it—as in a classroom or cinema—and more as a kind of pointer, something to put on the checklist, to point at the work and perhaps to say something like, "go see this online," "ask for a screening copy," or, as in the case of the Akerman film, "rent this from Netflix." The internet is certainly the ground against which works in galleries and exhibitions are screened today, and the question is often, why show this in an exhibition space, and not online, on YouTube or Vimeo? How do you see this question? As much as I hate this word, do you think there is some quality or quantity of "attention" at stake here?
JS: The presence of Video Against AIDS on both the modest CRT monitor and in the vitrine grew out of the sheer difficulty in even assembling a visible version of that historic program. Once I found out just how lost it was, each element became supercharged and somehow necessary to declare in the show. It wasn't part of any early plan and I'm not trying to make it sound heroic—it was more just compulsive. But when you discover that all the people you know who are in the program, or who have even curated the program, have lost all or part of it, and that all the libraries (save one) that list it as current in their catalogs have actually tossed it away, well, it seemed important.
The complexity and contradictions of transposing film and video culture to gallery settings was certainly an active question within my show at Callicoon, especially with the projection booth portals that Josiah and I collaborated on: they appear both pictorial and light-transmitting at the same time and so set about to make that question tangible. I think it was also a subject of the show that you curated at Murray Guy last spring, "Screens." But while I was preoccupied with historical touchstones, you were sampling a contemporary range of work in which video was being turned into something else, a sort of text or sign of other forms of content. That difference is also tied in with your comment that: "The internet is certainly the ground against which works in galleries or exhibitions are screened today;" whereas I would have placed the word "cinema" or "videotheque" in place of "internet." That's a good example of a difference in where we might conceptualize the formation of an audience.
That could be a generational thing, but it is also why I was focused on the education market in both my show and in the research with Cynthia Chris. It was the demand from schools that ultimately closed down Castelli-Sonnabend Videotapes and Films: they could not keep up with the interests of teachers and librarians, but because VDB and EAI were meeting that demand and could continue to do so, they handed the whole collection over and got out of the business. I believe that that choice was really about how to do right by the works, how to keep them alive, and it worked wonders. Now there is an open question about how galleries respond to that same demand: if a student or a teacher needs to see a video that is only available from the artist or their gallery, it's anybody's guess as to how that plays out. Schools cannot afford to buy works from galleries the way they used to be able to from Castelli-Sonnabend, but perhaps the galleries have a greater interest in supporting that particular demand through online previewing channels and the like. If they don't make the work available, they run the risk of it being buried altogether by the sheer volume of artists' media work out there.
JK: In the show I organized last spring at Murray Guy ("Screens"), I was really interested in the question of how, when video (or film) moves from the cinema screen or digital computer screen to the white cube, a certain sculptural engagement is foregrounded; we can no longer pretend that it is some disembodied or virtual "moving image", but rather, it is a moving image displayed in a certain way, in relationship to the space, to viewing bodies, to the larger environment and the other objects and sounds. While it seems to me that much of the impulse behind displaying moving images in exhibitions stems from a desire to focus or bring attention to them—the power of the white cube to say "look at this!"—I was interested more in moving images that might move to the periphery, that might not ask viewers to focus within the space of a discrete rectangle, as in works by Rachel Harrison, Josh Kline, Neil Beloufa, or Georgia Sagri that incorporate video into larger sculptural arrangements. I have the sense that these artists (and many artists now) are responding less to the cinema or television and more to some of the newer ways that moving images are encountered today: in store windows and displays, on the sides of buildings, embedded in consumer products, or seen out of the corner of one's eye on a smartphone while walking down the street or riding the subway. But they are also responding to the real conditions by which film and video is often seen in exhibitions nowadays, particularly in the sort of large group exhibitions that often dominate art discourse. Viewing in these situations is often split: between the time/space of the exhibition, and a kind of retrospective viewing via a preview DVD or online link (or low-quality YouTube video). The experience of the work is really fractured, and this is especially true for people with more access to galleries (who can get links or online previews for whatever "content" they want). I can tell you, from working for a gallery, that it is not uncommon for reviewers to come see a show and, without even sitting through the complete duration of a video or film, ask for a preview copy that they can view at home. This context of distribution and viewing has to affect the content of the work being produced, no?
JS: This reminds me of a rule of thumb from those same pre-video projection days, when monitors were spread out around a screening room: every seat had to be within ten feet of a monitor, it was said, or else the video turned into a sculpture, which was a must to avoid! It also reminds me of Peter Wolen's 1976 essay "The Two Avant-Gardes," where he says something to the effect that the problem with artists' films in the USA is that they are too close to the art world, and too far from Godard. These anecdotes point directly to questions of content as long standing in these arenas, but that didn't seem to be a problem in "Screens," where, as you say, the artists appeared more concerned with deploying video as a sculptural element, scaled to our bodies, and temporally organized to our movement in space—foundational sculptural principles, anti-cinematic, but here given these superpowers of bringing the world into the sculpture. In my memory now, video in a lot of the works was a little like Superman's cape: magic and flimsy. I remain curious about the audience contract in cinema, which risks being a bit retrograde, but I think it persists in the art world as a broad reception fantasy for the work on the part of artists, a kind of new Stendahl syndrome, but at the movies.
Audiences can be created in all of these contexts, but there is a difference between an audience being created by awareness and an audience created by experience. In a gallery, distracted as we are and ruled by multiple levels of awareness, content gets sacrificed, as you've said. That makes the availability of these video preview options a mercy—maybe a mercy that gets abused, but understandably so. In my show at Callicoon, I was interested in proposing an origin myth for this imagined golden age of avant-garde moving image practices: finding a denominator in the education market as the material condition that made the avant-garde possible. It's a bit facile as a fact, like saying the Russian avant garde was about selling tractors and textiles, until you make the connection with this as a precondition of content.
19 January 2014
 Here, Simon is referring to his conversations with Lux in the UK, Hamaca in Spain, and NIMK in the Netherlands.
 Here, Simon is referring to his conversations with Video Data Bank and EAI.
This weekend, to coincide with This is the ENDD: a Forum on the E-Cigarette, the front page of Rhizome.org will present The Smoking Room, created by Pinar&Viola and programmed by Gui Machiavelli. In this lush chatroom, you can wield strange new kinds of e-cigarettes and blow virtual smoke shapes while talking to friends and strangers.
I know. Vaping is not smoking. This is rule #1 of vaping culture, a distinction of paramount importance for vapers (who rightfully want to avoid the social stigma of the cigarette) and e-cigarette manufacturers (who want to avoid tobacco-style regulation). Therefore, in their marketing of this emerging technology, e-cigarette manufacturers have trodden a fine line between reminding potential users of the good, old-fashioned benefits of smoking, and establishing their product as something new and hi-tech and detached from bodily consequence. In a word, as something virtual.
This return of some sense of cultural urgency to the word "virtual," due in part to the expanding e-cigarette imaginary, has been a real boon for us here at Rhizome; this organization was established in 1996, the previous heyday for that term, so this is home turf. So let us remind you that the virtual (in the e-cigarette sense) is an effect of material and physical processes. And, the virtual is also a space of ideals and ideas which may not be "real" but certainly do have a considerable impact on reality.
So, welcome back to virtual space. Have a virtual smoke, engage in critical discussion about underlying material and physical processes, and actualize limitless ideals.
This is the ENDD is curated by Zachary Kaplan. The Smoking Room will be available on the front page of rhizome.org beginning at 4:30pm today and continuing through the weekend, but will remain online following the exhibition.
In conjunction with This is the ENDD and at the invitation of event presenter Mathew Dryhurst, Aaron David Ross of Gatekeeper has compiled a mixtape exploring the vape aesthetic. The resulting work is available to stream and download below, along with a statement by ADR. The compilation will be given a public premiere tomorrow at Beverly's (21 Essex St New York, NY 10002), following the conclusion of the conference, at 630pm.
ADR's statement on the compilation:
VAPECRU is a community of artists and musicians born from a shared interest in vapor. As a lifestyle, a smoking cessation device, a fashion accessory, or a science fiction prop, the e-cigarette has affected the lives of many in our community, and has created powerful ties across genre, methodology, and focus. Cloud Chasing Vol. 1 is the first collection of music by vapers, for vapers. I asked contributors to imagine "music to vape to," and compiled the results into an album release which coincides with Rhizome's e-cigarette symposium on February 22nd at the New Museum.
The submissions explore both figurative and literal approaches to the prompt: Milk's "Vaping" describes the lifestyle in detail, Yen Tech's "Powered Up" alludes to both electric and cultural power, and Loric's "Top of the Pyramid" equates the movement to low fat food consumption. The instrumental tracks may be suited for relaxing in vape lounges, cloud chasing in the club, or expressing the frustrations of building an evenly burning sub-ohm coil…
Cloud Chasing Vol 1 begins to codify a sound that spans across demographic and discipline, uniting artists via their unique obsession, forming an intertextual collection of music to be enjoyed inside a dense, sweetly smelling cloud.
The order of events is as follows:
3pm Heather Corcoran, Director's remarks
310pm Zachary Kaplan introduction
320pm Mat Dryhurst/Brian Rogers on history
350pm Pinar & Viola on their front-page project
4pm CAB Fredericks on public health
455pm Pirate utopia on ???
510pm Orit Gat on vape shopping
530pm Tracy Jeanne Rosenthal on drives
We look forward to your comments on the feed, on Twitter, and, of course, on rhizome.org in the comment section.
When all of my friends are on at once, organized by Gene McHugh
Chat rooms, ScReEnNaMeS, AdultKing, cheat codes, Everquest, AOL/Rent essay writing contests. While the cultural forms we encounter on the internet are always changing, there was something palpably unique about the early web; for many of us, this is simply because we encountered it for the first time as adolescents. As many of the entries in When all of my friends are on at once detail, adolescent experiences online in the pre-mobile computing era were often alone, all-engrossing, and/or associated with some form of embarrassment. Launched today, this new project organized by Gene McHugh collects the thoughts of 48 contemporary artists engaged with technology on their first memories of being online.
The site, which will soon be translated into book form, reads like journal fragments strung together on an early web coloring book. (Yes, the site uses HTML frames.) As McHugh states in the outro, one's physical "first memories" are easily supported by a cultural narrative—"running around in nature, walking up the stairs of an old house, a first kiss"—but for the first generation to have come of age with the internet, one's virtual memories are still kind of humming somewhere downstairs with that old dial-up modem.
On this occasion, I've gathered some recollections from the Rhizome staff. They may not do justice to the breadth of experience captured in McHugh's collection, but it's our modest contribution to the collective memory of growing up internet.
Kei Kreutler (me), Editorial Fellow (New York):
We talk a lot about Angelfire and Geocities, but does anyone remember Expage? Well, my friends and I, we each had an Expage. In fact, I think we also had one exclusively for our group, comprising our nicknames, arbitrary preferences, and lots of fuscia Comic Sans on reflecting pool image-repeat backgrounds. At 8, I even spent a lot of time in Dreamweaver developing a tropical-themed website for me and my best friend. Once it was finished, we couldn’t think of anything we felt very compelled to post. It was never hosted.
Michael Connor, Editor & Curator:
My first experience of the web was in using it for research, at school, which was difficult because everything was just pages of "interesting links." Once, while looking for something while a teacher hovered over my shoulder, I accidentally visited a porn site—luckily, it was a text-only browser.
Heather Corcoran, Director:
I don't like nostalgia... .com :)
Laura Davidson, Editorial Fellow (London):
My Dad was an engineer for Ferranti, and as a result I grew up in a household of handcrafted, idiosyncratic, domestic hardware experiments. I was known as the only girl in town that had a successfully networked home system, and word got round to my chemistry teacher, who stalked me for an invitation to our house. #die
Emma Hazen, Program Intern:
I remember in 4th grade we got to use the computer lab. We usually learned to type and did Kidpix. Right after 9/11, some boys surfed the internet and allegedly found some website where they could sign up to join the military.
Nate Hitchcock, Curatorial Fellow:
I was being taught by my dad how to use a computer and I remember it seeming strange that the pictures had light behind them but didn't move. And that words moved vertically and not horizontally. [ED. Nate was using a machine equipped with a T3.]
Zachary Kaplan, Community Manager/Program Administrator:
I had the internet, but my dad wouldn't get AOL (the cost!). My friend Michael had it as his house, however. He also had punters. And we used to go around seeking out what we thought were neo-nazi chatrooms—I'm sure they weren't—trying to boot people. We were good/confused Jewish day schoolers.
Scott Meisburger, Senior Developer:
Growing up, I shared a gray box computer with my brother. When our parents first hooked it up to the internet, they flung their hands in front of the screen to cover it, deathly afraid that their children might see pornography.
A few years back, a writer friend who worked at a prominent blog explained to me that her employer's sensationalist, runon headlines were crafted with the help of a cutting-edge A/B testing system. Each article would go live with multiple versions of the same headline; the version to draw the most clicks would become the canonical version. This, I thought, this is the future: algorithms drawing on user feedback to adjust our texts on the fly for maximum impact.
In 2012, I was among the millions of Americans who noticed that Barack Obama and his campaign staff had started writing some kinda weird messages to me. They'd arrive with subject lines like "Hey" or "Would Love to Meet You." They got talked about at dinner parties. After Election Day, explanations were offered in the press. These weren't the brainchild of a mad creative subject line marketing genius. No, they were carefully tested beforehand among multiple variations sent to smaller groups of supporters, and only the most successful versions made it to the full campaign email list. Obama's campaign raised hundreds of millions of dollars through email direct marketing.
Both of these examples of data-backed writing were early indicators of today's textual landscape, in which a great deal of the writing we see online—especially things like headlines and instructions and marketing copy—has been tested for efficacy before we read it, or is being tested on us as we read it. Our written language is changing, as any Viral Nova headline makes clear, and the assumption is that it is leveraging user data to more perfectly cater to readers' desires.
This is the assumption, anyway. But a new report by Martin Goodson of Qubit, emphatically titled Most Winning A/B Test Results are Illusory, argues that the methodology behind much of the analytic-driven decision-making on the web. It warns against common pitfalls such as multiple testing, in which many A/B tests are performed simultaneously. The report states, "there is always likely to be a feel-good factor from a few wins if you try many tests." My grasp on this isn't perfect, but that sounds a lot like what the aforementioned blog and the Obama campaign were doing. It seems likely that the most immediate effect of these tests would have been to force writers to experiment, coming up with weirdo alternatives to feed into the system. Some real stinkers likely made it through the testing process simply because they yielded false positives, but at the same time, simply encouraging copywriters to innovate and improvise also probably led to some big hits. Hey.
In its skewering of commonly used testing methodologies, the report serves a useful reminder that the algorithms that shape online cultural production, writing included, are themselves cultural agents. Like a human author, they can carry with them certain flaws and biases, which then get passed on into the text. As the practice of writing continues to change, it will be of critical importance to understand it as an interplay among authorial voices, readers' behaviors, and the algorithms that mediate between the two.
For now, we at Rhizome will continue to fly blind in our headline-writing and fundraising email-sending. Algorithms of the future, we look forward to working with you.
E-cig store in Les Sables, France
On February 22, Rhizome held This is the ENDD, a one-day forum on the e-cigarette. A version of this article was given by the author as a PowerPoint lecture.
Last fall, I spent a month in Arles, a small town in southern France, which has a population of 50,000. This being France, a large number of the residents smoke, and the town has three cafés-tabacs, where you can buy cigarettes. It also sports two different e-cigarette stores, both on the same street, the main drag in the town. It's clear that the stores are not there to sell the cigarettes, but rather, to showcase them.
I presume both these stores will not exist in five years (that may be a generous estimate). Whether or not e-cigarettes replace real cigarettes, as many e-cig providers claim, the needs that the vape stores answer will change as our relationships with these objects shift. They are designed for a particular moment in the history of the e-cigarette, when it's still a little out of the ordinary, when we're still not totally sure what to do with it, how to normalize it, and whether or not it's actually here to stay. There is an immediacy, a consistency, to our associations with smoking and cigarettes (good and bad, the Humphrey Bogarts and the health threats); trading them in for an electronic object is a mental leap that's hard to ignore. These stores exist to help consumers make the leap.
My interest in the e-cigarette store is exactly an interest in representation. I'm fascinated by how we sell technology through images, how we make it appear like a natural extension of our habits, and how these representations in turn change our behavior. The e-cigarette is particularly interesting because it comes to replace a product that we never considered could be technologized. This isn't like the iPhone, which is the most current in a long line of technologies substituting one another—it replaced the cell phone, which replaced the phone, which in turn took the place of telegraph. In its translation of an experience that we never imagined would be mediated via a battery, the e-cigarette might be closer to the way the invention of the phonograph replaced—or at least released us from our reliance on—live music. (To further this idea of the visual shift in our approach to technology when marketed the right way: If we can get used to e-cigs, to replace something that is physical—intimate, rather—that we put in our mouths, with technology, if we can be sold on e-cigs, could we be sold on e-food?)
So how do we sell technology?
Enough people have written about the history of Apple making computers and other complex technological objects accessible to the layman. And how the Apple Store made them desirable. But that was still the first thing that came to my mind when I walked into the French e-cig stores, which are both distinctively minimalist, designed mainly in white, and use materials like plastic and glass. The Apple Store has become a kind of marker for how to sell technology. In fact, the Apple Store shaped the golden rule of retail: More people visit the 300+ Apple Stores in a quarter than all of Disney's theme parks in a year. And bringing people into the store is crucial—the Apple Store makes more per SQF ($4406, last year in average) than Mercedes dealership, Tiffany's on 5th Ave ($3070), or an average Best Buy ($880). But that's not why the Apple Store became so synonymous with the sale of new technology and gadgets.
In 2001, when Apple introduced its first store, it looked completely different than any other retail electronics store, which were more like warehouses full of large boxes, cords, and merchandise. Apple then inaugurated its clean, open plan—no clutter, no stock of merchandise on view, and a vista that allows you to see all of the products Apple made at that time in one place, in plain view. But the biggest invention of the store was not a visual one, but a practical one: Ron Johnson, who ran Apple's retail business from 2000–2011 (when he left for JC Penny, where apparently his tech-selling strategies did not translate well into clothes and he was replaced by the person whose position he originally took over two years into the job), devised the idea of the Genius Bar, where dedicated personnel provide immediate support for Apple Products. As Jobs said—"People don't just want to buy personal computers anymore, they want to know what they can do with them."
The aesthetics of the Apple Store definitely carried over to many other retail stores, especially in the technology industry, but also in other fields. Some examples I found online were a grocery store in San Francisco that picked up on the Apple Store's roaming cashiers ("What if Apple sold groceries?") and even an article in the Huffington Post about a Denver recreational marijuana store nicknamed "the Apple Store of weed." But, as ubiquitous as the Apple Store design has become in our minds, it's the latter ethos—that consumers want to see how they can use things, what they can do with them—that was adopted to sell us technology, and has been taken up by e-cigarette boutiques.
Artist-developed vapes for Brooklyn's Bedform Slims
One note here: we are talking about a luxury product. Sure, anyone can buy a cheap e-cig at any bodega, but the specialty e-cigarette store sells brands (many of which are associated with the major tobacco companies—BLU, for example, is owned by Lorillard, which makes Newport cigarettes—but there are still quite a number of independent start-ups) that are more of a premium product, some of which (like Bedford Slims, the artisanal Brooklyn-made e-cigarettes), are clearly marketed to young urban professionals. Not unlike the audience that buys Apple products. But that's not where I'm drawing the comparison from. What started off for me as a purely visual thought experiment about how we represent, sell, and habituate ourselves to technology, became a real interest in how the development of our approach to this particular technology is clear to see in the way it is marketed to us.
One of the things I was most curious about when I started looking at images of e-cigarette stores is how quickly their designs shifted from the Apple Store to Whole Foods. The more we adopt this technology, the more its image is presented as organic, closer to a version of the "real"—that is, non-electronic—thing, if it was good for you and came in 47 flavors. In Europe 7% of smokers had tried vaping by 2012 but only 1% of them kept it up. In the US, 1% of the cigarette market is e-cigs. The US is the fastest adopter of e-cigarettes and sales have increased from nearly nothing in 2008 to over $2 billion today. That's exactly why we're seeing a shift in language and approach to this product, one which moves from tech to the organic. E-liquid, for example, has been dubbed "e-juice," another term that brings to mind the natural, healthful world.
The less of a novelty e-cigs become, the more suppliers will emphasize this "natural" image. This is also meant to support the health claims that e-cigarette companies make. While there is no definite ruling yet about just how bad inhaling nicotine vapor is, its makers are pushing the e-cig as not a smoking cessation tool, but as a low-risk replacement. And it's advertised as such—advertising that picks up on the long tradition of similar messages from the tobacco industry, as in "doctors prefer Lucky Strikes." You're not supposed to wean off e-cigs the way you would nicotine patches or gum—it's supposed to be a brand new habit. A contemporary one. "Addiction without consequences" as Frank Underwood says in House of Cards (where the e-cigarette product placement was so blatant that no speaker at this conference could ignore it). The more natural the e-cigarette seems, the more healthful. That's why we're seeing a shift in the store designs from minimalist white spaces with plastic furniture, glass displays, and mirrors to chalkboards, wooden walls, and all-natural materials.
The menu at Henley Vaporium
Take Henley Vaporium in New York. Henley sports a "menu" for e-juices, a café serving Brooklyn-made coffee and tea and offers up free wifi, so that a customer could hang out at the vape lounge smoking, sampling different kind of flavors, spending money. There's one charm of legislation—once vaping is prohibited in public spaces in NYC, you will still be able to smoke in the e-cigarette store. Which means that now Henley has the best of both worlds: It looks like a Whole Food and keeps people in the store in a way similar to the Apple Store's strategy (free internet). And then there's another thing e-cig stores learned from Apple: the Genius Bar. Yelp reviews of e-cigarette stores all discuss the immediacy of going to a shop, discussing what you want with a vendor (Henley calls them "vapologists," that is, Vape Genius Bar), and trying out different flavors and products, rather than shopping for them online. The vapologist can also help you hack your e-cig and accessorize it. While I'm not totally sure what said "hacking" actually entails, it echoes quite strongly with Apple's tight supervision over app developers. E-cigs are one of the first tech-boom products that you would use so directly on the body. And introducing a highly controlled technology to this space seems to go against all the natural claims the store makes.
Henley sells its own brand, but other stores seem to go in a similar direction in design and approach. This may be one of the biggest mental leaps we make of giving up real objects in favor of e-objects. As e-cigs are being normalized, even though the jury (the FDA that is) is still out on these, they shift to being presented as organic, rather than technological. This shift is fascinating because it teaches us so much about our approach to technology, which is tested by this product. And this shift is visually represented in the stores that sell us this stuff. I brought up e-food before. Did that seem far-fetched? Maybe. But if it's sold to you in a Whole Foods–like store, won't you reconsider? This isn't about product design—it's about retail conventions and what they stand for. As we experience the e-cigarette in these spaces of representation, as we touch it, test it, and pose with it, we transform our understanding of the practice of smoking and the cigarette as object, and we learn to consume new kinds of materials. I can't tell you where all this is going, but I can tell you what it looks like.
Today, I'm pleased to share some news: this summer, Rhizome will be moving into expanded office space in the New Museum's building at 231 Bowery, also home to NEW INC, their art, design, and technology incubator. Building on our 11-year affiliation with the museum and our frequent collaborations across its public programs, Rhizome will support, advise, and otherwise feed in to the incubator project and the work of its new tenants.
As we're in the middle of our annual online membership and fundraising drive, I'd also urge you to support Rhizome at this particular moment. Our new offices will allow us more space for digital conservation projects, a place to articulate our unique culture, and occassion to invite more artists and friends to drop by and work with us. We're anticipating big things on the horizon for Rhizome.