Articles on this Page
- 06/19/14--09:10: _Destruction Ceremon...
- 06/20/14--10:35: _Solidarity after "S...
- 06/24/14--06:00: _Emulating "Bomb Iraq"
- 06/26/14--07:23: _Long Live Immortali...
- 07/01/14--07:30: _Digital Handwork
- 07/02/14--08:05: _Invisible
- 07/08/14--09:59: _Forgetting the Inte...
- 07/10/14--12:06: _Dancing About Archi...
- 07/15/14--11:15: _Greater Than A Wave...
- 07/16/14--08:01: _Announcing the Prix...
- 07/22/14--08:24: _Watch a Panel Discu...
- 07/23/14--09:31: _Rhizome's 2014-15 S...
- 07/24/14--06:30: _Artist Profile: Gen...
- 07/25/14--05:18: _At Our Expense: Har...
- 04/09/14--07:32: _Connecting With My ...
- 07/28/14--08:14: _Rhizome Today
- 07/29/14--07:41: _Rhizome Today
- 07/29/14--08:15: _Artist Profile: Hea...
- 07/30/14--07:24: _Rhizome Today
- 07/30/14--09:40: _August 10 in Rockaw...
- 06/19/14--09:10: Destruction Ceremonies as 21st Century Book Burning
- 06/20/14--10:35: Solidarity after "Sharing:" Notes on Internet Subjects #1
- 06/24/14--06:00: Emulating "Bomb Iraq"
- 06/26/14--07:23: Long Live Immortality: Art as cryogenesis at Ashkal Alwan
- 07/01/14--07:30: Digital Handwork
- 07/02/14--08:05: Invisible
- 07/08/14--09:59: Forgetting the Internet
- 07/16/14--08:01: Announcing the Prix Net Art
- 07/24/14--06:30: Artist Profile: Genevieve Belleveau
- 07/25/14--05:18: At Our Expense: Harun Farocki's Images at War
- 04/09/14--07:32: Connecting With My Inner Bot
- 07/28/14--08:14: Rhizome Today
- 07/29/14--07:41: Rhizome Today
- 07/29/14--08:15: Artist Profile: Heather Phillipson
- 07/30/14--07:24: Rhizome Today
- 07/30/14--09:40: August 10 in Rockaway: Trailblazers, a Web Surfing Competition
Advertisement for destruction of pirated media in the Philippines.
Surely the irony wasn’t lost on Maulana Fazlullah when he took to his FM channel to tell his supporters to burn their radios. But Radio Mullah—as he fast became known—was just preaching on his shortwave what the incumbent Islamist government had set in motion on the streets of the frontier province. In 2006, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) government in Pakistan's provisional district of Khyber–Pakhtunkhwa had begun cracking down on ownership of electronics and recordings of all kinds. Muhammad Arif of the Center for Peace and Cultural Studies Peshawar remembers what happened when media products were suddenly found to be profane: "CDs, Video Cassettes and other gadgets were burnt on the directives of the provincial government. There were clear directives from the MMA government to remove 'obscene' material from the shops and the police had to prove their efficiency." Ordinary people—not only the most devout—and, in some cases, even the police, attended the ceremonies.
Having consisted primarily of local cassettes, videotapes, and VCDs, the MMA government's own bonfire of the vanities did not garner much media attention. Whether it's the looting of Egypt's Museum of Antiquities, the United States’ desecration of Mesopotamian sites in Iraq, the Taliban burning of the Afghanistan National Film Archive, or the torching of historic manuscripts in Timbuktu, the international community can generally be counted on to mourn the destruction of listed sites and priceless objects. But this is not the case when it comes to the destruction of contemporary digital or electronic cultural artefacts, which often receives the tacit approval of the international community as an essential part of the war against piracy. By shredding the "counterfeit" electronic media of their citizenry, governments of emerging markets signal their willingness to participate in a global economy and stage their official identity, while sacrificing the media archives of the future.
Steamrolling masses of CDs.
The sight of tanks and bulldozers crushing disks and tapes is now a familiar one in economies that struggle with—or are at least eager to demonstrate their disapproval of—the brazen alternate distribution networks of pirated media. For every obscure instance of religious zealotry, such as the MMA government's purifying fire, numerous nations are busy publicizing their deployment of military and industrial hardware in the ceremonial annihilation of the carriers of media culture. With a distinctly religious regularity, these destruction ceremonies become events of national significance, acting as a cohesive social and ideological force that initiates the willing into the symbolic body politic of the globalized world.
Through either their direct attendance or participation as subjects or electors of the state, citizens and media consumers are invited to make symbolic contact with broader political forces. More often than not, IP offices choose to stage their rituals on the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO)'s annual World Intellectual Property Day. In China, where as the saying goes "everything is fake but your mother," software and content management seminars in plush hotels are the soft sell to the wider battle fought via on-the-spot bonfires outside duplication factories. In Thailand, VIPs walk the streets after the ceremonial destruction and ask the curious to pay that little bit more for authenticity's sake. The Romanian Copyright Office has even begun shattering hard disks and memory sticks: the symbolic manifestations of online piracy.
If destruction ceremonies of pirated media products across the developing world are a response to global economic forces, they play an equally important role in producing and rehearsing specific national or local identities. At the turn of the century, Indian elephants were seen "stomping" out counterfeit cassettes. In Algeria, a destruction ceremony in October 2012 was adorned with anti-piracy banners that called to mind a street protest; attendees were invited to break pirated media over anvils with rubber mallets. The ceremony was trumpeted by officials as a stance in support of local artists and authors; they enlisted the public support of national celebrities Mohamed Tahar Fergani and Takfarinas. Despite this local emphasis, the ceremony came in the wake of pressure from the US and the WIPO for Algeria to crack down on copyright infringement.
Ceremonial sledgehammering of pirated media.
In press releases and news reports, these ceremonies are said to send a clear message about the government's commitment to facing the issue of copyright piracy head-on. But, like Radio Mullah's paradoxical edict, these public ceremonies of cultural destruction are mired in ambiguity, because governments often tacitly approve of media piracy while publicly condemning it. (For example, the Algerian government itself, as of 2009, was using approximately 50% pirated software). With their maritime namesakes, media pirates share a desire to subvert and profit from the constraints of a gush-up gospel legal system that allows creativity to suffer at the hands of competition, and this desire is not unknown to government officials as well.
Effectively cleaving new trade routes for major labels and production companies, the unilateral trade agreements intended to win the war on piracy instead serves as a means of controlling the economic progress of emerging economies. In 1994 the World Trade Organization (WTO) authored the TRIPS agreement, effectively ensuring that copyright compliance become a prerequisite for continued participation in global trade. The agreement laconically recommended that confiscated goods be "disposed of outside the channels of commerce." Much of the remainder of the document is equally ambiguous, with the aim of allowing countries to mete out punishments and deterrents as they see fit. The early years of the century saw the Office of the US Trade Representative (USTR) set the tone, threatening the nations of the world with inclusion on their annual Special 301 report "Watch List" and "Priority Watch List". From being branded as an outcast in the merchant caste to trade sanctions, the punishments can be severe. 2014's worst violators of international copyright law—Thailand, India, Algeria, Argentina, Chile, China, Indonesia, Pakistan, Russia and Venezuela—are under pressure to show their commitment to US trade norms. Like long-time offender the Philippines, whose name disappeared from the list this year, they are forced to capitalize on every haul of seized goods to provide evidence of their efforts.
Throughout history, societies have found certain kinds of knowledge to be so inexorably tied to their fate as to warrant designation as sacrosanct, making their unpermitted access an act of profanity. Not everything is allowed free circulation. State secrets, as the Snowden leaks have shown us, are guarded for a reason; their unauthorized release destabilizes existing power relations. The same goes for cultural bodies of knowledge, and as such, copyright can be seen as one of the primary mediators of social power. How these closely guarded objects or practices are protected tells us a lot about the structure of the society that clings to their efficacy.
Regional copyright offices, the WIPO, and the WTO would rather not think of their efforts as the destruction of knowledge, as book burning. Crushing, pulping, and shredding have more pleasant associations with recycling, with failure, and technological breakdown, and less to do with Nazism or religious fundamentalism. In the eyes of fascism and fundamentalism the content is profane by its very nature, but the sin of pirated media is far more ambiguous. If it isn't the content, it must be the distribution system, of which the carrier is considered a bastard offspring.
Cassette, CD, and VCD store. Photo: Majeed Babar
But what lies behind the "profane" circulation of cheap, mass-market pirate media is often a system of legitimate or "sacrosanct" distribution characterized by instability, narrow selection, and unfair pricing structures. In many cases, official media is prohibitively expensive, and pirated CDs and VCDs play to a market of lower-income individuals eager for the dissemination of their national culture, not its destruction. In nations with established archives, government holdings, protected collections, and frequent bequests, the distribution, dissemination, and ownership of cultural artifacts are taken for granted. Yet in emerging economies, many of which suffer archival crises triggered by turbulent recent histories, scarcity of funds or skills-drains, the spread of historic music, classic films, and golden-age singers is left to an alternative distribution system to fill the gaps. Thus, by designating pirated media distribution systems as "profane" and official media outlets as "sacred," national governments are destroying the vernacular media archives of the future.
This conflict between local culture and far-flung capitalists can be seen in the Philippines, where the lingering threat of Special 301 led to the foundation of the Optical Media Board (OMB), whose outlandish chairmen, youthful image, and bombastic destruction rituals helped secure the country's removal from the 2014 list after two decades of inclusion. The dubious accolade coincided with improved relations with the US, when in April 2014; the countries signed a ten-year defence pact. However, recent destruction ceremonies organized by the OMB pale in comparison to the one staged in Manila in early 2006. Mounted on an armored vehicle, then-chairman of the OMB Edu Manzano led the charge at the military headquarters Camp Aguinaldo. After the vehicle flattened over 100 million pesos' ($7.7 million in USD) worth of pirated discs, another batch was fed into a pair of giant shredders. As if it needed clarifying, Manzano confirmed to the mass of onlookers at the widely publicized event: "This is a war." But even before the arrival of cheaply duplicated media, a fear of media counterfeiters’ ancestor, marine pirates, had been indelibly woven into Filipino discourse. Before Spanish colonization, marine raiding was the traditional form of warfare, and one treated with the respect accorded to warriors. Upon first contact, the Europeans saw something different. Caught back home in the midst of a bitter battle to stop marine pirates clogging their trade routes, the colonizers saw the nascent Philippine islands as an archipelago of privateers.
Despite the successes of the Filipino assault on piracy, the unpopularity of Operation Dudula in South Africa demonstrates the contentious nature of the approach. Led by the poet and musician Mzwakhe Mbuli, this populist movement saw musicians themselves take to the markets and duplication factories to turn over tables and confiscate illegal merchandise. The operation soon generated toxic publicity through allegations of theft, looting, and racial assaults of migrant stallholders.
Consumers of the vast majority of media culture in Pakistan and the Philippines endure two prime examples of two different types of militant iconoclasm, with Radio Mullah on one hand and the OMB's armoured trucks on the other. Both countries also share an archival crisis, and suffered the devastating effects of military rule and martial law through the 1970s and 1980s. Until recently, the Philippines were thought to have been the last major nation without a national film archive when one was finally established in 2011. Now it is left to Pakistan to suffer that ignoble honor. For a country that so openly permits media piracy, it would be easy to blame this on the circulation of pirated films detracting from an archival impulse from forming. Yet the opposite is true: in countries such as Pakistan the sole reason for the continued existence and dissemination of films made roughly before the advent of VHS is the pirate media trade. With the majority of films now considered lost or damaged beyond repair, the archivists of a future Pakistani film archive would look to the VHS transfers struck from the original reels in the early 1980s as part of General Zia-al-Huq's stay-at-home cultural policy. These films, all readily available from pirate VCD shops, are in each incarnation potentially the earliest carrier form—or what might one day constitute an "original" master copy—and their destruction is the burning of tomorrow's archive.
In countries for whom access to legitimate media products is indicative of social class—pirate media encourages the lossy compression and transference of data to the most modern, economical carrier, the public destruction of which is a symbolic interruption in a long line of media migration. Destruction ceremonies in Pakistan and the Philippines, whose pirated media distribution networks kept alive an archival impulse in the face of government inertia, reflect two iconoclastic gestures to protect the sacred and punish the profane. The sacred lingers in every culture, expressed in those things that are denied open access, with the profane increasingly representative of the inverse effect of prestige pricing and luxury produce. In all cultural modalities there are dichotomies that set the transcendental against the everyday. Pirate destruction ceremonies are the lingering remnants of civilizations that have yet to fully grasp that culture is no longer only accessible to those with means, and their bonfires of the everyday will only continue to polarize a global community for whom technology and informational networks have collapsed the distance between the sacred and the profane.
Enormous amounts of capital have been amassed of late under the banner of the so-called "sharing" economy, characterized by companies such as Uber and Airbnb that have garnered multi-billion dollar valuations for creating platforms in which individuals offer their services and property for rent.
Such platforms have advanced a narrative in the media that their services are emancipatory and disruptive of old-fashioned, inefficient industries, going so far as to promise "revolution" amid broken systems. But what, exactly, is being brought into existence by this revolution? And who is it for?
These questions were discussed in depth at Internet Subjects, a "flash panel" on the sharing economy last night, presented by Rhizome at the New Museum and trenchantly moderated by Kate Crawford. Here's what emerged.
Sharing is the wrong word
Most of the companies in the so-called "sharing economy" are not about sharing, but about renting and selling; panelist Denise Cheng (MIT Center for Civic Media) pointed out that the "peer economy" might be a more precise term for platforms such as Uber and Airbnb, marketplaces in which individuals transact with other individuals. (Elsewhere, the phrase "solidarity economy" is used to describe services which eschew profit in attempts to foster more genuine sharing.)
The use of the word "sharing" may reflect a broader push to frame commercial activity in altruistic terms. Melissa S. Fisher (Social & Cultural Analysis, NYU) tied the seeming idealism of the term to the recent rise of the benevolent corporation that understands itself as the new agent of social change. Writer Kate Losse also reflected on how these platforms are far more eager to describe themselves as vehicles for social good than as optimized private networks.
The sharing economy brings capitalism into formerly private spheres
As Rob Horning (Editor, New Inquiry) pointed out in his introductory remarks, "What sharing companies and apps chiefly do is invite us to turn more of our lives into capital and more of our time into casual labor."
For Fisher, this can be seen as a shift by the corporation into traditionally feminized spaces; Cheng pointed out that this shift was not without precedent: many of the issues faced by sharing economy participants parallel those faced for many years by domestic workers.
The worker becomes an "entrepreneur," and assumes the entrepreneur's risk
Panelists noted the various ways in which the term "sharing" most often means a systematic shift of risk from the service provider onto the precarious labor and consumer.
On these platforms the "product" is the software, as opposed to the experiences that result in their use. Uber refers to their drivers as "partners" as a way to alleviate any inherent risks associated with assuming an army of full time employees, as Cheng pointed out. And Rob Horning reminds us, these independent contractors are the only ones who handle the risk of depreciating capital assets. Kate Losse noted that is tied to a larger Silicon Valley ideology that drastically privileges the technical work over the emotional or creative labor that form the end user content of the platforms themselves.
If everyone is an entrepreneur, can there be worker solidarity?
The workers who make up these networks have structural limitations to effective forms of resistance. Workers have little time to organize when they already have to work so intensely just to break even. Whereas factory workers could coordinate a slowdown, the sharing economy creates a distributed set of workers with little collective potential, prompting the panel to question the extent to which the freedom of "working whenever you please" weakens your ability to organize against an employer.
Such networks are in effect anti-communities, as Horning asserted with dystopic alarm, where users and independent contractors are pitted against one another, with the only unifying aspect being their use of digital technology to seek the best opportunity to exploit each other’s labor for the lowest rate. But at what cost?
The recent #uberwar protests were revealing. As unionized London black cab drivers withheld their labor in a massive organized action, Uber remained in prime position to capitalize upon the increased demand for alternative casual labor sources to fill the gap, only further illustrating how many sharing networks find opportunities to exploit even the most coordinated attempts at organized resistance with little more than a line of code.
A massive new private infrastructure is replacing public goods and services
While we can "vote with our wallet" today, we approach the day when private networks completely replace public utilities and vast suppliers of middle class jobs. Just try convincing someone to send a letter via USPS rather than using gmail. What services will remain public goods in an age of private networked infrastructure? What problems will manifest when questions of liability, access, and ethics are no longer decided by the public, but by a small group of shareholders?
Sharing economy evangelists frequently laud the "self-regulating" nature of the platforms (user ratings, feedback) but do we want to substitute this for the traditional levers of enacting change across public services? As the old saying goes, "you can’t fight city hall", but it may be even harder to fight Andreessen Horowitz.
So what next?
Too often these winner-take-all platforms "invoke change without actually doing much" sharing themselves, Losse added, suggesting that companies, as rational capitalist actors, should take user and worker criticisms to heart.
Another possibility was raised by Cheng, who (citing Janelle Orsi) suggested that we should "buy back" Airbnb and other sharing services. While this might be difficult in practice, it does point to the fact that users of peer marketplaces, like traditional workers, might reasonably expect to earn equity in the network itself. But for now, there are few guarantees that the valuations of these companies will be shared by the networked independent contractors who performs its services, and scant hope for collective action.
The final question of the night prompted the panel to think of a new term to replace the misnomer "sharing." "post-sharing," "sublet," "contingent," "casual," or the "gig" economy were among the suggestions to capture the new state of networked precarity. Yet a realistic (if not jaded) observer in the crowd hinted at the futility of compartmentalizing the digital network potential that lay beneath services like Uber and Airbnb. Her proposal was simply to refer to it as "the economy"— despite the dissections offered last night, it appears as if it's here to stay. And simply acknowledging these commodity relations as the new normal may be an important step toward a more equitably shared future.
Internet Subjects is a new series of "flash panels," organized in one week in response to current issues. Sign up here to receive news about future events.
Internet Subjects is presented by Rhizome, and organized by Rhizome editor/curator Michael Connor, Kate Crawford (Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and Senior Fellow at NYU's Information Law Institute), and Nathan Jurgenson (contributing editor to The New Inquiry, chair of Theorizing the Web, researcher at Snapchat).
Cory Arcangel, Bomb Iraq (2005). Screen capture of found hypercard program.
"In 2005, Cory Arcangel bought a used computer at a Salvation Army store in Buffalo, New York. Originally he was attracted to it because of its rarity: the Macintosh TV was a rather badly designed, half-hearted hybrid of a Macintosh Computer and a TV set, that performed neither of its designated functions very well and lacked any cool things that might come from the synergy. The machine was a commercial flop, only around 10,000 units were produced during a few months between 1993 and 1994."
Still image from the documentary Transcendent Man (2009), featuring Ray Kurzweil.
Bills, letters, clothes, books, records, photos, DNA samples—these are some of Fredric Kurzweil's personal effects, collected and stored by his son Ray, who will one day use this material to bring his father (who died when Ray was 22) back to life. Catalogued in a temperature-controlled room in Kurzweil's own home, this material betrays a personal basis for the noted futurist's most famous fixation: triumph over death.
Kurzweil's home could be an off-site extension of A Museum of Immortality, which opened at Ashkal Alwan in Beirut last Wednesday. Organized by Anton Vidokle and based on a curatorial concept by Boris Groys, the exhibition takes its inspiration from Kurzweil's now obscure predecessor in the field, Russian cosmist and theologian, Nikolai Fedorov. In the mid-1800s, Fedorov beseeched humanity to join together in "The Common Task": resurrecting every human being who has ever walked the Earth. Both a devout Christian and proto-transhumanist, Fedorov believed that controlling the forces of nature and exploring the far reaches of space carried out God's will. For Federov (as for Kurzweil) death is an obstacle which technology must overcome.
Opening of A Museum of Immortality on June 11, 2014, as part of HWP 2013-14: Chapter 5. Courtesy Ashkal Alwan.
The exhibition's architecture, fifty-four human sized boxes, arranged as modular clusters around the gallery's structural columns, parallax between coffins and containers, each dedicated by an artist to the resurrection of a single person, living or dead. At first glance, the exhibition's concept is as totalizing as Federov's theory. If, in a globalizing art world, the exhibition (from Younger Than Jesus to Younger Than Rihanna), functions as the basic unit of meaning—an ideology Vidokle's e-flux newsletter often encourages—then the coffin/container might be the most appropriate form to represent an artist's contribution: an interchangeable variable in a modular function set to equal circulation itself. Under such conditions, these artists, are simply creative class prosumers, customizing their Perspex-encased cubbies like the latest Nikes.
Happily, a vibrant contingent of A Museum of Immortality doesn't share this fate. With a garden of root vegetables (ancestors first) and a USB (memory) stick, participating artist Arjuna Neuman manages to escape his container twice. His mental map PDF features contemporary architect Moshie Safdie, whose modular 1967 Habitat bears striking resemblance to A Museum of Immortality itself. "For everyone a garden," Safdie advertised. Built for the Montreal World's Fair, Safdie had originally designed Habitat for Arab refugees, but now its structures (like Safdie's current designs) house luxury condos. The World's Fair prefigures a world unified not under God but under global capitalism.
Arjuna Neuman, Eating Your Roots (2014). Installation view, "A Museum of Immortality." Photo by author.
For his contribution, Mahmoud Safadi resurrects Lebanon's participation at the 1939 New York World's Fair—the 1939 exhibition, 6,000 Years of Peaceful Contribution to Mankind, now haunted in part by the Oscar Neimeyer arcade that sits unfinished in Tripoli. Designed for a permanent international fair, the arcade's construction was interrupted by that which has perhaps most shaped the country's international definition, its civil war. Hand-carving the Lebanese pavilion plaque into Styrofoam, Safadi gives material immortality to the nation's own self-representation.
Given the exhibition's focus on transcending human limits, forms of technology feature prominently. In an elegant gesture that speaks viscerally to perception, Jessika Khazrik faces two lamps toward each other to represent Ibn Al Haytham, an 11th century theorist of optics who debated whether light emitted from objects or from the eye. Raymond Gemayel freeze frames Muybridge's galloping horse. Tony Chakar presents his personal collection of now-obsolete cassette tapes. And Nana Neudeck weaves in Fedorov's own cosmism, dedicating her space to Edward Challita, a Lebanese actor who last year applied for a spot on Mars One, with a precise, diorama-scaled installation of material Challita chose himself.
Detail of "A Museum of Immortality." Contributions by Nana Neudeck (right) Arjuna Neuman (center) and Tony Chakar (left), photo by author.
In the blurry space between being immortalized and becoming immortal, technology (and art) act as forms of cryogenesis. While Fedorov believed museums were vital institutions for collecting and housing the materials of the dead for their imminent return, these artists seem less interested resurrecting human flesh than in resuscitating past ideas. Indeed, Fedorov's own far-left critique of capitalism (and far-out critique of socialism) may prove a vital point of departure from our broken-down present.
Fedorov predicted nations interconnected with wires, rails, and telecommunications. He predicted space travel (one of his students created the formulas by which the first craft left for space). But these developments weren't just economic. Even his campaign for immortality aimed to reorient history from the vertical teleology of progress to the horizontal gathering of every human being, spread across every planet in the Galaxy.
Rather than Federov's Kingdom of God, Ray Kurzweil (now a Google exec) shares his employer's wimpy injunction, Don't Be Evil. (Or, don't worry, Virgin Galactic will fill the void of the defunded NASA, and eat Paleolithic to survive the Digital Age.) Advocating massive privatization from social programs to corporations, from collectives to individual entrepreneurs, Kurzweil hasn't used technology to build utopia. Instead, Kurzweil illustrates technology's crucial role in securing capitalism's hold on utopian rhetoric—the revolution happens in Silicon Valley each day.
The urgency underlying A Museum of Immortality is the recapture of life and death as public matters from capitalism's private necropolitics. (The iPhone sustained by coltan mines, Monsanto tomatoes by the Wall in the West Bank.) Until the resurrection of Fedorov's radical communalism, I'll happily turn to the baby booming futurists whose infantile utopias are hired hits on my present, and declare, long live dying.
In Luc Besson’s sci-fi classic The Fifth Element (1997), the "veryperfect" future human is reverse engineered from a severed hand. As sole surviving fragment of the hijacked Mondoshawan spacecraft carrying the antidote to the "Great Evil," this bronzy limb first appears laid out for examination in a gravel-floored capsule. "A few cells are still alive," analysis reveals, and the hand provides the building blocks for Milla Jovovich's Leelo. Mechanical and chemical processes generate skeleton, tissue, and finally skin... "Reconstruction complete." Initially resembling a prosthetic fused to a new body, the metallic hand has in fact formed a sort of glove around a replacement humanoid limb, which Leelo promptly employs to smash her glass surround—the screen that separates her from the outside world.
Terminating at the wrist, the severed hand of The Fifth Element corresponds to a recent proliferation of hand imagery in art concerned with the framing of human life by digital technologies, as well as the shaping and subversion of these technologies by humans. While the hand is a motif of long standing in art, it plays a crucial new role in this discourse of cyborgian intra-activity, given its ambiguous status as tool and not-tool, human and technology. In this article, we discuss hands as they take on different valences as human and technological actants, performing labor, forging intimacy, and experiencing sensory pleasure. Throughout, we argue that images of the hand in contemporary art problematize the boundary between organic human and inorganic tool, with implications for our understanding of labor, the body, and touch. Where the subject appears impoverished by constant connectivity, several artists break the screen, like Leelo, in a bid to emphasize materiality, the "immediacy and irreducibility of lived experience."
The Laboring Hand
With their clutching, disembodied hands, recent sculptural works by Josh Kline evoke the discarded limb of The Fifth Element. For the series Creative Hands (2011-), Kline fused silicone cast likenesses of friends' and colleagues' hands holding a selection of tools and consumables emblematic of prosumerism and the blurring of work and social life—a computer mouse, an iPhone, a carpal tunnel wrist brace, Purell hand sanitizer—displaying the resulting hybrid objects on backlit shelves. Writing for Texte zur Kunst, Kerstin Stakemeier described the series as reverse prostheses: as in Besson's film, "the hand is attached to the object and ends with it." If the tool is traditionally understood as an extension of the human hand, here the hand extends from the tool.
Josh Kline, Retoucher's Hand with Mouse (Jasmine Pasquill), (2011). From the series Creative Hands.
Tastemaker's Choice (2012) also features the hands of Kline's peers, including Alex Gartenfeld and Marco Rosso, this time 3D printed using a transparent material, grasping a replica of a bottled beverage of the subject's choice. The hand/product hybrid is filled with this chosen liquid which, knowing no barrier between bottle and hand, illustrates the (literal and metaphorical) flows between humans and the things they hold.
The coincidence of Kline's means of production with the congelation of objects and hands merits special attention here. 3D printing has been billed as a harbinger of a second Industrial Revolution, and it was during the first that a theory of technics emerged, with the hand and a refusal of the animate-inanimate binary at its core. As Bernard Stiegler explains in Technics and Time I, there was a turning in metaphysics in this era: where natural scientist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck represented the European intellectual consensus in his 1809 description of the strict division between "two classes of body"—the "non-living" and its opposite, that which is "inevitably doomed to die," Engels described a "dialectic between tool and hand that was to trouble the frontier between the inert and the organic." In "The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man" (1876), Engels argued that humans evolved in dialogue with their tools. Having been shaped by our use tools over tens of thousands of years, our hands are already technological.
Josh Kline, Tastemaker's Choice, Detail (2012).
If, for Engels, this was partly cause for celebrating the human as the being with a special relation to labor and art, our proximity to technology also made possible a future in which increasing productivity would lead to a concentration of wealth in the hands (so to speak) of the very few. Do we find in the present an echo of Engels' future? Wealth is certainly concentrated, but he could neither have predicted the nature of Post-Fordist work conditions in which immaterial labor is the order of the day, nor entertained a demanualized state of art in which "[f]acility is downloaded to the manipulation of technology." Engels conceived of (productive) labor as that which drove the hand's evolution to achieve (in unproductive labor) "the high degree of perfection required to conjure into being the pictures of a Raphael." Faced with Kline's art, and with the age of 3D printing as a whole, we cannot speak triumphantly of labor as an evolutionary force that reshapes the hand around its tool, thereby attaining higher degrees of perfection. In contrast with the machinery of large scale industry, the devices we use for immaterial labor are sleek and pocket-sized, ergonomically built and anthropomorphised. Yet they reshape the hand in crippling fashion, limiting its activities to a set of patented gestures. For Engels, the hand was given freedom from productive labor in the autonomous work of art; in Kline's works described above, the hand is so thoroughly defined by technologies supporting intermingled productive and unproductive labor that its only emancipation comes from breaking with the body entirely—to end up on retail display shelves in the form of freely circulating products.
Screen shot from Camille Henrot's Grosse Fatigue (2013).
A contrasting depiction of the laboring hand as master of technology can be found in Camille Henrot's video Grosse Fatigue (2013). While a narrator offers a sweeping history of the world, finely manicured hands traverse physical and digital interfaces, accessing multiple overlapping GUI windows displaying natural history-related imagery found online or during visits to the vaults of the Smithsonian Institute. As a rhythmically intense aural and visual bombardment, this work metaphorizes the impossibility of processing all the knowledge at our disposal, and the dilemma of where to begin. The transfer of resources to an internet that knows none of the limitations previously imposed by a building's walls and opening hours means we carry the burden of constant access in our hands. The substitution of physical documents with digital files, of traditional architecture with digital infrastructure, implies weightlessness. But "immateriality" is heavy. By incorporating hands that touch and interact with objects in various ways, Henrot encourages us to imagine how knowledge might feel, even as growing swathes of data, relying on physical and digital infrastructure alike, stretch far beyond our grasp. Fatigue is perhaps insufficiently conveyed, then, given the expert grip and precision of Henrot's hands—holding a delicately peeled boiled egg, carefully positioning statues, throwing marbles, or turning book pages. These hands do not look tired, and at a short 13 minutes duration, this work hardly weighs on the viewer's mind. In fact, what comes across in Henrot's video is a fantasy of mastery, the hand (as the representative of human agency) in complete control of a universe of information; there is no indication that technology is acting on the hand as well.
Benedict Drew, Heads May Roll, (2014.) Detail.
In Benedict Drew's show "Heads May Roll" (February 19 - April 20, 2014, Matt's Gallery, London), access to information was not presented as the path to mastery. Anxiety was contrastingly palpable, and mental and physical burnout manifest in the shaking parts of a person who has, according to one of the videos on view, "seen every image." Dislocated hands featured in three videos installed in psychedelic sci-fi settings: the first, installed in a minimal white space, depicted hands caught in repetitive spasms. The second and third, in contrast, showed hands manipulating clay or electrical equipment, with neither activity entailing progress toward a finished work. These were installed in a chaotic, maximalist environment, shown on small cube monitors set on the floor beneath platforms supporting other screens which showed widescreen footage of green goo and YouTube-derived footage of astronaut Chris Hadfield demonstrating zero-gravity tears, followed by the word "EXHAUSTION" in fat pink lettering on a green background. The liquids depicted here were not of the identity-defining, energizing, "healing" kind employed in Tastemaker's Choice; rather, abject substances oozed and wobbled. If in the first video hands evoked a nervous state of inefficiency presumably induced by the overconsumption of images, those in the second and third spoke of a defeated desire to overcome formlessness through skilled making.
The Dark Pool (2014), a new work by David Panos featuring the two-screen video "Green Goo Gallerte" / "Table of Gestures" (excerpted as Congelation 1 for the exhibition Bitrates), choreographs a struggle between hands and objects. Panos uses green screens to rip bodies from frames, dramatizing the violent tension between the hand as extension of a subject's will and subject of external forces. The most engaging passages - startlingly delicate against a grinding soundtrack broken by thuds and mechanical sighs - are those showing dancers' hands in close-up, pulling their fingers through ropes and blue tape. Mastery over objects appears no more fruitful than it does in Drew's work, but at least hands have been spared reduction to the gelatinous state the word "Gallerte" refers to. In other scenes, their expression is curtailed by the more mundane demands of domestic or service industry labor–the setting up of tables similar to those found in 3D form in the exhibition space. The installation element of this work comprises insubstantial IKEA furniture, mutated through the addition of printed and mounted green screen, cold metallic elements and contours of human flesh.
David Panos, The Dark Pool (2014). Still frames from video.
If Kline uses hands to diagnose the defeat of human agency by the object, Henrot's hands assert mastery; where Drew's hands succumb to exhaustion, Panos maintains room for manoeuvre between the two poles. In all cases, hands act upon viewers, detached from bodies yet still enacting desire.
The Human Connection
Of course, the hand is identified not only with labor, but also with connection (often mediated by technology) between people. Hands recur in Cécile B. Evans's work: in Made with Minds (2013), Trilogy (2012), and this year in video loops greeting the user of AGNES (a chatbot that lives on the Serpentine Galleries website), where they indicate the artist's investment in the emotive capacities of gesture. If we normally avoid responding to spam, it is harder to refuse a spambot specifically programmed and attuned to the techniques of affective computing. AGNES displays video loops of varied trios of familiar actions, several of them inspired by the gifs at criticalhandgestures.tumblr.com, as a prompt for the user to open up to an automated being: an accompanying voiceover asks that you "please select the gesture that best describes your state of being." This friendly spambot proceeds to deliver what she "thinks" the user wants. All very well in an artwork, perhaps, but in scripting AGNES to express guilt about gathering data during the performative screenings of "AGNES GOES LIVE," Evans recognizes the hand's potential instrumentalization in the interests of commercial goals. If the hand is constituted by technology, can it be trusted?
The idea of hands as intermediary between remote bodies and devices was also explored in recent talks in which Harry Sanderson presented slides showing the prowess of the hand used as a tool for enticing consumers of alternative therapies. In a photo since removed from Holistic Heart Centre.com's Distance Healing Session webpage, a man illustrates a service entailing the placement of his hand on his computer screen in such a way as to "touch," and if we buy the claims, "heal" a remotely located patient framed by a Skype window. For an artist who argues for materialist conceptions of the web, cloaking the act of communication in spiritualism and mystique is objectionable insofar as it reifies the internet's capacity to connect people in "virtual" space. As Laura Marks writes in "Immanence online," "[m]aterialism is (...) a Marxist remedy to reification," which can be held against "transcendentalist understandings of cyberspace" indicating "misplaced faith in a virtual superstructure, at the expense of understanding that e-businesses are material enterprises like any other." If the hand is already a technical actant, Sanderson's objection to distant healing does not mean rejecting the effectiveness of touching via Skype but rather the commoditization of touch and its marketing as "cure."
The Sensory Hand
Even as the hand is increasingly enmeshed in technology, touching keyboards and phones more often than not, the role of the hand and touch in the body's sensorium is largely neglected, as the tech world carefully delegates the most rewarding sensory functions and experiences to the eyes. The hand's labor is also sensory—gripping, clutching, tapping, swiping, clicking, typing—so it follows that a desire to transcend screen space, and to privilege tactility, persists and need not be entertained in an occultist vein.
Jaakko Pallasvuo and Martin Kohout. Music video for Islaja's "Houndin' Like a Dog," 2010. Still frame from video.
In Jaakko Pallasvuo's work, hands respond to a loss of the sensuous, asserting a need for the textures compromised by uniformly smooth screens. In his videos—such as Utopia (2013), The Cloud of Unknowing (2013), and The Artist's Statement (2012), as well as collaborations including the music video for Islaja (with Martin Kohout) and works by Oval Office (with Mikko Gaestel), which include The Comfort Zone (2013)—a sense of touch, or haptic visuality, is introduced through the incorporation of materials with visceral pull: slime and melting ice cream. Physical handmade counterparts such as Energy Objects have similarly sensual appeal. Bearing the marks of their making, Pallasvuo's technique stands in stark contrast to the industrial means preferred by Kline. Instead of calling attention to the disembodiment of the hand and its connectedness to respective tools, Pallasvuo reintegrates the hand into the body, vivifying the duality of the hand as that which makes and feels.
Sandra Vaka Olsen, Sunscreenspill, 2013. C-print, fotopapir, solcreme, ramme. 30 x 40 cm.
In many cases, tactility also serves the purpose of acting as an index of the artists' intent. Like Pallasvuo, Sandra Vaka Olsen similarly opposes clean, traceless means of production. In the context of the two artist show "Every Line Ever Spoken," Vaka Olsen said of her own and Takeshi Shiomitsu's work that
Both of our things have to do with action. The action of making things (...) There is a gesture, we make stuff which involves hands, bodies and labour. On top of surfaces. As I've done before I've used the computer screen in this series. I use water, sun crème and gels on top of the computer screen and photograph it over and over again. It's an action of going in and out of the computer screen; developing, scanning, photographing, adding a new layer of water. I almost do a sort of finger painting with the sun crème. While working I can't see what I'm doing; it's almost transparent, white on white. But when I light the photo it all comes through and I see this movement. The gesture of the hand.
It's useful to read this statement in conjunction with John Roberts's writing on "Situational authorship," defined as the artist's intervention in circuits of authorship shared (because technology has broadened access to tools) by society at large. By doing so, we might see Vaka Olsen as an inheritor of what Roberts describes as the tradition of "the haptic readymade," the feminist practice of situating the manufactured or copied work as "the embodiment of those things the author has touched and loved" and as that which "tends to favor signs of hand-to-object attachment." Roberts contrasts this with another form of situational authorship, the tradition of masculine radicality in post-Conceptual practice of the '70s and '80s where the hand and affect is detached from the externally fabricated, incorporated art object. As we've seen above in the work of Kline, Panos and Drew, it is impossible to distance the digitally produced artwork from the embodied processes that went into its making. Sandra Vaka Olsen makes this point most insistently in her layering of soft and hardened matter, a process which coincides with Roberts's argument for a labor theory of culture centred around the hand.
His argument throughout The Intangibilities of Form is that, as different kinds of labor amalgamate in the coming together of the hand with technology, and as the hand deskills in relation to craft but reskills in terms of "general social technique," there is potential for artists to reinscribe alternative meanings, relationships, and functions to the technologies with which they interact. In words that complement the argument made earlier for acknowledging the slim distance between Kline's series and the technologies they are made with and reflect upon, "new forms of commodification are the heteronomous site of new forms of autonomy." The introduction of new technologies into artistic labor does not undermine the role of the artist; it merely reconfigures it.
The redefinition of the artist's hand is of central importance to Roberts, as he understands the value of art to be derived from the tension in its making by the work of artists and non-artists alike. However, it is often the artist who recoups this value, and it is their "veryperfect" hands, and those of their peers, that appear in most of the works discussed in this article. The many non-artist hands that participate in the lower end of the supply chain rarely have any agency in contemporary image culture at all; if they appear at all, it is as glitches in the system, as accidentally scanned hands appearing in Google Books, or as objects of unreconstructed ethnographic interest, as in Edward Burtynsky's Manufactured Landscapes.
In this context, the trend for nail art offers one of the few possibilities for a more direct evocation of the role of the laborer, while entailing a reintroduction of painting and handcraft that Roberts does not discuss. If nail art often means an encounter with low paid labor in the salon, artists such as Emilio Bianchic clearly prefer DIY nails as if to refuse the gloss that belies the precarity of the nail technician and artist alike. Jeremy Bailey has recently curated a Fingernail Exhibition and established a Nail Art Museum, celebrating the hand of the artist who self produces by means of aggregation and reconfiguration, while the hyperbolically elongated nails in Pallasvuo's work are reminiscent of Ming Dynasty artificial nails, worn by nobility and upper class women to indicate the impossibility of physically laboring given the inhibiting length of their accoutrements.
From @jeremybailey's Twitter.
Images of the hand today designate a nuanced combination of artistic positions: they not only indicate concern with materialization and breaking through the screen, but also imply acknowledging the human relationship to simple and complex technological layers. "If art is always and already embedded in the technological relations of its time," it is with their hands, and now explicitly with recourse to hand imagery, that artists (as privileged laborers) determine the extent and nature of their work's implication in digital infrastructures that may emancipate or entrap. Necessarily understood as post- or cyborgian, the hand can never entirely opt out of the technical: it is a tool and a technology. Indeed, "[t]he essence of the human...is the technical; which is...the other of the human: the non-human, the manufactured, the unnatural, artificial; the inhuman even." The artist's hand, and the hands they represent and circulate, elucidate this site of confluence and its pharmacological status as both poison "Great Evil" and cure.
1 A steady traffic of hand imagery includes: Kenneth Goldsmith's "Artful Accidents of Google Books," Jasmine Johnson and Alice May Williams's "Glossary of Hand Gestures for Critical Discussion," WORKS by Alice Brooks (Lima Zulu project space, London, June 18-22 2014), and the social media output of artists such as Jasper Spicero, Bunny Rogers, Emilio Bianchic, and Jeremy Bailey. A sentence in Hito Steyerl, "Too Much World: Is the Internet Dead?" also comes to mind: "A nail paint clip turns into an Instagram riot." Images of the human hand have been prevalent throughout art history, from cave painting, to the art of the Renaissance, and in numerous twentieth century avant-garde films, but the task of interpreting these is not undertaken here. For an astute and succinct overview of the symbology of hands, fingers, and nails (claws), see Ami Ronnberg and Kathleen Martin, The Book of Symbols: Reflections on Archetypal Images(The Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism) (Köln; London: Taschen, 2012), 379-387.
2 As Bernard Stiegler writes of this ambiguous status, "the technical object (...) is organized inorganic matter that transforms itself in time as living matter transforms itself in its interaction with the mileu. In addition, it becomes the interface through which the human qua living matter enters into relation with the mileu." Technics and Time I, 49, (Richard Beardsworth and George Collins (trans.), California: Stanford University Press, 1998), 49 (Originally published in French as La Technique et le Temps 1: La faute d'Epithemee, Paris: Galilee, 1994). For more on the relation between the animate and inanimate, understood through cyborgian discourse, see Karen Barad, "Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter" in Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007).
3 Laura Marks, Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), 178.
4 Kerstin Stakemeier, "Prosthetic Productions. The Art of Digital Bodies," Texte Zur Kunst, March 2014, 166-181.
5 Stiegler, Technics and Time I, 1-2
6 Engels, "The Part played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man" [online].
7 John Roberts, The Intangibilities of Form: Skill and Deskilling in Art after the Readymade (London: Verso, 2007), 98.
9 According to Marx, the "principle" of large-scale industry was "to view each process of production in and for itself, and to resolve it into its constituent elements without looking first at the ability of the human hand to perform the new processes" with this bringing into existence "the whole of the modern science of technology," Karl Marx, see Chapter 15 "Machinery and Large-Scale Industry,” Capital Volume I (London: Penguin with New Left Review, 1976 edition translated by Ben Fowkes), 616.
10 Alexander Provan, "Gestural Abstractions," Artforum, March 2013. Accessed on alexanderprovan.com.
11 See Keston Sutherland on Marx's use of the term "Gallerte" as a means to disgust his readership: it would have set up a comparison between the consistency of the human body engaged in undifferentiated labor and that of the edible commodity of animal jelly http://www.worldpicturejournal.com/World%20Picture/WP_1.1/KSutherland.pdf 6-11
12 "Lunchbytes: Medium: Format" (ICA, London, March 2014), and "Shimmering World Conference" (Manchester University, April 2014)
13 Laura Marks, "Immanence Online," Touch, 178.
14 References to clay in Joanne McNeil's recent article, "Touch to Feel," sheds light on this practice of molding and shaping in the context of screen-saturated culture. Discussing North Korea's "Pyongyang Touch," McNeil writes that it does not "connect to the internet…But it gives users the power to manipulate a screen environment like clay."
15 John Roberts, The Intangibilities of Form, 172.
17 "if this is an issue about expanding artistic subjectivity into the realms of the virtual, immaterial, prosthetic and surrogate - of the expansion of authorship through the development of the hand-at-a-distance - it is not an argument about how artistic subjectivity is itself machinic or programmed. Machines mediate and transform artistic subjectivity. It is artists - and their hands - however, who bring use values to machines and their programmes." John Roberts, The Intangibilities of Form, 104
18 John Roberts, "Art After Deskilling"
19 The Nail Art Museum was created for the ICA London panel discussion centering around Omar Kholeif's book, You are Here: Art After the Internet (ICA, London, June 18, 2014).
21 Andrés Vaccari, "Unweaving the Program: Stiegler and the Hegemony of Technics."
It shows how completely genre TV has appropriated the concept of DNA identification that one would immediately associate Invisible—artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg's product-provocation designed to protect "against new forms of biological surveillance"—with murder scene clean-up. Invisible comprises two bottles of spray: Erase and Replace. The former deletes 99.5% of DNA residue; the latter is "a solution of customized amplified DNA" designed to "obfuscate the remaining .5%." Together they could certainly be used to "spoof" the site of a crime, but Invisible's stated purpose is firmly focused on the quotidian-dystopic, a new SF sub-genre attempting to describe the daily grind of the immediate future.
The product's launch video incorporates visual strategies from apocalyptic films (scene-setting turbulent news footage) and tropes from sci-fi viral-thrillers (surveillance camera footage, a color palette of washed out blues on black). The marketing copy argues that only "You should be in control of how you share your information." Dewey-Hagborg positions Invisible as a necessary tool in an emergent world where the logic of data-mining extends away from the keyboard, right down to your genome.
Suggested uses include eliminating DNA samples left at a job interview or an illicit tryst, both gesturing to the practical limitations of the product. Imagine standing up from a conversation with a prospective employer, refusing to shaking hands, then blasting your seat, the doorknob, and the pen/iPad you manipulated. Wouldn't go over too well. (Unless perhaps you're auditioning for EFF or CIA). And each bottle holds only 4.4mL (a pair of Erase and Replace run for $230), so you'd have to go through more than a couple to scour a post-rendezvous hotel room.
But it would be missing the point to review Invisible solely as a product. (And futile, as I don't have a home lab.) Rather, it's a provocation similar to Dewey-Hagborg's previous project Stranger Visions, for which she created speculative portrait sculptures based on DNA retrieved from public places. Neither are spawns of corporate R&D, but rather DIY bio-art. If Dewey-Hagborg can develop and market Invisible with relatively limited means, imagine what corporate and government projects are capable of. In the age of Wikileaks, we constantly congratulate ourselves on the transparency brought to bear on the state and the corporation. Perhaps we’ve forgotten our good old Burroughsian paranoia about what we don’t know...
Still, Invisible is a challenge in a way Stranger Visions wasn't. If Stranger Visions demonstrated the far-reaching tentacles of surveillance tech, Invisible suggests a (so-far legal) means of combating it. There's no reason to think this mixture could not be mass produced, driving the price point down to placement at your (admittedly, constantly-surveilled) national pharmacy brand. Further permutations suggest themselves: a roach-bomb-like grenade for single-room eliminations, or a perfume/cologne. (Invisible, after all, does sound like the latest b-list celebrity scent.)
Coupled with an artwork like Sean Raspet's Untitled (Registration/PIN: G0009296/78GY76DM; G0009297/99ER43TB; G0009298/39ZL54SJ)—for which gallery walls were covered with synthetic DNA trace-goo to create "a paranoiac or obsessive awareness of surfaces in the visitor"—Invisible brings public discourse about biotech out of the backwater of syndicated crime serials, staking out an uncertain position between dystopian fiction and dystopian fact.
Corporate Synergy Disclosure: Invisible will be sold solely through the New Museum Store. Rhizome is an affiliate of the New Museum.
San Francisco (AFP), June 26 - Google on Thursday said that it is "forgetting" things in Europe to comply with a legal ruling granting people the power to have certain information about them removed from searches.
Even though it was sunny, I knew something was wrong the moment I woke up the day of The Ruling. I didn't check the news, I didn't read the paper, I just felt something in the air—an electric current of negativity buzzing in my back pocket where I keep my phone. All morning it shook. It vibrated until it died.
I remember it was sunny curtains in the window, the sliver of sky that could be seen between my backyard and the side of a warehouse behind my building. A glass of water sat by the bed, air bubbles popping on its surface after a night's rest. It was nicer then than it is now—muggy with clockwork downpours around 16h00. My back pocket still droops from the invisible weight of my old phone, and the ghost vibrating sensation still persists, like a lost limb, or broken nerves. I haven't replaced my old appendage. I know that even if I could, no one would be calling, no texts incoming, no whatsapps, no tweets. That life was over—"forgotten" as the press said on that sunny morning so long ago.
When The Ruling came down, I never thought I'd disappear. I guess no one really understood the full repercussions of filing for forgetting. People—as is often the case—were quick to celebrate the courts' reinforcement of civilians' right to affect their linkrank. The EU High Court had ruled that citizens can have the option to be forgotten. We now could tell the service providers and search engines that their information was invalid—just fill out a form, click submit, and within the teraflop your link would be removed (after admin approval of course). What seems like a win at the time became another form of control, one that quickened the pace for The Stack to obliterate your relevance. Although some saw it coming, most of us were too content with the novelty of thinking we could take back some of our humanity. I suppose, in some ways, we got what we wished for.
The first thing I noticed was that my girlfriend stopped calling. I used to love talking to her on the phone, or skyping all night, hearing her air and static. She was my signal in the noise of this world. She would sweetly, yet awkwardly, pronounce screenspeech as if it were the pet names we used for one another—ELLE-OH-HELL, TEE-TEE-WAI-YELL, BEE-ARBY BEEBEE. She would send me gifs when I went on work trips: cats with bad dreams consoled by their mothers, saving them from the harm of their little kitty unconscious. Or some kind of fail video. We had that kind of bland but warm sense of humor, a blanket of memes that we shared. An afghan of image macros. I never put her number in my phone, because I preferred memorizing it. Funny, now I don't even remember if she had a +49 number.
After my girlfriend stopped calling, I noticed that I couldn't find my passwords, and soon my credit started to freeze. It was as if the cloud evaporated right off of my servers. It wasn't so sudden, though. In fact the whole process would sound quite boring. Some might call what happened to me a slow death, but I came to call it the Long Lapse. Hope—that funny, stupid thing that makes men want to live past death—had cemented itself in my head. Though I refused to accept being forgotten, I knew that it'd be a long while until I would be remembered. Thus, the Long Lapse—though now that I say it, I realize I don't think I've once uttered those words out loud.
This is to say that I don't socialize. There's a pirate cinema in Rudow that still accepts cash that I go to once in a while. A while back I'd go with my friend Christof, another forgotten. We'd go see the Iron Man movie marathons and laugh loudly at the moments of American Exceptionalism—sometimes because it was generally funny, other times because of how naive it seemed to us now. It was a good way of forgetting ourselves, the forgotten: as if the screen was a psychic hyperlink between our sunken eyes and everyday remembered citizens. The power of cinema, as they say.
But then Christof moved, to the Emirates or some such place, finding a way to build off of the spoof he'd been living under so that he could fake his way into the remembered world. I think he wanted to be a banker. Some anonymous employment in the market world that made it both easy to hide and difficult to punish. He had the right idea. No one would look too closely at his spoof. As long as he never directly dipped into the market, no one would deliberately try to look at the dead ends of his personal cache. I, ironically, was too public to ever make it back to the remembered world. It's not that people knew me, but rather I was such an early adopter of The Ruling. Or at least that's what I tell myself these days. Now that I think of it, I think Christof moved to Central America. Starting some spoof mine or something like that.
Since he left, the movies are even more sparsely attended. I suppose the remembered are enjoying their entertainment in the so-called privacy of their own homes. I guess I still have my books, the little collection of poems that my brother sent me before The Ruling. Reading for pleasure—the worst kind of social stigma. It used to be that the forgotten would go with other walking detritus to the state-run book banks down in the cultural corridor. Even if I could squeeze out credit for the subscription to the new libraries, I wouldn't be able to unlock the DRM past the first couple of chapters. Most literature that finds its way into my hands comes from fellow spoofers; a gift economy for exercising the imagination.
Most of the time, when not performing my spoof-self at work, I only frequent places that accept the forgotten currency. The little credit that I make I keep for rent and my spoof subscription. I think the rates are going to go up soon, both for my lease and on my crypto. Cash can still get you a weiß or a Jever from the cafe, but usually you have to leave some collateral for the recycle taxes. Some personal intel, or a nonfabricated keepsake from before The Ruling. Unfortunately they discontinued returning bottles to their crates in exchange for credit a while back, otherwise I would've just drank myself into remembrance. Lounging all day on the blistering Tempelhof asphalt isn't standard fare, even for those of us that have fully accepted being forgotten. Even if one could get on the U6 or take the S-Bahn down to Hermannstraße, the facial recognition checkpoints around the perimeter of that vast blacktop oasis wouldn't let you get through the turnstiles.
I thought of trying to follow in Cristof's footsteps, forsaking my misplaced pride for the benefit of entering back into the remembered world. Had I not opted for forgetting, I could see myself returning from this exile with savings going toward a beach house in Delaware, or putting children in daycare. My mother always wanted me to have children, as mothers do. Sometimes I think she would be happy for me now, since I think in some ways, she never got the chance to be forgotten, living on in her search results and avatars. Sometimes I used my spoof to log in to her accounts (since most of her passwords were a combination of her children's birthdays) and see people she went to high school with still sending her pokes or endorsements.
It would make the hard drive of my heart spin with furious speed to see her like that, as a simulation of networked activity based on old purchases and long gone favorites. But her rendering also soothed me, calming me the same way she did when I couldn't sleep because of my Concerta prescription. Sometimes I'd watch her timeline interact with others like it was on-demand TV, binging on her telepresence. That indulgence would hardly compare to when she used to “like” my life prior to her passing. I had to make do with this mimic-mom.
To that end, it's hard to know what isn't an imitation of the objects and sensations I knew before The Ruling. But fuck it, I made my choice. I chose what they said would be freedom, protecting the privacy I so closely coveted and cherished. I got what I wanted. I tried to stave off the threats to my digital reputation long enough; I defended my relevance at all cost. But said cost turned into debt, and those debts are all that has been remembered. It's not that I lost myself, but rather, I lost my representation. I wouldn't let them shape me into a body of data and traffic. I thought I had more to offer. Now, in retrospect, I see the glaring disparity between what I thought was relevant and what they did. Once, I suppose, the tension of that disparity is what made me an individual. But what was once taut has now gone slack.
Short fiction and artwork by Nicholas O'Brien.
Former Ministry of Highways Building, Tbilisi.
There is a sense in which all architecture is authoritarian, regardless of its ideals. No matter how many community meetings a planning process incorporates, in the end only one building may be built; one architecture, which by its very existence precludes another. The eventual users and non-users of the space may make minor modifications. They may open or close windows, but in the end they must deal with the consequences of the building, whether it is a postwar housing project or a San Jose strip mall. They must negotiate its little manipulations, and have little in the way of recourse if these should become oppressive.
Artists, at least of a particular bent, are not the sort to take authority at its word. Even under the most oppressive of conditions artists find ways to critique and to criticize, and to present alternate theories of the world. They respond to all forms of power, architecture included, through gestures that range from the most basic act of graffiti to Ai Weiwei's "studies of perspective."
In Ministry of Highways, a volume edited by Joanna Warsza, artists take on the systems and aesthetics of architecture, and question the very existence of walls, even those that tower above them. The collection centers around the Georgian Ministry of Highways building in Tbilisi, and the temporary art show "Frozen Moments: Architecture Speaks Back" that was held in the building in 2010, before renovations were completed and the building was occupied by its new owner, the privately owned Bank of Georgia.
The building is a stunning, cantilevered form, little-known in the West at the time of its construction in 1975, though it eventually made the cover of publications like Domus and even Time Magazine as an example of Soviet space age idealism. It has its roots in Constructivism, Brutalism, and Modernism, but its designers George Chakhava and Zurab Jalaghania found their unifying theory in a concept called Space City. In the introductory text of Ministry of Highways, Chakhava describes the idea:
Contemplating the laws of the nature, I formulated this solution: As we know forests cover most of the earth. A forest consists of different trees, which have crowns separated from the earth, connected by tall communicating trunks to the roots. Between the earth and the crowns—columns—there are a lot of free spaces for other sentient beings to create a harmonious, balanced world with the forest.
Such a natural metaphor might seem unlikely for a massive concrete structure. But such dialectics are the unspoken theme of the "Frozen Moments" show. For his piece Frozen Scales, artist Josef Dabernig took CAD data from the original design of the building, and drew them on the decaying interior walls of the building. Aleksandra Wasilkowska's Creeping Utopia created an infrastructure of PVC water pipes on the roof, for the purpose of watering the weeds that had come to grow on the building's facade. Rather than create the structure herself, Wasilkowska hired laborers and gave them only very general specifications, allowing them to choose the exact layout of the haphazard plumbing system. The collective Urban Research Lab's Post-Soviet Transformations looked at architecture in Tbilisi from a more holistic perspective, documenting a number of social housing shifts in the city's micro-districts, and looking at how decentralized patterns were replacing the previous influence of the Soviet Union. And in Agnieszka Kurant's Flying Ministry, the realist/idealist dialectic finds its performative climax, as a small model of the Ministry building is flown from the roof, attached to a mass of white balloons.
Above: Josef Dabernig, Frozen Scales (2010). Below: Aleksandra Wasilkowska, Creeping Utopia (2010), photographed during the opening of "Frozen Moments: Architecture Speaks Back."
Ministry of Highways includes supplemental text and essays that describe the breakdown of infrastructure in post-Soviet satellite states: in Tbilisi's frozen, decaying cable car system, and in the Baku public beach, immediately adjacent to oil rigs just off shore. These are joined by essays about the ad hoc means for dealing with such crises: so-called "Kamikaze Loggias," additional rooms commonly built out from second floors on stilts to deal with housing shortages; and a "Guide to Social Networks in the Soviet Microrayons," detailing ways for coping with scarcity while building community in the small micro-districts of Tbilisi. And in between these stories of crisis and intervention are those of utopia as well, such as Yona Friedman's drawings about forming communicating communities, and Aleksandra Wasilkowska's essay "Don't Panic, Organise!" about the success of bottom-up organization and how it contributed to her work in the show. These dialectics, between massive structure and individual and collective performative intervention, build as a critical perspective throughout the text.
But while the book forms a beautiful statement about the artist’s ability to construct creative interventions within architectural and infrastructural crises, it also remains under the shadow of the spreading structure of the building itself, which had already been purchased by the Bank of Georgia at the time of "Frozen Moments." While the temporary site was evocative and inspiring as a space of perceived possibility amid the ruins of a fallen empire, that possibility had already been foreclosed upon by the rise of global capitalism. The building was refurbished; in the typical pattern of capitalist renewal, the new tenants wiped away all traces of the past, painting over the work and dismantling the installations. The book remains a resource full of interesting ideas, and the artists' projects have relocated to less regulated spaces, to tenement stairways and kamikaze loggias. Decentralized interventions remain sporadic and temporary, idealisms remain as ideas, and hegemonic structures, both architectural and social, remain hegemonic structures.
Interior, Bank of Georgia headquarters (formerly Ministry of Highways building), Tbilisi.
The question remains: what is the utility of commenting on something so intractable as architecture, and the infrastructure that surrounds it?
Perhaps one would expect too much of art in asking it to permanently shift architecture and infrastructure. Art is not expected to ultimately be didactic. Even when artists create functioning tools, they do so in order to propose or enact an idea. Beyond "Frozen Moments," works like Philipp Ronnenberg's Open Positioning System or Julian Oliver's Border Bumping create awareness of the power structures at play in GPS and cell phone towers, respectively. But at the end of the day, Ronnenberg's seismic positioning system and Oliver's revised national maps are only small suggestions, footnotes in the larger narrative of infrastructural hegemony. Clara Boj and Diego Diaz's Observatorio, and Ricardo Dominguez and Brett Stalbaum's Transborder Immigrant Tool were both conceived of as tools—the first to help residents of Tallinn, Estonia visualize the WiFi geography of the city, the second to help migrants cross the US-Mexico border safety. But even if both of these technologies actually work and work well, how can these small tools affect the larger structures of electromagnetic space, and immigration politics? The impetus in this art is to do something—but what is really being done?
It is not any of these artists' sole responsibility to change the terrain of architecture and infrastructure. It is the responsibility of all of us to do so—and those who uphold the hegemony of architecture are the ones whose actions we should be interrogating most. Asking the contributors to Ministry of Highways why their creations are now only held within the flat pages of a book is a small question. The larger question, which the art implies, would be to ask the Bank of Georgia why there are no artists working in their cantilevered halls today.
Ad hoc, community-focused, bottom-up, technological interventions do not tend to result in massive pours of concrete or any other lasting edifice. The concrete is poured, and the people respond. While an artist may take equal inspiration from Kamikaze Loggias and the Ministry of Highways building, there is a reason that such structures look different, and will forever exist in different places. There is a reason that celebrity architects are hired to build impressive office buildings, and that artists are sometimes allowed to play in the wreckage of outdated fashions.
Kamikaze Loggia, Tbilisi 2007, Photo: Levan Asabashvili/Urban Reactor.
This is the way that things are. We create art as if our paint could open up a gap in the wall for an ideal space, as perfect as we imagine it, not in the real terms of bricks and mortar. When we write our graffiti on the wall of the massive edifice of our contemporary power structures, we must use words that are of the futile nature of graffiti. This paint will be removed and the wall will remain. We write on the wall because it is there, and because there are only walls, and this is the only architecture we have managed to snatch from the ever-present eye of the cop and the camera. To interfere with steel is to be architectural, but to only paint the walls with criticism, is to be artistic. We are artists because we are not architects; we question the built environment because we are not designing it. In a virtual "safe mode," we build ideas rather than more walls. Our creation of only ideas in the face of hegemonic systems is our hollow material, in which we stand waist-deep, as it rises towards our throats.
Finger Pointing Worker; video still of performance by Kota Takeuchi.
In the three years since a 9.0 magnitude earthquake tore apart infrastructures and livelihoods throughout eastern Japan, there's been a surge of international interest in any sign of the island country's recuperation. But Japan is no stranger to the process of recovery; its historical timeline is fractured by a variety of disasters. In the last hundred years alone, there were more than 40 recorded earthquakes which surpassed a 6.0 reading on the Richter scale, in addition to 6 major military operations.
This component of Japan's past is unfortunately, and often, mistaken as a component of Japanese identity in part because of its recurrence in national art and pop culture. Katsushika Hokusai's The Great Wave (c. 1833), a painting that depicts a frothing tsunami wave in the process of swallowing a row boat, is arguably the most recognizable piece of Japanese fine art. In another medium, and arriving nearly 100 years later, is Ishiro Honda's Godzilla (1954), the monster cinema star often understood as a metaphor for the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. Because of their central quality of immense power and their appearance alongside Japanese disasters, both of these works are often regarded by the Western world as reflections on the peculiarities of Japan's geological and political timeline, yet rarely as explorations of the kind of natural and man-made events any country is liable to experience at any moment. (Especially significant is the fact that both "Tsunami" and "Godzilla" are Japanese words, transliterated to English only from their kanji and ateji phoneticizations, respectively).
Still from Ishiro Honda's Godzilla (1954).
In 2011, after the tripartite shockwave, tsunami, and nuclear reactor meltdown now known as the Fukushima disaster, a new international figure walked into the frame of Japanese artistic identity. Although not as popular as these two preceding examples, he's known as the Finger Pointing Worker.
Following the meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, its operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), installed cameras throughout the compromised area in an attempt to transmit live feeds of the cleanup effort to viewers online. During one of these transmissions, someone dressed in a hazmat suit approached a camera, pointed an accusatory finger at its lens, and held this stance, motionless, for nearly 15 minutes. Recordings of the live feed eventually went viral in Japan, and inspired both domestic and international press to speculate who the worker was, and what his intentions were.
Using yet another Japanese tragedy as its backdrop, Finger Pointing Worker (which turned out to be a performance piece by Japanese artist and temporary Fukushima clean-up volunteer Kota Takeuchi) may only encourage Western audiences to continue commenting on the crisis-art culture of Japan. Just a few months ago, veteran art critic John McDonald used Takeuchi's piece as the foundation for his rather incendiary reflection on the politics of Fukushima and Japanese art, which starts with the blanket claim that "[d]isaster haunts the Japanese psyche."
But to focus on the piece's immediate context more than its comment or medium is to use it as a lens for rubbernecking. It is to miss the fact that Finger Pointing Worker is part of a bloom of young, contemporary Japanese artists who've developed a lust for performance art that doubles as political intervention. Like Takeuchi's performance, these artists share a collective dissatisfaction with the Japanese government—who many believe were decidedly underwhelming in their immediate response to the 2011 crises—and a non-violent aggression towards humanity's disavowal of nature. Fukushima, to them, is a point of utmost concern, but not necessarily a final port-of-call.
Still from Chim↑Pom's REAL TIMES.
Takeuchi's performance is one of the most illustrative of this fresh league's MO, but the Japanese art collective Chim↑Pom is arguably the most internationally known. In April 2011, just barely a month after the tsunami hit, Chim↑Pom's members, each dressed in hazmat suits (some authentic, some makeshift), trespassed into high-security areas around the Daiichi nuclear plant and hiked across fractured earth and roads towards a lookout point above the Pacific Ocean. Once at the peak, and with the still-smoldering reactors within clear view, the collective planted a white flag into the ground. The flag was initially unmarked, but before they hoisted it onto its pole, Chim↑Pom spray painted a red circle in its middle to imitate the Japanese national flag, and then added three demarcations around the circle, to turn it into the universal symbol for nuclear radiation. Footage of this action is included in a video entitled REAL TIMES, which will be shown at MoMA PS1 in New York City later this year and has been featured by major news outlets like CNN and PBS.
Chim↑Pom's leader, Ushiro Ryuta, visited New York a few weeks ago to oversee an installation by his group at the Friedman Benda gallery in Chelsea. The installation is part of a group showing of Japanese artists, entitled "Duality Of Existence - PostFukushima." When I arrived at the gallery, he was standing on a ladder in the middle of a narrow entryway, elevated between a few paintings by Kazuki Umezawa, taking photos of a room I couldn't see from my vantage point. We'd agreed to meet up and discuss the recent conflux of young performance artists in Japan, and to unpack the habit of associating their work with a national identity defined by widespread tragedy—as if being Japanese and experiencing disaster was necessitated by some phantom contract.
With these concepts looming over our meeting, it was a perfect coincidence that the exhibition was subtitled "PostFukushima." Before arriving, I was excited by the fantasy of glimpsing a nascent movement; if post-modernism was theorized, by some, as partly a response to World War II, it didn't feel far-fetched to assume there had already been a successful effort to gather Japanese works which exemplify an emerging post-Fukushima consciousness.
But this wasn't necessarily the case. Chim↑Pom's installation had absolutely nothing to do with Fukushima, and Ryuta was the first person to admit it. Inside the room he was photographing, I came to find disheveled bales of hay randomly placed throughout, a crate with "For Coyote" spray-painted across its front, a projector, and a laptop on a folding table looping a recorded Skype conversation between Ellie, one of Chim↑Pom's members, and one of the gallery's employees. It was a nod to Joseph Beuys's 1974 performance piece I Like America and America Likes Me, in which he shared a room at René Block Gallery with a coyote for three days, but in this case, Chim↑Pom's "coyote" referred to those who smuggle people across borders. Ellie, it turns out, was prohibited from entering the United States because she arrived on US soil with someone already blacklisted from the country. During our meeting, she was traveling throughout Mexico.
Bad day at the airport. via Ellie's Instagram.
I asked him and Kentaro Ikegami, our translator and one of Chim↑Pom's collaborators, what exactly was going on.
Why was this installation chosen for a "post-Fukushima" exhibition?
We had no idea that the theme was post-Fukushima. When the press release came out, we were like "oh, shit!" Originally the curator told us it was called "Duality of Existence," and was about physical realities in relation to post-internet realities. But we didn't know about it being "post-Fukushima" until the press release came out.
How do you feel about that?
We just want an opportunity to do the piece on account of Ellie's situation, because we thought this was the most interesting thing we could do. Her situation is more of a pressing matter to us than doing something cohesively with the other artists.
Fukushima is just part of our art. We're usually identified as using "Fukushima" and "Hiroshima" as main talking points, but we're only doing what we want to do at a given time. We are mostly driven by what we consider to be pressing issues of our time, such as Ellie's immigration issue. Regardless, we do see all our topics as inter-related and not isolated within those issues.
If you really look at the other installations in this exhibit, they don't look like they're about Fukushima at all. We don't think most artists knew about this.
But that makes me curious, because there have been a number of Fukushima-related exhibitions that you've been a part in. Like recently, at the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo you participated in an exhibition called "After The Quake: Thinking About Tohoku III."
Well, at least for this, I don't think most of the art here has to do with Fukushima as a departure point. It's almost an ad-libbed group showing. There are only a few works here that were actually made afterFukushima. A lot of those, like [Takahiro] Iwasaki's pieces, were started or originated before Fukushima. [The exhibition includes Iwasaki's ReflectionModels (2014), a series of miniature recreations of Japanese temples joined with their reflections; the related work Reflection Model (Perfect Bliss) was begun in 2010. - Ed. ]
They clearly have used the phrase "post-Fukushima" as a way to be taken seriously. But we're not upset about it. We're not angry.
A lot of local residents in Fukushima, however, are pissed off by that kind of treatment of Fukushima. When people who weren't affected by the tragedy use it as a topic for their own benefit or cause... I'm sure a lot of New Yorkers felt that way about 9/11.
Even then, and maybe this was happening at the time, I rarely see art in America classified as "post-9/11." Inspired by 9/11, sure, but never with the nomenclature that implies a collective movement. When I feel like I've seen, especially this year, international museums and galleries hosting exhibitions beneath the banner of Fukushima when all that really means is "Japanese artists."
I agree with that observation. Although we don't want to make a category of "post-9/11," we too were unconsciously and politically implicated by that event. We think many artists feel that way even if they aren't explicitly categorized as such.
But there has to be a post-Fukushima set of artists. They just haven't been well organized yet. We don't think that category is actually useful, but regardless we think there has been a shift in artists' geist,and that cannot be ignored. Much like what happened everywhere after 9-11.
Takahiro Iwasaki Reflection Models (2014). Image: Friedman Benda Gallery.
When asked to outline who he considered a post-Fukushima artist, Ryuta told me about another collective, Kyun-Chome, who won one of Japan's most coveted art recognitions, the Taro Okamoto Award for Contemporary Art, in February this year. Kyun-Chome's portfolio parallels Chim↑Pom's in a number of ways: performance pieces staged and recorded in restricted areas around Fukushima, interactive gallery installations which temper with Japanese paradigms and cultural taboos, and the central focus on a female character, an "Ellie," who appears at the forefront of most of their video pieces staged after 2011. These similarities weren't surprising, however, considering Ryuta also said that Kyun-Chome were previous apprentices of Chim↑Pom's.
The most common thread throughout both collectives is a mischievous, sometimes playful interpretation of dire circumstances, which blurs cultural boundaries and strikes at political institutions. But is that what comprises the post-Fukushima ethos that Ryuta said has to exist?
You said that post-Fukushima artists have to exist. What makes Japan's post-Fukushima reality different from pre-Fukushima reality?
In Japan, grassroots things have changed, like protests, and demonstrations—overall, the conscience of young people. High schoolers of 2011, who were helpless to do anything, and who couldn't do much of anything because of their youth—that frustration, I think, will lead to a great change in the coming years.
Politically, though, nothing has changed.
But specifically in regards to Japanese art, are there any changes you've noticed at all, which you would attribute to Fukushima?
Domestically—although it's not represented by this exhibition—art has changed since 2011. For example, Mr. [Motohiko] Odani was rather well-known before, but he told me (Ryuta) that after March 11th, he couldn't produce anymore. He froze, he said, because he was in a state of chaos. I think something changed within him. That's not exclusive to Mr. Odani, though. It was a feeling shared by most Japanese artists.
Overall, there's this feeling that contemporary art is powerless and there's nothing it can do. But in response to that, there's this notion of "So what?" We have to do something. Many young Japanese artists are taking that "so what?" approach.
Is that how you'd describe post-Fukushima art? Art that takes that "So what?" approach?
Yes. I think it's important to make clear that art is physically powerless in the wake of an enormous disaster. Of course, it can't rescue lives; you can't eat it. But so what? Does that mean we should do nothing? That's what I mean by "so what." This just levels any assumption that it has power.
Ultimately though we couldn't really give a correct definition of post-Fukushima right now. It's very difficult. It's very early. But we think that young artists today know the powerlessness, yet still keep going because if we stop, it truly means we are powerless.
The important thing is not to victimize the situation, or to make it seem like Fukushima is a wound, or a departure point.
Yes. Not a wound, and no victimization.
The fact that Chim↑Pom weren't initially told about this exhibition's Fukushima slant stuck with me long after our conversation. While Ryuta acknowledged that there is a young spring of "post-Fukushima" art welling up in Japan, it seemed that the gallery's invocation of Fukushima was disconnected from his perception of its role in Chim↑Pom's work. Subtitling the exhibition "Post Fukushima" was therefore evidence of the same Western misconception that inspires the blanket claim that all Japan is haunted by past tragedy, and the very incarnation of what Ryuta did not want: Fukushima seen as something crippling, a hole that every facet of contemporary Japanese society had yet to climb out of.
But without Friedman Benda being aware of it, including Chim↑Pom's homage to Ellie's visa troubles in an exhibition intended to showcase the aftermath of Fukushima also undermined this fallacy. Their work pointed to the fact that contemporary Japanese art, with its preoccupation with performance, intervention, and political critique, addresses a range of concerns that include but do not end with Fukushima.
Chim↑Pom's installation at the Friedman Benda gallery. Image: Friedman Benda Gallery.
Chim↑Pom's work, like Honda's giant lizard, and Hokusai's wave, and Takeuchi's veiled worker, gained international praise due to its ability to turn a gaping local disaster into a universally relatable experience, only to be pigeonholed as quintessentially, tragically Japanese. In fact, Chim↑Pom's work is most valuable not as a response to a specific event, but as a powerful statement in favor of taking action in the face of seemingly unalterable conditions. Specifically, one part of Chim↑Pom's REAL TIMES piece comes to mind, in which the collective stands among ruins with youth from the crippled city of Soma, and shouts 100 ki-ai, an almost spiritual martial arts chant, to bring life back to an otherwise lifeless scene. Like all of Chim↑Pom's work, it twists the face of an event so many outsiders still refer to like a nation's coffin.
What makes these young artists salient, and what makes the international and domestic spotlight still interested in their work three years after Fukushima, is their universal implications. They elicit a reminder that these types of widespread destruction are not merely plausible, and not merely Japanese, but nascent and actual and generalizable; they have the power to turn the land of even the most developed economic powers into ruins. The Japanese are not the only people aware that nature can be destructive, but much like the erstwhile residents of Chernobyl, they are some of the only samplings of people who've really seen how careless environmental management can rob any terrain of its life, even for decades after. Because of this, it's actually more logical to analyze Japanese contemporary artists in terms of their resilience and resolve, and not in the coincidence of living near the Pacific Ocean's Ring of Fire.
During our dinner together that night, and at the cusp of extinguishing our hours-long conversation on the subject, Ikegami reflected on the power of language. "Disasters create art," he said. "Fukushima is very strange, but it's not domestic. In the same way Chernobyl was also a global problem. But it's funny that it is called the 'Fukushima' nuclear accident. Not the 'Pacific Ocean' nuclear accident. Not the 'TEPCO' nuclear accident." By uniting its name with the disaster, the location, it seems, gets branded with that irreducible stigma we'd been dissecting in the gallery. It made me wonder how successful the Godzilla franchise would have been in the United States if its name were simply a direct translation from the word's origin "daikaiju": Giant Monster.
But what younger groups like Chim↑Pom and Kyun-Chome are doing is much larger than Hollywood, or Tokyo, or any specific locale in between. It's the towering statement that tragedy may seem to render art obsolete and nullify political agency, but never indelibly—or if it does, there is still strength to be found in making art and taking political action. In other words: so what?
Johnny Magdaleno is a writer and freelance journalist based in New York. He frequently contributes to VICE, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, and other publications. You can follow him on Twitter @johnny_mgdlno.
Beginning this autumn, Rhizome and Beijing-based TASML and CAT/CCIA will award a substantial new prize for internet art.
The "no strings attached" prize, which will be awarded three times in total in 2014, 2015, and 2016, will recognize the past work and future promise of one artist making outstanding work on the internet. The awardee will receive $10,000; a second distinction award of $5,000 will also be made each year.
To us, the prize feels timely. It celebrates the current moment of internet art and looks ahead to its future. As many artists have won international acclaim for work that tackles technology as subject matter through media forms of long standing—sculpture, installation, and painting—internet art remains less recognized, less supported. This prize gives a boost to those who continue to make art on the internet, and emphasizes the unique cultural importance of such work.
We're thrilled to work with our partners to acknowledge significant internet artists who continue to be committed to working online, who have inspired us in the past, and whose best work still lies ahead.
Deadline for nominations: August 31, 2014. Please see full information about the prize on http://www.prixnetart.org
On July 13, 2014, to mark the occassion of the release of The Emergence of Video Processing Tools: Television Becoming Unglued, Rhizome, the New Museum Education Department, and Experimental Television Center hosted a conversation between inventor Dave Jones, whose video instruments span forty years, artists-designers Kyle Lapidus and Tali Hinkis of LoVid, Rhizome conservator Dragan Espenschied, and Hank Rudolph of the artist space Signal Culture and the Experimental Television Center.
Documentation of the entire conversation can be found above. Special thanks to Signal Culture staff and volunteers Janeen Lamontagne, Robert Hoffman, Debora Bernagozzi and Jason Bernagozzi for capturing and editing this event. For more still images from the panel, visit their Flickr page.
Aleksandra Domanović, From yu to me, supported by Rhizome's commissions program in 2014.
Rhizome supports the creation of significant new art through commissions and direct funding for artists. These works may take various forms and scales, but are tied together by their considered illumination of contemporary digital culture.
Today, I outline our vision for awarding money to artists in 2014-15, focusing on three new initiatives with funding totaling nearly $40,000.
Internet Art Microgrants
Now accepting proposals. Deadline: August 22, 2014.
In the spirit of our open award each year, we'd like the Rhizome community to consider a collection of compelling ideas for net-based works of art, so as to provide a modest injection that may help bring them to life. This program values dynamic concepts, and the feedback of an engaged peer audience.
Five awards of $500 will be largely determined by public vote, for those with user accounts on Rhizome. Submissions will comprise a simple 150-word statement and a single sketch or image. Rhizome community votes will narrow the selection down to a pool of 20 ideas, from which a guest jury will award five.
These awards will be announced, and featured, with our autumn program. The submission form and guidelines are available here.
Throughout 2014-15, four substantial commissions—selected by Rhizome curators in conversation with artists—will be awarded to artists based in New York City for the creation of new works. These new works will feature prominently in Rhizome's program, and benefit from significant curatorial, editorial, and presentation support in addition to funding.
Much of the feedback we get from our commissioned artists is that the money we award is significantly enhanced by our capacity to support the work through its production and presentation. With this curatorial-led model, we can be more proactive about how these fit within our entire program, and realize each commission most fully. Commissioned artists will be announced with our autumn program.
Our funding for this program currently requires a NYC focus, however, we're working to find new funding to commission artists nationally and internationally—and we hope to announce more programs to this end, as well as support international artists throughout our other programs.
Ann Hirsch, Playground, supported by Rhizome's commissions program in 2013.
Prix Net Art: International Prize for Internet Art
Now accepting nominations. Deadline: August 31, 2014.
Last week, we announced the establishment of a new $10,000 prize for internet art, in collaboration with Chinese partners TASML and CAT/CCLI. The prize, which will be awarded three times in total in 2014, 2015 and 2016, will recognize the past work and future promise of one artist making outstanding work on the internet. A second distinction award of $5,000 will also be made. Please see full information about the prize at http://www.prixnetart.org
Questions about any of these programs can be directed to email@example.com.
The Rhizome commissions program is supported in part, by funds from Deutsche Bank Americas Foundation, the Jerome Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs and New York State Council on the Arts.
The latest in a series of interviews with artists who have a significant body of work that makes use of or responds to network culture and digital technologies.
Genevieve Belleveau on the hood of the mobile monastery, St. Vincent DePaul Cemetery, New Orleans, 2014. Photo: Miss Megan Trosclair.
I've always found your practice really interesting and sort of futuristic in how it seems to concern itself with the faith science of "connection" as and where we find it. With your internet broadcasted reality show-performance-rituals, it was like you were tying together the rituals of spirituality with the exalted new [visual] language of technology. In this way I always felt like you were kind of an ecstatic, but now it looks like you're becoming an ascetic…?
My foray into asceticism was sparked by peak ecstatic experiences: I’ve always tended to vacillate between extremes of solitude and sociability in my life/art, and one inevitably informs the other. I've now re-emerged from that deeply ascetic period during which I lived in my Mobile Monastery RV under a bridge in New Orleans. At that time I was curious about a personal ecstasy that I felt existed beyond the compulsive internet use and rave/club kid culture I had become entrenched in back in NYC. I was reading Thomas Merton and wanted to know more about his ideas of solitude and silence, so I logged off Facebook and Instagram and took a pause to reflect on how that felt for me. I was primarily alone for two months, sitting still in a cold, powerless RV all day, but I let myself use Twitter as a platform to share through language alone. I've always been a comfortably hermetic person by nature, only recently learning how to function in a social sphere in a way that feels truly authentic to me. This period of silence was really important as I was able to remember and reflect upon deeply personal experiences that I had never given myself the space and time to carefully examine. It was a bit like a crowd funded arts residency or sabbatical: an interesting alternative model for artists seeking to clear a sacred space for creation.
Recently I've begun to recognize the interstice of the work of the monk and the work of a shaman. Both are ultimately laboring for the good of mankind through different means; the monk disavows the body through disciplined control and the denial of physical needs, while the shaman supersedes the body through use of ritual, psychedelics and trance. The monk desires to meet face to face with his vision of god through a path of internal examination, while the shaman seeks union with the "divine-all" through his connection to the earth, symbols, and others. I think about how these methods relate to social media and the discipline we exhibit online as way of mediating our brand, avatar and digital persona. Ultimately we are all online to connect—either with ourselves or with the other. We stay up all night on Wikipedia or whatever, trying to better understand our personal path in this life. Or we scroll endlessly on social platforms in hopes of discovering another human being vibrating at our wavelength. You can spend all night looking at pictures of yourself in the hope of representing yourself to the god figure that is the Other, the eye of the internet and the audience whose attention we are constantly seeking to capture. We might experience this space ecstatically, as an unadulterated catharsis where expression is limitless and we can TMI to our hearts content, knowing there is safety in the constant rush of content as it sweeps each new share away.
Genevieve Belleveau, from the series The Church of gorgeousTaps and the Reality Show. Performance/installation view at Lillith Performance Studio, Malmö, Sweden, 2010. Photo: Lillith Performance Studio.
I'm interested in the space of "the cloud" being a kind of analog for the divine-all that you mention. But how does the shamanic principle (riding the surf and divining affect through interference) intersect with the basic neoliberal prerogative for "self-branding" you talk about?
This is where my criticality and authentic belief system come into blissfully discordant discourse. I often reference new age-isms and spiritual dogma in a paradoxically parodic manner. There are any number of accessory objects, fetishistic placeholders, image indicators and the like that keep us on-track and corralled into the connective ties that bind (Click Cliques, #kloutgangs, etc). All of that is the "play" part for me, branding and rebranding as lighthearted activity that necessarily shifts our perspective as we undergo inevitable spiritual transformations. Branding is like "this little light of mine"; you let it shine with a blind faith that it is ephemeral, made of energy, not static, and will eventually burn out. Letting it "shine" precipitates crossbreeding with other brands/beacons/faith principles and people, creating fresh new memetic mutations.
When I play with religious tropes there is always a part of me attempting to buck the system of dogmatic regimes while concurrently honoring the historical brevity of these elaborate schematic devices. This is an important tension I try to maintain in my practice. I've found it to be the easiest way to indicate to an audience that the mythology I am engineering does indeed have a loftier goal than simply accruing attention currency (i.e. a boost); I can admit my own messianic tendencies, but also laugh them off—because overindulgent self-awareness is endemic to art-in-general. As long as you can call yourself out on the construction of a character you are also free to prosper in the role you've chosen. Krishnamurti said "To be religious is to be sensitive to reality." To me that sensitivity covers a full spectrum and includes the aptitude for evil, as well as the insatiable capacity for passionate lightness. In short, being brand-aware (though not necessarily on-brand) is the only intelligent way I know of navigating the complex fractals of the current ether-sphere. I believe eternal ecstasy is attainable through the evolving religion of the singular experience. I also believe it requires 360 degree vision that accounts for the both the banal and sublime in its focal scope.
Promotional image from The Reality Show with gorgeousTaps (2011). Courtesy the artist.
I also love that you always foreground the body and talk about labor—both affective, immaterial, "free" labor (ie social media) and paid affective/manual labor. It seems really political when so much of postinternet obscures or disappears the idea of labor, even in the sense that automated softwares obscure the gesture. Feels like you've often tried to recuperate that labor in your work—Vining on the clock at Big Gay Ice Cream, turning your sex life into performance, LARPing your log-off at the Sandbox; it's like a consistent theme. Feels like you're basically working out aspects of Marx's theory of alienation or whatever.
My practice is foundationally socio-political in the sense that the self cannot be extracted from the complex politics of the society it operates within. I live in a capitalistic society so my required labor (and implied subversion of that labor) inherently impact—and essentially define—my experience of self. My most succinct artists statement to date is my twitter/insta bio—"Life is a LARP" (Live Action Role Play). With this I insinuate that all aspects of my daily life are available for my own use in artistic discourse, and also up for affirmative auction in the attention economy of the social internet. I consider my day jobs (at Big Gay Ice Cream and an 11-year stint as a nude art model) to be as important to my practice as anything that ends up in a gallery. These day jobs are also the primary means by which I embody a more traditional enactment of performance art by encountering the flesh and its limitations. Both jobs involve affective/emotional labor as well as intense physical endurance. Interestingly, a lot of people consider me a performance artist and ask me to "perform" all the time, when in actuality I mostly just perform IRL on the clock at my day jobs. It connects me to that part of the human experience that may become more archaic as we move towards screen-based and augmented performance practices. As with my recent explorations in asceticism, I value using the body as a studio, in which the rudimentary knowledge in organic material informs the emerging knowledge we’re trying to navigate through new technology. I like having these sort of grimy, gritty, grotesque foundations in my life to help cultivate acceptance of our accelerating techno-evolution. I see it as my slow elegy to the decay of the body and the foreboding sense we share that these vessels will soon be retired due to the superior data processing capabilities of the ether-sphere.
In terms of recuperating my labor, I've always been committed to using my daily life as material, since I was a teenager, really. For example, working as an ice cream truck driver for 6 years has taught me so much about the fragile psyche of the infant and its bond to the mother. Never has this been better illustrated than in an instance of watching a grown-ass man in a business suit throw a temper tantrum at my truck window one day when we were out of chocolate. In that particular LARP, I play the role of matriarchal dairy delivery who releases her product to the desiring, reward-starved child or else refuses to deliver. Some day I will write a dissertation on the "Sociology of Soft Serve and the Discipline of Mistress Softee," but until than it’s all just part of my living an enriching, interstitial existence that makes me giggle when I step back and look at it all. I perceive my higher purpose to be a healer, so I tend to submit myself to avenues in which I am of-service in some way. Either as a mothering nurturer figure or as muse to a new generation of artists, so long as the labor I am enacting stays aligned with my higher call, I am content to pursue that in tandem with traditional artistic platforms.
Genevieve Belleveau, Sex Cells: Exhibition Winner, 2009. Photograph of sext sent from ice cream truck. Courtesy the artist.
You often channel archetypes of the sacred feminine, like the holy whore or the vestal virgin or high priestess or whatever, but I feel like you queer that stuff a bit with the whole tonsured monk thing and through being a girl mechanic van driver.
I do identify as queer, particularly in the antiquated sense of the word i.e. existing outside the bounds of normal society. I think of myself as an outsider artist who happens to have an art degree. I can sort of LARP the art-world thing based on my education, but I can’t help but be pulled back to the fringes because that is where my true passion lies. I am absolutely channelling sacred archetypes and raising goddess consciousness along with some of my contemporaries, Labanna Babalon and Chez Deep and Fannie Sosa. I tend to temper my work in that arena with a fair amount of animus (masculine aspect) as a personal exercise in incorporating the shadow and moving towards individuation.
Top: Genevieve Belleveau, New Ascetic, photographed by Angelina Dreem, 2013. Bottom: Genevieve Belleveau, Stagnant Refreshing (2013). Photographed by Angelina Dreem. Both images courtesy the artist.
You've explicitly addressed the selfie culture as a device for self-healing or self-affirmation; what are your thoughts on the female body and the gaze in the age of total [self] surveillance?
My work in #selfieaffirmation, prior to pursuing my ascetic practice, relied very heavily on the presence of a feminine anima; a socially acceptable form of my female body that would garner the attention I desired at that time. There is an innate power in embodying this role; you can hook the worshippers’ attention, but when you have it you had BETTER have something important to say! That's the true goddess, not just passive icon, but powerful promoter of a more peaceful paradigm. She has to know with an intuitive wisdom what is needed to create the conditions for love on this planet at this time. I see the selfie as a useful tool for women just beginning to come into their personal power. It is an affirmative process that helps you examine your response to attention (or lack of attention) and can guide a cultivation of your feminine prowess. Males can use this tool as well, though I have less knowledge of the masculine experience of the selfie. It seems there might be more shame surrounding it, something that will be important to disassemble as we continue to move towards selfie-acceptance.
One of my main missions is to de-stigmatize the internet as a narcissistic guilt trip. We all long for affection, and social media can be a wonderful way of meeting people you would not have found in any other way. If someone takes a selfie and you see something in their eyes that you can relate to, it is pure magic; we are examining ourselves refracted through a couple thousand followers, creating an ever more prismatic version of identity. It’s possible that this could dispel a notion of rigid self-identity and begin to vaporize the ego into a collective expression and ethical experience of reality. We are already developing psychic abilities and ways of diminishing the lines that separate you from me. Last night at 5am I was lying in bed and you (Jesse) liked the picture of my cat I had posted to Instagram. There is a lot of information that remains unshared in the process but we were also brought together in the moment and I love that. I live for that ecstatic bliss of being that we can achieve if we open our hearts to really loving ourselves and sharing that self-love with one another. I don't think that selfies solve the problem, but I think they can be a step towards self-acceptance that can be further explored as we inevitably thrust onwards in this vision of the future.
Top: Vine by gorgeousTaps, Feb 20, 2013. Middle: Vine by gorgeousTaps, Feb 18, 2013. Bottom: Vine by gorgeousTaps with Labanna Babalon, Jul 28, 2013. For audio, mouse over top left corner of video and click on speaker icon.
On a related note, what do you think about all the stuff about privacy or privatization of the self on social networks? There's been a lot of paranoia and righteous anger about the way quantitative data is used by conglomerate web platforms but I feel like you might have a more nuanced view of all that.
I tend to be critical of anti-social media click bait. We are all users in the network that we are criticizing and it's clear that these networks have been developed to sate a basic human desire for community.
My next project will address some of this through a BDSM-based, psychosexual role play therapy I'm currently developing. This project is in its tender genesis stage, but I imagine it will touch upon Marx's ideas of labor and alienation in a perhaps unexpected light. It will also tie in recurring themes of obedience and discipline, reward and punishment -and the ultimate desire to be seen and affirmed. The power dynamic of the slave/master relationship clearly runs very deep in Western culture, and I'm curious about the sense of oppression people feel when online, particularly this popular grievance that we are somehow shackled to our use of social networks. We must remember that nobody is forced to use any of these networks. If we feel enslaved, we have chosen this role for ourselves. Despite the fact that most of us don't read the Terms of Service Agreement, I feel we all implicitly agree to a privacy tax for the sake of access to a diverse network. In fact, I'm not entirely convinced that we want to be as private as we claim. We are complicit in agreeing to losing some of our rights at the risk of depersonalization and even humiliation. Perhaps there is a sense of relief in releasing control. We "hate it," but we also acquiesce, because the rewards of consistently accessible companionship outweigh the punishment of destabilized identity authorship. It goes back to the irrepressible desire to connect and the sacrifices one will make in order to attain that sense of connection. In my guru role I preach "let go and let gorgeous." If we relax our rigid constructs of personal identity, we can begin to get to the really good stuff, the connective fibers of community and shared experience. We can abolish binaries and outdated social codes and get down and dirty—and do so on the daily. With this fluidity comes true freedom and the friendship we all truly long for, as we click our way to catharsis.
Floral Flagellation, St Roch's Cemetery, New Orleans, 2014. Photo: Miss Megan Trosclair.
Location: Los Angeles / RV Based Artist
How/when did you begin working creatively with technology? Directing videos on a VHS camcorder in 1994. Got really into "The Palace" chatroom in 1996. Using Facebook as an online performance platform since 2005.
Where did you go to school? What did you study? Bennington College; graduated in 2007. I studied experimental theatre, voice and interdisciplinary art. You name your own "focus" there, and I called mine "Intensely Pretending."
What do you do for a living or what occupations have you held previously? I work for Big Gay Ice Cream as an assistant to the owners and ice cream truck manager. I nude model for artists in photo, painting and drawing. I have worked as an assistant to video artist Laura Parnes since 2006.
What does your desktop or workspace look like? (Pics or scrnshots please!) I use the Big Gay Ice Cream construction site/office as my computer workspace and place to sing karaoke alone, everyday. I also have a painting studio temporarily set up in their basement in downtown LA where I am working on my first book which will be writing and illustration in the style of an illuminated manuscript. I live in my 1988 Shasta RV Motorhome which was crowdsourced to be a live/work space for my Mobile Monastery project. I mostly just sleep and write there now, but eventually I’d like to use it to host an Intentional Internet residency space for those seeking social media sanctuary.
Still from Serious Games I: Watson is Down (2010)
To question the point of view from which a war is narrated or fought, or to say that our image of war is reshaped by imaging technologies, implies that media represents something outside of itself. That it, as McKenzie Wark writes, the media appears to be "merely reflecting 'naturally occurring' moments outside all such apparatus.”
HARUN FAROCKI. SERIOUS GAMES, on view through January 18, 2015 at Hamburger Bahnhof, puts forward an alternative topology of media. Events of violence and war and revolution are not naturally occurring; they are produced, in part, by the apparatus of media. More precisely, these events are produced by workers acting on instruction, who are allowed (by the distancing effects of images, in part) to understand themselves as external observers rather than implicated parties.
The exhibition marks the acquisition of three major works by Berlin's Nationalgalerie: Serious Games (2009 – 2010), Inextinguishable Fire (1969), and Interface (1995). All three of the works are of a documentary nature; the earliest is a short film, while the latter two were devised for gallery settings. The first work encountered in the presentation is Interface, an introduction to Farocki’s process and a reflection on the apparati that affect images and communication. The four videos that comprise Serious Games are spread throughout the majority of the exhibition space so as to lead the viewer deeper into states of immersion with each part. As the viewer exits the gallery, Inextinguishable Fire awaits, giving a historical context for Farocki’s ongoing investigation into militarized industries.
If the three works in HARUN FAROCKI. SERIOUS GAMES can be understood as a kind of schematic narrative of Farocki's work, what comes across is an artist flexible enough to respond directly to changing political and technological conditions, while remaining committed to a political and aesthetic stance throughout. To put this in perspective, Inextinguishable Fire was released the year that Daniel Ellsberg photocopied the Pentagon Papers; Serious Games was completed the year that Wikileaks began to publish Chelsea Manning's leaks. 1969 was the year that internet precursor ARPAnet was launched; 2010 saw the launch of the iPad.
Still from Serious Games IV: A Sun with No Shadow (2010)
In the four video projections that make up the widely exhibited video installation Serious Games, Farocki examines the use of computer game technologies in the training of American soldiers, positioning video games within the context of the military. In part one, Watson is Down, we are introduced to a group of young men in training as they slowly traverse a sandy, computer-generated landscape. Next to the in-game POV footage, we see the soldiers dressed in their camouflage uniforms mundanely sitting at PC desktops in a small room. Part two: Three Dead was filmed during a military exercise in the Mojave Desert in a California city erected solely for this training purpose, populated by some 300 extras playing Afghans and Iraqis. According to Farocki, the city "looked as though we had modeled reality on a computer animation."
Initially, I wasn't aware that the exercise in part two was staged; a similar slippage between reality and simulation occurred in the third part, Immersion. In a therapy session, a soldier retells a traumatic combat experience while wearing a headset streaming a simulated environment which replicates the memory. The soldier seems more and more vulnerable as the session proceeds, revealing feelings of disconnect toward his fellow soldiers and the sight of the mutilated body of his partner. When the session ends, though, the soldier smiles, an audience claps, and we see that this whole scenario was a demonstration of the software used to recreate war environments to treat post-traumatic stress disorder. The final part, A Sun with No Shadow, depicts various elements of the games, such as obstacles click-placed by the trainer: an armed enemy, a civilian, a cat, a Coca-Cola can, the texture of the terrain, and shadows which most make realistic the simulation for training.
Still from Interface (1995)
In the context of Farocki's larger body of work, Serious Games conveys the idea that media representation or simulation does not merely depict violence; it is implicated in it, accompanying the soldier through every phase of combat from training through treatment. In 1995's Interface, Farocki reflects on his own role within the imagemaking system. The two-screen installation depicts him during the editing process, in which he is always looking at two images at a time, allowing one image to "comment on" the other. Sitting there in front of two screens, Farocki looks much like the uniformed soldiers sitting in front of their PCs engaging with a virtual war, or a scientist sitting in the laboratory observing experiments which will later be introduced into 'real life.' Interface foregrounds labor and its changing technological condition, but also the distancing of the self from larger implications of one's actions through repetitious, procedural behavior and through the construction of a point of view that positions the observer on an outside.
In the more distinctly agitprop Inextinguishable Fire, Farocki critiques the role of consumer industry in the production of chemical weapons during the Vietnam War, in particular, the work of Dow Chemicals. We witness the protocols of scientists involved in the development of napalm. We are engulfed by bureaucratic details, treated so clinically as to be poetically terrifying, but also to create a sense of detachment, a sense of the ambiguity of the point at which our actions or the technologies we work on actually inflict damage. In Inextinguishable Fire we see how the specialized worker can be kept within one sector so closely that they are unable to perceive the larger consequences of their work.
Near the start of the film, Farocki poses a question that seems to get at the heart of many people's anxieties about violence and the media:
How can we show you napalm in action? And how can we show you the injuries caused by napalm? If we show you pictures of napalm burns, you'll close your eyes. First you'll close your eyes to the pictures. Then you'll close your eyes to the memory. Then you'll close your eyes to the facts. Then you'll close your eyes to the context.
It seems, for a moment, to be telling a story of de-sensitization. This narrative, which proposes that screens allow a sense of detachment from "real" events does not ring fully true in an age where our lives on- and off-screen blend so fluidly together. Drone pilots, they say, are turning up with post-traumatic stress syndrome as well. Perhaps the image does not only create detachment, but also certain other forms of attachment.
In the aforementioned passage, Farocki goes on to acknowledge this:
If we show you a person with napalm burns, we will hurt your feelings. If we hurt your feelings, you'll feel as if we tried napalm out on you, at your expense.
Farocki then extinguishes a lit cigarette on his forearm, performing with his own body an instantiation, the hurt, of the image of napalm's burn.
Today, as we bear witness to a new glut of images of violence from around the world, perhaps the lasting import of Farocki's work is not to mistrust media representations of human suffering, but to keep our eyes open to such images, and to remain mindful of our own small stake in creating them—even if it feels like the violence is being tried out on us, at our expense.
Incorporate introduces itself in the iOS app store with a simple inquiry: "How do you connect to others, if you're not connected to yourself? This experiment in digital relaxation comes from artist duo Essex Olivares by way of support from SculptureCenter. It is an artwork designed to circulate among apps, taking its place in—and perhaps commenting on—an increasingly crowded landscape of self-help tools for the informationally overloaded.
The opening screen asks, "how are you feeling?" above a menu of rounded buttons displaying six succinct emotions: overwhelmed, torn, centered, hostile. Select one or two.
I choose two emotions—blocked and flustered. The screen transitions to the first exercise. A transcript of the upcoming verse appears onscreen; below it, a progress bar, a pause button, and navigation arrows. The minimal interface tempts me to interact. An even-toned voice, speaking softly alongside an original soundtrack of chimes, saxophone, and plenty of synth, asks me to focus on my breathing, a rudimentary relaxation technique:
Breathe in through you nose and out through your mouth.
Feel these words through your body.
With every breath, you release more tension.
I breathe. I try to release tension. "With every breath, you release more tension." It recites, but with every breath, I realize I am not really focusing on my breath. Tension levels remain the same even though I visualize tension melting away. "With every breath..." Without realizing it, I'm scrolling through the transcript. I'm disappointed to find these are the only words. With every breath, my mind wanders back to the usual places. I click "Next." It's not Incorporate's fault; it's mine. My brain isn't accustom to this brand of touch-screen surrender.
The pavlovian response to a touchscreen is counter-productive to real relaxation, meditation, or introspection. My mind has learned to switch on with the device. While I'm trying to relax with this app, millions of neurons are prepared to receive a cascade of information. I can't feel at ease with an iPad glowing back at me.
I try closing my eyes. Sans screen, I'm able to appreciate the audio environment Incorporate creates. It's clear that the audio and text alone is the app's strongest facet, well written and at times poignant. The music is soothing without relying on new age staples of whale sounds or ocean waves accompanied by wind instruments.
However, the interface is rife with elements borrowed from other places of daily, thoughtless interaction: the transcript on the screen, the pause button, the next arrow, the yes or no questions. If the exercise's design worked as well as the content, using visuals and interaction to enhance and facilitate the concepts (like a non-sexual Luxuria Superbia), Incorporate just might be able to détourne my well-trained neural pathways and create a hypnotic and deeply relaxing experience. Instead, the design is almost wilfully mundane, anti-transcendent.
Is the app an exercise in futility, a comment on the impossibility of app-based meditation? Is it badly designed? Or, does it just want me to close my eyes? If the audio track were to play for a full hour, I can see myself being lulled away from my usual hyperactive thought process and into relaxation. But that's not the case. Soon, the verse ends and a truncated version of this exercise's soundtrack plays on loop. The loop is not seamless and not as pleasant as the exercise itself. I'm forced to interrupt the feeble beginnings of release and open my eyes. The task following each audio visualization waits to be tended to:
Throw away your phone.
Did you accomplish the task?
Two buttons appear below yes and no. Answering "No" returns me to the previous exercise.
Throw away your phone.
I'm on an iPad. My phone rests peacefully in my bag. This hardly marks a departure from my routine: I visualize throwing my phone away daily, hourly, whenever I'm lost in a feed. Other tasks use heavy-handed symbolism and are equally ineffective. "You are a cactus. Remove every single one of your spines." "You are a block of ice, slowly melting into the person next to you." I glance at the stranger beside me on the train. We make eye contact and she shifts her body away from me, uncomfortable. "Did you accomplish the task?" Yeah, sure. The screen eases into the next verse, not once questioning the integrity of my answer, even when I have clearly not followed instructions, my intact phone by my side.
I try different variations by refreshing and recombining the emotions. There are more repetitive verses that my mind wanders away from. Other exercises read as 3-minute psychotherapy, asking about childhood embarrassment or digging at the possible roots of contemporary disillusionment. "Right now, on this device through which you are listening to me speak, you are being tracked, recorded, and monitored," I'm told, as though I'm not already aware. Like most cold readings, Incorporate relies on overgeneralization. For every line that applies to me, there is one that does not.
Completing three exercises leads to a congratulatory closing screen:
You've reached the end of this process.
You've dug deep inside yourself. Drawn your own conclusions. You're ready to incorporate into the world.
There is only one button: "I'm ready." If you say so. I tap it. The app doesn't shut off or call me a liar. I don't incorporate into the world. I'm back at the menu, ready to spend more time in the service of a bot. "How are you feeling?" My starting emotions remain selected. Accurate, as I feel exactly the same as when I began.
Ann Hirsch's Playground (a 2013 Rhizome commission) had its UK premiere on Friday. Photo from Instagram via @southlondongallery.
Nordic Larp. A caged troll in an old telecommunication center in Neonhämärä. via Spike Art Quarterly, Issue 39: Networks.
The latest in a series of interviews with artists who have a significant body of work that makes use of or responds to network culture and digital technologies.
Heather Phillipson, immediately and for a short time balloons weapons too-tight clothing worries of all kinds (2014). Image courtesy the artist and Bunker259.
When I saw your recent solo exhibition, immediately and for a short time balloons weapons too-tight clothing worries of all kinds, at Bunker259, I curled up in an inflatable birthing pool to watch a video suspended from an engine hoist. The video depicted a series of domestic, public, and online spaces, with a voiceover from you. At one point, you leaned over the camera and appeared to give me a facial. I broke down in laughter because it suddenly became clear that I had become a participant. When you show Zero-Point Garbage Matte, you use a similar strategy: the viewer climbs up a ladder and looks down on the monitor to view the video, a position that is reflected in its content. Which idea comes first, the video or the physical participation of the viewer?
The video usually precedes its final sculptural form, but not always. With the video suite I'm working on at the moment, for example, I have a really clear idea of what will be going on around it. Regardless, I produce multiple "versions" of each installation, so the video ends up inhabiting quite different physical structures at different times. It's like a built-in contrariness mechanism—the capacity to change the context, and therefore the work, and my mind. But, in general, the one constant is how the viewer is con/figured in relation to the video. So, with immediately and for a short time balloons weapons too-tight clothing worries of all kinds, as you mention, the viewer is recumbent with the video overhead. The video deploys regular POV shots alongside dispassionate observations, and mixes interior monologue with direct address, so there are these shifting perspectives. You're the eye/I of the camera, or its eye is turned on you…positions get conflated. For me, the physical relationship between body and screen is crucial to this formulation, although the rationale might only be revealed sporadically. It's a bastardised literary device, that semblance of inhabitation and activation—one minute you're in first person then second person or third person, then slapped back into first.
In terms of process, I think of it like a temporal collage or a physical musical composition—whether it's video editing or writing or walking between things in space, it's about the rhythm between the bits. And the bits are always colliding with or repelling or rubbing all over each other, synaesthetically. Structurally, the sculptural installations might be like arriving in the middle of a poem, not knowing what's going on, but understanding it—all these metaphors, line-breaks and non-sequiturs. I'm trying to establish an equivalence, I suppose—a kind of syntax of sounds, images, colours—using them like parts of speech. And it's deliberately non-hierarchical, so it's not that words precede images or images precede sounds—they spark off each other. Their relative status is confused.
Heather Phillipson, THE ORIGINAL EROGENOUS ZONE, with Rowing Projects at Art Brussels (2014). Image courtesy the artist.
Let's talk about rotten potatoes and watermelons. Your video installations often include organic elements, like fruit and vegetables, which decay over time. What do you see as the significance of these materials? Do you replace them throughout the exhibition or do you let them die?
With THE ORIGINAL EROGENOUS ZONE, I was thinking of the entire environment as being the video, exploded. How the video might feel if you were to walk through it. Then, with all these tactile references, with chunks of the video jutting into the space around it, there's a point at which the digital image and the experience of it start to cross over. The video becomes a place. The fruit and veg are an important part of this. Everything is there for multiple reasons—visual, metaphorical, functional… Of course, there's an obvious euphemistic element to the potatoes and the watermelons—like the potato bags sagging from a bent tap (PRIVATE PARTS PICTURES PRESENTS), or with a battered cardboard palm tree thrusting out of them (Roman Classic Surprise)—because the video is constantly confusing sex and language, food and speech. There's this recurring motif of the mouth as a portal for eroticism and intellect so there's a deliberate confusion of the human and vegetal body-parts in space too, like 3D nouns. Plus, obviously, we know all these bodies are rotting, regardless of literally seeing it.
Whether, or how soon, they're replaced in the exhibition depends on the circumstances. Last year, in an exhibition I had at Zabludowicz Collection, I made an upturned dining table with a shelf, on which I stuck that classic Christmas dinner party trick (well, at my table anyway)—a satsuma peeled into the shape of a dick. That one I allowed to really shrivel up until it was about half the original size—a pathetic, dried out, dying thing. Similarly, I wanted those potatoes on the bath to start sprouting in their bags, pushing out their hairy shoots, eventually leaking and dripping onto the floor. But then, with the watermelons, there's an additional utilitarian aspect—they're used as ballast to weight the bathtub to the floor. They really need to stay ripe because it's part of their buoyancy. So everything's in varying states of decomposition. And all these bits (bodies) provide something qualitatively different to the monitor and electronics. They have a different life, different textures. Textural differences are really important in the work—constant shifts between surfaces, qualities, modes of touching...
Heather Phillipson, ha!ah!, installation view at "yes, surprising is existence in the post-vegetal cosmorama," BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, UK (2013). Image courtesy the artist and Colin Davison.
Your voice creates a consistent, comforting tone in your videos. You have this particular deadpan delivery that sometimes comes across as humorous and other times dark, depending on how it's combined with the images. What do you think the voice contributes to these pieces?
The videos constantly switch tones and materials (HD, SD, vivid, degraded, "natural" sounds and images, manufactured sounds and images, hijacked sounds and images)—the voice is the glue that holds them together. It's on the surface and underneath and in between. I want it to have the veneer of this impartial, seemingly stable material while, around it, or without it, parts threaten to get out of control. And maybe this is where something that sounds authoritative or personal or reassuring starts to become suspicious—some line between ease and dis-ease. For me, it has something to do with intimacy—the appearance of admittance or proximity vs what's made accessible. Which in turn relates back to the physical place that you and the video occupy. It starts to raise questions—in my mind—about what that relationship is to the/a work, to things, people—how close we're allowed to get—virtually and actually.
But the straightforward answer is that it's my voice—there's not much I can do about it. I'm interested in that—the self that's always ex-pressing, dribbling out, whether we like it or not—what our bodies give away.
You once told me something I'll never forget: "I'm a poet because I want to spend five hours writing three words." Can you describe your relationship to language?
It's not easy.
Location: London, UK
Where did you go to school? What did you study? UWIC / Central St Martins / Middlesex—art & aesthetics / drawing / fine art
What do you do for a living or what occupations have you held previously? Artist, poet—many other necessary money-earners, most of which I'd rather forget.
Which artists have influenced you the most, or which projects? That's tough—so I'm going to reel off some great, bold women who have pepped me up along the years—Sturtevant's omnivorousness, Rosemary Tonks' brittle inter-/outer-self-voyages, Bonnie Camplin's wild advice-nuggets, Julia Heyward's language torturing, Kathy Acker's hard lines, Phyllida Barlow's place and mind-filling, Susan Sontag's on-the-nose-ness, Virginia Woolf's everything, Christine Brooke-Rose's interior death monologues, Sister Corita's polemics on cardboard, Keren Cytter's structure-shaking, Agnes Varda's lo-fi touchy-ness, Joan Jonas' ongoing multi-layers, Claire Denis' brutal truths plus momentary pop music simplicity, Marianne Moore's tricorn hat-wearing, Salt-n-Pepa's early riffs, ferociousness, under-cuts and hi-tops—I'm really just getting going...
What does your desktop or workspace look like? my head, inside-out
Interview conducted in person in London, July 2014.
Image adapted from John Cuneo's Atlantic illustration
Sunday, August 10, 1pm
Rockaway Beach Surf Club
302 Beach 87th Street, Rockaway Beach (Subway: Beach 90th)
Surf the classic way
From Amazon to Piratebay
Eight of New York's web surfers will find out who can surf best!
On August 10, Rhizome will host the city's first Trailblazers web surfing competition at Rockaway's premier wave surfing club, hosted by Dragan Espenschied and the whole Rhizome crew.
The rules are simple: competitors have to complete a trail by going from one URL, the start, to another URL, the goal, in less than 10 minutes. Those who don't make it are out.
No Google, No Keyboards, No Back Buttons, No Loggin' In — just hyperlinks and a one-button mouse. The trails remain secret until the start. Only skill will help you here!
Think you can rip with the best? Limited slots are available to participate. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to sign up. Prizes from Arcangel Surfware await. Check out the previous Trailblazers events in Europe, done by Olia Lialina and her study group Beautiful Zeroes and Ugly Ones at Merz Akademie.
Or just come to watch (no need to RSVP)! Surf's up, partner.