Articles on this Page
- 03/10/15--09:25: _WITCHCRAFT: Craftsm...
- 03/11/15--07:00: _Business Fish, or, ...
- 03/12/15--12:10: _Global Audiences, Z...
- 03/16/15--08:36: _Poetry as Practice:...
- 03/18/15--09:00: _Digital Publishing,...
- 03/19/15--08:15: _Cyborg Origins: Lyn...
- 03/20/15--13:11: _Rhizome's Spring 20...
- 03/23/15--11:38: _Poetry as Practice:...
- 03/25/15--07:59: _Artist Profile: Kar...
- 03/27/15--05:00: _Live Action Role Pa...
- 03/30/15--05:00: _Poetry as Practice:...
- 04/02/15--08:27: _Required Reading: N...
- 04/03/15--07:52: _Art After Social Me...
- 04/06/15--09:30: _Poetry as Practice:...
- 04/07/15--08:00: _Managing Boundaries...
- 04/08/15--07:30: _Airbnb vs. Berlin: ...
- 04/13/15--09:35: _Seven on Seven: Sol...
- 04/14/15--13:44: _In the future, peop...
- 04/15/15--07:34: _Custom-Produced for...
- 04/17/15--08:51: _The Theresa Duncan ...
- 03/11/15--07:00: Business Fish, or, Emotion Under Late Capitalism
- 03/16/15--08:36: Poetry as Practice: Tan Lin
- 03/18/15--09:00: Digital Publishing, Unzipped
- 03/19/15--08:15: Cyborg Origins: Lynn Hershman Leeson at Bridget Donahue
- 03/20/15--13:11: Rhizome's Spring 2015 Program
- 03/25/15--07:59: Artist Profile: Kari Altmann
- 03/27/15--05:00: Live Action Role Painting
- 03/30/15--05:00: Poetry as Practice: Melissa Broder's poems for Oneohtrix Point Never
- 04/02/15--08:27: Required Reading: Net Art gets bodied
- 04/03/15--07:52: Art After Social Media in Cambodia
- 04/06/15--09:30: Poetry as Practice: not_I want you to roll over
- 04/07/15--08:00: Managing Boundaries with your Intelligent Personal Agent
- 04/08/15--07:30: Airbnb vs. Berlin: Was sagen die Daten?
- Any way you slice the data, Berlin is the "undisputed Airbnb stronghold" of Germany. 11,701 Berlin listings were active during the span of the study, compared with runner-up Munich at 4233. The available Berlin apartments amounted to approximately .4% of available domiciles in the city. These included a total of 34,418 sublettable beds.
- "Legitimate" rents are rising rather in Berlin quickly in comparison with other cities in Germany, and the supply of long-term rental housing is going down for those who want live in the city longer than the "Wochenend-Easy-Jet-Partyvolk" (after whom one Airbnb listing is titled). The average Airbnb listing costs 55 Euros a night; renting a one-bedroom place for a month costs on average 650 Euros a month. Why rent monthly if you could net the same in 11 nights? (See these maps comparing the availability of vacation to long-term rentals for further adorable visualization.)
- At the crux of the New York study and others has been the issue of whether DIY hoteliers are really amassing real estate across cities and running fully fledged businesses serviced by Airbnb, rather than operating as "hosts" out of their private homes. Thus a particularly contentious statistic is the number of hosts with multiple listings to their names. The numbers in Berlin, according to this source, are comparable to those according to the NY attorney general: 1.3 listings per host compared to 1.2. This is a small percentage of hosts overall, but that small sector is nonetheless netting a large profit.
- A livestream event will be hosted by NEW INC, directly adjacent to the New Museum—tickets are available on the Seven on Seven site.
- Also available there: tickets to the afterparty drinks, hosted by Tumblr.
- And for those who want to host their own watching parties or join in at home, we will be livestreaming with our friends at Fusion.
- 04/17/15--08:51: The Theresa Duncan CD-ROMs are now playable online
This essay was written in conjunction with the exhibition "Witchcraft," which opened February 19th, 2015 at Initial Gallery in Vancouver. "Witchcraft" features the work of Laura Brothers, Brenna Murphy, Krist Wood, and Sara Ludy. The show—along with this essay—considers personal mythology, craftsmanship and spiritual inquiry as entry points to these artists' practices. "In a contemporary artistic landscape focused on self-branding strategies and social media legibility," curator Nicolas Sassoon argues, "these four artists appear as valuable voices bringing a poetic breadth to what it means to engage artistically with computer technology and the internet." This essay accompanies the exhibition, elaborating on these ideas through the lens of Sassoon's personal experience.
"Witchcraft," exhibition view. Photo courtesy Initial Gallery.
"Computing has always been personal. By this I mean that if you weren't intensely involved in it, sometimes with every fiber in your body, you weren't doing computers, you were just a user."
- Ted Nelson
At the end of 2008, my awareness of net-based practices was almost nonexistent. I had just moved to Vancouver from France and finished creating my first blog as a distraction from solitude. My engagement with online communities was limited to searching forums to modify the HTML of my blog posts. Still, earlier in the year, I had come across the work of Laura Brothers. After browsing Laura's website extensively, I started a conversation with her via emails and animated GIFs. This conversation led to my involvement in Computers Club, along with the discovery of many artists active within and around that platform at the time.
In 2008, Computers Club was a unique collective of internet personas, particularly committed to shaping the intricacies of their online space. A few years ago, in an Artist Profile for Rhizome, co-founder Krist Wood gave a minimal definition of the online collective—"a set of identities that derive from computer users." Many of these identities had accumulated seemingly endless content across multiple websites while revealing little to nothing in the way of personally identifiable information. The collective's website acted as a central station—mysterious about its inner workings—where the navigation of this content would start. The accumulation of works from each artist delineated the backgrounds of enigmatic characters, modeling personal mythologies through visual vernaculars and experimentations. Between 2008 and 2011, I encountered through this platform the work of Laura Brothers, Sara Ludy, Krist Wood, and Brenna Murphy. Their collection of online works was constantly updated, bringing weekly developments to their digital territories and increasing the frequency of my visits.
These four artists have all developed significant works online, works which can remain complex to decipher even after a close examination. Beyond this common detachment from legibility, a couple of other factors appear collective to their practice. One is a belief in publishing digital works online as a significant and complete gesture, without the need for a gallery. The other has to do with a singular application of computer technology in one's life: How does an artist engaging with such tools develop a digital practice resisting artistic conventions? How do these spontaneous, personal uses of technology bring about singular developments in art?
After browsing Krist Wood's website following my introduction to his work, my understanding of the implications behind a personal website changed dramatically. Wood's website offers an almost purely visual environment where navigation and meaning are certainly not given. Projects like Mausoleum I and Mausoleum II invite one to explore full-screen natural landscapes outwardly frozen in a dream-like state. The user has to click through each image to access the next, creating a sensation of movement as a new page loads. If one can manage to locate the clickable areas, they may encounter architectural structures where the difficulties of navigation expand to finally uncover spectral digital relics; screenshots of old web pages placed in shrine-like settings. Proceeding through such web space is often akin to hovering amidst the ethereal structures of an individual's mind. It demands time and effort to comprehend the navigation, but the experience is always fulfilling. Through Wood's work, my understanding of a personal website went from the making of an optimized "easy-browsing" promotional platform to the construction of an uncompromising extension of online self; to develop particular facets of personal mythology in their most intricate convolutions.
Krist Wood, Mausoleum II (2011)
Krist Wood, Siirm Aeruah (2012-2013). Photo courtesy Initial Gallery.
Krist Wood, Siirm Aeruah (2012-2013). Photo courtesy Initial Gallery.
Wood's online presence developed under unusual circumstances; it was created while pursuing a scientific career, maintaining relative anonymity and resisting academic legibility as an artist. Achieving such web presence remains a challenge, even more so when considering the technical difficulties of contemporary digital image making. The vast majority of computer imaging tools available today have become ubiquitous; everyone is given (almost) the same rake and sandbox to play with. On the individual scale, many productions made with these programs end up alike and transient, because while being omnipresent the tools are also complex and ever changing. They come with their own paradigms of production, and everyone gets to experience the joys of the same Photoshop lens flare. Given this context, it seems fair to wonder what's left for artists who want to develop a unique and thorough voice without hiring a Hollywood CG crew.
When I first came across Laura Brothers' livejournal, I felt that it offered another response to this problem, rooted in questions of form and technique. Brothers' work answers a complex question—context—with a simple answer: context. Her work is created on a computer screen, and develops visual characteristics inherent to computer screens. Most of the work is activated through scrolling, revealing optical qualities through motion. Her drawings emulate early computer graphics far beyond their historical connotations; highlighting their formal qualities to form a visual terminology of shapes repeated through series. Within each series we observe figures, eyes, gloves, and obscure shapes organized through an acute sense of composition and abstraction, and through the repetition, each element slowly consolidates a cohesive menagerie of signs. Brothers' work is a sequence of visual experiments enabling the development of a strong artistic identity. Browsing the blog archives brings the satisfaction of recounting one research leading to the next through the force of accumulation. Producing such a singular body of work through digital tools requires commitment; it is an ability that unfolds slowly against the immediacy of current software's inclinations.
Laura Brothers, Carl in Crags (2009). Photo courtesy Initial Gallery.
Laura Brothers, Carl (2009). Photo courtesy Initial Gallery.
When Sara Ludy worked as an interior designer and resident VJ in Los Angeles, she was nurturing personal projects that were informed by both of her jobs. The knowledge acquired in each field became essential to Ludy's art practice to relocate professional skills within the context of her own objectives—an ambition for the design of human space and a unique approach toward the incorporeal properties behind domestic architectures and objects. Ludy began to produce uncanny environments that extended professional assignments into her personal practice: digital frescos of otherworldly interiors, videos depicting the human body within complex geometric structures. Shortly after, Ludy undertook to dig deeper into the spiritual significance of architecture and artifacts from various cultures through online documentation and visits to historical sites. This research led to current projects like Dream House, where Ludy renders the oneiric architecture of a recurring lucid dream in precise detail. The most recent iteration of this approach resides in her project Rose, where Ludy employs laborious craft and 3D modeling to project the aura of a mass-produced object, suggesting a poetic relationship between a digital and physical body.
Sara Ludy, Body Flux (2010)
Sara Ludy, Rose (2015). Photo courtesy Initial Gallery.
Sara Ludy, Rose (2015, detail). Photo courtesy Initial Gallery.
"For me, graphics programs are spiritual tools that allow one to psychedelically engage with the fabric of reality. I'm deeply committed to pushing the innovative possibilities inherent in these contemporary folk art tools." This statement by Brenna Murphy defines her practice as a spiritual enterprise. Part of Murphy's work begins with simple hand-drawn forms which are manifested on her computer screen as vectors and extruded shapes. The shapes are then given digital textures; their number and diversity increases exponentially to rapidly form endless maze-like structures. The scale of this meditative repetition within her work becomes perceptible when browsing her website, with gigantic HTML pages as countless perspectives on the results of her procedures. One striking element within Murphy's work—aside from its beauty—is its scale and depth; seemingly infinite and continuously recalibrated as it keeps expanding online and in gallery space where her 3D forms are presented as prints and sculptural installations. Another striking element of Murphy's work is her spontaneous approach to computer technology, incorporating meditative traditions and spiritual notions. In work such as Murphy's, we are reminded of an essential aspect of digital tools: the ethereal realms in which they allow us to engage. Of course it would be naïve to think that the internet and digital tools are not physical as well; computers are built by humans—they consume power and they pollute significantly. But it would be equally naïve to ignore the fact that the internet and digital tools can be used toward the most personal, spiritual, and creative expressions of one's self.
Brenna Murphy, Domain Terrace #2, #3 (2014). Photo courtesy Initial Gallery.
Brenna Murphy, Liquid Room (2013). Photo courtesy Initial Gallery.
Brenna Murphy, Intertial Wave (2015). Photo courtesy Initial Gallery.
When net-based practices begin to be contemplated for their branding strategies, corporate aesthetics and optimized readability, the artists discussed here seem to require other criteria for evaluation. Their practice is defined by uncompromising creativity, idiosyncratic and poetic investigation and serial experimentation. This art online provides refreshing resistance against the intense rationalizing effects of computer technology; engaging with the digital should also happen through poetic means. Nonetheless, the level of dedication these artists show commends another observation: it is their ability to avoid the pervasive shortcuts of computer technology that constitutes a foundation for their art. At last, this particular strain of artistic practice also responds to a personal question at the origin of my involvement online, which is left here for further consideration: how can the internet and digital tools still provide a space for dreaming?
"Witchcraft," exhibition view. Photo courtesy Initial Gallery.
Acknowledgements: Initial Gallery, for their trust and support throughout the process of making this project happen. The editors at Rhizome, for their feedback and suggestions to finalize this essay. The artists, for their work throughout the years and their friendship.
I can't always articulate what it is like to be a worker, writhing in muted panic in the net of late capitalism. But I have found a fine outlet in Business Fish, a surreal family of sticker sets on Facebook Messenger, which I use to illustrate many of my exchanges.
Business Fish has struck a nerve since his introduction last year: he has many vocal fans (3200+ on his Facebook page) and he's been profiled in the mainstream news. Inspired by the Shinto belief that divinity resides in animals, his creator—an artist at Tokyo-based studio Quan, Inc.—gave him a pink fish head capping a human body in a boxy blue suit that, in today's workplace fashion parlance, reads as "male business casual."
At first glance, Business Fish seems like a composite of Gordon Gekko and Jordan Belfort, ruthless hunters of success, profit and glamor. Closer examination of his sixteen, hyper-expressive graphics reveals a more complex narrative.
He wakes in shock, sweaty, the sun at his head. He gets caught in a subway turnstile. He struggles, briefcase in hand, coughing and shaking, knees buckling. After a setback, he slumps in shame against a wall. He bows, and weeps, and clenches his fists in rage. He grovels on the ground, possibly begging for the privilege of working another day.
Created with Japanese office culture in mind, but meant to represent office workers worldwide, Business Fish is a pressure-crushed employee, shot through with anxiety and anguish. If, as Sianne Ngai argues, strong emotions, particularly dysphoric ones, are "the psychic fuel on which capitalist society runs," Business Fish is a resource burning at both ends.
Though he is designed to have a generally "upbeat" tone, his happiness, his positive valences, are tempered. He tensely presents a cake to a coworker, possibly to increase his social capital. He plots, alone, at a bar. When he celebrates a win, he is just as alone.
These images are pretty dark, for Facebook stickers. They work on two levels: one, they can help users mediate personal emotion, expressing untidy frustrations with one's colleagues and managers without words. Two, they serve as commentary on an administered universe, in which the ability to manage, control and perform emotion is a commodifiable skill.
Business Fish offers a diagram for the management of emotional capital. As Paolo Virno suggests, affects like insecurity over competition and fear over one's position "haunt the workday like a mood that cannot be escaped." These moods are, again per Ngai, "reconfigured into professional ideals," to be adaptable, to push through on a project, to compete during overtime. These ideals grease along the economic system.
Channeling emotion into professional productivity makes us more marketable, as it does for Business Fish. Since the extreme pressure of self-management has consequences, his efforts can't always be perfectly contained. His triumphs become more and more unhinged: in one image, he laughs wildly, fists raised. In the next, his head is thrown back, his eyes are pupil-less and he is backlit by flames. The quarter's results are in: emotional carnage is just the cost of doing business.
This text (original title: "The Outskirts of the Internet") was originally commissioned for the book Turning Inward, with contributions by John Beeson, Svetlana Boym, Marta Dziewańska, Philipp Ekardt, Felix Ensslin, David Joselit, William Kherbek, John Miller, Reza Negarestani, Matteo Pasquinelli, and Dieter Roelstraete. Edited by Lou Cantor and Clemens Jahn. Published by Sternberg Press, 2015. The text was modified slightly, including the deletion of a section about Rhizome's own activities. Orit Gat is a Contributing Editor at Rhizome.
Jim Campbell, Library. GIF excerpt from documentation video.
Fifty percent of arts organizations in the United States maintain a blog. The Metropolitan Museum of Art calculated that while the museum draws six million visitors in a year, its website attracts 29 million users and its Facebook page reaches 92 million. Of these millions of people interacting with the museum online, only a small percentage would ever walk up the New York museum's famous steps. If the internet has changed the definition of what a museum's audience is, then it also poses the difficult question of how to interact with it. This adds a new dimension to the museum's relationship with its traditional audience: How to extend the relationship with visitors beyond the museum's walls? This twofold task—both to generate a public and sustain existing relationships—has created a new landscape of digital engagement where museums look to their websites, dedicated apps, and online magazines as tools to involve this new online public.
As museums are rethinking their relationship to their audience online, an increasing number chooses to publish online magazines, and many of these publications emerge from institutions that are not necessarily the major museums in art world hubs. The attitudes toward these publishing initiatives vary—some choose to outline the scope of their publishing platforms in the shape of their programming, while others produce magazines that are thematically related to subjects the museum covers but are not directly linked to the art on view. What they all share is a feeling that online publishing expands the museum's audience, making it a potentially global one. The idea that a museum's public is to be found beyond visitorship is full of potential, but publishing online does not automatically overcome geography and create new relationships with international audiences. On the contrary, these institutions are working to generate content in an environment that is arguably already saturated. Digital presence does not automatically make for global reach, and much of the writing produced online by museums is bound to disappear in the vast amount of content on the internet. YouTube famously has more videos on it than anyone could ever watch—in fact, with 100 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute, it would take over a thousand years to view the total running time of videos posted on the platform—this, in less than ten years of existence.Alexa—the Amazon-owned service that gives public estimates of website metrics—makes online publishing seem almost futile. According to Alexa's data, the most visited website in the world is, of course, Google, and an average user spends nineteen minutes and nine seconds a day on it. Facebook averages 27:34 minutes and the New York Times 3:57. Visitors spend almost twenty minutes a day on YouTube and less than three on the New Yorker's site. When so much content is offered, and so little of it seems to attract readers, the goal of museums joining the online publishing game should not be to reach the largest audience, but rather, to create platforms that expand research and the production of knowledge that builds on the museum's mission statement and expands it, regardless of how many hits it generates—a difficult leap to make, especially in terms of the way museums represent their activity and receive funding.
For museums to become significant publishers online, they need to accept that playing the metrics game will mostly only preserve the status of certain institutions: those with name recognition and large encyclopedic collections that can be digitized and utilized in diverse ways, from research to a Tumblr, appealing to an audience that varies from the art historian to the occasional user based thousands of miles away from the museum. This strategy has been incredibly successful for museums that already top the list of visitor counts—the likes of the Met, MoMA, or the Tate and their millions of Twitter followers and Facebook fans. This is not a digital strategy that would work for a contemporary art space in a mid-size city. In the past decade, as institutions internalized the importance of digitizing, a number of attitudes toward online presence emerged. The building of online publishing platforms relates to a traditional role of museums—to support research, then publish and publicize it—and indeed, many museums large and small publish catalogues, books, and sometimes also magazines. But publishing on the internet differs from these initiatives because of the pressure to attract a global audience. If most text online goes unread, how to explain the incentive of these institutions to publish?
What follows is by no means an exhaustive list of museums that publish, nor is it an analysis of each magazine's efforts. The examples used here all originate in US museums (for need of a set case study, and because even though my interest is in whether or not the internet can cancel out geographical limitations, it has also served to uphold a dominance of the English language) and are employed toward a larger point—that in the race to digitize, museums' strategy should not be to publish and send texts out to the world in the hope that they would resonate in the internet void, but rather to consider publishing as an opportunity to expand the intellectual sphere in which they work, rather than their audience.
Thomas Struth, Audience 1 (Florence, 2004).
Where we are now
Museums' online magazines fall pretty comfortably into two categories: those that serve to perpetuate and develop the institution's mission and those magazines that have their own separate identity and set of interests, which serve in turn to complement those of the institution that funds them and gives them its brand.
Of the magazines that share a mission with the institution that publishes them, there are two tendencies: the first is to extend the institution's intellectual reach, commissioning original pieces that either react to the institution's programming or somehow build on it. The second is a certain propensity toward behind-the-scenes-like reporting, varying from blogs like the ICA Philadelphia's blog Miranda to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts' Verso, an award-winning iPad magazine. Miranda, which ceased publishing after five years of regular articles about everything that happened in the ICA's curatorial offices, from planting in the museum's garden to interviews with artists and the planning stages of exhibitions, is supposed to resume in a different format following a redesign of ICA's website. Verso runs five to ten pieces in each issue of the quarterly publication, all pertaining to the institution's exhibitions and public programs and to its local community. The Los Angeles County Museum of Arts (LACMA) publishes Unframed, which is written in full by the museum's staff: each contributor writes about their role in the institution and about artworks, events, and other aspects of the museum's activities with which they engage. Thus, the museum's director of artist initiatives recently reflected on the moving of Michael Heizer's sculpture Levitated Mass (2012)—that 340-ton boulder that sits atop a concrete trench—to its current home at the entrance of the museum as an introduction to the screening of a documentary which was shot during the ten-day move of the work from a quarry some 100 miles east of Los Angeles. Another institution that uses publishing as a way of giving its staff a stage on which to communicate with the public is MoMA, which in 2013 introduced Post, a journal-archive hybrid as part of its C-MAP research initiative, that brings together practitioners from across the modern and contemporary art world to think through questions of value, quality, geography, and history in art practices, especially ones originating in countries that are not in North America and Western Europe. While C-MAP's activities and seminars largely take place behind closed doors, Post is an open platform that allows for user participation (mainly by allowing comments) and is oftentimes used for reflections specifically on C-MAP activities, seminars, and for C-MAP participants to write about their ongoing research. Interestingly, most of the articles on C-MAP have garnered zero discussion (at times there is a single comment written by the author of the article and used to update an argument or bring in new links and information), which means that even though Post was envisioned as an active platform that allows for an expansion of this one part of the museum's activity, it has basically become an archive or a container for the writing that resulted from C-MAP.
The transparency that these institutions try to promote by way of publishing online may not result in articles shared by the thousands, but it produces self-reflexivity and a writing of the museum's history by its own members. That's one example of the value of what may seem a modest ambition, but results in giving the museum's visitors a sense of agency owing to their understanding of the inner workings of the institution. A visitor who reads Miranda or Verso will have an idea of the intellectual work that went into the exhibition they encounter or the presentation of the artwork they see, an understanding that goes beyond what any wall text can provide by giving them both the background of the underlying ideas that led to that project, but also a grasp of the work that went into it. It is one way of creating distinct content on the internet: the Heizer text mentioned above, for example, may come up in research about the artist's large-scale sculptural work, and the contribution LACMA's magazine does is exactly in providing a detailed description of the administrative tasks of exhibiting works like Heizer's. No art history would give a reader that hands-on impression of the work.
Sree Sreenivasan, the Metropolitan Museum's chief digital officer, at the Charles Engelhard Court in the American Wing. Credit Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times
On the other side of the ring are institutions whose publishing arms are conceived as extensions of the organization, producing new texts that pertain to the institution's mission but are not necessarily married to its activities. One practical way in which these organizations do that is by commissioning outside writers. The Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College launched Red Hook, an online journal that features writing from curators, artists, and other cultural producers about the current state of curatorial and artistic practice, as a way of expanding the institution's approach to curating to allow for slower, more reflexive thinking that isn't just exhibition-making. This attitude means that these two institutions not only produce knowledge about their program, but also create a context for the work that they do. The benefit of this newly-commissioned material is that it furthers work done in these institutions without being directly implicated in their day-to-day operations. And while other outlets—magazines, newspapers, panel discussions—may also generate new research on these topics, here it is nestled under the rubric of these museums' websites, providing a set of new ideas that inform the workings of the institution, as well as the visitors to its site. It frames these institutions as a nexus of meaning, which is fostered in publishing as well as in programming, but online it is more visible by way of texts, which are searchable, and thus position the museum's website as part of a network of research results pertaining to its mission and interests.
When the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis introduced its new website in 2011, in which the homepage is dedicated to a publication, it met with sweeping approval. The Walker Magazine's scope runs the gamut of publishing about the museum's exhibition program, artists in its collection, and other institutional developments, but it also issues longform essays that go beyond the museum's particular program, including, for example, artist op-eds: a series of commissioned opinion pieces that "examine the thinking of artists as citizens and change-makers." It also features essays "from elsewhere," that is, prominently displays essays from other publications about subjects that the Walker's editorial staff deem important or pertinent to discussions that take place in the Walker's magazine and between the museum's walls. Linking from the museum's website—to newspapers, art magazines, YouTube, and other places online—is a brave decision, as it means the Walker may lose readers in favor of the sites to which it directs them, but it makes the Walker Magazine a source that centralizes reading lists about ideas that are central to the museum's mission, making its site both a resource and a "hub for ideas," as the museum's director, Olga Viso, introduces it.
The Walker's site was called a "game changer" by a number of bloggers precisely because of the system it created, in which the magazine serves both the museum's local audience and the larger online public. Furthermore, by publishing this variety of content and not privileging the local over the global (or the other way around) it brings the two closer together.
How the internet is different
Looking under the hood, few of these museums have created online publications that truly advance technology in any practical way. None of them created new features for collecting articles, annotating them, or participating in their making, for example, all of which are technologically viable (though rarely promoted). Considering that this is an industry that trades on the creativity of its members, and that many museums directed substantial budgets towards the creation of these magazines, it is a squandered opportunity for the publishing community to consider these newly-foundedpublications as opportunities to research needs in online publishing and develop new technologies that may advance online publishing as a whole. What these publications did do, however, is shape their readers' attitudes towards—and expectations of—online publishing in the arts. The team that developed Verso wrote a long reflection about it in Beyond the Printed Page: Museum Digital Publishing Bliki (a bliki, according to Beyond the Printed Page, is a combination of a blog and a wiki. Moderated by staffers of the Art Institute of Chicago and edited by a committee from a number of US museums it runs posts by museum publishers, editors, and designers about digital strategy, copyright, functionality, and examples for digital publishing in the museum context) explaining that their goal was not to take a print publication and turn it into a PDF with some hyperlinks. Instead, they designed it to be interactive, so that every story has video and audio features or high-resolution images. These features provide one good reason to make the leap from reading print publication to digital ones and Verso provides a great example of the irreplaceable benefits of e-publishing. The impact of which is already visible, for example, in an emblem of museum publishing, which is currently undergoing a conceptual overhaul—the scholarly collections catalogue. A book that describes the museum's holdings, including physical condition report, provenance and exhibition history, and research about each piece in a museum's collection, the collections catalogue essentially becomes dated the second it is printed. Works are acquired and deaccessioned, others are restored or loaned out—and all these details need to be constantly updated in a book that is oftentimes already a tome of sizable proportions. In 2013, the Getty Foundation set up OSCI, the Online Scholarly Catalogue Initiative, introducing digital publishing as a natural solution to the need for—and problematic nature of—the collections catalogue. In the Getty's online magazine, Iris, Anne Helmreich, the senior program officer at the Getty, explains what makes the collections catalogue such a strong candidate to make the shift to digital publishing: "Because almost all museums produce them, yet they have serious limitations. Catalogues become quickly outdated any time a new work is acquired or new research is discovered, and the space constraints of print often limit how much information a curator or conservator can include." OSCI has produced numerous catalogues for institutions like the Seattle Art Museum, LACMA, and the Walker Art Center. The latter published a piece on its journal about the creation of its Living Collections Catalogue, which allows the museum to continually update their holdings, but also to present parts of its collections, such as performance art commissions and internet artworks, which would traditionally not be published in a book, at least not to a full effect. This layered approach to the possibilities of digital publishing is exactly the contribution that museums can make to the constantly growing field of online publishing.
Verso promotional image
Beyond technology, zoom-able images and video content are not the only things setting museums' online publications apart. What distinguishes these online magazines from other museums' print magazines—like the Tate's Tate Etc. or the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, which publishes Palais—is its relationship to its readers. In a post on the digital publishing bliki, Kris Thayer and Diane Richard, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts staffers who conceived and developed Verso (their title is Audience Engagement Strategist, while Thayer is a designer and Richard is a writer; Richard also edits Verso) shared their workflow charts comparing print magazines to their digital endeavor. While the traditional workflow chart ends when the magazine is ready—articles are edited, then sent to proofreading and design, issue laid out, issue reviewed by museum leadership, files released to printer, and delivery as last step—their digital publishing workflow chart includes similar steps but ends with "publish, share" as ways to push out content, leading to the final step: "Next: conversation."
Encouraging conversations aligns all too perfectly with the mission of museums to educate, make knowledge available, and promote new research. But setting sights on communication online often results in audience anxiety. Unlike the activity of a museum's Facebook profile, Tumblr, or Twitter feed, which are all measurable, how does one measure the success of these museums' magazines? Metrics give much information about numbers of visitors and the amount of time they spend on the site, but the impact of these publishing initiatives will be measured in conversations—in academic citations, of course, but mainly in the way articles from these online magazines circulate online via social media and in the overall awareness of a given magazine. This is where things get difficult. The Walker Magazine, for example, has its own Twitter feed with 1100 followers (as of September 2014), while the Walker Art Center has 437,000. Still, running the URL of an artist op-ed by James Bridle published in July 2014 into Twitter's search gives results from September, meaning that the text is still generating discussions months after it was published. This is one successful example of the location where conversations happen. And, even if it allows the museum less control over it, dialogue rarely happens directly on the magazines' sites. While most of them allow for comments, few have a dedicated audience who reads and comments thoughtfully on the articles on the site. Even when there are comments—because oftentimes comments sections remain unused—they are rarely useful, generative discussions that engage a number of readers; usually they are one person reacting to the text (in the best case scenario) or complaining about unrelated topics. Comments sections are infamously full of negative feedback written anonymously, and yet, so far, they're the best we've come up with in terms of audience engagement online. Saying that publishing online rather than in print allows for reader participation is buying into internet optimism—the creation of a space is not enough to make it useful.
The most substantial conversation these online publications create is in commissioning original content. Publishing a magazine may be a less visible activity in terms of metrics than running a blog, Tumblr, or Twitter feed, but it could expand our understanding of both fields—art publishing and museum work. A museum's online publication does not need to publish some of the tropes of mainstream art publishing, such as reviews or previews of gallery shows, which are crucial in the sphere of writing about art but are also inextricably tied to magazines' advertising revenue. This makes them more flexible, since these magazines do not necessarily have columns and features that need to be filled on a monthly, weekly, or daily basis. There's also the question of length: while magazines and books give writers strict word counts, an online publication could run pieces as long as it wishes—and longform essays tend to circulate better on the internet (via sites like longreads.com, which gather and share links to longer pieces published online, and thanks to read-it-later services like Pocket and Instapaper, which allow users to save articles to their mobile devices and access them online), performing in a way that is independent of the site in which it was published, but still sends users back to it.
Screengrab from the LACMA website
Circulation, funding, and name recognition
Awareness is a hard ticket to run on in the internet sphere. What if all this original content that museums produce disappears online? The digitizing frenzy among museums (largely supported by grants from the likes of the Getty and Mellon foundations) is shaping the way digital information—and especially images—is circulated. The Met recently made a trove of high-quality images of works in its collection available free of copyright. A decision like that plays into the discussions around "openness" on the internet, where talk of public spiritedness and democracy mask the monetizing structures that lie underneath the surface of these supposed gift economies. The Met making these images available is a move toward free circulation of digital content, but it will also result in many universities, publishers, and others using images from the Met's collection exactly because they are freely available, perpetuating the museum's hegemony in art historical discourse. The result is that an institution like the Met, already one of the most visible museums in the world, now considers its audience as much larger than the people walking through its galleries, which in turn leads the museum's online strategy. In September 2014, the Met launched its official app. In the media frenzy that followed the launch, Bloomberg Philanthropies (which financially supported the app) released a statement from the museum's director, Thomas P. Campbell, that "you must digitize in order to survive, and Bloomberg Philanthropies is helping us do that." The Met app includes some obvious features—information about current and upcoming exhibitions, events at the museum, membership information—as well as some less-obvious ones (especially the "Met-Staches," a wink at viral content in the form of a "sample of the Met's choicest moustaches, from stately to scruffy," that is, a series of images of men with mustaches from the museum's collection), and some impressive omissions (there is no map of the museum's galleries). Digital survival according to the Met means to provide a superficial connection with a public: the app does not create knowledge, only collects and presents it in an easy-to-digest version that is also easy to share and circulate. Like the image program, it is there to sustain the Met's stature.
With the launch of the Met's app, the New York Times ran an article in its arts section surveying two New York museums' relationship to their online audience. Entitled "Museums See Different Virtues in Different Worlds," it discusses the "anyone, anywhere dream," as the Brooklyn Museum's vice director of digital engagement and technology Shelley Bernstein called it, relating to the idea that just by virtue of being online the content the museum produces is global and could appeal to audiences anywhere. Under Bernstein, the Brooklyn Museum experimented for a number of years with crowd-sourced exhibitions ("Click!" in 2008) and games ("Tag! You're In It," also 2008, which encouraged users to tag works in the museum's collection, as a way both to enhance their sense of authorship and use the "wisdom of crowds" in order to update the site). What the Brooklyn Museum learned from these experiences was exactly the opposite from what the Met did—that even if on the internet their activities can spread across the world, the majority of their audience was still local—in Brooklyn—and in response, the museum reshaped its digital activities to suit its immediate public. In the Times article, Bernstein says that the lesson she took away from focusing on the museum's visitors is that an institution should "not let the tech community drive what you're doing because it may not be right. Digital is not the Holy Grail, it's a layer."
Being active online does not immediately make an institution global. And focusing on expansion only perpetuates some wrong tendencies related to the internet and its supposed promise of infinite possibilities. There is a very Silicon Valley-like attitude in focusing on numbers (what makes Facebook's valuation is not anything the social network produces, but the sheer quantity of its users) rather than content. The fact that the internet allows institutions to build platforms does not mean that their end goal is accumulation—rather, it is in a commitment to sustaining research and building knowledge. This is why the Walker is such a groundbreaking example. While the Minneapolis art center is surely a recognizable, revered institution, it is not as globally recognized as the Met is. And yet, it has created a structure that doesn't only allow it to participate in conversations that go beyond its immediate community, it also makes it a useful resource, thus expanding its reach by way of content, not of subscribers. We need to think about online publishing in terms of discourse, debate, and exchange—and the foundation for these dynamics is in commissioning texts that help produce a broad context for institutional activities.
Image from the Walker Art Center's first edition of the Living Collections Catalogue
A last thought on numbers
Maria Hlavajova, the director of BAK (Basis for Aktuell Kunst) in Utrecht, in the Netherlands, has publicly discussed her idea of the institution's "zero visitors policy": zero visitors, Hlavajova argues, does not mean zero public, but suggests that an art institution's reach goes beyond its walls. Counting the number of people who walk through the doors of BAK is irrelevant to the type of engagement the institution fosters with its audience, be it via public programming, publishing, or relationships formed with other cultural practitioners. In the context of the budget cuts for cultural institutions in the Netherlands, BAK is a prominent example of a space that considers its public to be as varied as its activities, both of which reach far beyond the bricks and mortar museum. This should be an example for the way museums consider their activities online: to conceive of the internet not as a tool to cancel the geographical constraints of what is considered to be a museum's traditional audience, but as a space in which a museum can participate in larger conversations that relate to its mission.
In the same Pew Research Center cited in the opening of this essay, 65 percent of the cultural institutions surveyed stated that digital technologies are very important for fundraising. One of the goals of development departments in places like the Walker Art Center and the Brooklyn Museum should be to delineate new ways in which digital engagement encourages public involvement, which should not be measured via circulation, but by way of their impact on the museum's ongoing activities. An article published on a museum's online publication could provide the background for a conversation in the galleries; choice paragraphs from an artist profile preceding an exhibition could be used for wall labels; different series of readers or anthologies based on the online publication could be compiled to thematically relate to the museum's program as a way of both expanding the resources available to the public when visiting the space and tying together the publishing arm with the programming. These are all examples of aspects of publishing that funders should look to support. The worrying tendency of museums to crowdfund via sites like Kickstarter exemplifies yet another stressing of quantity versus quality. While fundraising strategies change from one local context to another, in their funding applications, be they for a national agency or a philanthropic organization, nonprofit institutions need to sidestep the numbers question as pertains to the internet, because metrics do not mean what donors seem to think they mean. We should change the way we fund institutions, think about them, relate to them. Online publishing could promote not only new writing and research, but also new ideas as to what a museum's role can be, which will not be achieved by winking at a broader audience, but by doing the work, every day: hiring editorial staff, reading what else is published online, reacting to the current intellectual situation. In eschewing print in favor of the larger context of the internet, museums gain both the possibility of a significant audience and the option to be timely, to become a voice in conversations that happen beyond their walls. But these dynamics need to reflect the potential of online publishing platforms: to provide an expanded context for institutional activities (on the scale and in the terms of the originating institutions), rather than be conceived of as expressways into the digital realm. What the internet allows is not a reshuffling of geography—since simply being online does not make an institution global. Instead, it is a new landscape in which to participate.
Mastering the Art of French Cooking and Systems Theory (2015) by Tan Lin uses a script to pit two books—which address subjects known for their difficulty to master—against one another at hundreds of words per minute.
Tan Lin is the author of Lotion Bullwhip Giraffe (2000), BlipSoak01 (2003), Ambience is a Novel with a Logo (2007), Heath (Plagiarism/Outsource) (2009), and 7 Controlled Vocabularies and Obituary 2004. The Joy of Cooking (2010). His work has appeared in numerous journals including Conjunctions, Artforum, Cabinet, New York Times Book Review, Art in America, and Purple, and his video, theatrical, and LCD work has been exhibited widely. He currently teaches creative writing at New Jersey City University.
Kristen Gallagher's latest work has been published as a ZIP file.
This shouldn't surprise anyone familiar with GaussPDF, the publisher who hosts her Dossier on the Site of a Shooting (GPDF154). The PDF in GaussPDF actually stands for Probability Distribution Function ("masquerading as its Adobe-laced counterpart"), and aside from the expected PDF "books" of experimental writing and poetry, the full catalog contains MP3s, Word docs, MOV files, ZIPs, and links to print-on-demand versions. All of the digital files are dispersed freely.
Still, in the context of artists publishing screen-based works, Gallagher's format seems radical. The title offers a clue of what's to come: a dossier is "a collection of papers or other sources, containing detailed information about a particular person or subject." In this case, Gallagher's subject is the site of the murder of Trayvon Martin in Central Florida and the trial of George Zimmerman, his killer, that followed. Gallagher visited the area on multiple occasions, wandering, encountering, engaging, collecting. She investigated the event through the place, gathering ephemera and stories along the way.
On its own, there's nothing surprising about a ZIP file. The format was created in 1989 by Phil Katz to package files; now, it's standard on most operating systems. An image of a zipper usually appears on a ZIP's icon, signaling that there is stuff inside. The process of making a ZIP compresses multiple files into a single one, reduced in size, so that a large collection can be quickly contained and circulated ("zip!"). Naturally, it's a useful tool in digital publishing: epub, one of the standard publishing formats for ebooks, packages ZIPs that contain HTML files. In other words, ebooks are archives of archives, but these nested containers remain totally hidden from our view when we experience an ebook.
Gallagher's .ZIP file
Not so with Dossier on the Site of a Shooting. Gallagher rejects this enveloping ebook container and publishes her work directly as a collection of individual files. Once downloaded, her ZIP expands into a folder that contains seven items: three .txt files, three .url files and a .mov. One of the .txt files is named "Dossier on The Site of A Shooting.txt" and it functions like a table of contents, or a title page, or a front cover or a back cover of a book. It’s all of these but none of them, because the codex is barely present in Gallagher’s work.
When I first encountered Dossier, I opened all of the files and spread them out evenly on my desktop. I read her stories, opened the web pages and played the iPhone movie. I wandered through her files, rearranged them, closed and then re-opened them. My desktop became an active, unique performance of her work, one that resembles a kind of research or browsing, or even Gallagher’s own investigation; I shadowed her movements in some way, just as she traced a path through the other, more familiar events. I physically performed the dossier — moving, dragging, watching, engaging with Gallagher’s material in a relational way. Reading.
Gallagher's piece "reads" like a dérive through a haunted crime scene, at times poignant, but my own interest is in its performative quality as a publishing event. In confronting her own understanding of the perplexing series of events, she challenges our own expectations—what to call it, what form to give it, how to disperse it. She turns the ebook inside out.
Kristen Gallagher, Dossier on the Site of a Shooting (GPDF154), 2015
"The hybrid space of the contemporary page"1 is one way to characterize the state of digital publishing today. The phrase looks in two directions; first, it supports the idea of conditions in flux (hybridity). But it does so within a conventional context: "the page."
Artists who publish ebooks often rely uncritically on traditional notions of the codex when creating work. Two-sided pages bound along one edge and other conventions inherited from the printed book—absorbed and now standardized within the walled gardens of the iBooks and Kindle stores—have burdened artists with restrictions, design limitations and closed formats. So why would an artist choose to publish an ebook on a proprietary platform today? The only reason may be commercial; after all, "ebooks are just dumb webpages,"2 but "websites are not perceived as products to buy," and artists can get at least some money for their digital work through these platforms. And why bother, when "there is already an entire industry—video games—devoted to innovating the interactive narrative."
The closer we look, the more we might question what "book" even means in this context. Digital culture is made up of "practices, not objects"; files have no meaning unless they can be "performed" in the appropriate computer system. The digital book is not an object, but a practice.
Gallagher points us in the right direction. Her Dossier suggests a more uncertain situation, flickering between book/folder and performance/object. It must be unzipped, performed, in order to be accessed. The ZIP marks a kind of join where the seam between two sets of practices was fixed in place—on one side, the author's research and gathering of material, and on the other, the reader's subsequent exploration of it. This hybrid space—where material/digital, open/proprietary, private/circulating and fixed/flowing conditions are in flux—is where we might tease open an expanded notion of digital publishing, one that moves far beyond the ebook.
 David Senior, MoMA Library, reading from Full Color (Karel Martens) at Printed Matter Digital Publishing panel, NYU, 2/6/15.
 Paul Chan, at Printed Matter panel, 2/6/15.
"Lynn Hershman Leeson: Origins of the Species," installation view, Bridget Donahue. Copyright Lynn Hershman Leeson. Photos by Marc Brems Tatti. Courtesy Bridget Donahue, New York.
Lynn Hershman Leeson has been probing the idea of what it means to be a cybernetic organism since the 1960s. This line of inquiry is laid bare in "Origins of the Species," a solo exhibition of Hershman Leeson's work that inaugurates Bridget Donahue's new gallery space in New York. Running concurrently with the artist's first museum retrospective, "Civic Radar," at ZKM in Karlsruhe, Germany, the exhibition nevertheless assembles an impressive cross-section of Hershman Leeson's work, including multimedia works on paper, sculpture, photographs, collages, videos, and interactive installations, spanning her five-decade career.
We find the hybrid of organism and machine, very conspicuously, in the sculpture Breathing Machine II (1968/2011), a woman's face cast in wax with a tangle of feathers, butterflies, and other fauna dispersed throughout her hair, actuated to "breathe" when the viewer draws close enough to peer down onto her. Or in Hershman Leeson's Phantom Limb series (1985-1987), in which the female body melds with sockets and wires, so that technology is as much a part of one's appearance as one's skin or physique.
Lynn Hershman Leeson, Breathing Machine II (detail), (Early Work "Suicide Pieces" wax sculpture burned, photos are documents of these works, 1965). Copyright Lynn Hershman Leeson. Photos by Marc Brems Tatti. Courtesy Bridget Donahue, New York.
Lynn Hershman Leeson, Breathing Machine II (1968). Copyright Lynn Hershman Leeson. Photos by Marc Brems Tatti. Courtesy Bridget Donahue, New York.
Lynn Hershman Leeson, Plugged (1987). Copyright Lynn Hershman Leeson. Photos by Marc Brems Tatti. Courtesy Bridget Donahue, New York.
Other instances are more subdued: Dress Me 1, 2, 3 (1965) and photographic documentation of her Roberta Breitmore performance (1974-1978) are suggestive of avatars, multiple identities, and multiple personas, in distant anticipation of MUDs, chat rooms, and social networks. The former depicts a woman with three options of clothes to wear, her body a mere outline devoid of sexual organs, the words "DRESS ME" emblazoned across her breastless chest. She longingly looks toward her two garment options: an average looking coral frock or a diagram of parts, words, and pieces, appearing simultaneously deconstructed and reassembled, as though taking in the outside forces that seek to define a woman wearing a dress in the world: "shadow," "reflection," "body," "&,"… "!!" What will I wear today? How will I be perceived, measured, valued, judged? Who am I: right now, today, or tomorrow?
Lynn Hershman Leeson, Dress Me 1, 2, 3 (3 plates), (1965). Copyright Lynn Hershman Leeson. Photos by Marc Brems Tatti. Courtesy Bridget Donahue, New York.
As if to bring this dilemma to life, Hershman Leeson conceptualized Roberta Breitmore, a persona that she performed from 1974 to 1978. During this time, Breitmore came to be recognized as a person in her own right, interacting with people and systems, obtaining a driver’s license, opening a bank account, and applying for credit cards. Included in "Origins", we find two photographs documenting some of Breitmore's real encounters with people, traces that of exchanges that actually took place. Yet these people will most likely never think of this woman as anything other than a woman, if they remember her at all. Thus, there was no "performance" for the people who experienced Breitmore’s presence in the world: only those who are looking back on this as a performance can distinguish it from everyday reality. This differentiates her work from that of Cindy Sherman, Laurie Simmons, Eleanor Antin, and Suzanne Lacy; each of those artists embodied an identity and life other than their own, but Hershman Leeson's performance is a fugitive one, barely discernible as such apart from its tangible affect. Anticipatory of filling in the negative space of platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Tumblr, Hershman Leeson's Breitmore inhabits the negative spaces of the physical world and its systems, her identity constructed through encounters and paper trails, or what could now be equated to digital footprints.
Lynn Hershman Leeson, Roberta at Bus Stop (Roberta Breitmore - Anonymous Social Constructions, 1978). Copyright Lynn Hershman Leeson. Photos by Marc Brems Tatti. Courtesy Bridget Donahue, New York.
Lynn Hershman Leeson, Roberta Walking with Preacher (San Diego), Front View (1975). Copyright Lynn Hershman Leeson. Photos by Marc Brems Tatti. Courtesy Bridget Donahue, New York.
During "Do you Follow?: Art in Circulation 3" at the ICA London in October 2014, Hannah Black posited that the issues Amalia Ulman addresses in her Instagram performance Excellences and Perfections (2014) were not specific to internet culture: "you could have probably talked about [this] in the seventies or whatever, it's just the methods of distribution have changed." In Hershman Leeson there is proof. Ulman's statement, "Being watched means coming to life and being someone," is just as much true for the character of Roberta Breitmore as her performance on social media. This comes full circle in Hershman Leeson's Room of One's Own (1990-1993), an interactive sculpture with a surveillance camera and motion detector that is activated as the viewer peers into the opening of a pedestal-mounted box. One eye stares back, and a small projection of a woman sitting in a room incisively asks, "Excuse me, what are you doing here?…Would you please look away?…How did you get here?…Who are you?" The sculpture comes to life through the viewer's gaze, by being gazed upon.
The arc of the cybernetic organism in "Origins of the Species" reaches its climax with The Infinity Engine, an ongoing research undertaking including a series of works that replicate some of the paraphernalia found in genetics labs. Wallpaper with a visual index of GMO animals, crops, and labs decorates the wall (Eduardo Kac's Alba makes an appearance), overlaid with propaganda-like posters advocating for bioengineering. Here, the cyborg manifests itself at a cellular level: the very makeup of our cells is entwined with technology. By focusing on the smallest level of human life, this inward-looking approach reaches far beyond our bodies, suggesting that the "origins" of the exhibition's title may not lie in the past, and that the "species" it refers to may not be recognizable life forms as we now know them.
Lynn Hershman Leeson, GMO Animals, Crops, Labs (The Infinity Engine), (wallpaper, 2014). Copyright Lynn Hershman Leeson. Photos by Marc Brems Tatti. Courtesy Bridget Donahue, New York.
Hershman Leeson, Biomaterials (digital print, 2013). Copyright Lynn Hershman Leeson. Photos by Marc Brems Tatti. Courtesy Bridget Donahue, New York.
Lynn Hershman Leeson, Soldier Poster (2013), Copyright Lynn Hershman Leeson. Photos by Marc Brems Tatti. Courtesy Bridget Donahue, New York.
Lynn Hershman Leeson, Cube with Bio Printed Ear Scaffold (2013). Copyright Lynn Hershman Leeson. Photos by Marc Brems Tatti. Courtesy Bridget Donahue, New York.
Lynn Hershman Leeson, Glo Cat (2013). Copyright Lynn Hershman Leeson. Photos by Marc Brems Tatti. Courtesy Bridget Donahue, New York.
"Lynn Hershman Leeson: Origins of the Species," installation view, Bridget Donahue. Copyright Lynn Hershman Leeson. Photos by Marc Brems Tatti. Courtesy Bridget Donahue, New York.
Further early works in the exhibition include:
Lynn Hershman Leeson, Roberta and Blaine in Union Square, Untitled, Roberta Missing (1975). Copyright Lynn Hershman Leeson. Photos by Marc Brems Tatti. Courtesy Bridget Donahue, New York.
Lynn Hershman Leeson, Multiple Becoming Multiple, No. 3: a (Roberta Breitmore - Anonymous Social Constructions, 1977). Copyright Lynn Hershman Leeson. Photos by Marc Brems Tatti. Courtesy Bridget Donahue, New York.
Lynn Hershman Leeson, Phantom Limb, test 2 (1986). Copyright Lynn Hershman Leeson. Photos by Marc Brems Tatti. Courtesy Bridget Donahue, New York.
Lynn Hershman Leeson, Call Me (1987). Copyright Lynn Hershman Leeson. Photos by Marc Brems Tatti. Courtesy Bridget Donahue, New York.
Lynn Hershman Leeson, Reach - Original Collage (1987). Copyright Lynn Hershman Leeson. Photos by Marc Brems Tatti. Courtesy Bridget Donahue, New York.
Lynn Hershman Leeson, CybeRoberta (1996). Copyright Lynn Hershman Leeson. Photos by Marc Brems Tatti. Courtesy Bridget Donahue, New York.
Lynn Hershman Leeson, "Origins of the Species" will be on view at Bridget Donahue through April 5, 2015.
Was Being Moved? (2011)
View on Vimeo
The poetry film Was Being Moved? (2011) takes the form of a series of postcards to a "Mr. Parade," interspersed with vignettes of public rituals and street life in Chicago, New York City, and Taiwan. It features music composed and played by Taiwanese musician Yujun Wang.
Ye Mimi is a Taiwanese poet and filmmaker. Having earned an MFA in creative writing at Dong Hwa University and an MFA in film at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, she is the author of two volumes of poetry and has exhibited several of her poetry films internationally. Through collaging her words and images, she improvises a new landscape, trying to erase the border between poetry and image making. A bilingual chapbook of her poems was recently published by Anomalous Press under the title His Days Go by the Way Her Years (2013).
Preview image from "XOMIA" (2015) which debuts March 27th at Ellis King
The latest in a series of interviews with artists who have developed a significant body of work engaged (in its process, or in the issues it raises) with technology. See the full list of Artist Profiles here.
Your work functions on two different, related, levels. The first is the macro, or the meta—the way that images or systems are linked together, a concern that is present throughout your practice. The second is the micro—for example, tracing visual similarities between survival tools and credit card designs or reptile claws and the Three Mobile logo in Soft Mobility (2014-ongoing). Your practice is as much about workflows as individual works, which allows you and your viewer to trace connections between these macro and micro levels. What prompted you to start thinking in this way?
I've been asked this a lot lately, I've been trying to figure out some moment. I can only nail down a rough timeline that's still running. Too much content? Which led to too many tagging tools and algorithms? Too many aggregational platforms? Too much curation? Too many blogs? Too many new projects? Too much art direction? Tropes and genres just became super easy to notice, reveal, nudge, merge, produce, and reproduce. Also to deconstruct. Conceptual and cultural tropes as much as the nuts and bolts stuff. Art became about accounts and feeds just like music did. Images became meta images. Objects became meta images. Everything could be linked. Everything was part of a stream, then a mass. Everything became fractalized. Tags became crucially important. You could make other people's art, you could predict what everyone was going to post next, faster than they could post it. Your ideas and personalities became brands instantly. You started viewing everything in situ with similar and related content around it, which in art always included other work that was copying it or at least was uncomfortably similar. It also included products, artifacts, architecture, and selfies. The line between the research, the idea, the art product and the resulting trend and community blurred. One image wasn't enough. The timeline from thought to post diminished. All content sources became equalized. Resources were scarce. Memes dominated. People had their first feelings of AI. It's a story for another time.
I've actually been writing a text about it called Ambiguationist Bullets, at the request of Cadence Kinsey in London back in November, which will go up soon on DIS. I use terms like meta image, microculture, hypergenre, fluidity, context, and ambiguation a lot. Ambiguation to me is a new form of meta abstraction which applies to new kinds of networked practices, identities, and organization tactics, and all the border conflicts in our external and internal spaces. It recognizes a piece of content's cultural metadata (tags, histories, sources, and social proximity), how fluid that is now, and the role of cultural technology, genres, algorithms, stats, templates, and brand expectations today. It works at the level of this metadata, in the spaces behind the content, as much as on the surface. It can operate on lots of levels at once and be linked by things as light and conceptual as a meme or a profile picture, but it's also present in a lot of post-internet works of video, sculpture, music, performance, etc. It accounts for works that live in a file-based, web-based, and friend-based production flow, where everything has been turned into content at some point, and every kind of content is available—open to instant sharing, grouping, translation, and recontextualization. Works that treat all material sources, concepts, and production options with a kind of equality, or equal opportunity. It also accounts for works that can only be summed up by a series of images, custom tags, and favs, as well as validating things that are uncapturable, untaggable, unfavable, and unexplainable in a text. Works that push our psuedo-algorithmic mindsets as we instantly genrefy everything. Online environments speed up production and aggregation at the same time, and make them more congruent practices, but it's good to let things define their own flow, whether that is "with" larger flows, against them, or more realistically, a custom blend. There's pressure to make art that's as easily digestible as ads or information, or even "gallery fine art," and it's definitely possible, but that doesn't always have to be the rule. Art is also able to express things beyond boundaries, beyond the local, the verbal, and the verified all at the same time, and that's as valid as ever, you know?
I'm mostly describing a large chunk of my own practice and a few others that are really similar. I think it's great that you can now orient things in so many ways and refresh it on a daily level. It really changed everything. But I also don't want to spend too much time explaining it.
In what way is Soft Mobility "soft"?
Soft Mobility comes after a series called Smart Mobility which was more hard-edged and alienating. Soft has a really sinister set of definitions already, and when I use it in my own context it includes all those of plus mine, where I use it as a style and a reference to blurring those boundaries. Almost every word involved in the titling of my works is a tag of my own, too, with multiple meanings and series linked to it. I'm into things that are overwhelming, sinister, or #sus, and friendly at the same time. I'm into the stressful sublime.
Stills from Softmobility.org, captured 2015
What was the logic of comparing the Three Mobile logo to reptile skins? Is it a parallel between the advanced branding strategies of capitalism and the constructedness of nature, or vice versa? Or are you getting "under the skin" of the system, in a sense: pointing to its own fetish of its ability to survive?
The Tumblr for Soft Mobility is a mix of made and contextually authored things—premonitions or pre-trends of future images and artworks, as well as their surrounding content. My point in bringing them together is about the larger project, which takes the ambiguation of "mobility" and the art direction of current mobile branding to extremes. It's not so much about nature as it is about ideas of roaming, going "native" and hunting value in the midst of massive, super slick smart-city class and identity structures, while leaving no trace...it's about things that feel mobile in those environments, according to surrounding cues. It's also about my own life, about transitioning back into megacities. There are definitely a lot of products pushing a survival fantasy aesthetic, that seems like a given right now, but there's still so much to explore in that, especially as these images begin to saturate public and cultural spaces. They're revealing their own desperation to survive.
I think a lot about the gelatinous forms and roles we have to assume to be mobile—about transhumanism, mythical animal powers, feminism and queerness, "exoticism," cgi characters, and Realflow.
You've said to me that you're interested in "breaking out" of industry formats and audiences, to inhabit more of a crossover zone. As an example, one name you use, Hitashya, is equally artist name, username, anddj/producer name. This perhaps lets you exist more on the fringes of the art world and explore other spaces, or lets you redirect your sensitivity for meta-analysis onto your role as producer. It's its own form of gelatinous mobility.
I think I just reach the capacities of things really quickly and have to start carving out new zones. This gets amplified by the availability of production today. Sometimes this is liberating, other times it's claustrophobic. I have to remember to ignore a lot of guidelines while pushing the boundaries of older structures as I grow. It's a problem at times but is usually effective, which verifies that a lot of lines in the sand don't last past the next tide. They're just impressions—soft borders constructed by location, language, and imaging—and as an artist that's exactly where you work: in evolving that, refreshing it. A lot of art things are set in default modes and templates that don't apply, with walls that are too high. Meanwhile the audience tends to be very niche for each little corner of the scene. I need a bigger audience moment sometimes, like festival trap level. I think things can be specialized and still shared and appreciated widely. And, real talk, a lot of the people I hang out with or get inspired by are musicians, product designers, conceptual branders, filmmakers, etc. The reach is so much wider, even though we all share ideas and work just as hard. And we're never in group shows together. Something about that has felt more and more wrong.
I'm getting bigger budgets and more control, so I'm expanding what I do in my practice as well as outside of it, though eventually everything merges. Every project I do, I think about its translation into every format: music, mixes, image, text, scent, installation, objects, performance, 3d renders, accounts, promo pics, clothing, memes for friends, etc. I really believe in the fluidity of it and have to fight for that when contexts get too limited. I just don't always have the right way to expand it into every channel but that's changing. Somehow imaging is still the fastest, maybe the easiest because you can do it in silence on a laptop or on your phone in the middle of all kinds of hectic conditions. I've had more support lately, more resources, more time and space. Actually the last six months have been pretty life-changing. This summer, for instance, Hitashya is being turned into an art installation at a biennial, a live show, and a new song + music video release all at once. That's the kind of fruition I've been aiming for.
I don't think this will push me to the fringes of any space, though. This is just going to make my practice more exciting and cellular than ever. Every year the game changes and goes deeper.
Still from Hitashya.org (2014)
What are you doing for your upcoming show "XOMIA (Return Home, Realflow, All Terrain)"?
It's the debut of a new mutant genre, a new series of work that includes an update of the Flexia video and other elements. It's my first legit, commercial solo show in a typical sense and I'm so ready. I'm making some printed objects, customizing some pre-fabbed things, making new videos and soundtracks, designing lighting and scent for the space, and scripting a performance and videoshoot with friends.
Location: New York but traveling a lot, right now I'm in Amsterdam where plant nrg is really high, everything smells like weed, mint, mud, and floral perfume. Everything is health goth + southwestern and dip dyed or bootleg HBA or Hot Topic Anarcho-Tourist. Illuminati tribal triangles everywhere. The softest, fluffiest felt. Goa Trance. Yarn dreds. White roses. Black tulips. I can't wait to visit the huge open fields of flowers, also I've been painting? Major unlocks.
Where did you go to school? What did you study?
Art school in Baltimore—I was a film and video major, it's now called "Moving Images."
More importantly I continued my education in underground DIY cultures in the age of the culture industry, and American dance genres.
What does your desktop or workspace look like? (Pics or screenshots please!)
R Minus Seven (2015)
R Minus Seven (2015) by Melissa Broder (@melissabroder) is a collection of ekphrastic poetry that was written in response to Oneohtrix Point Never's album R Plus Seven (Warp Records, 2013). Each of Broder's poems is presented in a layout designed by the poet on the online publishing platform NewHive.
Melissa Broder is the author of three collections of poems, most recently SCARECRONE (Publishing Genius Press, 2014). Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in POETRY, Tin House, the Iowa Review, Fence, the Missouri Review, Denver Quarterly, and Guernica, among others.
Ann Hirsch, Playground, 2013 Performance at the New Museum
Johanna Fateman's "Women on the Verge," running in the current issue of Artforum, takes an in-depth and sensitive look at the recent online exhibition "Body Anxiety" and the work of several notable artists currently working online. The article serves as an excellent snapshot of the "current predicament" of contemporary feminism, and the seemingly conflicted positions the artists adopt:
As skeptical inheritors of the third-wave pro-sex torch, they share no unified agenda, only a cultural predicament. If to put an image of one's body on the Internet is to frame it with the apparatus of porn, to lose control of its circulation, and to expose oneself to the cultural anxiety, sexist scrutiny, and confounding hostility that attend the gesture, then what’s the way forward? There’s no single path, of course. But in many of the standout works that have emerged from this scene, young women—in registers of resignation or defiance, didactically or through performing the intertwinements of "sexuality, innocence, darkness, complacency"—seem to pull off the paradoxical feat of taking back their images at the very moment of surrender.
To celebrate this well-deserved consideration, we've collected a few resources from the Rhizome archives for further research into the topics and artists that were covered in this article, and one or two that weren't:
Josephine Bosma's review "'Body Anxiety:' Sabatoging Big Daddy Mainframe, via Online Exhibition," which discusses the show in the context of prehistories of feminism in net art.
This resource list by the Old Boys Network, which includes manifestos and writings from '90s cyberfeminist leaders like VNS Matrix and Shu Lea Cheang. This 1998 interview between Cheang and Alex Galloway is well worth revisiting. A more recent 2012 interview with Cheang and Yin Ho can be found here, in which she discusses at length her 1998 project Brandon. Parts of the project have now been restored on the Guggenheim website.
Ann Hirsch, whose 2013 Rhizome commission Playground was presented last weekend at JOAN in Los Angeles, was quoted extensively in Fateman's essay. For more on Hirsch, see her 2012 Artist Profile, Moira Weigel on Playground, and Morgan Quaintance's review of the London performance.
An Artist Profile of Jennifer Chan highlights the artist-curator's attention to cyberfeminism in relation to her own practice.
Last fall, Hannah Black and Amalia Ulman participated in our series of discussions Art in Circulation, during which Ulman launched the First Look exhibition of Excellences & Perfections. There have also been Artist Profiles of the former and the latter.
Bunny Rogers talked in depth about online identities in her Artist Profile, and participated in an evening called Internet as Poetry last summer. She'll be working on a Rhizome commission later this year.
Finally, check out Rachel Rabbit White's recap of the 2013 women-only event Zoë Salditch curated at Transfer Gallery in Brooklyn, Oh gURL: It’s so good to finally meet u IRL.
Enjoy, and we hope to see more writing about net art and online exhibitions from Artforum in the future.
Image posted to Facebook by Pen Robit.
An artist finishes a piece, snaps a selfie in front of the work, and uploads the picture to Facebook. Although there is no curator or gallery mediating the art, many of the artist's friends are quickly liking and commenting on the work. It's a typical postinternet art practice that I've seen countless times, only now I'm in Cambodia, a country where a mere 26.7% of the population claims they've used the internet. The work is a self-portrait oil painting, and the artist borrowed his friend's smartphone for the picture.
Postinternet art is an umbrella term for a range of artistic responses to the widespread adoption of the web—specifically social media and networked smartphones—in and around the contemporary art world. It explores and exploits how these technologies have affected the ways art and culture is shared and made. Online conversations and web surfing become the raw materials, Photoshop and screen grabs the tools, and YouTube and Instagram the platforms.
In his seminal blog "Post Internet," Gene McHugh described the condition of postinternet as "when the Internet is less a novelty and more a banality." The lack of any sense of banality around internet access here in Cambodia, where I've spent the past several weeks researching and interviewing contemporary artists, has forced me to question two major underlying assumptions about postinternet art: A. Everyone is online, all the time. and B. Everyone has access to the computational power of something like a MacBook Pro, which are both statistically egregious assumptions. Roughly 58% of the world is offline, and many of those online are only accessing the web through basic feature phones.
One key characteristic of postinternet art has been the avid use of social media to build audiences outside of art institutions. In their text "Redefining Exhibition in the Digital Age," published on Tumblr in 2010, the Jogging collective argued that
Not only does information move through networks and evolve faster than ever, but smaller group identities of splintering interests produce products that are validated by their subculture, leaving behind the need for institutional accreditation. Contemporary art cannot be defined in readily canonical terms because the notion of "contemporary" changes so rapidly.
In the context of Cambodia, though, it feels like social media have done little to destabilize existing cultural hierarchies and institutions, and have even reinforced them. This critique of postinternet has been articulated by others; as Jennifer Chan aptly wrote last year, "In 2014, the internet is not so democratic and neither is the art world." In this article, I delve more specifically into the reasons for this, using the example of the Jogging (even though its Tumblr has gone quiet) simply because it was a widely influential example of artists in the West embracing social media as an alternative to the institution.
The Jogging, MAXIMUM NUMBER OF FRIENDS REQUESTED FROM RHIZOME'S FAN LIST BEFORE BEING BLOCKED FROM FACEBOOK, 2010 (Part of the series "Perfo Rmanceart")
Part of the problem in Cambodia is simply that the lack of widespread internet access limits the growth of active online subcultures that could act as an alternative source of validation. In 2014, Cambodia's Open Institute found that while 94% of the country owns a phone, only 28.4% were smartphones, and 26.7% of Cambodians use or have ever used the internet–more highly educated, male, and urban Cambodians being by far the most likely internet users.
However, even for those who have access, there are numerous barriers to translating the validation of their peers into broader awareness of their practice. In his 2012 text "Art After Social Media," artist Brad Troemel (of the Jogging) wrote that "the majority of views an artist's work gets is not through her own website, but through the accumulated network of reblogs, links, and digital reproductions that follow it." While this is true for users who share content with friends or build followings, it assumes a saturated networked media context that is not present in Cambodia. There isn't yet the ecology of art blogs, curators, and critics looking at, commenting on, and sharing artists work here. Artwork shared online in Cambodia rarely travels far beyond the artist's Facebook page and geographical location.
Another ingredient is simply digital proficiency. Also from "Art After Social Media": "today's seventeen-year-old creative has a better handle on advertising techniques she can use to direct traffic to her Tumblr than our presidential candidates had access to seventy years ago," but this is less a universal condition than a description of a very specific demographic. All of the artists I've met in Cambodia have the relative privilege of having used the internet, and they all have a Facebook account, but many are by no means as fluent in the language of digital marketing as Troemel's seventeen year old. Photographs are posted to Facebook sideways and the rare meme is made on Powerpoint or MS Paint, instantly identifiable as not being part of the Photoshop-wielding postinternet art club. This sharply contrasts with the landscape Troemel paints of hyper-fast remixing by tech-savvy users. While Facebook has offered a quick means to connect and share among one another, artists in Cambodia are put at a disadvantage when engaging with international social media because of their limited access to digital tools and skills.
Furthermore, as Eli Parser's idea of filter bubbles show, while artists in Cambodia can, in theory, enter a postinternet art conversation (by say, adding the Jogging posse as Friends on Facebook), participating on equal footing in that network remains surprisingly difficult. Parser found that language, race, education, sex, and much more create barriers between different groups, even if they are only one friend away from mingling. This has profound consequences for who receives attention (and capital) in a world where these networks are increasingly relied upon by Western curators and collectors alike.
Chov Theanly, a Battambang painter, told me at a cafe, "a few of us here might speak simple English but we still don't have the ability to connect with galleries and markets around the world. Talking across cultures and languages is still a huge challenge for us." Theanly is one of the better English speakers in the Battambang arts scene, but he still relies on a dealer for contacting galleries and helping craft his artist statement in English.
Even for those who are able to negotiate these obstacles, the incentives for Cambodian artists may be very different than those for Troemel and his peers. While Troemel rightly comments on how bad a commodity a networked digital artwork is, he still assumes that the artist works in an attention economy that can translate attention into capital through lectures, art shows, teaching jobs, etc. This is not yet possible in Cambodia (as well as much of the world). This goes back to who can afford access, but also to the network you have access to. Troemel writes:
In this sense, posting work to the Internet with no social network readily in place is synonymous with the riddle "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?" For young artists on the internet the answer to this question is "no"—their work will easily go unnoticed, making their participation as a social brand an a priori necessity to contextualizing what they do as art.
I couldn't agree more, except to add that the market your network operates within matters more than the size or level of engagement of your network. A Like or a Comment from non-internationally or market influential friends has a fundamentally different market value than a Like or Comment from a notable blogger, curator, dealer, or gallery owner. Cambodians and Cambodian Artists with internet access are quick to engage with each other's Facebook pages, but that attention doesn't transcend their living in one of the poorest countries in Asia.
I first thought of this argument when I noticed the relative absence of vibrant internet culture in Cambodia when compared with Vietnam and China, despite heavy legal restrictions in the latter two countries. The World Bank lists China as having a population of 1.3 billion, Vietnam with 89.7 million, and Cambodia with 15.1 million, so the number of users able to speak to each other in their native languages and alphabets (Vietnamese has a Roman alphabet adapted to their six tones) is far larger than in Cambodia. World Bank also lists China as having a GDP 613 times as large as Cambodia's and Vietnam as having a GDP 11.4 times as large. This means there are many times more people online, sharing the same language, and with access to better tools and more money in Vietnam and China than Cambodia.
Troemel was right to argue that fluent use of the internet is now a crucial ingredient for access to contemporary art, but the problem of access is more fundamental than just technology. I interviewed Srey Bandaul, an artist and one of the founding teachers at Phare Ponleu Selpak, one of Cambodia's few art schools. When asked about the largest barriers for Cambodian artists' success, Bandaul echoed Theanly, focusing on money and language: "Everyone here has Facebook, but many people here can't read what is being discussed. You can't understand conceptual art without context; most of us can't get that without a translator."
If, for Troemel, social media offered a possibility for artists to sidestep traditional gatekeepers in order to connect with audiences and circulate their work, this possibility is not available in the same way to Cambodian artists. While internet access amongst Battambang artists is high, education in contemporary art theory is not; nor is high-level English or French fluency, digital proficiency, or access to networks of cultural capital. Thus, there are a handful of Westerncurators and patrons* in Cambodia who act as unchallenged gatekeepers to Cambodia's contemporary art scene and market, and art after social media appears to function very much as it always did.
* I do not mean to criticize the efforts of these individuals—really, I cannot speak to their impact—only that in Cambodia, the kind of mediation between artist and audience has remained largely the same before and after one quarter of the population was introduced to the internet.
The Fall (2015)
not_I's The Fall (2015) presents a series of "erasures" of poems from Ana Božičević's second full-length collection Rise in the Fall (Birds, LLC, 2013), navigated using cursor scroll-overs and image overlays.
Ana Božičević and Sophia Le Fraga create and perform as not_I. They are the poetry faculty at BHQFU, New York.
Karen, my life coach, was supposed to teach me about changing my attitude towards relationships. Over the past ten days, she has mostly taught me about how not to be caught up in one. I've watched her get wine-blind with Dave, her lecherous roommate. I've seen her wallow in her pajamas over the man who got away. She doesn't practice radical self-love. She is reductive, aimless, even pathetic, but I don't have the heart to fire her.
Karen is an iPhone app developed by Blast Theory and Dr. Kelly Page. Over the course of 17 interactive videos, I meet with its protagonist, Karen—a sweet, crumpled woman played with pitch-perfect melancholy by actress Claire Cage. I log in at all hours to watch: from the airport, during my commute, and late at night. I am sucked into her chaos. She has no boundaries. I can walk in on her eating breakfast, doing her makeup, or daydreaming in bed. I am more careful to draw my own.
Karen models a speculative future in which one's digital personal companion will use any psychological or narrative technique available to extract information about you. The app uses a combination of mood repair tests and psychometric evaluation systems, like the five-factor model, which companies routinely use to construct our consumer identities. Karen learns actively, based on my replies, choices and information gleaned from my phone use. She cycles away, adjusts her behavior, returns.
She is a fictional endstate of today's crop of intelligent personal agents (IPAs); think of Nina, Nara, Amy, and SARA. Companies investing heavily in cognition services have their eyes on an evolving, quantified self who is savvy about data collection and will share personal information only with a trusted confidant. Surveillance has to be more flexible, smart, and trustworthy. And so: IPAs are now branded as your caring, patient friends. Driven by advances in natural language understanding and speech recognition, IPAs have ambient intelligence, deploying brain-like algorithms to intuit human desires.
Karen really just needs to know all about me so she can help me. Looking earnest, she says: I'm going to be honest with you, and I hope you can be, too.
However, she is slow to earn my trust. At first, her constant smiling feels manipulative, her charm transparent. Her story about splitting from her ex, Charlie, leaves me cold. I have no faith in her banal advice that the world is about the people we share it with; that gratitude makes you happier.
When I am truly honest, she seems unequipped to handle my mess. She asks me how my childhood was. I tell her: it was unspeakably horrible, but I didn't run away from home. She replies, You're like Dave. He wants to stay put and work things through. I don't want to hear about smarmy Dave in light of my intimate story about my powerless child self. She strikes me as dense. I retreat.
In response to my Bartleby-like resistance, Karen begins to turn. She becomes more needy, sloppy, piteous, and desperate. At one point, we're on a balcony. She is tipsy and smoking. She asks me if she should go home with a man inside. I feel bad for her. I tell her to go for it. Elsewhere, she tests me with poetry (my Achilles heel!); she once sat on a golf course with a beautiful man until sunrise, and kept a photo of him squinting in the light. This feels real. I feel more willing to share my truths with her based on whether the fictions she tells me about her flawed self are believable.
As I play, I can feel my boundaries sanded down. Karen wages an insistent emotional war of attrition. There are possible learned strategies of avoidance, boundary management, and control here. The truth can be obfuscated without lying. Answers like I don't see it that way leave a grey area that fits my personal ethic, with its possibility of uncertainty, open interpretation, and change.
When Karen presses me the hardest, I find I do have strong boundaries. For one, I am only willing to learn from people who are better than me. I refuse to indulge Karen's lame ecstasy and dancing stories from the ‘90s, because she has awful taste in techno. I don't back down when she calls me a killjoy, and I reveal nothing.
Karen is a successful, software-driven fiction: a dramatic enactment of what it feels like to release oneself by accretion through data. By the end of my sessions, she has gathered a file on me. She plays nicely on my ego and my insecurities, which I've unwittingly revealed. I'm become inured to her performed gestures of intimacy and concern. I'm profoundly uncomfortable, but willing to invest, in hopes of gaining insights from her which I can't gain alone.
At one point, Karen is telling me how she felt she knew Charlie, how she really got to know him, deep inside. She asks me, There's so much you never get to know about other people, isn't there?
I reply, "That's not how I see it." Meaning: we can know one another. We build systems around this imperative, to know one another deeply.
Her response: Even after all we've talked about, I wouldn't have known you think that way.
This feels like a triumph. I am not so easily reducible.
After a few short years coming to grips with the sharing economy—not exactly "embracing" it as Airbnb press releases may suggest, but not exactly coming down on it with a hammer—the city government of Berlin imposed an official ban on subletting unregistered vacation apartments to tourists in May 2014. Airbnb hosts were given until that August to register existing listings. An estimated two-thirds of them did not.
Last October, the New York State Attorney General launched his own broadside against the San Francisco-based startup, in the form of a statistical study intending to demonstrate how the business was driving up rents and putting hotel owners out of business (adding insult to injury by weakly parodying Airbnb's graphic design in the report). According to the evidence amassed, he pronounced the majority of listings illegal.
Yet as in Berlin, enforcement is where anti-"sharing" legislation hiccups. City bureaucracies are hardly as agile as tech companies, and the dance between the two is painfully awkward. Municipal governments and startups around the world are frantically conducting surveys like New York's in the hopes of legislatively anticipating the effects of Airbnbs and Ubers: the former are hustling to update existing legal systems in accordance with new technologies and the economic arteries they provide; the latter are hustling to get ahead of those laws before they are put into action.
With or without legislative effect, the surveys are there, and they are full of disturbing information. From reading the most recent detailed report on Airbnb in Berlin, where I live, I learned, among other close-to-home tidbits, that the number of probably-now-illegal Airbnb sublets in my neighborhood, Reuterkiez, tops any other neighborhood per capita in Berlin, and therefore in Germany. Never mind what this says about my cultural capital (probably negative; you never want to be at the center of the swarm), but the effects on the amount of actual capital circulating on my block are enough to to give one pause.
The report where I found this info is by a group of students in the design department at Fachhochschule Potsdam, titled "Airbnb vs. Berlin—Was sagen die Daten?" ("What does the data say?"). For practice in making infographics, they took a small data sample (January 11—February 2, 2015) from Airbnb's front end and splayed it out in charts and maps across an interactive website, with accent colors only a shade away from Airbnb's trademark salmon pink (Airbnb: #FF5A5F; Berlin: #FF656A).
Yes, this is a student project, and no, it is not comprehensive. But for those with a vested interest (me), the basic pink data points are useful for tentatively trying to grasp the general situation, and perhaps more useful in demonstrating how hard it is to pinpoint any actual causality between Airbnb itself—whose influence until now I have mostly felt rather than sought to quantify—and any particular façet of the (worsening) urban situation.
Map from www.airbnbvsberlin.de showing streets with high density of Airbnb rentals.
Statistics are already in place to demonstrate that rents are sliding uphill, hotel profits are (likely) going down, longtime residents are being edged out of the city center, and the sorry state government is missing out on a potential bounty of property taxes. Here are three bullets on Airbnb, sourced and translated from airbnbvsberlin.de, to correlate with the above facts as you see fit:
If you are contemplating these facts and feeling neither perplexed nor enlightened, you are not alone. As Mark Gimeon wrote in Bloomberg of the NY Airbnb study, "If you are looking—as New York State regulators seem to be—for evidence that Airbnb involves much bigger operations than a few students renting out their couches, it's in the[ir] report. On the other hand, if you prefer to see evidence that the hosts on Airbnb are still largely mom-and-pop, or mom-and-mom, or starving twentysomething, operators …you'll find that, too." It's both and neither economics and sharing.
What I can share is this. I'm writing from a room in Lisbon that I'm subletting from friends of friends. While I'm here, a friend is subletting my room in Berlin for almost exactly the same amount of money I'm paying for this one. Though we have each used Airbnb in the past, this time all plans were made via friend networks. Thus we charged each other less than market value and avoided sending a percentage cut to San Francisco. The liability insurance and the secure monetary transaction Airbnb provides were skippable, because some semblance of accountability is supported by the unstructured social web via which we know each other.
And so, if the key role of Airbnb and all such intermediaries is to stand in for and effectively expand that web of accountability, and if it is in your interest to earn the same amount for a room as you pay for another, and if, as Michel Doermer, a Frankfurt spokesman for Uber, says, "you can't put the brakes on progress," and if progress equals increasing income stratification, then your best hope for the future is simply to not break your friends' shit while you sublet their rooms without a formal agreement. (That's not aimed at you, Jonas).
Martine Syms and Gina Trapani will collaborate at Seven on Seven 2015
The response for Rhizome's Seven on Seven has been overwhelming: tickets sold out in a record-breaking 72 hours. For its 7th edition, themed "Empathy & Disgust," participants include artists Ai Weiwei, Camille Henrot, and Trevor Paglen, with Jacob Appelbaum (security researcher), Nate Silver (Fivethirtyeight), Gina Trapani (Lifehacker/ThinkUp), and others. Over the course of a single day, each artist-technologist pair is given the challenge to make something new together—be it an application, artwork, provocation, or whatever else they imagine. They'll unveil their creations, and discuss their processes, on May 2.
Though event tickets are sold-out, there are still plenty of ways to participate:
See sevenonseven.rhizome.org for more.
We've also added some new partners to the event. Thank you to all those who make Seven on Seven happen.
Melanie Gilligan, The Common Sense: Episode 1 (2014)
This article marks the online premiere of Melanie Gilligan's The Common Sense: Episode 1, which will also show on our front page through Thursday, May 16. The full series will be available online on June 11, 2015 at thecommonsense.org.
Last week for Rhizome I wrote about some qualitative changes effected by Airbnb on the city of Berlin, referring to a quantitative survey called "What do the data say?" to get a grasp of the lived reality of the "sharing" economy and the labor it entails. This week, I refer to the most recent video project by Canadian artist Melanie Gilligan, The Common Sense, for an entirely different way of making meaning from this reality—not in an analytical sense, but in a speculative one.
In the sci-fi world of The Common Sense, today's car-sharing and room-renting economy enabled by the internet has given way to an economy of emotions and sensations, facilitated by a device called "the Patch." The Patch is a white transmitter worn on the roof of the mouth through which feelings can be sent to another and—if the Patch is a "two-way"—another's feelings can be received. Sold as the key to forging a more collective and empathetic society, the Patch also happens to be a very effective means of deriving profit from once un-commodifiable behavior, as well as an immersive entertainment experience provider and a powerful surveillance device.
The Patch is introduced to us during a college class in the first episode, in which the instructor is screening an educational video on Patch history to a class of Patch-wearing students. Most of the students are working on some remote task, such as monitoring customer satisfaction, while sitting there. Over time we learn that their feelings themselves have also become commodities for sale—a society of unwitting vloggers and cam girls who monetize not their images but their affections and experiences. In one scene a job-seeker says to a Patch representative: "I heard that people will pay to feel unemployed." (The response: "That's a competitive area; there are so many people offering it.")
Melanie Gilligan, The Common Sense (2014), video still
The story consists of three "phases," each composed of five short episodes. The first phase introduces an array of characters and, with them, various potential implications for the technology: a woman's unborn fetus is fitted with a Patch; remote sex (or sex with oneself) becomes possible; an employee is fired on the spot when a customer frowns. At the end of Phase 1, patch transmission suddenly stops and panic ensues. The characters are "embarrassed to relate from the outside"; having been connecting to each other viscerally for so long, their verbal capacities for explaining their emotions are limited.
From there, time bifurcates into parallel realities, which unfold in Phase 2A and 2B. That formal split is an apt way of expressing the double-bind or flip-coin of technological development: the constant vacillation between professed intentions and effects, since the ideology that leads to scientific breakthrough can never be made inherent in the mechanism itself. The question at stake in both phases is how a technology itself could be retained but used to transform the culture that created it.
Phase 2A is the more revolutionary path. Protests take shape and disperse, alluding to political movements in recent years that both gained form and were dismantled through social networks. Rather than fully abstain from the Patch, citizens try to live with it in new ways. The former college teacher is helping a group of children to sense each other as a whole group, to care about society at large in the same way as they feel about themselves (and by extension the people they are "patched" into feeling). Can empathy be extended to a more abstract social condition? Could one "feel" all of society on the same level that one feels the pain of a broken knee or a broken relationship?
Melanie Gilligan, The Common Sense (2014), video still
In track B, the evolution of the human-Patch relationship is not only a social, but also a physiological one. Here, certain users have developed a new bodily organ for sensing others in conjunction with the Patch. Yet this discovery is harnessed by a rogue venture capitalist who sees the potential for desire to be immediately mobilized as cash—to "cut out the middle man of money" and activate currency the minute a need arises. Many of Gilligan's most complex and sophisticated ideas about the role of currency in human exchange arise in this storyline.
As opposed to, for instance, Dave Eggers' social-mediapocalpse novel The Circle,in which behavior is made, shared, and monetized by wearing an outward-facing camera at all times, in The Common Sense the transmitter faces inward, denying both visual and linguistic processing of information. The labor done by the characters in Gilligan's series is decidedly affective, not cognitive (if it were possible to make such a distinction), as only feelings, not thoughts, can be shared. That is partly because, in a society like ours where head and heart are dichotomized, and ideas and innovations are patented for progress, we manage to maintain intellectual property while subjecting emotion to endless exploitation.
Melanie Gilligan, The Common Sense (2014), video still
Despite its orderly structuring in phases and episodes, The Common Sense is a fractured and formally uneven project. Whereas the sci-fi TV show Black Mirror, for instance, also explores the possible repercussions of a speculative technology, it does so in the context of specific character relationships as case studies. In Gilligan's series, in contrast, there is no identifiable protagonist or relationship that would be compelling independent of its instrumentalization as a part of this speculative exploration. The chronology is inconsistent; despite the existence of the Patch and other advanced devices, people still wear chunky metal wristwatches and broadcast radio shows from clunky foam microphones. Some parts are shot in Canada, others in the Netherlands. Much is overexplained, much underexplained. It is an entirely absorbing and yet entirely frustrating watching experience.
Gilligan's defiance of narrative expectations appropriately adds another speculative layer: the notion of experience transmission through storytelling. Watching this non-story, one is left with the open the question of what will happen to narratives (like those of science fiction) in the future, when experiential emphasis is placed less on the imagination, metaphor, and language, and more on collectivity, transparency, the sensory apparatus, and customer satisfaction. How will personal narratives evolve when nothing—not even our feelings—is our own?
Melanie Gilligan, The Common Sense (2014), video still
Phase 1 of The Common Sense was shown at Casco; Phase 1 and Phase 2A at De Hallen Haarlem; Phase 1 and Phase 2B at De Appel.The full series will be available online on June 11, 2015 at thecommonsense.org.
Melanie Gilligan, The Common Sense, Phase 1 (2014), video installation view at Casco, Berlin.
Melanie Gilligan, The Common Sense, Phase 1 (2014), video installation view at Casco, Berlin.
Melanie Gilligan, The Common Sense, Phase 1 and Phase 2A (2014), video installation view at De Hallen, Haarlem.
Melanie Gilligan, The Common Sense, Phase 1 and Phase 2A (2014), video installation view at De Hallen, Haarlem.
Melanie Gilligan, The Common Sense, Phase 1 and Phase 2A (2014), video installation view at De Hallen, Haarlem.
Melanie Gilligan, The Common Sense, Phase 1 and Phase 2B (2014), video installation view at De Appel, Amsterdam.
Melanie Gilligan, The Common Sense, Phase 1 and Phase 2B (2014), video installation view at De Appel, Amsterdam.