Articles on this Page
- 04/20/15--09:55: _Games are a Faith-B...
- 04/22/15--10:44: _Artist Profile: Gua...
- 04/23/15--08:17: _A New Hypertext Fro...
- 04/24/15--08:05: _I Dreamed a Dream: ...
- 04/27/15--10:08: _I hope we are not d...
- 04/28/15--11:11: _Creating Radical So...
- 04/29/15--08:45: _Required Reading: E...
- 04/30/15--14:25: _The Final Post: Com...
- 05/01/15--08:33: _Lyfe, Labor, Lunch
- 05/04/15--08:44: _Work in Progress
- 05/04/15--12:04: _Eight Big Ideas fro...
- 05/06/15--07:42: _Now you can finally...
- 05/12/15--07:15: _Exhibition as Inter...
- 05/12/15--09:52: _Travess Smalley for...
- 05/13/15--09:40: _Music in the Corpor...
- 05/18/15--06:30: _Poor Media on Deman...
- 05/19/15--06:30: _Serial Experiments ...
- 05/20/15--08:21: _Don't Fight It: On ...
- 05/26/15--08:59: _'Bodies are package...
- 05/27/15--13:08: _Artist Profile: Mar...
- 04/20/15--09:55: Games are a Faith-Based Pursuit: A conversation with Jenn Frank
- 04/22/15--10:44: Artist Profile: Guan Xiao
- 04/23/15--08:17: A New Hypertext Frog Simulator (Finally!)
- 04/24/15--08:05: I Dreamed a Dream: CloneZone is Live.
- 04/28/15--11:11: Creating Radical Software: A Personal Account
- 04/29/15--08:45: Required Reading: Empathy & Disgust
- 04/30/15--14:25: The Final Post: Computer Evolution on Law and Order
- 05/01/15--08:33: Lyfe, Labor, Lunch
- 05/04/15--08:44: Work in Progress
- 05/04/15--12:04: Eight Big Ideas from Seven on Seven
- 05/12/15--07:15: Exhibition as Interface: An interview with V4ULT
- 05/12/15--09:52: Travess Smalley for Rhizome's Paddle8 Auction (Ending Friday)
- 05/13/15--09:40: Music in the Corporatocene (It's a Shame)
- 05/18/15--06:30: Poor Media on Demand: All the files of Printed Web 3
- 05/19/15--06:30: Serial Experiments for a Better Future: Holly Herndon's 'Platform'
- 05/20/15--08:21: Don't Fight It: On "/Performing the Text," curated by Kerry Doran
- 05/27/15--13:08: Artist Profile: Mark Dorf
Still image from Chop Suey (1995).
On Friday, Rhizome published a restoration of three CD-ROM games from the 1990s by Theresa Duncan, which you can play here. Duncan's work has been largely and unjustly forgotten since the 1990s, and this restoration project was inspired, in no small part, by a 2012 article on Duncan's work by Jenn Frank.
Here, Nora N. Khan interviews her about her life in gaming. —Ed.
Acclaimed writer and games critic Jenn Frank is widely known for her excruciatingly intimate memoir essays, in which she often probes her family history and girlhood nostalgia to illuminate why games have been vital for her personally and, by extension, for many others. Her work also explores how players engage with, and imagine themselves, in relation to systems, to the sets of rules established by a game world.
Frank uniquely renders games as profoundly human, explicit articulations of longing, curiosity, awe, fear, and love. Her work is very important to me, and to many other writers and game developers, and when she stepped away from games journalism for a time last year because of harassment, it was a real blow. Now she is publishing again, cautiously, and in an effort to better understand her importance, I spoke with Frank over email about her personal history, her lifelong relationship to games, and her part in shaping games criticism as a form.
Nora N. Khan: Let's start from the beginning. Could you tell us a bit about where and how you grew up?
Jenn Frank:I primarily grew up in a small town in coastal Texas, which is a place very unlike what most people visualize when they think "Texas." This part of Texas is mostly little run-down beach communities: houses on stilts, palm trees, antique stores, fresh shrimp. It's humid; it looks and feels like Florida. Geographically, it's nearer to Mexico than it is to Dallas. It's also sort of remote, locked by land on all sides except the side that is the Gulf of Mexico.
And—I think this is important also to note—I moved here, no kidding, by myself when I was 7 years old, from Seattle, to live with my great-aunt and great-uncle, these much older relatives who eventually adopted me. Until then, I'd been bouncing around the Pacific Northwest to live with all these different people. By the time I was 7, I'd decided I should have myself sent to Texas, so my grandfather packed me up and put me on a plane. So I was still really young when I got here, but I experienced an extreme sort of culture shock anyway.
Meanwhile, my great-aunt and great-uncle, Midwesterners who'd never had children of their own, were really very conservative, even for Texas—not only because they were evangelical Christians, but also because of their age. So they held some very dated ideas about parenting. These people sent me to school each day in a party dress, patent leather mary-janes, and those little socks with lace eyelet at the ankles—every day until third grade. I looked like the main character from The Bad Seed! So my peers were right to be terrified of me. Elementary school was a very rough time.
NNK: So, you're in this humid, remote, coastal town in Texas. And you were already playing games from a very young age. What is your earliest memory of playing a game? What did you find yourself playing in the 1990s?
JF: One thing that was very culturally shocking or jarring for me was moving to Texas and being told I couldn't play video games any more. Now, to be fair to them, my elderly relatives didn't count the Game Boy library of games as "video" games—their suspicion was explicitly of "TV" games—but still! No more TV games! I couldn't believe it. Until I moved to Texas I'd lived and breathed video games!
Basically, they didn't want me mirroring my father's behavior at all, which I understood even then, but I also grasped that the household video game ban was misguided, albeit well-enough intentioned. My birth-dad, meanwhile, was this really funny, nerdy kid, who was super into Jim Henson and D&D and '70s fantasy and probably Monty Python. He was also a loving but incredibly irresponsible father, which is to say, he struggled terribly with depression.
We had an Atari 2600, and he was really good at Mountain King—which is roundly remembered, in retrospect, as probably the hardest game for that system—and to this day the Atari 2600 is my favorite system, and Mountain King is still probably my favorite game for that system. Dad also played a lot of Berzerk, so I do, now, too. I guess those are the two games I probably revisit most, even though I'm not necessarily very good at either. And so a lot of my very earliest memories are of these 2600 games.
My dad came to visit me in Texas when I was 9, and we went to an arcade together and talked about Atari games and arcade games, and that's a happy memory. He died the following year. I was 10 and he was 35: he was just a couple years older than I am now.
NNK: That's a really lovely memory. What happened next?
JF: My great-aunt and great-uncle adopted me proper the year after that, and that same year we got our first computer. It was a Packard Bell 486-33 that came preloaded with Prodigy, which is an AMAZING thing to give to a maladjusted 11-year-old girl living in one of the more remote parts of the United States.
My piano teacher gave up trying to teach me how to read music and started teaching me how to use DOS instead. It was wonderful! So of course, now I wanted to install software on the computer and, more specifically, I wanted to look for this one piece of "edutainment" (in actuality, a rudimentary, roguelike piece) I'd first played on the computer in a "gifted" class.
Well, there was no way my adoptive mom could argue with that. The child wants to keep learning at home! Amazing! So she set down a new edict: "Video" games were still off-limits, but "computer games" were fine, I guess, because they rang as somehow more "intellectual" to her.
By 1995 we were one of the first houses in town with dial-up internet—not Prodigy, not AOL, not Compuserve, but an actual ISP. By then I was telnetting to bulletin boards, running up a huge phone bill.
Prodigy start page
NNK: Were there games that were off-limits to you? And could you speak more to what games offered you emotionally and intellectually as a teenage girl?
JF: One thing I was definitely NOT allowed to play were role-playing games—RPGs. I think the younger set might not remember the "Satanic Panic" of the 1970s, and it might surprise even the slightly older crowd to learn what a long tail that moral panic really had. For the uninitiated, though, it was the widespread fear that playing Dungeons & Dragons could spiritually "open you up" to demon possession–a fear that lasted well into the 1990s and even after that.
Daily Trojan, Thursday October 8, 1981
For the purposes of our own household, RPGs were defined as any games with "character creation" screens (the real fear surrounding RPGs being that kids were "becoming" or otherwise emulating their characters). My adoptive mother's explanation was something like "God made you in His image and you should be happy playing as whatever character you were assigned at the start of the game." In practice, this meant King's Quest games were fine, while Quest for Glory games were not.
As SOON as we had internet, I started telnetting into MUDs. I played so much Shadow of Yserbius, too! I was pretty sure that, by my adoptive mom's logic, Betrayal at Krondor would be okay, but it didn't seem like the hours of explanation WHY it was okay would be worth the trouble. So these were the first things I ever kept hidden from her—I kept no other secrets from her, to a fault—and all this sneaking-around was really more for her sake than mine. To this day, I have only ever played the PC version of Final Fantasy VII.
By high school, I kept the computer games thing a half-secret from many of my teen-girl peers, but I was still rushing home every day to play whatever I was stuck on at that moment. MissionForce: CyberStorm, that was the really big one. (I also had a Bikini Kill album that I listened to at a *very low volume*, so as to not offend my parents, who preferred Karen Carpenter.) By then, I was getting zines in the mail, reading really strange books, listening to weird music you could only mail-order.
MissionForce: CyberStorm cover
Even though I never got used to Texas, I had a really fantastic "inner life," is what I'm saying. I also wasn't allowed to watch R-rated movies, or play M-rated computer games, until I turned 17. While I regret having such a huge gap in my knowledge, I don't resent it at all. So there are a lot of cultural touchstones and signposts I completely missed in the 1990s, with the benefit, a little counterintuitively, of being free to seek out other stuff I personally found interesting.
When I turned 18, my best childhood friend gave me an Atari 2600, and my adoptive mom was so mad! I took it with me to college. I kept the Atari hooked up to a VCR which, in turn, was hooked up to my computer monitor. My freshman-year roommate hated me, because I'd given everyone in our dormitory copies of Half-Life and Team Fortress.
NNK: You've talked a lot about games as a third, Nth, other space — a "place you go," more than something one plays. What happens to the mind and heart in that space when we enter it?
JF: Playing Mountain King makes me feel 3 years old again, because there is such a sense of place and time attached to that game for me. So, when I "revisit" that game I'm also visiting my dad, because games are these weirdly liminal places that are "just how you remember them" when you return to them. They aren't like street blocks, right, which gentrify or crumble or otherwise change in uncanny ways. You always feel such grief when you discover an important location from your childhood no longer exists *as it did*.
Games are *reliable*. They're a reliable type of memory. They're reassuring in an existential way: "Okay, I've been remembering this correctly." I've talked before about "sense of presence" and being in two places at once and "where-were-you-when." So I can readily describe to you what was going on the last time I played Castle of Illusion, or how I was feeling the last time I really sat down and played Galaxian. I can remember where I was sitting better than I can details about the games themselves.
When my adoptive mother was in the ICU for the last time, I abandoned my Chicago apartment and everything in it and drove to Texas. And then when she passed away, I sat alone in my childhood home—in the last several years it was constantly full of nurses, nurses, nurses, and now it was silent—and I sat alone for six months, just completely incapable of going through her stuff or even functioning, really.
And finally someone sent me a 360, and the first thing I did was hook it up to my parents' old TV and install Rez. And I remember exclaiming to the person who'd sent this Xbox: "Oh, my God, this feels so good! I caaaan't belieeeeve how cathartic this feels!" And my mother's dog, who was like 9 at the time, planted herself between me and the television and stared at me straight-on: "WHAT ARE YOU DOING, HUMAN." Recovering my will to live, dog!
When you revisit a game like Rez, muscle memory takes over. It's scripted, you know how the game goes, you've done this before, you've got this, and the feeling is just pure relief. It is as close as you can come to regaining any sense of normality.
Ted, my husband, has always warned people that I have a scarily accurate memory, from toddlerhood onward. He's not wrong. So for me, games have always been a sort of mnemonic device. My life can be told as either a chronology of games I've played, OR as a series of painfully detailed moments. Or! A third thing: I can combine them! And I've found, as far as memoir goes, a spoonful of sugar means combining the two. Video games give me a pleasantly neutral lens for recalling the other moments in my life.
Image from CyberStorm: Command
NNK: You have been treating games with respect—as fiction, as worthy of serious intellectual treatment— long before the banner cry of "games are art" became common. And in a different context, you've written: "We are all numbered; we are only here because we inexplicably believe games have the power to change art and literature and education and the world." Do you still believe this?
JF: Oh ho ho! I remember the state of mind I was in when I wrote that, where I felt that, in the games industry, there are no real villains, right? To totally commit your life to this one thing—this thing with perilously little money in it, where, even if you excel, you will only ever have what is, in the scheme of all grand things, an incredibly small audience—all of this requires kind of a quirky, off-kilter, mad-scientist worldview. It requires a bizarre faith in the video games medium being somehow important, and here we all are, still figuring out how, exactly.
So yes, I'd always felt that anyone who is inexplicably invested in video games must be a friend of games, because there are so, so many other things in this life to dedicate yourself toward. Games are, like any religion, a faith-based pursuit. There is literally no other reason to recommend spending your life on them.
NNK: You've written that "there is something endlessly melancholy when a bit of software can do what you physically, emotionally, genetically cannot." I'm thinking of your essay on Creatures, in which you write about saving Norns onto floppy disks to "freeze" them in time. Or in that previously cited review of Animal Crossing: at one point, you step outside and blink, and see people around you with their rich inner lives, just as in the game.
How can software help us see our surroundings more clearly, change our perception? It seems like you consistently argue that our relationships to technology can help us become more empathetic, compassionate; this muddies a very old (and tired) conversation on software and technology as inherently "inhuman."
A gif composed from Creatures
JF: It's interesting, because it sounds like you're asking about two different types of technology. There's the inescapable kind that most people don't even understand they have to preemptively opt-out of using, where everyone automatically has a Google+ account whether anyone wants one or not. It's the "push notifications" and the advertorials and everything else I really hate.
And I'm not only talking about the erosion of privacy, here. We think of some technology as "inhuman" —and we think of it in those terms — because it commodifies humans, dehumanizes users, turns human beings into target demographics and unwilling content farms. We are all being "processed."
But then there's the other type of software, right? It's the type you have to seek out, have to opt-in to. You mention Animal Crossing and Creatures, which are actually both types of "gardening" games, interestingly, but they're also, just as you say, games about cultivating a fantastic and imaginative inner life. Or an incredibly boring, mundane interior life! Whatever!
And so maybe your question is sort of about the public, the artificial, versus the private and authentic. And that's why moments like those I had in Santa Monica, where I had this window into watching a physical neighbor's imaginary Animal Crossing house change and grow, are much more startling and intimate than reading a Facebook profile, I guess, with its whole constructed identity. (Obviously any player's Animal Crossing house is also "constructed," in its way, but it's presumably just rooms cluttered with whatever junk makes the person happy.)
It isn't too surprising that the real connective tissue among us isn't Facebook profiles or Twitter-tweets but, instead, the parallel inner lives that we don't really share with one another—share deliberately, I mean—but do occasionally glimpse. If the human condition is "every man is an island," those moments of universal truth are the only thing to mitigate that hopelessness.
Video games often provide that. Or: they can facilitate those wonderful shared moments of recognition. They also offer a special language and lens for making sense of those moments. Games are a way of understanding that every human experience is equally important, that every experience matters.
NNK: What makes a believable, effective, powerful game world?
JF: Thank you for not saying "an immersive game world." In the games world we tend to say "immersion" when we really mean believable, effective, powerful.
But if we were to say "immersion," what we really mean is, how does a game concentrate on never "breaking the spell" of its particular reality? Usually the reality is broken when there's any hint of uncanniness, when the seams show and the simulation makes itself obvious. Well, and that uncanniness could present as almost anything. If a character's actions don't quite line up with his dialogue, if there's any ludonarrative dissonance there, that will break the illusion. If a character model is unusually dead-eyed (think CG Kevin Spacey), that'll do it. If an object isn't quite scaled correctly to its surroundings, like an unusually large flashlight on a comparatively small desk, that's a "tell" that you're trapped in someone else's dream.
But you also have to decide, at the outset, what kind of universe you're going to create. Will it be "closed time" or "open time"; is the Universe harmonious or chaotic? And what I really mean is, you kind of have to commit to whether you're going to give your player the illusion of free will. You don't HAVE to give a player "choice," you know! You can just write a linear narrative. 2D platformers are linear narratives, laid out very much like comic strip panels: Move left to right, stage one, stage two, stage three, goal. The passage and chronology of ordered time is laid out spatially, and the player physically passes through that set order.
But if free will IS a thing you're into as a game designer, well, any time a player senses that you're behind the scenes pulling the strings, the player is going to get angry. Don't tell the player she'll be able to make her own decisions and then not let her. If the game is a sandbox game, don't make one type of tree "destructible" and another type unbreakable. You have to follow your own rules. To return to Animal Crossing, that game is very clear about the rules, and the player is given absolute free will as "will" is defined within those boundaries and strictures.
What makes a piece of stagecraft ring authentic? How do you establish a believable sense of place? We know that, in video games, this isn't necessarily accomplished with polygons or particle effects. You don't actually need a lot of resources. With stage, you can do a lot in a black-box theater, this literal blank slate, and the question becomes more, well, how do we use this space, can we use it in an interesting way? Can we surprise the viewer?
It comes down to: are the rules fair to the player? And also, is the game never boring? Games don't have to be "fun"—they can be torture!—but they cannot be boring.
Guan Xiao, "Survivors' Hunting," exhibition view at Magician Space
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.
The first exhibition of your work that I saw was "Survivors' Hunting" at Magician Space, Beijing, in 2013. It showed your tendency towards exploring history and artefacts and the way these are presented, as well as your attitude to time and simultaneity—ignoring linear time. In it, there was a series called Cloud Atlas (2013; the title is copied from the 2004 novel by David Mitchell, in which past and future come to overlap)—freestanding works made of wooden board and painted in mushy, camouflage colors with car paint. Tall and glossy, standing in the small gallery like totems or movable walls for a stage set. They seemed to stand for something (like monuments or steles do), yet the nature of that something was missing completely. To me, this felt truly uncanny. Was it part of your aim to create this sense of disorientation?
If I do an exhibition, I like to—as artists we cannot provide any answers. We just can offer possibilities. I try to make my exhibitions convey some kind of sense, with a lot of clues. These clues can maybe lead the audience to somewhere they want to go. In my daily work, I am always trying to find out much more, to discover different methods for how I understand the world, how I draw responses and experiences from it. For the Magician Space show, I provided a lot of details for something. I can't give the right answer. I just give clues so that you can get into it and maybe use a little bit of personal imagination to try to figure out what it is.
I really liked the little brown, manual sculptures in the installation. They were ugly and weird, memorable…
I like things that are bad taste because they can challenge something. It's something to do with a unique presentation or personality. I think that's the only valuable thing for an art piece. I think that, if you want to show you are here, you really need to show something. We don't need just beautiful things—be brave! I don't know. I love people with bad personalities, sometimes. I don't want to work with them, but I like it.
That's why people like grumpy people.
Haha, yes, people are sick.
Also in the show at Magician Space, your video David (2013; named after Michelangelo's eponymous sculpture), satirizes the mass-marketing of this art work which appears on souvenir tea towels, t-shirts, pens, postcards and other mass-produced products. You even made a soundtrack to accompany the video with subtitles of the lyrics in Chinese and Chinglish ("He is in everywhere"), sung in a deliberately ditzy tone of voice. For you, what's the effect of humor? Why do you choose to approach this subject in a way that is absurd, rather than more serious? What does it do for the work?
Guan Xiao, David (2013), video still
My video work does the same thing as my sculpture. Of course I have some subjects I want to talk about, but I always try to do it a different way. For my first video Cognitive Shape (2013), I'm talking about how you read images from the outside world, how you respond and how that response works into your head and comes out again—a bit like recycling things. For the David video,at the very beginning, I didn't have the intention to do this kind of video, I just tried to search for some material from YouTube. I wanted to find a very famous and classical sculpture, and of course, I found David. I searched and found over 200 images, something like that—you cannot find even one that is really useful. So I downloaded a huge amount of trash. After that I started to get even more interested.ow can I use this garbage to make something? Everybody goes to the plaza and knows David is in there. They wait a long, long time with a camera and finally go inside. And…that's all! They don't know what they want. It's as if people just show they have been there, and don't feel anything. So I made this video and at first I tried to talk in it, but I figured out that this kind of subject is serious—I mean, the original attempt is very serious. And it could be a little bit harsh because you cannot be so judgmental. I tried instead to use a very cheesy, poppy style to show that it's not totally serious. I went to my friend's studio and just tried to sing it out. It's not so critical—I like it.
Maybe humor is tricky. If you can't pick a very good subject, it can be too cheesy and too strict, and people might think it's stupid. Stupid, funny and hilarious are different layers. I never felt nervous about this work in that way. I don't take any method in particular. Before I make a video I always have my subject, and before I start I think: how should I comment on it? Sometimes funny things, sometimes something serious. Maybe I'm thinking about another video now—what, I cannot tell, but I might use violence. How it looks doesn't matter, really; what matters is what you want to talk about with it. Appearances are less important than content. I am not especially choosing humor as my style.
Guan Xiao, Slightly Dizzy (2014)
Your Core Sample series (2012) is a set of sculptures; each is composed of a metal rod mounted on a tripod of metal legs. Wrapped round the rods are neon-colored bands or coatings of painted resin. These suggest futuristic exploration—as unnamed samples of material, mined from inside something or some surface. Do you see these as literal artefacts (albeit fake), or more like a metaphor for what you like to do as an artist, and how you approach cultural materials?
This is my very early method. When I first started to make my own personal artworks, I didn't know what I was really interested in. Later, I read about scientific core samples. Everybody knows it's a drill, you screw it in and there are so many layers, some you recognize, some you don't. It's a bit like trying to understand and mix them together; the layers have a relationship with one another, so you need to figure this out, the changing time, etc. That inspired me, at first. I feel it's similar to collecting things. But when some people collect things, it's just a case of letting history itself talk, like specimens. I respect this kind of art, but I personally don't work like that. If I think about a collection of different things, I wonder, what more can I do within this range? I'm not especially interested in a particular kind of media or element, —nothing, I just focus on various weaving methods—more in how things go together.
It is like making a suggestion, offering one possibility in order to start working with it. So that was my first mode. After that, I figured out that there are many things you can play with. We are different, so everyone's contact with the world is different. In my new video, Action (2014), I try to explain how I feel the world. You have your own reason to really get involved in this world. That's another subject to talk about, but that's a clue I can provide to the audience—a clue you can use as your own. It's like a teaching program that you can feel from a reciprocal program. I want to engage every sense; one sensory starting point can lead in many directions. I think as artists we are simply looking for ways to modify the world.
Guan Xiao, Core Sample (2012)
Can you talk about your work in the 2015 Triennial, The Documentary: Geocentric Puncture (2012)? Do you usually find that your feeling about a piece changes when you see it exhibited, instead of in your studio or in your imagination?
When I finish a work, it's because I am really, really satisfied with it. This installation helped me a lot in figuring out my video work—it's hard to explain, but it's true. Until now, my sculpture has had different threads running through it. Maybe you can see several different points; one is a very special readymade, and another may be a very strong, patterned fabric, as here; the third might be a weirdly structured thing or something handmade. Plus, I always try to play a game with the title; so, everything is sort of collected together. So when you see it you must mix the name, the readymade and the very sculptural part together, and try to modify what it is. Maybe you can build up something really alive.
For this piece in the Triennial, I have three backgrounds of the kind usually used in a photographic studio; it's kind of an over-structure, there are a lot of things in it, and I included very modern equipment and also very rough handmade textures in it, as well as industrially designed things to make it very clean. There are a couple of points. One is that you see it and it looks as if it has a sort of personality and is prepared for you to take a photo of it; it's ready, always standing by. In another way, I have put a lot of elements into them that are very handmade. I always think about things which are ancient. They reach the same point as very new things—we know nothing about them and are not very familiar with them. This is something we can bring out and play with to uncover more possibilities. I like columns, so I made a very bad-looking column sculpture. But I also used camera lenses to make a very new column. You see the tripod—it's functional, for a camera. But actually this structure is very classical—you can call it either ancient or super-modern. You can play with these visual elements. A couple of them are present here in one piece. I am always trying to provide different modifications on one thing. For example, if I talk about coffee, I don't specifically say "coffee". I will say "It's a brown liquid, and maybe it smells like summer"—you know, you never talk about something directly.
Guan Xiao, The Documentary: Geocentric Puncture (2012)
How/when did you begin working creatively with technology?
I'm not particularly working with technology, it's just one kind of element that i like to use. I began to like them since 2011.
Where did you go to school? What did you study?
I studied film directing at the Communication University of China in Beijing.
What do you do for a living or what occupations have you held previously?
I'm doing art for a living, as a professional artist. I never had another occupation before.
What does your desktop or workspace look like? (Pics or screenshots please!)
Described by its creator as a "frog simulator," Beautiful Frog by Porpentine is actually a text-only interactive fiction build on the Twine platform that allows players to guide a frog through its froggy life. Each turn marks the passage of a year in its life; black serifed text describes its various froggy experiences and milestones, while green text allows the player to make basic decisions like "hop," "sing," or "eat." Time passes quickly—too quickly!—but happily the "frog death" setting is set to "false" by default. Those that prefer to deal with the facts of a frog's life directly can change this setting.
"Protect this frog," the game admonishes you when you meet your new frog for the first time. Mine was named Guggo, and it was a Yellow-Striped Savanna. It dedicated its life to singing, refusing "Hop" and even "Eat" at every turn.
On Monday, game critic Jenn Frank wrote in an interview with Nora N. Khan that videogames have a lot in common with theater, particularly the ability to create compelling narrative worlds through an economy of means.
What makes a piece of stagecraft ring authentic? How do you establish a believable sense of place? We know that, in video games, this isn't necessarily accomplished with polygons or particle effects. You don't actually need a lot of resources. With stage, you can do a lot in a black-box theater, this literal blank slate, and the question becomes more, well, how do we use this space, can we use it in an interesting way? Can we surprise the viewer?
Calling Beautiful Frog a "simulator" draws attention to its utter simplicity, and invites comparison with the goofily violent Goat Simulator. But even without the latter game's fast-paced action and high-end graphics, Beautiful Frog is somehow just as "ring authentic," and its main character somehow more three-dimensional and alive.
Ever dream of writing for the New Yorker, America's preeminent magazine and blogging site? Ever wish to join the ranks of giants like Jill Lepore, Elizabeth Kolbert, David Remnick, and Malcolm Gladwell?
At least that's what it seems like thanks to CloneZone, an online tool made by Rhizome's NEW INC officemates 4REAL as an art project. It lets you clone any web page on the internet, edit text and images on the page and share the result on social media.
Jacob Appelbaum, Laura Poitras and Ai Weiwei in Beijing last week. (Photo: Heather Corcoran).
Last week, Rhizome brought Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei together with key Tor Project activist and Wikileaks representative Jacob Appelbaum for a five-day collaboration behind closed doors. The two worked closely at Ai's studio in Beijing with unreleased Snowden documents to create an artwork that underscores their mutual concerns with privacy, surveillance, and their own state-restricted movement. Rhizome invited film director Laura Poitras—whose portrait of Edward Snowden, Citizenfour, won the 2015 Academy Award for Documentary Feature—to capture the collaboration from start to finish as a short film, which will premiere at Rhizome's Seven on Seven on May 2 at the New Museum. (The event will stream live at rhizome.org and fusion.net.)
Reflecting on the project, both Ai and Appelbaum offered their own sense of responsibility. Ai: "I see my art as a way of reminding people of certain facts." Appelbaum: "My one goal is that in 20 years time no one can say they didn't know what was happening, so we'll know who didn't act to stop it."
Kashmir Hill of Fusion was on site in Beijing to cover the story as it unfolded between Ai, Appelbaum, and Poitras—"three of the most justifiably paranoid people in the world"—and not without an impromptu call to Julian Assange. Read Hill's detailed report.
For full bios, tickets, and event information, visit the event's website at sevenonseven.rhizome.org.
What can be analyzed in my work, or criticized, are the questions that I ask…my composition arises out of asking questions.
— John Cage
Radical Software Volume I, Number 1: the Alternate Television Movement (Spring 1970)
As rare as it is for something to be an instant success, this is what happened with Radical Software, a journal started in 1970 to bring a fresh direction to communication via personal and portable video equipment and other cybernetic explorations. Its intention was to foster an alternative to broadcast media and lessen the impact of its control. I was the co-founder.
When I began conceiving of the journal, no one really knew precisely what I was getting at because my ideas about it were at an inchoate stage of development, making for loose coherency. The idea was for individuals to be able to communicate interactively without the filters of broadcast media. Even at a more formalized stage the process superseded any formulaic views. Perhaps asking non-hierarchical questions could materialize the structures leading to a two-way network for communicative exchange. Our choices were no longer determined by traditions and customs.
I don't often look, but when I do, I notice so much misinformation, both printed and online, about the origins of Radical Software. I‘d like to clarify what my role was then and what my inspiration was in conceiving of it. It is important to set the background and tone of events. In order to accurately tell the tale I will weave in some personal life anecdotes from the time. It's all one story to me, as the vicissitudes of life often direct our fates.“Those were the underlying circumstances that led to Radical Software: curiosity and confinement.”
In 1968-69 I was living in a loft in New York's Chinatown having recently returned from living in Positano, Italy. There, my six-year marriage had broken up when my husband, Ted Gershuny, left me for one of Warhol's Chelsea Girls, whom he'd cast in his first feature film. I had moved to Positano from New York, where I produced TV and radio commercials during the "Mad Men" period. I had also been making personal 8mm films for years.
Positano proved to be a pivotal place for me. There, I became part of a culturally and creatively informed transient art community. Artists like Vali Myers (1930-2003) lived in the valley between Positano and Amalfi in what had been Tiberius' herb garden with her architect mate Rudi Rappold and hundreds of animals. Shawn Phillips, the musician who co-wrote "Season of the Witch," also lived there. Amongst those passing through Positano was John "Hoppy" Hopkins (1937-2015), a scientist, photojournalist and political activist who helped found the underground paper the International Times, and his bride, the original Suzy Creamcheese. I learned about cybernetics and macrobiotics from him. The English-speaking travelers in this vertical Mediterranean village all bonded, socialized, dined, discussed and danced together. Later, at the theatre festival in Avignon, I discovered and became aligned with the artistic and politically avant-garde Living Theatre.
I left Positano and returned to New York mostly because of finances. I rented and renovated the loft in Chinatown so I could paint and while there had a lot of time to think, imagine and dream. I read poetry and Scientific American as if it was poetry. The obscure terminology and imagery fueled my imagination and, along with the insightful conversations from Europe, created a desire to investigate the pre-existing structures of world of the late '60s. My intent was to sell everything and get back to Europe to make films.
While there, something happened that forced a swift change of plans. An acquaintance mailed me, from Morocco, a package of hashish formed into a gilded picture frame, addressing it not to me, but to a made-up name, I assume. I accepted the package. The Feds were in the stairwell and I was arrested, my passport taken away; I was released but confined to lower Manhattan. It would have been illegal for me to go above 14th Street. I never did see the picture frame. It took several years to clear this situation up. I was not guilty of anything. Meanwhile, Gershuny got a California divorce by falsely claiming not to know my whereabouts. No alimony. I was pregnant and not by him. Those were the underlying circumstances that led to Radical Software: curiosity and confinement.
I gave up the loft, sold its appurtenances and moved into a friend's tiny unoccupied apartment in the West Village with a bathtub in the kitchen and toilet in the hall. A sole window overlooking the alley let in little light, making it impossible to tell if it was day or night. Pregnant and penniless. I had little to do but dream, wonder, and drift and try to ward off loneliness and depression.
The Vietnam War cast a dark cloud over everything. All sorts of changes were in the air at the time, not the least being the rise of women's rights. My reading of Marshall McLuhan, Herbert Marcuse, Walter Benjamin, Gregory Bateson, Samuel Beckett, Antonin Artaud, and Buckminster Fuller led me to question all sorts of societal norms and economic dysfunctions, as did my study of ecology, media ecology, spirituality, and Buddhism.
I worked briefly in the publicity department of Grove Press. Even normally dull filing was interesting there. I found the original manuscript of William Burroughs' "The Third Mind" — loose pages with drawings in a box. I couldn't resist taking it home to read. His multi-layered writing about communication and control aroused my imagination and seemed pertinent. Burroughs was staying in the apartment of producer Harrison Starr, directly across from where the Weather Underground explosion was to happen, in March 1970. I called and made an appointment to meet with him. I can't say he was warm and friendly, but he was receptive and we had a good chat. I remember discussing his idea of a "band" of people spread across a road, all with video cameras recording the same thing from a variety of perspectives.
All these encounters led me to ask myself: How is what they are talking about being applied? How are the means of communication controlled? What other ways are there to live? If you work for a company and invent something, do they really own your invention? Why are wireless cameras, currently used by the corporate media for sports events and war reportage, not available to the public? Why are corporations allowed to purchase publicly owned bands on the electromagnetic spectrum? Can light be sold? Why is technological advancement and research dedicated to the war machine rather than advancing civilization? A lot had been going on in 1968-69, especially politically and socially. There was a certain magic as well.
To answer these and other questions, I started making phone calls. People were receptive and willing to talk. I spoke with Douglas Davis (1933-2014), an art critic and media artist/activist. I spoke with scientists at Bell Labs. The more people I interviewed the clearer it became to me that I needed to form a questionnaire and eventually a newsletter.
I visited Global Village, one of the early video groups founded by John Reilly (1939-2013) and Rudi Stern (1936-2006), initially with Ira Schneider. Their collaboration with Ira was very brief. John offered me video classes but I wasn't interested. Then to Alan Douglas, a hipster music entrepreneur I knew through friends. I also visited Billy Klüver at Experiments in Art & Technology. I was getting nowhere because my ideas were still being formulated.
I soon received a phone call from Ira Schneider via Reilly. He and Beryl Korot came to visit. Beryl and I had a rapport and she was willing to proceed with sending out the questionnaire. Ira and Beryl lived together in a well-heeled doorman building on Fifth Avenue.
Beryl and I began meeting to discuss and reorganize the questionnaire and create a mailing list. The questionnaire ended up being more about using video than challenging any existing societal or economic forms.“Davidson hung up some black plastic… in a corner at the Videofreex loft on Prince Street and we lived there.”
Meanwhile, my personal life was in flux. I had to move out of the little dark West Village apartment. My old friend Laura Cavestani, whom I met when we were fine art students at Boston University, introduced me to Davidson Gigliotti, one of the Videofreex. Davidson and I hit it off and he moved in with me. We then went to loft sit for my artist/poet friends, Vyt Bakaitis and Sharon Gilbert.
When they returned, soon after my daughter was born, there was no place to move to and no funds. Everything felt very groundless. Davidson hung up some black plastic, ubiquitous in pre-Soho days, in a corner at the Videofreex loft on Prince Street and we lived there. No one knew what to make of me. I was not a member of Videofreex, but later became friends with several of them. What was happening in my personal life, compared with my active and creative mental state, made me feel split in half mentally and physically. I actively continued the work of producing Radical Software and stayed focused through all this personal turmoil.
When the replies started coming in, Beryl and I retreated to media ecologist Paul Ryan's (1943-2013) cottage in New Paltz, newborn in tow, to edit, organize, and construct. A coherent story emerged from the input. Replies were arriving from groups and people all over the globe. We knew that the way news and information was disseminated affected everything. We knew there were a lot of like-minded people "out there"; we were hearing from them. Raindance was just one of the groups. We carefully read everything that people sent. As the replies and articles got edited to fit into the whole it became, for me, a kind of ventriloquism of mind. A coherent overview emerged; pointing it out was the editorial skill involved. We interpreted and edited, digested and synthesized, imagined and envisioned. The responses formed Radical Software.“One of the most generous contributions we made was the anti-copyright mark, signified by an x in the center of a circle, meaning DO copy.”
Only Beryl and I compiled and edited the material. It wasn't until we were about to have the magazine typeset that Beryl came to me and asked if Ira, in exchange for his help, mostly with the mailing list, could be listed as a co-founder. This had no real meaning for me at the time, so I said "sure." Ira had no actual input with me into the content or direction of what was to become Radical Software. Unfortunately, I did not know that my agreeing would later cause an unraveling of my own role with the magazine I had birthed.
One of the most generous contributions we made was the anti-copyright mark, signified by an x in the center of a circle, meaning DO copy. There were articles we wanted distributed, copied, and widely disseminated. Radical Software was never intended to be just about video as a social tool, or video art. As far as I was concerned it was about using technologies to extend the ways of communication outside the scope of large corporations and conglomerates that had, and still have, control. It was meant to be much broader in scope and more investigative.
It is important to stress the fact that Radical Software was a fait accompli BEFORE it was a journal published by Raindance, a "think tank" with no visible agenda. They became the publisher when it was necessary to find the funding to print what had already been created; the software itself, the content of the journal, was already present. The term "software" still confuses people, it can be regarded as the information itself and nothing to do with computer programs. But really it is the people themselves, the ones who create the information. Back then it was too soon to see that information was going to be the currency, as it is today.
By the time it was to be pasted up (in those days we did actual paste-ups with set type and glue plus press-on letters), I was in the ward at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. I had taken natural childbirth classes, considered too advanced for hospitals, from Elizabeth Bing who brought it to the U.S. Probably because of the stress, a clotting problem arose with breastfeeding that I ignored as long as I could while my fever rose. I was diagnosed with a tumor, but it was benign. My friends cared for my daughter while I spent time in the cancer ward. That stay aroused in me a great deal of sadness and compassion for this invisible world of suffering and changed me profoundly. When it was time to leave, I took the subway back to the Videofreex loft, alone and disoriented.
After being in the hospital, I immediately dove back into completing the work. There was a natural division of labor and collaboration between Beryl and me. She was much better with language. I had a clearer vision of format and presentation. The appearance was as important as the content. I had carte blanche; there was no one to interfere with any decisions. We were pretty much in agreement all the time. I envisioned the oversized format printed with a particular blue ink and a collaged style, much looser than straight columns, with non-linear juxtapositions. The use of blue ink and a random or collaged style of design was enough of a difference to indicate difference itself.“Raindance… was not the decision-making body.”
At that time, Raindance had acquired a spiffy office space on West 24th Street. I had stored my treasures there: a custom-made bed (Jimi Hendrix once slept in it) and classic Olympia typewriter. There was a break-in, and both items (and nothing else) were stolen. In the large main space were multi-level wooden platforms. Beryl and I were assigned the front room with two tables. Schneider and another Raindance member, Michael Shamberg, took the finished paste-ups to the printer and secured distribution.
Raindance was composed of an elusive group. Some were visibly active, but others never made an appearance and I never met them. Raindance, though listed as the publisher on the masthead of Radical Software, was not the decision-making body. They were listed as publisher because what else could they be? It's led to a great deal of confusion. I had no direct dialogue with any of them, except for Shamberg and Paul Ryan. It was just something Beryl and I were doing and we were being supported in our attempt. Raindance was paying for it to be published. That might sound odd today. There were no actualities of collaboration or serving a publisher. It was not up to Raindance to make the decisions as to the content of Radical Software, at this stage. They were not the ones with the vision for this publication; many of them had their own visions that were included in the issues. Beryl and I analyzed what the next steps would be determined by the feedback received. For instance, by the time we got to Issue 3, I saw that so much was happening that a state-of-the art report was necessary.
The relationship with Raindance began to change after Issue One received a warm reception. The atmosphere in the office was not entirely welcoming. I was told someone named Louis Jaffe, who seemed to eye me with disdain, was the subscription manager. While it was clear a good deal of money had arrived, I only got a small amount for babysitting. I recall being told at the time that Shamberg, who was soon to become a Hollywood producer, had offered to pay for the printing, but apparently it came directly from Raindance. Recently, I read in The History of Video Art by Chris Meigh-Andrews that Louis Jaffe had given $70,000 to Raindance. He also indicated that Raindance hired Beryl and me to create Radical Software. I hope I've made it clear that it did not happen that way. I never really knew who paid, I simply trusted the process.
By the time Beryl and I completed Issue 2, there was an increasingly unfriendly atmosphere for me in that office. I had continuing ideas about the editorial and content direction. When we got to assembling Issue 3 my ideas were being censored. Interesting artist and poet friends of mine would stop by from time to time. The atmosphere was uptight and unfriendly, making me paranoid and uncomfortable. I had no contract and was basically an unpaid employee. The office behavior made me realize I was getting pushed out. I left before it was completed.
Radical Software Volume I, Number 2: the Electromagnetic Spectrum (Autumn 1970).
Without my realizing it at the time, Raindance was assuming proprietary ownership and had other ideas. My intuition and direction were being quashed. Ira didn't like my ideas; they were too esoteric. My brainchild, my labor of love, was being co-opted. Beryl and Ira took over Issue 3. They later decided to bring in a variety of people and the following issues were farmed out. I could have used the advice of a lawyer. I had already given attorney Ernst Rosenberger a retainer for the hashish picture frame case. L'esprit d'escalier.
From the time we put together the first issue of Radical Software, we had to be careful not to take sides between the various emerging groups and individuals. It was all very sensitive and political in those days. Each group had its agenda and tendencies: some were more intellectual, theatrical, educational, square, just goofy and lowbrow, but no one had a real collective consciousness. When government grants from the New York State Council on the Arts started to come in, Raindance arranged to be the distributor of the funds. This caused a huge furor in the community and their role was soon rescinded. In retrospect, I can see how Raindance's policies undermined what I was trying to accomplish. Instead of a two-way network for communicative exchange, their apparent desire was to become a centralized decision-making body. There was reason to be suspicious. Large grants were given out to the various New York video and media groups in tens of thousands of dollars. A lot of video cameras were purchased. I never chose nor wanted to join Raindance, or any of the groups, and because of that I received no funds even though I had helped create a platform for the substantiation of a viable social movement.
I'd walked into a landscape with people I couldn't come to artistic or financial terms with and who represented an opposing view and ethic. I didn't want to live behind the black plastic curtain. My relationship with Davidson had fallen apart. One day I got into a cab with my baby daughter and a folding playpen and left for California with little prior notice. My sudden departure became a mythological tale greatly appreciated and told many times over by Nam June Paik. I really thought I could link up with some like-minded people or even be able to add to Radical Software from there. I was never able to continue the power and source of that work. The West coast was an entirely different culture. I was lost for some time.
In San Francisco, I became friends with Jerry Pethick and Lloyd Cross, founders of the School of Holography, and created holograms both there and at Stanford University. I put up hand-drawn, collaged, posters in 1972 that drew quite a crowd and boosted the video movement there. A Frenchman named Francois showed up looking for the "Queen of Video." In 1973, I created a hand-painted non-advertising billboard based on the magic square of 16, drawn from my studies with filmmaker, Jordan Belson.
Hand-painted billboard, 1973.
Years later, visiting New York, I dropped by to see C.T. Lui of the eponymous electronics store. He told me I'd gotten a $1000 NYSCA CAPS grant for individuals while working on Radical Software. I never received it but someone did. I phoned the Council and inquired. It was the kind of grant that could have been used for anything, even buying refrigerators, the director said. Or, diapers.
Around 1983, after I had moved back to New York, I got wind that a panel discussion about Radical Software was to take place at La Mama. I went. Davidson was the MC. Ira Schneider was on the panel of experts. I can't remember the others. All of them discussed Radical Software referring to it as a sacred object. A man sitting next to Ira, who I had never seen in my life, recalled being there when it first "came off the presses." They then passed the first issue around to the audience. In amazement at the chutzpah, I said nothing. I was in letting-go mode after having spent several years practicing Buddhism and meditation. I walked off arm-in-arm with gallerist Howard Wise, who had exhibited early video art.
In the early 90s, Davidson called to tell me he and Ira were planning to put the issues of Radical Software online. If I gave permission, he'd send me $500. Davidson gave his historic overview without any consultation with me, and I never discussed any origination details with him. Just about all the biographical information about me is incorrect, and even the photograph posted is not the one I sent. The positive aspect of an online presence for Radical Software was offset by the further substantiation of Raindance as an entity.
In the 2002 Artforum article "Tale of the Tape" by David Joselit, he states that the lasting legacy of Raindance was Radical Software. In a private conversation with me, he noted that the first two issues were more interesting and noticeably different. They made a case for combining art and activism, interactivity, and feedback. The juxtaposition of the technological and new agey with vectors, charts, and theory made it unique. I had hoped to see Radical Software evolve into large format posters to be read off the wall and packaged with a live video magazine. There was no reason the format had to remain static. I also envisioned more futuristic viewing spaces rather than the pedestrian darkened chambers that still exist in museums today.
In April 2013, the School of Visual Arts (SVA), in New York, hosted a panel called "We're All Videofreex." I was surprised when introduced to many attendees that I was greeted with exclamations like, "I can't believe I'm meeting you," or "no one knew where you were." Most were a part of the scholarly movement who want to make sure that Radical Software keeps its place in the film/video/digital history. They still referred to me as Phyllis Gershuny. I felt like the Rodriguez of the video movement.
Beryl and I did converse a few years ago and would meet infrequently to visit art galleries in New York. When I proposed that we videotape a conversation, with an interviewer, over a dinner, to reflect upon what Radical Software might be today, Beryl was skeptical about the idea but willing to discuss it. We met once with David Ross, a possible interviewer, but the chemistry was lacking. It would be interesting to have an exchange with others about creating a modern version of Radical Software.“Video did enable people to see themselves as if for the first time."
Video did enable people to see themselves as if for the first time. You'd look and see and be able to self-correct motions, attitudes and more. It extended the mirror for greater psychological and physical adjustment. We never foresaw the internet or iPhone or YouTube. It wasn't until 1993, with the first graphical web browser, that media technology and digital culture met to become a popular medium.
Now, at the pre-teen era of the Information Age, the barrage of data is in a state of free-for-all. Information rarely gets sorted out to enable distinct cultural meaning. It was thought at one time that through feedback loops and interactivity a platform for self-correction would emerge in the culture, rather than relentless self pre-occupation. Misinformation and counter-information have piled up like so much debris. Data arrives quickly and in quips, speeded up and sensationalized. Users can hardly lift their heads or move their thumbs fast enough to keep up with the flow of attention demands.
Control mechanisms are over-layered, felt by some in a psychological atmosphere, but hardly deduced by others. Thus messages are systematically regurgitated resulting in feelings of frustration and loss. There are more wars and they are endless. There is talk of our own pending extinction. Mass media and information technology have deepened the mind-body split by causing emotionally fixated conjectures regularly. Or as Hakim Bey writes: …fixating our flow of attention on alienated information rather than direct face-to-face and embodied experiences of material human life, the core of any genuine human freedom. Websites abound with self-proclaimed shamans. If this is pre-teen, what will the teens bring, and early adulthood? Each decade of human life seems pre-conditioned genetically to deal with specific concerns so perhaps the same relationship exists between information and the unseen.
As for the electromagnetic spectrum, there are economists, like Peter Barnes, who propose that fees for that and other resources be shared with everyone who holds a Social Security card. I'd say everyone who has a birth certificate.
If it's all in your mind, the corporate media giants own your mind. At the still core of consciousness lies the unspoken feeling that sanity can be regained. Too esoteric? Be reassured. Notice your senses. Come to them. Assume control. Sweep away the crumbs. Be kind. Ask your questions and wait for the responses. Listen. Meditate. Perhaps a fair and fluid new operating ecosystem can be summoned from thin air.
Hand-made flyer for Videotape Meeting at City Lights Poet's Theatre, January 1972.
Distaste or disgust involves a rejection of an idea that has been offered for enjoyment.
—Immanuel Kant, Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, 1798
For the first time, this year's Seven on Seven will have an overarching theme offered to participants as a provocation: Empathy & Disgust.
Scene from Her
We chose this theme partly because of recent discussions about "affective computing," which aims to detect and respond appropriately to users' emotions. The field gained some visibility after the release of Spike Jonze's Her; writing for Rhizome, Martine Syms argued that the film could be read as "an elaborate product spec" for intelligent agents that can replace human relationships. Recently, a new crop of apps that function as "Intelligent Personal Agents" bring us a step closer to this future, while a more speculative app from Blast Theory offers a fully-fledged emotional relationship with a virtual character who gradually reveals herself to be "needy, sloppy, piteous, and desperate."
Some of the real-world research underpinning emotional analysis was discussed in a New Yorker piece earlier this year, focusing on the work of Affectiva and scientist Rana el Kaliouby. The company is developing a tool called Affdex that can "make relable interences about people's emotions" based on video monitoring:
During the 2012 Presidential elections, Kaliouby’s team used Affdex to track more than two hundred people watching clips of the Obama-Romney debates, and concluded that the software was able to predict voting preference with seventy-three-per-cent accuracy.
Outside of the lab, algorithms and networks have already become deeply involved in our emotional lives. In summer 2014, Facebook made headlines for having altered the content of users' News Feeds in order to manipulate their moods for a scientific study. Kate Crawford, writing in The Atlantic, argued that the project was an obvious breach of ethics, having clear potential for harm and having been conducted without participants' knowledge. Later in the year, Facebook was accused of "algorithmic cruelty" for non-scientific reasons when its "Year in Review" app paired often painful images from the past year with the words, "Here's what your year looked like!"
What such projects aim for, in part, is the automation of affective labor, the work of managing our emotions and those of others around us. Affective labor has long been discussed in Marxist theory because it serves an important economic purpose, is often marginalized, and is generally un- or underpaid. In the digital era, affective labor has been captured by the market in new ways: by social media platforms, who can convert our baby pictures into advertising and market research dollars, and by "sharing economy" services. As Rob Horning wrote following a 2014 Rhizome panel:
The sharing economy's rise is a reflection of capitalism’s need to find new profit opportunities in aspects of social life once shielded from the market, in leisure time once withdrawn from waged labor, in spaces and affective resources once withheld from becoming a kind of capital.
When affective labor is automated, who benefits? Tom Cutterham reflected in The New Inquiry that:
If only we could revolutionize human relationships without touching political-economic structure! If only we could all be more friendly! Those are capital’s desires, not ours. In How to Win Friends and Influence People, Carnegie quoted John D. Rockefeller: "The ability to deal with people," he said, "is as purchasable a commodity as sugar or coffee … and I will pay more for that ability than for any other under the sun." What Carnegie knew is that friendliness doesn’t come naturally under capitalism. He supplied that valuable commodity not so much to his readers as to their bosses. A century later, capital has managed to reduce the price of friendliness to nearly nothing. If you want to keep your job in an age of affective labor, you’ll serve that coffee and sugar with a smile.
Affective computing, of course, has implications outside the service industry. Health care is a major focus. Robot nurses have long been used to deliver medicine; data from social networks and fitness trackers is increasingly used to understand users' emotional well-being and mental health. Syms hinted at this in her short fiction piece "Her Quantified Self," a first-person account of a FuelBand user, writing "She slept for 12 hours and worries for a moment that it means she is depressed." What do the data say about us? And what does it mean when such conclusions may be drawn without our knowledge by governments, employers, and insurers?
Of course, affective computing engages with the entire spectrum of human emotion. Why did we choose to use "empathy and disgust" as our theme?
Bill Gates drinking recycled water
One reason is that these are unusual kinds of emotions. They have as much to do with aesthetics and ethics as they do with intuitive response. Disgust can be a gut reaction, a strong dislike of a smell or the sight of moldy food. But if we feel disgust in order to avoid contamination, that contamination may be moral, rather than biological. Disgust is a necessary response to behaviors that we find repugnant, and there are times when it must be registered. At the same time, disgusting objects hold great fascination (as Christopher Turner pointed out in Cabinet Magazine), and therefore play an important role in art:
Kant puritanically turned his head away from the paradoxical, hedonistic, and formless intensity of disgust’s pleasures, which threatened to smother him.
Empathy carries with it an obvious moral imperative: we must be willing to imagine the subject positions of others, and to imagine them as valid as the basis for any meaningful collective existence or social life. Strangely, technology can facilitate empathy or its opposite. Yesterday, it allowed a baseball game to be played to television cameras in an empty stadium while we all retreat to our separate corners, full of mutual suspicion. But the network, even with its constant data-gathering and value extraction, can also be a place where we encounter and imagine difference, where we can listen to marginalized voices from Toxic Twitter to the Objectum-Sexual Internationale.
Illustration by Fotolia/wormig
For this auspicious seventh edition of Seven on Seven, we will be convening wonderful thinkers and makers in art and technology tomorrow in the offices of NEW INC on the Bowery for one-day collaborations. The results, which may include new objects for aesthetic contemplation and social function, will be revealed at a live-streamed conference on Saturday. The collaborations will go in a wide range of directions, but we will offer these two modes, empathy and disgust, as a starting point for conversation.
The first computer on the show (1,1).
Combining endurance performance art and media studies, artist Jeff Thompson captured over 11,000 images of the show Law & Order while watching the complete original series over the course of 18 months, often at an increased frame rate in order to save time. Through these images, he tracked the computer's changing role on the show from its debut as a static background prop to its starring role as the focus of characters' attention and the basis of plotlines. Those images have been published to a Tumblr on an ongoing basis since the launch of the project; the final post went up today.
Clunky monitors slowly move to the front of the desk (5, 89)
Computers on Law & Order was created per a Rhizome commission in 2012 — an apt time to analyze the ongoing interdependence of technology and daily life. As Thompson immersed himself in television drama's interpretation of the rise of the internet and the appearance of the Blackberry, real-world consumers were being influenced by appification and the mainstream prevalence of the cloud. The ability to “binge watch”—coupled with the power to stream comfortably with near immediacy—is what ignited Thompson’s initial interest in the project; after obsessive detailing and the creation of logical infographics, his ultimate findings sound like an anthropological study of American culture:
“Law & Order is an even more interesting cultural artifact than I could have ever expected. The show forms a unique database of images and speech, and one that reflects the fascinations, fears, and biases of its time. Law & Order's long run and its ‘ripped from the headlines’ content makes it a useful lens through which to look at a period of great political and economic change in the United States.”
In addition to the Tumblr, a curated book of image selections was self-published by the artist last year, along with an accompanying essay on Rhizome.
A still from Law and Order episode #456, 2010
A still from Law and Order episode #456, 2010
Lunch Bytes began as a series of panel discussions on the topic of art and digital culture in Washington D.C. in 2011 and 2012. Curated by Melanie Bühler and supported primarily by the Goethe Institut, it expanded across the European continent from 2013 to 2015, partnering with local institutions in nine cities and bringing together 112 “artists and experts” for 24 events. As a final hurrah to conclude the series, in March of this year 24 past participants were invited to a conference at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin, with four panel discussions each corresponding to one of the overarching themes that quartered the series: Medium, Structures and Textures, Society, and Life. Bookending the conference panels were keynotes by art historians David Joselit and Melissa Gronlund, plus a summary panel at the end.
While in previous events each of these large headlines possessed a sub-heading and a detailed focus text for the panelists to address, the conference took much broader strokes, allowing freer interpretation of those topics. Content therefore took shape horizontally through the confluence of individual perspectives, geared by participants rather than through top-down direction.
I moderated the final themed panel of the conference, “Life;” interpreting this title became a springboard into the discussion. In my introduction I emphasized the fact that anything “life”-like can also be construed as a form of labor: particularly the practices of artistic representation, self-representation, and representational politics presumably at stake in this conference on digital society.
The first speaker, Cornelia Sollfrank, provided a historical context to those practices in relation to cyberfeminism, while simultaneously critiquing the generational position she felt she represented and the ahistoricism of contemporary practice that could imply. Second, Cecile B. Evans re-routed the expectation of artistic self-narrative by converting the platform into a “live” version of one of her multimedia projects, an oblique approach to representing both her work and her subject position. Lastly, Jesse Darling, who refrained from showing any images of her artworks, questioned the so-called authority of artistic production over other kinds of image making, and therefore the presumed authority (and pigeonholing) inherent in a speaking gig.
Darling posed the bind like this: “I was asked to this panel, ‘Life’, to talk about subjectivity and the self in digital technology. It’s unfortunate for me, since some years ago I fled into abstraction to escape the sidelining of my entire self and politics into the digital feminist discourse, whatever that is. On the other hand, it is my own fault; I should have stuck to 140 characters.”
Meta-discussion of the format in which a discussion takes place holds as much potential for circularity as for critique. In this case, the Life framework, which we all felt the need to address, functioned as a necessary provocation to trigger and propel the conversation beyond itself. To repeat something I once wrote about an artwork I like: “the work provides an outlet from the sphere of the art world within the scope of its influence.” Try replacing “the work” with “life.”
Here we are in the echo chamber.
All videos can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCDgj4v9Oi2362r8SFLz94TQ.
Last Friday, 12 out of 14 participants in this year's Seven on Seven (Jacob Appelbaum and Ai Weiwei worked remotely in Beijing), descended on NEW INC., home to Rhizome, to work in pairs on projects around the theme of Empathy and Disgust. Here is some of that work in progress.
Rhizome Artistic Director Michael Connor with Nate Silver and Liam Gillick. Photo: Madison McGaw/BFA
Thricedotted at work with Hannah Black. Photo: Madison McGaw/BFA
Gina Trapani and Martin Syms. Photo: Madison McGaw/BFA
Camille Henrot and Harlo Holmes. Photo: Madison McGaw/BFA
Photography services for Seven on Seven 2015 were provided by:
Martine Syms and Gina Trapani at the 7th edition of Seven on Seven. Photo: Madison McGaw/BFA
On Saturday, the seventh edition of Rhizome’s Seven on Seven conference took place at the New Museum. For the conference, Rhizome pairs up seven artists and seven technologists and gives them a simple assignment: make something in twenty-four hours, and present the results the following day in a public conference. In the past, participants have launched artworks and startup companies; the potential risk and reward involved in these encounters between leading figures in distinct but overlapping fields is what lends Seven on Seven its particular drama. Whatever the results, the conference is always a fascinating look at the process of collaboration and a snapshot of contemporary concerns in the discourse around art and technology. The theme of Empathy & Disgust ran throughout this edition; as a point of departure, it allowed participants a starting point around which to structure their collaborations; in particular, it seemed to point many participants toward the problem of having to relate to the computer, whether it treats as data points or patients, consumers or targets. Without further ado, here are the big ideas to emerge from this edition!
Kate Crawford interviews Laura Poitras. Photo: Madison McGaw/BFA.
Kate Crawford began her conversation with Laura Poitras by asking about the "cultural and artistic moments" around mass surveillance. It was an apt starting point, because in the intense public discussions that surrounded the Snowden leaks, the importance of Poitras' artistic practice was easy to overlook. But in addition to transforming public awareness, Poitras' film was also an important document of the experience of standing up to the state and living under constant, invasive surveillance. There is a need for such stories; for her part, Poitras cited 1984 as a source of inspiration, and described the difficulties of trying to make art under constant watch: the arduous logistics of maintaining secrecy, the problem of trying to record one’s thoughts in full view of a hostile government, the symptoms of stress that manifest under surveillance. She maintained that artists should be given wide latitude in their approach to questions of surveillance - even if their work sometimes raises ethical questions. But while she acknowledged the validity of a range of artistic positions (such as that of Sophie Calle) on surveillance, her own position was clear: "Surveillance is a kind of power, and counter-surveillance is an act of resistance."
Stanya Kahn and Rus Yusupov give their presentation. Photo: Madison McGaw/BFA.
"Messaging is an intimate one-on-one way of connecting, but it also implies a distance," Stanya Kahn said, explaining why the video she made with Rus Yusupov took the form of a dialogue. The philosophical differences between the two marked their collaboration: Kahn's video work has many characteristics that would play well on Vine—weird characters, penis costumes, body horror—but she sees political potential in art. Yusupov, for his part, believes that "the future of art is bliss," not politics. But despite their differences, Kahn and Yusupov stuck with the process. They found the most common ground in the idea that constraints are beneficial to the creative process. This idea can be seen in the design of Vine, which gives users constraints such as six seconds and a square frame; Kahn also uses self-imposed constraints as a way to shape her videos. The two worked on ways to offer these additional constraints to Vine users, such as: "BLINDFOLD / RUNNING SHOT / AT LEAST 2 GIFS / NIGHT." But in the end, their contribution will be remembered for the humor they were able to find in their situation as collaborators with diverging philosophies.
Or perhaps it will be for Yusupov's transformation from feelings of disgust to empathy. Initially, he was disgusted at the unfairness of a process that allowed Ai Weiwei and Jacob Appelbaum to spend two days together with their own filmmaker (something none of the other participants were granted). He embarked on a secret mission, asking Rhizome staff and journalist Kashmir Hill what had been produced in Beijing, covertly filming all the while. He and Kahn discussed the idea of leaking Ai and Appelbaum's project as their presentation. Ultimately, however, Yusupov began to feel more empathy for the heavily surveilled duo, and although he did learn what Ai and Appelbaum made, he and Kahn (spoiler alert) decided to keep mum. Their video is below:
Liam Gillick and Nate Silver give their presentation. Photo: Madison McGaw/BFA.
Artist Gillick came into the collaboration with statistician and data journalist Silver thinking about the concept of what he called "phantom data"—of the unquantifiable or unknowable. Focusing on what data can't tell us might seem to offer a challenge to the statistician's world view, but Silver had his own term ready for this phenomenon: "dark corners." Finding common ground in skepticism, but approaching it with very different vocabularies, the two took one of the common questions commonly addressed using statistical analysis—how to reduce risk—and inverted it, asking "how can we guarantee risk?" Applying this question to Seven on Seven itself and the process of creativity and innovation it demanded, Silver observed that our understanding of innovation suffers from "sample bias": we have a distorted perception of the success rate of new ideas because only the successful ones are discussed. Failure in creative production and innovation represents "phantom data" or a "dark corner." Looking for a data set that could fill in this gap, Silver and Gillick delved into the database of failed trademarks, 4.5 million company names that represent ideas that didn’t quite play out, from Krautsource to Porna. They curated a selection of the names, and opened their presentation with this surreal found text, set to music, which offered a glimpse of the little-shared stories of failure in creativity and innovation.
Many of the presentations at Seven on Seven were characterized by an interest in the problem of human-computer relationships. Henrot and Holmes, instead of thinking of the computer as an artificial human, looked to other non-human categories to help understand our relationship with it. Drawing on the writing of Peter Sloterdijk, they proposed thinking of the computer as a kind of god or supernatural presence. Their project drew inspiration from the Ai Qing; as Henrot observed, this divinatory system predates any written record of civilization; thus "The desire to know the future comes before the recording of what's happened. And that's why we directed ourselves to this idea instead of the idea of archiving or what happened yesterday." The two developed a software tool that takes a reading of a user’s desktop in answer to specific questions, responding with a mixture of imagery and remixed text drawn from poets such as Dickinson (WWII codes, they pointed out, were based on poetry). While the methodology behind their application was charmingly dubious, it was complex enough to distract an anxious mind from obsession with a specific problem, which they argued was a key function of any divinatory system. And there is something to the idea that the contents of our desktop reveal something about ourselves that we may not even see: "The personal computer is a space that represents you somehow, or a moment of your being...The desktop is where things rest when they haven’t been processed yet. In that way, it's similar to a dream."
Paglen and Krieger identified a shared interest in machine vision early in the work day. Their first idea was to develop tools to fool machine vision algorithms—to “cloak” images so that humans could understand them, and machines could not. Imagine a "goldfish" filter on Instagram that could make any image look like a goldfish to an algorithm. This specific idea didn't quite work out, but spoofing machine vision in general turned out to be extremely easy to do, so the pair pulled in a third collaborator to deepen their research: artist and technologist Adam Harvey, who has done extensive research into machine vision and cloaking. Working together, the three decided to ask a different question: how can we teach ourselves to see like machines? They selected a range of images that have unique cultural importance, and analyzed them through various machine vision algorithms: edge detection, nudity detection, facial recognition. The results, presented as a slideshow, serve as a snapshot of how vision is carried out at this historical moment, making visible some of the ideologies behind algorithms that are often seen as neutral or objective: ethics and historical context are stripped; non-white skin is overlooked; everything is reduced to faces, bodies, and objects. And the Mona Lisa is interpreted as: "a beautiful young blonde in a black dress taking a selfie."
Syms and Trapani’s contribution took the form of a quiz. What is your mother-in-law’s maiden name? Who was your favorite uncle? These questions appear on a black screen; after you have filled in many answers, a result is generated. The questions it asks may seem familiar; they are all drawn from security questions asked during the sign-up process on a range of websites. Like the text used by Gillick and Silver, this text is both an index of this moment in capitalism and a snapshot of human experience. It’s an index of capitalism in that these questions exist because websites do not want to pay for customer service representatives to talk users through the process of resetting their password, and it’s a snapshot of human experience in that so much of our experience on the web is about being asked questions. (“What’s happening?” asks Twitter. "What 90s girl group are you?" asks Buzzfeed.) Why this eagerness to answer questions, even when they are posed by a bot? For Syms and Trapani, we are always looking for the same thing, whether we are trying to understand our deep connection with Bikini Kill or telling our feed about our train delay. Thus, the result of their quiz is always the same: “You are connected to something larger than yourself.”
Heather Corcoran, Laura Poitras, Kashmir Hill, Kate Crawford. Photo: Madison McGaw/BFA.
The quote is actually from Appelbaum’s Twitter feed, but it sums up his collaboration with artist Ai Weiwei very well. Another quote that might have served, if it wasn’t so US-centric: “F*CK THE NSA,” from Appelbaum’s T-shirt. As Appelbaum isn’t able to travel to the US, and Ai isn’t able to leave China, the two met at Ai’s Beijing studio, along with filmmaker Laura Poitras, who documented the experience. The story of the meeting of the “global dissident elite” was trenchantly covered by Kashmir Hill in a must-read story at fusion.net. The project, in the end, took the form of eight toy pandas from whom the stuffing had been removed and replaced with shredded Snowden documents and an SD card (contents unknown, supplied by Appelbaum). The project was called “Panda to Panda,” and Poitras’ film on the collaboration, entitled “Surveillance Machine,” will be online in the coming weeks.
Hannah Black read unremittingly into a microphone. A Mac running Apple Translate tried to keep up; when Black paused, a Python script would attempt to interpret her words back to her. “Enemy” became “Miami,” and at one point it referred to the “extinct (sic) Algonquian (sic) people”; Thrice looked horrified that her creation would say such a thing, and Black accused the bot of a colonialist slur. Overall, the performance focused on the question of what kinds of human labor can be mechanized - or are valued enough to mechanize - and dramatized the bot’s failure to perform the “affective” labor of understanding and care. But the presentation was most memorable for the specific observations that emerged from Black’s staccato delivery, addressed to a dumb bot:
Intimacy remains necessary and hard to mechanize. That is either because it is irreducibly human, or because the work of women or people who are like women is cheap, or free, at point of service.
When you aggregate the social, for example on an app, you also aggregate violence. Violence is not hard to mechanize. We already have robots who can do that.
The robot is disappointing. It does not know how to behave. The artist does not know how to behave either, but she hopes that she knows how not to be disappointing. Do you know what I am a technology for?
Sometimes I circulate as images, or as words.
In theory, there is something utopian about Twitter in that it collectivizes feeling.
In theory, there is something utopian about the NSA's total recording of all language. Of every word said in love or anger or boredom. As we can see from social media, most people do not mind if a machine records all their words...
Reading and misreading are among the first operations of love.
How did something called language become separate from something called nature? In a different context, human names for things are also their secret essences.
I speak an ugly language that history forced into my mouth. I work hard to make it beautiful for people and machines who don't understand me.
I am telling you this for money and for love.
Maybe next year's edition should be titled "money and love." Until then, look out for Laura Poitras' film Surveillance Machine and full video of the conference in the coming weeks!
Rhizome's Seven on Seven 2015 was supported by:
Last year, Rhizome awarded a $500 microgrant to Lena NW and Costcodreamgurl to create a game "that parodies celebrity status games (i.e. Kim Kardashian: Hollywood... but focuses on the concept of becoming an internet celebrity via social media." Their game is now here, and it carries with it one hell of a trigger warning: "graphic sexual violence, cultural appropriation, scat, bestiality, feminism, patriarchy, sexualization of school shooters, inconsistant use of fonts." Click here to play.
From the artists' statement:
Viral is a browser game that conceptualizes becoming an internet celebrity while examining how performance, narcissism, nihilism, exploitation, self-commodification and identity construction manifest on social media. During gameplay, players interact with parodies of social media applications that have been reimagined as games, to work towards the ultimate goal of becoming internet famous at all costs. There is no immediately apparent objective in the game to simulate aimlessly wasting time on social media. Staples of Internet culture, like memes, snuff media, shock sites, naked picture leaks, cyber-bullying and pornography are remixed and collaged. Viral references the general desensitization that characterizes Millennial, likely a response to the aberrant, bizarre and extreme content the internet has made accessible to Millennial since adolescence.
Both the creators, Lena NW and Costcodreamgurl took initial inspiration for Viral from their experience as children getting banned from Neopets.com (a virtual pets website for kids founded in 1999) for attempting cyber sex on their forums. Furries, or anthropomorphic sexualized animals are recurrent characters that reference concepts of malleable identity and anonymity online, while simultaneously commenting on the tendency for humans to sexualize everything. Lena and Costcodreamgurl wanted to make a game that represented the culture they are from; Millennial internet culture. The culture of being a child and feeding your cute virtual pets, then a few clicks later, watching hardcore pornography. The culture of being a preteen admiring scene queens on MySpace and valuing "likes" and "friends" as though they were a type of currency. The culture of clicking seemingly innocent links and being confronted with an image of a gaping anus without any warning. Viral deliberately remixes ethically dubious content to become self-referential about the way controversy translates into monetization online; it doesn’t matter what people are saying about you, generate sensationalist click-bait and you will capitalize on the quantity of your viewership. The game is created in the spirit of the internet troll, who seeks to disrupt others and violate community standards, while preserving their anonymity
Anni Puolakka and Laura Jantunen, performance/reading/book launch of V4ULT publication A gesture waves us on, answering our own wave (2014), SIC, Helsinki.
V4ULT is a curatorial platform initiated by Anna Mikkola and Hanna Nilsson in 2013. Taking place in various built environments, in book form, and online, the project has been described as an "interface" through which people, ideas and artworks move. The project's website has been archived by Rhizome using the dynamic web archiving tool Webrecorder (developed by Ilya Kreymer), and Mikkola will take part in a forum organized by Rhizome at the New Museum on the topic of the Born-Digital Art Institution.
The first iteration of the project took place in a walk-in closet in their former studio in Berlin. One exhibition in that space, "Breathing Kevlar, Perforated Skin," presented works that could be held in your hand. The accompanying website for episode 1 included documentation video for each exhibition, accessed by clicking on a black rectangle at the top right of thepage, with each video displayed against a custom background with stills of the online work that was part of each show. Each video documented the exhibition from the point of view of an investigating visitor–zooming into details of the work, swooping around the room or slowly scanning across it with the subtle shakes of a handheld camera. By moving away from a sterile exhibition documentation format, the exhibition in the space and its online experience became less disparate and felt more intimate.
Screenshot of documentation of "Breathing Kevlar, Perforated Skin" on V4ULT.CC
In 2014, V4ULT edited and designed the print publication a gesture waves us on, answering our own wave, published by NERO. The publication discussed various angles on interfaces and interfacial experiences; it used the margins of the page to include found images and quotes from previously published texts which framed the printed page itself as a potential interface. The publication was launched in Berlin, London, and Helsinki, which included a performance directed by V4ULT, of two actors reading water-soaked excerpts from the book.
A snapshot of V4ULT - Anna Mikkola & Hanna Nilsson, Eds, a gesture waves us on, answering our own wave (2014), published by Nero
The second iteration of V4ULT, running between December 2014 and March 2015, took place in a refurbished industrial building in the Treptower neighborhood of Berlin, where their work studios are also located. It consisted of solo and group exhibitions into which temporary interventions by another invited artist were inserted. The interventions took form in video, performance, and sound. Each intervention was documented within the pre-existing exhibition and featured on their website. For this episode, the website was redesigned; while the documentation for episode 1 was more constructed, the website for episode 2 felt like a live window into the space, with full-screen video documentation of the most recent intervention. I spoke to Anna Mikkola and Hanna Nilsson via email about their amoeba-like curatorial approach and the practicalities of experimentation while working as a non-profit space.
What were your curatorial aims for this iteration of V4ULT?
V4ULT surfaces in episodes, each inhabiting a different space and presenting art through a certain structure that we have created around the episode. The most recent episode explored what type of interpretations emerge from the work when two practices overlap. Layers, clashes and frictions. The episode included three solo shows and a group show. In addition, we inserted two interventions into each show, so there were events in our space almost every other week during the four months that the episode spanned. The interventions were time-based ‘performative’ works like video screenings, performances, readings, and sound works either invited or directed by us. It is important for us to move from a static exhibition format to a dynamic one. In this episode we approached the exhibition as a stage where different actors, the audience, the art works and practices come together either in agreement or dissonance.
The starting point for the interventions is thinking about art beyond authenticity. We create situations, spaces and constructions that invite the layering of practices. It's easy to feel confined by different pre-determined roles and expected ways of working. With V4ULT, we try and create a practice where we can work in different roles, as editors/directors/writers/curators/designers/artists. Based on our experience, collaboration and participation are never seamless, so we create situations where frictions are bound to occur in the midst of dialogue. Openness to tensions lays the ground for discussing them. Both of us work through pseudonyms often, because that allows a certain freedom of movement and the creation of multiple identities. V4ULT is one of our identities.
We aim to create spaces and situations where different entities meet and coexist. An example of this way of working is the group show "IMMUNITY (chorus)" that we showed at the end of March 2015. The show was a 2 hour long performance where the space was a stage for a drama and the art works played a central role, looking into ways to mobilize the works. The play that we directed involved three actors who performed a ritual where soil was carried into the space in an endless loop. There was no static view of the "exhibition," because the art works and the lighting were moved around, altering the focal point. The performers were gradually burying the art works under the soil—hiding, protecting, concealing, and storing them for another moment in time.
What were some of the principles that guided the design of the website?
We approach the design of the website in the same manner that we work with the particularities and limitations of the spaces we inhabit. We try to push the boundaries of what's expected from a website, to make the website into a dynamic space with depth. Often we enhance the limitations that come when working in a browser window environment by making the use of its particularities in the design.
Each episode has its own website design, which reflects the architectural setting and the structure of the episode. In Episode 1 one of the works was only shown on the website to explore how the show appears to the viewer when it's divided between the spaces. The documentation of the exhibition included screenshots of the online work and video documentation of the works shown in the space. They are overlaid with each other in the archive section. We commissioned Hanne Lippard to create a spoken word work for V4ULT.
Episode 2 explores the overlaps of different practices by setting up interventions into the solo shows; the design of the website supports this idea. The documentation of the interventions appears layered over the documentation of the show itself. Presented simultaneously, these different documentations invite multiple views of the work.
Through the fragmented video documentation we push forward the idea that contemporary art is open to interpretation. Documentation images taken so as to appear neutral or objective produce a specific view of the artwork, so we try and see in what manner a more subjective interpretation can function.
How do you see V4ULT working with or against the traditional idea of a "non-profit" space? What are your general thoughts about the non-profit category and what it means for the programming?
We see V4ULT more as a platform than a space. Thinking of it as a platform allows more freedom to direct the project towards courses that respond to our evolving interests. It’s important for us to keep the project growing and transforming in parallel with our own practices. V4ULT allows us to test new ways to work, collaborate, direct, edit, and curate. We also work with artists to create new forms and formats.
For the sake of V4ULT being a testing laboratory, it would probably be hard to turn it to a commercial gallery. At the moment this isn’t a topic of discussion for us, since it doesn’t seem particularly relevant.
How is the project supported financially? What do you do to support yourself as you work on V4ULT?
We have received grants from The Nordic Culture Fund to fund the costs of both of our episodes. We cover the flights of the artists who we invite to have solo shows with us and give them a modest artist fee. We have also received work grants for our own artistic and curatorial projects, in addition to both working with design on our own ends. Hanna runs PWR studio with Rasmus Svensson.
Screenshot of http://v4ult.cc
How did you find the gallery space; what is the general demographic of the area—is it mostly industrial, or do families live there?
We chose the space because it is in the same building as our personal work studios. The whole building, which at some point was an industrial laundromat, is at the moment used as artists studios. It’s important for us that the space is intimate and easily accessible. The area is a bit remote, consisting of a mix of industrial and residential buildings - very different from Kottbusser Tor, where we hosted the first episode. We finished the 2nd episode at the end of March and closed the space that we have had for the past 4 months. Now we are editing together a longer video documentation from our last group show and we will see later on what form V4ULT takes next.
Anna Mikkola and Hanna Nilsson of V4ULT document the space following the last group exhibition: "IMMUNITY (chorus)" (March 2015)
"I think of the home office as the studio," Travess Smalley contends, an interest which is reflected in his use of the flatbed scanner as image-making tool and sculptural object. This embrace of the basics of domestic computing culture speaks to the interests of the "surf club" generation of artists, who in the mid- to late-aughts used group blogs (Smalley was a member of one called Loshadka) to make conversational, collaborative net art out of memes, links, and the semiotics of the web.
And yet Smalley's process of layering clay on the scanner bed, scanning the composition, and digitally altering the result to create a photographic print (as in the piece at auction), results in works relating as much to digital culture as to pop art (think, Jasper Johns), contemporary process abstraction (Gerhard Richter), and early photographic experimentation (Henry Fox Talbot's impressions).
This is the second year of Rhizome's benefit auction, which brings together a small selection of works that we passionately believe in. 50% of net revenues will go to support Rhizome's program, and 50% to the artists themselves.
In 1996-1997 the artist duo Komar & Melamid hired professional polling companies to conduct a worldwide survey of musical tastes. Based on the averaged results, they partnered with musician Dave Soldier to create "The Most Wanted Song" (described as "Celine-Dion-esque") and "The Most Unwanted Song" (bagpipes, children's choir) in the world. This project, part of their series People's Choice (which included a net art commission for the Dia), was at once an earnest attempt to better understand mainstream aesthetic tastes and an ironic statement about the absurdity of trying to quantify those tastes via statistical averages.
Cover art for The People's Choice Music by Komar & Melamid and Dave Soldier.
In April 2015, a group of British biologists published a study in The Royal Society journal that similarly compresses musical trends into data, in this case applying much more technology and much less humor. In the survey "The Evolution of Popular Music: USA 1960-2010," Matthias Mauch, Robert M. MacCallum et al. analyze the chord and tone patterns of 30-second clips from over 17,000 songs appearing on the Billboard Hot 100 chart within that 50 year period, applying, according to them, a similar approach to paleontologists examining the fossil record. Besides giving insight to pop history, they hope to point "the way to a quantitative science of cultural change." Why, the researchers ask, can't musicology be more like evolutionary biology?
The study makes several claims about musical trends, such as that there have been three major music "revolutions" since 1960: a big spike in 1991 and two smaller peaks in 1964 and 1983. There were also lulls: 1986 was the least diverse musical year they identified, which they attributed to the introduction of drum machines and synthesizers. And in terms of major movements over that whole time span, they discovered, lo and behold, that "rise of RAP and related genres appears […] to be the single most important event that has shaped the musical structure of the American charts."
Image: Royal Society Open Science
The biggest bomb the authors drop is explosive enough to warrant its own declarative section title: "The British did not start the American revolution of 1964." According to the scatter plot, British bands like The Beatles may have contributed, but were not responsible for, the major innovations of the 60s. Coming from British researchers, we can rest assured that this fact must be truly objective.
Since "Popular music genres such as COUNTRY and RAP partially capture musical styles but, besides being informal, are also based on non-musical factors such as the age or ethnicity of performers," the researchers needed to make sure that their computer-generated genre categorization matched those of humans, who, unlike algorithms, subtly incorporate assessments like "she's black" into their musical classifications. To do so, they compared their algorithmic discernments with genre-tags made by the approximately 50 million users of music streaming website Last.fm (a data scientist from Last.fm is also listed as a study author), and found a high level of correspondence.
While this is a cool triumph for mass data analysis, the conclusions one can reasonably draw from it are limited. Admittedly, their "measures must capture only a fraction of the phenotypic complexity of even the simplest song"—or, as John Kovach puts it in an article for New Scientist, taking a 30-second clip of a song like "Bohemian Rhapsody" and using it as exemplary of the whole thing is a bit ridiculous. Kovach also rightly questions the British Invasion conclusion, given that the Beatles, for instance, never even released a single from the album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band that could have ended up on the Hot 100.
Extra points for a scientist on lead guitar.
But the most important obstacle to treating musicology as hard science, as is so often when someone boringly tries to naturalize cultural processes, is that the study obfuscates as much as it reveals. The "evolution" of music has been genetically modified throughout the last century by the music industry. Record companies have long been known to manipulate and sway the ratings, not to mention deciding who gets to make what kind of music in the first place by selecting for those "non-musical factors" like ethnicity, gender, age, weight, hair, and on and on. The report states: "we did not attempt to obtain a representative sample of all the songs that were released in the USA in that period of time, but just those that were most commercially successful." As a result, this study does not demonstrate that musical innovation spiked or that styles diversified at certain times. It won't tell you about the emergence of rock steady in Kingston; it will only tell you about the products of a profit-driven US-dominated industry with its own inherent bias, without exposing this bias to scrutiny. If human activity is now understood as a direct influence on the evolution (and extinction) of other species, corporate influence is the natural environment that shapes the evolution of culture, according to the researchers' definition. Anthropocene; Corporatocene.
Instead of casting light on the corporatocene, the study merely amplifies its effects. If it's now possible to better understand long-term trends in music, it's also now likely that these findings will be applied to future industry decision-making. That's something the study's buddies at Last.fm, a company that proudly announces "Whatever you're listening to and wherever you're listening to it from—we know about it," must have realized at some point during this collaboration with big science. The familiar feedback loop of institutional bias ensues, with bias now written into the data model. "No doubt some will disagree with our scientific approach and think it's too limited for such an emotional subject," says co-author Matthias Mauch. But it's not emotion that is lacking from this study. It's science. Science, and Alton Ellis.
Printed Web 3 is currently featured on the front page of Rhizome.org as a browsable Apache directory.
Earlier this year, I announced an open call for the third issue of Printed Web, a semi-annual publication dedicated to web-to-print discourse. I received a stunning array of files from recognized artists like Olia Lialina, Kim Asendorf, and Clement Valla, but the real beauty of the open call was connecting with a new group of people working with material found or created on the web —147 contributors in all. A particularly diverse view of networked culture formed on my desktop through an accumulation of notes, attachments, tweets, and downloads. Gathering this community around Printed Web was immensely satisfying for me, and I wanted to include every submission in the issue — but having received hundreds of PDFs, JPGs, PNGs, and GIFs, the logistical challenges to this have been considerable.
My intention had always been to publish all of the files received in a single print edition, but as submissions poured in, I decided that “scattering” the material across different networked versions would allow the project to occupy multiple positions in a way that suited its multiplicitous content.
A cheap, black-and-white, print-on-demand paperback book becomes just one of the physical artifacts of Printed Web 3. All of the artists' files come together in this Index/Reader as a "defense of poor media," prioritizing accessibility and circulation over craft and polish. Potent texts by Alexander Galloway (an interview) and Silvio Lorusso (a manifesto), grabbed from the web, provide some context and framing.
A collection of 10 print-on-demand zines focuses the material into curated groupings. A tight selection of 10 images printed onto neoprene fabric slows some of the work down even further, wrapping PDFs around books like insulating skin.
If the books, zines, and skins are a meager attempt to fix some stability into the work as printout matter, the files are also offered for download in several different formats, allowing "readers" of Printed Web 3 to perform their own versions of the material. A 147-page-frame GIF compresses all the material into a single loop, while all 329 files submitted to the open call are organized into artist folders as an archive (in the order that I received them). These files, available via Dropbox or a server directory on rhizome.org, may be browsed, downloaded, printed, posted, and circulated.
Paul Soulellis is a New York-based artist, designer and publisher, maintaining his studio at NEW INC at the New Museum. He teaches at Rhode Island School of Design. Paul is the founder of Library of the Printed Web, an expanding physical archive devoted to web-to-print artists’ books, zines and other printout matter, and he publishes Printed Web, a semi-annual print-on-demand publication of web-to-print art and discourse. He writes and speaks extensively about his experimental publishing research.
Ever the defender of the laptop as a gateway to more accurate and speculative expressions of the self, Herndon goes for the throat of the issues of our contemporary future with her second album, Platform.
Having gathered together several collaborators with varied abilities and perspectives, she holds a sort of speculative symposium in the form of ten audio tracks. Her focus is the "exit" to a new "platform," a collaborative space in which possible futures may take shape. There is a brighter future ahead in Herndon's world; technology has the effect not of separation, but of creating a deeply intrinsic closeness and intimacy strewn through collapsed spaces. The laptop: the medium is the message, is the massage.
Drawing on the work of philosopher of design Benedict Singleton, Herndon is proposing a mechanization of "platform dynamics theory.” Traditional planning for the future will always fail in the face of complexity and contingency, the theory goes, so instead we should focus on the design of platforms—the material and social infrastructures we inhabit, which have certain affordances and limitations and therefore open the way to different kinds of futures.
Herndon’s album, as a collaborative space for development, is offered as one such platform. The future is cooperation; Herndon has moved on from thinking about the laptop as an extension of the body to thinking about it as a platform through which a superstructural, collective experience can be had. Along with “platforms,” the album’s other essential keyword is "exits," signaled by the title to Track 06, “An Exit.” Exits leading from our present situation to new platforms, that is, rather than escapes to impossible utopias.
I do not share Herndon's optimism, but that doesn't detract from the resounding beauty of the record and her intentions. Many of her songs slip into dashing permutations not only for the listeners’ energies and attentions, but for the sake of shirking formal atomization. In this vein of personal experience amongst surveyed scapes, "Locker Leak" (featuring Spencer Longo) spits out "word sculptures" like luscious (a)targeted advertisements; tingling, visceral phrases like "Who lasts, lasts? Glass lasts, lasts" or "Be the first of your friends to buy Greek yogurt this summer."
Possibly the most indicative and radical tracks on Platform are placed beside each other, forming a quite beautiful top/bottom approach to - and critique of - net-body dualism. The first, "Lonely at the Top," featuring programmer and ASMR performer Claire Tolan, explores intimacy on the internet through the elicited sensations and mimicry of the tactile and auditory (acrylic nails on a keyboard, vocal intonations, etc.), whereas the following song, “DAO” (which stands for Data Access Object) contains the mapping of a body - a community as object through improvised, urbane movement.
“Lonely at the Top” contains a single voice along with eerily recognizable and affective sounds - Tolan preaching the intent of the record in a Brechtian turn in which the audience is the subject: "You naturally know how to attract possibility, and you always follow possibility into success." The track reminds me quite a bit of K-Hole’s Creative Leadership trend report for 032c magazine, in which they examine the corporation as defined by a perennial genius godhead. The image in the song is of a corporate one pecenter being given a massage, the masseuse acting as a chorus of fans, these being people who rely on the talents of the creative leader to better the world with their exceptional abilities.
In the anterior of the dualistic investigation,“DAO” follows the feet and vocal flexibility of two performers taken from Herndon's Body/Sound Guggenheim performance. Contact mics are applied to a dancer who is then tracked; Herndon surveys his movements, archives them, and then tosses them back out. She wrestles with the body, hoping to tame it, and every so often the operatic vocal of the other 'body' makes its way sporadically into the mix as pure data metabolism. The track ultimately comes off as violent - feral in its attempt and eventual failure to escape the algorithmic categorization of the dancer's gestures. Herndon - in the middle, like a clinical chanteuse, a weaver of context and form - wrangles the desperate flinging subjects: the dromoscope is put into effect, the bodies blur into one, and identity is now an un-object of desire.
Exploration of the controlled expansion, and thus expression, of atomized form shows up in an earlier collaborative song called “Unequal.” “Unequal” is speculative, riding the boundary between deterritorializied gender-bent ballroom aesthetics and astral hymnal passages. Clods of digital debris are flung around the stereofield as composer and drag performer Colin Self and Herndon perform a modular duet. The inspirational material for this, I suspect, could be traced back to her online installation for DIS Magazine. In Dummy magazine, Herndon speaks of Colin Self playing a Joan of Arc figure, a sort of Ghost in the Shell take on Terre Thaemlitz (aka DJ Sprinkles).
I have many reservations about Herndon's hopeful approach, which could be ungenerously characterized as "teamwork as panacea for the total wreckage of humanity inflicted upon itself and its environment." This kind of platform is simply not available to everyone; Herndon and her cohort have enough capital to perform these collaborative acts and to create the space for an imagined future. All the same, I suppose that that is neither here nor there given that the effort is incredible and legitimate, and not completely founded on starry-eyed visions. Herndon and her record are practical and functional. Platform is automatic, investigative and hypertextual: boundless.
Platform is out today via 4AD and RVNG INTL.
Screengrab from Martine Syms's Nite Life (2015)
"Don't you believe me?" "Huh?" "What's wrong with me?" "Somebody…" "You know what I'm saying?"
Asks Martine Syms's Nite Life. These texts appear through an invisible cursor on a purple backdrop, mimicking the rhythm of a nervous diction before quickly deleting themselves. Some level of interaction seems to be expected, but there is no way to reply—in contrast with Syms's recent project with Gina Trapani for Seven on Seven, Insecurity Questions.
The website's performance of these words—which Syms culled from Sam Cooke's asides to the audience on the record Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963—is diametrically opposed to the bravado we often associate with recordings like "A Change is Going to Come" or with Cooke's voice in general. Even after successfully crossing over from Gospel to Pop (a transition that included a comparatively restrained appearance on Ed Sullivan), Cooke's live performances were characterized by their energy and the intensity of the audience's interaction. These characteristics resulted in executives deeming this live recording “too black" to be released; the recording did not see the light of day until Cooke's style was no longer in vogue.
Presented on the NewHive web authoring platform as part of the online exhibition "/Performing the Text," curated by Kerry Doran, Nite Life conveys a level of intimacy on NewHive unlike previous iterations of this work, which included a commercial banner and a performative lecture. Unlike the symbiosis between performer and audience in the recording, Syms's edits of the text for her NewHive work reify the roles of speaker and listener; the text renders Cooke's lead-in to the song "Feel It," "Don't fight it. We going to feel it," as simply, "Don't fight it," omitting the moment of a unified subject. Where Cooke on the live recording is charged and assured by the audience, the speaker in Syms's text seems confused and emotionally raw, perhaps like a self-conscious teenager composing something, unsure of a reply. Once the speaker and audience are no longer present, the questions asked in the piece become fragile in a way that signals alienation rather than community.
Though the three works in "/Performing the Text" are visually diverse, they share a concern with the manner in which text and language encode the body. Emilio Bianchic's Little Gendered Body Parts juxtaposes glamorous .gifs with incredibly personal interviews with members of a private Nail Art group of which the artist is a part. Bianchic's use of NewHive differs from most in that it places emphasis on a larger online collaborative or community rather than a stand-alone creator, making it one of the more successful I've seen. The show also includes echo echo by the poet Kalliopi Mathios, in which lines of a poem play over one another as the user's cursor moves over images of motion sensors.
Screengrab from Emilio Bianchic's Little Gendered Body Parts (2015)
"/Performing the Text" is currently up at NewHive.
Kerry Doran is a writer, curator, and artist based in New York. She has written for Rhizome, Postmasters Gallery, and the Research Forum at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London. Currently, she is researching and archiving David Diao’s oeuvre for his upcoming solo exhibition at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing, and contributing writings to the exhibition catalogue.
Net art nomad and cyberfeminist Shu Lea Cheang's sci-fi porn film I.K.U. premiered at Sundance Film Festival in 2000. When the film later screened, Cheang conceived a follow-up project for Lars von Trier's Zentropa/Puzzy Power. The company went bankrupt, and FLUIDØ has been on hold ever since, although Cheang was able to make an installation version in 2004.
Now, Cheang has teamed up with producer Juergen Bruening and is running a Kickstarter campaign to (finally) make FLUIDØ. As part of this effort, she has released these two shsort clips from I.K.U., which we are sharing along with "The I.K.U. Experience, The Shu-Lea Cheang Phenomenon," originally published in Cinevue, July 2000 and reprinted in New Queer Cinema: The Director’s Cut (2013, Duke University Press).
(Both clips contain nudity, sex, and Y2K-era computer graphics.)
Step right up, ladies and gentlemen, the carnival is about to begin. Come inside, surf the Net, play the video game, dive into the screen, cruise the future, come get fucked, just come, come, come. Bodies are packages made to be opened, minds are penetrable, sensations communicable, orgasms collectable.
Shu Lea Cheang's I.K.U. (subtitled This is not LOVE. This is SEX.) invents a future cybersexual universe, where trained replicants roam the empty spaces of unseen metropolises, hunting willing prey for orgasmic sexual marathons conducted in the service of science. The irresistible replicants are equipped with unicorn-like arms which – presto – turn into dildo machines specifically calibrated to collect and transmit the specifications of orgasms into the centralized, corporatized databases of the future. Meanwhile, the species of the future are wildly indeterminate, gender-blurred or homosex, oversexed or just, well, willing. Shorn of emotion, sex isn't just work. Data has its pleasures, too.
And the audience? Like it or not, we're implicated in it all, swept up by the throbbing techno soundtrack, plunged directly into the action by the animation tunnels that materialize at the onset of arousal. Remember the origin moments of hypertext and interactive video? Every technological invention of the twentieth century has been designed in the service of either pornography or the military. Those early demonstrations of camcorders and interactive video games always featured some version of cyber blow-up dolls gauged to fulfill every fantasy of the male users. Well, I.K.U. democratizes all that. I.K.U. frees the body from gender restrictions, empowers the object of fantasy, and merges the user and the used, the carrier and the carried, into a cyber-satyricon of impulses, stimulants, and gratifications.
I.K.U. is a phenomenon that wants to refuse definition and to a certain extent succeeds in that effort, even as it crosses all categories – geographic, physical, conceptual – with a demented flourish. As much trans-genre as it is trans-gender, I.K.U. also wants to merge video and film into a fresh digital universe large-scale enough to overwhelm the viewer. Narrative, nationality, and production medium are all certainties easily thrown into question. The actors are drawn from the Japanese porn world. They speak broken English. They mutate into shape-shifting manga characters. It's a whole new world, but one that's deliberately low-budget and manageable, shot with digital cameras, edited on Premiere on home computers, then blown up big to 35mm, exaggerated like Godzilla, to conquer its audience. Sure, sometimes it's flat or hokey, one-dimensional or predictable, but more often it surprises and triumphs, the love child of Samuel Delaney and Flaming Ears (1991).
Cheang is the mastermind behind I.K.U. The Taiwanese runaway Shu-Lea Cheang and former scion of the New York art and video scene has now self-reinvented as a "digital drifter." She roams from commission to commission, from Osaka to Amsterdam, London to Tokyo, relaying her transmissions to the internet banks of the present. Until the legendary Japanese producer and distributor Asai Takashi (known for promoting such cutting-edge work as Derek Jarman's last films to Japanese audiences) proposed this sci-fi porn movie for her to direct, Cheang had been deploying her visions straight into cyberspace through her web sites, Brandon (a commemoration commissioned by the Guggenheim Museumi in 1998, predating Boys Don't Cry by a couple of years) and Bowling Alley (commissioned by the Walker Art Center).
It's hard to believe that Cheang started out as one of the Paper Tiger gang, producing low-budget community video with DeeDee Halleck's activist acolytes and flying back to Asia to champion those who died at Tiananmen Square with a five-part camcorder tribute memorial, Will Be Televised (1990). She simultaneously began her move into the art-video world with Color Schemes (1990), an installation which indicated her future interests: it focused on the body, in the form of performance artists, and on playing with viewers' relationship to the work, in this case, scrambling video into laundromat machines and, double trouble, locating those machines in the sacrosanct space of the Whitney Museum. The next project revealed the shape of her future: it was a collaborative installation of sex secrets and video loops, installed in a gallery space transformed into an old-time porn emporium.
Then she was off. Leaving the gallery space, in 1994 Cheang made her first feature film, Fresh Kill, written by Jessica Hagedorn (Dogeaters) and set in a sci-fi New York City where fish are radioactive and the cast multicultural. With the combination of their talents, the film was able to unite conspiracies of world contamination with the investigations of a lesbian couple under threat. It was made in 35mm, a true change of gears for the low-budget artiste, yet it embraced the worlds of hacking and ecoconspiracy so totally that it had a hard time finding traditional distribution even in the heyday of the NQC. Not one to be typecast, Cheang also tossed off a pair of lesbian porn tapes, Sex Fish (1993) and Sex Bowl (1994), in this period that showed what a flair she had for sex work in the idiom of cutting-edge video.
Then she was off again, this time into cyberspace. She gave up her New York digs and became a global wanderer, a "floating digital agent," jacking into power supplies around the world and reachable only through web sites and e-mail. Did she really exist? Happily, yes. When spied in 2000 at Sundance and at Pitzer College, where we shared a residency, Cheang looked like one of her characters: her head shaved except for a sprig of hair that Jessica Hagedorn's daughter had dubbed an "island," swaddled in a wraparound butcher's apron made of a material that managed to suggest a cross between black leather and latex. Perched on platform shoes that upped her stature, fusing fashion and fetish, she easily fulfilled her self-appointed role as avatar. Never mind that, characteristically contrarian, she preferred to ignore all this synthetic construction and talk about the future as she saw it: organic farming, her new passion.
Cheang defines I.K.U. precisely: it's a porn film that takes up where Blade Runner (1982) left off. The elevator door that closed now re-opens. A new corporation has taken over. The I.K.U. characters have names, identities, and missions, but I don't think the story is the point, however carefully calibrated it may be. Narrative, which once was the weak spot in Cheang's work, has become its strength. Or, rather, it is the very absence of narrative that has now supercharged her work, suffusing its every choice. Cheang's mix of sensation and suggestion is perfectly suited to the post-hypertext world of post-verbal storytelling. What's most intriguing about I.K.U. is its daring disposal of older forms and its unabashed effort to pioneer a visual text in which pornography and science fiction, film and video and computer, matinee and late-night, gallery and porn arcade, all merge into a single movie experience.
As collaborative as ever, Cheang involved a range of Tokyo figures from the worlds of club culture, night life, and adult movies. Production designer Sasaki Takashi and VJ E-Male work the club scene, creating visual effects. The character of replicant Reiko is played by Tokitoh Ayumu, an erotic actress from the world of satellite television. Another characer, Dizzy, is played by Zachery Nataf, who's identified in the production notes as an F2M transsexual (transman, in newer parlance) and founder of the Transgender Film Festival in London. Other parts were played by humans drawn from the ranks of magazine models, strippers, porn stars, even a "rope artist."
I suspect that none of this is remotely fringe for Cheang. Rather these are the personae of a future that's just now coming into view; she has simply given them a context. In the process, she's given her audience a challenge. A whirlpool (cesspool?) of ideas, I.K.U. has usefully provoked meditations on the nature of sex, narrative, and representation that we'd be well advised to put to further use, here and now, on the cusp of the alleged media future.
Naturally, not everyone has been ready for what Cheang had to offer, even in the Y2K era in Park City, Utah. At its world premiere at Sundance, despite the word "porn" in its catalogue description that ought to have set audience expectations appropriately, I.K.U. managed to scandalize a midnight crowd that's usually self-congratulatory and proud of withstanding, if not embracing, anything thrown at it by the most fiendish of minds. But clearly that brand of hipness has its limits.
In place of self-satisfaction, the I.K.U. experience sent folks scurrying for the exits whenever the action got explicit (40 percent fled, according to Cheang). Shu-Lea Cheang was taken aback, troubled: she thought Sundance was more sophisticated. I, on the other hand, was delighted: in the post-NQC days of posed tolerance, how reassuring it was to see that people still could be shocked by something.
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, though seemingly based on nature and natural formations, is very much about human-made, technological constructs, using a visual vocabulary we are familiar with to show us unfamiliar and often invisible forces like networked activity and virtual spaces. More broadly, it probes at the notion of “the scientific,” or what we consider to be objective truth. As religion and its iconography once were, science is now our foremost means of making sense of our landscape; a way to understand the world through categories, systems, principles, equations, and technologies, which are all human-made and therefore arbitrary or fallible. How do you use landscape as a catalyst, and even a sort of iconography, to deal with the construction of objectivity or lack thereof?
Landscape itself is the set of symbols that human beings have been looking at the longest—perhaps only second to the body. It's where we originate from, so it follows suit that our symbols originate from here, too. With such a deeply rooted biological and elemental connection to the land, we find its aesthetics intensely fascinating. For instance, you would be hard-pressed to find a single person on this planet that would not consider a photograph of the Grand Canyon, even of the most amateur of quality, a quintessentially idyllic scene. We are drawn to these images, and upon seeing these kinds of symbolic references, there is an immediate sense of connection despite a void of human presence.
With that in mind, the landscape then provides me with a perfect stage that everyone is familiar with for an analysis of more abstract ideas about how we define and explore our surroundings through science and technology. The landscape is endlessly combed for information, whether that is through science, or for commercial purposes, extracting natural resources. We are completely, and forever will be, dependent upon it: we're inseparable. Even so, we still know very little about the world, and won't ever definitively know. Science never proves anything right, but instead just proves previous theories to be wrong, only to replace them with a new idea. It's a bit like an exponential curve. We will never have or be able to create strict definitions for the relationships that compose the natural world. We like to believe that our world is composed of a set of rules that we as humans can define; we want to see patterns of cause and effect, but this objective, natural world simply does not exist.
For a long time, this is exactly how we thought the landscape and ecosystems functioned: a perfect balancing act where every element has its designated place that allows for harmony between all living things. Even though there are undeniable patterns throughout nature, the natural world is chaotic and unpredictable. This process of translating the landscape and our surroundings into scientific data sets and equations seems paradoxical. You're taking a living, breathing system that is constantly in ebb and flow and attempting to translate it into a language of science and math that is rigidly defined. It's like translating poetry between languages; there's simply no way to do it without loosing something in the process.
Mark Dorf, Blue (2014). From the series Parallels.In collaboration with Adam Ferris.
In your description of these systems and space, architectonics comes to mind, in the Kantian sense of systematizing knowledge, but also in a purely architectural meaning. The latter is exemplified in works such as //_PATH(2012) or Axiom & Simulation (2011), as you overlay geometric forms onto the landscape, while the former is more implicit in the way you address the human need to systematize and quantify everything around us. You demonstrate this by superimposing digital structures onto the physical world; or, in your recently commissioned work for the DIS Big Data Issue, you create the reference points for the architecture we cannot see. Could you explain how you make some of these forms and how they relate to the spaces in which you situate them?
Architecture signifies a systemic form of knowledge that is foregrounded in my work. In the case of //_PATH and Axiom & Simulation, I take three-dimensional forms derived from the landscapes that I photograph and overlay them to suggest an alternative means of understanding physical space, or at least a parallel. Some of these pieces were done free-hand, like Plate #3 in Axiom & Simulation, but in Plate #17, I went out and placed markers in a grid to more accurately to recreate the topographical mesh layer in virtual space. In images like untitled28 in //_PATH,you are again presented with meshes floating in space against the landscape, but these were primitive 3D scans of elements that were found in the landscape (piles of dirt, stones, small plants) where the photograph was made.
Image creation using these technologies is not only technically relevant, but also conceptually bound to how the technological eye views, quantifies, and understands our world, compartmentalizing and working within a system of observation that is created by humans but outside the capability of human eyes. Not only do these tools see the world differently, they gather and gauge information differently, too. Of course, these technologies are made for very specific purposes, but to me it suggests that through this technology, our eyes are rendered less useful than those that we can create ourselves for highly specialized purposes. We're always trying to further augment and improve our senses through technology, under the false impression that this will enable us to finally understand ourselves and the world.
Mark Dorf, Nebulous 02 (2015).
//_PATH and Axiom & Simulation were made before I started directly working with the scientific community, which I do quite often now. For my series Emergence, I was working alongside ecologists and biologists as an artist-in-residence at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, so my works became much more reflective of real-world scientific practices. A lot of my process mirrored that of the researchers: I was using the landscape as my primary source of data collection, with my photographs acting as collected data, and thinking similarly to a scientist in viewing and quantifying the landscape in his or her research. I would then apply different transformations to the imagery–some automated by code and process, others by visual influence of scientific labeling, just as scientific data is translated to reveal new information through comparison of different data sets. For example, in the Mesh Translation works, I would take a photograph and apply it to a 3D plane so that each pixel aligned with a specific vertex–the brightness of each pixel then directed the height of each vertex so that the brightest pixels would make the vertex rise and the darkest would then fall. This process created a distinct medium of photographic imagery that escapes all of the associations of memory and nostalgia that are typically associated with photographs; instead, you are presented only with information like brightness and hue, but in a three dimensional space. Applying this technique, you could then compare all imagery on the same scale independent of its content. A similar process is used in the sciences when applying different log transformations to specific data sets to make them more similar and to amplify specific patterns: it allows for disparate data to be compared more easily, enabling new information to emerge from the comparison that is only possible after the log transformation. What interests me most about this construction (or architecture) of knowledge is there are an infinite number of permutations for the same subject matter. Each one has its own specific function and singularity; visually and numerically they are different, but the source is exactly the same.
This leads me to wonder what the inverse of this process would look like. How would you collect data and then transform these datasets in virtual space? What is the architectonics of virtual space? This seems to take shape in your rooms for "Panther Modern," with virtual gallery spaces that have rooms, benches, and barricades, as one might find in a museum, but the work within these spaces defies what could physically be possible in an actual gallery. This is also true of some recent sketches of yours, with free floating sculptures in the round in one gallery, and a colored light emitting from adjacent galleries.
What I found most interesting about the works in "Panther Modern"—and this includes all of the artists that have worked on this project so far, not just my own—is that it is mixing two different vocabularies: the physical and the virtual. LaTurbo Avedon gave us all very tangible architecture that was curated for each artist, lending itself to the physical world and beginning the conversation with a very well understood vocabulary; but each artist is working with a 3D virtual toolbox that for the most part only has connection to the physical world in that it attempts to represent space. Other than that, there are no limits whatsoever, resulting in a mixture of different visual and physical languages in a single environment. What is interesting to me in the context of my own practice is that these spaces in fact can be perfect, in a sense. A perfect 90 degree angle can exist in the virtual world. A perfect pattern and set of rules, similar to those that we are constantly searching for in the physical world, can exist here. However, it is important to understand that these virtual spaces, with their strict set of rules, are not acting as a reflection of the physical - they are informed by the physical, but the virtual space is totally independent of it.
Mark Dorf, 29 Cu (Copper) (2014). From the series Worth.
I want to return to the sketchesfor a moment, only because they are very different from anything that I've seen you exhibit (except for Panther Modern). These works feel uninhibited, like something out of a sketchbook (for lack of a better word), and that's difficult to do: with the kind of work you're making, there isn't one simple gesture that creates a mark. Are these just experiments for you, or is your work moving in this direction?
In those pieces I was attempting to create a space that these other sculptural forms could exist in and inhabit. It's an exploration of technique and material, really. There were of course visual and compositional elements that I was exploring, such as hiding and revealing light sources and creating cold, sparse environments for the more dynamic forms to exist in, but for the most part I was playing around.
Those sketches were made just after a period of high production. I was feeling mentally exhausted but still creatively active–my mind felt cavernous with these disconnected forms coming into my periphery. There always seemed to be a light around the corner but it was difficult for me to actually get around that corner to find its source. In these sketches, the only time that the source is actually revealed, you find a group of discarded sculptures that are static and lifeless,unlike the other floating forms. To me, they exist as strange self-portraits.
As far as putting sketches on Instagram or sometimes Tumblr goes, I do tend to throw them out there to see what reverberates best with the eyes that follow. It's easy to to catch the patterns of what resonates but I don't really let this affect my intentions for my more finished works. The issue I have with these social media outlets is that while it might feel like you're throwing something out there to see what reacts best, you can almost always predict the reaction because the people that follow you already know what you make and already enjoy those things. If you allow this to dictate too much of the aesthetic that you work within, I think you'll end up with a very homogeneous visual vocabulary. I try not to take social media too seriously – I think of it as a chance for people to have a little glimpse into the other side of my work.
"Panther Modern, Room Nine: Mark Dorf" installation view (2015)
Location: Brooklyn, NY
How/when did you begin working creatively with technology?
I've always been interested in technology, even when I was much younger, but I am especially interested now (of course) in considering how omnipotent it is in our daily lives. It seemed like a very natural thing for me to make work about – it's what I know and it's what I am interested in. As far as using technology creatively in my work goes, I use many different kinds of software, a bit of code and digital photography, but I wouldn't say that I use technology directly in my work other than the 3D scanned elements in //_PATH.
Where did you go to school? What did you study?
I studied photography and sculpture at the Savannah College of Art and Design.
What do you do for a living, or what occupations have you held previously?
I am currently a studio manager for a photographer here in NYC, but I have worked many odd jobs. In the past I've worked as a welder and fabricator, as a woodworker for a furniture shop, and as a photo assistant.
What does your desktop or workspace look like? (Pics or screenshots please!):