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The Rhizome Blog and Rhizome News

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    Saturday, May 30, 12-6pm EST 
    Live-stream at 
    Live-stream viewing session at Houston Street Center, 273 Bowery (Information and reservations:

    As part of the 2015 IDEAS CITY Festival, Rhizome and the New Museum invited AIRBNB Pavilion to organize a day-long salon addressing Airbnb and contemporary domesticity in New York. 

    For his 1971 tape Chinatown Voyeur, the artist Gordon Matta-Clark recorded images of domestic spaces from the street, using the nascent medium of video. The spaces were partly hidden, shadowy and grainy, and lived in. Today, Airbnb has given the domestic sphere a new, public role in the city's economic and political life, making it newly visible: immaculate, unpopulated, and overlit. With this new visibility, the practice of interior decoration takes on a new urgency. As arguments rage about Airbnb's impact on city life, we invited Airbnb to consider the questions: How might interior decoration intervene productively Airbnb's ongoing transformation of this city? And, to what end?

    The salon will include the following topics and participants:

    12:00 - 2:00 pm: WHAT DO YOU HATE? — The Dos and Donts of Interior Design
    Rafael de Cárdenas, Ricky Clifton, Patrick Parrish, and Paloma Powers
    Moderated by Felix Burrichter

    2:00 pm - 4:00 pm: Hood by Airbnb —Housing in NYC
    Murray Cox (Inside Airbnb), Chris Glazek (Genius), Benjamen Walker (Theory of Everything), Deanna Havas (artist), and Peer Illner (philosopher).

    4:00 - 6:00 pm: Hostpitality 
    Cyril Duval (artist and designer), Olivia Erlanger (artist & Airbnb user), Hayley Aviva Silverman (artist & Airbnb user), Karen Gregory (sociologist, City College of New York), and Evan Saarinen (Google Maps).

    Left: Gordon Matta-Clark, Chinatown Voyeur (1971), Right: image of the venue for "Stay With Me."

    "Indeed, the luxury of the bedroom derives from its freedom: a structure protected from all norms, all powers; as a structure--an exorbitant paradox: it's unique."

    -Roland Barthes

    About AIRBNB Pavilion 
    The AIRBNB Pavilion is an art collective based in London whose work focuses on the relationship between interiors, domesticity, internet, and the city. It was founded by Fabrizio Ballabio, Alessandro Bava, Luis Ortega Govela and Octave Perrault for an exhibition during the opening days of the 14th Architecture Biennale in Venice.

    About IDEAS CITY
    IDEAS CITY explores the future of cities with culture as a driving force. Founded by the New Museum in 2011, it is a major collaborative initiative between hundreds of arts, education, and civic organizations. A biennial IDEAS CITY Festival takes place every other May in New York City. The theme of this year's IDEAS CITY Festival is The Invisible City, an homage to Italo Calvino's literary masterpiece of 1972. This theme is rooted in civic action, with each of the Festival's platforms serving as an invitation to explore questions of transparency and surveillance, citizenship and representation, expression and suppression, participation and dissent, and the enduring quest for visibility in the city.

    Rhizome's public programs are made possible, in part, through the support of the Andy Warhol Foundation for Visual Arts, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, and the New York State Council on the Arts.

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    Protesters in Menlo Park yesterday. (Photo by Gareth Gooch).

    Yesterday, Caitlyn Jenner introduced herself to an eager public via a magazine cover, a Twitter account, and a Facebook page. The Twitter account gained a million followers faster than the previous record-holder, Barack Obama, and the Facebook page garnered hundreds of thousands of likes in its first day. Coming a week after the news that IMG had signed Hari Nef (onetime host of Ed Fornieles's NY NY HP HP for Rhizome), the news heralded a new level of public visibility and acceptance for transgender people.

    The irony of Caitlyn Jenner's Facebook popularity is that the social media site has such an unsupportive official stance toward name changes in general. The policy not only forbids creating profiles under stage names or personas or alter egos, it forbids profiles under any name that can't be backed up by a legal document, such as identification or a piece of mail. (The rules are different for Pages, such as Jenner's). Facebook is like the right-wing uncle who deliberately misgenders you, on principle. 

    Also yesterday, to mark the start of internet safety month, a group of protestors gathered outside Facebook HQ in Menlo Park, California, to protest this real name policy. Many of those protesting were drag queens; meanwhile, indigenous leaders sent letters of support. Facebook requires users to register under their "authentic" name. If a user is "flagged" for using an assumed name, Facebook will force them to prove their identity, or face account suspension. Some progress in this fight was made after a meeting with a group of drag performers last fall, and Facebook published a blog post yesterday defending the revised policy. The post argued that the real name rule helps improve accountability on the site, which would be true if there was much accountability for online bullying in general. It also argued that the burden of proof of one's identity has been lowered, since one can now offer "a piece of mail, a magazine subscription, or a library card" as proof of their name, although in the US receiving mail under an assumed name is also illegal. So the fight goes on.

    Images of yesterday's #MyNameIs protest were a reminder of Facebook's continued role as something like a public international utility. There have been many reports in the press of protestors targeting tech companies for their environmental impact, labor standards, and effects on San Francisco, but it's much harder to think of examples of sign-wielding protestors targeting a software company's terms of service. What's particularly remarkable is that even though the company's rules are actively hostile to sex workers and drag queens and many other communities, the activists aren't hoping to leave the social network or find alternatives, but to lobby for a rule change. Far from wanting to harm Facebook and reduce its power, the activists wanted to make it a more accepting environment, which could even increase its already vast reach. 

    Despite the lack of response from Facebook, there was one ray of hope at the end of the day. When the protest was over, the activists returned to San Francisco on a bus sponsored by Ello.

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    Still from digital re-performance of SCRAAATCH No. 8 (2015)

    We have been following the work of Philadelphia-based artists SCRAAATCH aka E. Jane and chukwumaa (E+c) since crossing paths at an event at MoCADA in Brooklyn. Recently, they came back to New York to prepare for an upcoming performance at The Kitchen. We had the chance to sit down for a conversation in Chelsea. After parting ways, we were struck not only by all the common ground between our teams, but also by the divergences. We realized we wanted to talk more about how they work and where their practice is going. E+c will perform their work SCRAAATCH no. 9 at The Kitchen as a part of the S/N series this Friday, June 5, between 4 – 6 pm.

    M+K: We've been working together almost 20 years, so we are always interested in how teams function. Why do you choose  to collaborate? What does it make possible for you as individuals or what are you trying to say by collaborating?

    E+c: One thing we loved hearing in Kanye West's Zane Lowe interview was his idea of having multiple outlets. He described how having different containers for different creative impulses prevents you from clouding up one project by trying to put too many ideas into it. We're both really generative and are engaged with conversations around a lot of different fields, ideas, inclinations, audiences and questions. SCRAAATCH allows us to channel some energy that might cloud our individual work, which can sometimes be much more project-centered.

    colon:y (Wilmer Wilson IV & chukwumaa) The Airborne Leaflet Campaign (2012) Photo: Joshua Yospyn

    colon:y (Wilmer Wilson IV & chukwumaa) The Airborne Leaflet Campaign (2012) Photo: Joshua Yospyn

    M+K: We know you both have studied a number of different disciplines (for example poetry, sculpture and engineering) and have solo practices in addition to the collaborative practice. How did you come to do this work? How has the studio practice evolved and how does it relate to the online projects and live performance works?

    E: My work comes from trying to be intelligible. I went through periods of having a large inner dialogue without the ability to communicate the theories rolling around in my head with the world around me. Poetry was an early attempt at engaging the world existentially. The studio practice really came from the furthering of that attempt. I really love what Kanye said about his early attempts at painting and how he couldn't turn the canvas up louder. My practice evolved out of the poem being too quiet, then feeling like the photograph wasn't enough and turning to video and sound, and ultimately performance. Online projects are a way I can employ all mediums in tandem and make sure those mediums are actually engaging the world they derive from.

    E: I think a lot about that scene in Luis Buñuel's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie when they're in a dream sequence and you realize that the space they're in is part physical space and part painted set. The internet feels like that sort of space, one that is real but is also an elaborate construction that requires some sort of artistry to finish (coding included).

    E+c: We both grew up spending an extended amount of time online, being raised by a computer and a television. We also both share a deep interest in theater (we met in a drama class at high school). People generally see the internet as a platform. Websites can be sets.

    c: Performance, tinkering and pranks predated my formal art practice. I once convinced my high school that I'd lost a leg. I did a documentary video when I realized how tragically ableist the prank was. Funnily enough, E. was one of the few who saw right through it! I owe much thanks to folks like DJ rAt and the Anthology of Booty crew, along with DJ Underdog for convincing me to do more than just dance to the music. I also owe a lot to early mentors Jefferson Pinder and Hasan Elahi for providing a formative exposure to performance and conceptual art. These approaches made the most sense of my disparate and non-linear impulses and feelings.

    c: I'm always trying to collect these impulses and feelings—well, more like hoard them! However you name it, this meant that much of my earlier work was spent exhuming collections of things from before I "decided" to make art formally. I was turning a 40 pound drawer of those promotional letters colleges send into a two floor sculpture of a step; mining all of the emails I'd ever sent myself for word pieces etc. This hasn't really changed, but I'm trying to be more focused and thoughtful with how and what connects my experience with that of others. I want to show care when I make. No. I want to use care when I make. In the studio, this means a lot more taking in than putting out. A lot of Twitter and Soundcloud. There are a lot of wonderful folks out there taking time to ask deep questions about specific things and I really want to respect that through my work. When ILoveMakonnen dropped "Tuesday," the nuance of making a club song about the experience of going to work when most were sleeping or partying struck me! There's so much of this going on and I can't ignore it.

    c: I'm always impressed at how E. balances intake/output. And also naming/framing things. I'm always the last to know that I did a "thing." Someone else has to say "that was a great drawing!" or "is that sculpture going to be shown anywhere?" or "are you doing a performance on Twitter rn???" The main development in my studio practice is trying to not leave too much hidden away on the cutting floor. Or even to keep so much away from the studio in the first place. I'm in a period of reconciling things I've spent a lot of time treating as separate just because they're disparate. In a way, that's what SCRAAATCH has been teaching me.

    Still from E. The Avatar Ep. 5 (2015)

    M+K: When we made online work many years ago we thought of the work we were making as public art. The internet was an alternative space for folks whose practices did not fit into the pre-existing "alternative art spaces," and a public space ripe for experimentation.  Much of how we experience the internet from the US today seems incredibly privatized a space dominated and heavily framed by corporate platforms and designed for distraction. Even with all of these radical changes in the landscape, many artists still find ways to make interesting work online. How do you see the internet as a space for artists today and how do you use it?

    E+c: In the world, distraction and focus aren't mutually exclusive anymore. For us, they never were.

    E+c: The internet has an "and" relationship to the IRL space for us. We've grown up spending our time loving, hating, hurting, exploring, etc. as much online as off, if not more. Working online is a given for us. But in some ways this is really the experience of our generation and not really specific to us.

    E+c: Sometimes we wonder what an internet without corporate or government interests would look like, and we recognize that this doesn't invalidate the many experiences we've had on this one. We probably have a relationship to the internet that some kids have to malls, or rec centers, or that one back yard or corner that everyone played in. We find ourselves most in love with a lot of work that is kind of aware of the context or medium. Like the phrase "slides in DMs" or "link in bio" or y'alls eBay piece. Dan Harmon's show "Community" does an entire episode about the two brands whose commercials play during the show.

    c: But this isn't really unique to the internet, a lot of Black cultural products use self-reflexivity and intertextuality so perfectly! In most rap songs, you'll know who's rapping, who produced it, where they're from, what they're going through and how long they've been at it without liner notes or an interview. It's like a book whose text is the colophon. That's huge to us that we're drawing from a lush history.

    E: When I started putting ads into our mixes, it was because of this need for reflexivity. I've bought ad space on Facebook, made work from their demographics info and have started constructing video art in the commercial format. I feel that if corporations want to force me to consume ads so they can gain revenue, then I can sample and mimic and derive art from those ads as I would anything else.

    c: We also try not to let any specific interface, frame or context become blinders.

    SCRAAATCH No.7 Footage.

    M+K: The group name SCRAAATCH invokes both mark-making and sound-making. In No. 7 you all seem to be playing a game and making sounds in response to each other. Was this sonic and visual process always important for the SCRAAATCH series of works? Do you call it music or sound art? It brings to mind the history of artists (from Wadada Leo Smith to Earl Browne) making graphic scores or artists playing games in public (see Reunion by Teeny and Marcel Duchamp with John Cage, David Berman David Tudor & Gordon Mumma).  In what historical context would you place your work?

    c: It's funny how far that name goes in terms of connotations. It was originally inspired by Hennessey Youngman discussing originality in art. Recently, when we were taking a course with Massimo Bartolini, he taught us about Cornelius Cardew and his Scratch Orchestra and we kind of giggled at not knowing but being so close to his intentions of improvisation and un-learning. I first started experimenting earnestly with sound in my performance practice in a residency with Coco Fusco at the Atlantic Center for the Arts. When I was there, she put me on to Pamela Z, whose sound and new media well runs so deep! Senga Nengudi, pope.L and David Hammons' sculpture and performances really animated me early on. A show of Arte Povera sculpture at the Hirschhorn maybe 5 years back had a similar effect. colon:y (a collective consisting of E, Wilmer Wilson IV, Samuel Hindolo and myself) is always my rock, though.

    E: Jayson Musson was one of our first shared influences (also one of the reasons we went to Penn). We watched a lot of the Art Thoughtz videos. In How to Make a Art, Hennessy goes into a postmodernist rant about originality. He says, "This the future, internet, and talent ain't got naught to do with artistic production [...]. Art's not [sic] about making a sculpture out of scratch. I mean, where do you even find scratch in 2011? I thought we ran out of scratch like, in the '60s after the Vietnam War?" He then starts talking about readymades. I saw this completely aligned with the thoughts of the Fluxus movement and liked that the name alluded to it. In that way, it's funny that you mentioned mark making and people like Cage and Marcel Duchamp. The Fluxus movement definitely shapes the way we think about SCRAAATCH. Last summer, we taught a workshop at Hishhorn's ArtLab+ on paper sculpture and sound art and I taught the students about Cage's 4'33" as an introduction to sound art. The class called the piece they eventually made together Water Walk IIafter Cage's piece.

    E: There's this video with Yoko Ono and RZA where they're playing chess and then they break out into this avant-garde duet, "Life is a Struggle." We saw this video in 2013 and it lead to us thinking about how to work together, Yoko and RZA being two people we look up to. We've also done research on the work Yoko did with John Lennon, esp. some of the sound pieces they made together and found the work very influential. Yoko Ono being a performance and sound art legend and RZA having an extremely experimental music practice, we realized this video was the best of both those worlds. Yoko has always been inspiring for how she tried things that were considered absurd or ridiculous to some but daring for many others. She's a real trickster.

    c: We also studied you two's practice from afar. It was like a course in the possibilities for this type of conceptually-driven, sustained inter-media collaboration. And from folks who looked like us.

    c: We're also really interested in certain DJs and their live performances. PC Music's Dead Or Alive Stream live video performances were perfect, especially the movement in A.G. Cook's set. Lotic has literally made me knock things over. I watch too many Boiler Room and 10-hour youtube videos.

    M+K: Can you tell us more about your piece for the Kitchen, SCRAAATCH no. 9 and the S/N series?

    E+c: We can, but we'd rather use that cliche about coming and finding out. ;) As for S/N, it's a sound-centered exhibition put together by the The Whitney ISP Curatorial Program. We were brought in by Curatorial Fellow Blair Murphy, who previously headed programming at Washington Project for the Arts. She does awesome work! We wouldn't be in this show were it not for her thinking of our work, so it feels good to be in a beautiful catalog among many much more experienced artists and musicians!

    M+K: You both worked for some time and presented projects in Washington, D.C., a city where art-making, just like everything else, is understood to be deeply political. You are now based in Philadelphia, a city with a rich Black avant-garde tradition (from Sun-Ra and Sonia Sanchez to Hprizm and King Britt). How have these cities, local art communities and institutions affected your practices?

    c: Go-Go and much of the culture surrounding it were erased from the face of the city.

    c: My performances after undergrad all touched on various facets of this process and E [had produced] a trove of street photography that within months became documents of D.C.'s huge shift.

    E+c: We don't make the mistake of thinking we know enough about Philly to speak on its ills, but we were definitely aware of MOVE long before we got here, and of King Britt!

    M+K: We should also mention that you are both in an MFA program at The University of Pennsylvania. The great artist and Penn professor Terry Adkins was a major influence and Jedi master-like guide to us and an incredible number of artists in our generation. Did you have any interaction with Terry before he passed away?

    E+c: We never got to take a class with him but we met him once when we visited Wilmer [Wilson IV] for Final Reviews:

    c: I complained about not being able to get my application fee waived and Terry simply said "Look man, you have the opportunity to be where this guy (Wilmer) is at. Just come up with the money!" E. met him having a cigarette during a break and…

    E: I plotted on having a cigarette that whole day. Finally, he went out for a break and I did too, and I told him who I was and that I was applying. He asked where I was from, I told him D.C. and he said he was too. We talked about where he grew up. Then he told me to tell him about myself and I did. I told him a short essay about my artistic life journey, how chukwumaa and Wilmer got me into the 21st Century. I was really nervous. When I was finished, he threw out his cigarette, looked over at me and said, "I look forward to seeing your work." Those are the final words Terry Adkins ever said to me.

    c: And to me, "Come up with the money!" ha ha. But seriously, we glean as much as we can from our encounters with his work, his legacy here at Penn (the Lugo Land Residency he initiated, stories from other Penn folks) and his interviews online.

    M+K: Describe your studio or work space. Why do you like it that way?

    E+c: We have two spaces. Individual studios and a home office. The individual studio acts as a personal headspace, the home office is a shared brain. This allows us both to be expansive and reflects our practices as both individual and deeply intertwined. It allows us to store art objects in our studios–

    E: Although I have prints and sculpture work that just hangs out at home, or gets hung as decor, and leave the heavy duty computing for home. I have an iMac we call The Space Station permanently installed in our home office. It's my digital studio for production and design work. It's nice to have this space set up in our house because it's where I spend the most continuous time. Editing and production take serious time and patience and so it's nice to never want to put it off like you can hanging a print.

    E+c: Most of our work is so conceptual, it requires many thinking and editing hours. The physical making or construction of things that takes up space is secondary.

    c: My set-up is heavier at my individual studio than at home, and features monitors, sculpture materials and such. I'm much more sparse at home. I shuttle tools back and forth when needed, though.

    E+c: Over all, the home office is designed for ease of reconfiguration and productivity. Hindolo once made the funny observation that our room is set up like a startup. Our bed is usually folded up into a couch.

    M+K: Favorite tool? Why do you like it?

    E: My favorite tool is probably my iPod touch, which I affectionately refer to as an apparat. My professor, Jamie Diamond, told me to read Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart and I loved the way he theorized the direction of the iPhone to the apparat. In the story, the main character gains personality points by confessing things to his apparat, and I see our social media devices as an extension of that.

    E: They kind of function as an extension of our bodies. They can hear, see, and speak. I have the 2015 iPod touch model w/64GB of storage space. It's basically a smaller iPhone that no one can call me on. It isn't a burden to carry, so it allows for rapid generation. For our anniversary, chukwumaa bought me a tripod and wireless shutter release for it, so now there are even more possibilities.

    c: I love my sound system, because it took a while to get all the pieces and the opportunity to feel my sounds is so important to the work (and play). But I also think my obsessive connecting of events, people and such is my real favorite tool. Since that isn't exactly an externalized object, the first answer works best.

    M+K: Tell us what you are currently reading/listening to.

    E: I'm currently re-reading Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. My reading habits are very sporadic, though. Generally we both have at least 8 tabs up with essays in them that we've been meaning to read. I have master essays I go back to over a period of months, like "ART & COMMERCE: Ecology Beyond Spectatorship" by Christopher Kulendran Thomas and Hito Steryl's "Politics of Post-Representation."  I started a separate Tumblr this semester, as an appendix to my mood board just for quotes and media I come across that inform my practice. I also just bought a copy of Pandora's Camera by Joan Fontcuberta. I'm looking forward to reading his essay, "I Photograph Therefore I am."

    E+c: We're trying to read more Foucault and Fanon this summer.

    c: We just got Elysia Crampton's Moth/Lake! I've heard earlier versions of "Moth" for a while and the poem has taken a very important place in my heart. And I'm always going back to Kemistry and Storm's DJ Kicks, I only have tangential connections to the history of Drum'n'Bass and Jungle but I still get worked up over the passing of Kemi Olusanya. I mean to learn more about Glissant, I saw the phrase "right to opacity" and flipped! One day, I'll finish Sonic Warfare by Steve Goodman, the Hyperdub releases go down a lot smoother. Also, someone on Twitter recently helped me find the source of my favorite GIF of all time and it turned out to be a surreal children's yoga video, so that's a victory. My older cousin recently sent me an exhaustive collection of zouk and kompa that she used to play while we did chores as kids, even bigger victory!

     M+K: What's next for you all?

    E+c: Next are ongoing/upcoming gigs in Philly, NY, LA and DC, a residency at Vermont Studio Center for chukwumaa, a slew of E's online projects, the next mandatory software update, then the Crown Fried down the block, or whichever comes first.

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    Ann Hirsch, ButterFace from "horny lil feminist," 2014­15 (still). Video, sound, color; 2:21 min. Courtesy the artist. 

    Copresented by Rhizome and the New Museum as part of First Look: New Art Online. View work.

    In 1978, feminist writer and activist Andrea Dworkin commented that "no woman needs intercourse; few women escape it." Dworkin's viewpoint is consistently marked by refusal and withdrawal, particularly in relation to more sex-positive and arguably more livable philosophies. And yet, her condemnation of intercourse and, by extension, heteronormative gender definitions can nag at aspiring feminists seeking to define their own path in the face of desire's true complexity. Ann Hirsch's "horny lil feminist" (2014–15) eschews the notion that desire necessarily hews to our political and personal ideals and rather interrogates how it is formed out of the often unjust—sometimes oppressive, sometimes progressive—power dynamics of our daily lives.

    An artist noted for her thoughtful and fresh take on feminist issues, Hirsch creates installation, performance, and online works that often examine sites of female agency within the media. Her previous works have involved her recreating a cyber–love affair she had as a teen with an older man in a piece that was made available both as an e-book transcription of all their AOL chats and a live performance (the e-book version was made available on iTunes and was subsequently kicked off, as it was deemed "crude and objectionable"). Hirsch's other works have included YouTube performances as a character called Scandalishious that rip what is popularly known as the "camwhore" aesthetic, whereby a girl titillates her anonymous online viewers through performances for her computer's built-in camera.

    In her latest project, "horny lil feminist," presented as part of First Look, Hirsch traverses a huge expanse of the web that is often not spoken about in the field of net art: pornography. The dozens of videos that comprise the website playfully explore how—or if—one can be a good feminist while still enjoying this genre, which often takes the dynamics of male mastery and female submission (that any card-carrying feminist would disapprove of) as a given. In bad feminist, for example, Hirsch faint-heartedly chants "I'm a feminist" repeatedly over a video of two bound young girls having sex with an aggressor. Many of the videos also reflect her ambivalence about participating in the coquettish, submissive mores that pornography encourages. In ButterFace, for instance, she strips down to her underwear, dancing for the camera, all the while donning a definitively abject brown paper bag on her head. In several clips, Hirsch weaves in references to her own relationship: in yuppie life, she scans the desired items on her wedding registry and, in my love sonnet, she flips through Facebook photographs of her husband-to-be while the self-objectifying, near-holographic chanteuse Lana Del Rey intones "Will you still love me when I'm no longer young and beautiful?" (the refrain of her song "Young and Beautiful").

    Perhaps the heart of "horny lil feminist" lies in the videos wherein Hirsch comically sends up seemingly incompatible elements of desire: such as a love story, in which her face is sandwiched in the middle of a three-channel spread between a classic clip of a coquettish Ginger Rogers being wooed by a chivalrous Fred Astaire and another clip of a ball-gagged naked woman in heels descending the staircase of a luxury apartment on the command of an off-camera top—both reflective of two very different kinds of female deference, though the former is certainly more socially accepted; or, in her numerous videos that focus on self-pleasure, whether mimicking the YouTube how-to format or copping an air of feminist separatism—for example, as seen in the heavily warp-filtered dance party...just us girls!!. Each gesture in each clip, however comic or plainly vulnerable, is a refusal to oversimplify female desire and an expression of pleasure's vastness and complexity. In some moments, pleasure is depicted as liberated from cliché; in others, it explicitly negotiates the endless stereotypes and patterns of power through which we come to know ourselves. In the end, "horny lil feminist" reflects less the clear lines of Dworkin's stance and more the "cruel optimism" writer Lauren Berlant recently proposed, a term that acknowledges our attachment to relationships that may, ultimately, hurt us and yet which we are unable to fully abandon.

    Ann Hirsch, conclusion: the real ann hirsch from "horny lil feminist," 2014–15 (still). Video, sound, color; 4:17min. Courtesy the artist.


    Major support for First Look is provided by the Neeson/Edlis Artist Commissions Fund.

    Additional support is provided by the New York State Council on the Arts and the Toby Devan Lewis Emerging Artists Exhibitions Fund.

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    Ai Weiwei and Jacob Appelbaum as seen in Laura Poitras's The Art of Dissent

    The Art of Dissent, a new film by Laura Poitras commissioned by Rhizome at the New Museum, is released online today as part of the New York Times Op-Docs series. The film portrays a 72-hour collaboration in Beijing between contemporary artist Ai Weiwei and Tor Project / Wikileaks activist Jacob Appelbaum. It is Poitras's first project since CITIZENFOUR, her celebrated portrait of Edward Snowden.

    Watch now at

    Ai and Appelbaum's collaboration was part of Rhizome’s art-meets-tech event, Seven on Seven, which was held at the New Museum on May 2, 2015.

    Recognizing their shared, urgent concerns about the erosion of civil liberties and the proliferation of surveillance technologies, Rhizome brought Ai and Appelbaum together to spend three days in deep discussion and open-ended collaboration. The pair was invited to create something new—an artwork, an action, a provocation, a piece of technology, or whatever they imagined—as part of this signature program that asks luminary artists and technologists to work across disciplines. (Six other teams met at the New Museum in New York, and video documentation of their presentations is also available online through Rhizome's own website.)

    Find out what Ai and Appelbaum made in Poitras's The Art of Dissent, this film of an important Seven on Seven collaboration, online now on the New York Times Op-Docs page.

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    Mel Bochner, BLAH, BLAH, BLAH (2008)

    A version of this essay was initially written for a panel discussion with Pitchfork's Ryan Schreiber, Isaac Fitzgerald from Buzzfeed Books, and LA Times art critic Christopher Knight at Superscript: Arts Journalism & Criticism in a Digital Age, a conference at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Watch the panel discussion here. It is not intended to reflect Rhizome's editorial strategy.

    Look at the title. I'm asking has, not "how." Contemporary art is still in the early stages of the digital shift that other industries have already experienced. To better understand what might be happening to art criticism, we should look to other fields and assess the structures that have developed as a response to the internet's effect.

    There are two facets to this "internet effect": the first is in publishing and circulation, the second in the way this dissemination shapes a discipline and the discourse around it. Music and literature experienced the digital shift in a much more extreme way than contemporary art has thus far. This experience began with circulation—the adjustment from object to mp3 and from independent, or even megachain bookstores to Amazon—but continued with an altered discourse that poses really valid questions about the function of criticism. I'll call it "service criticism." In a nutshell, "service criticism" is criticism that's discovery-oriented. Criticism that assumes the reader who is looking for recommendations.

    Take Pitchfork, for example. I remember the first time I heard of Pitchfork. I was a teenager and I had a friend who spent his days reading Pitchfork reviews, then (excuse the illegality of the following) downloaded all the albums he thought he'd find interesting in order to listen to them. (The embrace of streaming technologies helps with the legality question today.) That's a great use of criticism: as a direction, pointing to the good in the midst of overproduction.

    The use of a word like "service" sounds las if  it indicates a value judgment, and one that I'm not making. I'm not making it because, as an art critic, I don't write in an industry that has generated much service-criticism yet. When I write about an exhibition, I often write for print publications, which means the show has closed a while before the review was printed, and so I'm already writing in past tense. I also assume that whoever (and however small) my audience is, few of them—almost none—are art collectors who are reading the review as a way of assessing a given artist's worth.


     (L-R) Christopher Knight, Ryan Schreiber, Isaac Fitzgerald and Orit Gat. (Superscript 2015. Photographer: Gene Pittman. Courtesy the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis)

    For me, reading art criticism in print magazines is similar to the way I read food reviews, because I don't go out to fancy restaurants. I love descriptions of kinds of food I've never tried and I never stop making the joke that my favorite thing about living in New York is that I live in a city where a review like the following makes sense:

    Once in a while, Montmartre still gets a case of the blahs. The dressing on a wax bean salad, allegedly a tahini-soy vinaigrette, made no impression, and curls of raw hamachi with diced apples didn't rise above routine.

    This is from the New York Timesreview of Montmartre, a French restaurant in Chelsea. "Curls of raw hamachi" are routine for some people. I'm never going to eat at Montmartre because their roast chicken costs $26 (I did my research and looked up their menu). If I'm never going to eat at Montmartre, why read the review? Because it is an analysis of something I am interested in: food and the culture around it.

    Art reviews in print magazines are almost similar: their focus is something ephemeral, something that most of your readers won't buy, or an exhibition they won't see. So the topic is writing about experiences—the wax bean salad, the exhibition—but also writing about a larger discourse. Of course, discovery-oriented service reviews can also be reflections on a larger discourse: the New Yorker reviews that "could be half over before he got around to talking about the performance under review" (that's a positive thing, see Daniel Mendelsohn's serenade to criticism), the London Review of Books format of essays that take up three books on a similar topic and fuse them to a single piece of writing that both summarizes and opens the books' subject to further discussion and possibilities.

    But in the popular imagination, service reviews have a much more specific role: to act as a vehicle for recognition, as recommendations. "Should I see Mad Max? Let's check what the Times said about it." "Have you seen that review of 10:04? I really want to read it." Search habits have only enhanced this sentiment: when you look for information, you get reviews. Reviews do well on Google: when you Google "Ben Lerner 10:04," the first result is Amazon. The following nine (so the whole first page) are reviews: the New York Times, the New Republic, Bookforum, the Guardian, the Telegraph, and so on. The next page: an interview with Lerner in The Believer and his Wikipedia page. (Something like 95% of Google searches ignore the second page.)

    The above explains part of my claim that digital circulation changes the discourse. To return to my not-a-judgment sentiment: I think the service review comes with an immense responsibility to analyze the market, to give context to what is popular beyond best-seller lists. (Though yes, I recognize the internet's feelings toward lists.) Service criticism thus has a responsibility to include both positive and negative criticism. When a publication decides to focus on positive reviews only, this usually reflects a presumption that people look to reviews as recommendations. The issue with that is it means ignoring another important role of criticism: to keep the market in check. Thus Jerry Saltz's coining the term "zombie formalism" to describe the trendy—by which I mean, marketable—process-oriented abstraction so successful in New York of late, is valuable even though his argument (which focused on sameness rather than financial role) was weak.


    Audience members at Superscript. (Superscript 2015. Photographer: Gene Pittman. Courtesy the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis).

    Where is the criticism-discovery link that we associate with so much online reviewing in contemporary art criticism? My sense is that the internet encourages service criticism, especially because of search engine economics. Think about's reviews section, which is framed as "picks." While the in-print reviews for the magazine introduce a multiplicity of voices, both negative and positive, the online reviews are shorter, published more quickly, and generally positive—that is, they are recommendations.'s Picks have different goals than the magazine's reviews section: they aim to offer timely, original analysis of work while alerting readers to worthy exhibitions as they happen.

    Criticism generates cultural capital, which in turn is translated into capital. To only publish positive reviews means to forego this responsibility. The fact that advertising and revenue models are changing because of the internet only makes this more crucial, as a not-so-glowing book review may translate to a lower clickthrough rate to Amazon. But what "travels" better, positive or negative reviews? I haven't had a means of confirming this, but my guess is that the negative ones do. I've never seen a glowing review go viral, but I have many a negative one do so, in the style the New York Times food critic Pete Wells isbestat. There seems to be a tone—an all-guns-blazing review—that is so entertaining that people want to share it.

    But is sharing participation? What is the meaning of going viral? The terms of engagement are such that every tweet, reblog, and like is another coin in the coffers of a number of companies: whatever social media platform, the publisher, the advertising agency. When the way we interact online is already so fraught in monetary terms, for something to go viral just means to activate this system over and over again. Sharing is participating in the economy of scale online. The fact that the web allows for smaller-scale operations has created a myth that audiences self-organize online (that "if you post it, they will come"), which is often untrue. As in television and legacy media, audiences tend to congregate in the same places, usually the ones underwritten by huge corporations. We see the effect of that tendency in the cultural sphere with sites like Lithub, which is a conglomerate of publishers, booksellers, agents, and so on, producing content together. From their about page:

    Literary Hub is an organizing principle in the service of literary culture, a single, trusted, daily source for all the news, ideas and richness of contemporary literary life. There is more great literary content online than ever before, but it is scattered, easily lost. With the help of its partners—publishers big and small, journals, bookstores and non-profits—Literary Hub will be a place where readers can return each day for smart, engaged, and entertaining writing about all things books.

    The assumption is that these organizations are stronger together. It just seems, well, you can imagine: more generalized, more popular, more eyeballs. That's why aggregators like Rotten Tomatoes become so influential: they centralize the discourse.

    All in all, much of the way we participate is parceled to two—the personal feedback (the positive buttons, like, fav., etc.) and the "useful" (as in Yelp: Was this review "cool," "useful," or "funny"?). I'm interested in the "use value" of crowdsourced criticism because it is one of the few new forms of writing that developed on the internet. Which seems reason enough to take it seriously, though the status of crowdsourced criticism is still quite fraught, belittled as it is by more traditional critics.

    People who have strong reactions to a work—and most of us do—but don't possess the wider erudition that can give an opinion heft, are not critics. (This is why a great deal of online reviewing by readers isn't criticism proper.)

    Daniel Mendelsohn, The New Yorker


    By offering an alternative deluge of fans' notes, angry sniping, half-baked impressions, and clubhouse amateurism, the Internet's free-for-all has helped to further derange the concept of film criticism performed by writers who have studied cinema as well as related forms of history, science, and philosophy. This also differs from the venerable concept of the "gentleman amateur" whose gracious enthusiasms for art forms he himself didn't practice expressed a valuable civility and sophistication, a means of social uplift. Internet criticism has, instead, unleashed a torrent of deceptive knowledge—a form of idiot savantry—usually based in the unquantifiable "love of movies" (thus corrupting the French academic's notion of cinephilia).

            —Armond White, in First Things

    The position of the trained, published critic in support of the field seems irrelevant to me. Yelp, Amazon, or Tripadvisor reviews circulate in a different economy of meaning: the quick, the recommendation, the service criticism that offers little more than service. It's useful for what it is, though it is defined by being easily monetizable unremunerated labor. For its position in the service of service criticism, crowdsourced criticism also messes with predetermined economic structures, especially in the art context: scarcity.

    One of the strongest statements in a review is its subject. For every review a magazine runs, countless exhibitions, books, or films (this seems especially pertinent with the New York Times recent announcement that the newspaper will no longer review every film that opens in New York City)went unnoticed. Not having space to cover everything is one of the attributes of the magazine. It's selective. Yelp, meanwhile, could potentially include every storefront in New York City. How do the economics of criticism change when something traditionally scarce becomes so abundant? Crowdsourced criticism activates both monetary systems predominant in the digital economy: scale, participation.

    But crowdsourced criticism does not answer the market's need for reliable service criticism. The film industry, for example, relies so heavily on the cultural capital incurred by a print review that in order to qualify for the documentary film Oscar, a film has to be reviewed by either the LA Times or the New York Times. Nor has service criticism, with its focus on the positive, the recommendation, risen to the level of influence described above.

    This essay opened with a discussion of dissemination and the way digital culture has modified circulation in music, literature, film. The main reason contemporary art has not been as impacted by the digital turn is that most (sellable) art object is not infinitely reproducible as the digital file (mp3, .mov, .epub) is, or even the physical, but widely distributed real object is (vinyl record, printed book). This is changing with new forms, websites, and organizations dedicated to the presentation of art online. With this shift, art criticism will have to develop new ways—or at least, new outlets—to analyze it. I, for example, have a lot of hope for the mailing list as a form we have yet to exhaust (e-flux notwithstanding) as a way of surpassing digital advertising models as we know them (by which I mean, selling your data, bundled, from one site to the next). To really react to the changing platforms for art online, we need new models for criticism. Most of the structures I've discussed relate to an ad-revenue-based internet. I think there is no bigger disappointment on the internet than free culture: too often, it has meant that if the user won't pay, the advertiser will. The result of this is a digital economy where websites all aggregating and packaging the same material hoping to attract as many eyeballs as possible and with those, advertising revenue.

    It may be discouraging to close on an optimistic note that basically means, "you're gonna have to pull out your credit card/sign in with your Paypal/Apple Pay/whatever digital wallet we'll all be using use at some point in order to get the kind of criticism you deserve." But it's true. The more the internet veers toward paid models the better off we'll be. I don't know if art criticism will catch up with music and literature before or after this happens, but I know that service criticism will not serve contemporary art. It's not enough.

    Christian Jankowski, Review (2012 – sealed bottles containing hand-written texts by art critics about this work, sent in response to a request from the artist); installation view as part of the exhibiton "Heavy Weight History" at CCA, Tel Aviv (2014).

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    The original Mike Builds a Shelter (1983) for "GOVERNMENT APPROVED HOME FALLOUT SHELTER AND SNACK BAR" at Castelli Graphics

    "Hardware-based restoration—that's nasty business."

    Unsurprisingly, this is not an uncommon remark from my colleague Dragan Espenschied, who has staked a path for Rhizome in emulation-based restoration instead. And yet there the two of us were on Tuesday, June 9, at Light Industry, excited to see some impressively nasty hardware courtesy artist/curator/programmer/musician Paul Slocum.

    At the front of the packed screening room sat two hardware-based versions of Mike Builds a Shelter, a 1983 videogame by artist Mike Smith, computer graphics designer Dov Jacobson, and programmer Reza Keshavarz. One was a touched-up original Commodore 64 (C64) plugged into a small CRT TV and connected to a coin door and a joystick. The other was Slocum's most current homebrew re-make—a small box which contained a C64 on a chip, modified for stability and other improvements such as the ability to output to a flat-screen like the one attached, with a modern power brick that can take international voltages, connected to a coin door and a joystick. Both versions fed into cherry red KRK speakers, and both required a quarter to run, which Light Industry generously provided. (The coin slot was unboxed, so the single coin just fell out, ready to be reused! #freeculture)

    Courtesy Dragan Espenschied's Twitter, two versions of Mike Builds a Shelter. L: Slocum's homebrew. R: Original retouched 

    The three had developed Mike Builds a Shelter as part of an installation for a 1983 exhibition by Smith at Castelli Graphics, NYC, GOVERNMENT APPROVED HOME FALLOUT SHELTER AND SNACK BAR; this comprised a build-out of the titular shelter, and the videogame in a custom, upright arcade cabinet. In the game, air sirens blast, and a pixel version of Smith's recurring dopey, tv-dadish "Mike" is charged with moving three blocks from the 1st floor of a suburban house to its basement to create a fallout shelter before the bomb hits (spoiler: it's impossible to win).

    The installation "GOVERNMENT APPROVED HOME FALLOUT SHELTER AND SNACK BAR" at Castelli Graphics in which Mike Builds a Shelter was originally shown

    In 1983, images from the game would be translated into a short Spectacolor lightboard composition for the Public Art Fund's long-running "Messages to the Public" program in Times Square. Clips of it would also feed into a later video work, also called Mike Builds a Shelter (1985), which features "Mike" hosting a variety of lifestyle tv shows in his government approved home fallout shelter—and then maybe dying of radiation poisoning. (Documentation of the lightboard and the entire video were screened at Light Industry.)

    At the event, Slocum explained how he became interested in Mike Builds a Shelter when researching "Reset/Play," a show about artist-made videogames that he co-curated with Marcin Ramocki for Arthouse, Austin in 2008. In the intervening years between its original exhibition and Slocum's planning, Smith had tossed the cabinet and much of the gaming system, saving only crucial components. Working with the C64 community, Slocum was able to reassemble what Smith had, and then have the cabinet remade based on archival images, presenting Mike Builds a Shelter in the exhibition and, later, at the 2014 Frieze Art Fair in London.

    Slocum's restored Mike Builds a Shelter for Dan Gunn, Berlin, at the 2014 Frieze Art Fair in London

    From the evening's conversations, it became clear that the videogame Mike Builds a Shelter was at once characteristic of its time and noticeably divergent. As an artwork it related to many of its peers, and not just in its aesthetic—pop artificiality rended by mass culture abjection and absurdity (think Kelley, McCarthy, and Leavitt). From the vantage of 2015, it's easy to downplay the specter of nuclear annihilation in the early 1980s, and the intensity of the resulting anti-war, anti-nuclear, and anti-Regan sentiment and solidarity, especially among the downtown NYC scene of which Smith was a part.

    Mike Builds a Shelter, and its host installation, may have been wry reflections of patriotic paranoia against the "Evil Empire," but they were no less political for their tone. In fact, the entire installation would tour, after Castelli, with seemingly dissonant, particularly blunt works by Nancy Spero, Bruce Fichter, and others in a New Museum exhibition called "The End of the World: Contemporary Visions of the Apocalypse." (The diversity of anti-war art in the early 80s remains a reminder of how unfairly caricatured this type of "message work" can be.)

    As a videogame, Mike Builds a Shelter suggested new horizons for the form as much as it reflected technological limits and emerging trends in the gaming field. In his lecture, Slocum presented a number of slides which put the work in context:

    Smith, Jacobson, and Keshavarz had made a typical arcade game in the input (the joystick and form-factor), the narrative itself (a character completing a simple, motion-based task against a static background), and the backdrop (broadly, the cold war). Yet a 1983 game player would immediately recognize something was wrong with Mike Builds a Shelter. Even then, they would sense it was deliberately difficult to control; that gameplay was excruciatingly slow and the input inexact. They would have felt the game was illogical—at one point a fire breaks out, and though you can stamp it out, it doesn't hurt you or anything—oddly boring (you're a guy walking up steps, not some kind of superhero), and, after a few rounds, that it was obviously impossible to "win."

    The excruciatingly slow gameplay of Mike Builds a Shelter

    Though it may look like 8-bit banality to contemporary eyes, to a player in 1983 would have looked noticeably different, too. Due to technical limitations and arcade tropes, a player might have expected a black background, a space-like futurity and nothingness. Instead, Mike Builds a Shelter is set in a colorful and notably domestic space. (In his research, Slocum had found only one contemporaneous game set in a home—the unfortunately titled Sneak'n Peek for the Atari 2600, a hide-and-go-seek simulator. :-| ) And while there existed other arty and weird games in 1983, none married their experimental gameplay to popular gaming aesthetics (and their nascent ideologies). In his 2008 exhibition and at Light Industry, Slocum was confident in calling Mike Builds a Shelter the first art videogame, with all that identification entails.

    "Mike" in the 1985 video Mike Builds a Shelter

    "Mike" in the 1983 videogame Mike Builds a Shelter (from Slocum's website)

    Between the game, the video, Slocum's talk, and a closing conversation with Smith and Jacobson, it was evident that not only was Mike Builds a Shelter a seminal art videogame, but that it remains a piercing and sophisticated art videogame. In form-factor, gameplay, and affect, this work for C64 adapts Smith's "Mike" perfectly. Here he is—not just in image, but in action. Here he is—stumbling slowly up and down steps at a pace that will never suffice. Here's "Mike"—all plodding, all bourgeois fussiness, all white-collar ineptitude, making a mockery of all our general vulnerability and defenselessness at the will of brutality, violence, and the state.

    Nasty business, indeed.  

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  • 06/17/15--07:00: Artist Profile: Julia Weist
  • The latest in a series of interviews with artists who have a significant body of work that makes use of or responds to network culture and digital technologies.

     Julia Weist, Reach (2015) at 107-37 Queens Blvd, Forest Hills, New York

    Reach, your first public artwork, a billboard produced 14 x 48, is up on Queens Boulevard. Can you talk about that work and your thinking about the connection between public art and the public space online?

    Reach is a billboard featuring an analog word that I made digital. This word was used in print in the 1600s, but rarely since and never online until earlier this year when I created a single search result for it. I worked carefully with Google's Webmaster Search Console to control the crawl and index of a webpage I made, after some missteps with DNS, nav menu, and even permalink indexing that created multiple hits for the word. The Reach webpage includes a short text about the enduring value of emptiness as well as some strong language requesting that no one else use this word anywhere else online.

    The project is really an experiment in the viability of singularity on the internet, but also an attempt to render a digital impression physically. When the billboard goes up, I'll plug in a lamp in my home that will turn on each time the webpage is visited (through a series of interconnecting scripts, a circuit board, and an internet-enabled outlet).  

    We're all pretty familiar with the idea of sharing a lone experience—think a solo hike in the middle of the wilderness—with scores of non-present entities online. But what we're less familiar with is the case where hundreds of thousands of people experience the same thing in real life, but create no shared digital footprint. I'm interested in the fragility of that proposition, and in measuring the project's progress through a domestic indicator.

    Screengrab of the Google search result for the Reach project (2015)

    Speaking of Google, what's the status of that Haim Steinbach piece called and to think it all started with a mouse (1995/2004), the Google search results of which you modified as part of your project After, About, With (2013–15)?

    I'm no longer actively manipulating the search results for Haim Steinbach as I was in 2013–14, but the content I produced as part of that project still represents a majority of the sites returned on page one for and to think it all started with a mouse. During that year I worked with art writers and curators (and I also created my own online material) to weight the reading of mouse toward a viable, but deliberate, consensus of interpretation: this work is about Walt Disney. The intervention contextualized a typographic coincidence that I discovered in relation to his font choice—Apple Garamond—that I teased out in an homage.

    I honestly never thought it would be so easy to control the "meaning" of another artist's work in an online environment, but it only required exploiting a simple algorithmic principle: recent, widely dispersed, corroborative material is likely to be "accurate" and of interest. Distributed homogeneity is privileged by engines, privileged content is more likely to proliferate, and personalization/localization frameworks further promote information that's similar to information that's already been viewed. A dangerous echo chamber? Maybe. A powerful medium for artists? Certainly.

    The days of the Disney ruse are numbered, though. Since the first of the year I've done a lot to contextualize the repeated readings. I published an artist book and have exhibited After, About, With twice (it's currently on view at Witte de With, Rotterdam). This article too will become part of that page one majority, especially since we've used Steinbach's name and the title of the piece several times already; but unlike the other references, these pieces are expository and big picture. The search results are shifting away from the fabricated "truthscape" and toward a new context that simply links my work with his.

    Part of me was hoping that once Steinbach became aware of the project (through an exhibition we did together) he would fight back to reclaim his page one results. I imagined him hosting a series of his own carefully worded interviews where he discussed many different intentions for the work. So far that hasn't happened, but we'll see.

    Julia Weist, After, About, With (2013-15)

    Are you interested in longevity? So much of your work engages the internet as a constantly shifting site of meaning, and I wonder about your approach to this constant push-pull of changing readings.

    I'm interested in creating an accurate portrait of longevity, as it pertains to both physical and digital meaning. Over the past nine years I've developed a collection of books discarded from American public libraries through routine processes to replace out-of-date information. This exercise proves that both online and offline meaning is so much a question of access. The word used in the Reach project was defined in context as two connected ropes, each with a noose on both ends. I take that as truth, partly because I know I will probably never find the word used anywhere else ever again. But you will take it as truth as well, because I've authored this meaning in several places and without challenge.

    After, About, With culminated in an artist's book. You also wrote a (sexy!) novel and produce a lot of text around your works, which oftentimes has a very particular, almost romantic voice. How do you see the role of writing in your work? How does that relate to your background in library science?

    I really enjoy writing and I find that it's often the only way to share the beginning, middle, and end of the very long-term and complicated projects I undertake. It's a part of my process that I look forward to, but I did find writing a romance novel very, very challenging. I like to write swift punches to the gut, a form of verse that is very much at home online, but more complex as a long-form style.

    The library where I used to work was New York City's oldest lending library and it had incredible circulation records for some of New York's first avid readers. I remember noticing that John Jay's account had three consecutive checkouts of a three-volume novel called The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle and that he had read Arabian Nights and Don Quixote. It's hard to see that and not want to write in a way that moves people, where you can, within a visual practice. One of the things that I love most about sharing artwork online is how easy and natural it is to pair imagery with text, and I try to take advantage of that.

    Julia Weist, With (detail, 2013)

    You use Google extensively in your work, both as a medium—After, About, With includes "search result set" as part of the caption, and the impetus for Reach was, in a way, to depart from Google sphere—and as primary resources for Industry vs. Machine (2015, which was commissioned for an issue of Red Hook Journal that I edited), which looks at the way the Google In-depth results may or may not construct a canon. What are some of the questions, complications, and possibilities that Google poses to you?

    In another interview a few years ago I called the collection of the New York Public Library an "alternative exhibition space," and to a certain extent I now feel that way about Google, too. The beauty of the Reach project is that it's a piece anyone can explore, if they have the right password. And of course it's thrilling to try to work the system, to beat the engine at its own game for your own particular ends. 

    It's been said that there's a hierarchy from data to information to knowledge and wisdom.  Increasingly we're interfacing with the bottom tiers of that hierarchy through tools that have only limited, if any, embedded ethics. Exploiting, visualizing, and departing from that sphere are the ways I know for how to test those limits.


    Julia Weist, Industry vs. Machine: Canonization, Localization, and the Algorithm (information visualization commissioned by CCS Bard for the Red Hook Journal, 2014)


    Age: 31

    Location: Brooklyn, NY and Durham, NY

    How/when did you begin working creatively with technology?

    My dad was an early Mac user who was excited about the creative potential of technology. He shared that passion with me from a young age. When I was in fifth grade we made a video together to accompany a report I was writing on the Loch Ness Monster. It showed Nessie swimming lazily in a lake in southwestern Connecticut, through the magic of early CGI!

    Where did you go to school? What did you study?

    I have a Bachelors of Fine Art from the Cooper Union and a Masters of Library & Information Science from Pratt Institution. I believe that the Cooper Union should return to a free education model or close. Nothing in between.

    What do you do for a living, or what occupations have you held previously?

    I'm an artist and an Information Scientist (at Whirl-i-gig, New York). Previously I was a librarian, a photo editor for biographical encyclopedias, and an artist's assistant for Janine Antoni and Spencer Finch. One of the best jobs I ever had was when I was 17 and I started my own business selling local baked goods at a farmer's market. I faced a few pie-related ethical dilemmas, which lead me to write to the old New York Times ethicist, Randy Cohen. We exchanged a few emails back and forth (btw, but I concealed the fact that I was a teenager. 

    What does your desktop or workspace look like? (Pics or screenshots please!):

    I'm currently renovating a new shared studio space with my husband, artist Andrés Laracuente, but I often work in front of a computer with my dog Fischer by my side.


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    Dear users:

    We’re writing today to update you on the future of user functions on as we prepare to launch a new site this year. Our current site is almost five years old, so we’re happy to be working on something that will reflect the current and future state of the web, and better reflect Rhizome as an organization.

    Important: Phasing Out Member Portfolios

    On November 1st, 2015, we will freeze the current Member Portfolios and archive them in our ArtBase. When the new site is ready, your existing user account will be transferred over to the new site, including your user icon, "user since" stamp, "supporter" stamp (thank you, members and donors!), password, and a representative URL.

    Then, up to the deadline of November 1st, you will be able to create, modify, or delete your portfolio. The next day, we will provide a permanent public download for each public portfolio, including information about the presented works, in the form of zipped HTML files and images, which will allow you to migrate your portfolio to your own website if you wish.

    In addition, after November 1st, these portfolios will become part of our permanent archive. The entire Member Portfolios section of the site will be publicly accessible, acting as a snapshot of a time on Rhizome’s site and in its community. The URLs of portfolio pages will be redirected to the archived versions to keep external links intact, and they will look exactly the same as they do now. After entering the archive, the portfolios will stay frozen, but you can have your profile deleted from the archive at any time by writing an email to Rhizome. Any outbound links contained in your archived portfolio will remain unchanged and cannot be updated.

    The decision to close the portfolio service has not been easy, but the service has lost much of its utility and relevance: many portfolios are effectively abandoned, don't present current information, and are full dead links. At the same time, there are still treasures to discover, and history has been documented here. That is why the portfolio pages in their entirety will receive proper conservation treatment and become part of Rhizome's archive.

    The ArtBase

    While separate from Member Portfolios, this is a good opportunity to give you some information about the ArtBase. We've received feedback that our ArtBase accession policy is unclear, and the distinction between actively preserved ArtBase works and user-uploaded, externally linked Member Portfolio pages—which often contain dead links—is hard to discern.

    The current state of the ArtBase is that it contains 2000+ works, but accession of new items dramatically slowed in 2008—a decision that was made largely based on an increasing awareness of our inability to preserve, commit to, and care for the volume and complexity of works we were receiving in the open submission model.

    Since that time, Rhizome has focused its conservation efforts on research and methodology, from metadata to emulation. Our current digital preservation research focuses on developing new tools to allow communities to create their own archives, and preserve their own works more easily. This will not only ensure more works are preserved, but open up new narratives. As part of this research, we have accessioned specific works and sites, such as Amalia Ulman's Excellences & Perfections, the Theresa Duncan CD-ROMS, and VVORK, which have served as test cases.

    With the launch of the new site, we will move into a new phase, shifting focus from research to implementation. We’ll be archiving and offering stable access to a wider range of works on an ongoing basis, with a new accession policy led by curatorial concerns and an expansive approach to digital art and digital culture.

    Some of these details may change as we develop the new site—we’ll keep you abreast of anything major.

    —The Rhizome Team

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    Lena NW & Julia Kunberger, Viral (2015), a 2014 Internet Art Microgrant recipient

    Now accepting proposals. Deadline: July 23, 2015.

    The browser is still our favorite place to see art, so these five Microgrants of $500 will be awarded to artists to create new browser-based artworks.

    This program is run as an open call. Submissions comprise a simple 150-word statement and a single sketch or image. Upon the close of the open call, the proposals will be considered by a special jury, with five Microgrants awarded. 

    Awardees will be announced in early August, and the resulting artworks will be integrated into Rhizome's 2015-2016 program. 

    Additionally, in the coming weeks, we will be announcing the recipients of our program commissions for the coming year, and issuing a call for nominations for the Prix Net Art.

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  • 06/24/15--07:00: Contra-Internet GIFs

  • Contra-Internet Totality Study #2: Internet, a .gif triptych (2015).

    These three gifs by Zach Blas are currently showing at IMA Brisbane as part of "Imaginary Accord" (through July 11). They form a part of Blas' ongoing Contra-Internet project, which draws on Paul B. Preciado's Manifesto contrasexual to imagine alternatives to the neoliberal internet we know today. The project isn't an argument for unplugging, exactly; more for building or dreaming up alternative infrastructures. 

    Consisting of 3D globes with stock images as their skins, these gifs represent one aspect of popular imagery about the internet. They cast a critical eye toward the many efforts to visualize or map the internet that always seem to convey the same message: it's big, and it's everywhere. 

    Read more about Contra-Internet here

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  • 06/25/15--08:22: After Sunset
  • Still from Sunset(2015) by Tale of Tales

    It is very rare for a video game to feel urgent. It is even more rare when that sense of urgency becomes a reflection on video game distribution. Sunset, by Tale of Tales, manages to accomplish both rare feats.

    In Sunset you play as Angela Burnes, a woman hired as a housekeeper for Gabriel Ortega, a wealthy and influential cultural aficionado in San Bován, the capital of the fictional South American country Anchuria. Over the course of a year between 1972-73, Angela witnesses a violent coup and counter-rebellion from the balcony of Ortega’s luxury apartment. Between completing menial housework for Ortega, Angela contemplates her involvement in the Anchurian revolution as well as what it means to be a responsible participant during times of civil unrest.

    Though set more than 40 years ago, it is difficult to play Sunset without reflecting on the present. My first playthrough coincided with the Freddie Gray protests in Baltimore (where Angela is from). More recently, my second attempt to play the game was in the wake of the horrific terrorist attack in Charleston on June 23rd, 2015. The sensation of watching these terrible displays of violence from afar resonates deeply while playing Sunset. Though Angela’s brother is deeply involved in the rebellion effort, she worries about getting too involved herself and questions what good she could do as an outsider. These conflicting sentiments of close affinity and distant helplessness in Angela are perhaps the most nuanced display of political grief that I’ve seen in any videogame, or indeed contemporary artwork in any medium.

    Still from Sunset (2015) by Tale of Tales

    This tension so deeply affected my initial playthrough that I found myself attempting to find buoys of interaction to stave off the harsher realities of Sunset’s narrative. On every visit to Ortega’s apartment, I found myself going upstairs to change the date on the calendar, finding the stability of this gesture both rewarding and grounding. Performing routine with Angela became a method of finding temporary comfort and steadiness as the civil war literally comes flying through the window of the apartment where she works. Although this gesture could be more a reflection of my own personal ways of coping with uncertainty, I found myself drawn to this task also as a way of empathizing with Angela. When Angela communicated a growing appreciation of Ortega’s apartment as a private sanctuary - and subsequent guilt for feeling so lucky - I felt compelled to make her weekly visits as self-reflective as possible, opting to write a journal instead of finishing Ortega’s cleaning.

    At first, these decisions appear minor, but the simplicity of these gestures becomes more significant over time. In this way, Sunset asks players to resolve their own political ambivalences by pairing mundane activities like cleaning dishes with opportunities for espionage and aiding the rebellion. Striking a balance between obligatory tasks, exploring Ortega’s apartment, and personal reflection on the current state of Anchuria becomes a daunting task as the game unfolds. The contrast between chores and political strife positions the player where choice and action become decisions of significant consequence. In a world where triple A games like Bioshock: Infinite conclude that all choice is artificial, Sunset instead offers a mature system of consequence relative to which players work towards resolving their own politics. As a result, the choice of inaction - and thus apathy - becomes a profound commentary on the ways in which players willfully ignore the politics of their play.

    Still from Sunset (2015) by Tale of Tales

    Sunset is therefore less about the circumstance of the characters and their world, and more about the ways in which players decide to engage with political oppression from a point of privilege. Though Angela is not a character of significant means, her ability to maintain employment in San Bován while avoiding the scrutiny of oppressive police and military personnel affords her a temporary space of solace and peace that others are fighting and dying for. Her good fortune is mitigated by mixed feelings regarding the conditions of her employment - an attitude scarcely explored within video games, let alone contemporary creative technology. Angela’s active and intricate disquietcould easily be the most significant gesture within a video game to address the nascent place of privilege that the medium has yet to confront.

    But this is only half the story - the urgency of Sunset is not merely located in its political overtones and subtle critique of oppressive western influence. The game is also pressing due to the fact that Tale of Tales recently announced they are ceasing the production of video games due to Sunset’s "financial failure." The duo released a statement on the one month anniversary of shipping the game announcing their decision, citing reasons of debt incurred in production and frustration with the reception of their work within a wider "gamer" community. Though many within indie gaming point to Tale of Tales as being a long-standing paragon of thoughtful, experimental, and ground-breaking development, few of their works have garnered the kind of financial success that titles like Phil Fish’s Fez or The Fullbright Company’s Gone Home have enjoyed.

    Still from Sunset (2015) by Tale of Tales

    The financial underperformance of Sunset could be due to a number of different reasons, however Tale of Tales attributes it mostly to one particular flaw: Being wrong about what gamers want. Regardless of market research, hiring advisors and purchasing advertisements in large traffic (and more centrist) game publications, Sunset didn’t break into a larger demographic.

    Though it pains me to say it, the fact that Sunset didn’t financially live up to expectations is something of a testament to the immaturity of the videogame ecosystem. Where other successful titles have certainly broached complex, serious, and emotionally mature material, few have tackled the fraught political territory that is laid bare by Sunset. Its financial failure suggests that the online market alone can't support this kind of work. Tale of Tales’ account of their demise suggests that dependence on the market is not something they're used to, having previously a combination of funding sources which included Belgian grants that have dramatically dwindled in recent years.

    The end users - gamers - are not the only ones at fault here, since recent infrastructural distribution problems have also plagued Sunset sales. Valve’s STEAM distribution platform released a new policy stating the games could be returned for any reason if less than two hours of play have been spent in-game. Since Sunset is a relatively short game, players uncomfortable with - or unwilling to delve into - the intricate narrative of Angela’s dilemma might feel entitled to get their money back. Tale of Tales couldn’t have anticipated this change of policy, nor could they have foreseen how the critical praise of Sunset would not translate more directly into sales. The timing of STEAM’s policy change, however, combined with shifts in the expectations of gamers and entitlement marks Sunset’s fiscal flop as a particularly striking moment within the current landscape and future trajectory of independent gaming.

    Still from Sunset (2015) by Tale of Tales

    Sunset's urgency is not only found in its politics, but also in shedding light on a need for changes in the funding and sustainability of independent games. Though stories of overwhelming crowd-funding efforts like Star Citizen and recently Shenmue III entice young developers, the fact remains that developing inventive and innovative games is a daunting financial risk. As Austin Walker discusses in his GiantBomb article, the recurring critique of disappointing E3 booths and lack of new imaginative IP’s (game franchises) are a result of major studios avoiding risk in favor of dependable money makes. Walker goes on to suggest that larger studios could collaborate or support smaller and experimental efforts given the amount of financial power they wield over the industry. Such possibilities point toward a system of where games like Sunset and artists like Tale of Tales can thrive: a more diverse pool of public funding and visionary patronage.

    Certainly, while Tale of Tales' departure could be seen as a great loss for independent and artful game development, it can also be seen as a potential promising step for the individuals working within the medium to break through the stigmas that have colored gaming since last year's Gamergate debacle (the root of which extends much further back in time). In this way, the duo themselves conclude with a section about how "being wrong can set you free." Tale of Tales' recent statement ends on a bittersweet note:

    So now we are free. We don't have to take advice from anybody anymore. We were wrong. Everybody whom we consulted with on Sunset was wrong. We are happy and proud that we have tried to make a "game for gamers." We really did our best with Sunset, our very best. And we failed. So that's one thing we never need to do again. Creativity still burns wildly in our hearts but we don't think we will be making videogames after this. And if we do, definitely not commercial ones.

    Not all that dissimilar from Angela's story, Tale of Tales' decisions pave the way for a brighter future. What Sunset and Tale of Tales' show, however, is that all freedom comes at a cost.

    Still from Sunset (2015) by Tale of Tales

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    Makkah 3D Puzzle produced by Wrebbit (1995)

    In 1995, a puzzle company produced a 1038 piece architectural model of the Al-Masjid al-Haram in Mecca, the expansive complex that contains the Kaaba. Upon delivery of 17,000 copies to Saudi Arabia, the construction toy was deemed idolatrous and the shipment destroyed. Little over 500 of the sets remained in Canada, and have since become collector's items. Ever since, the home construction of Islamic holy places has been an unspoken no-go zone in the field of toy production. A recent perusal of the Saudi Arabian Import Guide on banned and restricted products includes models or "prototypes" of the Kaaba[1]. However, as the axis mundi of the Islamic world and a non-figurative cuboid, the Kaaba is commonly reproduced in model form to decorate the dashboards or mantelpieces of devotees. Unlike other faiths, much Islamic devotional imagery hints at the experience or expectation of the physical act of pilgrimage. Popular devotional prints from Muslim South Asia reproduce the sculptural intensity of traversing the Kaaba through lenticular prints (two-dimensional images that portray a remarkable sense of three-dimensional depth through interlocking layers) as souvenirs of local shrines or promises of pilgrimage. Why then do construction toys or DIY-build models cross the line into profanity?  And to what extent does this also hold true for 3D printed objects?

    South Asian Lenticular Print of Kaaba. (2D rendering: all layers visible)

    Due to the taboo on construction toys of the Islamic Holy places of Mecca and Medina[2], and the Lego Group’s own reluctance to produce official sets of a religious nature, a number of Lego Kaaba and Masjid al-Haram creations have been improvised over the last couple of years and channelled through the superb blog GodBricks. Following the dissemination of such creations on sites such as Brickshelf, users can utilize open-source programs such as Bricksmith or Lego's own Lego Digital Designer (LDD), allowing for the virtual modelling and output of MOC (My Own Creation) plans for other users to build. One enterprising individual has taken to selling their Lego MOC plans for a Lego Kaaba on eBay. Despite evident fundamentalist distaste for construction toys, there are instances of Lego being used as a didactic tool to explore Quranic teachings and avoid depicting living forms, most notably Mezbauddin Mahtab’s blog "Read With Meaning". In a similar community spirit a number of Mecca structures have been designed by Minecraft users, with one user boasting a stunning visualization of the modelling process on YouTube.

    Completed Lego Kaaba from Ebay Auction

     Mezbauddin Mahtab’s Sura 095: The Fig, from the blog "Read With Meaning"

    Artist Morehshin Allahyari's ongoing project Dark Matter brings into being assemblages composed of objects that are considered taboo in Iran: such as Buddhist and Homer Simpson iconography, pork, dildos, or a satellite dish. In this re-contextualization of the forbidden, the rituals that these objects serve or suggest (masturbation, pork consumption, Westernization, etc.) are recombined as if to encourage the imagination of new, polymorphous forms of gluttony or sexual expression. 3D printing and digital modelling are posited as a "documentation tool" of restricted human agency in theocratic states, and a means for encouraging the imagination of new taboo-breaking rituals by reverse-engineering the archive as source and subject.

    In his essay "Religion in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" the essayist Boris Groys argues that in relying on the reproduction of ritual, religion in the age of globalization must battle for its standardization amidst a networked, transnational community. In its more extreme form, this struggle can be seen in fundamentalist attempts to flatten out vernacular expression and ensure that the mechanical or digital reproduction of ritual remains uniform.

    Morehshin Allahyari,#barbie #vhs from the series "Dark Matter." Work in progress.

    Allahyari's latest work-in-progress is titled Material Speculation: ISIS, a project that compiles and collates visual data in order to reconstruct artefacts recently destroyed by ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Enlisting the help of academics across the world, Allahyari initially began by using open-source modelling software to attempt to render 3D visualizations from extant images of the artefacts pictured prior their destruction. Midway through the preparatory phase, Allahyari came across Project Mosul, an almost-identical project that aims to crowd-source enough imagery to digitally reproduce Iraq and Syria's destroyed cultural heritage. With the dearth of extant visual data relating to many of the artefacts (between 20 and 30 multi-angle, high-resolution images are required to create a reliable digital surrogate), Allahyari decided to intervene and remodel the objects in 3D from scratch, filtering and negotiating her work through various platforms before manifesting the finished objects in printed, 3D form. The results, printed in clear material, house an encased flash memory card, floating in mineral oil.

    Of Material Speculation: ISIS Allahyari states,"I’ve never done a project like this before, where creation in my work is dependent on someone’s else’s destruction of something in the real world."[3] As the memory stick is embedded within the sculpture, one might infer that the possibility of further reproduction by agents other than the artist is dependent upon the statue being destroyed again. Yet Allahyari uses a sealing process that allows for the artwork to be prized apart with a sharp object, leaving both the re-embodied artifact and the flash drive unharmed. The .stl and .obj files will also be made available online for further reproduction and archiving. By differing her approach to that of Project Mosul, Allahyari sidelines academic demands for visual likeness and vraisemblance, allowing instead for the mechanical reproduction of the built form to act as a show of resistance and defiance against the ISIS campaign. Her commitment to preserving and embodying an infallible, persistent memory of the artifact and its material lifecycle even motivated her to include on the embedded flash drive a video of ISIS's destruction of it.

    Morehshin Allahyari, King Uthal from the series " Material Speculation: ISIS." (Work in progress.)

    Depending on the conditions of faith, destruction and restoration by constructive design are profane reactions to a moral taboo. Yet devotional imagery in its myriad forms, the materiality of vernacular Islam, acts in this manner as a promise of pilgrimage, a covenant with the future. These vivid and personal contracts, either improvised in the form of Lego MOC plans or as Minecraft worlds, or as mass-produced tokens sold at shrines, such as lenticular prints, are as tangible an address to the past and future as Allahyari’s use of 3D printing techniques to preserve cultural memory for posterity or Project Mosul's crowd-sourcing of cultural heritage. As a trace of a certain ritual, aniconic art, Islamic devotional objects, and 3D models of destroyed artifacts or taboo objects could all be used as a kind of algorithm to further encourage the reproduction of the divergent rituals they purport to embody. Here, the function of the DIY model and the mass-produced one diverge: the former invites construction and modification, while the mass produced object invites devotion and reflection. In both cases, the visual archive of shared devotion – secular or spiritual – is activated by a supplemental archive of received knowledge.

    Morehshin Allahyari, Lammasu from the series " Material Speculation: ISIS." (Work in progress.)

    [1] Saudi Arabi Import Guide 01, Banned and restricted products Ed. 1.5, Bureau Veritas, Government Services & International Trade (GSIT).

    [2] The only notable exception to unease over such construction toys seems to be the Mosque of Al-Aqsa in Jerusalem.

    [3] Author interview with Morehshin Allahyari, June 2015.

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    Allan Sekula, Gas Terminal, Barcelona (2008) from the series "Methane for all."

    When an American crew picked up the first of these ships from the Daewoo dockyard, completed the sea trials, and began the voyage back across the Pacific, they discovered in the nooks and crannies of the new ship a curious inventory of discarded tools used in the building of the vessel: crude hammers made by welding a heavy bolt onto the end of a length of pipe, wrenches cut roughly by torch from scraps of deck plate. Awed by this evidence of an improvisatory iron-age approach to ship building, which corresponded to their earlier impression of the often-lethal brutality of Korean industrial methods, they gathered the tools into a small display in the crew's lounge, christening it "The Korean Workers' Museum."

    - Excerpt from Allan Sekula's Fish Story (1989-95)

    If we lift up the manhole cover, lock-out the equipment, unscrew the housing, and break the word into components, infrastructure means, simply, below-structure. Like infrared, the below-red energy just outside of the reddish portion of the visible light section of the electromagnetic spectrum. Humans are not equipped to see infrared with our evolved eyes, but we sometimes feel it as radiated heat.

    Infrastructure is drastically important to our way of life, and largely kept out of sight. It is the underground, the conduited, the containerized, the concreted, the shielded, the buried, the built up, the broadcast, the palletized, the addressed, the routed. It is the underneath, the chassis, the network, the hidden system, the combine, the conspiracy. There is something of a paranoiac, occult quality to it. James Tilly Matthews, one of the first documented cases of what we now call schizophrenia, spoke of a thematic style of hallucination described by many suffering from the condition, always rewritten in the technological language of the era. In Matthews' 18th Century description, there existed an invisible "air loom," an influencing machine harnessing rays, magnets, and gases, run by a secret cabal, able to control people for nefarious motives. Infrastructure's power, combined with its lack of visibility, is the stuff of our society's physical unconscious.

    Perhaps because infrastructure wields great power and lacks visibility, it is of particular concern to artists and writers who bring the mysterious influencing machines into public discourse through their travels and research.

    These contemporary ethnographers are more likely to be found in hard hats than pith helmets. Charmaine Chua, who rode on a container vessel for thirty-six days in order to document the workers of the shipping supply chain, calls herself an ethnographer, though she herself is hesitant of what that might mean:

    Ethnography may be an unseemly choice against this dizzying and daunting backdrop of structural transformations. I do not know how much I will find out, how much will make sense, or how much will be useful. I am cautious about being the only woman on the ship; more cautious still about the potentially arrogant, certainly intrusive position of the paying passenger-researcher on board. There are some things I do know: Seafaring work is an endeavor practically invisible to all of us who benefit from the toil of sailors, and remains one of the most contingent, yet internationally diverse forms of labor. The embodied experience of traveling across the ocean is a journey few have taken in the decades since air travel. We know that capital fantasizes about the annihilation of space and time as its moves goods from space to space, but I want to experience the long, slow journey that is responsible for moving ninety percent of the world's trade. In ways that may never make it to a page, I imagine that this feeling of being afloat, suspended between continents, trying to understand value in motion from one of its most liminal spaces, will stay with me long after I am done researching.

    Allan Sekula and Noël Burch, The Forgotten Space (2010). Still image from documentary film.

    There is a value in seeing first-hand, and this experience is something that is treated as privileged resource, but shared in the spirit of research. Consider Unknown Fields Division, a "nomadic design research studio," run by Kate Davies and Liam Young, "that ventures out on expeditions to the ends of the earth to bear witness to alternative worlds, alien landscapes, industrial ecologies and precarious wilderness." Participants share their experiences with those of us who cannot make the trip, like journalist Tim Maughan, whose dispatches from container ports, Christmas decoration factories, and toxic waste dumps visited on Unknown Fields excursions both horrify and captivate those of us back in the West, who do not have the full picture of where our goods originate. Dan Williams, another participant, wrote a series of dispatches called Postcards from a Supply Chain, but also mused about ways that other tools carried into these below-structures might document the area. "I carried a GPS logger, a software defined radio dongle for recording AIS signals, a GoPro and a camera with me. I'm particularly looking at how a software developer might explore supply chains, as opposed to a writer or photographer or filmmaker or artist."

    While first-person accounts offer glimpses of the human experience of infrastructure, maps are particularly helpful for conveying a sense of infrastructure's great complexity. For her study of refrigerated food production in the United States for the Center for Land Use Interpretation, Nicola Twilley prepared an interactive map of over 130 different food preparation, storage, and shipment locations, creating a digital "refrigerated landscape," for those of us to explore, who rarely see food anywhere outside of the short path between the grocery store and our kitchens. Using this technological tool combined with Twilley's extensive research, our awareness spreads wider than a single person ever could see.

    Visibility, or lack thereof, is common theme in infrastructural research, spoken of directly in artists' statements, introductory texts, and essays. The language of diagrams, of hidden sites, of the bottoms of icebergs, of ignored vantage points, of proprietary buildings fills the legends of these infrastructural maps and guides. But this is not the fault of the researchers. The infrastructure itself is designed to be kept out of sight, visible only to those with technological access for the purposes of management and security. So why do we go to the effort to make it visible?

    Perhaps because of the lengths those in power will go to control the visibility of infrastructure. Emily Horne and Tim Maly's book The Inspection House tracks panopticons, both literal and conceptual, across the world from prisons, to military bases, to ports, to iPhones in our pockets. They note the peculiar fact that while the panopticon prison was first described by Jeremy Bentham, it was inspired by a factory layout conceived by Jeremy's brother Samuel, a mechanical engineer. Thus the original panopticon or "inspection house" was meant to watch not prisoners but workers, solving the problem of supervisory-enforced efficiency among skilled laborers. This surveillance task must be as old as capitalism itself, extending not just between the boss' eye and the employee's hand, but to the entire infrastructure of the body. Consider, for example, the "bathroom break," a fundamental right now guaranteed by US labor law (but only as recently as 1998) insomuch as it is defined exactly when, how, and for how long a human being might service their own internal infrastructure for the sake of their health, while not encroaching too much upon an employer's right to demand the worker remain part of the functional workplace line. In September 2002:

    A Jim Beam bourbon distillery in Clermont, Ky., was forced to drop its strict bathroom-break policies after the plant's union focused negative international attention—from ABC News to Australia—on Jim Beam and its parent company, Fortune Brands, Inc. According to union officials, managers kept computer spreadsheets monitoring employee use of the bathroom, and 45 employees were disciplined for heeding nature's call outside company-approved breaks. Female workers were even told to report the beginning of their menstrual cycles to the human resources department, said one union leader.

    The employer considers the worker's body to be a part of the factory infrastructure, and it attempts to maintain oversight over even its most hidden functions. Visibility, and the control it allows, defines all work sites, regardless of what is being manufactured or supplied.

    It just so happens that Samuel Bentham built his inspection house while under the employ of Prince Potemkin, namesake of the famous "Potemkin Villages." A perhaps-apocryphal story describes a counterfeit model village orchestrated by the prince, moved to different areas of the countryside at night, for the purpose of keeping up appearances for the visiting czar. Bentham watched his workers, out of worry for his factory's appearance to his boss, just as the prince was said to be worried about the observing eye of Catherine the Great. Vision is power, and infrastructure is built for and by a world that believes in this philosophy: its image is carefully controlled and constructed, and the capacity for watching and being watched becomes its own infrastructure.

    Our culture loves a good Copernican irony to describe balances of power, but the most important infrastructure research reveals that the below-structure is more than what can be seen or not-seen, known and not-known. Infrastructure is not built on an architect's map or in front of a CCTV monitor, but by the service laborer out in the truck, untangling the wires. And it is further modified by the fishermen, stealing fiber optics cables. The only people who think they are maintaining control with information alone are spies who build homages to science-fiction war rooms while the real work is done in the depths of a server somewhere, closer to cheap electricity. Spies build structures of information via dossiers, theories, databases, and plots, while workers build the infrastructure that is a mechanism.

    Photographer Allan Sekula, in his book Fish Story, assaults our intellectual reliance upon an equivalence between information and infrastructure:

    In effect, I am arguing for the continued importance of maritime space in order to counter the exaggerated importance attached to that largely metaphysical construct, "cyberspace," and the corollary myth of "instantaneous" contact between distance spaces. I am often struck by the ignorance of intellectuals in this respect: the self-congratulating conceptual aggrandizement of "information" frequently is accompanied by peculiar erroneous beliefs: among these is the widely held quasi-anthropomorphic notion that most of the world's cargo travels as people do, by air. This is an instance of the blinkered narcissism of the information specialist: a "materialism" that goes no farther than "the body."

    For Sekula this intellectual body is singular, first-person, fooled by its powerful informatic telescopes into thinking it can see everything. There is always a danger of myopia in infrastructural work. In the bright light of a revealed world we are dazzled by the mystery of scale, the techno-capitalist sublime, and we might forget the lived realities we are dealing with.

    It is tempting to play with speculative utopias, as if infrastructures were mere Lego sets. In Jenny ODell's Satellite Landscapes, the artist plays with the fantasy of a world laid bare as pure information, taking the future-forward images of infrastructure from satellite views, and cutting them free from their landscapes, presents them as blueprints, as living creatures, and space stations placed in a white vacuum. For ODell, the invisibility of infrastructure is displayed in our forgetting of the "stubborn physicality" of these structures. Satellites are a fantastic technology, but they are not the landscape. The catalog of human infrastructures that can be "seen from space" grows with each additional satellite lens. But where are the people? Certainly, there are workers down there somewhere in the satellite imagery. We know that there are. How can we see them? How should we see them?

    Jenny Odell, work from the series "Satellite Landscapes" (2013-2014).

    Donna Haraway describes the fantasy of an overhead-vision reality as the "God's Eye View":

    Vision in this technological feast becomes unregulated gluttony; all seems not just mythically about the god trick of seeing everything from nowhere, but to have put the myth into ordinary practice. And like the god trick, this eye fucks the world to make techno-monsters.

    Haraway suggests not a departure from vision and its fantasies, but a reconstitution of how vision is carried out. She repeatedly refers to the analogy of "primate vision," to remind us exactly where our eyes exist in the ecological infrastructure. Outside of the binary system of the Panopticon and the Potemkin village attempting to fool it, we ought to build a vision that can stand in different places at different times to view multiple bodies, without forgetting what this looking means and how it works, and exactly whom is getting fucked when the techno-monster is born.

    She continues: "Feminism is about a critical vision consequent upon a critical positioning in unhomogeneous gendered social space." This isn't simply about a multiplicity to replace singular vantages. It is about understanding the territory as always a space with power avenues coursing below it. It is not about postmodern subjective narratives to replace objective knowledge either, in an attempt to install the cameras in the body, to make the "I" into another eye. It is about trying to decide, for seven-billion-and-counting upright, naked primates, what exactly "I" is supposed to mean. Haraway seeks "situated knowledges." Infrastructural ethnography, symbolic monographs, aesthetic explorations of data—these sorts of knowledges do not attempt to be everything, but never forget what they are and where they got their material. Infrastructural research does not claim to be the last word, and it does not claim ownership over its content. It does not treat our human thirst for resources as a resource, and instead treats it as a labor, deserving of value.

    Our studies of infrastructure must do what infrastructure itself has failed to do, creating situated knowledges that teach us what is underneath our society, rather than simply metering information as commodity through more optic tubes. We do not need a snatching away of the shroud, a techno-monster captured and paraded on stage. Not like an animal or person harnessed to a profit-generating machine. Not a big board of big data, constantly tweaked by a wizard's wand. But a description of what the shroud is doing, and why it is there. To discover who it is hiding, why, and how they came to be there. The efforts of researchers and artists to discover what is going on with our infrastructure is not about commanding god-like powers, but about speaking with the spirits, wherever they chose to haunt us.

    Ingrid Burrington, Networks of New York: An Internet Infrasructure Field Guide (2015).

    Ingrid Burrington's web project Seeing Networks—now a book titled Networks of New York: An Internet Infrastructure Field Guide—functions in precisely this manner. It is a guide towards the interpretation of infrastructure, not psychogeographically, but literally. It translates the meaning of symbols scrawled in spray paint on sidewalk, of the foundry-forged impressions of access hatch covers, of the injection-molded plastic housings of radio antennas. Even if we can't enter the tunnels and secure facilities of this infrastructure, we can take this knowledge with us on the street, as we walk over the crust of the city which conceals it.

    The knowledges that we ought to be studying are not always those we are intended to see, but we must seek them out, turning technology back against itself. Natalie Jeremijenko's classic project, BIT Plane, collected a video feed over closed campuses of Silicon Valley corporations in 1997 and 1998, utilizing a then cutting-edge aerial camera to show the areas of technological creation that were not available for public view. The film just grazes the surface, showing the outline of the buildings and not their contents. But compare it to an official aerial footage reel, the publicity film Wings Over Water, produced by the California Department of State Water Resources to showcase the California Aqueduct system. The difference in symbolic value between what you are meant to see, in smooth, gliding vistas with a New Age music score, and what you are not meant to see, depicted in pixelated, crash-prone, downward-gazing video, is quite clear.

    Bureau of Inverse Technology, BIT Plane (1997-8). Still frame from documentation video.

    The strange, contemporary intersection between designed intention and the hidden and visible is one of many knowledges situated all around infrastructure sites. And yet, the strange thing about hard power manifested in public infrastructure, is that as much as it is secured and classified, it is never truly invisible. As Trevor Paglen has pointed out, "Secrecy is a self-contradictory thing...If it has to be made out of the same stuff as regular stuff, it has to reflect light." By shifting focus from the informatic realm to the situated, material one, infrastructure researchers often gain greater knowledge. James Bridle's Drone Shadow project counters the secrecy of the US military's drone strike programs with the material fact of their existence: the life-size silhouette of a drone, painted on the ground in a public space, in white lines. His Dronestagram project takes freely available satellite imagery from drone strike sites cataloged by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, much of their research done using a network of reporters in the local areas where the attacks occur. Trevor Paglen's NSA-Tapped Fiber Optic Cable Landing Site, Mastic Beach, New York matches slides from leaked NSA sources to photographs of the beaches mentioned in the reports, attempting to bridge the knowledge gap between the government's war-room thirst for data, and the actual landscape where these quasi-legal infrastructural appliances are installed.

    The vast number of projects that could be mentioned, described in detailed terms of how they specifically attempt to situate knowledges of infrastructure, is overwhelming. There seems to be an insatiable curiosity for these sorts of explorations among a certain intellectual set, a real desire to be made aware of uncomfortable truths. Walter Benjamin is perhaps the patron saint of such projects. From theorizing the liberatory potential of mechanically reproduced art to his massive, unfinished cultural-historical study of Parisian architecture in the Arcades Project, this flâneur of libraries is the infrastructure researcher's angel of history, inspiring future generations to extend turbine wings into its storm.

    Benjamin committed suicide at a border crossing, fleeing prison and death at the hands of the state. Researchers produce books, but the infrastructure produces bodies, whether it be immigrants pushed out to the sea or factory workers held back from leaping from roofs.

    With so much at stake, researching infrastructure is no simple task. It must be the political goal of situated knowledges to repair infrastructure's human mechanisms while dispelling the futurist aesthetics of technological acceleration, of utopian mastery, of authoritative control from the level of boilerplates on up. The situated researcher must dispute both the informatic and physical prisons, the construction of which we are even now funding, and uncover those who are being buried in the progress, without falling into the trap of implied neutrality. Haraway suggests a coding trickster—a shadow spirit, operating beyond the bounds of good and evil, equipped with enough knowledge of our objects' codes in order to manipulate them—might be model for escaping of our current binds, but one thinks the world of 2015 might have had as much of self-appointed tricksters claiming great coding power as it can stand. No masks, no tricks, no mere aesthetics will reclaim our infrastructure. Only knowledges, situated and amplified as we can.

    Everyone leaves traces in infrastructure, like the artifacts of the Korean Workers' Museum in Sekula's Fish Story. Whether an artist, writer, or social scientist, the researcher who glimpses otherwise hidden roles bound up in the networks of contemporary capitalism can't help but be fascinated, even if they are also left mortified, depressed, and powerless in the face of what is seen. No book or project will reveal the infrastructure totally, or solve all the problems. But by looking in the crawl spaces, being willing to get one's hands dirty, to crawl a bit, to let one's eyes adjust to the shrouded places, the researcher begins to make infrastructure the structure it is meant to be.

    Allan Sekula, Volunteer on the Edge (2002-2003), from the series "Black Tide/Marea Negra."

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  • 07/08/15--07:54: Artist Profile: Miao Ying
  • The latest in a series of interviews with artists who have a significant body of work that makes use of or responds to network culture and digital technologies.

    Miao Ying, flowers all fallen, Birds far gone (2015)

    Your graduation show was the first time you involved the internet in your work. You made a new dictionary composed entirely of censored terms which you spent 3 months compiling, looking up every single word in the Chinese dictionary on, and recording all those that met with a blocked result. It was a hugely laborious piece which resulted in an actual book (Blind Spot, 2007). More recently, Is it me you are looking for? (2014) also included censored content, combining Lionel Richie's 1984 Hello music video with three images from the "LAN Love Poem.gif" series (2014), in which "website unavailable" pages from censored websites are overlaid with kitschy slogans from Chinese internet poetry.

    How would you describe your attitude to censored pages as source material?  The way you use it now, a blocked page is always the start of something else; the "website unavailable" notice has become a familiar backdrop used again and again. It comes across more lightheartedly, almost like the devil you know. 

        Miao Ying, Blind Spot, artist book (2007)

    I guess that when I was younger, I saw censorship more like an enemy, with more limitations than possibilities. In 2007, when I made the first piece Blind Spot, blogs were trending in China. Although was blocked, there were some great local blog servers, and for the first time as someone from the post '80s generation, I got to know a lot of public intellectuals from their blogs—that was enlightening for me. I was a senior in college, and very idealistic. I wanted to be more responsible for society. On the other hand, I was starting to love the internet because blogs, Google, and Wikipedia really changed the way I gathered information. When I was a kid, I never truly trusted the school books and the newspapers in the same way that I didn't trust my English teacher’s accent. It was totally mean and cynical because I felt everything could be censored or manipulated here. Even when the internet came out in China, it was censored to begin with, but at least if knew a way to get past it, I could get past the "second hand information." 

    The first internet piece I made was trying to address censorship with an end goal of bringing change to it. Over the years, I feel like censorship has changed me instead. I was sad, angry, and finally accepted it, like a phase of a breakup. Censorship is like a nasty boyfriend/girlfriend you cannot tame. It's even worse than that; it's actually more like developing Stockholm syndrome—a traumatic bonding. This kind of love takes place in an isolated environment where the hostage-taker—who makes the rules—becomes so powerful that you gradually fall in love with them.

     Miao Ying, Is it me you are looking for? (2014)

    For instance, when I first came back to China from the States, I realized that everybody was starting to use the Chinese version of Twitter—Wei Bo. I refused to use it at first because the only reason it was popular was because Twitter was blocked, and Wei Bo agreed to cooperate with the government. Later, I realized it was silly and pretentious to not use it, because the beauty of it is self-censorship. That's when I became fascinated by the local Chinese internet and realized how rich and unique it is as a material. In the music video for Hello, Lionel Richie fell in love with a blind girl and in the end she made a sculpture of him from her observation; this double blindness is quite like the romantic relationship between me and the Great Firewall.

    You have used different physical installations to display your work. For the exhibition "Gif Island" at V Art Center in Shanghai last year, Landscape.gif (2013) was composed of deckchairs draped with emoji-printed towels. Multiple touch-screen devices were angled closely over the chairs, displaying trembling GIF images—too many to watch at once. Wires and crumpled pieces of paper bearing the Chinese meme "Zan" (akin to the "Like" of Western social media) were strewn about the floor. Part of the same exhibition, APP-nosis (2013–14) suspended iPhones at the apex of open metal pyramids. On the floor below, real turf and printed cushions invited one to recline passively beneath the screen; the square background hue of an app was projected on the wall with a soundtrack of waves breaking. 

    Miao Ying, APP-nosis (2013-2014)

    These installations convey subtly different atmospheres around interaction with smart phones; the setups are both intuitive and quite absurd. I wondered if you could talk about them, perhaps alongside your own experience, the moods you imagine when you build them, and how they come across to the viewer. 

    Both of them come from daily experience, I wanted to build something that is familiar—extremely daily, yet ceremonial. People are looking at their apps all the time, but they are not really looking at them. I don’t know if people fully realize how technology is changing or controlling our lives. The work deals with the integration of technology and the human spirit. Technology is the "fifth element" on the meditation pyramid. By staring at the giant, non-functional, color-changing app icon and sitting inside the pyramid, the participant connects to the universe through the smart phone; the smart phone amplifies the essences of the universe, which travels back to people's bodies, then to their souls.

    Miao Ying, landscape.gif (2013-2014)

    Landscape.gif is inspired by bestselling items on TaoBao (the Chinese equivalent of eBay); iPad holders for people to use when they are lying on the bed. The way you look up at it has the psychological implication of you looking up towards a higher power. Is it your iPad or God that is watching over and looking after you? I wanted to make a blanket for the people who are busy staring at the screen while enacting this daily ceremony—I don't want them to get cold, you know? I wanted to make a local internet blanket. This "Zan" ("Like") blanket is covered in original emojis inspired by Chinese New Year door decorations, only these emoji themes wish for; "Eat Well," "Get Rich," "Have iPhone6+" and  "Emigrate to the USA." At Chinese New Year, along with wishing for wealth, people wish for more "likes" on social media.

    Your work has a deliberate "Chinese internet" aesthetic; you use this as a medium, for example by including Bilibili videos and the Jackie Chan shampoo ad in the new piece you showed in Venice, A Healthy Fear (2015). How much of a boundary is there between what you make and what you look at for research? Do you see your work as part of it all, or hope that it will eventually be seen by the same users who watch Bilibili etc.?


    Miao Ying, A Healthy Fear (2015)

    I call those "video player works," not video works, as I have no interest in video art. The videos in my works are always appropriated media, and they are part of a bigger piece to add context to it. You are not just watching the video, you are watching it being watched. I like the idea of "video sharing" instead of video. The ads and the quality of the video depend on your internet speed, and in the end you can click on suggested videos YouTube provides for you, and you end up watch something else. In A Healthy Fear, the background is a snapshot of an official Google ad from the Google YouTube channel about bringing Google apps and chrome books to classrooms in Malaysia, where two Muslim kids with perfectly satisfied smiles on their faces hold Google laptops on their laps. Another video is also from the official Google channel, where in another Asian country, Japan, people are doing a calisthenics routine with Google letters. What is funny is that there is neither Google nor YouTube in China, but that doesn't stop people from using Google. The recording of the video is by a Chinese netizen who used Google Translate to "sing"(read) the most unlikely viral internet song, My Skate Shoes, which is a voice for the internet meme "diaosi" (self-depreciating loser). The GIF of Jackie Chan shaking his head is a Wechat gif sticker. People are celebrating "Duang" as a viral meme that originates from a commercial featuring Jackie Chan in which he described his hair quality as being "Duang" – an onomatopoeic word for bouncy-ness. This commercial was remixed by Chinese Netizens 11 years later, (when Jackie Chan’s son was arrested on drug charges) to the tune of My Skate Shoes. Together they create a new meme, "Duang," to represent something disingenuous, but in a humorous way. This remixed video was first uploaded to Bilibili where it trended rapidly, then quickly the GIF of Jacky Chan shaking his head saying "Duang!" was all over WeChat. GIFs of a meme have become humorous topics to light up a conversation.

    I would love to see comments flowing around my work. It would be a work of art in the age of social media.

    The background for Hundred degrees can not search your thirty degree smile is a "website unavailable" notice for Instagram; across the bottom potion of the image is an undulating line which reads "Hundred degrees can not search your thirty degree smile". This is taken from an online signature and contains particular references. Could you explain the different elements which compose this GIF, and why you chose this signature?


    Miao Ying, Hundred degrees can not search your thirty degree smile (2015)

    In Chinese, "bai" means hundred; “du” means degrees. This double entendre, "hundred degrees" is the Chinese search engine Baidu, which became the main search engine back in 2010 when Google left China. Maybe years later, the younger Chinese generation might think Google copied Baidu. This poem I found online; it reads, "The thirty degrees of your smile can not be found on Baidu." I pictured this poem as depicting a heart-broken guy looking for his former girlfriend’s picture on Instagram. Her perfect, charming, unique smile cannot be found because Instagram is blocked in China. Therefore, he had to search for her smile on Baidu, aka: "Hundred degrees," and found nothing.

    This series of works involved a large amount of research, reading and collecting online signatures. I usually picked the ones that were the most "cheesily" creative, which gave me a visual feeling about this poem. Then I found a GIF that fit the mood of the poem and created the 3D wording, and imagined how the animation would look before I even started to put everything together. in this one, "she" is hiding behind the browser as if the smile cannot be found on Baidu.

    Also, I think it is very important that those works are in GIF format. GIF is the format that was born for the internet. A GIF is comprised of multiple still images that can be viewed in a browser, which plays the animation automatically. Only recently have computer operating systems made it possible to view GIFs without opening them in a browser. I think it’s an ironic use GIFs to show the disconnection of the internet. To me, it’s an interesting paradox. 

    Blocking off parts of the internet is an unpleasant and manipulative action by the authorities which already has a long history in China. I feel that people outside the Chinese internet might see it purely as a restricted area that is generally negative for its users, whose online experience is limited; those not engaged with the "Chinternet" are not in contact with or experiencing the web as Chinese netizens do. Your work distils a different sensation, however—a humble charm and a sort of detached sympathy; to me, it radiates a certain pride about online culture and community in mainland China. Inside those boundaries, there are netizens who are hugely responsive and alert – perhaps much more-so than those who can browse freely. 

    Things can change very fast in China; it can be a good and bad thing. 20 years ago, personal computers were far from popular here. Today, China has the largest market of smart phone users in the world. As far as I know, WeChat is the most entertaining application for instant communication, and the way Chinese use GIF stickers in WeChat is mind-blowing. 

    I admire the internet for its infinite collective sense of humor, which the Chinese usually lack. It seems that with the internet, the Chinese are starting to show a sense of humor by being able to laugh at themselves. The internet is still the closest thing to free speech in China.

    When I first came to the United States to study, I was shocked by how much free speech Americans had. Does Jesus Christ bless America?  I almost felt embarrassed… it was like walking into a nude beach by accident—wearing clothes is more awkward than no clothes. At this point in time, from an outsider’s perspective, looking inside the Great Firewall might be like showing up to Carnival in Brazil wearing a tuxedo and expecting to ballroom dance.

    From one side of the wall, the Chinese internet appears to be a barren wasteland, yet despite its limitations, it has been evolving and growing—even faster than the net outside the wall. New memes are created rapidly, depending on what underground culture decides to make pertaining to mainstream culture and internet with Chinese characteristics, which is self-censorship. If you know something will be censored, you can go around it, using homophones, making up new words, etc., which all involve a sense of humor and intelligence. You will be shocked by how creative netizens are. The limit of the Chinese internet is what sets it free.


    Age: 30

    Location: Beijing, Shanghai, Chinternet, Internet

    How/when did you begin working creatively with technology?

    When I was a sophomore in college, I had to make an animation by using Photoshop and the visiting French professor failed me...T__T, because my PS skill was very limited Y__Y. I had no interest or experience with technology, but we had a huge prize for scholarship—money lured me to work harder with technology. One semester later I was introduced to Rhizome, that's when I began to fall in love with technology, for real.

    Where did you go to school? What did you study?

    I hold a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the New Media Arts department from the China Academy of Fine Arts in Hangzhou, and an MFA from the School of Art and Design at Alfred University, NY, USA, with a focus in Electronic Integrated Arts.

    What do you do for a living, or what occupations have you held previously?

    I am a full time artist now, but in the past I have worked as an assistant professor, an art gallery manager, a graphic designer and a TV show producer.

    What does your desktop or workspace look like? (Pics or screenshots please!)

    My workspace:


    My desktop and the desktop of a random netizen I found online, whose operating system is in Spanish:


    "Folklore of the Cyber World:An Online Exhibition for the Chinese Pavilion" Le Biennale di Venezia 2015

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    Raphaël Bastide, Handmade Deep Dream (2015). If this were a real Deep Dream image these would be dogs probably.

    Participants in social media will by now be well aware of the artistic renaissance that has been underway since the release of Google's Deep Dream visualization tool last week. Antony Antonellis' A-Ha Deep Dream captures well the experience of encountering these unsettling images on the internet:

    Antony Antonellis, A-ha Deep Dream (2015).

    By way of recap: Deep Dream uses a machine vision system typically used to classify images that is tweaked so that it over-analyzes images until it sees objects that aren't "really there." The project was developed by researchers at Google who were interested in the question, how do machines see? Thanks to Deep Dream, we now know that machines see things through a kind of fractal prism that puts doggy faces everywhere. 

    It seems strange that Google researchers would even need to ask this question, but that's the nature of image classification systems, which generally "learn" through a process of trial and error. As the researchers described it,

    we train networks by simply showing them many examples of what we want them to learn, hoping they extract the essence of the matter at hand (e.g., a fork needs a handle and 2-4 tines), and learn to ignore what doesn't matter (a fork can be any shape, size, color or orientation). But how do you check that the network has correctly learned the right features? It can help to visualize the network's representation of a fork.

    Strangely, the same question was actually posed during Rhizome's Seven on Seven conference this year, by Adam Harvey, Mike Krieger, and Trevor Paglen. The group was able to reverse engineer a machine vision system to generate what could be described as its archetypal image of a "goldfish." It looked like a kind of orange blur against a blank background. Their goal, though, was not to check the accuracy of the system exactly, but to begin to better understand how such systems might be altering visual culture and society.

    In the case of the Google researchers, they didn't simply try to isolate these archetypal images, but to tweak parts of existing images until they became recognizable to the machine as particular objects. 

    Johan Nordberg, Inside an Artificial Brain (2015). (H/T Kari Altmann.)

    I was curious about why all the Deep Dream images seemed to have eyes in them, and dog faces. This is part of the appeal, I think; the promise of Deep Dream is that it allows people to "see" algorithms, which are often invoked in the modern press as a kind of all-powerful sorcery. Now that these hidden forces are finally visible, we know that they are actually eyes hidden in everything, watching us. So on one level, these visualizations are deeply satisfying representations of digital wizarding.

    This Reddit thread, though, offered some more useful insight. An image classification system must be "trained" on an image set. Before it can identify a fork, it must be fed a number of pictures of forks, so that it can analyze their key characteristics. The dataset used to train the Deep Dream system, according to knowledgeable Reddit user emptv, is called ImageNet, which contains many image sets of dogs. In an alternative quickly proposed by other Reddit users, Deep Dream could alternatively be trained on the dick algorithm, and then it would see dicks everywhere.

    According to the New York Times, ImageNet was initiated by computer scientists at Stanford and Princeton in 2007 after running up against the limits of image captions supplied by internet users. They wanted to train image classification systems to recognize images based on clearly captioned photos, not the kind of trollish, inane labels slapped onto images by most internet users. They built a database of 14 million human-labeled images. "Each year, ImageNet employs 20,000 to 30,000 people," says the Times, "who are automatically presented with images to label, receiving a tiny payment for each one." (About those tiny payments...)

    In particular, the subset of the ImageNet data used by Google is from a smaller group of images released in 2012 as part of an important annual image-recognition competition/conference. The contest is like this:

    Presented with an image of some kind, the first task is to decide whether it contains a particular type of object or not. For example, a contestant might decide that there are cars in this image but no tigers. The second task is to find a particular object and draw a box around it. For example, a contestant might decide that there is a screwdriver at a certain position with a width of 50 pixels and a height of 30 pixels.

    And in 2012, as it happens, there was also a bonus task: "Fine-grained classification on 120 dog sub-classes!" 

    So the data given to the competing teams, and then later re-used for Deep Dream, had lots of extra doggy images, categories like Siberian huskyAlaskan malamutewhippet, and papillon, which I didn't even know was a kind of dog:

    This is a papillon?

    And of course, as one of the teams from 2012 put it, "since bodies of dogs are highly deformable, the parts being most reliably detectable are their heads....Therefore, we use a simple head detector by applying a hough circle transform to find eyes and noses." (I mean, I get that deformable is a word that computer vision people use a lot, but still, are you listening to yourselves?) There seem to be no humans in the subset of images used in the Deep Dream release, perhaps because of likely qualms about what it might mean to "classify" humans, but no such qualms apply to other species; there are many other species of animal as well, probably all of which have "highly deformable" bodies and more easily detectable eyes. 

    The fact that dog recognition was identified as an additional task might have been a way of making ImageNet more appealing to the interests of the general population. In the Times article cited above, a Google researcher is quoted saying that "Most people are more interested in Lady Gaga or the iPod Mini than in this rare kind of diplodocus." Dog breeds are a kind of happy medium. They appeal to the classificatory mania that machine vision researchers seem to have inherited from the 19th century Natural History Museum. And, they are popular on the internet.

    So this is what we get. We clicked on doggy pictures so much, and now everything is turning into weird half-doggy monsters. And the dick pics we clicked on are coming for us next.

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  • 07/14/15--15:00: Some news from Rhizome HQ
  • A bittersweet announcement: after serving for three years as Executive Director of Rhizome, Heather Corcoran will step down from her position at the end of September to join her partner in the UK.

    From Heather:

    It's been my great honor to lead this influential digital arts organization, from programs like Seven on Seven, to our world-class conservation initiatives, to the very question of what it means to be an art institution based on the internet. It's in a strong position and I'm confident that Rhizome will continue to thrive with its expert staff, a dedicated board and our partners at the New Museum as it heads into its 20th anniversary next year, and beyond.

    Thank you, Rhizome community, for welcoming me these past years, and thank you especially to the artists we've collaborated with during that time. Working at an organization whose mission is so clear and vital, and whose culture is so strong, has been incredible.

    A search is currently underway for a new Executive Director.

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    Chronus Art Center, Rhizome, and TASML are pleased to announce the second edition of the Prix Net Art, a $10,000 prize for net art. The prize will recognize the future promise of an artist making outstanding work on the internet, as demonstrated by past achievement. A second distinction prize of $5,000 will also be awarded. Awards are made to acknowledge excellent artists who remain committed to working online. Nominations are now open, and guidelines available here. The winners will be selected by a jury of three international judges: Josephine Bosma, Chrissie Iles, and Domenico Quaranta.

    Learn more about the prize, the call for nominations, the jury, and past winners JODI and Kari Altmann at

    About the Prize
    The Prix Net Art celebrates the current moment of net art and its future, and was created to acknowledge the shifting relationship between art and the web. Increasingly, the internet is the frame through which all contemporary art and culture is seen and understood. As many artists tackle technology as subject matter through different forms—sculpture, installation and painting—this prize seeks to address the relative scarcity of support for artwork that takes place primarily or exclusively online. The prize emphasizes the unique and crucial importance of such work in order to encourage those who continue to make art on the internet.

    Each prize is an acknowledgement of one artist's work in net art, and their future promise to contribute to the field, as evidenced by excellent and significant past achievement. The award is made on a "no strings attached" basis, acknowledging those who have continued to make work on the internet despite limited financial and institutional support, and who remain committed to working online.

    About Net Art
    An expansive area of artistic practice, net art is artwork that acts on computer networks, and is acted on by them, in ways that are defining, not merely incidental. This could include Twitter bots, chatrooms, networked installation, webcam performance, social media interventions, tactical media tools, or Instagram accounts. For the purposes of this prize, though, emphasis will be given to works that are primarily experienced in a web browser.

    About the Organizers
    CHRONUS ART CENTER is China's first nonprofit art organization dedicated to the presentation, research / creation and scholarship of media art, established in 2013. CAC creates a multifaceted and vibrant platform for the discourse, production and dissemination of media art in a global context, with its exhibitions, residency-oriented fellowships, lectures and workshop programs, and through its archiving and publishing initiatives. CAC is positioned to advance artistic innovation and cultural awareness by critically engaging with media technologies that are transforming and reshaping contemporary experiences.

    RHIZOME is an arts organization based on the internet, affiliated with the New Museum in New York. It advocates for contemporary art that creates richer and more critical digital cultures. Working online and off, it re-thinks artistic creation, distribution, and reception in relation to changing conditions associated with the internet, through exhibitions, events, commissions, collection and critical writing. It is a leading international organization to support art and technology, online since 1996.

    Under the auspices of the Art and Science Research Center of Tsinghua University, TASML is a research laboratory that aims to synergize the rich resources available among the Tsinghua's diverse research institutions and laboratories to create an incubator for crossbred, interdisciplinary experiments among artists, designers, scientists and technologists. TASML also functions as a center and a hub for worldwide exchange and collaboration both with academic and research institutions and the global media art and design community.

    Additional support for Rhizome and the Prix Net Art is provided by the Robert D. Bielecki Foundation

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    Rhizome is accepting proposals for its $500 microgrants until July 23. Here, one of last year's awardees shares her experience.

    You can tell that my hired hacker is good at computers by his effective use of Photoshop's Neon Glow filter.

    To be an artist in New York is to be a brand, or at least it is if you have any hope of achieving whatever your metric for success is. (Unless your metric for success is the pure self-fulfillment that comes from creation and intellectual exploration.) I am a terrible brand; my pursuits are as scattered as my online identities, and my Klout score is currently a meager 44.11 thanks to my lackluster Twitter and Instagram offerings. To solve at least one of these problems, I submitted a proposal to Rhizome's microgrant open call for web-based projects last year in the hope of using the award money to hire a hacker to secure two abandoned accounts on Twitter and Tumblr sharing the username "everyoneisugly," a brand I have been trying to get on lock since I bought in 2011 on a whim because I was surprised that the URL was available. I make a living as a developer and have been goofing around online for over twelve years, but my knowledge of the deep web (here I use the term to describe the hidden-but-public networks that can only be accessed via special configurations or software like TOR, although pedants insist that it has something to do with the early 2000s) was limited to a cursory understanding of encryption and an assumption of criminality. I was bluffing, I was a finalist, and I decided I had better start filling in the gaps in my knowledge. I quickly discovered that the deep web is as much of a parade of clumsily manicured personas as any comment thread on a popular art world Instagram.

    With my soul I have desired this dead account for about 4 years.

    I've been coding since I made my first "Which Weasley are You?" online quiz in middle school, so how hard could this be? I signed up for a secure communications workshop hosted by Thoughtworks, just to play it safe, and diligently wrote down the email address of the ACLU representative present, for when I inevitably ended up on a watchlist or in court for having the audacity to hack the planet. I set up a burner laptop with Tor (could never get a virtual machine to work), and kept a little notebook with all the passwords and mnemonics for all my new deep web accounts. I finally finished reading Bleeding Edge; I bleached my hair. I was ready to go.

    The deep web is above all else the sort of he-man women haters club that puts the greatest warriors of Gamergate to shame; its users idly post vile images and threats without fearing the consequences. But if everyone is anonymous, no one is actually doing any doxxing, and the whole pissing contest is underscored by how difficult it is to hire anyone to do anything truly illegal. The markets are flooded with bogus listings guaranteeing to teach you how to hack anything, or how to be better at oral sex, or how to make $1000 working from home, and the forums are similarly full of real or emotional teenagers begging for a cracked login to Pornhub. I couldn't find anyone prepared to hack Twitter for me, but I did find someone trading Pokémon cards for bitcoin.

    Like all deep web markets, BlackBank caters to the deepest needs of your average 14-year-old boy.

    I kept hitting dead ends, and couldn't even find anyone who knew how to send and receive encrypted emails. Even when I contacted firms whose logo featured Comic Sans and a logo made in MSPaint in '02 (surely an indication that a business is too successful to fail due to marketing), I couldn't find a single hacker or service with any sort of positive reputation.

    Before I knew it, I was well past my 4 month deadline for the grant with nothing to show for it. I began to exchange the money for bitcoin at least to be prepared to pay someone when I found them—a painfully slow and paranoid process of moving the money though increasingly unreliable services. I told friends there was no way anyone would prosecute me for the project, it was so clearly satire, yet I still lost sleep worrying that someone would care enough to take legal action. I was preemptively mortified at the thought of jail time for an art joke. And yet I was still too lazy at least to meet someone in Jersey to buy untraced bitcoin with cash. I went with the only online service that wasn't a mess of dead links, and when I finally lost the money in the sort of exit scam now well known in the mainstream web thanks to the fall of Evolution and other markets, it was a relief. I had $16 left of the original $500 grant and none of the anxiety of searching or the inescapable gloom of seeing so many people pathetically trying to scam each other.

    The one that got me. It seemed about as legit as anything else on the deep web.

    I decided to backtrack and mine my experience for other content, which lead me to a British comedian who was unwittingly advertising scamware. If you Google "how to hack twitter," there are plenty of mainstream web solutions. You're advised to report squatters to Twitter, which doesn't work. You can try and hire someone through Fiverr or Hackers List, who will probably return your $5 after you tell them that a PDF about how to root a server isn't what you asked for.

    Hackers-for-hire on Fiverr typically offer to teach you how to do your own dirty work "for educational purposes."

    Or you can dig around through the piles of instructional videos showing you how to do the job yourself. DailyMotion, a throwback to YouTube's golden days, is full of these, and I stumbled upon what I thought was an obvious satire of the genre:

    But clearly, it was not obvious enough. Several scamware sites use the video as promotional material, and the comments for it include wannabe hackers asking for advice or begging to hire the creator. It was easier to track down Michael Spicer, the comedian responsible, than it was to dig up any information on my account squatters. "If it's on the internet, there will always be people falling for it. And if scammers want to use my videos, well then, knock yourself out," said Spicer in an interview I conducted in February, about a week after I had lost the money and given up the cause. "Whenever I got these begging tweets from young people, desperate to hack into their friends' accounts, all I felt was pity. Many teenagers these days are drowning in the digital world. When I was young, falling out with a friend didn't get as ugly as it does now. The Internet is a terrifying weapon in the hands of an aggrieved teenager."

    The scammers using Spicer's video as advertisement market themselves to the forgetful user, not only the vengeful one.

    "Peter," who I first contacted via one of the many forums I scoured, may be such a teenager, although I don't know how old he is. He was responding to someone else's plea for a Twitter hack, saying he knew how to make that kind of thing happen. I tried to encrypt our conversation, but he was one of the many self-styled hackers I encountered on the deep web who didn't know how to use PGP, which should have been a tip-off at the outset. Nevertheless, I enlisted his help. This was the moment of my greatest anxiety: I would have to reveal my identity to my hired hacker in order to finish the job. A simple Google search of "everyoneisugly" brings up my own website, Instagram, and several other accounts in addition to the two I am trying to acquire. It also brings up the Rhizome announcement of my intention to do the project in the first place. Could I trust Peter to preserve my secrecy and understand that he was only to go after the Twitter and Tumblr accounts with the username? Probably not, but what did I have to lose at that point? Would he be offended by my treating the noble art of hacking as an inside joke for artists? Well, too late. I told him I had a budget, but when the money was stolen I just fell out of touch with him, since it didn't seem to be going anywhere regardless.

    After a short hiatus, Peter reached out to me via two different email accounts to try and phish me in order to sell my own clear web accounts back to my deep web self. Some l33t sk1llz for sure. I wanted to think he was maybe exacting revenge on me for flaking on our deal, but I honestly believe he was just confused. Both email accounts he used were easily traceable to his real name, his location, and multiple online profiles. I still don't know who owns @everyoneisugly, but I know where Peter lives, that he's pro-gun, and that he likes to stalk gymnast Shawn Johnson on her Flickr. I know that he's the kind of guy who makes his Google+ profile pic an Anonymous logo and then comments on hacker instructional videos asking for more help with cracking WEP keys. I changed my passwords, but I don't know that I needed to bother. I told Peter off for being stupid, but, to be fair, it's not as if I was any better.

    I still have the $16 and have, nearly a year later, looped back to my original strategy of griping to friends who know people working at Twitter in the hope that someone will just nuke the dead account and let me have it. "Hacking Twitter" amounts to phishing, and if there's no one to phish on a dead account, you're out of luck. I still dream that some clue will surface, or that someone will respond to my multiple offers to buy the accounts. Despite threats and stories about this online haven for assassins, I found navigating the deep web to be as innocuous, tedious, and fruitless as trying to schmooze at an art opening in the hopes that someone, anyone, will actually show up for a studio visit.

    I could have bought so many followers with that money. But mostly I just want to move on. I'd really rather be painting.

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