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The Rhizome Blog and Rhizome News

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  • 12/07/15--08:00: John Russell's SQRRL
  • SQRRL by John Russell is on view through Thursday on the front page of

    "Since 2085
    Rodent and reptilian
    Body structure,
    Musculature and skeleton
    Have been identified
    As the ideal anatomical-model
    For extra-terrestial operations.
    The sophistication
    Of contemporary
    Brain miniturisation
    And transplant surgery

    Means that
    Human relocation
    Into smaller species
    Is now routine."

    SQRRL is a dynamic hypertext fiction speculating on a future in which medical advances such as “wasp-parasite technology” allow humans to inhabit the bodies of one or more animals as a way to save or prolong their lives.

    SQRRL begins with a sparkling array of softly glowing pastel fauna and flora. Animated .gifs and text frame a squirrel in cyborg headdress. This is the protagonist, CarLEe.

    Scrolling downward, the user encounters collaged illustrations of nature, the city, and a gently smiling man with pink antennae. It is revealed that CarLEe the squirrel was once human-bodied, living in the city with Mom and Poppo (who died shortly after an electric kettle water Baptism, despite early success with wasp-parasite technology to keep him alive).

    Russell’s description of this post-human future grows yet darker as the user learns CarLEe has lived through starvation wars and extreme capitalist extraction, and currently resides in a controlled habitat that includes “non-combo species” (woodchucks and birds) fitted with “passification-tech.” Playful, lo-fi images illustrate the text, giving the grim vision of the future an air of absurdity.

    Russell structures SQRRL along two trajectories, allowing the user to toggle between a narrative poem and a series of footnotes which include meditations on specific terms, along with links to a diverse selection of citations ranging from introductory Christian FAQs to the Cyborg Manifesto, and banal reporting on grocery store masturbation, as well as an in-depth discussion of the theoretical work of Luce Irigiray and its legacy. Moving fluidly between contemporary theory and futuristic narrative, the reader of Russell's text finds that this cynical and beautiful vision of a future society, in which a person's consciousness may be distributed among seven lizards, has strong echoes of the present.

    John Russell's solo show, "SQRRL," is on view at Bridget Donahue Gallery, 99 Bowery, New York, November 14, 2015 - January 11, 2016.

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    A few days before the Unicode Consortium's annual conference was slated to begin, its co-founder and president Mark Davis had a change of heart. He canceled a planned session on local language formats and replaced it with a Q&A that seemed to hold much broader appeal: “Find out how…beneath a seemingly ordinary street in Zürich, deep in the vaults of Gringotts, a shadowy cabal meets to decide the future of emoji,” Davis promised.

    I would meet this cabal. Along with my artistic collaborator Maggie Ronan, I had been invited to give a talk in the heart of Silicon Valley at the 39th Internationalization and Unicode Conference (IUC39), where the standards are set for the representation and encoding of all text in modern software. My talk would be on the implications of standardizing emoji, a linguistic system—partly represented in Unicode—in which ambiguity and elasticity are core features. On a Tuesday afternoon, Maggie and I drove from San Francisco to the vast, sprawling, and patriotically named streets of Santa Clara, CA. We parked at the Hyatt Regency hotel, whose loud swirling carpets would serve as backdrop for the Unicode royalty.

    The 39th Internationalization and Unicode Conference, 2015. Photo by Liat Berdugo.

    The Unicode Consortium defines how all mobile phones, desktops, and other computers represent the text of every language. Their decrees are published as the Unicode Standard—a compilation of information about the encoding and display of well over 110,000 characters that ensures consistency across operating systems of all kinds. It used to be that computers could not easily talk to one another, especially across different languages. Strings of bits that one computer system understands to represent "ABC" might well be rendered on another as something like “#!xx~.” Davis co-founded Unicode in the 1980s to solve this problem. Once Unicode was adopted, well, you could kiss your ASCII goodbye.[1]

    “You made it just in time for the reception!” said the man behind the IUC39 registration table. He carefully affixed a red “speaker” ribbon onto my conference name badge, and fastened the lanyard around my neck. My name badge hung too low on my body—somewhere between my navel and my nether regions.

    A badge made for bigger bodies, 2015. Photo by Liat Berdugo.

    All around me, I began to notice bodies that were better suited to such a long lanyard; they all seemed to belong to engineers. Engineers from Microsoft, Apple, and Google. Engineers from Facebook, Twitter, and Yelp. Engineers from Intel, engineers from Blackbaud, engineers from Informatica. I found an outlier here or there: Debbie, for instance—a linguistics researcher at Berkeley who was standardizing Middle Egyptian hieroglyphics.

    I was first in line for a glass of wine at the reception. I met an engineer named Craig Cummings while serving myself crudité. Cummings was a veteran of the Unicode conference, and sits on the Emoji Subcommittee as the resident naturalist (“I didn’t like the way that animals were being represented in emoji,” he confessed). He loved that I was a newbie, and told me stories of how Unicode once successfully got North and South Korea to sit down at a table to discuss standards. Another internationalization engineer named Russ Rolfe joined our conversation. Cummings explained that I was the only invited presenter who is an artist and curator, rather than a technology insider. “I am tickled to see you here,” Rolfe said. Tugging his hair, he added: “Because, you know: there is a graying at Unicode.”

    Recently, Unicode has been getting a lot of press—and a fresh influx of pre-gray attendees, like me—for its mysterious role as the emoji gatekeeper. I’ll admit it: I am an emoji fanboy. I love them as cultural currencies of shared affective meaning.[2] I am wooed by poetic emoji text messages from lovers. I have two different pairs of emoji leggings that I got for $5 each at a corner store in east Oakland. I share a studio space with a company called 💾🌵(pronounced “Disk Cactus”), the first ever LLC registered with emoji. I type with an emoji keyboard on my computer at all times, for ease of access to 😂 and 🎈 and 👯👯👯. So I wanted to know: who chooses these characters? How do they decide what is included? And why do they get to choose?

    💾🌵’s Emoji Keyboard, 2015. Photo by 💾🌵/

    The Emoji Q&A Panel opened with a suggestion that its chair, Mark Davis, was dressed incorrectly for the occasion. Last Christmas his daughter made him a shirt that read “Shadowy Emoji Overlord” on the back.[3]“Yes, I should have worn that shirt,” agreed Davis. The other Shadowy Emoji Overlord, Peter Edberg of Apple, sat in the audience, out of the limelight. He matter-of-factly changed the subject: “OK, uh, questions?”

    Mark Davis from behind at the Unicode meetings in May, 2015, with Peter Edberg sitting to his left. Photo retrieved from Davis's public Google+ account

    “What is a common type of emoji suggestion that gets denied?” someone asked. “Justin Biebers, deities, and dead people,” answered Davis. Over the years, the Emoji Subcommittee has developed criteria for inclusion into the encoded standard—the most important of which is the expected level of usage. Once Unicode gives a candidate emoji a codepoint, it’s encoded forever, as if written in the blood of human-computer history. With that kind of commitment, Unicode understandably wants to know that they’re making the right choice. They want to pick the most popular emoji on the block.

    I became obsessed with Unicode’s methodologies for determining emoji popularity. To my eye, their methods were poetic—more within the realm of conceptual art than engineering requirements. For instance, one way they determine emoji popularity is ask if a candidate emoji has high metaphoric potential: (SHARK) is not only an animal, but also a huckster, a card shark, a loan shark, and so on.

    I encountered my favorite method for determining emoji popularity on the smartphone of Hiroyuki “Hiro” Komatsu, a Google engineer from Japan who was attempting get ten new food emoji passed at the Unicode Technical Committee’s meeting next week. He wanted emoji to contain characters for milk, pancakes, shrimp (but not the fried kind), and squid. His previous proposal hadn’t passed—he and I had corresponded about that process while he was in Japan—and since then, he’d been working with Mark Davis to rewrite it. “Mark suggested that I compare popularity to hamburger,” he said, and showed me his frequency analysis graph of the Google Image search trends of “MILK CARTON AND GLASS” as compared to HAMBURGER. I laughed. “Why hamburger?” I asked. “Because.... it’s popular!” Komatsu answered.

    Google Image searches of milk carton and glass versus hamburger over time worldwide, Google Trends. The y-axis is relative Google Image search for the two terms (for instance, if at most 10% of searches were for "glass of milk," Google Trends considers this to be 100). This doesn't convey absolute search volume, but does show comparative search popularity over time.

    Komatsu scrolled down on his phone. He scrolled, and I marveled to myself: I use 💩all the time, but never search for images of “pile of poo.” He showed me more graphs: “squid” compared to “hamburger” in English flat out loses. But in Japanese, squid's a winner.

    Google Image searches of squid versus hamburger over time worldwide, Google Trends.

    Google Image searches of squid vs. hamburger over time, in Japanese, Google Trends.

    Davis jokes that the Emoji Subcommittee is a “cabal,” because he doesn’t think it is—a cabal has secrets, plots, and intrigues, whereas the committee has rules, methods, and graphs. Yet I couldn’t help but see “squid vs. hamburger” as a thin veneer covering over the fact that Unicode is now in the business of a speculative design process involving the affective potential of digital communication for millions of people.

    Some Unicode members are disgruntled with its newfound power. “Unicode is serving as the emoji gatekeeper,” said Markus Scherer, one of the original authors of the Unicode Emoji proposals. “How do we get out of that business?” Other Unicode members don’t seem to mind their power: “The one ring to rule them all,” Davis responded to Scherer, sarcastically citing the Lord of the Rings prop used to gain dominion over the masses.

    What’s more, I learned, this is capitalism. The Emoji Subcommittee decides which emoji live and which die by making recommendations to the Unicode Technical Committee. In typical woo-woo California style, the committee makes decisions based on consensus voting, but you have pay your way into voting rights: full members pay $18,000 a year for the right to vote.[4] As a result, the membership is comprised of corporations like Apple, Facebook, Google, IBM, and, less predictably, the Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs of the Sultanate of Oman. And this is nation building. India joined the Unicode Consortium in 2000;[5] afterwards, the Indian state of Tamil Nadu joined independently as a polite Eff you to India and to add fuel to a dispute they were having over whether to encode Tamil as a syllabary language (as was commonly being taught to schoolchildren in the state) or with the Brahmi-based encoding model of greater India.

    For its annual conference, the Unicode Consortium tries to avoid such politics whenever possible. An IUC Conference committee member took Maggie and I out to dinner in the hotel lobby one night. He wore tan keens, kept tiny bifocals in his shirt pocket, and delivered sweet and practiced lines (“I’ve been working at this job since 6 months before September 11th!”). He told me that the one political proposal submitted a few years ago—standardizing Southeast Asian languages—had been turned down by the conference committee. “Why did you accept our talk?” Maggie asked. “Artists want to come talk at Unicode?! About social issues?! We want them,” he responded.

    Other talks had deliciously titled slides: “Noto script support in Marshmallow” for Android Typography advances, or “Enhanced Umm al-Qura Calendar Support” for using the lunar-based Hijri calendars of Saudi Arabia. Over lunch I conversed with an internationalization engineer who hung his backpack on the back of his chair, then clipped the waist strap around the chair’s base as if for maximum utility. He demoed the blinkies on his backpack straps—extra security for pedestrian safety in Palo Alto.

    Extra security measures for pedestrians on the backpacks of IUC39 conference attendees, 2015. Vine by Liat Berdugo.

    All of us oddballs at the Unicode conference were there because of emoji. "Actually, the only thing weird about you," said SIL International engineer Martin Hosken to me, over a cannoli, "is how utterly normal you are. We're the weird ones." Hosken goes to Unicode because of bibles. He works at the so-called "script boundary" between Thailand and Laos, where the same spoken language is written with a different script. In order to spread the gospel, someone either has to retype the entire New Testament, or hire Hosken to write a script translator. I looked down to the floor and saw where the carpet pattern abruptly changed. Script boundaries, carpet boundaries: all the divisive elements in one hotel.

    Carpet boundaries at the Hyatt Regency formed the backdrop to the 2015 Internationalization and Unicode Conference, 2015. Photo by Liat Berdugo.

    So this was Unicode: sometimes the stakes are high, and sometimes they are low. The high stakes come with serious questions about inclusion and representation. For instance, with the release of emoji skin color modifiers in 2014, the world was offered five new tones ranging from dark brown to pink. The default skin tone was then set to be an inhuman yellow, “similar to Homer Simpson or John Boehner,” noted Davis at the conference. The world now had a Black Santa. But when Instagram released its Emoji Hashtags, allowing search by emoji for the first time ever, it decided to keep all skin tones separate. A search for # pulls up different results than #. The result? A racially segregated Instagram.

    The last conference session I attended was on the topic of emoji search, but the Instagram search issue did not come up; the stakes were much lower. In the Q&A, a man in a black polo shirt embroidered with "NETFLIX" raised his hand and stated: “I would like to know what happens if you go to Yelp, and search for the smiling pile of poop.” A Yelper in the audience—who had hand-written search terms for 826 emoji—answered, “I can tell you that the pile of poo emoji maps to the English word, ‘poop’." 

    We had been readied for this moment. Nova Patch, the Shutterstock engineer leading Emoji Search, had given us our raison d'être: “Why do emoji search?” he asked rhetorically. “Well, because it’s there!” he exclaimed. This was not about morals, nor about money, nor about efficient uses of time. This was about one of the golden rules of programming: people will always put unexpected inputs into data forms. An engineer’s job is to anticipate that. “I can make that happen,” Patch said. He typed “💩” into the Yelp search bar. And so there we were, all staring at the phone number for the pet sitting service called POOP 911. “Congratulations,” he said, “on giving a lot of attention to emoji searching.”

    Sometimes the more attention a thing gets, the more it deserves. Sometimes it’s just the opposite. And sometimes a sort of narrow, professional instrumentalism takes hold—biasing a restricted point of view in favor of a broader one. It is that broader view that might one day accommodate the culturally critical questions of inclusion, representation, and implications of standardization within technical discussions. But this—this was Maslow’s law of the instrument, emoji-style: if all you have is a search box, everything looks like 💩.

     Finding 💩 near Santa Clara, CA during the “Emoji Search” Panel at the 39th Internationalization and Unicode Conference, 2015. Photo by Liat Berdugo.


    [1] Technically, ASCII was rolled into the Unicode Standard as a proper subset. All ASCII is in Unicode, but not all Unicode is in ASCII—not by a long shot. This great release was followed by John Dvorak’s potty-mouth-titled article, “Kiss your ASCII Goodbye,” in the September 15 1992, issue of PC Magazine (p. 93).

    [2] As Stark and Crawford noted in their recent article “The Conservatism of Emoji: Work, Affect and Communication”, emoji “act symbolically as signifiers of affective meaning.”

    [3] Referencing a quote from a Dazed article by Thomas Gorton to the same effect (

    [4] For full details on voting methods, see Unicode’s “Technical Committee Procedures for the Unicode Consortium”. For full details and pricing structures, see Unicode’s “Membership Levels and Fees”.

    [5] See Unicode’s "Membership History" for full details on members of the Unicode Consortium.


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  • 12/09/15--07:00: After the Hookup, an App
  • The Space Between Us, a new app from David Horvitz, does so little. It’s Grindr in reverse, a post-hook-up tool for conjuring the other, after the fact. While some geo-location apps invite us to visualize the users around us, leading to chats and meetings—zooming in on the physical—this work goes the other way. It begins with a physical encounter and adds distance.

    The generic design belies the complex relations the app sets in motion. Designed by Mia Nolting and programmed by Miles Peyton, it draws a dotted line across the planet between two users, as the crow flies, and the connection is intimate and beguiling. Once downloaded, a fat white arrow spins clockwise against an ultramarine (“beyond the sea”) background. It’s dumb. The instructions tell me that the spinning continues until I find another user. The frustration of having no one to play with at first makes me think of Grindr’s addictive optimism, where I’m constantly presented with new players, potential chats and outcomes. What’s more ridiculous: browsing or not being able to?

    Twenty-four hours had passed since downloading; the delayed gratification was already trying my patience. Determined to beat the lonely spinning arrow, I pair up with a friend. Our arrows immediately lock, pointing toward each other across the room. The Space Between Us really does its thing when we separate. As the distance between us increases, the arrows never stop pointing. This app is a relational compass. I turn my body to face my friend, wherever he is. The dislocation is displayed in kilometers, but that space between us is collapsed in emotion and thought.

    At this point, there’s nothing else to do but imagine his presence in relation to mine. Like much of Horvitz’s work, time and space are presented in plain terms, but are not to be taken for granted; constructs are at play, relative and personal. In The Distance of a Day (2013), a related work, Horvitz filmed the sun rising from the east on one iPhone at the same moment that his mother, at a location far away, filmed it setting to the west on another; later, the two devices were displayed in a gallery, side-by-side, a spatiotemporal collapse through a single event. Horvitz used the movement of the earth to connect himself with his mother; he says the work is the sun in their eyes at the same time. Bodies facing each other across a large distance, looking towards one another, imagining the other in a moment.

    David Horvitz, The Distance of a Day (2013)

    For the next few days I look at my arrow, imagining my friend from time to time, 0.5 kilometers, 2.5 kilometers, 249 kilometers away. I picture him downtown, going home to Brooklyn, on a train traveling to Rhode Island. Turning myself toward his physical presence “out there” in the world is an odd, vaguely intimate feeling. Surveillant, almost. I think of reasons to turn our bodies in relation to the planet: the sun, moon, weather, gods. A few days later, I tap the arrow ten times and it vibrates; we are disconnected. Released from our strange bond.

    Unlike functional apps that feature maps or profiles, The Space Between Us describes users only in relation to each other. Horvitz uses minimal means to link us up beyond physical location, if we’re open to it. All we need is an agreement and somewhere to set our sight.


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  • 12/14/15--10:54: Dissociative Social Media
  • "I do not believe that knowledge is embedded in documents, just as beauty is not embedded in objects. Beauty and knowledge are created by joining and creating complex relationships between creators, viewers, contexts, histories, etc."

    —Harm van den Dorpel in an interview with Annet Dekker, "Choosing Complexity," for Metropolis M. 

    Now on the front page, Harm van den Dorpel’s project Deli Near Info is a social media website, established in 2014, that anyone with a Twitter account can join. It exemplifies a non-linear, intuitive "surf," or way of adding, finding, and connecting user generated content—particularly images, gifs, and text. External webpages including links to video and sound can also be embedded.

    Harm van den Dorpel, Deli Near Info (2015)

    Deli Near Info is derived from "de-linear," which represents an alternative approach to the ubiquitous timeline-based, scrolling social media sites, which place newer content at the top. Van den Dorpel believes this kind of linear organization of content is “only about the now,” and does not allow the user to cultivate memory by making associations over time. Rather than hashtags or other metadata grouping the content, in Deli Near Info the pages are formed based on subjective choices made by multiple contributors. Additionally, unlike the majority of social media platforms, Deli Near Info offers no template for the content, which can be moved, manipulated in size or transparency, and animated with functions such as "Haunting" or "Dripping."

    Deli Near Info is a development of Van den Dorpel's past site Dissociations, a kind of open studio which gathered the artist's own work alongside found material that often informed or became part of his artworks at a later stage, emphasizing transience and mutability. Dissociations also assisted Van den Dorpel in his practice, in that the back end he programmed formed associations among his works over time based on his selections: out of three images the back end displayed, he would click on one that didn’t fit. Thus, over time, the program formed more intelligent groupings.

    Deli Near Info, like Dissociations, uses server-side software to facilitate the creation of multiple lateral connections among artworks. Using these sites as well as other online works by Van den Dorpel offers a heightened awareness of how much the reception of any content depends on the design and programming of its context. A "surf" through Deli Near Info exemplifies a more organic path through content—one driven by the interest of the viewer, rather than the site's own timeline or algorithms.

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    Tung-Hui Hu’s A Prehistory of the Cloud, published by MIT Press in August 2015, is a necessary excavation of the material infrastructures that undergird the fantasies of freedom proposed by cloud connectivity. Hu charts the evolution of the user as a synthetic identity, providing useful tools for thinking through the ways in which distributed networks have announced and celebrated the supposed liberty of ubiquitous coverage while reconstituting otherness, social partitioning, and paranoia through the ambient dissemination of control. Drawing widely from artistic explorations of DIY cartographies and clandestine topographies of information exchange from Ant Farm’s Truck Stop Network in the early 1970s to the recent work of Trevor Paglen, the book talks through the ways in which hacktivist subversions of the network may not be as effective as they appear at first, and seeks to address the real impact that data sovereignty may have on the bodies of those it seeks to locate and implicate in extra-judicial techniques of power. We met in the suitably bunker-like confines of London’s Barbican Centre to discuss Hu’s ideas, his personal experience as a network engineer, and the pressing issues faced by artists seeking to explore cloud labor platforms.

    JS: There’s a great moment at the beginning of the book where you describe a desire to gauge your own proximity to the cloud by looking into the end of a fiber optic cable, an action that could have had catastrophic consequences for your eyesight. It’s a fantastic image that jolted me to recognize how this is an embodied interface, characterizing the user as a potentially vulnerable node. What drew you to the cloud as an object of study, and how did you decide to begin mapping a technology that at first appears diffuse and elusive?

    T-HH: I have a different answer almost every time I answer this question, and the one I’m thinking of now comes down to the data center. In the late 1990s, we were trying to find a place to collocate some servers. We were driving to a new facility on the outskirts of Washington D.C. where they had just installed the latest security equipment which involved a “man trap.” You entered a sealed room and operated the system through hand recognition, but you were literally unable to leave this chamber until you had been authenticated. There were bollards there to protect you from car bombs, and, you know, this was America before 9/11; although these structures exist in other countries, there’s an incredibly odd and paranoid wave of security thinking here where the body is literally caught between the walls and the wires of a data center. I’ve been interested in computer security for a while. I enjoyed finding bugs in security systems and publishing them, even before laws and regulations about whether or not that was okay or not had come into effect. But I remember thinking that this was just the oddest place: there was a farm with horses on the one side, and on the other, this strange security fortress.

    Percy Feinstein/Corbis

    For something like ten years after that I tried not to think about digital networks or computer science. I did my post-graduate work in film studies, which I thought of as a refuge. I didn’t want to write about a subject that seemed almost autobiographical or at least overly literal. What drew me back in were questions about the medium of film, which was becoming digitized at the time and as a field was having this anxiety as to whether it was being replaced by digital media. For me, film was also a way of thinking about the intersection of visibility and power. And I was looking at structuralist pieces like Anthony McCall’s Line Describing A Cone (1973), which reminded me of fiber optic cable. So my initial impulse to write this book was aesthetic: the blurriness of the cloud, the way in which it produces both radical visibility through packet inspection, and obscurity as well. Part of the challenge of the book was to take moments like the one you described, peering into the fiber optic cable, and see if I could draw something more theoretically interesting out of it. I like your reading of it as a way in which the bodies are entangled with the wires, because that’s one of the first cases I look at, where the telephone operators and the labor unions are implicated in a paranoid definition of what a network is.

    JS: Reading the book, it was interesting to note your tripartite identity as a poet, network engineer, and professor of literature. Could you tell me something about how those identities might be hybridized, and how their inter-relationships might provide interpretative tools for addressing the cloud? My initial thoughts on this were that you’d be pretty well disposed to analyze the hyperbolic rhetoric of ubiquity used to promote cloud computing.

    T-HH: Until a year or two or ago, I tried very hard to keep these identities separate. The first academic paper I wrote when I was studying architecture was dismissed as an extended prose poem. From thenceforth it was very important for me to separate those lives. When I lived in Berkeley—across the bay from San Francisco—that was where I was an academic, and San Francisco was where I was a poet, and never should the two meet, right? But poetry is also a way of noticing patterns, of looking for events and images that rhyme or have associations. And maybe there is a kind of poetry in the juxtapositions of history: the place in the Utah desert where the telephone network is sabotaged is also the place where the artist group Ant Farm imagines a network out of truck stops; the bunker in Virginia built to house the US financial system in the event of a nuclear attack is now the place where the nation’s film reels are kept in cold storage.

    It’s also true that code is a form of rhetoric. I studied Chomsky and grammars when learning how to write programming languages in asking how you’d actually parse and understand language. There’s even that glib idea that code is not just efficient, but also elegant. An elegant solution to a problem is maybe not unlike the way that a poem is a more elegant way of getting something across in a very short and compressed form. I don’t know if I totally buy that; the truth is that it’s hard for me to reconcile these identities; because this book has taken up so much of my life for the past five years, my poetry has actually come closer to academic writing. I’m currently writing an essay about the political punishment of objects. In the sixteenth century there was a bell that was put on trial for treason and flogged. It had its clapper torn out and was sent into exile. Some political questions have crossed over from this book into my poetry, where there’s a kind of freedom from the rigor which I hope is present in the book.  

    Andrei Pandre, data visualization

    JS: I remember stumbling into a cloud force computing AGM a few years ago and was shocked to see how the company had been using pseudo-therapy groups to address workers resistant to the cloud. They were encouraging testimonials much in the way that Alcoholics Anonymous meetings do, demanding confessionals and prompting non-users to actively perform the guilt of non-participation! You devote a significant portion of the book to a discussion of the developments—from batch processing to time-sharing—through which the figure of the contemporary “user” has evolved. It’s a notion that seems key to your ideas surrounding how power could be seen to have become distributed in an ambient sense, laterally, through the figure of the user whose participation in the network is tantamount to a kind of self-regulation. Could you unpack this idea of the user a little? How is an understanding of that singular mode of subjectivity crucial to an understanding of how the cloud is currently reorganizing power?

    T-HH: That’s so apt to compare it to an A.A. meeting! Some of those management techniques are so odd. I once toured Google’s campus, and they were showing us all of these odd sculptures and said, “look, you may not realize this, but this is art and in fact many of our engineers are artists because we go to Burning Man! And because we go to Burning Man, and because we make art, this makes us more productive workers.” It was the linking of art and neoliberalism that every academic tries to hint at, but they were saying it unabashedly. But to get back to timesharing, there’s a larger transformation in labor that the Italian autonomists are pointing to, moving out of the factory and toward a system where the worker has to take part in the production and management of self, as well as of the company. The specific idea that time-sharing creates is multi-tasking, where you no longer have to submit a job in batches to your computer; you can work alongside it, splitting your time with that of the computer. What that does, however, is reshape the idea of work time, since now everything can be a problem to be broken down and computed. The people who were in Stanford’s A.I. Lab (in the ’60s) are now also very excited about the fact that leisure time can be work time; that you can now be working on problems you think are really interesting like playing Spacewar, and how to render a torpedo effectively, but using that ultimately as a way of furthering productivity.

    The user is a deeply synthetic creation, right? The identity of the user is actually very odd if you look at it historically, because it really means a way of dividing up a shared resource. You’re all sharing the same computer and yet you think of this as private. The journalist Steven Levy says, “it’s actually like making love to someone knowing that they’re making love to many other people.” How we think of this now as a model for individuality is very bizarre—perhaps a matter of forty years of indoctrination. Every user has become a freelance laborer, every user is out for themselves, everyone can affiliate themselves with whatever company.

    This sounds great in theory, but the very end of the book takes up this idea of the “human as a service”—a technologist’s phrase, not mine. It means that we should all “Uberize” ourselves—not just to drive cars, but to let every moment of our day be monetized by an app. The gruesome literalization of the “human as a service” is the captcha workers who are asked to prove that they’re human over and over again, every ten seconds. If all we need is to get proof of humanity, then we can make that a service and we can outsource it to Bangladesh and have that done for us for two dollars per thousand captchas. It’s confusion between what is really an economic idea of accounting for how much time we are using, which is called the user, and the idea of the personal. We’re now reading the user as an “I,” as a confessional subject; at the meeting you mentioned, participants were supposed to confess their failure to use. It’s a gross misreading and it also leads to problems where we approach as political problems not from the point of view of collective action, but from that of the user, which, again, is a fake thing. So, we download apps to ensure a user’s privacy and think that that ensures our privacy, and that’s a very different thing altogether.

    JS: One of the most interesting and pressing arguments you make is the claim that subversion, through various hacktivist strategies, is a wrong-headed approach that is in fact anticipated by the recuperative, expressly neoliberal structure of the cloud. There are a couple of instances you give, from the data-mining of NATO bomber locations in Libya by radio frequency hackers to Paglen’s photographs. These are instances where supposedly oppositional stances are re-incorporated into martial or governmental networks as a kind of market research. Could we talk about some of the dangers implicit in the assumption that the cloud can be subverted?

    T-HH: It’s funny, I was reading about the history of the Mass Observation project, which was founded here in the UK in 1937, and how they eventually became a market research firm. This is no discredit to Paglen’s work, which I find really important—but when he tracks down these CIA agents and photographs them from a thousand meters away, the result is that they look like the perfect portrait to be hung in a CIA agent’s office in Langley. There’s a literally duplicative method there of xeroxing and copying. The idea of resistance through the use of tools of surveillance, watching the watchers by using the same tools that they have and trying to counter them by adopting their tactics, even fighting sovereignty with sovereignty: all of these tactics are only reduplicating the structure of power that is animating the cloud.

    Geert Lovink points out that hacktivists do their mods and capitalism says “thanks for the improvement, our beta version of this has now been improved by you helping.” A Dutch radio frequency hacker helps hacktivists find un-secured military channels of communication and right-wing critics initially jump on how terrible this is, but then he responds by saying, “oh no I’m trying to help Nato, I’m trying to help the effort.” That’s the risk: resisting using the same framework only serves to reinforce the framework. Saying that the state is wrong and that we need to fight back against the state is a misreading of what Foucault tells us about power, which is that power is not one entity that imposes it on you. Rather, everybody is involved in producing this system of power; power is relational. How are we going to talk about this? I think we need something besides or outside of the framework itself.

    JS: You make a terrifying proposition in the analogy you draw between data sovereignty and practices of extrajudicial torture, namely that extraordinary rendition transposes the network architecture of the cloud directly onto practices of torture. In this sense, the data center isn’t too dissimilar to the internment camp in the way it leads us to think about the infrastructure of imperialism. At one point you quote Fredric Jameson, who characterizes conspiracy as a “poor man’s cognitive mapping.” I wondered to what extent the conspiratorial had come to constitute the general ambience of network culture, and whether or not there was any agency there that would mean we might be able to reclaim something from the conspiratorial in the sense of a strategy of anticipation or resistance?

    Matthias Hopf, point cloud visualization

    T-HH: I think conspiracy and paranoia are just what the cloud needs, if I can ascribe the cloud agency. The system works like a massive pyramid scheme—we all need to believe that it’s everywhere in order for it to be everywhere. I remember talking to someone who knew Facebook was a problem, but even she became annoyed when one of her friends left Facebook: “What do you mean you left Facebook, we’re all on it, we all agreed to be on it, so why do you get to opt out?” That’s the mechanism that the cloud employs; we assume that everybody is a user, that everybody is on it and freely engaged in these practices, and we feel personally offended when that’s not the case. Now, of course, the cloud isn’t everywhere, this is a particularly Western view and that’s why the book takes America as the prime example of this way of thinking. Americans think freedom means market freedom and the free movement of goods, and get violently offended when this is not the case. Our model is basically that if you’re not free, we will bomb you until you are free.

    The idea of conspiracy, as Jameson tells us, is totalizing. That’s the idea of The Cloud, rather than the clouds; there is one cloud that we are all supposed to subscribe to. I think that’s the reason why paranoia about security is always part of the way that the cloud is produced, rather than unmasked or exposed. This is one reason why understanding some technical aspects of the cloud—the way it fails and doesn’t cover much territory—could change our image of it, away from one totalizing entity. Oddly enough, given my examples, the book’s goal is to get us away from simply talking about paranoia or even control, which is the dominant model now in new media studies. My problem with the “control society” model is that not only is it totalizing in the way that the cloud is totalizing, but it distracts us in some ways from looking at the real violence that’s been happening all along, so that if we start thinking about gadgets and the way that life is optimized and produced, then we forget the flip-side of that, which is the way that death is also meted out.

    JS: Your final chapter, “Seeing the Cloud,” ends quite positively with a prompt to artists to become icondules—people who have an expressed faith in images. But you’re keen to stress that images aren’t just a case of making the invisible visible, but are points of mediation between an abstract totality and “the frame of human experience,” as you say. Could you explain that for me? What would the pragmatic implications for an artist be?

    T-HH: I’m personally uninterested in what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick calls “the epistemology of exposure,” which suggests that if we find the evil thing and take a photograph of it, we’ll somehow undo the structure of violence. Many of the supposedly secret inner workings of the military and internet corporations alike—such as their data centers—have been intentionally made to be seen. And as the artist Walead Beshty says, a lot of what this art does is just to take really problematic structures and re-animate them in order to punch a hole in them and knock them down.

    On the topic of mediating between the abstract scale and the human experience: one specific thing is that the cloud entails the idea of nudging us to interact with it in real time, and what "real time" means is that we ditch the past and even in some ways understand the future as a hollowing out of the present. What happens is that the cloud narrows our temporal window of experience. And art can play with duration—it can think not just about history, but also outside of the year-long or six-month window that we normally use to talk about the cloud. Furthermore, the cloud, as we know, isn’t just a technology, it’s a fantasy made by people. One of the directions in which artists could productively go is trying to understand what it looks like outside of the western imagination. I’ve been seeing projects recently on the Mongolian internet, and ways in which Native American communities are connecting, and they’re fascinating because they’re not at all traditional examples of plugging in and being part of the cloud. These other kinds of internets are areas that haven’t been talked about enough. Something of a similar experience occurred recently when I was at an artist’s residency in the Santa Cruz mountains with twelve of us sharing a satellite connection. If you know the geography of California, it’s exactly where fog rolls in and hits and interferes with the signal. So I could very much sense the cloud coming as I was writing about the cloud, in these moments where my internet connection would stop working. I’d look outside and see a miraculous line of fog.

    Aspenhills Consulting

    These days, I’m writing on forms of art that don’t necessarily practice resistance, which I think is often gendered—the heroic guy versus feminized consumption practices—and I think there are a lot of interesting art practices that investigate refusal or desistance or what I’m thinking of as recessive actions; these are all ideas I’m beginning to call “lethargic media.” But as long as we focus on the structure of power rather than the gadgets, that’s a step in the right direction.

    I don’t know what a good model, or a new model, for an artist would be, but provisionally I would start with a passage from Claire Bishop’s Artificial Hells, where she talks about the virtuosic artist as the ultimate flexible, mobile worker. A human resources manager would interpret that as essentially the ability to manage things. Some digital artists even describe themselves as managers of data. The conceptual poet Kenneth Goldsmith, who has been getting a lot of deserved criticism recently for appropriating the autopsy of Michael Brown as a poem, thinks of himself as managing language. There’s a real bodily dimension to that for people of color, for example, and maybe they don’t want their language managed by some white dude. The artist as knowledge worker that Bishop describes aligns too well with what neoliberalism—and I hate using that word as it’s the thing we’re all very keen to beat to death—wants. It’s very similar to the knowledge workers that the National Security Agency would like to hire.

    Despite this, I’m interested in artists who would use cloud labor platforms to produce their work. I’ve been writing a piece that revisits Cory Arcangel’s Untitled Translation Exercise (2006), where he sends the script for the slacker film Dazed and Confused to an outsourcing company in Bangalore, and asks them to re-dub the script. It’s basically a bad joke, that they all have “funny” Indian accents rather than American accents, but as problematic as it seems I actually think it stems from an assumption of complicity. That question of complicity is central to a new book my colleague Anna Watkins Fisher is writing on parasitism; one of her points is that if you take a company like FedEx, their call centers are staffed by people in Tijuana who have been deported from the U.S. but then been hired by a U.S. company because they have really great American accents as a result of living in the U.S. for so long. So there’s this relationship between the host and the parasite, the system needs the workers it expels. In a similar way, for us to pretend that we’re standing outside of the system and that we can critique it is silly. What do we do if we start from a place of complicity? What actions then result? What kind of place would that be to make art from?

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    A new exhibition by writer/artist/publisher/technologist James Bridle, "The Glomar Response," is on view through September 5, 2015 at NOME, Berlin. Here, Bridle discusses the exhibition with Fiona Shipwright.

    James Bridle, Fraunhofer Lines 001 (Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency's Detention and Interrogation Program) (2015). Photo by Bresadola+Freese/

    The title of the show is "The Glomar Response"—the official term for the response that one can "neither confirm nor deny" a particular fact. What do you find compelling about this term?

    What I find so extraordinary about the Glomar Response is its spread. The fact that this thing—which was developed by the CIA at the height of the Cold War to disguise a top-secret operation to retrieve nuclear misses from the bottom of the ocean—is now a standard part of the vernacular of your local council. But it's also interesting because within that response is this kind of deep ambiguity of these knowledge forms; there's the danger of overloading the visible/invisible idea, the notion that "I've made this all transparent and possible for you to understand," because that assumes that it is even possible to do.

    That is the underlying basis for these kind of technological forms of knowledge, this kind of data ontology. It's the same principle that surveillance relies on, the idea that "we'll just keep on gathering information, then we'll know for sure," that some absurd level of truth can be reached. At that point the Glomar Response actually almost feels like a kind of honest response to the genuine complexity of the world, that's now undeniable. Or rather it should be undeniable but we keep trying to generate these simplistic stories out of it.

    This exhibition is structured around technological investigation, specifically this weird knife-edge between how technology obscures but also reveals—once you have literacy to read it. That balance is something I am constantly fascinated by. The work in in the show is also about limits; whether it's the limits of transparency, the limits of investigation through technological methods, the limits of visualization as means of representing data in a useful way, or the limit of what you can know from data alone, which is kind of the thing that I really want to get into understanding and critiquing.

    "Unseen" can just be another word for "overly complex." There's also the question of what form of "unseen" is it? Is it unseen because it's quite literally invisible or is it because it's something that takes on the texture of the rest of the world? Or is it because it's just so deeply embedded into these technologies? Whilst I like the very literal "artness" of throwing paint over the invisible man, making something visible is also just bringing criticality to bear on these things, isolating them and discussing in such a way that means we can actually have a conversation about them.


    James Bridle, Seamless Transitions (2015). Animation by Picture Plane. Commissioned by The Photographers’ Gallery, London.

    For Seamless Transitions you used freely available archival material to create architectural visualisations of the "unphotographable" spaces of the UK's immigration detention and deportation apparatus, but they arguably tell far more than any static photographs could. Are we past the point where a "no photos" rule is enough to keep something out of sight?

    The subject matter of the Seamless Transitions piece is not even at the highest level of concealment. If I wanted to do the same thing and create visualizations for installations on Diego Garcia [a US military base and one of the geographical subjects of the Waterboarded Documents series, which features water-damaged evidence relating to a CIA black site that may have been used for waterboarding], whilst it would certainly not be impossible because there are satellite images, there wouldn't necessarily be things like the actual architectural floor plans available.

    James Bridle, Diego Garcia (Waterboarded Documents 001) (2015). Photo by Bresadola+Freese/

    But what that makes clear is that the limits to what we can see now are not determined where you can physically get to yourself: it's largely determined by what you're interested in. The thing that's stopping us seeing this stuff is a lack of interest. You can see every point on the earth's surface in Google maps but it still requires someone—either by chance or with a particular interest—to come along and say, "I need this bit" and to make sense of it.

    Now you can see everything, what do you want to see? Or conversely, if it's all there, then why haven't we seen this? A lot of my projects are about filling in an image gap where one exists because that usually points to some kind of process of occlusion.

    There's one work associated with the show which we don't see displayed: Citizen Ex, a browser extension that maps one's "Algorithmic Citizenship"—how you appear to the internet as a collection of data and the "real" consequences of that. The word "citizenship" often has connotations of democracy and participation, but in your project it has a more ambivalent status. Can you talk more about this?

    I am uncomfortable with that aspect of Citizen Ex, for many reasons. I don't want to enact citizenship online. I don't think we should base new forms of identity on the nation state—the project is an articulation of one idea, and whilst it's not the one I necessarily want to see in the world it is a reflection of the way things are being constructed today.

    When the question is asked, "why is surveillance is bad?" one of the reasons is because of the limitations it puts on individual expression—and there's no more obvious example of that than how the early net functioned. It allowed one to experiment with one's presentation of self, and that's just being stamped out on the larger platforms where people now operate. Preventing surveillance in the corporate context prevents advertising, targeting and money; that which is necessary for capitalism to function online. And that's the image that we've increasingly built the web in.

    Berlin-based writer Fiona Shipwright is an editor of uncube magazine. She can be found on Twitter @edwardiansnow

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  • 12/21/15--07:30: First Look: Real Live Online
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    A new exhibition by writer/artist/publisher/technologist James Bridle, "The Glomar Response," is on view through September 5, 2015 at NOME, Berlin. Here, Bridle discusses the exhibition with Fiona Shipwright.

    James Bridle, Fraunhofer Lines 001 (Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency's Detention and Interrogation Program) (2015). Photo by Bresadola+Freese/

    The title of the show is "The Glomar Response"—the official term for the response that one can "neither confirm nor deny" a particular fact. What do you find compelling about this term?

    What I find so extraordinary about the Glomar Response is its spread. The fact that this thing—which was developed by the CIA at the height of the Cold War to disguise a top-secret operation to retrieve nuclear misses from the bottom of the ocean—is now a standard part of the vernacular of your local council. But it's also interesting because within that response is this kind of deep ambiguity of these knowledge forms; there's the danger of overloading the visible/invisible idea, the notion that "I've made this all transparent and possible for you to understand," because that assumes that it is even possible to do.

    That is the underlying basis for these kind of technological forms of knowledge, this kind of data ontology. It's the same principle that surveillance relies on, the idea that "we'll just keep on gathering information, then we'll know for sure," that some absurd level of truth can be reached. At that point the Glomar Response actually almost feels like a kind of honest response to the genuine complexity of the world, that's now undeniable. Or rather it should be undeniable but we keep trying to generate these simplistic stories out of it.

    This exhibition is structured around technological investigation, specifically this weird knife-edge between how technology obscures but also reveals—once you have literacy to read it. That balance is something I am constantly fascinated by. The work in in the show is also about limits; whether it's the limits of transparency, the limits of investigation through technological methods, the limits of visualization as means of representing data in a useful way, or the limit of what you can know from data alone, which is kind of the thing that I really want to get into understanding and critiquing.

    "Unseen" can just be another word for "overly complex." There's also the question of what form of "unseen" is it? Is it unseen because it's quite literally invisible or is it because it's something that takes on the texture of the rest of the world? Or is it because it's just so deeply embedded into these technologies? Whilst I like the very literal "artness" of throwing paint over the invisible man, making something visible is also just bringing criticality to bear on these things, isolating them and discussing in such a way that means we can actually have a conversation about them.


    James Bridle, Seamless Transitions (2015). Animation by Picture Plane. Commissioned by The Photographers’ Gallery, London.

    For Seamless Transitions you used freely available archival material to create architectural visualisations of the "unphotographable" spaces of the UK's immigration detention and deportation apparatus, but they arguably tell far more than any static photographs could. Are we past the point where a "no photos" rule is enough to keep something out of sight?

    The subject matter of the Seamless Transitions piece is not even at the highest level of concealment. If I wanted to do the same thing and create visualizations for installations on Diego Garcia [a US military base and one of the geographical subjects of the Waterboarded Documents series, which features water-damaged evidence relating to a CIA black site that may have been used for waterboarding], whilst it would certainly not be impossible because there are satellite images, there wouldn't necessarily be things like the actual architectural floor plans available.

    James Bridle, Diego Garcia (Waterboarded Documents 001) (2015). Photo by Bresadola+Freese/

    But what that makes clear is that the limits to what we can see now are not determined where you can physically get to yourself: it's largely determined by what you're interested in. The thing that's stopping us seeing this stuff is a lack of interest. You can see every point on the earth's surface in Google maps but it still requires someone—either by chance or with a particular interest—to come along and say, "I need this bit" and to make sense of it.

    Now you can see everything, what do you want to see? Or conversely, if it's all there, then why haven't we seen this? A lot of my projects are about filling in an image gap where one exists because that usually points to some kind of process of occlusion.

    There's one work associated with the show which we don't see displayed: Citizen Ex, a browser extension that maps one's "Algorithmic Citizenship"—how you appear to the internet as a collection of data and the "real" consequences of that. The word "citizenship" often has connotations of democracy and participation, but in your project it has a more ambivalent status. Can you talk more about this?

    I am uncomfortable with that aspect of Citizen Ex, for many reasons. I don't want to enact citizenship online. I don't think we should base new forms of identity on the nation state—the project is an articulation of one idea, and whilst it's not the one I necessarily want to see in the world it is a reflection of the way things are being constructed today.

    When the question is asked, "why is surveillance is bad?" one of the reasons is because of the limitations it puts on individual expression—and there's no more obvious example of that than how the early net functioned. It allowed one to experiment with one's presentation of self, and that's just being stamped out on the larger platforms where people now operate. Preventing surveillance in the corporate context prevents advertising, targeting and money; that which is necessary for capitalism to function online. And that's the image that we've increasingly built the web in.

    Berlin-based writer Fiona Shipwright is an editor of uncube magazine. She can be found on Twitter @edwardiansnow

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    On the front page of through December 28 is a new video work by the artist duo João Enxuto and Erica Love that portrays internet access as a basic necessity that is distributed unequally. 

    The video observes patrons waiting to access the internet at Central Library, a public library in downtown Atlanta. The library, designed in 1969 and finally completed in 1980, was the last built project by Bauhaus-trained architect Marcel Breuer. On the morning of November 25, 2015, the wait for a free computer station at Central Library was 40 minutes. This video documents that wait.

    This is the second work presented as part of Real Live Online, curated by Lucas G. Pinheiro and Devin Kenny. It follows IDPW's Internet Bedroom, a twenty-four hour livestream in which participants connected to a group video call while sleeping, suggesting that there is some kind of social possibility to be found online. Waiting for the Internet shows that access to this potential remains far from universal.

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    On the front page of this week is a performative video work by artist Zach Blas that articulates a position of resistance to the internet via plagiarized texts.

    This video begins with the familiar interface of the Macintosh OS X desktop, with only one folder shown, labeled "contra-internet." The user clicks over to iTunes, plays the song "Get Off the Internet" by Le Tigre, and then opens a series of PDFs of theoretical and political treatises, copying and pasting selected passages into a new text document and then using the find and replace feature to rewrite their meaning. Texts by J.K. Gibson-Graham, Fredric Jameson, Paul B. Preciado, and Subcomandante Marcos that originally opposed economic and sexual hegemony are repurposed as part of a manifesto against the internet itself, critiquing its logic and suggesting possible alternatives.

    This is the third work presented as part of Real Live Online, curated by Lucas G. Pinheiro and Devin Kenny. It follows IDPW's Internet Bedroom, a twenty-four hour livestream in which participants connected to a group video call while sleeping, and João Enxuto and Erica Love's Waiting for the Internet, which documents the long wait for internet access at a public library in Atlanta. 

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    Artist Robert Adrian (1935-2015, also known as Robert Adrian X), founder of what was likely the first artist-initiated online community, passed away in September. As 2015 comes to a close, Rhizome is republishing the following excerpt from Josephine Bosma's indispensable book Nettitudes: Let's Talk Net Art in which she recalls meeting Adrian at an event in 1993 and learning about net art for the first time. (For a more complete treatment of Adrian's career, see Armin Medosch's moving tribute, published in October on

    It was the summer of 1993 and the internet was only slowly finding its way into the public consciousness. I was visiting V2_, the Institute for Unstable Media, because I was interviewing artists who worked with the body. The body was V2_'s focus for that year. Adrian was introduced to me as "the initiator of the first email network for artists," a network he had produced as early as 1980, and had served as the basis for the earliest net art projects between 1981 and 1983. I was introduced to a history of art in computer networks I had never heard of, and I could hardly believe that it had already been in existence for over ten years.

    Robert Adrian (left) at The World in 24 Hours (1982)

    Like so many others, I knew about cyberpunk, the new wave in science fiction made famous by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, and had even read their books in the 1980s. The "cyberspace" they described, however, was (and is) largely fictional. Robert Adrian X described a history that was much different from the all-encompassing, seamless immersiveness of Gibson's Neuromancer universe. Adrian's was a virtual environment made up of clunky machines and very diverse social groupings that barely fit together, between which connections sputtered and soared unevenly, but through which dazzling and moving shapes unfolded. I had been looking for a kind of art that matched the irregularly dispersed but provocative media landscape of which I felt a part.

    The vista that unfolded through the words and works of Robert Adrian X revealed an embodied contemporary and interdisciplinary practice that hit home. I decided right then and there to focus exclusively on art in the context of the Net. I wanted to learn how art, culture, and human nature would develop under these new circumstances.

    Poster from The Art of Being Everywhere, held at V2_, Rotterdam, in 1993.

    Bosma's conversation with Adrian, one of the first interviews she ever conducted, is published below. (A more thorough discussion of Adrian's work can be found in his 1997 interview with Tilman Baumgartel, published on the email list nettime.) 

    JB: What are you going to talk about this afternoon?

    RAX: Basically about artists using communication technologies. There has been a lot of work done in the field over the last ten years, none of it very successful. Now we're looking at a new technology and hoping it will go better in the future.

    JB: What is this new technology?

    RAX: I suppose it is the old technology which has got much cheaper and much more sophisticated, and the telephone system has become more flexible and better. It means that there has also been a change in how people think to some degree about operating with each other over telephone lines. I think there has been a change in society which allows artists to work without putting themselves in the center: working with other artists, working with groups of artists, working with a public who is not really a public but collaborators if you like. People who come into a communications project are more likely to take part than they used to be.


    The World in 24 Hours (1982) 

    JB: The audience has changed?

    RAX: Audience is a difficult word because you get this concept structure with 'audience' of people sitting quietly and watching. But with communications projects by artists, or by anybody else for that matter, they are not interesting if you do not participate. So people tend to not sit and watch. They tend to either go away or try to join. A new kind of relationship is developing inside the society itself too.

    JB: Would you call an artist in this context more an initiator?

    RAX: That is one of the roles an artist can have in this new kind of environment, an electronic environment. It is pretty hard to find any specific place where artists fit. Lots of other people don't seem to have much place in this new kind of technology, but artists are perhaps among the few people who can find some ways to use these technologies without working for a large corporation and find some creative use for this kind technology. That may be one of our roles.

    JB: Does this make art also less focused on itself, l'art pour l'art as they say?

    RAX: It is very hard to identify anything what happens today as art in the traditional sense of the word. The technology gets to be about itself. Technology for technology's sake, which is the condition of much of the technology we're using. In the development phase it tends to be technology developed by technicians that are used to just talk about technology. Now we want to penetrate some of these systems and talk about other things, while using that technology. We find a lot of resistance among the technicians. For artists to work in such an environment there is no tradition. There is no art about art there. Our problem is to discover if art is possible at all, if there is any place for artists in these systems. If I didn't think there was I wouldn't be doing it, but if I am asked straight up I have problems saying where the art is.

    JB: So you couldn't give me examples of how art inside the technology has links outside the technology?

    RAX: I would not assume there was an inside or outside to technology. The way our culture has changed the last ten, twenty, maybe the last fifty years it is completely defined by technology. So anything an artist does with technology is central to the whole culture. There is no inside or outside any longer. There are none of these distinctions, which we are used to with industrial cultures.

    The World in 24 Hours (1982). Photo: Sepp Schaffler

    JB: Are you saying this art is more connected to society?

    RAX: It is not easy to define those things in this environment, because we need to clarify what society is. Society has changed so much in the last decades that one has trouble using the same vocabulary as before. We lost a whole lot of vocabulary we brought from the arts and other disciplines to talk about society, about work, about social issues. The reality is that none of these words mean what they meant before. They don't mean anything. We can't talk about progress. Who believes in progress?

    JB: How do you approach this problem?

    RAX: Approach is good. I find myself in the middle of a problem, which is only now becoming clear, now we've come to see that something really serious has changed. As an artist one experiences that personally because if you are making sculptures or paintings: nobody cares about these things anymore. Only buyers and sellers care about them. They became products and very boring products mostly. So what do you do as an artist when you find that everything you like doing is more or less meaningless? Either you go on because you like doing it, which is like Winston Churchill doing his watercolors or Prince Charles, an amateur artist. You do it because you love it and you don't care if it is important or art. Or you quit and you try to find out what's happened to the culture that we can go on making something like the kind of art you've done in the past. I have worked in communications media parallel to working as an artist making sculptures for example. I did the same work in two different ways.

    JB: You are an artist?

    RAX: I am an artist. I am not anything else. I have nothing to do with technology. I don't like technology even. Gerfried [Stocker, now director of Ars Electronica, who is also at the event] is the technologist. But he is a musician. He does not like technology much either. He's a trained communications engineer who left his job and has been working as a musician. He makes robotic devices and large-scale sculptures and interactive environments. He comes to this kind of work out of the technology towards art, and I come out of art in the direction of technology as an artist. We work together on this particular project, but I also work with other people and so does he. Where ever I am needed or I need somebody I phone around until I find somebody who can do something for me, and I get calls from people who say they need this or that.

    JB: I just interviewed another artist [David Blair] who said that what he feared most in the future of art and the new technologies was 'the loss of biological presence'. Can you imagine an artist has a problem with loosing something he can touch, physically?

    RAX: That question really opens up a whole box of problems. The biological presence is something that you can't help but have. No matter how much you think you have none, your brain is operating biologically, it can't be helped. Flusser among others has talked about the silicon culture and the carbon culture, silicon culture being thinking machines or computers and electronic devices and carbon culture being vegetable, animal, biological culture. The distinction is, I think, not as clear as one thinks. The machines we've built, it is probably true that they are disembodied, they don't have bodies in the sense that we mean they are more or less pure thought or pure idea.

    Fax received during The World in 24 Hours (1982). Photograph: Robert Adrian.

    JB: But that is still a material, the machine. When an artist works in a network for instance the piece that occurs or the performance that occurs is only in the screen or only in cyberspace, right?

    RAX: Well yeah. Cyberspace is really difficult. It is William Gibson writing novels. Cyberspace has become a very useful way to describe a space that may or may not be there. It does not stop you being a biological entity when you use technology. The thing that is missing from all of these works, whatever you call them, is some sort of product. In none of these is there some sort of tangible product. That is missing from the art using these technologies. The machines are on: the product is there. But it is not a product, because you turn it off and it is gone again. It is not the piece of tape, it is not the disc, it is not whatever storage mechanism you use. It is only reproduced whenever the machine is on. Then you get the whole chain reaction: it is only there when the power is switched on. The power is only on when the machines are running to make the electricity going through the wires. One comes to the question where this all lies because the machines control the power generation, that is their main role. Computer technology distributes electricity, so you already have now a sort of parallel power structure or infrastructure, which is none biological. But our position in this situation can be nothing but biological. What we have to get used to is an art which has no physical property, non-objective art. If art is going to be meaningful it has to be involved with these new technologies, but these technologies do not produce that kind of thing any longer. They are not mechanical or physical devices. These are devices that produce electronic data and this does not have any physical property.

    JB: What is the network you are going to be talking about here?

    RAX: This is a network for cultural exchange. It is meant to be universally available. It is supposed to be interactive and it is part of a network of private bulletin boards called Fido, the Fido net. There are about 500,000 users in the world of this network, but it is a real amateur net. It does not cost anything, just phone up into your local bulletin board and sign on. But it is not easy to use. Well, it is uncomfortable let's say. Sometimes the messages get lost, they come a long way. But on these boxes there are all kinds of information. You can put your own information. It is self-publishing. It is also messaging, sending messages to each other. It is also dealing with software. Its main purpose in the beginning was to talk about software among technologists. But now I have to stop because I have to prepare for my talk.

    JB: Good luck. Thank you!

    ZEROnet (1992)

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    Webrecorder is hiring a talented developer dedicated to protecting digital culture. See the description.

    Rhizome is thrilled to announce today that The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has awarded the institution a two-year, $600,000 grant to underwrite the comprehensive technical development of Webrecorder, an innovative tool to archive the dynamic web. The grant is the largest Rhizome has ever received and arrives at the start of its 20th anniversary year in 2016.

    The web once delivered documents, like HTML pages. Today, it delivers complex software customized for every user, like individualized social media feeds. Current digital preservation solutions were built for that earlier time and cannot adequately cope with what the web has become. Webrecorder, in contrast, is a human-centered archival tool to create high-fidelity, interactive, contextual archives of social media and other dynamic content, such as embedded video and complex javascript, addressing our present and future.

    The Webrecorder project will be led by Ilya Kreymer, who with this grant joins Rhizome as Lead Developer, in conjunction with Dragan Espenschied, the organization's Digital Conservator. Additionally, the Mellon Foundation support will fund the hiring of a second software engineer, a design lead, and a project manager to ensure this initiative's thorough realization.

    Led by Dragan Espenschied, Rhizome's award-winning digital preservation program supports social memory for internet users and networked cultures through the creation of free and open source software tools that foster decentralized and vernacular archives, while ensuring the growth of and continuing public access to the Rhizome ArtBase, a collection of 2,000+ born-digital artworks.

    "In 1999, Rhizome founded the ArtBase, a distinctive collection of technically diverse born-digital art. In 2009, recognizing the fragility of these system-dependent works, we created a digital preservation program to care for them. In 2014, we recruited Dragan Espenschied to rethink how individuals accessed and experienced the collection. Last year, we partnered with Ilya Kreymer as part of an institutional commitment to developing new tools to archive an increasingly complex web. In 2016, our 20th anniversary year, we look forward to leading further innovation in the field of digital preservation through the Webrecorder project," said Zachary Kaplan, Rhizome’s Executive Director. "We are grateful for the support of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation."

    An early version of Webrecorder is available at The free service allows users to archive dynamic web content through browsing, and to instantly review that archived content and download their own copy of it. Anonymous use is open to all, but those who wish to host a public or private archive collection on the site can request an invitation for that offering, available on a limited basis. Webrecorder is built with open-source tools and is released under the Apache open-source license at:

    About the potential impact of Webrecorder, Rhizome's Artistic Director Michael Connor said: "The things we create and discover and share online—from embedded videos to social media profiles—are often lost, or become unrecognizable with the passage of time. Webrecorder, with its ability to capture and play back dynamic web content, and its emphasis on putting tools into users’ hands, is a major step towards addressing this, and improving digital social memory for all."

    Webrecorder will complement Rhizome's other major digital preservation research on "Emulation as a Service" (EaaS), jointly led with the University of Freiburg, which enables users to understand and access legacy software and operating systems via a modern web browser. A tool related to EaaS is, created by Ilya Kreymer with Dragan Espenschied, which uses a similar approach to connect websites from multiple existing web archives, including the Library of Congress, Stanford Library Archives, Rhizome ArtBase and the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine, to contemporaneous browsers like Mosaic and Netscape Navigator. In the two weeks since its release, has seen over a 1,000,000 visits and widespread coverage in the press, including in Vice, Forbes, Die Zeit, Der Spiegel, Gizmodo, and Quartz.

    Read more about the Webrecorder project
    Why (and how) our museum started collecting Vines, by John O'Shea
    After VVORK: How (and why) we archived a contemporary art blog, by Michael Connor
    In the New York TimesA Dynamic New Tool to Preserve the Friendsters of the Future, by Vindu Goel

    Browse artworks captured with Webrecorder

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    Now on Rhizome's front page is Antonym of Direction in the Curiosity Gap, a one-act play and hyperlinked script by Shireen Ahmed. 

    Text from the artist's everyday online conversations were repurposed as the script for this absurdist play. The play was read aloud for the first time, on camera, by Real Live Online curators Lucas G. Pinheiro and Devin Kenny. Throughout the performance, Ahmed stood with her back to the camera, conducting internet searches based on words in the script. A screen recording of this online activity is embedded within the video documentation of their cold reading. The video documentation and hyperlinked script can be viewed at

    The artist notes that "language spoken through and from the web becomes full of ambiguous possibility, but also sterile, a sad sort of neutral, the kind of contentment that traps."

    This is the fourth work presented as part of Real Live Online, curated by Lucas G. Pinheiro and Devin Kenny. 

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    This is the second in an ongoing series of reviews, edited by Orit Gat, which give critical attention to online artworks and exhibitions.

    This word, “biennale” (or biennial) has become a little painful. Sometimes it means “serious exhibition,” at others it stands for “survey.” But The Wrong Biennale, the digital art biennial organized by David Quiles Guilló, is neither of these things. Its closest cousin, perhaps, is the open submission exhibition, with all the wild variations in quality that suggests. The Biennale, accessible from a centralized website, includes 100 curated pavilions (read: around 100 different websites and some bricks-and-mortar spaces where events and exhibitions are held) and over 1000 artists, and its aims are chiefly scale (enormous) and plurality (global, diverse, not limited to sanctioned artworld spaces). That sounds fine when I write it, but I didn’t enjoy interacting with this exhibition—and not because I’m not interested or well versed in looking at art online. In browser space, with 22 tabs open, even the most conscientiously directed attention can stutter and drift after a matter of seconds. Not only was each pavilion on a separate website, but many of the individual artist projects within each pavilion were on other websites, or on Vimeo, or required that a viewer download large files from Dropbox, or any variety of new, sometimes suspect applications. I downloaded some .exe files, which I couldn’t open on my Mac. Sorry this is nearly as dull to read as it was to do. I recognize that a reliance on such platforms is chiefly financial, a greatly increased scale (this second iteration of The Wrong is roughly three times bigger than the first) with no budget to speak of, limits what can possibly be seen and how, and the experience that creates is one of wading through slow, sticky digital space which is frustrating. As an outsourced exhibition there is no coherence in design, theme, quality, or really anything at all. And while this does in effect reproduce the conditions of the internet itself, the whole project gives me that familiar feeling of ¯(°_o)/¯

    After a few hours of browsing many unremarkable videos and digital collages, I decided to go in hard and look at a virtual reality pavilion entitled “Wronggrid: L'art en Simulation,” curated by Frère Reinert and Ellectra Radikal. I had to download various applications and join something called Francogrid (not so different from Second Life). This simulated artworld is chiefly populated by virtual sculpture—giant heads, impossible forms or architecture, or world-building installations that cohere most readily in a simulated environment. An artist using the name TTY made a roomful of red and pink sculptural figures that alternatively flashed with black light while words THE HUMAN COMEDY dangled above them from the sky presumably to create the effect of a hellish party. I fell off that platform through the sky into other worlds featuring sculptures that I couldn’t identify, such as some giant upside down carrots, but as the teleporting device kept losing connection to the grid I left with little more than the impression that looking at art in a world-building environment suggests three dimensional shapes rather than images, videos, sound, or performance (though these may be interesting, where they exist).

    To look to a specific pavilion that produces something of a net art trope, CALL.IO.PE, curated by Morehshin Allahyari, is focused broadly on internet poetry, and gladly includes a couple of medium-specific contributions that address browser space. Ying Miao made a series of pleasant, melancholic gif animations in which a browser error page appear on a wallpapered desktop. These have all the hallmarks of a particular form of cute netty aesthetics—overdone affect rendered in sparkles and tears, low-res stock wallpaper, generic graphic imagery from various outdated O/S, animated Word Art—and yet even such trite sentiments as “Flowers all fallen / Birds far gone” have the ability to raise some form of checked-out emotion when such sentimental designs are seen against the miniature horror vacui of a browser that says “This page cannot be displayed.” In Sam Kronik’s video Consensual Vibes, a group of people dressed in blue jumpsuits play word-association games in a giant geometric hole in the desert while they sit around a wooden machine. At the end of the game, the machine appears to perform a kind of poetic Tinder operation, picking up on “consensual vibes” in the participants’ language, and eventually producing a printout that reads “it’s a match!” on certain spoken words—“BODY + PATENTED MEAT”—which are then paired like a hot couple on a dating app. It’s heavy-handed, sure, but perhaps flags up the ways in which “poetic” uses of language might have partly developed out of the various forms of needy advertorial for the self on social media. One’s virtuosity with language is a tiny currency that can be used to accrue forms of attention: sexual, commercial, professional.

    Poetry and the experimental virtuosity with words that have also been ushered in by the widespread use of emoji, ASCII, acronyms, instant messengers, and so on, is perhaps also flagged in this pavilion by Heather Murphy’s contribution to the project, The Honesty Initiative, which purports to be a Government-funded chatbot who attempts to learn the difference between honesty and dishonesty. When you chat to the bot, whose name is Abraham, he actually says things like “Time does not exist,” or “The Government made me this way.” The Government! LOL. It’s almost quaint to imagine that we have this monolithic organization when in fact what we are facing is rendition, outsourcing, contractors, agencies, and so on. Talking to Abraham is fun for a second, but the banality of his statements lacked anything textually experimental, or for that matter, lyrical. As a form of poetry it brings to mind the Q&A form of Anne Carson’s “Ghost Poem” (2011) which suggests fuller potentials, fears, and joys of talking to a being outside easily graspable ontologies:

    Q what about moods
    A the edges are freezing
    Q is that good
    A yes
    Q is it crowded
    A are you joking

    On the subject of ghosts, a last Pavilion of note: “Not Found, A Broken Net Art Exhibition,” curated by Cesar Escudero Andaluz and Mario Santamaría. The pair identified various net art projects that had died online, suffering a common fate due to lack of resources or archival care, and simply made a list of broken links and project descriptions. These included Gerardo Suter’s 1999 project TranSistus which (according to the surviving description) was apparently a simulation of a fictional virtual United States–Mexico border crossing via containership, used as a site for exploring a character’s memory retrieval, and Thompson & Craighead’s 2002 conceptual online shop project DOT STORE hawking a variety of lighthearted product ideas and readymade net generated produce (other people’s e-cards, gif tattoos). Stumbling across their own project listed in “Not Found,” the pair resurrected the site as a ruin open for browsing. Products on sale included “TEACH BIRDS 2 SING,” an audio CD designed to help mimicking bird species adopt mobile phone rings, which is a phenomenon I remember people talking about around the turn of the century. Imagine finding one of those birds now, calling out Nokia ringtones from 2002. Our vocal chords have learned the language of other machines now, little bird.

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    Since 2013, Rutherford Chang has documented himself playing Tetris on the Nintendo Game Boy 1,747 times in an effort to become the number one player in the world. Chang's best effort of 614,094 points puts him in second place worldwide, according to ranking site Twin Galaxies. Chang livestreams his efforts online on the Twitch platform, where gamers broadcast their gameplay while viewers look on, and archives them on his site,

    Through Thursday of this week, Chang's gameplay is been presented for one hour each day at noon on the front page of as part of the online exhibition Real Live Online, copresented by Rhizome and the New Museum and curated by Lucas G. Pinheiro and Devin Kenny.  

    In November 2015, Chang wrote a letter to Nintendo Power magazine, which appears below. In it, Chang explains his single-minded pursuit: "Game Boy Tetris is such a profoundly simple yet infinite universe unto itself that I have dedicated myself to its mastery, and no longer have capacity for other 'games.'" The letter was not published, because the magazine had folded three years prior. There is an air of futility and obscurity surrounding Chang's mission, but the project seems to offer itself as a metaphor for many, if not all, human labors. For now, though, the record still beckons.





    To be notified of future live streams, please follow @drofrehturgnahc on Twitch or Twitter. Read more about this ongoing work in The Guardian.



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    Now on Rhizome's front page is Amalia Ulman's The Annals of Private History, which takes the form of an illustrated, subtitled lecture outlining a liberally fictionalized history of the diary for a viewer who is issued occasional instructions: "Lift your right leg. Lift your left arm straight to the sky."

    In Ulman's telling, diary-keeping is historically demarcated as a feminine practice. Held under lock and key, the contents of the diary (which might include discussions of rape and complex social and emotional issues) were kept safely out of public discourse, out of the sight of patriarchs who felt vexed by the thoughts and ideas of young women. "Diaries," according to the video's narrator, "are swallowed by the beds girls write their journals from."

    The lecture goes on to consider the practice of the diary in the age of Tumblrs and vlogs, which partly threaten the diary's enclosure from public discourse, even if practitioners sometimes continue to think of their blog as a private context. Following a collage of voices culled from vlogs about plastic surgery and pregnancy, the narrator concludes,

    The least documented thing is the most interesting, but it is gone faster, forgotten and erased forever, like it never happened. And mistakes, same mistakes again, always the same mistakes for ever.

    For ever-ever?

    Forever ever.

    This is the sixth work presented as part of Real Live Online, curated by Lucas G. Pinheiro and Devin Kenny. 


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    Now on the front pageshawné michaelain holloway presents three new electronic music compositions. This is the seventh work presented as part of Real Live Online, curated by Lucas G. Pinheiro and Devin Kenny and copresented by Rhizome and the New Museum.

    From the exhibition narrative:

    The cover of shawné michaelain holloway's just-released album "BROWSER COMPOSITIONS: 3 UNRELEASED SELECTIONS is a gradient that fades, top to bottom, from white to black, an image that suits the music's dark tone. Discordant synth is layered with rhythmically looping samples and keyboard noodling; Solaris-style soundscapes give way to feedback loops that reach eardrum-blowing crescendos. Though they draw on the highly fetishized sound of the synthesizer, these works were primarily made using the most accessible of instruments, a web browser. 

    Rhizome published an Artist Profile of holloway in September; she will be participating in the Open Score conference at the New Museum on January 30.

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    The latest in an ongoing series of reviews, edited by Orit Gat, which give critical attention to online artworks and exhibitions.

    Rachael Archibald: Carnate (in-pinking)

    Ongoing on

    The rocks, mottled pink with swaths of darker brown, are spinning lazily around the room. One large boulder floats into me, careening off to bounce between the low floor and ceiling of the broad, cream-colored space. I spend a few minutes chasing the rocks, sending them flying around in abrupt directions. One smaller chunk seems to always be hovering at about head height, and veers off when bumped with a quicker spin that feels slightly more satisfying. They’re shiny, layered bits of stone, maybe some type of pink granite, lumpy and irregular but still highly polished, reflecting the gallery lights off their surface. Penned in at the center of the room by a triangular arrangement of wall segments is the largest of the rocks, orbiting slowly. As it turns, its lower third passes right through the floor. This mass isn’t moved so easily; instead it kind of carries you with it. I position myself, as much as is possible, on the gyrating stone and soon I’m juddering up and down, occasionally bumping into the ceiling, or at times given an odd fragmented view, seeing only jagged portions of the rock as it apparently passes through me.

    Rachael Archibald, Carnate (in-pinking) (2015)

    The title of Australian artist Rachael Archibald’s digital installation Carnate (in-pinking) (2015) suggests a body—flesh that has not yet been formed through the process implied by the word "incarnate." This is perhaps appropriate given that I am fumbling my way around a virtual reality gallery, noodling between my mouse and arrow keys, trying to avoid staring askew at the ceiling and walking sideways into the walls. The thing that seems to be embodied is more of a part entity, a displaced narrator; not quite a first-person immersion, not quite an avatar, but just enough that any time I think and write about this I have to suppress the urge to encase everything in scare quotes: "I" "stand" "on" the "rock"; "I" "bump" into the "wall." In some ways, I could say that bopping about in Archibald’s helium-filled geology installation is more intertwined with the work itself than, say, watching film documentation of Warhol’s 1966 pillow-shaped Silver Clouds, which is the only way I’ve ever encountered that piece. But then it also feels slightly unfair to say that it wasn’t as much fun as working my way through the childish wish-fulfillment of a room filled with white balloons for Martin Creed’s Work No. 200: Half the air in a given space (1998), or indeed any premium playground ball pool. Each of those instances has their own varying relay between physical interaction and imaginative interaction; the peculiar kind of satisfaction found "here" in Archibald’s installation is less about the fact that I can "touch" the art and watch it whizz round the room than the glazed distance felt from my own activity. What Carnate does give us, though, is a fairly light meditation on presence, weight, and the attendant contradictions of a digital sculpture.




    Paper-Thin, entrance screenshot (2015)

    A long, necessary, aside on place: Archibald’s installation is housed in one section of an expansive flat-ceilinged building, with the square columns and high windows of a former industrial space. There is track lighting lining the skirting boards of the walls and large theatrical spotlights hang from the rafters. The floors are white and glossy. In the central lobby where you enter the building is a square light well above a corresponding water feature, with a white, angular abstract bust floating mid-air. Archibald’s is the fourth and most recent addition to Paper-Thin, a platform (they refrain from using the word "gallery") for permanently housing online artworks within an all-too-familiar contemporary art structure. Visitors are plonked down in the lobby and left to explore the space, where each artist’s project is housed in its own cavernous room. Paper-Thin runs on Unity, a gaming platform that provided the basis, if you remember, for 2008's Off-Road Velociraptor Safari, or, more recently, Angry Birds 2. We roam around in first-person mode, a set of floating eyes. I can’t help but think of playing Myst or 7th Guest (both from 1993, and probably a handy indicator of my age), where you’re deposited as a clueless, amnesiac protagonist in a strange unfamiliar world—but this time I’m cast in yet another art gallery partially filled with a few big artworks. It’s sort of as if they’d done a version of Wolfenstein 3D (1992) set in Basel’s Schaulager (a private museum conceived of as a "viewing warehouse" where works from the collection are permanently installed in their own rooms).

    While creating a long-term home for new digital works by younger artists seems like a timely, even necessary gesture, there’s something about the way the rocks cast their shadows on the shiny floor, and the way the columns reflect off the gently rippling water. If you have a look around, strafing from one gallery to the next, all the projects so far are of a similar ilk: representations of sculptural installations which rely on the appearance of textured surfaces to create their effect. So far, Paper Thin’s version of digital art to be preserved is a mimetic pun on the physical world. What this glossy pun suggests, firstly, is that we want to feel comfortable in our virtual realms. But more insistently, it also reasserts the importance of the visual and the hierarchy of perspective in a realm where such attributes are simply arbitrary. As it is, the works strum pleasantly enough on the irony of making ornately un-physical works for a showily un-physical space; hopefully, the site’s future collaborators will push at and mine its all-too-literal boundaries, and leave us with more than that sense of scare quote detachment.

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    Livestream: January 21, 9pm EST,

    Manuel Arturo Abreu transforms the web into a platform for spiritual and bodily transcendence in a digital, live streamed adaptation of a Dominican Vudú service for Papá Legbá, the omniglot intermediary to the spirits of the Vudú pantheon. Arturo Abreu invokes Legbá by using the internet as a portal to connect with their ancestors.

    This text accompanies the final work presented as part of First Look: Real Live Online, curated by Lucas G. Pinheiro and Devin Kenny and copresented by Rhizome and the New Museum.

    I am interested in the intersection of noob aesthetics and syncretic Afro-Caribbean religion. This digital performance is the second public showcase of an ongoing body of research and making related to this nexus of themes. The first was a talk on palo mayombe and internet memes which I delivered at ACLA's 2015 annual meeting at the Comparative Social Media Studies seminar led by Brian Droitcour and Michael Hessel-Mial. I am grateful to them for facilitating that platform, and I am grateful to Devin Kenny and Lucas G. Pinheiro for facilitating this one. This time around, I am focusing on Dominican Vudú.

    Photo of haphazard veve setup for test run.

    Photo of haphazard veve setup for test run of Servicio Digital a Papá Legbá.

    Afro-Caribbean religious communities of practice were forged by colonization: in the face of the illegality of their religions, slaves cloaked African deities in Catholic drag in order to continue worshiping their pantheons in secret. Aside from being an incredible aesthetic and political feat under incredibly oppressive conditions which continues to inspire my practice, syncretization had other ramifications. In my native Dominican Republic, for example, many who identify as Catholic incorporate worship practices from Dominican Vudú, also called Las 21 Divisiones. Due to antiblackness and the Dominican Republic's denial of its own African heritage, this regional Catholicism with folk religious influences is contrasted with "brujeria" (witchraft) such as Dominican and Haitian Vudú on the one hand, and with Protestant evangelical Christianity on the other hand, which has spread quickly in the last few decades thanks to missionaries.

    I am a noob with respect to Dominican Vudú because I was raised Protestant as a Dominican immigrant in the Bronx. While evangelical services draw on practices from Dominican folk religion such as possession and glossolalia, the theology rejects what it sees as Catholic idolatry in the form of votive candles, the iconography of saints, and other objects used in folk religious practice. It further rejects all folk and Vudú religious practice as demonic work. As such, my dad speaks little of the folk Catholicism in which he was raised, except to call it blasphemy. This means that as a Dominican in Portland, OR, my main point of connection with the 21 Divisions is the internet.

    The availability of this kind of information, however scarce, is novel: Afro-Caribbean religions have generally operated in secret. Although occult is defined as hidden or secret knowledge, the "World Wide Web" has become a repository of such knowledge. Like a cyber-Oracle of Delphi, the internet guides spiritual seekers to unforeseen destinies. Groups that previously kept their theologies and ritual practices secret for fear of persecution are now proudly hosting websites, spreading their beliefs and recruiting new disciples from all over the world.

    Apart from being notoriously unreliable, the internet as a site for spiritual investigation presents another interesting problem: the bedrock of Afro-Caribbean religion is ancestor worship and land power. Since computers are part of nature, presumably the spiritual vitality of the earth is present within its technology. What, then, does digital animism look like? Can text, images, and video uploaded to corporate servers maintain the animistic weight of IRL ritual handed down across generations? Does binary digital code allow for some retention of any of the immaterial energy that earth objects and remains of living beings contain?

    Some of the earliest examples of digital animism might be chain emails with injunctions to share lest misfortune befall the reader, such as the Katu Lata Kulu, the Hawaiian Good Luck Totem, and Carmen Winstead letters. These emails are heirs to a tradition of chain snail mail such as the "Send-a-Dime" letter, which according to Wikipedia started in Denver, CO in 1935. A more recent example, with less hexy overtones, might be the Ferguson sigil drawn by Tumblr user wildwitchchild143 and posted on August 15, 2014:

    Tumblr post by wildwitchchild143

    About Legbá

    Elegguá/Legbá/San Antonio holds the keys to destiny. He has 21 paths and 21 cowries. He is chance and death personified, the symbol of transformation, and the chief of the 21 Dominican divisions of loa. Olofi, the supreme Yoruba god, said of Elegguá: "without you it will never be possible to do anything." This is why one must praise and give offerings to Legbá first in every ritual; he must be saluted before speaking with one's ancestors or other deities: Papá Legbá, who speaks all languages, is the arbiter of communication, standing guard at the crossroads of the living world and the spirit world. Whether one's spiritual journey is online or in meatspace, Legba must give his blessing and carry the message. Legba is the finder of what is lost. He is known to be a protector of children, which makes sense, since children, too, are linguistic geniuses.

    Across the longue durée of the Middle Passage, the god Elegguá (Fon name: Legba) lost his priapistic virility, transforming into Papá Legba, a deity represented dually as a hobbled old man with a cane and a petulant child. Legba is syncretized in the Dominican Republic and Puerto with St. Anthony of Padua, in Cuba with the Holy Child of Atocha, and in Haiti with Saint Lazarus. He retains his omniglot abilities, a trickster nature, and role as guardian of the crossroads.

    Digital painting by deviantart user Pappit-da-rabbit.

    Natalia Bolívar states that in Yoruba and Yoruba-derived Afro-Caribbean religions like Santeria, Elegguá exists in an indissoluble dyad with Echú, the incarnation of the problems afflicting humanity. This pair constitutes the mythical balance of “the inevitable relation between positive and negative.” Dominican Vudú borrows the Haitian framework in which loas have many varieties of rada or "peaceful" manifestations and petro or "angry" manifestations, known as "vueltas" (literally 'turns'). In las 21 Divisiones Legbá's petro manifestation is Karfu, who corresponds to Echú and is syncretized with Lucifer, Angel of the Morning Star.

    To Legbá I will offer red and black tallow candles, coffee, candy, cigars, keys, red wine, rice, a mirror, a maraca, and rum [note: the last 2 items might be omitted bc I'm broke these days lol; I have a kashaka in case I can't buy a maraca], in the hopes that he might bless my internet research and will it to be helpful in communicating with my ancestors, understanding Dominican Vudú, and defending the dead (M. NourbeSe Philip). As the discoverer of the lost, he may help repair lost lineages in my embodied context.

    Servicio Digital a Papá Legbá will be live streamed on tonight at 9pm EST.

    The garage in south Portland, OR where the performance will take place.

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    "Somehow I got tenure for all of it and got into trouble for all of it at the same time." Throughout a long and varied career, Ricardo Dominguez has made artistic and poetic gestures that trouble and confuse the powers that be. Now an Associate Professor at UCSD, Dominguez recently sat down with Ash Eliza Smith for a conversation about his life's work so far, the power of critical aesthetics, and why the FBI is looking for Walter Benjamin.

    Hauntings, a 1997 collaboration between Dominguez, Francesca da Rimini, and Michael Grimm, is featured this week on the front page.

    AES: As a part of activist media art collective Critical Art Ensemble in Tallahassee, Florida in the late 1980s, what prompted you to move to New York in 1992?

    RD: When I moved to New York City my main focus was to try to get access to infrastructure and computers. In the '80s with Critical Art Ensemble, even though we had theorized electronic civil disobedience, electronic disturbance, and the performative matrix of data bodies and real bodies, we didn't really have computers in Tallahassee, Florida and so I thought that in New York City there would be a greater opportunity to meet communities that had access to this kind of infrastructure.1

    Critical Art Ensemble, L-R: Steve Barnes, Ricardo Dominguez, Hope Kurtz, Steve Kurtz, and Dorian Burr, Tallahassee, FL, (1987)

    AES: How did you get involved with the net art scene that was happening in New York in the early '90s? How did you meet people?

    RD: Part of the early work was that I would roam around SoHo and read The Village Voice to see if anybody mentioned anything that had to do with computers and art. One day I was walking along and I saw a poster for Sandra Gering Gallery in SoHo that had a MOO space address [a text-based virtual world] and I thought, "there seems to be something about technology, so I'll go to the show." It turned out it was an exhibition by Jordan Crandall and there was nobody there except Jordan, so I went up to introduce myself and told him that I was from Critical Art Ensemble. I was interested in these questions of the digital and the performative matrix and I thought his show seemed to indicate a kind of exploration of that emerging territory. We had a really good conversation. Some of Jordan's work at that time was around trying to expand the definition of object, text, and publication forms when they encountered new modalities of distribution. He was doing a project called Blast, which was an experimental publishing form that explored these kinds of digital encounters between object and text. There were very beautiful boxes of artworks created by multiple artists, and there were also discussions in these MOO spaces. Jordan invited me to come visit him at Blast, which was in the East Village, where he introduced me to Wolfgang Staehle who ran the, an Internet Service Provider (ISP) for artists and activists that started in 1991.



    Wolfgang Staehle was not only an important figure, but also a visionary in thinking about infrastructure as social sculpture a la Joseph Beuys. Staehle had made his money in the '80s as a conceptual artist, and so it was very difficult for many of his peers to understand why he had a bunch of modems down in the basement and what that had to do with art production. The great thing about Wolfgang was that he didn't really care about what you were doing as long as you were doing something, so he basically left me alone and said: "Here's how you get people online, here are the books, and here are the machines" and so I would just go hang out and teach myself how to be a systems administrator.

    Exhibition flyer for "In the Flow" (1996)

    AES: Were you still active with Critical Art Ensemble at the time?

    RD: To a certain degree. I left CAE around '94-'95 once I started to develop [activist performance art group] Electronic Disturbance Theater and started working with the Zapatistas in '94, because that really shifted the way we conceived of electronic civil disobedience; it was no longer just a cadre of high tech figures who would develop this stuff. The Zapatistas really taught me to think otherwise, that one could be transparent, poetic and create disturbances that were not really based on any kind of quality of technology.

    In 1993, Mosaic [the first widely used web browser] came along, then NAFTA occurred, and with the beginning of 1994 at one minute after midnight, the (Digital) Zapatistas emerged. The next day at [NYC cultural center] ABC No Rio, we started the new Committee for Democracy in Mexico and the New York Zapatistas because we were all getting emails all night long from midnight to 6am. The Zapatistas basically sent emails like a machine all night long. It was glorious. The New York Times said that with this event, the first postmodern revolution had occurred.

    AES: How did being a systems administrator at the inform or change your art practice?

    RD: As a systems administrator, people would call me up to get online and I would go through the elements they needed: a modem, encryption…in those days it was not easy and sometimes it might take two-three weeks to get online. We had a thing Berlin, a thing Vienna, a thing Amsterdam, New York, Cuba, la Cosa Argentina, so it was quite a large system and a great training ground where we were then able to establish HTML conceptualism with the browser.2 I was also an editor for Blast 5 (part of a series of experimental gestures initiated by artist Jordan Crandall in 1990), and at the same time I was meeting a lot of different communities of artists and critics as a part of the Williamsburg scene in the '90s.

    AES: Who were some of the art collectives that you worked with during this period?

    RD: Well we would hang out at the Void, one of the first underground digital clubs, right off of Houston. There, performing in the club, I met the group Floating Point Unit, who were doing a lot of early body scanning, improvisation, music, and immersive digital gestures. We worked together to do a series of public TV episodes around the question of data bodies. There are like 12 episodes that aired on public TV. I also started working with the McCoys (Jennifer and Kevin McCoy) and they would do things like put headphones on me and have me watch a Starsky & Hutch episode. People would gather around me and I would interpret what I was seeing to them. I also worked with [anti-shopping performance artist] Reverend Billy, [early online broadcasting platform], and [net artist] Robbin Murphy and others to do these kind of crazy early streaming radio shows. Robbin Murphy curated PORT at MIT via his platform a r t n e t w e b, and he was also part of Art Dirt the online radio show where I did Rabinal Achi/Zapatista Port Action at MIT with artist Ron Rocco.

    I would perform an extant Mayan play about the battle between the Rain King and the Corn God, and I would use that as a space to have conversations globally about the Zapatistas initiating electronic civil disobedience. That’s how I met the artists who would then become Electronic Disturbance Theater (EDT). I met Brett Stalbaum, who was a new media artist in San Jose, and Carmen Karasic because she was running the servers at MIT, and I had read Stefan Wray’s thesis on the drug war/information war in Mexico. Floating Point Unit became [audiovisual performance project], and that's when I met [author and philsopher] Eugene Thacker. We would do huge installations and early science fiction shows like Fahrenheit 451 or Coma State in Williamsburg. There were these large immersive environmental digital gestures that often no one ever went to, but they were occurring there in Williamsburg. All these different elements came together, which would become the emerging New York city-based net art communities.



    Later in 2000, we did the Warhol hijack where Yael Kanarek convinced Josh Harris and Tanya Corrin to turn over their luxury loft to our group (Yael, Jennifer Crowe, Tina LaPorta, G.H.Hovagimyan, Diane Ludin, McCoys, Robin Murphy, Cary Peppermint, MTAA). Harris was the guy from the movie We Live In Public and there were cameras all over his house—surveillance devices that we were able to use for the weekend to do a show.

    Warhol hijack (2000)

    AES: Were you also collaborating with net artists in other places around the world?

    RD: Yeah, I started working with [cyberfeminist artist] Francesca de la Rimini (gashgirl) while she was swimming in a pool in Japan and I was at a party in New York. Akke Wagenaar (Radikal Playgirls) wrote The Women I LOVE After Dark and had made one of the first websites about women who were doing early porn and post-porn stuff. Francesca was one of them, as a founding member of VNS matrix, the founders of cyber-feminism in Austria. I decided that I would interview everyone on the site, and shortly after that Francesca and I began a public transparent electronic love affair project. The project was called Hauntings, and in it she became Doll Yoko. The site contained all of our email exchanges and it had early sound. I haven't changed my website since the very first browser so there a lot of things that don't even function anymore. There's another one that Doll, Diane Ludin, I and a number of others did entitled los días y las noches de los muertos (a ghost work) by los fantasmas. It is using early kind of frame stuff and was much more political. This was during the alter-globalization action in Italy when a young man was killed—it's just early HTML stuff. Doll Yoko was the core artist and code scrapper. I used to write a lot of reviews under different names. I started writing stuff about the Zapatistas under my own name around that time.

    AES: Do any shows really stand out for you?

    RD: There was one show, "Teleport Diner" where this guy came to us at Diner in Williamsburg, where we always hung out at the time, and said: "Hey, I'm going to take this entire diner to Stockholm." They told us to meet at Diner and they would pick us up in limos and fly us to Stockholm for something like 24 hours.  So we were like, “Sure let's do it!”  And sure enough we found ourselves in a contemporary art space with plexiglass all around us in a recreation of Diner in Brooklyn. It was our job to just hang out and do what we did at Diner. For 24 hours we were drinking, eating, making shows up, but at the same time it was a weird space because someone told us people were suffering from Sun Madness (too much daylight). When we were heading to the airport, our bus started going backwards against traffic and then someone on the bus told us that the pilot had jumped from the plane and run into the forest. They would have to divide all of us up and send us on different planes back to the US. Unfortunately this meant that we got back to Newark at one o'clock in the morning with no money because we were internet artists. Finally we talked a family into driving us back to Diner in Williamsburg so that we could pay them.

    Flyer for "Teleport Diner" (2000)

    AES: What were some of the ways in which your involvement in the New York internet art scene coalesced with your work with the Zapatistas?

    RD: I'd already theorized with CAE about electronic civil disobedience, and the real question was how to do it or how to put it into practice. The Zapatistas said to do it poetically, and so it made sense to function within the net art scene because that would then create the kind of aesthetic confusion that would make it very difficult for the powers-that-be to stop anything. Which was the case because basically they would ask: "Who’s hosting this virtual sit-in?" And the answer would be: "MIT or Rhizome," which was confusing. I was doing EDT as my own thing because I was the only one [of the collective] in New York, but at the same time I was working with these different net art communities of which Rhizome was one community among many layers of communities. Williamsburg was open territory because it wasn't congested at that moment, and it allowed us to play there.  

    We launched Disturbance Developers Kit [a software tool used for electronic civil disobedience] one minute after midnight in 1999 from a Fakeshop show. These kinds of informal situations allowed for the amplification of each other’s work within the nested projects of things that were occurring. The most important aspect of the encounter with Rhizome and all of the net artists was that it was a part of nested series of cultural spaces; many of the same artists were moving through those territories and sometimes there were arguments, but in the end but all of those moments came together to create a larger scene where things were amplified in wider ways.

    Ron Rocco and Ricardo Dominguez, Rabinal Achi/Zapatista Port Action (1997)

    AES: So how did you put electronic civil disobedience into practice with EDT and the Zapatistas?

    RD: Well, It's not like the Zapatistas marched down from Lacandon and said: "Ah! We are going to rip into the electronic fabric of cyberspace and become an intergalactic network of struggle and resistance." They were a Maoist-Leninist group armed and ready to die in the tradition of Latin America, but they very quickly understood that something else had occurred when they ripped into the electronic fabric on January 1, 1994 and that civil society was now reconfiguring how they themselves imagined encountering the Mexican government – as war machine, as opposed to distributed data-bodies: Zapatistas in Cyberspace. There were ten days of battle and then they marched backwards into cyberspace. I thought "this is where electronic civil disobedience should occur"; I felt that the Zapatistas had pointed to this kind of nexus that we needed to focus on.  

    AES: Were you still working out of still, or how did you pull off the work with the Zapatistas?

    RD: I had become the CEO of a company called Star Media Broadband and I had a huge loft on 5th Ave and 10th/11th. I had servers all over Latin America and we used that against the Mexican government. The company was all vaporware. We had a conference at nettime that was a special critical theory gathering and we knew that it was all vaporware…that it was all going to blow up. It was interesting to participate in multiple scales of cultures because Silicon Alley was not too far from and so we were all there in the same location. In '99 the toy war happened, etoy, the Information war happened, the battle with the Department of Defense happened with EDT and we were on the front pages of the NYT. It was a constellation of cultural encounters and explosions but still a small scene.  

    AES: So how have the ideas of embodiment and networks shifted in your work as you have moved through these different kinds of roles and scales from CEO to system administrator to artivist with CAE?

    RD: Well, I think one of the elements that emerged out of the Critical Art Ensemble is that in the '80s we began to speculate that there would be a growing relationship (and not always in a positive way) between data bodies and real bodies, and that data bodies would be the indexical authenticator of value as opposed to what we might call the "real body," and that as virtual capitalisms became integrated in the early nineties through the ascension of infrastructure, networks and code, that we needed to instantiate forms of artistic practice that would disturb the conditions of rapid integration of value of the data body.

    The Therapeutic State, edited by Critical Art Ensemble (1994)

    There had to be other ways to encounter, conduct and re-configure protocols that would allow for new forms of embodiment, of being, of becoming, of enunciating, and of coding. The Zapatistas and Digital Zapatismo really articulated in a clear and direct manner how one could create a network, how one could establish infrastructure, how one could pre-configure or reconfigure code and the data body in relation to other embodied "social relationships" and "information systems" that were not bound to virtual capitalisms. In fact, we are/were naming the sites of deletion against what the Zapatistas called "the neoliberal world." I had never heard of neoliberalism until the Zapatistas clearly spoke about it. 

    For us it was NAFTA and the utopian integration of free trade (which is another form of virtual capitalism), but the Zapatistas also brought to the fore that it was a new re-definition of political ideology; at the same time, the Zapatistas really allowed us to be able to think—at least in terms of the community that I was involved with, of a type of critical aesthetics that could be constructed and manifested in ways that the imagined social infrastructure of virtual capitalisms couldn't respond to coherently or directly because it was somewhat outside of their field of understanding.

    AES: Can you expand on what you mean by critical aesthetics here?

    RD: That is in order to do these sorts of things you needed to have deep technological knowledge. (No, you didn't.) You needed to have the aggregation of a specialized semantic discourse—that is, you needed to know software. (No you didn't.) That you needed to have electricity, telephoning, computing in order to activate networks. (No, you didn't.) That's what the Zapatistas very quickly enunciated. So EDT for me was a way then to take the simplest conditions: HTML code and the public agora of the browser reload function. It's not like you're trying to establish a whole new protocol, you're just hitting the button over and over and you're using 404 files—files not found—which is already part of the integration of browser culture and was already under investigation by or net (without a dot) art. You had groups like who were investigating 404 files in a Dadaist way. Then it was easy for EDT to code switch the Dadaist modality of the 404 that was doing towards this kind of critical aesthetic. Does justice exist at the government website?

    Our practices of net art and the emergence of new forms of critical theory were about establishing gestures, vocabularies, and poetics against the kind of neoliberalism that the Zapatistas spoke about. All those things occurred, and perhaps the difference was the rapidity of being able to access all of these conditions from the very local of Williamsburg to the very global networks, to the critical poetics structures of the Zapatistas to sort of triangulate a kind of global condition—whether it was global or not is another question, but it certainly carried an imaginary that my email could have a conversation with somebody in Adelaide Australia so that I could communicate the issues of what I was doing there. Not that everybody was ideologically coherent in being a Zapatista, but they weren't necessarily antagonistic against it. They might not directly manifest electronic civil disobedience, but they weren't antagonistic to it because they saw it as part of this wider territory of net art or network arts, however you play it out.

    I think that you see this to some degree in etoy’s Toywar gathering of late 1999 [Toywar was a coordinated effort to reduce the stock price of after the company successfully sued the Vienna-based art collective eToy in a California courtroom for the rights to their domain name]—all of the things coming together, the communities of net art, electronic civil disobedience, redefining the politics of infrastructure and what art had to do as an activation that sort of ripped into the fabric and altered forms.

    Toywar (1999)

    AES: So after this first period, which seems focused around electronic civil disobedience, what directions did your work take? How did your work move into projects dealing with toxicology?

    RD: The '80s were an important space for navigating and articulating ways of thinking, and doing and showing that the nineties allowed us to put into practice. In 1986/87, three sort of categories of critical aesthetics became important: 1) Virtual Capitalism, 2) Electronic Civil Disobedience, and 3) community research initiatives, which came out of our work with ACT UP Tallahassee. The human genome project also started in the mid-'80s, so there was a sense that there was a recombinant power and that clone capitalism was going to be manifested in a clear way in the '90s. So we thought that community research initiatives a la ACT UP would be useful to disturb this enclosure of the genetic levels of the body. In the days to come we would see the valuation of data bodies above real bodies. So yes, your authentic body had value for the corporation when they owned your disease, your alcoholism, your cancer; so we thought that we needed to do work in that area.

    Hope Kurtz and Steve Kurtz of CAE were focused on clone capitalism, and they of course got into horrific trouble with Homeland Security who accused them of being bioterrorists. Hope Kurtz passed away unexpectedly and this led to the investigation that this initiated. Steve just wanted medical support for Hope and the medical team reported that Steve had a potential "bio-weapon" in his living room—that in fact was an artivist project being prepared for an exhibition, TheInterventionists. Steve Kurtz had to go through four years of legal hell and ultimately they won, but that particular trajectory comes from an earlier period and the emergence of wider hacktivism.

    Right after we released the disturbance developers kit I really felt that I wanted to focus on particle capitalism, which meant that I needed access to atomic force microscopes, etc. The Warhol Foundation did not want to give any money for that, and the military didn't want to give me access to nanotechnology, and corporations didn't either, so I was in a bit of a state of consternation and concern as to how to move forward. I had gone to New York with a particular vision and process, and now I was at the next stage; I needed a different sort of infrastructure and support.

    AES: So is this need for nanotech infrastructure was what brought you to the research institution/UCSD?

    RD: In 2004, [artist and UCSD professor] Sheldon Brown called me and said we have this new trans-disciplinary space called Calit2, and so I went to propose a plan of research. The main part of my ten-year research plan would consist of three things. 

    One, Electronic Civil Disobedience and hacktivism; with this, the two main questions were: What does it mean to use UC computer systems against nation states, corporations, and social entities that we feel need to be disturbed via electronic civil disobedience or hacktivism? And I thought an even more important question would be the history of social critique, institutional critique, so I was interested in what would happen when I used the UC computer systems against the UC system itself. And so that would really be the core of the research. What would everyone say or do when that occurred? 

    Two, the next level of research would be border disturbance technology. There's a long history of border art in San Diego/Tijuana. I knew some of that history, and I thought that I would want to participate in it. I knew that there would be technology involved but the border would also be involved, and it would be about disturbance. 

    And three, the other area of research would be nano-poetics and interventions into nanotoxicology. I was interested in the way particle capitalism had removed the focus of nanotechnology away from everyday, unregulated use towards the utopian idea that we're going to cure cancer—the way that technology is always sold—or the apocalyptic, that the military is going to weaponize it. I have nothing against utopian therapeutics and there's not much I can do against weaponization, but we could focus on the everyday use. That is, Whole Foods wraps its food using nano-silver to keep it fresh... the products are just growing in terms of nanoscale technology—it's not high-end, it’s not artificial, it's just there, using nano-scale silver and nano-scale gold in socks. Hugo Boss said "Nano is the New Black" because he can create socks, pants and shirts that you would never have to wash because they have nano-silver. But the question was, why weren't there long term studies of nanotoxicology being done?

    And so out of that came the Particle Group which was Dr. Amy Sara Carroll, artist Diane Ludin (who I had worked with in Williamsburg) and Nina Waisman who was in the MFA in the visual arts program. We were able to create a series of tales of the matter market that focused on intervention into the nano-technology labs themselves. These speculative poetics are aggregated at the Hemispheric Institute, which has all the projects that we did from 2007-2012.

    AES: How did Transborder Immigrant Tool emerge within your focus of border disturbance technology?

    Transborder Immigrant Tool concept showing working tool and screenshot from Nokia e71 (2000)

    RD: My long term collaborator Brett Stalbaum and his partner Paula Poole lived out in the desert and liked go on very long, dangerous hikes, so they created a virtual hiker, an artificial system that pre-fabricated a Virtual Hiker using GPS.

    In 2000, the military released GPS to civil society and with it came a lot of locative media art projects that I've never found particularly interesting—they were all mostly urban-based or tell narratives or stories, but I thought that Brett’s gesture was dislocated into this other territory. So that afternoon I asked if we could turn it into a GPS to deal with immigrants crossing the desert, and he said "well we have to find a cheap platform;" I went home and wrote the Transborder Immigrant Tool Manifesto and in it I stated that poetry should be a part of the project. Poetry has always been a part of all of the work I have done. I had worked with Dr. Amy Sarah Carroll who is not only a scholar of the border but is also an experimental poet. I asked if she wanted to write poetry for this machine, and that really helped us move away from the positions of locative media projects based on GPS to a geo-poetic system about sustenance and experiments of geo-aesthetics for the refugees and immigrants who are often seen as live zombies that cross the border to take a job and who have no cultural understanding of poetry or sense of cultural experimentation. I thought that I would code switch those things.

    The project blossomed very quickly and we won an award in Mexico. After I did an article with Vice, within 48 hours we came under investigation by Congress, Fox News, and the FBI. All of these things aggregated to become the Transborder Immigrant Tool performative matrix between chaos and art.

    AES: Glenn Beck said in 2010 that the Transborder Immigrant Tool was a gesture that potentially "dissolved" the U.S. border with its poetry. You’ve mentioned code-switching, scientific narratives, and the importance of disturbing through language and poetics. It seems that in everything that you've done, language has been very important.

    RD: The notion of critical aesthetics has been the core conceptual driver for all the gestures and collaborations that I've been a part of; while they carry activism, artivism or the language of social engagement, it’s always been produced—with very rare exceptions—from a collaboration between artists. To me that becomes the manner which we can then begin to think about, "What does art do, that activism or engineering or design do not?" or "how does art move into the territory with a different set of questions and processes?" For me the consistent, coherent way to develop work is the notion that art is a type of thinking, doing, saying, and showing which is manifestly different from other territories of saying, showing, doing, and constructing. This gives us a way to establish different territories of dialogue and measurements of power that are not easy for power and its various institutional guises to shut down.



    AES: Can you give an example of how this works?

    RD: With the Transborder Immigrant Tool we thought, "well, what is the first thing the FBI would ask?" "Who has used this to cross the US-Mexico border?" So we were in Spain at an electronic poetry conference and we were wandering around in the middle of the night. We encountered Walter Benjamin Park, and we thought, "what if we went to Portbou where Walter Benjamin had committed suicide because he wasn't allowed into Spain from France?" We thought, "what if we go there with the Transborder Immigrant Tool and imagine the tool as a way to suck back the spirit, take him into Spain and then into Mexico (because he was supposed to go to Mexico) and then up to LA to meet Adorno and Horkheimer?" So when the FBI asked, "who has used the TBIT?" we said, "Walter Benjamin" and they wrote it down. So there you have a kind of poetic gesture where you can clearly say that somebody used it to cross the border and it was this person that they wrote down. I would imagine that the FBI is looking for Walter Benjamin at this very moment for having used the tool to cross.

    So one establishes a kind of dis-temporality—a dislocated media that enunciates an aesthetic condition that disallows power from establishing its conversation in the manner that makes sense to it. "You hacked into a telephone, that’s illegal"—but suddenly they end up having to read poetry. “Is the poetry encrypted?” All poetry is encrypted as far as I know. They have to end up discussing "What is Duchamp?" "What is queer theory?" "What does the trans have to do with anything?" It is here that you detour power into conversations that it's not prepared to have or doesn't want to have, and so they become aesthetically confused. For me that's how that performative matrix works. If we were activists, or cracktivists, or engineers, then the focus would be on establishing that this tool functions in an effective utilitarian manner that goes in a linear direction. But our approach is, "that's not the way to do the work."

    AES: But you also simultaneously do the reverse in terms of arti-scientist thinking about the simulation of the laboratory to become the artist laboratory space.

    RD: Yes, this goes back to community research initiatives. The "Science of the Oppressed" that I took from Monique Wittig, the feminist philosopher and science fiction writer, means we can create community research initiatives that imagine effective processes of research, but always attached to that effective process of research as affect. And so, as one scholar has pointed out to me, the work that we do joins the A and E together so you get aeffect, in that the tool does indeed work.  

    AES: Like with the Transborder Immigrant Tool, for example?

    RD: Yes, because NGOs such as Water Stations and Border Angels would not allow us access to the water cache locative waypoints if we didn't show up.  The virtual sit-in does function, but it functions in ways that don't necessarily anchor themselves to that functioning as the primary condition by which one defines the work.3 So code and poetry for us are one and the same. The aeffect of the poetry is equal to the aeffect of the code. So you can’t say only that the code is effected and that the poetry is affected because it's actually a melded kind of condition. One can imagine the notion of the laboratory to be reconfigured towards ends other than what one imagines the research laboratory to develop. I do think that part of our job is to reconfigure the way art is being produced within a certain kind of loci. I've been lucky enough to work in multiple highly intelligent, collaborative situations and I think that has been a guiding element in the work that I've done.

    Zapatistas' strike on the steps of the New York Public Library, 5th Ave at 42nd St, New York, across from the Mexican Consulate (1994)

    Ricardo Dominguez at the Zapatistas' strike (1994).

    AES: So what’s next on the horizon?

    RD: I think if you had talked to many of the people in the early days, they would have thought that it was the strangest thing, but somehow I got tenure for all of it and got into trouble for all of it at the same time. At this particular point, I am really trying to figure out what it means to try to imagine another ten years of research, and you know, I'm not quite sure. Part of the impulse is to wrap up all of this stuff into some kind of book. Also, one of the things I was interested in was activating how drones function. We did a show about two years ago at Calit2, a year-long exhibition called "Drones At Home," and one idea I had was to develop the Palindrone which would chase Homeland Security drones on the border and sing to them. Like the words from Gloria Anzaldúa, and Nortec. Because we can imagine that the drone pilot sitting in Las Vegas might not know the culture, the voices and the history, and they might be bored; and so this might be one way. The Palindrone would be a singing drone that would exchange and share through multiple signals the life and experience, culturally and experimentally, of the border and border culture. [Theorist] Gloria Anzaldúa would be a core voice there.



    The other area that I'm interested in is synthetic biology. It's kind of attached to this question of nano biotechnology, but synthetic biology has with it a protocol of creating completely new forms of biological life, which is both seductive in terms of a speculative fiction but at the same time (having read Frankenstein) it's rather horrifying. But I'm not quite sure how to enter into that particular space. The third area is immersive technologies like Oculus Rift and how that might be disturbed or dislocated—but again these are sort of tentative bases for consideration.

    AES: The Palindrone project reminds me of the paper airplanes that the Zapatistas launched at the soldiers across enemy lines.

    RD: Oh yeah, I think you're right. I think that it carries a pattern of how the work is done and that is using a platform to connect with the signal that exchanges messages, usually aesthetically driven messages. So yeah, I think there's a direct echo of the Zapatista Air Force involved and all of that, and you can see the same sort of thing, some sort of aesthetic reiteration.

    AES: And I'm even thinking about your recent work with flight facilitation.

    RD: Because of the Transborder Immigrant Tool, the question of borders has come to the fore, especially with the last few years of the Guatemala crisis and now the refugee and immigrant crisis in Europe because of the wars and climate change and what have you that's been building up for a while. Recently I had a flight facilitators' gathering and an open borders conference in Munich where we looked at the histories and valuation of flight facilitation which here on this border we call "coyote culture." So individuals who did flight facilitation from the GDR to Berlin during the Cold War are seen as heroines, yet at other times flight facilitation is seen as bad or illegal. In the crisis right now in Europe, everyday community members who put refugees in their cars to drive them from Hungary to the German border have been looked at as illegal and traitorous to the sort of nature of the EU. So the question that clearly manifests itself is about the figuration of the immigrant; the refugee is not really bound to the qualities of legal precedent and consideration and honoring of flight facilitation, but somehow a refugee and an immigrant are seen as outside of the normative values of a Euro-centric space.

    Ricardo Dominguez and unknown U.S. Border Patrol (Mexico/U.S. border near Mexicali, 2007; un-staged photograph by Brett Stalbaum, co-founder of Electronic Disturbance Theater 1.0/2.0.)

    AES: In Digital Zapatistas, Jill Lane questioned whether more people would find themselves criminalized as "illegal" aliens by those who guarded legitimate access to nation-states, and whether such maps would be reproduced in cyberspace. Do you think that the same kinds of questions you were thinking about with early net art and the Zapatistas are still just as important now?

    RD: I feel that they are, in that the work has always dealt with the nature of borders. The internet allowed us to teleport across borders to route around, to go under, to go below or above what is a barrier; I see that kind of space as a potentiality but at the same time the consistent ontological cut of the border has been the reduction of bodies to wanted or unwanted labor, gendered femicide, and dreams of mass deportation, and again they tend to be consistent in the work in terms of the way it articulates itself.

    One of the aspects of critical aesthetics asks if we can manifest alter networks, alter code, alter protocols, alter ways of discourse that will enable or disable the mimicking or the reification of borders in digital culture. I would say to a certain degree, with the rise of web 2.0, that hasn't been the case, but at the same time there has been a growth of do-it-yourself culture alter forms of infrastructures—other modalities of communication that I think continue that tradition—and that raises the question, can we re-organize the way these networks amplify borders and disallow them from doing that? I think that's still an important consideration. At times it might be about speed, and at times it might be about an inertia, and at times it might be about exiting, escaping that culture; or deleting it, or at other times it might be about leaks. Leakism is certainly a continuing manner in which we can de-stabilize the way governance is manifested, whether it was the Pentagon Papers or COINTELPRO up to WikiLeaks and Snowden. I think Leakism is another sort of alter protocol. I still tend to be an anti-anti-utopian in my sensibilities and I'm always happy about the victories great and small that we have as artists, and so until it's a bone that I'm not willing to let go of, yes, the way that Jill articulated it is still a core question.

    Ricardo Dominguez, Critical Virus VI (performance as a member of Critical Art Ensemble, 1988)

    AES: How many times have you been under investigation for your work?  

    RD: Well I get into trouble all the time. Another core interest of mine is performance, performance art and performativity. I always imagine and think of any gesture that I do as functioning within performance art. I feel that part of the aesthetic of performance art is liminality, and that performance pieces or gestures are about articulating a space that is somehow neither here nor there but somewhere in between. It’s transgressive—it tends to cross the boundaries of what is what might be socially acceptable, it carries with it a kind of personal risk often historically, and its traditional form right from Chris Burden being shot to Marina Abramovic whipping herself. The body in its simplest condition has been a core way of making things. The work that I've been involved in, whether its electronic new media or nanotechnology, has always had that sort of impulse at play. Because of these tendencies, I also get a great deal of trouble with institutions about the question of the body and its relationship to these issues. I guess that's to be expected if one is involved in performance and that certain questions will arise like "what is the necessity of this sort of work?" When you have painting, sculpture or video, you sort of have a clear articulation of frame, distance, control.

    AES: What are some of the things that haven't been understood as performances?

    Ricardo Dominguez, Mayan Technology (Root Festival, Hull, UK, 2000)

    RD: Well Electronic Civil Disobedience is often seen as an activist work, but it's also a performance. For instance, when we did a performance for the NSA I wore my Zapatista mask and told stories about Mayan technology and they would ask, "Why are you doing that?" "What does that have to do with any of these things that we are worried about?" Well because at the core of all this is a performance, and performances bring questions about the body, about simulation, about the articulation of affect and the ephemerality of things and so that disturbs the way that people want to articulate what is occurring.

    There is an old play called My Country Cousin about a Daniel Boone-like character who's invited by his big city cousins to Philadelphia. They all go to the theater, and halfway through the first act the Daniel Boone character runs on stage, hits the bad guys, and saves the Virgin. Everyone’s going, "Oh my god, you don't understand that this is a simulation—that is not a bad guy, that is not a virgin, this is a simulation!" So often the DoD, the NSA, my University, UCOP, Glenn Beck, and activists are sort of like the country cousin because they actually think that because they're seeing something, because they're feeling something, because something is occurring, that it is real; and I think that that's what performance art does. It is a real body, but again it's playing in liminal spaces and its transgressing those kinds of questions, so is it documentation or non-documentation? Is it real or is it Memorex? Is it simulation or is it non-simulation? As Rancière says, "The Real must be fictionalized in order to be thought." The histories of performance art are around the trickster, the shaman, la bruja, ritual, magic, all of those things come into play. So often power gets angry. They want to situate it, to articulate it—but at the end they are the country cousin and they think because they see it, because they feel it, because it articulates itself within the realm of the real that it is real, but they haven't taken the pill.

    AES: What’s the pill? Are you working on it inside your laboratory?

    RD: (Laughs)

    UCSD and UCOP (University of California Office of the President) attempted to de-tenure Dominguez for doing a VR Sit-in on the UCOP website in support of the statewide protest by California students against the fee hikes in 2011, and also for creating the Transborder Immigrant Tool. UCSD students, faculty, and others supported Dominguez with a march as he walked to meet UCSD campus authorities investigating these gestures (2010).


    Ash Eliza Smith is a multimedia artist and writer. She has produced work exploring ficto-criticism, technology and the body for Vice, Motherboard and the Creator’s Project and curated and written for the New Media Caucus and Media-N journal. Smith has collaborated with the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination to curate large-scale science fiction and speculative design events, Edgeland Futurism and ARE WE ALONE ARE WE ALIEN?, which have received awards from the UC Institute for the Research in the Arts. Smith is the current Director for Art and Technology in the Culture, Art, and Technology Program at the University of California of San Diego.



    1. This theoretical framework is set out in Critical Art Ensemble's 1994 book The Electronic Disturbance. Dominguez later wrote, "For Critical Art Ensemble, it was clear that cyberspace, as it was called then, was the next stage of struggle. The activist reply to this change was to teleport the system of trespass and blockage that was historically anchored to civil disobedience to this new phase of economic flows in the age of networks."

    2. Hauntings (1997), by Dominguez, Francesca da Rimini, and Michael Grimm, is an example of HTML conceptualism, an artistic gesture originally made for users with a browser and a dialup connection. 

    3. The "virtual sit-in" is a form of activism in which protestors occupy a website with the intention of slowing it down.

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