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Articles on this Page
- 04/07/16--08:41: _Review: A Troubled ...
- 04/12/16--09:24: _The Hidden Labor of...
- 04/19/16--11:57: _Trans is a failure ...
- 04/25/16--12:20: _Algorithmic Models ...
- 04/26/16--11:00: _Announcing the Seve...
- 04/28/16--07:24: _Artist Profile: Col...
- 05/03/16--07:00: _Trust Issues
- 05/04/16--10:24: _The Download: Incan...
- 05/10/16--08:39: _Artist Profile: Man...
- 05/12/16--12:14: _On the Gaze in the ...
- 05/16/16--06:42: _Miss Seven on Seven...
- 05/17/16--07:37: _The Seven on Seven ...
- 05/18/16--07:13: _Last 24 Hours for B...
- 05/20/16--07:21: _We Are Obsessed Wit...
- 05/24/16--09:55: _Surface, Image, Rec...
- 05/25/16--08:32: _Review: Democracy o...
- 05/26/16--09:28: _The Babypod: Intrav...
- 06/01/16--07:36: _Become a Rhizome Me...
- 06/01/16--09:45: _Artist Profile: Joe...
- 01/21/16--10:49: _Servicio Digital a ...
- 04/07/16--08:41: Review: A Troubled Object
- 04/12/16--09:24: The Hidden Labor of Teaching Machines to See
- 04/19/16--11:57: Trans is a failure of language. Poetry is a failure of the body.
- 04/25/16--12:20: Algorithmic Models of Art's Future
- 04/26/16--11:00: Announcing the Seven on Seven Keynote + Additional Tickets Released
- 04/28/16--07:24: Artist Profile: Colin Self
- 05/03/16--07:00: Trust Issues
- 05/04/16--10:24: The Download: Incantations for the Birth of a Network
- 05/10/16--08:39: Artist Profile: Manuel Arturo Abreu
- 05/12/16--12:14: On the Gaze in the Era of Visual Salamis
- 05/20/16--07:21: We Are Obsessed With You
- 05/24/16--09:55: Surface, Image, Reception: Painting in a Digital Age
- 05/25/16--08:32: Review: Democracy or Data Entry? Jonas Lund’s Fair Warning
- 05/26/16--09:28: The Babypod: Intravaginal Hardware for the Pregnant Body
- 06/01/16--07:36: Become a Rhizome Member Now and Get Your Very Own Bad Logo T-shirt
- 06/01/16--09:45: Artist Profile: Joey Holder
- 01/21/16--10:49: Servicio Digital a Papá Legbá
How to begin? It’s a hell of a question that seems to possess Matt Sheridan Smith. It has plagued writers for millennia and openly aggravated literature for the best part of a century. Sheridan Smith’s online text-based game seems to adopt the format of interactive fiction (IF) as a way of relinquishing linear narrative’s fixed points, its beginnings and ends, allowing this question to dissolve as he writes up characters, landscapes, and atmospheres for us to trace our own paths through.
You Can’t See Any Such Thing (2016) is hosted by Triple Canopy as part of volume 19, “It Speaks of Others,” which explores how objects, or the limits of objectivity, are “troubled by the proliferation of intelligent, networked devices.” The theme is explored diversely, from Alexander Provan’s analysis of his encounters with chatbots (accompanied by an amiable and verbose chatbot version of himself), to Lara Mimosa Montes’s “The Cinderella Complex,” introducing her poetry that “speak[s] back to the bliss I experienced after having encountered [Colette] Dowling’s dumb and dumped object,” to a chilling meditation on the medicalization of reproductive bodies in Irene Lusztig’s The Motherhood Archives.
Screenshot of Matt Sheridan Smith, You Can't See Any Such Thing
In this company, Sheridan Smith’s IF provides a site for the player (or reader) to manipulate set coordinates, navigate various environments, and influence characters through text-based commands. The characters he presents have appeared in previous works. Madame Clicquot, champagne innovator and entrepreneuse, Italian anti-fascist champion cyclist Ottavio Bottecchia, and Douglas Bader, a British paraplegic fighter pilot, are all notable historical figures whose residues have been explored in turn, in three of Sheridan Smith’s most recent solo shows at Hannah Hoffman Los Angeles, kaufmann repetto, New York, and mother’s tankstation, Dublin, respectively. In this new work, Clicquot, Bottecchia, and Bader are brought together and reunited with a “mysterious actress named Katie” for the first time since his 2011 exhibition “Tell me the truth – am I still in the game?” which included a text-only computer game that was installed on a monitor among other works in the exhibition space of FORDE, Geneva.
Installation view, Matt Sheridan Smith "Tell me the truth - am I still in the game?" at FORDE, Geneva, Nov 11 - Dec 23, 2011.
You Can’t See Any Such Thing is set in the four compass points, and in each area it recognizes four distinct commands, each corresponding to one of the five senses. Travel north to Clicquot, for example, and we are allowed smell. South brings us to Bottecchia and where we see, west we travel to Bader’s where we are allowed to touch, and east, by Katie, is where we, or “she,” can listen. Sense commands correspond with nouns, emboldened within Sheridan Smith’s instructional texts. We “see” Bottecchia’s gold pocket watch, a prize that marked the beginning of the cyclist’s championship-winning career,
Taking a small soft cloth he wipes away the slight smudge of a fingerprint.
He pulls gently at the small winding knob until it clicks. Time stops. He turns the frozen hands in circles, then pushes the knob and watches time turn again. Time again. Just look at the time. Watch at the watch. Pull. Push. Everything turns to stone.
Sheridan Smith seems drawn not only to the events that map out a life but the importance of almost imperceptible things, volumes, fluids, seconds passing, the bubbles that define Clicquot’s champagne, the filed spoon with which Bader escaped internment. Match sense-command and noun correctly and a Proustian flashback is triggered, lyrically described on screen. Sheridan Smith has an ear for rhythm and we’re with him as clauses speed up and slow down, as focus shifts from landscape to inner world. It’s intoxicating. Get the commands wrong and you’re served a plot hole. But the hole is not empty. Each parser error generates short facts about events from the characters’ lives cut and pasted from sources like Wikipedia or niche websites and blogs. These sentences are sobering by comparison, crudely constructed and less interesting.
The latter, Sheridan Smith declares in his opening instructions, marks “the limit of the game’s coded world, a discovery that also triggers the end of the player’s suspension of disbelief.” But there is a disjoint between the game’s intention and its impact because this ploy of narrative interruption seems poorly constructed against the elegance of his prose. In Sheridan Smith’s quite minimal paintings and installations, the melodramas of his subjects’ lives are tempered with limited disclosure of their clues or symbols, refusing to aestheticize the romanticism of their appeal. Here, the balance between lyricism and asceticism tips, prose easily overpowering plot-holes for our attention. In the transitions, and the transitions are constant, momentum is lost and the game’s appeal wears off. The four characters’ respective narratives remain disconnected but for their onscreen proximity, like tabs hanging open on a browser as we shift—in this case, scroll—between them distractedly.
The residual impression of the work, however, is not the disappointment of the game but the quality of the prose, and the worth of a project that gives Sheridan Smith space to come closer to his subjects through writing than before. Among the other artists of issue 19 wrestling foreign, intelligent, or otherwise animate bodies while ultimately questioning their own agency, the troubled object in this instance is surely the artist himself with that nagging question of how to begin. Perhaps he is briefly personified by the fourth character, Katie the actress of whom the least is disclosed, as placeholder for his desire to be parachuted in, “capable of inhabiting other figures.” One hopes that for his next installment, in a gallery or online, Sheridan Smith continues to indulge his writing in order to push his subjects, tip the balance and trouble further.
Rhizome publishes in-depth reviews of online artworks and exhibitions, currently edited by Orit Gat.
Top image: Photograph by Joshua White from Matt Sheridan Smith, "WIDOW FIG 3. EP. 1" at Hannah Hoffman Los Angeles.
Sebastian Schmieg's Segmentation.Network, now showing on the front page of Rhizome.org, plays back over 600.000 segmentations manually created by Mechanical Turk workers for Microsoft's COCO image recognition dataset. The COCO dataset – short for Common Objects in Context – is derived from photos on Flickr and is used in machine learning for training and testing purposes.
To teach a machine to see objects, one must show it a large number of images of objects. But before that, one must answer the question, what is an object?
The creators of Microsoft COCO (Common Objects in Context), a new image set for machine learning, began with the idea that image recognition has been limited by an overreliance on iconic views of objects.
For example, when performing a web-based image search for the object category “bike,” the top-ranked retrieved examples appear in profile, unobstructed near the center of a neatly composed photo.
In such images, a clear boundary has been drawn between an object and its context. Amid the chaos and clutter of everyday life, such boundaries are often harder to draw. The subject gives birth to the object.
The subjects who gave birth to Microsoft COCO included "several children ranging in ages from 4 to 8 [who] were asked to name every object they see in indoor and outdoor environments." After a list of categories were compiled, the researchers used keywords to collect 328,000 images of complex everyday scenes from Flickr ("which tends to have fewer iconic images.") These were then given to Mechanical Turk workers, who were asked to identify and outline particular images within them. They had to determine which kinds of objects were present in an image, label each one, and draw an outline around it. In all, as The Creators Project notes, 70,000 worker hours were spent in the creation of the image set.
The resulting drawings created by this labor force are the basis of Sebastian Schmieg's recent web-based work, Segmentation.Network, now on the front page. The work makes visible some of the hidden labor that goes into the black box of machine vision, the many subjectivities that contribute to a machine's ability to "give birth to the object."
As Schmieg writes,
the piece addresses machine vision as an act of conscious selection: what can and should be seen by machines and what will remain unrecognised or deemed irrelevant is separated by distinct lines.
Hence, neural networks and artificial intelligence in general can be considered a collective and rather introspective endeavor and achievement.
TRANS PLANET is an occasional poetic interaction that showcases the work of emerging transgender and gender-nonconforming poets and artists. The second installment in the online reading series will take place on April 22, 2016 at 9pm EST on the front page of rhizome.org.
Here are some things I was thinking about as I organized this reading.
Trans is a failure of language. Poetry is a failure of the body. As Shaadi Devereaux says, I am “not trans but transatlantic.” At each turn, there were so many people we could have become, uncountable superimposed states of uncertainty killed off, the surplus value of their randomness smushed together into Being-in-itself. The immaterial carcasses of our other selves litter the multiverse, and their voiceless words come back to haunt us, the gods having grown stronger with each body that jumped overboard. Even as the subaltern of ourselves cannot speak, unintelligible phrases emerge like totems in what seems like eternal return, entrenching themselves on the tips of our tongues, spreading elsewhere as incalculable contagion.
And why is the sheer thinkability of the human future in such stark contrast to the unspeakability of the past, or to what never happened? Why is the past treated like what never happened? What does it mean to mourn what never happened? All of the possibilities that get crushed into the manufacturing of the Real, the squishy quanta of data that leave wet traces, molten ash laden into a precarious space between formalism and empiricism. A body in a white space of forgetting. My nonbinary femhood built from sea salt, blood, and the protection of cascarilla. How can we mourn all of the forgotten histories in a sensuous way, without having access to the specific topos of each lost archive, and in the face of the irrevocable alchemy of computation itself, of the flattening of sense into data?
The first episode of TRANS PLANET was hosted by NewHive in October 2015. The co-organizers of that event coalesced loosely from THEM, a trans literary journal which Jos Charles co-founded and edits, and IN FEAR OF A TRANS PLANET at Be About It Press. The co-organizers crowdfunded a west coast tour which took place in July 2015, as well as an accompanying tour publication, transitioning afterward to an online reading format.
Clockwise from top left: Mx Angel, CHRYSALISAMIDST, Joshua Jennifer Espinoza, Porpentine Charity Heartscape, manuel arturo abreu, Sade Murphy, Thel Seraphim, and Van Binfa.
As the only visibly nonwhite core group member, I felt nervous that TRANS PLANET would serve as an extension of white gender coloniality, both in online and meatspace manifestations. Going forward, it was important for me to mitigate our programming’s reification of the whitewashed trans tipping point, which erases so much of the work trans people of color, especially black and brown trans women, have done for the trans, gender nonconformity, and LGBTQIA+ communities as a whole.
As such, for this reading, the white core members of TRANS PLANET stepped aside and invited trans and gender-nonconforming practitioners of color to present their work.
This episode of TRANS PLANET features the following poets and artists: Mx Angel, Van Binfa, CHRYSALISAMIDST, Joshua Jennifer Espinoza, Porpentine Charity Heartscape, Sade Murphy, Thel Seraphim, and myself.
The New Museum and Rhizome are proud to premiere Institute for Southern Contemporary Art (ISCA) by artists João Enxuto and Erica Love, an essayistic video that doubles as a promotional piece for the Institute of Southern Contemporary Art (ISCA), a proposed artist platform tailored to optimize the creation of art for market consumption. ISCA’s founding mission is totally preposterous, and yet, amid the onset of programs that analyze and rank art to quantify its future value (for instance, ArtRank and Art Advisor), it doesn’t hew too far from the current ways in which art is considered in terms of its financial potential.
Through sweeping shots that track impossibly between skyscrapers and above monuments, the style of the video approximates the nonhuman perspective of the algorithms that are at its thematic core. Notably, most of the scenes are devoid of people and urban life: block upon city block appear unpopulated, and the facilities of ISCA, including artist studios and the massive, labyrinthine supercomputer that, as the narrator describes, “analyzes and models the flow of art markets,” are equally empty, as if to imply a withering importance of the hand—or, even, the body—in the production and reception of contemporary art.
As in Enxuto and Love’s earlier work Art Project 2023 (2013), which depicts a future in which the Breuer building in New York has been razed by its new owner, Google, and replaced with a 3D replica in order to better interface with the Google Art Project, Institute for Southern Contemporary Art (ISCA) imagines a model for contemporary art that pushes certain probabilities toward logical, possible outcomes. ISCA is based, first, on the likelihood that climate disaster, in the form of rising sea levels, will compel the current southern center of contemporary art to migrate from Miami to Atlanta, a city where corporate funding has already made inroads into education through the Savannah College of Art and Design, a prestigious university that employs a franchise model (it has branches in Savannah and Atlanta). And, second, it draws on the increased use of algorithmic analysis in the art market. Recently a roster of programs, like ArtRank and Art Advisor, have been developed for the sale of art. ISCA dials the quantification process back earlier in the process of an artwork’s life to its production. As the voice of the automated narrator intones in the video, ISCA is “a grand experiment, part think tank and part experimental program to promote new terms for art production.” ISCA fellows make art that is geared toward maximal market favorability, while the aforementioned supercomputer captures data on their behaviors and creativity, in turn feeding a larger algorithmic system that shapes the production, reception, and sale of art.
Does ISCA represent a parodic dystopian future, or is it an increasingly conceivable model for the future of art? The narrator addresses the problem much like an entrepreneur would approach an investor: “Contemporary art is a multibillion dollar unregulated market with unclear criteria just waiting to be harnessed. And the ISCA algorithm is just the instrument to do it. It isn’t a perfect, deterministic model, but at ISCA, we didn’t get into the art game to just optimize for market performance. The goal of automating contemporary art is to become emancipated from it.” In the North American art market in 2016, whether via ISCA’s proposal or a different one still to emerge, perhaps “emancipation through the market” is our only option.
For more information, please visit contemporary.institute
João Enxuto and Erica Love, Institute for Southern Contemporary Art (ISCA), 2016 (still). HD video, sound, color; 16:20 min. Courtesy the artists.
Rhizome’s 2015–16 commissions are made possible by the Jerome Foundation and by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs and the New York State Council on the Arts.
Major support for First Look is provided by the Neeson / Edlis Artist Commissions Fund. Additional support is provided by the Toby Devan Lewis Emerging Artists Exhibitions Fund and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.
Rhizome is excited to announce that writer, documentarian, and organizer Astra Taylor will keynote Seven on Seven 2016, May 14 at the New Museum. With this announcement, 30 final tickets have been released. (The larger original ticket release sold out, so book quickly.)
About Astra Taylor
Astra Taylor's films include Zizek!, a feature documentary about the world’s most outrageous philosopher, and Examined Life, a series of excursions with contemporary thinkers including Slavoj Zizek, Judith Butler, Cornel West, Peter Singer and others. Both movies premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. Taylor’s writing has appeared in the New York Times, The Nation, the London Review of Books, n+1, The Baffler, and elsewhere. She is the editor of Examined Life, a companion volume to the film, and coeditor of Occupy!: Scenes from Occupied America. She helped launch the Rolling Jubilee and co-founded the Debt Collective. Most recently she is the author of the book The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age, winner of a 2015 American Book Award. She is an EHRP Puffin Fellow and a Shuttleworth Foundation Fellow.
The Seven on Seven Program
May 14, 2016
12 PM to 6 PM at the New Museum, 235 Bowery, NYC
The Seven on Seven teams unveil their new creations to an intimate audience at New York City's leading contemporary art museum, with much conversation and lunch included.
The Art & Technology Afterparty
6:30 PM to 9 PM at Samsung 837, 837 Washington St., NYC
Join the participants, guests, and others for the Seven on Seven afterparty and a special performance, hosted by Samsung 837, the company’s flagship cultural destination and technology playground, located in the heart of NYC’s Meatpacking District.
Join Seven on Seven, Wherever You Are
Refinery29 will live stream Seven on Seven 2016 via Facebook Live throughout the day on May 14, so you can join the conference and get an inside look. For more info on where to tune in, follow Rhizome and Refinery29 on Facebook.
Exclusive media partner: Refinery29
Exclusive hotel partner: Ace Hotel
Additional support is provided by Tumblr, Paddle8, Print All Over Me, and Electric Objects.
The latest in a series of interviews with artists who have a significant body of work that makes use of or responds to network culture and digital technologies.
Chloe O’Neill: Do web-based projects like How To Survive Winter in New York and #COLINSLIST relate to your interest in community structures and creating space for people? Do you think that projects like yours work to queer the internet?
Colin Self: HTSWINY was a project built to prevent friends from committing self-harm, especially queer and trans friends who felt like they couldn’t handle the austerity of New York. It can be a treacherous place to live in the winter and after having lost friends to suicide while other masses of friends moved away, I had to think how I could use the internet to help give people resources. The document spread pretty quickly into communities I had never been a part of and took shape in so many different forms: mental health resources, cheap ways to enjoy the city, recipes, links to a variety of toolkits to take care of people. I was interested in fostering a community that could ultimately become decentralized in its care. We all have different wants and needs and ideas of what kind of "space" is helpful, so trying to build a free, plural document felt necessary.
In the art world there is something so uncool about caring and it feels like a very queer space to me in the present day, whether that be in a room or a website. It's largely an unprofitable and unquantifiable thing to do, and I think this is one of the reasons I want to invest time and projects into exploring this space.
#COLINSLIST came out of necessity more than anything else. As a working artist who travels often, I found myself needing to find someone to either sublet my room or a place to stay for a month while traveling. As time went on, #COLINSLIST began to serve a variety of functions, even locally, for people to find kin to live with. For a lot of us artists, our home is also our studio, or at least a space to incubate projects, so this network of people sort of built itself.
I'm still largely against having these projects hosted and shared through Facebook and Google, and I’m working on figuring out the best way to self-host these systems of caring. I'm not a programmer, but if anyone reading this wants to collaborate in getting these resources onto self-hosted platforms, get at me!
Colin Self by Yunique Palmer
CO: Your art practice is very interdisciplinary, often working around the connections among many mediums. I can imagine that to some people this makes your art hard to define. How do you describe your work to people that you don’t know? How do you use the word “drag” to describe your work?
CS: I usually tell people I’m a composer and choreographer, but these terminologies change with time. I think over the course of several years of doing drag I adapted the drag politic of “becoming” to the other identifiers of my work. I want to demonstrate to people that identification or disidentification should always be in the hands of the individual. If the whole “you're born naked and the rest is drag” politic becomes a rudimentary way to look gender performance, then the same politic could be applied to a profession or occupation. Just like gender, these are learned/constructed/codified identifiers. We should have agency over determining and defining ourselves.
Recently I’ve been looking at archetypal narratives and ways to hybridize or break them down to get away from the polarity of villainy and heroics. In performing music I try to present myself as a sort of conflicted entity, being both and many. I’m part goblin, part superhero, part evil, part angel. I try to drag my own media, while thinking less about being an “other” and more about opportunities to demonstrate a “being many,” refusing identification.
I never understood why I was supposed to settle into a formality of a medium or practice, or how doing so would officialize me or make me who I am. It always felt more useful for me to occupy whatever medium made the most sense for what I wanted to communicate. I remember in 2012 I made a video for a Kickstarter where I called myself an artist, activist, writer, dancer, composer, choreographer, vocalist, and entrepreneuress. I was interested in the space of those words and a lot of the work I was making at the time came from trying to play with the relationships of those identifiers and the people involved in legitimizing or questioning them. I have always been interested in the language space that is assigned to us versus the language space we create ourselves.
CO: Can you talk about your current project, The Elation Series?
CS: The Elation Series started in 2011 for a group show in Philadelphia. At the time I was thinking a lot about doomsday politics and the way that fatalist politics were preventing people from trying to work towards imagining a positive future. Hell had become so cool in the context of art and underground, and it felt so uncool to “care” and want to make a difference. I’m just not an aloof nor apathetic person, so in those negative environments I usually just feel awkward. I wanted to remind people that not only do we not have a logistical understanding of how and when our existence as humans will end, but that we also still have a great amount of agency in changing the world. I started to make sculptures that encapsulate these narratives and created a solo “opera” for this huge weird warehouse. I went into The Elation Series thinking about how the Anthropocene is a slow burn that will require a lot of refuge and taking care of each other. As much as we love to see mediated versions of disaster painted into epic cinematic scenes with Dolby surround sound, the edge of extinction, or global shifts in resources, is not an epic thriller.
Colin Self, excerpt from Elation III (2013)
In the years ahead we are going to need to create tools to take care of each other. It’s also a question of how we can shift our practices towards taking care of people beyond the confines of social and political borders. I don’t have the answers but I am invested in breaking down the superior/inferior binary of humans, hopefully encouraging interdependence through making/becoming.
CO: Your performance work, like your role in the post-drag collective Chez Deep, references family unity and the different ideas of the queer family. Can you explain your thoughts on the queer family and how you have engaged with it in your larger project?
CS: As a teenager I was raised by women, particularly queer women, and I idolized the structure of Riot Grrl and the collectivity they had, how they combined a refusal of misogyny with a “let’s work on this together” mentality. It seemed way more important and fun to me than any other movement I was discovering as a young queer. So from an early age I was always looking to align with other queers and feminists, mobilizing together to make some shit happen. So Chez Deep came out of recognizing that as much as we loved RuPaul’s Drag Race, we didn’t identify with those representations of competition and commercially driven drag. We were curious what it would mean to demonstrate interdependence and sisterhood and the less marketable side of drag history. I am always trying to remind people that as queer people we don’t all want the same thing. RuPaul is not our self-appointed drag monarch, she is the pinnacle professional goddess of commercial drag success and an example of how to build a money-making empire. Years deep I’ve watched this all change though, as I see so many radical friends developing a secondary economy from Drag Race; queens throwing screening parties and shows, developing queer spaces, and making looks for the queens, etc. This is true radical change happening as a result of mainstream drag media. But trickle-down economics for queer worlds isn’t enough. The wealth gap and scarcity politic is still too deep. We need a political action system as thorough as drag race memes and Tumblr feeds. I don’t want to sit in a queer utopia and never leave it. I want to stay with the trouble and keep pushing towards finding sustainable relationships outside the grips of capitalism.
Work in progress for Authority Figure at the Knockdown Center (2016)
CO: Have there been any roadblocks as you have worked towards working with others this way?
CS: For sure, there is always negotiation. Authority has to ebb and flow and become a part of the dialogue. There is no perfect environment when it comes to making a family. But creating environments that are non-utilitarian and more about experimenting can help start conversations when things don’t work. Instead of “All right, we are going to shut it down, this isn’t working,” it can be, “we have to work through this and know that we are all ultimately all on the same team.”
As much as Chez Deep has been about writing and performing, it has also been about us sitting around a table and talking about life and occasionally getting into really intense disagreements. But that’s an important part of the process. To pretend that conflicts don’t exist would be to neglect the benefits of working with others. The discourse is a chance to learn from each other and realize that co-existence isn’t contingent upon unanimous agreement.
CO: Outside of performance, pieces like #COLINSLIST also seem to function in a collaborative way. Do you think there is a relationship between the togetherness that you talk about and your non-performance work?
CS: #COLINSLIST came out of necessity, where myself and others are all kind of working within this economy of transient artists who really can’t make work from one place or a single community. I hate that it’s currently hosted by Facebook and that there are algorithms to direct our attention one way or another, but it’s still is a way to hone some collective resource from the five thousand mostly strangers I’m connected to on Facebook. I know Angieslist was sort of birthed out of something similar, but I am hoping in the near future to find a way to get #COLINSLIST off Facebook and to make it a better resource for more than just housing.
How To Survive Winter In New York is a shared Google Doc that I made with some friends a few winters ago after multiple friends had committed suicide. A bunch of other folks were leaving the city because the quality of life here had gotten so grim for so many people, so I wanted to find a way to pool resources for information on mental health and ways for people to have a less shitty New York winter. The project kind of moved out of my hands and into the hands of hundreds of others who have since contributed.
These projects all sort of stem from the question of how to re-gain the agency lost in having all of our media hosted and owned by major corporation platforms like Google and Facebook. I am curious how we can use the internet to take care of each other, which means a lot of things.
A huge step in digital agency is a project called SAGA, created by my bandmate and collaborator Mat Dryhurst. SAGA lets you self-host and modify all your media as an artist depending on the context in which it is shared. For example, if someone posts your work next to something you don’t like, you can obscure it with a slogan or graphic. If someone is hosting advertising alongside you work, you can even charge them to keep hosting it.
I’m always trying to educate people that once you post something to Google, Facebook, Instagram, whatever-- these corporations are immediately are given ownership and the rights to your creative material to be used for advertising or marketing. I think that getting people to self-host is a way to take care of people, to grant agency that has been taken away from them, and to encourage people to develop systems to share work online that can’t be co-opted and sold.
When I lived in Chicago there was a very influential party/collective there called Chances Dances. That was the first time that I had the experience of being in a queer space founded on a sense of taking care of people. I felt like I was a part of a family.
Colin Self, still from ClumpTV (2013)
When I moved to New York I felt the need to create that kind of space: a party that wasn’t so strongly about proving yourself or impressing others, but about building a family. It always felt like in New York you had to peacock to people and show off your feathers, and so I started this party Clump in 2010. Clump became the incubator and container for several things and was very much the product of a ton of people working together. Emma Olson of DISCWOMAN was a huge part of this, Sam Kline, Bradley Callahan, Anthony Dicapua, Matty Beats (Horrorchata), so many people went into making it what it was.
screenshot from #COLINSLIST (2016)
CO: Your work with drag straddles two very different worlds: the daytime art world and New York’s nightlife scene. It seems like an accomplishment to even find where those places meet. Were you initially resistant to the labelling of your performance work as drag, or did you embrace it?
I don’t see them as two separate spaces when I look at queer art history. You have decades of people like Jack Smith, the Warhol stars like Holly Woodlawn and Candy Darling, Vaginal Davis, Michael Clark, Ryan Trecartin, Leigh Bowery, etc. There’s no doubt that queer performance is legitimized by a different kind of language when performed in a gallery instead of a nightclub, but it’s still there.
When I started performing I didn’t think of it as drag. I just happened to be femme and wore wigs and painted my face all yellow or gold. Once I met my collaborator Alexis Penney, she introduced me to some deeper threads of traditional drag history. Meeting older generations of queens and feeling so moved by their performances changed the context of performance for me. It was something I felt spiritual allegiance with and an understanding of how important it was, both to me and the world.
Location: Brooklyn, New York
How and when did you start working creatively with technology?: It probably began with my Livejournal. Other than this, making music in my bedroom in Olympia, Washington.
Where did you go to school? What did you study?: I am currently working on my MFA at Bard in Music/Sound. I went to The Evergreen State College for Puppetry and Experimental Writing, then The School of the Art Institute of Chicago for Performance and Video.
What does your desktop look like?:
Top image: Colin Self by Walter Wlodarczyk (2016)
On the splash page of Ian Cheng’s Bad Corgi, a Serpentine Gallery digital commission, I watch a corgi, a herd of sheep, and a white shepherd’s crook totter across a red, rocky landscape in a madcap dance. The animals are mesmerizing, rendered in dense, saturated colors, like razor blade cutouts from the Pantone book come to life. I am to pick between three modes: 100% Perfect Grazing, Patchpusher, or Herd Gazing.
I start off with 100% Perfect Grazing. In the first minute, I am running. The corgi is always running. Corgis are tough, small dogs that have been used to herd sheep for centuries. My task is to use the touchscreen to corral the corgi and the sheep. I trace clean lines around the animals and they run within these boundaries. The corgi clips some brush. Text flashes: Bad! My first infraction. Though I try to maneuver the dog with some deftness, it runs across patches of light green that appear at blistering speeds. Within minutes, I drop from the grace of 100 percent to 0, to -454 percent. Very bad!
I am not yet sure what I am meant to do in this app, but I already hate this dog. I pair my index and middle finger to fling it from one end of the screen to another. I try to boomerang it toward the escaping flock. The corgi, suddenly, will not go. It spins in place under my index finger. I press harder against the screen and it twitches, riven by unseen forces. Its head expands and contracts, and it bursts into a spray-fall of tiny white, gold, and brown squares that coalesce into corgi, again. The corgi—it does not feel like my corgi—scampers away from me, down a dirt path. I set the iPad down, and go outside to stamp around in the snow.
When I start again, my errors compound and multiply. The sheep sense my approach and evade me. A fire hydrant, then a teapot, then a tombstone bob and weave across the corgi’s path. Wolves slip between the shadows of my stupid charges. Rabbler sheep split and disturb the herd. My score plummets into the negative thousand percents. Desperate, I circle the remaining two sheep in sight; one is named Shy; the other, Shemwel. Dog, sheep, all meet a fiery end. It’s only been an hour.
Bad Corgi, a “shadowy mindfulness app for contemplating chaos,” subverts the user at every turn. It seems to have a mind of its own. As an eager player, my inherent inclination is to fix, to reverse the war of attrition through mastery. But I must accept the corgi’s—the system’s—self-destruction and ruin. This is a difficult proposition to allow. On some level, I think my hard work and skill should pull my corgi through to an unspecified triumph.
According to Cheng's bio, he "sees his simulations as a kind of neurological gym in which art becomes a means to deliberately exercise the feelings of confusion, anxiety and cognitive dissonance that accompany moments of change." This gives me pause, because all games are, in fact, neurological gyms. Systems design for almost all games and simulations factors in the affective life of the user. All play, indirectly or directly, with the user’s emotions (particularly the negative valences, from frustration and anger to irritation and boredom), whether this intention is explicitly built upon or not.
Further, when a sophisticated understanding of affect (and of how the user needs to be manipulated, bent, made to feel in or out of control) is built into a game world, it is often carefully concealed. In Bad Corgi, the reveal, to the user, of the designer’s awareness of the manipulation feels more irritating than a dog built to disobey. Why?
For one, this user can’t stand interruptions to the bliss of immersion, because I want, above all, to be sunk into the system. I do not want continual reminders of the system’s inimical position, its coded hostility and betrayals. I let go of the screen to watch the corgi run. It gets back on track, nosing the sheep into order, avoiding trampling bushes on its own. The system seems to work better when I am not involved at all.
A resistant, unpredictable set of rules tests our collective trust of algorithmic systems, whether sweetly predatory or ruthlessly extractive. When the corgi strays too far, the shepherd’s crook snaps it back with a thin, glimmering white line. Imagine if these algorithmic guides were always clearly drawn for us, manifested, visible. We could see tiny hoses siphoning off our data from us every moment as the day is long. We could watch all the platforms, like big blue shadows, molding themselves in real time to fit the shapes of our bodies, to echo and mirror our expression.
For now: I don’t want to dwell on this. I pick Patchpusher Mode. I send the corgi barrelling out to clear trees and brush; it gains momentum as it rolls shrubs into massive spheres. I think of a priest clearing a ritual ground. The leveling is tactile and satisfying. Even when I’ve reached the goal, I continue to clean the ground in obsessive circles, sweeping. I turn inward, slipping from anxiety to calm. There are meditative modes to be discovered in every game, whether cruising Los Santos in Grand Theft Auto V or fishing in a bootleg Russian MMO.
If Cheng meant for me to embrace anxiety as productive, perhaps he also meant for me to find a kind of peace. In Herd Gazing mode, my corgi runs fluidly alongside the sheep. The goal, if there is any, seems to be simple: run. Observe. I have some remove to marvel, to examine detailed gestures. At dusk, the sheep turn butter yellow, then orange, then gray against the red rock turning violet. Their shadows deepen from slate to midnight blue. They kick up little clouds of dust.
I feel my heart rate slow, as my peripheral attention trains on these multiple moving streams. There is mindfulness in learning to curve the screen, in allowing my fingers and wrist to learn how to flow and snap the corgi in pleasing arcs. I trace precise circles on the screen, pulling landscape about. I am subsumed. Rear, halt, accelerate, flow. The corgi feels more like it is mine.
Coyotes tag along to run next to us. Unease creeps in. I remember the shadow figure running alongside the protagonist in Wizard of Earthsea: a constant black dot on the horizon. I think of the couple bound together by a red rope in Takeshi Kitano’s film Dolls. Anxiety, fear, like a person that follows you, that is quiet by your side, tied to your waist. Herd Gazing mode ends unexpectedly in white, blinding explosions; the sheep dissipate into puddles of ochre, Nickelodeon neon green. Disaster.
Just as the first mode made me think of how algorithmic binds are concealed, the second and third make me consider the hidden imperatives of mindfulness apps. I am a half-hearted user of Headspace; despite earnest attempts and resets, I cannot sustain a meditation routine. Isn’t mindfulness—an ability to quickly disassociate and detach from stress, pain, and suffering—a tool of neoliberal self-care, self-correction, self-management?
Bad Corgi is exceptional for interrogating the promise of digital smoothness, of a landscape of past and present that is all clean and free. In it, mindfulness is crucially linked to digital smoothness; just as a game is praised for convincing one of the illusion of flow, an app cares for you by helping you iron out your worries. Digital smoothness cradles and buoys one from one disaster and trauma to the next. Bad Corgi refuses such insidious smoothness. It wants me to get upset, to remember, to take responsibility.
Any suggestion that the algorithm will solve difficulties is an illusion. The algorithm will not care for me; the future will bring more trials and assaults and injustices. I can only run forward to meet them.
All images from Ian Cheng, Bad Corgi (2016). Still images from iOS app.
The Download is a series of Rhizome commissions that considers posted files, the act of downloading, and the user’s desktop as the space of exhibition. Lance Wakeling's Incantations for the Birth of a Network, the latest in the series, is now on the front page.
For most of cinema’s history, film was projected onto a screen in front of an audience, or later, received as signals at home.
Cheap rewritable media changed this one-way system, and with consumer video we developed a physical control over the production and viewing of film and video. Online, this control gives way to agency: we interrupt streaming media, restart then pause, screengrab and record. The viewer’s relationship with the time and space of media is less fixed now. We’re able to generate discourse and broadcast the experience to the network while watching. We create new versions; stories exists on the internet as material to be re-authored, not simply watched. In the networked context, screen-based media has become an asynchronous experience, conflating audience and author. The players are not exactly together.
What to make then of Lance Wakeling’s new commission for The Download? Wakeling is a filmmaker, and this work is—and is not—a film. And while it is now available on the network as a downloadable ZIP file, it is not exactly streaming media. Chance, control, and agency are foregrounded in Incantations for the Birth of a Network not because we’re able to easily re-mix and re-author the fifty-eight files included in the ZIP, but because it’s already been mixed for us. This is a story told by a roulette wheel.
Screengrabs of Lance Wakeling, Incantations for the Birth of a Network (2016).
The sequence begins on Rhizome’s front page with a game of solitaire. Clicking through sets the wheel in motion, while we hear a distant male voice repeating: “The only difficulty is the cesium.” The International System of Measurements has based its unit of time, the second, on the properties of cesium, which is a toxic metal, since 1967. The pulsing machinelike soundtrack accompanying the roulette wheel suggests the decay of radioactive material, or an atomic clock, sounding off at one-second intervals as the numbers spin onscreen. Time as a backdrop—and as an uncertain material to be conquered—is present in Incantations even before the download begins.
Numbers abound in the work. The thirty-six black and red positions of the roulette wheel spin left and right, barely discernable. Clicking through again starts the actual download, generating a new, numbered version of Wakeling’s work each time, one that is not quite unique, but unique enough: each screening of the fifty-eight files presents one of 28.8 trillion permutations, never to be repeated.
Wakeling calls Incantations for the Birth of a Network“a proto-script for a film,” a story that traces the invention of the computer and the atomic bomb as precursors to the internet. An image included in the download shows an index card with Wakeling’s own handwriting: “This trinity of technologies (the computer, the bomb, the internet) fulfills human desires; desires that have been long expressed through dreams, superstition and mythologies, and which are now in the realm of science.”
The files themselves—JPGs, a TXT, and a PDF—recall a storyboard for a film, or the wall of evidence in an ongoing investigation. Evocative images alternate with writing, all staged against the black background of a flatbed scanner. Wakeling’s anecdotal wanderings through this landscape, and his visits to Los Alamos, Trinity, and the National Archives, retain traces of his hand and voice, flattened and rendered digital for the script of the wheel. But the material itself is barely digital: saved, but not searchable.
If the script is a story of desire, then the roulette wheel is a kind of code that re-writes the story’s desire lines again and again. Writing about another work that references the roulette, David Joselit says that Marcel Duchamp’s Monte Carlo Bond (1938), which staged a faux investment in a strategy for playing neverending spins of the wheel, “is a monotonous, repetitive rehearsal of desire which is always in motion but never leaves its point of departure. Duchamp breaks even.”1 The roulette wheel “establishes a flow of desire — of infinite spins of a disc and settlings of a ball” that eventually doubles back to its starting point, yielding nothing. Chance is the only winner.
"## scatter-piece" from Lance Wakeling, Incantations from the Birth of a Network (2016). A copy of the publication "One Hundred Million Random Digits" at Lamy, New Mexico. This book was compiled using an electronic roulette wheel by project RAND for use in Monte Carlo calculations.
Incantations for the Birth of a Network could be read as a passive experience, like sitting under the constant sway of luck’s charms in a casino. But this is no break-even spell. Remember that Wakeling’s work is both a screenplay and a screen-based game to be played. Screening the work—opening, arranging, and animating the stories on a computer screen—enacts Wakeling’s assertion that narrative might be less like a timeline and more like a network, both in its delivery and in the production of meaning. His proto-script signals an active flow of desire, an investment in a future film, as well as the film itself. In screening Incantations for the Birth of a Network, the machine (the counting wheel) and the artist (Wakeling) collapse onto the audience player, who authors the work and settles the bet. The dividend has already been paid: once downloaded, the outcome for an open, neverending cinematic experience is completely in our favor.
Trailers for Lance Wakeling, Birth of a Network (work in progress).
1 David Joselit, “Marcel Duchamp’s Monte Carlo Bond Machine,”October, The MIT Press, Winter 1992.
Rhizome Commissions are generously supported by Jerome Foundation, with additional support from the National Endowment for the Arts.
The latest in a series of interviews with artists who have a significant body of work that makes use of or responds to network culture and digital technologies.
Eleanor Ford: You describe your book List of Consonants (Bottlecap Press, 2015) as an ambient novella, built from text you self-plagiarized from your writing following your friend’s suicide, entries on social media/online forums, and what you’ve called “real” found texts. Did you see this process of mangling of your past-works, or perhaps past-selves, as a means of creating a new corpus that resembles a hypertextual exchange? Or, alternately, does it reform texts preserved and found on the internet towards an organic, perhaps more human, structure?
manuel arturo abreu, List of Consonants, Bottlecap Press (2015)
Manuel Arturo Abreu: After my friend passed I wrote tens of thousands of words in mourning-- very purple prose, selfish centering of my own feelings, mostly unusable. It felt good to write daily, so long and much, from scratch (for the past few years I’ve generally worked with found text). As such, I felt I needed to use that text somehow, maybe “sculpturally.” In the act of merging this from-scratch text with various kinds of found text, I was thinking about recycling, the commodification of trauma, and Wilson Harris’s notion of community-in-creator, which posits the self as a debt to the contexts and communities from which it emerges: “my voice” isn’t really my voice, it’s an assemblage, both vessel and vector for violence. I did partly feel a slippage between mourning my friend and trying to talk to him. I was also thinking of the peculiar guilt of losing someone and having it become a reason to keep going, but also a reason to talk over him, or through him, which seems bad, but necessary.
I wanted the text to complicate the commemorative, which is seen as the payment of respects but in fact incurs more debt to the dead, debt which is ultimately unpayable. I saw the process of forging the text as managerial: I generated the bulk of it in one sitting of about 60 hours. I wanted to set a trap for myself, not only through asking what the difference between from-scratch and found text is, but through the challenge of authentically performing the resulting texts (such as at poetry readings). In destabilizing the authoriality and authority of “my voice,” I tried to find a middle ground between the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E dictum that confessionalism, indeed narrativity in general, is trite/apolitical, and the feminist dictum that the personal is political.
EF: The internet as a source for research came to a head in your online performance Servicio Digital a Papá Legba (2015), where your own “noob aesthetics” in the practice of Dominican Vudú were put on display to an online audience. Does this kind of provisional religious practice, in comparison to an individual raised in generational contact with the traditions of Vudú, perform a circum-generational reclamation of heritage? A neo-theological interpretation of the Vudú traditions that have made it onto the internet? Something else?
MAA: The trope of the researcher coming to gradually embody the object of analysis is so cheesy that I may regret divulging this, but my neophyte religious activity stemmed from research into an Afro-Cuban syncretic religion’s social media presence, which I presented at ACLA 2015. Its name was homophonous with an Afro-Dominican religious musical genre, which was my jumpoff. I am less interested in reclamation or authenticity, and more in the way that, as an Americanized immigrant, my relationship to island Dominican (vs. diasporic Dominican) cultures is heavily mediated, apart from my family, through consumer commodities, be it the internet, the people I talk to on it, or the content I engage on it.
I find myself with one foot in both the “displaced person” and “privileged Westerner” categories. The former denies me access to my provenance, while the latter affords me a certain level of protection. This renders my religion both provisional and provincial, but I think people come to their faiths in many ways, and the digital can act as a platform to encounter severed lineages and parallel timelines. As a performance, the piece was pretty much just me praying the way I would if I weren’t being recorded. However, as a simultaneous target of and vector for violence, I feel that making public my somewhat-makeshift beliefs was a way of engaging these issues: Does the mediated nature of my relationship to Dahomeyan-Haitian deities weaken my ability to petition them? Conversely, what role does the institutional platform play with respect to this mediation? I was also thinking about Sheilaism.
Screenshot from livestream of Servicio Digital a Papá Legba (2015) for First Look: Real Live Online co-hosted by Rhizome and the New Museum.
EF: You and Victoria Anne Reis (a BHQFU alum) started home school this year, a free pop-up art school in Portland that acts against the current MFA-obsessed culture of arts academe. Can you talk about the aims for the project long term, your personal experience teaching and how you’re deciding on instructors?
MAA: home school honors the etymology of “school,” from the Greek skholē, meaning leisure, rest, free time. I am interested in casual rigor, vernacular pedagogy, and the relationship between marginality and institutionality. Our curriculum consists of classes, talks, exhibitions, poetry readings, and more. We are currently in pop-up mode to investigate the relation between site and discursive texture, as well as to challenge ourselves in navigating Portland’s ephemeral project space scene, which, despite (or because of) its parochialism and precarity, enjoys a degree of regional and sometimes intra-national clout, even canonicity (Appendix Project Space and its aftermath is a good example). But we do hope to find a home at some point!
Victoria and I chose participants mostly nepotistically: my e-friends are pretty amazing. The first semester of 2016, which began in March, features two classes (one taught by me and one by Victoria), as well as remote talks by Hamishi Farah, Eunsong Kim (pictured here), Rosemary Kirton, Jesse Darling, and Jamondria Harris. The second semester features a class taught by you (Eleanor Ford), and a class taught by Portland performance troupe Physical Education (keyon gaskin, Allie Hankins, Lucy Lee Yim and Takahiro Yamamoto). We’ll also feature talks by Devin Kenny, damali ayo, Gaby Cepeda, Sonia Choi, Winslow Laroche, Sasha Puchalski, and Taj Bourgeois. I’m so excited!
Eunsong Kim at Duplex for home school, Portland, OR, April 24, 2016
EF: Shifting gears a bit: a marketized art education seems like a yoke. From my non-MFA perspective, it seems like governance by debt: graduates accommodate market aesthetics in order to sell work, because otherwise the weight of the debt would destroy them. This seems like a big waste of time and an excuse to continue propping up white mediocrity, since the work itself is of less importance than the movement of capital and the continued precarization of art.
MAA: As an “alt arts edu” model, home school exists as a casual corrective not only to this marketization of education and aesthetics, but as a corrective to previous alt arts edu models: whether it’s a dearth of criticality or autonomy from the market, or a lack of distance learning opportunities, Victoria and I felt there was room for another method. The long-term goal is to build an archive showcasing the vernacular pedagogy and low-stakes, high-reward resource transfer that is so common to online friendships.
That being said, we owe a lot to those other models, so I want to name some names: BHQFU, Anton Vidokle’s Night School, Conceptual Oregon Performance School, University of Trash. As well, home school is lucky to be a 2015 Precipice Fund grantee; this allows us access to equipment, labor payment, and other necessities in order to be able to provide streams of every home school event.
EF: Your visual arts practice takes an ephemeral, non-art turn that I could see talked about as antagonistic to the idea of an art-object. Your day-to-day sculptural works are found “trash” that are re-collected, arranged and documented primarily through Instagram and your garageresidency Tumblr, which you began upon moving into a garage in Southeast Portland after a period of housing instability. How do you contextualize this process as art-making in the moment of creation and once the digital footprint is all that is left?
MAA: I want to say “I don’t contextualize it like that” but I’d be lying or something... First and foremost, I do it because I like it, regardless of whether context, discourse, and/or institutionality allow the labor to be legible as art.
Second, I want to be a cool art kid, but I’m not much of a maker. This means that regardless of my investment in reading certain aesthetic labors as art, at least to some extent what I do needs to be read this way for my contingent inclusion in ~ the Discourse ~. “Luckily,” this may actually be to my advantage: Paul Mann says in The Theory-Death of the Avant Garde that “the dematerialization of the art object is the refetishization of discourse.” The non-artistic nature of aspects of my practice speak, at least in part, to this situation, in which language’s power as value creator and impression management machine frame and validate aesthetic labor; I want my work to talk back to its framing, by its own dissolution or otherwise, not just mutely accommodate it. #goals
Third, when I moved into the garage around in 2013, I was thinking a lot about Brian Droitcour’s critique of post-internet objects, which he says don't activate space, instead preening themselves for the camera. He states this pejoratively, but it made me think about the slippage between an ephemeral work and its documentation: is activating space something that a work inherently needs to do? Can this activation happen digitally (this question assumed the internet as a space, not a process, but still)?
[untitled, 2016. Glass, nails, ash. For Remains at Reed College Feldenheimer Gallery, with Erin Jane Nelson and fish narc]
Finally,I’m just going to copy and paste an artist statement I wrote when I got asked to write about my practice’s relationship to “social justice,” because it feels like you’re coyly asking about politicization:
I am a poet and artist who is cruising dystopia. I work with found text, ephemeral sculpture, photography, and writing to ask the question: what does it mean for something to fail to be art, and how is value involved? My process is precarious; I use whatever is at hand in a given moment, operating on the basis of magical thinking. My work addresses language, the pretensions of the white Left, the relationship between debt and community, and the ritual aspects of aesthetics. I am less interested in an autonomous art practice or the creation of value, and more interested in working from the position of having been post-apocalyptic since 1492, to interrogate the trap of visibility and the conditions of affective and aesthetic legibility in a world where bodies of color like mine, trans or cis, have more value as a carcass-turned-hashtag than as a person. The deployment of failure in the neoliberal marriage of precarity and scarcity interests me on many fronts, partly due to my specific embodiment as a transgender nonbinary Dominican immigrant: failing to be a man or woman, failing to be Dominican or American, failing to be Black, white, latinx. Along with identity this extends to more general concerns about precarity: for example, the didactic role of documentation with respect to ephemeral art, or the precarity and unwaged nature of so much art labor as the art world and art education continues to professionalize. As well, my work and life would not be possible without the shelter of the vernacular, the hard love of family, the generative capacity of negativity, and the benevolence of my ancestors.
Location: Santo Domingo → Bronx → Portland, OR
How/when did you begin working creatively with technology?
In 5th grade, each classroom got an iMac and I remember loving to write bad short stories on the one in mine in a cursive font. This was also the year my northwest Bronx neighborhood became flooded with promotional AOL trial discs; some of the cases were wood, some plastic. I loved to empty the plastic ones, fill them with objects, and slip new covers into the laminate. I also used these cases to package and sell a rap album I made in 7th grade (I used to make beats with Anvil Studio, but switched to FL Studio). That same year, I remember being very active on a Magic: The Gathering forum, and creating cards and game mechanics with various other members.
While I definitely frequented AOL chatrooms, fan forums, and other contexts, what addicted me to digital sociality was the chatrooms in SoulSeek, a p2p file sharing program which differed from other programs I knew of in one crucial, almost erotic way: the ability to browse someone’s home computer file structure. This felt quite intimate. I feel like I’ve been chasing that sensation ever since, despite knowing now that the internet has become increasingly corporatized (and was back then, just less successfully).
Where did you go to school? What did you study?
I received my BA in Linguistics from Reed College in 2014. My thesis was on Spanish pronoun-like elements called clitics.
What do you do for a living or what occupations have you held previously?
I have worked as a transcriptionist, SEO copywriter, personal assistant, janitor, research assistant, small press managing editor, and babysitter. I currently work as an IT Compliance analyst and administrative assistant.
What does your desktop or workspace look like? (Pics or screenshots please!)
Looking at my .pdf library I recently came across Monte Burch's The Complete Guide to Sausage Making, a book that clearly—and perhaps morbidly—describes some key features of this ancient and mysterious practice. Throughout the reading of this document I somehow realized that I had been learning not only about sausage making as such, but also the mode of existence of some digital images, with whom I coexist.
How is such a leapfrog possible? In Burch’s guide, a sausage can be made by grinding and mixing “scraps and trimmings” and, interestingly enough, by also maintaining a prudent period of “seasoning and curing.” The meat’s encounter with a systematic process of recombination and extrusion, say, configures the sausages. Moreover, it is precisely their sausageness that allows us to access them according to polarized protocols: on the one hand, sausage production is analog and continuous—the more meat we add to the grinder, the larger the sausage is. Conversely, its access is developed according to a discrete, digital-like protocol: the slice.
Shaping images with our digital gaze
An image is no longer a singular thing, but rather it becomes dispersed, distributing its existence along paths, iterations, periplus, and versions provided by both humans and systems. In this sense, images are trajectories through media, devices…and places. Visual characteristics (namely; colors, sizes, textures, compositions, effects, texts, icons, and typographies) are subjected to a large number of recursive and combinatory operations; a memetic modality of some images that supersedes the very notion of internet meme.
The world s largest sausage in Kobasicijada Festival (Turija-Serbia) in 2012
This implies that in order to access an image’s narrative, we have to retrace some of its extruded, threadlike trajectories. Our attention is not focused on a singular image, but is distributed along the image’s path. Since the versioning of an image is the image, the increasing accumulation of similar images is nurturing distributed ways of seeing.
Slicing images’ sausageness
Sausage-like elongation describes the way that images accumulate, but this redundancy of content is not merely piled up, but follows an extruded trajectory that creates threads of dispersed versions.
Since any given sausage is not only a sausage, but also the expression of its formal mode of production, what is the shape of our engagement with it? If either sausage and image are being distributed across a potentially endless series of elongated versions, we can only access images by slicing them.
Slicing Gucci Mane
Capturing the environment with our digital devices creates a discrete, framed incision in our surrounding milieu. Hence, further captures within the digital realm (for instance, by copying, tagging or storing digital files) prefigure the apparition of what I would like to denominate image-slices.
These slices have also something that really interests me; an intriguing ability to create their own negative imprint in the form of memory. They remind us that their status as slices conceals the almost invisible process of how our digital gaze deprives images of their own visuality in favor of their memory. If the latter is defined here as a time-based measure of the image's shifting or fading along a trajectory, visuality presents the limits of an image; the contours and deformations produced by its elongation. The shape that a sausage acquires during its extrusion—being limited or arrested by its mold or configuration process—posits visuality as the imprint of energy. The visual cohesion of images is therefore based on modulations; the development of deformations through time.
As any salami knows, its own depletion measures its extinction, but its memory increases as the salami diminishes. By day seven in the fridge, the last extant sausage piece compresses a huge amount of time within a narrow meat scrap, which indicates, as if metadata were present, its very process of dwindling.
The accumulation of image-slices made by our digital gaze is not indiscriminate; it overlaps and compresses nuggets of visuality seeking an array of coagulated slices, relating images by means of mnemonic paths: spaces, affections, repetition, and desire. In doing so, digital images are increasingly becoming an ancillary verification of memory's circulation through systems and users.
Accelerated emblems: when memory eats image
The circulation of the digital image is propelled through versioning, elongation, and indexical techniques which optimize access to it by reducing the importance of its immediate visuality. After a certain point, memory’s circulation through systems and users becomes the image’s primary index, pointing to its internal coherence rather than an external frame of reference. Certain images can therefore intertwine themselves toward total memory, devoid of any content apart from their own possible trajectories.
"Undermining visuality, from Egypt to my smartphone"
In an attempt to domesticate the Egyptian landscape during the Napoleonic campaign in the 18th Century, Nicolas Jacques Conté invented an engraving machine that by virtue of its accuracy brought engineers the possibility of describing the landscape in the most objective way. The free movement of the hand was replaced by up to forty-two possible sequences of lines that guaranteed not only a higher degree of precision, but a faster rendering speed. In the monumental Description de l'Égypte it is possible to find examples of these line patterns; rectangular images that visualize nothing but the expression of their mechanical production.
Back in the 21st century, this undermined type of image reappears in the screen of my smartphone. Whenever I swipe too fast over Google Images’ search results, the accelerated flux of images surpasses by far the device’s ability to display them all. I no longer see images, but an array of plain-colored rectangles.
How does this situation correlate with our subtractive digital gaze? My contention is that our digital gaze wants to subsume image within a larger structure of memory. If memory is based on delay—or hysteresis—then our digital gaze must decelerate the image's elongation in order to situate it within memory. In the era of visual salamis, we are no longer pursuing images, but image-slices that allow us to reconstruct their possible trajectories. This implies that the completion of memory is based on the limitation, almost the disappearance of image’s visuality.
From a computational standpoint, I imagine that this process erases the constructed distinction between software and hardware to the extent of making both indistinguishable.
An example of Core Rope Memory contained in an Olympia 15 digit calculator, circa 1971
The pursuit of memory not only undermines visuality but its interfaces as well. Perhaps digital memory artifacts will no longer need visual access interfaces such as screens…but in the meantime, let us take a look on a particular prehistory of this possibility from 1960s, where NASA's Apollo Program developed a form of ROM memory called Core Rope Memory. This was produced by literally weaving a wire skein along ferrite cores. The method of weaving wires—passing or bypassing the cores—configured the software. Therefore, memory was the outcome of an entangled, self-descriptive weaving motion: memory is what happens along the ferrite cores. Contrary to RAM memory, this Core Rope Memory was a non-volatile repository which keeps all its possible tasks in advance, indefinitely, even without energy supply. David A. Mindell's Digital Apollo: Human and Machine in Spaceflight recalls how the Apollo 12 computer easily rebooted itself after lightning struck the spacecraft. Without tapes or disk drives, Core Rope Memory visually exposes its limits and functions. We can imagine it as an artifact with the ability to keep and describe the totality of its existence, not by upgrading itself further, but through total access to its finite structure. This sheer visuality of its woven core—a kind of hardware—is the software, in absence of any other intermediate symbolic interface. The Core Rope's wire paths undermine images insofar as it constitutes its own memory. To put it simply, its finite woven code exists by itself. A distinct modality of software as the human-readable aspect of the machine is no longer necessary.
In the meantime, digital plein-air
I have to stress that, although sausage making is a pleasant and mouth-watering activity, is not precisely exempted of risk. Whenever a meat scrap falls off the cutting table, we are in peril of getting a contaminated, even a hairy sausage. As Burch’s guide reminds to us: “the one that eats the most sausage gets the most hair.” Nowadays we are witnessing the process of subsumption of memetic images within memory, but in the meantime, we are finding memetic images in the outdoors as well.
The temple of the Seven Dolls in Dzibilchaltun, Yuc. Mexico
Despite the fact that the Seven Dolls Temple in Dzibilchaltun (Mexico) perhaps was never conceived as a temporal landmark, during each vernal equinox a multitude of people congregate around the temple. When the Sun emerges, its beams traverse the temple's open door towards a plethora of smartphones, digital cameras, and tablets. The sunlight is not only framed by the door; it continues its trajectory by virtue of the devices’ capturing and the images’ further circulation.
After my first visit to this temple in 2012, I became increasingly interested in the particular elongated quality of this sort of memetic images. During the last three years I have been visiting several areas of Southern Mexico, finding along my way a variety of these images: digitally printed cylinders in the shore of Bacalar lagoon, fluorescent hoses in Palenque's jungle, gradient-like car reparations in Merida, polygonal paper dinosaurs in Chicxulub, to name a few. These memetic images incorporate an array of digital textures, patterns, gradients, and even moiré effects, but somehow their physicality produces an interesting disruption in its surrounding milieu. They popped out in our vision by highlighting their obvious digitalness in absence of devices, binary code, or even electricity. How is such a thing possible? If the traits of memetic images can be sustained in spite of devices —or their closeness—we must reconsider them as entities created uniquely by devices. Images linger at a certain distance of them; sometimes closer—even “within”— sometimes too far to be extant.
Post-Internet Povera VII, 2013
Constituted as trajectories by means of versioning, these memetic images could have existed before the advent of the internet itself. Acknowledging this fact places us in the striking situation whereby the prehistory of digital images comes after their “official” emergence as media; as if in the very moment that we relocate these images from their alleged habitat (digital devices,) devices no longer “create” images. The context of memetic images does not lie in their materiality—for example, their pre-filmic or pre-screening origin—nor in the materiality of the places they represent. Conversely, we find context in the very action of capturing and slicing images, as well as in the device's situational location.
The encounter with digital, memetic images in the outdoors and their incorporation within networks and memories denotes also the uneven degree of internet implementation over the Earth. Since bandwidth speed results are affected by geography (and geopolitics!), time is the subsidiary of space. The imbalances in a memetic image's speed of elongation describes real geographical distances between captured places and access to internet networks. This produces a particular phenomenon of historical remoteness, whereby 'antique' memetic images are still in the process of being incorporated, uploaded, elongated. As if the light of a distant sun were rising, we still are receiving and unearthing images pertaining to these memetic realms.
Javier Fresneda is a San Diego-based artist and researcher. His work can be found in www.javierfresneda.com among other places.
Burch, Monte. The Complete Guide to Sausage Making. New York: Skyhorse, 2011.
Mindell, David A. Digital Apollo: Human and Machine in Spaceflight. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008.
On Saturday at the New Museum, seven art-tech pairs debuted new creations as part of Seven on Seven 2016. If you missed the event, but want to see what they created—from a portrait of the internet as sorcery, to an open letter to Donald Trump on immigration policy, to a play for bots, to a social media portrait of the entire audience—you can watch the full video here.
Seven on Seven 2016 featured:
Keynote: Astra Taylor, writer, documentarian, and organizer
Filmmaker, artist, and writer Miranda July & Paul Ford, writer and cofounder, Postlight Video
Artist Hito Steyerl & Grant Olney Passmore, cofounder, Aesthetic Integration
Installation artist Jennifer Steinkamp & Rana el Kaliouby, founder, Affectiva
Artist and writer Claire L. Evans & Tracy Chou, software engineer, Pinterest
Rapper Junglepussy & Jenna Wortham, staff writer, New York Times
Artist Trisha Baga & Mike Woods, founder, White Rabbit VR
Artist Ingrid Burrington & Meredith Whittaker, founder, Google's Open Source and Security Research Group
Seven on Seven 2016 was Presented by
The Seven on Seven Dinner, hosted by Chopt and created by Salad for President
To welcome and celebrate the Seven on Seven 2016 participants, Chopt Creative Salad Company hosted a special dinner on Friday, May 13 in the New Museum Sky Room. Created by Salad for President (a.k.a. Julia Sherman), the meal featured ingredients sourced from the company's local and international partners, design from the Barcelona-based duo Batabasta, and a special '7 and 7' cocktail created for the occasion by Arley Marks. Gorgeous table arrangements were made by Bastille Flowers & Events.
All event photos were taken BFA's Madison McGaw. See the full album on our Facebook page.
Zachary Kaplan and Mark Tribe
Michael Connor, Eva Diaz, Seven on Seven Keynote Astra Taylor, and Fred Benenson
The Chopt Team: Nick Marsh, David Menis, Julia Sherman, and founder Tony Shure
Seven on Seven participant Jenna Wortham and Julia Kaganskiy
Lauren Cornell and Miranda July
Arrangements by Bastille Flowers
Seven on Seven team Ingrid Burrington and Meredith Whittaker
Seven on Seven team Claire L. Evans and Tracy Chou, with Whitney Mallett
Seven on Seven 2016 was supported by
Clockwise, left to right: Wagenknecht, Vierkant, Henrot, Fornieles
Each year, Rhizome hosts a benefit auction on Paddle8 alongside Seven on Seven to support that program and our work more broadly.
The artists generously supporting Rhizome this year are Ed Fornieles, Camille Henrot, Addie Wagenknecht, and Artie Vierkant. The pieces include a meditation on adopting a self-management diet (Fornieles, last seen at Rhizome doing this); a bootlegged color rendition chart (Vierkant); anthropormophic animals (Henrot, a 2015 Seven on Seven alum); and a contemporary vanitas (Wagenknecht, with Aiala Hernando).
To bid, visit Paddle8.
The Seven on Seven presentation from Miranda July & Paul Ford is on the front page of rhizome.org; to view the rest of the day, as footage is being edited, please visit the live stream, provided by Refinery29, here.
On Saturday, May 14, Rhizome’s Seven on Seven conference took place at the New Museum. For the event, Rhizome pairs up seven artists and seven technologists and gives them a simple assignment: make something, then present the results in a public presentation. In the past participants were given twenty-four hours to do so, but for this edition the constraint was dropped, allowing the pairs to work at their own pace. With this shift, the conversations between pairs took on greater depth, without losing the sense of urgency and risk that distinguishes Seven on Seven.
Be an organizer, not an activist
Astra Taylor (keynote)
In her keynote address, Taylor kicked off the day with a political exhortation to put a renewed emphasis on the unglamorous work of organizing—building infrastructure, communicating, researching. While activist gestures such as banner-waving and political art get the lion's share of attention, more substantive change generally comes from less visible quarters.
Taylor discussed this in relation to Occupy Wall Street, in which the drum circles often seemed to distract from the hard work that needed to be done, and the Debt Collective, which has made highly organized efforts to address the issue of student debt such. Taylor used the example of the collective's recent Defense to Repayment App, which helps users easily dispute their federal student debt. Although the app is a software tool, it is much more a product of careful planning and legal research than technical wizardry – a useful reminder in the context of Seven on Seven.
The internet is a powerful and fragile form of magic
Artist Ingrid Burrington & Meredith Whittaker, Founder, Google's Open Source Research and Security Group
Burrington and Whittaker reimagined internet infrastructure and protocol as the contemporary occult in their project The Realm of Rough Telepathy, available atgrimoire.computer. Discussing technical jargon in terms of secrecy, wizards, runes, and scrying glasses made concepts like IPV6 (the new standard that will open up more internet addresses, allowing additional devices to connect) seem spooky and mysterious, but also (bizarrely) more approachable. Thinking of the technology world as an offshoot of Shadowrun also made a strange amount of sense: "The Merchants have constructed vast private temples of worship, concentrated near San Jose, California, most of which exude the drab chipperness of a rich man eager to be congratulated for driving a moderately-priced car."
Read more about Rough Telepathy onTopical Cream.
When you are ready to genuinely connect, go to a Patch Party
Junglepussy, Rapper & Jenna Wortham, Staff Writer, The New York Times Magazine
"I am here to genuinely connect" is the phrase that will gain you entry to Manhattan's hottest new clubs. For their collaboration, Wortham and Junglepussy found a shared interest in the problematic ways in which social media incentivizes certain kinds of behaviors in relationships and social experiences. Like the fact that it's rare to meet someone without Googling them, making judgments about their status or value based on their online content. Rather than embracing Luddite calls for disconnection, the pair suggest a hi-tech solution for this hi-tech problem—an analgesic that would clear the user's mind of the worries of social media. It would be a patch, so that users could identify others who aimed to resist the influence of the internet on the social. And of course there would also be patch parties, for those who seek that genuine connection.
Math is a kind of painting
Hito Steyerl, Artist & Grant Olney Passmore, Cofounder, Aesthetic Integration
"Dear Donald Trump, We fixed your immigration plan.
"First, the bad news. We calculated with absolute certainty the probability that any Mexican president would pay for a wall on the US-Mexican border as 0 and, if possible, less.
"But this is not a problem. In a world in which policy is increasingly replaced by mathematical projection, the analysis of numbers is everything. So we analyzed the numbers and came up with a plan for you."
So began a modest proposal offered by Steyerl and Passmore, who looked at the "insane mathematics" that underlies actual public policy. Picking up the issue of illegal immigration, they found a 2012 white paper in which a mathematical formula is offered to calculate the effect of detainment on deterring illegal immigration. Taking this logic at face value, they concluded that illegal immigration could be reduced to zero if detainees would be imprisoned for an infinitely long time. While this may seem impossible, they argued, it is no less impossible than any of Trump's other policies. And so they proposed the creation of Trump Trident Hotel, which could offer a potentially infinite number of beds.
The real point, for Steyerl, was that the mathematics that underlies public policy is as subjective as any painting. It contains assumptions about the world, which reflect a certain worldview or perspective, but are too often understood as objective or neutral. To extend this point, the pair set up polimath.org, a wiki for exploring other ways in which the mathematics that powers public policy are subjective and even, to use their words, "insane," and concluded their presentation by tweeting it to @realDonaldTrump himself.
Interactive art should be emotionally intelligent
Jennifer Steinkamp, Artist & Rana el Kaliouby, Cofounder, Affectiva
The idea of mathematics-as-painting set up a provocative transition to the collaboration between el Kaliouby and Steinkamp, in which mathematical assumptions were used as the basis for a responsive artwork. Their project was based on Affdex, Affectiva's system for identifying emotion based on facial expression. Steinkamp and programmer Alex Rickett created a new app, You, in which a user's face is mapped onto an avatar based on a user's image. The user can then manipulate the avatar in real time as it visualizes their emotional state, as read by the Affdex system. This emotional data is shown onscreen as well, and the user quickly begins to cycle through expressions that are legible to the software as sadness or disgust. The app acts as a kind of software portrait, allowing users to see themselves as Affdex sees them, as interpreted by Steinkamp and Rickett. Their visualization isn't entirely neutral; when users reach a certain threshold of happiness on Affdex' meter, flowers fall across the screen—a familiar motif in Steinkamp's highly emotive installation practice, deployed here as a kind of incentive for users to express happiness.
Even bots face sexism in the workplace
Claire L. Evans, Artist and Writer & Tracy Chou, Software Engineer, Pinterest
Emotional relationships with software continued to be a central motif, as seen in the collaboration between Claire L. Evans and Tracy Chou. The duo were interested in the way that bots and other nonhuman actants become screens for assumptions about gender roles. Chou cited, for example, a study in which male drivers gave lower rankings to voice-guided navigation systems when the voice was feminine.
Responding to this set of conditions, their software-generated play is an office drama about an AI coming into sentience, read from a written script by the collaborators and three text-to-speech bots. The software that generates the play reassigns characters' gender each time it is run, highlighting audience assumptions about workplace roles.
The script and performance were enthralling, but you'll have to watch the video for those, or of course download the software from Chou'sGitHub repository.
Inside-out, VR makes good theater
Trisha Baga, Artist
Mike Woods, Cofounder, White Rabbit VR
Baga and Woods followed with another contribution to the dramatic arts. They asked the audience to don red-green 3D glasses, and showed slides of scattered colored rocks and floating onion rings as a way of explaining the issue they aimed to address: the embodied experience of VR systems. Woods pointed out that VR doesn't have sophisticated body tracking that would allow users' bodies to be perfectly rendered inside the system. Most creators of VR respond to this constraint by either omitting the user’s body or by rendering it in a basic way while attempting to focus their attention on their surroundings, not on themselves. Baga felt that this bifurcated experience made VR users as interesting to watch as the worlds they were immersed in, and she showed a video of VR users at a recent screening to prove the point. They were really interesting to watch, and future media historians will thank Baga for having the foresight to document the experience of a VR screening in the as-yet early days of the medium.
This led Baga and Woods to offer up a proposal for Inside-Out VR, in which users wearing headsets are the performers, not the audience. To demonstrate, the lights were turned off, and Woods read from Dolly Parton's autobiography while a flashlight was directed at Baga who was actiong out the scene onstage.
A mock-up of inside-out VR from Baga and Woods' 3D presentation.
We are all obsessed with each other
Miranda July, Artist, Filmmaker, and Writer
Paul Ford, Writer, Programmer, and Cofounder, Postlight
The final presentation of the day began without preamble. July and Ford took the stage and began to recite “You were born in Korea. You were born on Halloween….”, details of childhoods, colleges pranks, weddings, and dreams were incanted. Gradually the audience began to realize that the “you” was literally them. Guestlist in hand, Ford and July had crafted a narrative from hundreds of pieces of online data generated by the audience. July had spent the last two weeks manually sifting though Instagram, Facebook, newspapers, personal blogs, and wedding registries, enlisting Starlee Kine (Mystery Show) as a research partner. Meanwhile, Ford had created a searchable database of the audience’s last ten thousand tweets. "You made this," they intoned, showing images of books and meals but not faces or real names. “This is your butt.” “This is your mom.” "It took you nine months, but you finally learned to play all of Debussy's ‘Clair de Lune.’ I think we can all agree with your mother when she says 'Bravo! Makes me want to move the piano out to the field so you can play by the moonlight.'"
Not everyone recognized themselves, but others gasped in self-recognition as their home addresses and recently deceased pets appeared onscreen. It was at points uncomfortable, hilarious, and moving, and offered the perfect place to leave a conference that is always more generative than conclusive: with the people in attendance, as they carried this experience back out into the world.
SEVEN ON SEVEN 2016 WAS SUPPORTED BY
Major support for Seven on Seven was also provided by the Sara & Evan Williams Foundation, and Silicon Valley Community Foundation.
“Rather than initiating the death of painting, as was expected, photography and other media of mechanical reproduction have been like a vampire’s kiss that makes painting immortal. Painting is enthralled before the cold eye of mechanical reproduction and can stare back in the same way.”
—David Reed, 2006
In a sense, painting has always existed in relation to technology, when the term is understood in its broad definition as the practical application of specialized knowledge: the brush, the compass, the camera obscura, photography, or the inkjet printer. However, it is only now that, along the lines of physical presence and a shared role as content-delivery systems, painting is so closely affiliated—morphologically, aesthetically, and conceptually—with the (digital) technologies it engages with. Today both artist and viewer share the experience of digital technologies as familiar, available, and omnipresent. An artist today is automatically involved with ways of looking, thinking, and acting that are conditioned by technology, even if their work is not ostensibly dealing directly with technological concerns. The current conversation between art and technology is thus not necessarily a result of artists appropriating arcane or specialized knowledge, as when in the 1960s they avidly followed, and made use of, the latest innovations published in Scientific American.
When artist Michael Staniak says, “the screen is as normal a part of my day-to-day life as eating,” he is not only speaking about the conditions that inform his paintings, but also about a nearly universal situation among a certain class in the developed world—an incredibly profound one that has opened up painting, especially in its abstract guise, to an entirely new audience that lacks, indeed does not need, an education or background in the critical and formal examination of art and its history.[i] This has led to fundamental changes in the way a painting looks, communicates, and circulates, which has in turn attracted a new, younger generation of artists who approach the medium differently than their historical antecedents, deploying it to varied ends. In a quiet but incredibly profound way they have rebuilt painting from the ground up.
Michael Staniak, Untitled (Holographic) 2013
These artists are using the medium as a frame, tool, or focal point by which to address a number of pressing issues related to, among other things, labor, technology, the body, and perceptual experience—rather than, as is often dismissively and reductively suggested, approaching it as a reflexive, medium-specific extension of modernism. This is a direct result of the new roles that painting has taken on in a digital age.
Michael Manning, Nine Pound Hammer (2015). 45x60cm 3D Print on linen.
In order to understand how painterly work operates today we must first address the question of what, at a material level, it comprises. Today a two-dimensional (or in some cases a sufficiently shallow projection) hung parallel to a wall is enough to suggest a painterly conversation, which may take place through any number of materials.
We are thus not tackling the related question of those image-based works, called digital paintings by some, that are made with—and for consumption on—computers.[ii] These works obviate many of the material concerns traditional to painting, since it cannot even be said—as it might for an artist like Ken Okiishi, say, who uses the screen as a support in a literal fashion—that the computer is their support, as they morph into varied digital contexts. Some require an internet connection to be experienced, others only function on social media apps viewed on smartphones, while still others stand alone on any screen. These must be understood as contemporary examples of the dispersal of the painterly as an effect. These works appropriate the term “painting” because they are image-based, but not photographic or filmic, and are placed in an art, or at least non-traditional, context, through placement on particular blogs, dedicated websites, etc. Some of them might for these reasons also equally be called “digital drawings,” as they indeed sometimes are. Their connection to specific painterly effects ranges greatly, though again they share in common their non-specificity, which is a practical necessity given the uncontrollable nature of the way that each individual will encounter a given work.
Laura Brothers, alfredo frenzy (Sept 10, 2015). Detail area of 940x700 pixel digital image.
For the sake of space, and also the different set of concerns suggested, I will focus almost entirely on those physical works that we might call paintings. Though it should be noted that several artists today move back and forth between these two realms in interesting and productive ways, such as Parker Ito or Michael Manning, whose creative training was in the technical skill of animation, rather than the craft-based one of painting. Manning’s earliest works were made on and for the computer, but in response to both exhibition and financial concerns, he started to print his digital paintings on canvas. With time he has increasingly embraced the materialist aspect of painting, adding complexity to a practice that continues to involve purely digital projects. First this meant adding a layer of clear acrylic gel over the printed canvas, to which he used combs and brushes to add staged painterly effects. Recently, this practice has evolved to having the work 3-D printed, using technology designed to read and simulate actual painting marks. This leads to curious effects when the machine is given entirely digital data, layering marks in odd ways and inverting positive and negative space.
We have thus moved far beyond Clement Greenberg’s famous maxim from 1962 that “a stretched or tacked-up canvas already exists as a picture – though not necessarily as a successful one.”[iii] In essence what holds true today is the notion of painting as a frame, within which any number of materials might enter, a concept that is not new, and which is certainly predicated on any number of precedents, from Pablo Picasso to Kurt Schwitters to Robert Rauschenberg to Daniel Buren. However, how exactly in our present moment painting functions as a frame, and in doing so enables an artist the effortless and unquestioned ability to use the space of the wall for the accumulation and presentation of materials and objects, is one of the primary questions we must ask. I would contend that the answer lies with recent technological development. In 1971 art historian Leo Steinberg wrote influentially, with regards to Rauschenberg’s work, of the emergence in art of the 1950s of the logic of the flatbed picture plane, a shift in his eyes from a focus on nature to one on culture:
The flatbed picture plane makes its symbolic allusion to hard surfaces such as tabletops, studio floors, charts, bulletin boards—any receptor surface on which objects are scattered, on which data is entered, on which information may be received, printed, impressed—whether coherently or in confusion. The pictures of the last fifteen to twenty years insist on a radically new orientation, in which the painted surface is no longer the analogue of a visual experience of nature but of operational processes.[iv]
But of course the space in which these operations occurred was still that of stretched canvas or panel, and the logic was an analog one—of labor and activity and knowledge. Similarly it implies a certain fixity, the end result of the process in question, which has been frozen for display, as Steinberg implies when he writes of artists like Rauschenberg and Dubuffet, “we can still hang their pictures—just as we tack up maps and architectural plans, or nail a horseshoe to the wall for good luck.”[v] However, if we follow Steinberg that these precedents had shifted the emphasis from nature to culture, then it also follows that we should attend to the evolution of culture since the late 1960s and early ’70s, when Steinberg formulated this idea.
This suggests that we consider that the proliferation in the past decade or so of laptops, tablets, smartphones, and flatscreen televisions—all of which are interfaces housed in slender casings—has done many things to the presentation of images, and consequently to our perception and consumption of them, while also activating a whole new array of materials and means of display.
That this makes digital devices morphologically very close in form as well as function to a painting is succinctly demonstrated in a work by Simon Denny, Multimedia Double Canvas Progression (2009), in which the artist commercially printed the home screens of various televisions onto cheap pre-stretched canvases available for almost nothing at any art supply or craft store. In these it is most remarkable exactly how absent a painting discourse is from our engagement with these cheap inkjet printed canvases. Tracking the evolution of television size over the span of about fifteen years, for each television Denny placed two identical canvases parallel to one another and joined them with steel poles, miming the dimensions of the television in question. He does this on down to the present, with the space between the panels getting smaller and smaller to the point where a single canvas will do. The canvas and the flatscreen have become quite literally one and the same. In this way we have an answer of sorts to Hal Foster’s provocative query, asking if it is possible to “seriously engage issues of a technoscientific, postindustrial society in a medium, like painting, based in preindustrial craft?”[vi] The answer is that just as a wheel can equally serve a car as it did a horse drawn carriage, so does our continued reliance on the shallow, wall-mounted display prove that painting has something to say to our present moment. Further, it asserts the capability for painting to once again reconnect with the material conditions of our historical present, from which it was structurally barred for a period.
Simon Denny, Simon Denny, Multimedia double canvas progression (2009).
It is not only that artists are exploring the similarities between screen and canvas, but that canvas has entered the everyday vernacular of trade show advertisements, DIY Kinko’s projects, and store window displays. These are of far more interest to an artist like Denny than the history of painting, and no doubt he finds that there is no need for him to deal with that history. The question with Denny’s work is not so much how does his use of canvas as a support complicate his investigation of the systems—financial, social, and bureaucratic—surrounding technology, but rather what critical distance it might enable, underlining his interventions as, to some degree, aesthetic and drawing attention to his goal of exploring the ramifications of technology.
There is a lot that can be done with a flat, bounded surface, even if each artist’s surface of choice might vary, materially, along a continuum that extends from the time-worn painterly convention of canvas through to industrially-sourced Dibond aluminum panels. Take, for example, Ken Okiishi, who uses flatscreens as a support for painted marks that are, in a way, equally reminiscent of the swipe marks our greasy fingers leave on touchscreens, as they are of the gesturalism of Abstract Expressionists like Willem De Kooning and Joan Mitchell. Working on this series since 2013, in the beginning Okiishi used recorded videos, often derived from old VHS tapes. This can be seen in gesture/title (2013), which he showed at the 2014 Whitney Biennial, where five painted monitors ran the same infomercial starting at different points. Here the image is only fragmentarily discernable through the obscuring aggregation of paint. When looking at them we find that at some points the painted marks seem to merge with the image, and indeed Okiishi painted the screens with the videos playing so that he could respond to formal aspects of the infomercial’s unfolding narrative, and at the end of the process he often slightly edits the footage to make its compositional continuity with the painted marks even tighter.
Ken Okiishi, gesture/data (2013). Chroma blue video paint on MD40B 40” Large Format Display LED, BARCO CRT blue screen videoed by HD camera transferred to .mov transferred to .mp. 492.5 x 54.1 x 9.4 cm.
Recent work by Aaron Bobrow and Mary Ramsden also references the gestures inherent in the action of swiping and other tactile maneuvers of digital devices. That they do so with paint on panel suggests an analogy with the familiar path made by the brush as it traverses a receptive surface. Staniak has also engaged with this, noting that the “element of ‘touch’ is synonymous with digital media and also primitive image making. It takes the image making process back to the most carnal implementations of pigment on cave walls, where muddy mixtures were applied very physically by hand.”[vii] Appropriately, in his latest body of work, collectively titled Permanent Display, Staniak downloads stock images of stone surfaces from the internet, which he then collages together and on top of which he draws rudimentary pictographs with his finger, rather than a mouse or stylus.
Michael Staniak, BMP_145
This approach appeared as early as the 1980s in the work of David Reed, who must be acknowledged as a predecessor of this way of working. Reed’s career has been animated by, among other things, a concern with how the gesture can be motivated in different moments. This began in the ’70s with his use of the body as measure—making paintings predicated on the maximum length and density his arm could make with a brush loaded with paint. By the ’80s Reed was experimenting with gestures mediated by their interpretation through computer imaging. He found that the computer’s interpretation of the gesture was somehow more convincingly “organic” than the original hand-made gesture he made to be interpreted. His work since has been engaged with juxtaposing different kinds of gestures, from the hand-made to the digitally altered to the stenciled, in an exploration of how meaning accrues through this supposedly most immediate and biographical mark.
David Reed, #337 (1994). Oil and alkyd on linen. 30 x 130 inches. Collection Orange County Museum of Art.
With the close proximity of painting today to digital devices, there is no longer so much a tension between what sits squarely in the realm of painting, and what resides in its “expanded field,” as much as a new meta-logic, both artistic and extra-artistic, of surfaces mounted parallel to the wall, of which painting is just one element alongside digital displays, commercially printed canvases, etc. For convenience and to provide an established, familiar frame of reference, we should continue to refer to wall-based works concerned with questions of surface as “paintings,” and even potentially explore the semantic ramifications of admitting these typically non-aesthetic objects that share painting’s expanded field, especially since this brand of art derives its meanings and possibilities—perceptual, material, and conceptual—as much from the conventions of digital technology as from the history of painting.
If hanging a shallow object parallel to a wall is now enough to suggest to a viewer, even if unconsciously, both the conventional manifestation of a painting and that of an array of digital devices, then this means that painting as a medium doesn’t exist in the same form it held in the middle of the twentieth century—a contention that, frustratingly and mind-bogglingly, many continue to make as if this received understanding is the only possible way to understand a painting. As art historian Richard Shiff has recently noted, this is far more a failure of the tools of contemporary criticism than evidence of anemia in the field of painterly production; and, as he demonstrates, this incapacity to deal seriously with painting has dogged criticism since the 1960s at least.[viii] The medium has, in fact, been taken apart, dissected, dispersed, and hybridized for decades. This suggests that painting does not have a single, essential status, but rather a multiple and constantly changing one, due to pressures both internal and external to it, and to art more broadly.
In a sense it may be more accurate today to understand artist Robert Mangold’s vision of a “flat art” as having come to pass, and into which what we understand to be painting has been subsumed, than seeing the terms established historically within the medium of painting as having been expanded. Mangold wrote presciently in 1967: “Flat art, or art with only one view, includes paintings and flat surface works of any type…. Flat art is all surface, the edges are simply edges of a surface. The thickness is the thickness of the material chosen to work upon, and in some cases the additional thickness of the support needed.”[ix]
From our present vantage, it is perhaps even better than “flat,” to refer to such works as being about “surface.” This retains the sense of all-at-once, direct experience, and the single viewpoint suggested by Mangold, but prevents us from getting caught up in the outmoded 1960s discourse around flatness, since today many artists find that they can introduce various textures and materials into the picture plane without fundamentally disturbing our experience of that as a singular, discrete surface.[x] This is because all things are fundamentally understood as images, rather than as objects. It is that experience, perhaps more than any other, which today we associate with what we call “painting.”
The reason why Mangold’s vision could not have been realized in the mid-to-late 1960s—and why his “flat art” manuscript languished in a drawer for decades—was because, until recently, a work on canvas spoke only to an art context, a quality which rendered it excessively passive for the likes of Donald Judd, who preferred the use of “actual” materials because of the worldliness they suggested to the viewer: “Materials vary greatly and are simply materials—formica, aluminum, cold-rolled steel, plexiglas, red and common brass, and so forth. They are specific. If they are used directly, they are more specific. Also, they are usually aggressive.”[xi]
Artists like Judd and Robert Morris found that alluding to the world of real objects heightened the work’s phenomenological impact because it aligned the presence of the work with the presence of things. Greenberg highlighted this in his 1967 essay “The Recentness of Sculpture” when he wrote that, “presence can be conferred by size or by the look of non-art.” At that point in time, Greenberg notes, the brief opening of painting out to the world that was achieved by artists such as Pollock and the other Abstract Expressionists, who actively incorporated raw canvas into their work, was nullified once it became theoretically possible to display even a blank canvas successfully as a painting. This brought canvas into the world of art, no matter what guise it took on, away from that of things—for example the sailcloth that it started as. As such, it had to wait for another revolution in imaging technology—namely, the one we are presently experiencing—to bring painting back into a materialist dialogue with things in the world.
Today the time has long since passed when painting referred only to art. True, or “pure “self-referentiality to the medium is impossible, just as it has always been for sculpture, which always had to navigate our familiarity with bodies and objects in the world in articulating its particular status as a form of art (if we accept a Kantian definition of art as determined by the absence of functionality). Now paint on canvas finds itself bounded by a field of possibility as equally conditioned by the imagistic, material, display, circulation, and reception situation as that which is historically the province of painting. Even more significantly, a printed Dibond panel intended to be hung parallel to the wall finds itself in the same position. Because the dialogue it is entering into is hybrid, in a way that is ultimately indistinguishable, between painting and digital devices there is not much functional difference between paint brushed onto canvas, and ink printed onto panel. Now, despite the furious debate around the future of painting, and its relation to other mediums that was waged beginning in the 1960s, there was not (and still has not been) much emphasis placed on the preciousness of painting’s favored and traditional or conventional materials.
One could say that Robert Ryman was perhaps the first artist to systematically explore this expanded situation, which is one of display more than of painting. Painting was Ryman’s tool of choice to explore these conditions, and he worked on stretched and unstretched canvas, as well as on a variety of other materials from wood panel, to aluminum, to paper. Ryman pursued, among other things, an investigation of both the expressive potential of these materials, and the possibilities for their display. The generation of artists active today are seeking out the best support for each of their aesthetic goals, and also want to establish integrity between materials and the ends to which they are deployed. Many would likely agree with Mangold’s 1966 claim that “canvas is flimsy, brittle, lacks dimension; it refers only to art. Plywood can be hit with a hammer. I like that fact. It's very important that the surface be a substantial thing.” One can imagine that this is part of what animates the work of artists like Zak Kitnick and Nikolas Gambaroff, who do not so much wish to enter into an explicit dialogue with painting, as find their way onto the wall without being too weighed down by the history of either painting or sculpture. Steel, a material with a relatively short history of use in a fine art context, and one with a familiarity in an industrial one, accomplishes this handily, as it did for Donald Judd years before.
But it must also be acknowledged that many other artists have found that canvas can be as factual and workable a material as plywood, stripped of much of its historical specificity, and thus able to return to its origins in practical uses, such as for sailcloth. This is for example what David Ostrowski’s paintings succeed at suggesting, insofar as it is their emphatic use of a limited painterly vocabulary of materials: stretched canvas, frames, slight applications of pigment. That they are legible as paintings at all is a testament to the power of these materials. Still others have merged the organicism and history of woven cotton with the pragmatic familiarity of the 8-by-4-foot dimension common to industrial materials. For example, in different ways both Aaron Garber-Maikovska and Calvin Marcus discovered this joining as the perfect support for a reexamination of the potential for the expressive mark: gestural in the case of Garber-Maikovska, surrealist automatist in Marcus’s.
David Ostrowski, F (A thing is a thing in a whole which it’s not) (2012). Oil and lacquer on canvas, wood. 86 3/4 x 67 in. (220 x 170 cm).
This is not to say that artists are now returning to the notion of a painting as autonomous from the world in which it necessarily exists. Far from it. Rather, they are accepting the curious objecthood that a wall-mounted thing possesses today and are exploring this new specificity alongside a painting’s inevitable interaction with things outside of itself—from the site of display and other traditional concerns of Conceptual art and Institutional Critique to the networks in which a painting travels: digital, financial, and otherwise. For example, Jesse Stecklow has been involved, in a way that, like Denny, effortlessly traverses the languages of both painting and sculpture without relying too much on the specific conventions of either, with invisible but omnipresent systems of ecological data collection. These range from the primitive system of fly tape to the more sophisticated (and implicitly painterly) wall-mounted steel boxes that record the microscopic content of the air in the spaces in which they are installed. Stecklow continues to periodically manually retrieve information from these sites, pointedly refusing to rely on the abstracted digital relay of this data. This body of work is thus engaged with both physical and networked elements of circulation as it involves aspects of the surveillance of the spaces we navigate everyday, and in the process suggests numerous larger political issues, both benign and sinister.
Jesse Stecklow, Untitled (Air Vent) (2014). Steel, powder-coated aluminum, UV print, hardware, carbograph 5 Air sampler. 24 x 18 x 2-1/4 inches.
All objects exist in this dual way today, as both discrete and networked—present and dispersed at the same time—and it is in this dual way that the most astute artists working today recognize any art object must be addressed. This is to say that, while any given painting may be specific, the content that it delivers cannot be imagined as stable and singular, but as reaching any number of eyes and contexts, just as is true of the information that circulates through digital networks and arrives on innumerable screens. This is also quite literally true when we consider the role of reproductions of paintings, where many more people will view a given work in the glow of an iPhone screen, than will see it in person.
Travess Smalley, Vector Weave - Oct 12 2014 Action 5 applied to Oct 1 Photocopy Scan 05, 2015, 96 x 70 in (2014).
In a sense, today flat works benefit from the ability to arrest an image and place it in state of stasis that is increasingly foreign to other modes by which images are beheld. This is contra to the photograph, which, since the advent of film has been imaginable as a still in a sequence of events, or at least as temporally based, since it is necessarily a record of something—even if that something is entirely the fantasy of the photographer, manipulated either in the darkroom or in Photoshop—and thus mutable. This stasis such flat works inherit from painting allows for traditional modes of contemplation, meditation, and appreciation, which are still necessary for a critical appreciation of the material we are presented with. My choice of the word “arrest” is purposeful. I want to suggest the violence by which circulation is interrupted and situations of fixity are introduced when the image gets caught in a painting frame.
Painting is, as I have been arguing, equally beholden to the conventions of digital technology as it is to those of art history, and as such, we bring to bear our expectations of interactivity and malleability, which have been cultivated by the former. Most often these play out in how we perceive the spatial terms of the work, which we do not so much penetrate optically as manipulate in a new form of opticality that is sutured to a virtual form of tactility, which is to say the new kinds of motor skills that are cultivated by the touchscreen—actions like clicking, swiping, pinching, tapping, and pressing.
The issue for painting today does not have to do with pictorial space, but, rather, is engaged with the question of object versus image. Regarding work that actively engages imagery (which is a term I prefer to “representation”), this introduces the question of scale as central, and by extension that of scalability. Any image placed before us, if it is vector (i.e., mathematically generated) rather than raster (i.e., pixel-based) in nature, can be scrolled into and out of infinitely. This very access to and capability for manipulation that the image holds leads to this draining of significatory weight from distance and relative scale.[xii] For example, in recent work shown in Berlin at Croy Nielsen by Sebastian Black the painting’s literal dimensions function like a screen of sorts, as we find a single painted composition rotated across four canvases. In these works the canvas does not change orientation, but rather just the painted image that, in a confirmation of our suppositions about the screenic paradigm, is able to exist even when truncated and not fully filling its rectilinear container. Here the canvas functions along the lines, structurally, of a screen. The integrity of the painting as image and object simultaneously is asserted without having to rely on the old model of identifying the two with one another literally, as was the case of deductive structure in Frank Stella’s stripe paintings, for example, where the painted pattern reinforced the work’s literal limits and vice-versa. Today any rectilinear support can assert identity with any painted image as long as this screenic logic is obeyed.
Sebastian Black, "Completed Paintings." Installation view, Croy Nielsen, Berlin, 2016.
These things combine to create a new pictorial vocabulary for artists who import digital conventions like drop shadows, the harsh and arbitrary lines of cut-and-paste actions, and digital color schemes like gradients into painting. All this is linked to a larger flattening and collapsing of space, which can be seen in the various parts of paintings by artists like Laura Owens, Trudy Benson, Michael Williams, Jamian Juliano-Villani, or Josh Reames, where completely different spatial relationships can hold from one-square inch of the canvas to the next, creating complicated, even dizzying spatial twists and inversions in the work of the original master of this style, Owens, and more relatively banal importation of these devices to the ordered, conservative canvases of Reames, who seems to create rebuses consisting of random assemblages of contemporary iconography. I am somewhat skeptical about the ability for these kinds of images to hold our interest in the long run, and not quickly seem outdated and esoteric.
For an artist like Travess Smalley, the ability to physically move in and out and around an image is the main reason to bring works created on the computer screen into physical existence, and why they then might be a certain size and, indeed, stretched, thus gaining dimension, and presented on the wall. The image even wraps around the sides of the canvas, emphasizing this dimensionality. This is because this form of presentation allows the viewer to move in and out from the image in a physical way, rather than the fully abstract means by which one manipulates the scale of an image in the fixed frame provided by a screen. In a certain way, here again, we find the stasis and focus of painting to engage productively with the interactivity we expect from the screen, providing the viewer with a different experience of scale.
Avery K. Singer, who uses digital technology via the commercially available architecture and design modeling program Google SketchUp to produce her paintings, brings traditional perspectival painterly tropes into conversation with digital means of reading space and content, these being conditioned primarily by our experience of multiple perceptual regimes coexisting in the tessellated space of the desktop and other screens. Because Singer was trained in sculpture rather than architecture, design, or even painting, this can be understood as operating in a way similar to how graph paper functioned for the ’60s generation of minimal and conceptual artists. The likes of Jo Baer, Donald Judd, Mel Bochner, and Larry Poons were not familiar with the professional uses of graph paper as a way to more directly envision objects and structures, by circumventing established (and deceptive) conventions of perspectival representation. This same curiously airless, imaginary, yet somehow more directly “accurate” representational logic has been translated into programs like SketchUp. Singer is able to introduce, as she put it in an interview with Lauren Cornell, “representations of idealized sculptures and monuments, with figures and still lifes” into “the realm of unrealized buildings.”[xiii] That being the conventional end-point of designs made in SketchUp. That she then projects the images she creates digitally onto canvas an executes them in grisaille (and more recently color) using a spraygun also connects Singer’s practice to Vermeer’s use of the camera obscura to realize exacting placements of figures and objects in ways that are impossible to realize with just the five senses. It is in this way that we can understand the camera obscura to introduce a photographic logic (aka an extra or hyper sensory, because “all-seeing,” apparatus) into painting, which Singer’s work shows continues to evolve.
Avery K. Singer, Society of Realist Wanderers (2014). Acrylic on canvas, 120 x 72 in.
This is also present in the work of Smalley, who has gained a facility with digital programs like Photoshop over the years by using it as a tool to make drawings. He prints these out and binds them into books, which he then uses as analog reference points when he makes selections of which to have made into stretched wall works, at which point—in the process of fabrication—they re-enter the digital realm as an image file, before once again being “reborn” into the physical world in yet another guise of a stretched wall work. Smalley does not use canvas, but rather the technique and materials of billboard printing—UV print on vinyl. This is because he sees the work not so much as painting outright, but rather using the focus provided by stretching a material and hanging it on the wall. In the case of his Vector Weave works, what this focus draws our attention to are the curious spatial fluctuations of Smalley’s compositions, which are activated in interesting ways that are different both from how they appear on the computer screen, and in the printouts that Smalley routinely assembles into his work books. If Singer explores how contemporary technology has reified certain longstanding ideas about the logics of spatial experience, then Smalley, another Cooper Union grad who did not study painting, forges into the new spatial territories that digital technology opens up. In a sense, this relates back to the possibilities for investigation opened up by the appropriation of industrial graph papers, which could both, in the hands of an artist like Judd, say, be used to visualize things in traditional ways, which is the lineage Singer continues to update. But, for others, like Smithson, the graph paper becomes a possibility to push the instabilities of isometric projection to an extreme, something Sol LeWitt also explored when, in a way related to Smalley’s process, he decided to fabricate the structural progressions that he first used graph paper to imagine. For the likes of LeWitt and Smalley equally, this perverse application of logic produces an interesting collision and tension between the imaginary and the real.
Darja Bajagić fits in here as well, because she takes her subject matter from the internet but, like Singer, presents it in an "analog" form of (digital) photomontage on canvas. She presents her charged, often pornographic imagery in this way because it introduces a fixity of scale that is absent from the source material which is endlessly manipulable onscreen. This contributes part of our feeling of her figures as having been given back some sense of agency, or at least of identity, in her works. By controlling our gaze in the physicality of the printed canvases tacked the wall, the fact that we must move around them in order to activate the kinds of zooming in and out we could easily accomplish on a screen, as well as the fixed boundaries and the arrest of a narrative that would offer up the woman before us allows a fictive space of both seduction and repulsion. This is contrary to Takashi Murakami’s paintings, which take up, as it were, the screenic logic of an infinitely scalable space seamlessly, such that they collapse a bit too quickly, and totally, the distinctions between screen and canvas.[xiv]
Darja Bajagić, GroteFoto 5 3 2 Sorry (2014). Mixed Media on Canvas, 20.5 x 24 in.
This shows just how important it is, from a critical standpoint, for artists to work, as Bajagić does, from a space of awkward tension between screen and canvas, rather than simply allowing one to absorb the other. This is something that can also be found in Zak Kitnick’s recent work where images of animals are blown up, ben-day dots and all (resisting the typical logic of scalability, which encourages the retention of visual data by using information dense high resolution files), transposed from taxonomic charts onto individual panels of steel shelving, and arranged in a continuous procession around the gallery. This activates a cinematic experience that is specifically digital in its breaking down of a structurally seamless model—that of the digital video file—into the diluted, dispersed one of the arrayed panels, which the viewer activates into a hallucinogenic flow as he or she scans the gallery.
If there was ever a firm line between abstraction and representation, it is at an all-time low today. The hybridization of painting’s changing set of references has in fact brought painterly work out of a rarified, elitist space, since a set of new meanings and reference points has been introduced that have opened it up to a new, broader audience, one that also has a larger tolerance for abstraction, given their daily interactions with abstractions in the form of icons, backgrounds, etc. on their digital devices. This further charges and endangers the twin problematics of spectacle and dry academicism that have always dogged installation-based work, and which have somewhat strangled, at least for the moment, the possibilities of such an expanded field of painting. Which is not to say that painting cannot interact with architecture and the site of display, far from it, but that it must be highly attuned to its own, newly complex status as an object. Of course, this also suggests an even greater possibility for the reification of painterly work via its deadening entry into the circuits of the commercial art market (a huge, loaded topic which we shall, for the most part, table here). However, it is so as to counter this newly heightened danger that I would suggest many of the younger artists working with painterly means are addressing the distinction between the image status and the object status of the work. It is not enough to insist on one or the other, but rather a rigorous examination must be made of the passage between one state and the other, which of course every work today always occupies, since most are simultaneously in existence as objects and also as jpegs circulating through the internet, in ways intentional and otherwise.
“Zombie Formalism” has become a trendy, dismissive shorthand for some of the painting I have been discussing. Not acknowledged, however, is that the term “zombie” implies a body, albeit one that is summoned from the crypt, but the fact is that, not only do these artists reject a modernist conception of the work as self-referential to a medium, this rejection is founded in its dispersal. Does a painting lie in the object, or in the image, or in the text about the work? Many artists would answer all of the above, and so with nobody to exhume, that of an undead modernism or otherwise (that has been the job for a self-appointed group of crypt keepers for decades now, artists like Gerhard Richter, Merlin Carpenter, and Michael Krebber)[xv], we are left with something else entirely, a ghost that provocatively haunts art at large? This would give us some insight in the continued obsession with discussing the status of painting, and that this discussion continues to revolve around the tired question of its death and relevance.[xvi]
One example of this haunting aspect is put forth by Ken Okiishi’s recent work, who has addressed art history directly. In a piece recently commissioned by the Ludwig Museum in Cologne, where Okiishi made videos of works in the museum’s collection, the painted marks on top of which mime the form of the original pieces, like stippled dots of paint on a rotating view of a Günther Uecker nail piece. These works introduced a new iteration of this body of work, as Okiishi began to make use of feedback of the image of the painted screen, recording it and introducing it back into the device as its subject. The curious thing is that the image and the object become somehow one and the same, to the point where there is no functional difference—we read the painted dots on the screen as having a similar sense of meaning as the filmic version of Uecker’s nails. Painting here haunts video, both as its subject, but also as the condition that the painted dots force its very technology to occupy.
Parker Ito has, in various bodies of work, explored both of these approaches—of both referencing painting, and dispersing it. In works like his Agony and Ecstasy scotchlite pieces, which are difficult, if not impossible, to photograph as they appear in person, given the odd mutations that result when they are subjected to the camera’s flash, Ito draws our attention to the compulsory nature of the contemporary digital image economy, all in the package of modernist abstraction. In a sense the work can be understood as only being visible when subjected to the photographic, reproductive logic of the camera phone’s flash. Different brands of flash activate the painted surface differently. And yet, of course, once subjected to the flash, the reproducibility of the painting is negated—if its content and subject matter is considered, along conventional lines, to be either its surface or its objecthood. In this way Ito is able to masterfully subvert the modernist insistence on the primacy of a painting’s materiality as well as the more recent imperative for work to circulate freely in jpeg form. Of course an image, of sorts, can be made of the work, but we cannot say that it accurately captures anything about the work. However, because part of the experience of the work is premised on the subjection of the work to the camera flash, nor can we say that it must be seen in person. Somehow the work is about this relay between the object and the image, without there really being much to grasp at either pole of that circulation.[xvii]
Parker Ito, "The Agony and the Ecstasy" (installation view). Stadium, New York, 2012.
In his interview with Jonathan Openshaw, Staniak nicely sums up this question of the real versus virtual experience of much work today, saying of his own: “Many of my paintings float between flatness and undulation, and this constant shift messes with people’s perception and makes them question what they see in the physical and screen space. […] It is a different experience seeing it in the flesh versus on screen, but one that is just as real in both instances. Real life happens on the Internet and through social media, which is screen-based. I don’t see distinctions between the ‘real’ and the ‘virtual.’ They are just different experiences of the real.”[xviii]
Staniak’s works are deceiving. What at first seems like a flat print is confused from up close, where it becomes evident that the surface is textured. What is grasped in this instant can potentially be stretched out into an infinite temporal experience of the work, involving moving backward and forward to assess these different points of view. This experience becomes even more complex when looking at an image of the same work online, an experience that is not necessary to appreciating the painting, but one which is common, and accepted and even engaged with by the ideas the artist puts forth. Indeed, the complexity of Staniak’s work lies in the matrix of digital image to object. Present as well in more recent work like the Data Loss and stone works, which also play with the complex relationship between image, material, and object. This is very clear when seeing the work in person, where it actually seems more like a flat image at first than when we see it reproduced online. This is probably the result of being used to discerning visual markers of texture in images on the computer, whereas in person, we tend to add in the quality of the object. This leads us to imagine that we are seeing a flat image of a three-dimensional surface. Something that is already resolved on the screen, where objecthood is obviated. Staniak’s paintings thus very effectively demonstrate that today the distinction between the image and the object is not simply blurred or reversed, but rather that they now operate in the same functional reality, and retain a nostalgia for their former ontological separation.
The way the coloristic quality of Jean-Baptiste Bernadet’s Fugue paintings changes with different kinds of illumination, akin to the way laptop and smartphone screens dim and brighten in different light conditions, or how we select different filters on Instagram to bring our images more in line with how we imagine they should look, a quality which could just as easily be fantastical as referential to the actual atmospheric conditions we witnessed. Bernadet’s Fugue paintings are, in line with the musical analogy suggested in their title, about abstract systems of meaning. In this way, despite the superficial formal similarity to Monet’s late water lily paintings, the color field they conjure up is more akin to the way sunspots fill our vision when we glance too close to the sun, or the dance of color across the back of our eyelids on a sunny day. That is to say, they are about some of the most particular and yet ubiquitous optical experiences we might have today, that private space of vision’s breakdown or occlusion, yet where experience and even pleasure persists, and one which cannot (yet) be simulated digitally, despite the fact that today’s most advanced displays are called “retina screens.” This is perhaps one of the last spaces that has not yet been privatized and instrumentalized, yet can still be evoked by a painting, and which is thus shared, because physiological, but not public, for it cannot be photographed, uploaded, or downloaded. It is thus an experience that is still the viewer’s own property.
Jacob Kassay’s silver paintings, which are canvases coated in acrylic that the artist sends to be commercially plated with silver, are about our expectations of how vision operates—what we see, and our engagement with our own image. People talk about how they absorb their surroundings, but of course they are not mirrors, they are plated silver. You have to burnish the silver to make it reflective and Kassay doesn’t do that, he just takes them as they’re made in the plating process, which gives them very interesting surfaces. Up close the reflection is hazy, but as you go back it gets clearer, and if someone walks by you see them very clearly, while they see themselves as a blur. They are a very concrete commentary on a certain type of perception. These paintings are a suggestion about the fragmentary and contingent nature of vision and, insofar as this relates to our forging of identity through the endless stream of images we seamlessly upload and download, they have a contemporary valence. This is embedded in the functioning of Kassay’s surfaces, which solicit our desire to see ourselves, which has found the apogee of its contemporary expression in the obsession with taking and sharing of selfies. Indeed, people love to try to take their picture as it appears in a Kassay painting, but they find that their individuality is all but melted by the distortions of the plated metal. We expect for the Kassay to mirror us back, but instead we are faced with a caesura of vision, a literal blurring out. A Kassay painting is a construction of a complex visual system, because a viewer wants to move around them to resolve the image, but it’s impossible. Nor can the autofocus of a camera map one of these paintings, which is radical considering the sinister potential of technologized forms of spatial mapping and image profiling. The work is not “about” that technology, but it nonetheless speaks to it obliquely. Kassay has recently continued this investigation of fragmented vision more literally in the form of shaped canvases made by stretching, as is, the cast off excess fabric shed during the making of his and other artists’ work.
Exhibition view, Jacob Kassay, Art:Concept, Paris, May 8th to June 5th 2010.
Thus we discover the political aspect shared across the very different work of artists as varied as Okiishi, Singer, Ito, Kassay, Staniak, and Bajagić. Whether they use an abstract language of gestural marks or monochrome surfaces, or else infinitely scalable images, these artists make productive use of painting’s ability to arrest and reanimate image and object alike. Paintings today, while, thanks to their proximity to digital devices, are able to occupy some of the spectatorial conditions of these devices, still function differently from them due to their relative stasis and fixity, which means that, as undead zombies haunting the spaces of technology show how the ways we view and consume images and objects alike today might happen differently, and not by harkening back to an imagined pre-industrial past, but by refashioning looking in the present, and with an eye to the future.
[i]. Michael Staniak in Jonathan Openshaw, “Painting Across Platforms.” Postmatter.com. September 5, 2014.
[ii]. For a tentative attempt to discuss this aspect of painting’s dispersal see my presentation as part of the Rhizome organized panel “Brushes.” The New Museum, New York. September 3, 2015.
[iii]. Clement Greenberg, “After Abstract Expressionism” (1962), Collected Essays vol. 4, ed. John O’Brian (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1993), 131 – 132. My citation of Greenberg is meant to show exactly how far removed we are from his discourse of Modernist painting, which most painters working today consider as historical fact rather than as present dogma, if they consider it at all. The continued assumption that all appearances of abstract painting fit into his schema is simplistic yet common. It relies on a baffling, yet regularly repeated misreading of Greenberg as a materialist interested in the physical terms of painting—the stretcher, canvas, paint, etc. When he was only interested in such things insofar as they motivated his notion of painting’s orientation towards its inherent two-dimensionality, or flatness, which for him opened painterly work onto optical effects, which precisely dematerialize the work. His inability to accept the work of Frank Stella is just the first indication of how anathema he was to many of the traditions of abstract painting. For just one of the most recent such misreading, see Lilly Lampe’s “ ‘Painter-painter,’ and the Lingering Specter of Greenberg,” Brooklyn Rail (February 2016). For a careful scholarly analysis of the ramifications of Greenberg’s discourse on painting vis-à-vis Minimalism and Conceptual Art, see Thierry de Duve, “The Monochrome and the Blank Canvas,” in Serge Guilbaut, ed. Reconstructing Modernism: Art in New York, Paris, and Montreal, 1945-1964 (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1990), 244-310.
[iv]. Leo Steinberg, “Other Criteria,” Artforum (March 1972). Reprinted in Steinberg, Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art (London: Oxford University Press, 1972), 84.
[v]. Steinberg, “Other Criteria,” 84.
[vii]. Staniak, Statement for Permanent Display. Exhibition. Annaruma Gallery, Naples. March, 2015.
[viii]. Richard Shiff, “Optics,” New York Painting (Bonn: Kunstmuseum Bonn, 2015), 41-52. As mentioned in note 3, one example of this limited toolbox is the continued reliance on Clement Greenberg as the only key to unpacking the terms of abstract painting. An example of this critical failure to see beyond Greenberg and the modernist paradigm he established in evaluating contemporary artistic production is David Geers’s shortsighted dismissal and suspicion of anything resembling modernist tropes in his “Neo Modern,” October 139 (Winter 2012): 9-14.
[ix]. Robert Mangold, “Flat Art” (1967). First published in Nancy Princenthal, ed. Robert Mangold (New York: Phaidon, 2000).
[x]. This is an issue with its own longer history, given that it was introduced as early as Picasso and Braque’s use of sand and collage in their painting surfaces, and then extended through Schwitters’ Merz reliefs, on to Jackson Pollock and Frank Stella’s use of industrial enamels and metallic paints, up to Peter Halley’s highly variegated neon surfaces and Olivier Mosset’s use of truck bed paints, to suggest just a brief and highly selective genealogy.
[xi]. Donald Judd, “Specific Objects.” Arts Yearbook (1965). Reprinted in Judd, Complete Writings, 1959-1975. (New York: New York University Press, 1975), 187.
[xii]. It is no surprise, then, that Charles and Ray Eames’s well-known film, Powers of Ten (1977) is a touchstone for Smalley. Not so much for the wonder it expresses in the act of traveling from the atom to the universe, and back again, but because of its prescience at diagnosing our desire to interact with all images in such a fashion.
[xiii]. Avery Singer in “Unrealized, or The Realm of Thought: Avery Singer Interviewed by Lauren Cornell,” Mousse 39 (May 2013): 175.
[xiv]. Pamela Lee examines this situation in her astute analysis of Murakami’s work: “Economies of Scale,” Artforum (October 2007): 336-343.
[xv]. See for example the over two decades old debate between Robert Storr and Yve-Alain Bois about Robert Ryman as “crypt keeper of Modernism.” Certainly we would not call Ryman a zombie formalist, at least along the lines established in contemporary criticism, but this debate is just one example of how flimsy the term is, from both an intellectual perspective, and based on how poorly informed it is regarding art history.
Bois refers to Ryman, vis-à-vis the Austrian writer Karl Kraus as, in relation to modernism, “in the same position that Kraus occupies in relation to the German language: standing guard at its tomb.” This caused Storr to critique Bois as a grave-digger of painting. See Bois, “Ryman’s Tact,” October 19 (Winter 1981): 102-103. Storr, “Simple Gifts,” Robert Ryman (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1993), 45n74. Bois responds to Storr in a pithy corrective footnote in his “Marden’s Doubt,” Brice Marden: Paintings 1985-1993 (Bern: Kunsthalle Bern, 1993), 65n59
[xvi]. This conversation should have been definitively quashed long ago by Bois’s seminal, “Painting: The Task of Mourning,” in David Joselit, ed. Endgame—Reference and Simulation in Recent Painting and Sculpture (Boston: Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, 1986). Reprinted in Bois, Painting as Model (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990).
[xvii]. More recently, in a “turn” to imagery, Ito has—in way a parallel to Singer—used the digital for his source material, like her resulting in a conversation between art historical representational tropes and the "non-“ or “extra-artistic" ones of digital imagery and its online databases.
[xviii]. Staniak in Openshaw, “Painting Across Platforms.”
The latest in an ongoing series of reviews, edited by Orit Gat, which give critical attention to online artworks and exhibitions.
7 April–12 June 2016, https://fairwarning.tech/
In October 2015, Twitter introduced a new gizmo called Polls: “with just a couple of taps, people can weigh in on all the topics they care about.” People love weighing in, they rarely need encouragement, but if you want to make your voice heard then responding to a Twitter Poll is a strange way to do it. In a poll, after all, opinions are predetermined. Input is limited to a choice. Which option most closely reflects your beliefs? It’s a process of identification, usually partial, shadowed by the dismaying realisation that, regardless of which choice you make, your input is statistically insignificant: another drop in the digital ocean. Twitter collects the data and represents it visually, as percentages and graph bars. Whichever answer gets the most clicks is thereby enshrined as the hivemind’s number-one choice. Is this democracy at work? Or is it, perhaps, corrosive to democracy? Consider that innocuous phrase, “just a couple of taps,” its sinister marriage of repetition and ease. It conjures an image of self-expression—in relation to things we “care about,” no less—as mechanical, off-the-cuff data entry.
Jonas Lund’s new online artwork Fair Warning (2016) (co-commissioned by auction house Phillips and the Whitechapel Gallery as part of the latter’s “Electronic Superhighway [2016–1966]” show, which closed May 15, 2016) takes the form of an eccentric online questionnaire or personality test. The pages invite the viewer to input their preferences. Duck or Rabbit? Window or Aisle? Idol or Douche? Apple or FBI? There are multiple-choice questions, photographs of sculptures and paintings, and news images, as well as, occasionally, solid blocks and color gradients. Each time the animated circle at the bottom of the page completes a revolution—this persistent, nagging counter mimics the buffering animations of video streaming sites and the multicolored wait cursor, a.k.a. the “spinning beach ball of death,” on Apple computers—there is a computerized chime. This happens every four seconds. The questions/images change. A choice between two canonical artworks (Girl with a Pearl Earring or the Mona Lisa?) might be replaced, for example, by a probing, cod-philosophical question: “Can you let go of a belief without feeling departure of meaning?” Other than an animated ripple that appears onscreen each time you click, user input doesn’t affect the metronomic rhythm of the piece. Nor is it clear if your preferences are even being registered. (They are: the results of user interaction were displayed as part of “Electronic Superhighway.”)
Fair Warning is hypnotic, strangely compulsive, and deliberately frustrating. The first time I tried it, I wanted to leave almost immediately. Perhaps this was because I didn’t feel sufficiently rewarded. If this was art, where was my experience? If this was the internet, where was my content? The unwritten contract I am used to online goes as follows: you receive my pageview, monetize my attention, and in return give me something I want (and expect). Instead, I got a mildly stressful, seemingly endless assault-course of arbitrary decision-making. It felt like work.
Bored but without really thinking, a kind of reflex, I typed “gu” into the address bar at the top of my browser. Google obligingly completed the url, saving me the trouble of having to type. Fair Warning vanished. I was back at the soothingly familiar, blue-tone homepage of a mainstream liberal newspaper. Content was arranged into panels, picture-boxes, and headlines (“Prince Charles says he treats his cows and sheep with homeopathy”). I can’t remember what I clicked. I’d seen all the stories already, having visited the site a few minutes ago, again by reflex, bored. Meanwhile, my clicks were being tallied and analyzed to leverage marketing revenues.
My avoidance of Fair Warning, in other words, ended up reinforcing its central argument: the rise of online quantification has resulted in a reduction of choice in the public sphere. Fences are popping up all over the digital commons, and often it is users themselves—the data-drones and input-slaves clicking and clocking on preordained choices—who are the unwitting barrier-builders. As Jürgen Habermas has argued, in democratic countries the internet can have schismatic effects. The millions of forums for debate available online mean audiences splinter into issue publics of like-minded individuals: tribes, united by specific sets of beliefs and biases, who alternately ignore and attack each other (rather than, say, working together to achieve common goals). The divisive nature of recent American politics, to pick one glaring example, attests to this fact. So does the slogan for the campaign poster Britain’s Labour Party used in the run-up to the local elections on May 5, 2016: “ELECTIONS ARE ABOUT TAKING SIDES.” Given this reductive, side-taking climate, the task of positioning oneself politically, socially, and culturally can—as Fair Warning parodies—feel like filling in an endless questionnaire written by cynical idiots. Are you with us or against us? In or Out? Left or Right? Red or Blue? To which we might reply: I want to be purple! Ambidextrous! I want to establish my own position!
There is a glimmer of hope, however, and it comes in the form of refusal. I use Twitter fairly regularly. As far as I can tell, hardly anyone bothers with Polls.
The Airless Dyad
Saint Augustine asks of God in his Confessions, “Where do I call You to come to, since I am in You? Or where else are You that You can come to me?” The same matryoshka riddle describes the emulsified relationship between a pregnant woman and her fetus. How to address what is both inside and outside, of the flesh and separate from it? Time is no help to Augustine, but in pregnancy, the passing months eventually solve the conundrum. At some point the mixture of mother and child settles and separates; the creature that began as a microscopic cluster of cells begins acting like a cat in a kennel. By nine months gestation, the unborn parasite is so cumbersome that it displaces the mother’s lungs and bowels, strains against her skin with violence enough that cracks appear, and bruises internal organs that have never signaled pain before. These rough-and-tumble movements begin innocuously, in the fourth or fifth month, as gently as the popping of a soap bubble, as quietly as bouncing popcorn. Traditionally called “the quickening,” perceptible movement was the signal that the fetus had come into its unalienable otherness. In the early years of the American Republic, until the 1860s, abortion was widely practiced and (for the most part) legal until the moment of the quickening. Only the woman could announce when that was.
A company in Spain recently released a new product, the Babypod. The device entails a small roundish speaker, about 2 inches in diameter, equipped with a long cord attached to an auxiliary jack. The speaker is bubblegum pink, as is the carrying case, and made of a plastic that is soft and smooth to the touch. The idea is to insert the speaker inside one’s vagina, like a tampon, and connect the auxiliary jack to an iPhone, from which the mother-DJ selects a playlist. The music is piped in directly where it can be heard best, so the company promises, through the vaginal and uterine walls. When the product arrived at my apartment I was seven months pregnant. I tested it in the palm of my hand, concerned about the volume—prison torture has often included music—but even at full blast the speaker was rather quiet. In fact, once I pushed it inside my vagina, I heard nothing at all. I could only see that my phone was playing music and that I had an electric cord dangling from my crotch. I played random bits of indie music and with no specific intention an album of Shaker spirituals. I called my older daughter over to choose a song, and she selected “It’s a Hard Knock Life,” from the soundtrack to Annie, and Beyonce’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).” The fetus occasionally squirmed during our playlist but not more than usual. It evidenced no preference for any specific song or style of music, and it failed to register the end of our set. (I tugged the cord; the speaker flopped out.)
Abdominal speakers, attached to the pregnant belly with suction or tape, are popular in the US, and endorsed by major pediatric hospitals. They are touted as a bonding device, but also as a way to stimulate fetal brain development. (It is always assumed that mothers-to-be will play culturally aspirational music: Beethoven, not Billy Joel.) The Babypod claims to be superior to these older methods of fetal acoustic stimulation; a diagram in the manual shows that an intravaginal speaker sits much closer to the fetal ear than a speaker attached to the outside of a pregnant belly. By nestling in the vagina, the Babypod jumps the boundary between inside and outside. Presumably it’s the difference between overhearing your neighbor’s music, and suffering your roommate’s.
Women have presumably always enjoyed the utility of an interior pocket, though no one has written this history. The 19th-century spirit medium Eva C. had a trick of producing ectoplasm from her vagina, and police report finding jewels and drugs, money and handguns, stolen phones and credit cards. In these cases, the vagina is treated as a secret lock box—a hiding place no one will think to look, the corporeal equivalent of a buried treasure chest. The Babypod inhabits the woman in a totally different fashion. The very purpose of the device is to announce itself and broadcast sound. It makes the vagina speak. The Vagina Monologues didn’t need to get more literal, but they have.
The French symbolist Marcel Schwob published a short story in 1891, “A Talking Machine,” about an apparatus he describes as being very much like a talking vagina. In the story, a loquacious inventor who appears to be insane leads the narrator to the outskirts of the city, to a hidden cavern where his machine belches and groans. The gargantuan automaton is all mouth and gullet; it takes up an entire room and reaches the ceiling. The narrator is repulsed by this monstrosity and the reader is expected to feel the same. In Schwob’s description, the talking machine is only a thin variation on the vagina dentate—a vagina equipped with castrating teeth—that populates myths and horror films. Schwob luxuriates in the words and phrases of the feminine grotesque: “blotched and swollen;” “bulging” and “shuddering;” “fleshy” and “gigantic.” The lips itself he describes as a “black and swollen labial fold.”
The talking vagina may be invented by a man, but it is operated by a woman, a thin silent woman who slumps anxiously at the control panel. Eager to impress his visitor, the inventor commands the woman to make the machine say, “I have created the word.” The machine has never managed such a phrase before. Struggling and stuttering, the labial lips stammer only “Wor-d, Wor-d, Wor-d,” and then the machine self-destructs. The woman operator disappears in a pile of flesh-like matter and the story ends. The moral of the story: Schwob’s vagina can talk, but it cannot utter the words “I create.”
The Volume of Motherhood
With my first child, who cried incessantly, I had the sense that the quality of my mothering was proportionate to the extent to which I relinquished all vanity, relinquished even the basic self-possession that keeps a person tethered to the world. The needs of the child seemed to demand my personal dissolution. I became nothing but a breast and a means of motion. The first months of motherhood felt like a prolonged process of self-elimination, a suicide dosed in dribbles. I kept dialing back the volume of my own voice, again and again, wondering how long this would last, and if my mute would become permanent.
Friedrich A. Kittler writes in his history of the typewriter that typewriters became popular only at the moment a woman was suggested as typist. The utility of the machine clicked, suddenly, when an advertisement posited a female operator. The convenience of male thought instantly rendered as mechanized ink on paper became intelligible only with the intermediary of a female body. Sitting as alert and upright as an antenna, such women were “type-writers” at the typewriter, linguistically indistinguishable from the tool they used. “The relation between organism and machine has been a border war,” wrote Donna Haraway in 1985. But the typewriter’s feminine casting was not a war about where to place the border, or a war about who crosses the border, or a war at the border. It was not even a war. It was an unthinking assumption that there was no border—no structural barrier of significance between female operator, eponymous machine, and male voice.
In my case, things improved when I thought not of maternal love or its absence, but of work—the kind of work on which survival depends, which is not the place to voice one’s own boredom or fatigue or brilliance. “Don’t write, translate,” Stendhal advised women, “and you will earn an honorable living.” I came to understand my task as not only narrow in scope—to hear and respond immediately, efficaciously, indefatigably—but compelled by circumstances over which I had no control. My job was only to listen and type.
The Fetal Ear
The research of ear, nose, and throat doctor Alfred Tomatis in the mid-twentieth century found that a fetus’ inner ear is completely formed by the fourth month of the pregnancy, such that the creature develops not only in a singular landscape, but in a singular soundscape. Tomatis even suggested that the mother’s skeleton is specifically designed to support this soundscape—her pelvic bones conduct sound better than other bones. “Humans emerge without exception from a vocal matriarchy,” writes historian Peter Sloterdijk in his account of Tomatis’s research.
Tomatis did not, however, characterize the fetal acoustic bubble as a pleasant or calming place. The mother’s blood whooshes, the heartbeat thunders, her digestive tract churns. Sloterdijk speculates that the fetal experience is akin to “living in a 24-hour construction zone.” The leaf blowers and car alarms of the exterior world are layered on top of an already high-decibel interior thrum. Perhaps this is why so many parents report babies calming with the sound of a vacuum cleaner, or a hair dryer.
Through this cacophony, Tomatis believed, the fetus is always straining for one sound in particular: that of the mother’s voice. It is her pitch and cadence that give the infant joy, her intonations that form the emotional substratum of the creature’s first love. (Tomatis earned public notoriety—and disapproval from the medical community—by designing a therapeutic treatment for singers that included playing recordings of the clients’ mother’s voice. Sting, Gérard Depardieu, Maria Callas, and others swore by it.)
If Tomatis is correct and the fetus truly desires to hear my voice, then it stands to reason that the ideal use of the Babypod is to play myself—to redirect my larynx inward and pipe recordings of myself inside myself. I consider this, consider recording my own conversational blab or even addressing the unborn babe directly. In the end, I decide that I prefer the scenario in which a half-formed person has focused all of her instinctive vim on straining to hear my voice, just mine. Pregnancy is uncomfortable, and this seems a vanity to which I am entitled.
The Ear that Hears Too Much
In Thus Spake Zarathustra, Nietzsche furnishes an image that became key to understanding my own new-mother miasma. Nietzsche is describing bodies that lack proportion, bodies that are overburdened by some features and missing others: “men who are nothing more than a big eye, or a big mouth, or a big belly, or something else big.” As an example, Nietzsche reports seeing a giant ear, “an ear as big as a man!” Peering closely, he realizes the ear in fact has a man attached to it, albeit a tiny man who wobbles beneath the weight of his immense hearing organ. The man’s soul hangs from his body like a deflated balloon.
The people tell Zarathustra that this man is a genius, but Zarathustra disagrees. He is not a great man at all, writes Nietzsche, but a “reversed cripple.” He means that the man with the giant ear suffers his disproportion. He is only a listener, not a speaker; his anima withers beneath the enormity of his ear. I relished this passage, happily cutting it loose of Nietzsche’s context. The giant ear might be misunderstood as genius, but also as glorious martyrdom, or valiant self-abnegation, or—as I interpreted it—selfless mothering. Zarathustra alone seemed to understand my predicament. Exaggerating the propensities of the ear requires minimizing other propensities; listening demands the cessation of speech.
Nietszche’s cripple-with-the-giant-ear finds his kin in the protagonist of sci-fi writer Octavia E. Butler’s Parable books, Lauren Olamina. Lauren suffers from what Butler terms “hyperempathy syndrome.” The symptoms are such that Lauren acutely feels the emotional and physical sensations of others. She can be disabled by the killing of a dog, or wildly distracted by lovemaking in an adjacent bedroom. As in Thus Spake Zarathustra, Lauren’s disease is a problem of proportion: her ear is too large, her sensitivity impractically acute. The trait of empathy, long imagined as the special province of females, exists on a spectrum that links masochism with generosity. Lauren occupies the extreme end, literally bleeding when others bleed. She is disabled by sensations against which she has no bulwark, no levee. Lauren hides her disease, and describes herself as “damaged.”
When my due date arrived and the creature hadn’t indicated any interest in birth, I got out the Babypod again. But I had no idea what to play. I was scrolling through my phone when I remembered a story about a man who uses music to communicate with animals. He was asked to join a rescue crew in Alaska in an attempt to save three gray whales trapped in an ice flow. The rescuers had created a channel wide enough for the whales to swim to open sea, but they wouldn’t budge, and the animal communicator was asked to coax them out. It was suggested that he use his underwater speakers to play recordings of predatory killer whales. The man demurred, selecting instead Graceland by Paul Simon and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. In fact, the song worked; two of the three whales escaped the ice hole and found the sea.
I remembered the story so well because it had seemed unfathomable that Graceland could affect the prerogative of a whale. Now I recoiled at the obvious analogies, between dropping speakers in icy northern waters and pushing speakers into interior depths, between the recalcitrant whales and my recalcitrant fetus, between assuming I could know the mind of my unborn creature any better than I could know the mind of a whale. I put the Babypod away. I’d been slow to recognize the demand of this situation: nothing more and nothing less than arduous passivity.
As soon as Tomatis posited the scenario of a tiny fetal ear pitched against a raucous hubbub, he was forced to a startling conclusion. The fetus must learn, at a very early stage of development—before its eyes have pigment, before its pancreas or lungs take shape; the same age, incidentally, at which a mother might feel the quickening—how to filter its audio input. It must learn to relegate some sounds to the background and move others to the foreground, to mute the fire alarms and digestive rumbles so as to spotlight the mother’s melodious lilt. The delicate modulations between tuning out and tuning in, between an ear that is neither too large nor too small, are among the earliest manifestations of human subjectivity. A fetus becomes a person by learning when to listen and when to stop.
Special thanks to Courtney Stephens and Gabriel Larson.
Now in stock: special Bad Logo Rhizome t-shirts designed by Wieden+Kennedy! They're a gift for Rhizome members who join at the $75 level and above. Dolphins splash, paint cans spill, and we all wonder where Rhizomeville is on this exclusive tee full of rejected Rhizome logos.
The shirts are available in unisex sizes XS, S, M, L, XL, and XXL, and were produced by PAOM.
In addition to your t-shirt, you'll also receive Rhizome membership benefits like discounts to Rhizome events, free job postings, and full access to the ArtBase.
Most importantly, you'll be helping support Rhizome as we continue to preserve digital art, commission new works from artists, and foster critical dialogues about contemporary art engaged with technology and the internet. Rhizome is grateful to all of its members for their support!
The latest in a series of interviews with artists who have a significant body of work that makes use of or responds to network culture and digital technologies.
Jamie Sutcliffe: I’d like to talk about your understanding of the internet as an expanded territory or ecosystem, specifically in relation to the series of Tumblr sites you maintain because I always feel this disorienting sense of submersion when I scroll through them. Whether they’re gathering images relating to the emergent infrastructures of biotechnology, strange sashimi plates, or rarely seen organisms, the sites are vertiginous acts of species-othering. Experiencing them is like peering over the edge of a subaquatic trench into some kind of abyssal future or timeless pre-history, with all the attendant alien ecologies. Do you see the sites as having some kind of destabilising function in the complexities they suggest? (i.e. are they supposed to freak me out and make me feel vulnerable?)
Joey Holder: My Tumblr sites started out as a way of simply collecting images for specific themes I was researching for exhibitions. They acted like sketch books or mood boards which I could quickly refer to when thinking about a project. As they grew over time, I started to think about them more as works in themselves and about how a collection of found images could become distinctly my own work.
My Tumblr site Dark Creatures features an array of creatures that don’t seem to fit within the fabric of our usual day-to-day existence. It’s not my aim to freak people out with my image choices, but make them more aware of the breadth of life forms which exist right here on earth.
I think of the internet itself as a complex entity, like a living organism, expanding and contracting. Its territories are as far-reaching as they are controlled. I am interested in the way that network theories, complexity theory, and emergence are related to ‘natural’ as well as ‘synthesized’ systems and the points at which the two diverge.
Using Tumblr and other sharing platforms allows me to quickly upload fragments of ideas and images to a network where they are able to travel away from their point of origin. We are now more acutely aware of the way in which images and ideas can transform and mutate through the net and have their own 'life', so to speak. With these images I want people to reconsider old binaries like notions of the ‘artificial’ and the ‘organic.’
The ever growing list of my Tumblrs:
JS: The Tumblrs work like a head-up-display: they facilitate exploration through an endlessly scrolling act of browsing, and the deeper you venture, the weirder things become until subject-positions are drawn into question by the seemingly endless species diversity. It makes me wonder how certain techniques of the interface have affected your approach to installation and the way you might have come to configure information in an immersive spatial sense. Nematode (2015) presented at Wysing Arts Centre, UK, was a great example of this in the way that it was simultaneously instructive and dizzying.
JH: Working online I always wanted to somehow break the format of the screen, or mess with the conventional interface. The screen can be a portal to so many new worlds, so I want to explore, rather than limit myself. It's kind of the same within the gallery. Many artists have access to amazing digital tools these days so it’s hard for me to understand why they wouldn't want to use these technologies to break down the convention of the white walled space, and open it up to other worlds and environments, yet so many stick to the same old format. There is so much that is possible. I ask why settle, why stop?
When I began to work with digital media I was freed somewhat from static object based work within a gallery setting. Online space has allowed my work to be represented as a continuous flow—a process where there is a loss of hierarchy between a finished artwork and something in progress, or an appropriated image to a large-scale installation.
Joey Holder, Nematode installation shot (2015)
The work I made for Nematode at Wysing Arts Centre depicts a landscape at the bottom of the Antarctic Ocean. I used recorded footage from an ROV submersible, and the wall prints are of ‘black smokers’: underwater volcanoes which are home to some of the world’s most unique ecosystems. The interface applied over the top of this footage shows an app being used to compare genetic data sets of differing species. We know so little about these underwater environments, yet they have the potential to provide us with so much— perhaps the ingredients for sustainable biofuels or the key to unlocking the secrets of our own cellular makeup (as it’s thought that the environment of the deep sea is similar to the conditions at the beginning of life on earth).
JS: One of the things that really strikes me about your film work, especially PROTEUS (2015) and Dark Creatures (2015) is your use of absurd taxonomic vocabularies, specialist terms that seem to open up new avenues of speculative thought. You draw frequently on this science-fictive lexicon so I wondered if you could talk a little about how language has come to function in these pieces?
JH: I often use text I find within scientific research papers or writings about natural history. When I first started using text in this way I was thinking about how so much writing around art is hard to access and understand, you need an art education to get through the jargon and often then it’s still impossible. It’s the same in a lot of ways with scientific writing, there's certain terminology that is difficult for the layperson to comprehend. I started to piece together fragments of scientific and natural history passages to make new narratives and often use these as press releases or text within videos. The texts aren’t usually speculative. They are taken directly from ‘science fact,’ which with the advent of things like synthetic biology is now much stranger than science fiction.
Joey Holder, PROTEUS (2015- ongoing)
How/when did you begin working creatively with technology?
New technology was always quite prominent in my life as growing up my dad always wanted to get his hands on the latest gadgets. I was the first kid at school to have a mobile phone. But working digitally only became the dominant media in my artwork around 2011, before then I was painting. I remember discovering the work of Kari Altmann and Iain Ball at around this time, and they had a huge influence on me and the way that I wanted to work.
Where did you go to school? What did you study?
I grew up in Lincolnshire—a rural area of the UK. I studied Art, Biology, and Chemistry at school and went on to study art at postgraduate level, first doing a painting BA course at Kingston University and completed my MFA at Goldsmiths, London in 2010.
What do you do for a living or what occupations have you held previously?
My most interesting occupation previously was working as a divemaster taking people scuba diving in Turkey. My job right now is working within a medical research department at a university.
What does your desktop or workspace look like?
I recently made a website whereby you can download the complete contents of my computer's hard drive as a torrent file—a mix of collected material, finished works and stuff in progress, free to download and use. For this project the website was an exact mirror of my desktop.
Joey Holder, 1.7TB, www.17tb.site (2016)
Header image: Joey Holder, Nematode installation shot (2015)
Livestream: January 21, 9pm EST, rhizome.org
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 .
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, 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 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
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
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, 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 rhizome.org tonight at 9pm EST.
The garage in south Portland, OR where the performance will take place.