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  • 06/10/16--07:30: Hot New World Views
  • Everything is so profoundly transactional. You deserve worse, and you are literally worth less. But consider this: give fewer fucks about stuff that people with high power jobs in institutions impose on you. Don't look at paintings, look at your money. You make spending time matter, and it's your feet that can get you out of a hopeless artist talk.

    - hotnewworldviews.com

    Borrowed from the aesthetic of noughties-era inspirational websites that explained the keys to success, the square graphic asking “why did you come?” seems more confrontational than tongue-in-cheek. Why did you come?

    Hot New World Views, where this graphic appears, is a collaborative online artwork made by Jennifer Chan, Shawné Michaelain Holloway, Georges Jacotey, and Kimmo Modig (all working under Scandinavian-inflected pseudonyms) that acts as a how-to guide and warning for BFA-toting intellectuals who feel burnt out by their profound lack of direction. It was created alongside their "Hot New World Viewz" bricks-and-mortar exhibition at S T O R E, Dresden, where a long scroll of paper hung from the ceiling, saying things like “We Got Nothing In Particular We Wanna Do / We Are Pessimists, Depressionists, Tired, And Lost, But Full Of Feels And Talent.” The lyricism here seems like some sort of millennial anthem for those who are simultaneously overcome with feeling and incapable of feeling anything without a hint of irony. At the same time, it points directly to the economic conditions that shape this affective situation.

    "Everything is so profoundly transactional," the manifesto reads. "Becoming super rich is as attainable as becoming a top player in Angry Birds." In this "worldview," everything is commodified and can be purchased, including elite status in the art world. But while there are only a number of consumer products between you, the debt-saddled BFA-toting plebe, and “them," the institutional power brokers, the products that you buy only solidify the dominance that corporations hold over you. You are a data metric and you are being sold right now.

    Your self-awareness regarding your participation in capitalism and neoliberalism at large makes this even more paralyzing. Hot New World Views is specifically interested in the effect of your angst, when your overconsumption and lack of agency makes everything incoherent — so you delete and restore your Facebook over and over again, or you only read election updates if they are turned into memes.

    On the site, this discontent is visible through the juxtaposition of contrasting images; a picture of bodybuilders eating Cookie Crisps sits next to embedded stock images of Brazilian teens in blackface for a Carnival celebration, each one seeming to outdo the next. These photos exist in strange places —in the dark(er) corners of the internet, but also all over the websites of small businesses. Who buys stock images of teens in blackface? Who clicks on them? Do those users end up in a Facebook database for people who enjoy racist clickbait?

    Your nice apartment, social media following, and non-marginal identity all allow for the aspirational intellectualism that created this “worldview” in the first place. For example, you have the capacity to go viral (or more simply, tweet quotes from your favorite TED Talk), but also an inability to do anything that feels authentic or addresses social reality. How can you imagine an end to wage inequality if you can’t even finish your artist statement?

    Hot New World Views doesn’t offer an answer to this question, but it looks you squarely in the eye while asking you to check your wallet. If we have tirelessly proved that capitalism is inescapable, and that there are no new ideas, it would be just as laughable to advise any escape from this post-authentic stock-image world as to pretend that it doesn’t exist. Instead, Hot New World Views, and other collaborative works from these artists like DEEP 4 U, suggest that if time is money, we should be more conscious of our use of time. Chan, Holloway, Jacotey, and Modig know that corporations make money off of every moment you spend on the internet. You probably do too, but money is such a distant concept, right? Even though “cigarette bumming leads to specialty vaporizers,” paying careful attention to those transactions at least makes it less of a surprise when your friends tease you for owning a pumpkin spice flavored vape.


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    If the 1960 presidential election crowned John F. Kennedy as the “TV candidate,” then the 2016 race has seen the birth of a new archetype: the “meme candidate.”

    Due to his finely tuned performance in televised debates, speeches, and commercial spots, Kennedy utilized media’s latest tool to succeed in his pursuit of the Oval Office. In his famous 1960 debate with Richard Nixon, Kennedy memorably tied or lost the debate according to most radio listeners, but won with television viewers.

    Bernie Sanders could never have been a television candidate like Kennedy. Being the ideal television candidate requires substantial funds to run multimillion dollar TV spots, as well as the charisma and aesthetically pleasing looks of an A-List celebrity (although it has been said that Sanders ran the best TV ads of the 2016 contest).

    Unlike Kennedy, who was already well known by the time of the 1960 campaign, the Democratic senator from Vermont entered the race as a virtually unknown politician. His supporters felt that mainstream media was unfair in its coverage of Sanders, often favoring his more established opponent, Hillary Clinton. As a response, Sanders’s supporters created groups and pages on social media to spread the word about his campaign. Because so much of Sanders’s media profile early on came in the form of supporter-created online content, he can be described as the meme candidate of this election.


    Republican Vice President Richard M. Nixon debates Sen. John F. Kennedy, the Democratic presidential nominee, during a live broadcast on Oct. 21, 1960.

    The most popular of these groups is Bernie Sanders’s Dank Meme Stash, also known as “BSDMS.” Derived from “dank,” a term that esteems good quality marijuana (legalized use of recreational marijuana is something Sanders supports), BSDMS is mainly comprised of memes that favor Bernie Sanders. Memes from this page have fared well on the internet and helped increase his visibility with the younger voter demographic.

    Neither Clinton nor Donald Trump command such an extensive meme group following. Both candidates received more exposure from other forms of media: television and press coverage and their own social media content (especially Trump’s Twitter). While Sanders’s meme group followers bolstered his campaign, they also helped to foster an idea of the candidate that may say more about themselves than about their candidate.

    Television as a new mode of technology allowed Kennedy to convey his own message. A meme candidate’s message, however, is shaped by the content-creating public, to both positive and negative effects.

    Though I never joined BSDMS, I became intrigued by the page’s most popular series “Bernie or Hillary?” after seeing examples circulated online. In this series, users give Sanders and Clinton parodied viewpoints on various pop culture subjects that have little or no impact on the state of the election. Users can generate the meme by typing Sanders’s and Clinton’s respective responses into a standard campaign poster template. (For this article in particular, I looked back at the memes posted on BSDMS and made archival posts using Rhizome’s Webrecorder tool.)

    In one popular “Bernie or Hillary?” meme, the candidates debate about the band Radiohead. Sanders talks in depth about the alternative rock group’s discography, while Clinton simply responds “I love Creep,” citing Radiohead’s most popular mainstream hit. Another meme explores the “issue” of the animated action show Pokémon. Sanders reminisces about the TV show’s card game played primarily by the millennial generation, using insider terminology and referencing tertiary characters. Clinton, on the other hand, simply exclaims “Pickachu is pretty cute”; Pickachu is the most recognizable character from the series.

    Yet the “Bernie or Hillary?” memes are about more than pop culture. They portray Sanders as someone who expresses opinions based on genuine knowledge and passion, while Clinton's character seems to say what she thinks people want to hear. Many BSDMS memes are more overtly sexist: Clinton is always cast as a villain that exhibits the traits of a strict mother or teacher that kills the fun. The Bernie-fan memes also use Bill Clinton’s affairs as an excuse to sexually degrade Hillary, leading to escalating sexism in the comments. One commenter responded, “We get it Hillary [sic],you deep throat now....” under a meme of Clinton eating a burrito next to photoshopped Bernie Sanders’s hot sauces. Another supporter took it up a notch by posting a “Bernie or Hillary?” meme comparing the candidates on their oral sex skills, where Hillary is given the prudish female stereotype of inexperience. “She's the type to scrape her teeth, which explains Monica” commented a follower of the page.

    Other, less blatantly offensive memes captured my own feelings about the former Secretary of State’s pandering (specifically to black voters). Prior to the New York primary, Clinton visited the popular hip hop morning radio show “The Breakfast Club.” Asked what she normally carries around while travelling, she responded with “hot sauce,” a sly reference to a lyric from Beyoncé’s single “Formation.” When asked by one of the hosts if she was pandering to black voters, she awkwardly joked “is it working?” Despite data showing that Clinton performs better with black voters than Sanders, younger black voters that listened to the broadcast had more meme ammunition to prove that there’s actually a generational divide on who to support. As a response to her comments, one Sanders supporter shared a meme of the Beyoncé lyric in the typeface of the Clinton 2016 logo on BSDMS. Another meme depicts Clinton as Dave Chapelle’s infamous character Tyrone Biggums, asking “y’all got anymore of those black votes?”

    On his meme support pages, Bernie Sanders takes on the role of a superhero. One BSDMS cover photo shows Sanders waving an oversized joint at a few corrupt Wall Street executives. Sanders’s supporters have fantasized him as a savior due to his platform of going against the establishment and starting a political revolution. His campaign tagline #FeelTheBern created a social media firestorm and added to the memes' superhero narrative. Both Clinton and the Republican nominee Donald Trump take on the role of his villains thanks to their unfavorable ratings. Donald Trump (this season’s “social media candidate”) is often regarded as evil and incompetent by Sanders’s supporters. One supporter compares the candidates in a meme that places Sanders’s picture next to fresh, dank weed while Trump’s is placed next to dried, stale weed. In other memes, Clinton will be partnered with Trump, as they are both seen as the “two evils.”

    Throughout the primary season, a continuing thread in these memes and their comments has been the hope that the establishment would be defeated. BSDMS members created and shared memes as a way of expressing this hope, articulating shared beliefs and values, and spreading these ideas through social media. In this regard, the supporters took on the work of defining what it means to be a Sanders supporter. To some degree, it worked for Sanders by raising his profile with young voters. It may have worked against him, as well: memes allowed groups like BSDMS to convey what it meant to be a Sanders supporter, and this may have alienated voters who appreciated the campaign's official messages but not the sexism of some of its community.

    While the effects of memes are difficult to calculate, they will continue to play a role as the primary season winds down and voters look ahead to Clinton vs. Trump. Now, the question becomes, what role will online groups like BSDMS play in this next phase? Having set up their protagonist as a fictional superhero, what will they do if the real Sanders decides to endorse the villainous Clinton? Can the meme candidate count on the support of his online media machine, and if not, does this limit his leverage as he tries to push his former opponent to the left in the run-up to the convention?

    A partial archive of Bernie Sanders's Dank Meme Stash can be found here.


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  • 06/16/16--09:15: Folding the Web
  • This text was originally commissioned by ICP and Printed Web and published in Printed Web 4. It appears in a slightly edited form below.

    The yarn is neither metaphorical nor literal, but quite simply material, a gathering of threads which twist and turn through the history of computing, technology, the sciences, and arts. In and out of the punched holes of automated looms, up and down through the ages of spinning and weaving, back and forth through the fabrication of fabrics, shuttles and looms, cotton and silk, canvas and paper, brushes and pens, typewriters, carriages, telephone wires, synthetic fibers, electrical filaments, silicon strands, fiber-optic cables, pixeled screens, telecom lines, the World Wide Web, the Net, and matrices to come.

    – Sadie Plant, Zeros + Ones: Digital Women and the New Technoculture, London: Fourth Estate, 1998.

    **

    "Hey guys! :D I was getting allllooot of requests on doing more folding so I decided to try and make it into a role play sort of a video."

    The video begins with a fair-skinned woman standing before a dark wooden table stacked with several neatly rolled towels. She tells us that we will be watching a tutorial, and that we will learn how to fold towels in a tidy and decorative fashion. The camera lingers as she strokes and caresses the towels; she speaks in a soft voice, as if babying the viewer.

    The video, posted from the popular YouTube account GentleWhispering, seems to address an infantile viewing subject who couldn't possibly fold their own towels, or likely even use the toilet unassisted. The fold has no instrumental purpose here apart from offering sensual pleasure to this viewer. The instructions delivered by this maternal figure become a kind of drowse-inducing wash; any information that happens to be relayed is merely incidental, ready to be discarded. The video's description labels it as "for entertainment purposes only," and the comments focus on the woman's voice, her body, and the aesthetics of the video--only rarely does someone mention towel folding.

    Although she is carefully composed on camera, GentleWhispering's comments offer a glimpse of the strain she is under. Her camera broke, the apartment above her flooded, and she felt depressed for a month. Even a successful vlogger lives a precarious existence.

    **

    Deleuze used the fold as a way of thinking about divisions that also connect, enabling multiplicity and oneness; enclosures that also open out to the world; forms that could be unformed. Deleuze's fold was also associated with mystery and the female sex organ. Though he wrote at length about the fold, he never discussed folding his own laundry.

    In fact, he hated handling cloth of any kind, citing his unusually sensitive fingertips as one reason for his strangely long fingernails. "I haven't got the normal protective whorls, so that touching anything, especially fabric, causes such irritation that I need long nails to protect them." More to the point, such questions were traditionally considered outside the scope of European thought, in the sense that they belonged to the domestic realm. The bourgeois public sphere wasn't a place for laundry, it was a place for ideas and discourse, and Deleuze resisted any discussion of his autobiography or private life.

    With the rise of social media, images and information relating to the private life of the home and family are considered fodder for publication, now called "sharing." At the same time, domestic space and domestic labor are made available for public consumption via the "sharing economy." Online platforms have embedded themselves in the private sphere, troubling its boundaries.

    Though it may sound worrying, this confusion of public and private has its benefits. The realm of discourse and ideas can no longer insulate itself from housework and the embodied knowledge of those who perform it.

    **

    Despite its physical and emotional demands, folding is often relegated to the underpaid and the unpaid. When I lived in Williamsburg, I would often use the drop off service at the local wash and fold. One day, the owner (a chatty, old-school Brooklynite) started complaining about how hard it was to find good "help" to keep the service running. "They get worn out," he said, and he wasn't talking about my underwear, but about the women who folded it. It was unclear whether the source of the exhaustion was the physical aspect of the labor, or the emotional burden of caring for so many strangers' garments.

    Sadie Plant famously argued that the material of digital culture is textile. If this is the case, the work of "folding" our digital material–keeping it tidy and organized and presentable–is largely, and perhaps unwisely, entrusted to platforms, where our folders can now be found.

    Most of the folding is automated, performed by complex technical ensembles that are largely controlled by men. When it does need to be performed by hand, as with the policing of content, it is still performed by underpaid and invisible labor forces.

    In the age of the cloud and Spotlight and seemingly endless storage, I've gotten worse at backing up, deleting unwanted files, and organizing the ones that remain. My Downloads folder begins to resemble my sock drawer. I seem to be only too eager to depend on platforms to do my folding for me.

    **

    "Many people think first, which one should i get rid of? But it is much more important to think, which one to keep."

    In an on-campus talk at Google, Japanese tidying guru Marie Kondo described a careful and intentional approach to discarding unwanted objects as a way to a more joyful life. She argues that one should be able to see every garment in a drawer immediately upon opening it, with each item folded to stand at attention, ready to be re-performed.

    When making the decision about what to let go, Kondo emphasizes the importance of understanding one's embodied relationship to any item. "Make sure you touch it… Imagine how your body reacts to that moment, how you feel when you touch the item."

    In a digital context, this kind of embodied relationship could be a way of escaping the pitfalls of understanding digital culture as if it revolves around a "disembodied image, re-created in the virtual spaces of sign-exchange and phantasmatic projection." Carol Armstrong called this the "cyberspace model" of understanding digital culture in her response to October's "Visual Culture Survey" from the Summer 1996 issue. She posited a binary division between, on the one hand, a new media criticism that focuses on "'exchanges circulating in some great, boundless, and often curiously ahistorical economy of images, subjects, and other representations," and, on the other, a critique that takes into account the materiality of objects:

    The material dimension of the object is, in my view, at least potentially a site of resistance and recalcitrance, of the irreducibly particular, and of the subversively strange and pleasurable. It is, again at least potentially, a pocket of occlusion within the smooth functioning of systems of domination, including the market, hierarchical thought-structures, and subject-positionalities: a glitch in the great world wide web of images and representations.

    In her broadside against the cyberspace model of criticism, Armstrong was perhaps guilty of insinuating that new media lacks materiality, that this kind of material difference can only be found in the "painterly, sculptural, photographic, filmic, what have you" - not the digital.

    By folding the web, we can find an embodied knowledge of its material differences, its pockets of occlusion. But this cannot be found in the type of folding that GentleWhispering presents. Although her video is intended to activate an embodied response, she describes it as a role-play, failing to acknowledge that role-playing also has consequences, or that materialism goes further than the body.

    Kondo's advice, in contrast, could be understood as a way of avoiding the pitfalls of the cyberspace model. As users, we should learn to touch our digital materials, to activate our embodied knowledge of our digital archives, to feel our way across their material, historical threads, and perhaps to let go of what we cannot keep. And this is hands-on work, even if the immediate surface under our fingertips is only liquid crystals under glass or the plastic of a keyboard.

     

    With thanks to Eva Díaz, Kaela Noel, Dillon Petito, Sylvia Gutierrez, and Tatiana Turin.


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    It's summer in the temperate zones of the northern hemisphere, where Rhizome is based, and we're getting ready to take our laptops to the beach. What will we be wearing? Well, the Rhizome "bad logo" tee—a versatile, light, and breezy choice for 70°/21°+ weather. And with a $75 gift to Rhizome, this lovely piece produced by Print All Over Me can be yours. 

    As it happens, we're not in the apparel business, but rather in the direct support for art engaged with digital culture business. So know that your pledge will go straight into Rhizome's work commissioning (next round begins this summer), presenting (on a daily basis at rhizome.org, other times at the New Museum) and preserving (via the development and distribution of free and open source archiving tools) born-digital art. 

    We can't do this without the generosity of individuals who share our commitment to the artists and art we serve. So, as you prepare to #SurfTheSummer (instead of just surfing the web), support Rhizome and get this nice t-shirt. It's 100% cotton and comes in unisex sizes XS through XXL. 

    Join today!


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  • 06/21/16--09:37: Miao Ying: Chinternet Plus
  • Miao Ying: Chinternet Plus” is copresented by Rhizome and the New Museum as part of First Look: New Art Online. It is now on view on the front page of Rhizome.org.

    “Internet Plus” is a strategy that was proposed by China’s Premier of the State Council, Li Keqiang, in 2015; its goal is to apply cloud computing and big data to traditional industries with an aim of rebooting them. Introduced shortly after China’s economy began to falter, it yokes progress to digital technology in a way that some, including the artist Miao Ying, see as grandiose. Miao’s new project Chinternet Plus (2016) is what she describes as the official unveiling of a “counterfeit ideology,” a parodic take on the original strategy of Internet Plus. The work is essentially a guide for how to brand an insubstantial idea, suggesting that, in the case of political branding in particular, media can easily stand in for the message.

    Miao describes her place of residence as “the Internet, the Chinese Internet (Great Firewall) and her smartphone.” Her works inhabit multiple forms (the browser, apps, print, and installation), are all meticulously cataloged on her website, titled “the dead pixel of my eye,” and focus on the online culture behind the so-called Great Firewall, specifically its strange and original GIFs and viral media. In 2007, Miao spent three months looking up every word in the Chinese dictionary that was blocked by google.cn. The resulting work—The Blind Spot (2007), which became its own index of blocked words—marked the beginning of her long-term focus on censorship in China. Miao recounts seeing censorship as “the enemy” and wanting to change it with this work. More recently, she has become fascinated with what she calls the “Stockholm Syndrome” that Chinese citizens experience toward the Great Firewall and the “Chinternet” (the Chinese internet). In a 2015 interview on Rhizome, Miao reflected on her new perspective:

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

    With Chinternet Plus, Miao returns to a sharp critique in her work—this time of political branding. As viewers scroll through Chinternet Plus, they encounter the five pillars of the Chinternet Plus “counterfeit” philosophy: “Our Story,” “Our Mystery,” “Our Goal,” “Our Vision,” and “Our Experience.” The “Our Story” section focuses on the construction of a logo for Chinternet Plus, which features an image of a white male professional, his hands gripping the sides of his head as if racking his brains for an idea. “Our Mystery” features a motley crew of animals, celebrities, and regular people clapping in sync, showing how rapidly a group can be formed immediately following the creation of a logo. “Our Goal” describes how Chinternet Plus will overwhelm people with dramatic imagery so as to deter them from analyzing its philosophy and recognizing its lack of substance. In one telling image, the words “Chinternet Plus” burst forth from the side of a glacier like a superhero breaking out of a trap. “Our Vision” promises that the Chinternet Plus philosophy will scrub away problems in a way analogous to the famous MeituPic filter that removes pollution from photographs of the sky—noting that, while it will not address deeper structural issues, Chinternet Plus will improve the representation of these problems. “Reality Should Not Hold You Back” reads a text in the “Our Vision” section, as if to imply that change can be generated by simply dreaming up a new present—a sentiment that is confirmed in the final section, “Our Experience,” which begins with a short chapter on how to “cultivate an emerging reality.” Nowhere in Chinternet Plus are any actual plans or precise policies mentioned; the substance is subterfuge, consisting of doctored images, logos, and meaningless terms.

    Like many of Miao’s works, Chinternet Plus lends humor to complex political and cultural issues, and yet, with the rise of international politicians who advance opinions that are untethered to the complexities of real issues, it is almost as though these figures were following the guide provided in her project.

    View Chinternet Plus.

    Top image: Miao Ying, Chinternet Plus, 2016. Website. Courtesy the artist

    SPONSORS

    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.


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    Matt Mullican stands in front of a large screen on which pinpricks of light are visible against a black background. Gradually, one glowing pixel looms larger in our field of vision until it becomes a perfect golden orb: the sun. Mullican gazes at this astral body, entranced, as it bathes his face in a yellow glow.

    It's 2011, and Mullican is presenting his new Triple Canopy-commissioned projectPlanetarium to a standing room only crowd at Artists Space on a rainy winter night. The work is an online, interactive scale model of the solar system created using Adobe Flash, a great tool for digital artists. Using arrow keys and mouse, viewers may travel through this model as if flying through space at up to five times the speed of light. Colored spheres represent the sun, the eight planets, Pluto, and the moon. Their relative sizes and distances are precisely calculated, making one aware of the vast distances between planetary bodies. Mullican’s digitalized solar system functions as a kind of clock; the orbits of his digital planets are perfectly synchronized with those of their real celestial counterparts. If, for example, there were a lunar eclipse in the real world, one would see the sun, Earth, and moon also line up in Mullican’s model at the same moment.

    It is well into the second hour of the event. None of us have eaten dinner, and our shoes are soggy. The musty smell of wet winter coats fills the room. But as we travel through Planetarium, we leave our immediate environs behind. Mullican is our Captain Adama; we are traveling towards Earth, just a tiny blue dot in our field of vision. Even at five times the speed of light, it seems to approach very slowly. Mullican’s assistant, at the helm, mentions that traveling from the sun to Pluto at this speed (in the model, as in real life) would take a full hour.

    Planetarium offers viewers a journey through the idealized, clockwork image of the cosmos mapped out in Kepler’s Laws of Planetary Motion; it is a journey through representational space.


    Screenshot of Matt Mullican, Planetarium (2010). Programming by Patrick Smith. Commissioned by Triple Canopy.

    This was not the first time Mullican attempted such a journey. In one performance from 1973, Mullican “entered” a Piranesi print, and then proceeded to describe the sights and sounds of being inside the 2D image”[1] for an audience of “maybe 5 or 6 people.”[2]

    He later described the experience as follows:

    …I was 11 years old, no I was 14 years old, it was 11 o’clock in the morning, it had rained the night before, but it was not raining anymore, my father was working on the side of the picture and I was working towards him in this kind of damp environment and it was all so sunny … I was just talking to the audience about what it was like in this picture and then I made a left and I went up a hill that you don’t see in the picture at all. And I remember looking down on top of the arch and you saw these big puddles … and then at that point he took a match and he lit it up the whole thing, and I remember feeling the heat on my face and then there was no picture …[3]


    Based on Mullican’s mention of the arch, the print in question could have been one of Piranesi’s 18th century etchings of triumphal arches in Rome. In these images, monuments of Rome’s classical past – some in pristine condition, others in ruins – loom large in the midst of everyday scenes of 1740s Rome. Painstakingly precise in detail, these images could be mistaken for scientific documents, but they are fabrications, idealized visions of buildings that had long-since been ransacked for building materials.[4] Upon visiting Rome, Goethe “confessed that his first sight of the ruins … failed to measure up to Piranesi's views of them.”[5] Thus, like Mullican's solar system, the Piranesi print refers less to a real city than to its representation.


    Matt Mullican, Entering the Picture: Entrance to Hell (1976). Artists Space, New York.

    Alongside this early performance work, Mullican was beginning to develop an overarching cosmology, a way of thinking about the relationships between the subject and the world at large, and about the compulsion to create systems for organizing these relationships. This theme is set out in broad terms in Untitled (1977), a series of painted panels that includes two images depicting silhouetted human heads. One, in white against a red background, is labeled “MULLICAN SUBJECTIVE,” with an X marking the location of the figure’s brain. The other, a yellow background sporting a black figure, is labeled “MULLICAN OBJECTIVE,” with an X marking the world outside the subject. Mullican’s self-created system for organizing subject/object relations became more complex over time; by the mid-1980s, it was often depicted in the form of a highly schematic, abstracted imaginary city with five discrete "zones" depicting different dimensions of the subject/object relationship.[6] Images of architecture become a way of organizing ideas; the city is less a physical space than a mental model. 

    Mullican’s interest in navigating pictorial space and in imaginary architecture led him to collaborate with technologists working on the fledgling field of navigable computer-generated worlds. John Whitney Jr. (son of the legendary animator John Whitney) came across Mullican’s images of virtual cityscapes in the mid-1980s. At that point, Whitney’s computer graphics company Optomystic was interested in collaborating with visual artists, and Mullican’s work seemed ripe for translation into this new medium: his graphical, abstracted cityscapes resembled the smooth, geometric surfaces of computer graphics at that time. Given his established interest in navigating pictorial space, Mullican jumped at the opportunity to collaborate on a fully-navigable digital city. Optomystic programmers Karl Sims and Jerry Weil produced Mullican’s first virtual world, and the results of this collaboration were shown in a 1989 MoMA exhibition curated by Jennifer Wells called Projects 18: Matt Mullican. The exhibition included two mural-size works on paper, twelve light boxes showing various scenes from the world, and a five-minute animated journey through the world, played back from LaserDisc.[7]


    Installation view of "Projects 18: Matt Mullican," Museum of Modern Art, August 24, 1989–October 24, 1989.

    If hypnotism or self-induced trances are psychically demanding ways of projecting one’s consciousness into an image, the technology of the virtual world would seem to automate the process. Mullican’s entry into the image required a kind of altered state; viewers of Planetarium can approximate this experience with the click of a few buttons. In a sense, the technology of virtual space allowed Mullican’s audiences to experience the kind of mobile point of view that he had experienced through self-hypnosis.

    The inducement of trance-like states through technologies of visualization has precedents in media history. In the 16th century, Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order, locked himself in his cell for weeks on end to meditate, alone, on visions of hell. Through intensive meditation, he would bring scriptural writings to life through profound and visceral hallucinatory experiences. As media theorist Friedrich Kittler describes, Loyola embraced the new technology of the magic lantern (a kind of early slide projector) as a way of re-creating these hallucinatory experiences for the lay public, showing artistic and ghostly images of hell to scare new recruits into a religious lifestyle. Kittler writes, “Thanks to the lanterna magica, the solitary hallucination of the founder of the Jesuit Order ... became technologically simulated for the masses.”[8] What Loyola experienced as a fantastic but private theater of the mind was re-staged as a mechanized spectacle to be shared with audiences of potential converts.

    Are Mullican's virtual worlds, like Loyola’s magic lantern shows, simulations of a “solitary hallucination”? Like a latter-day Loyola, Mullican has created mechanized spectacles that offer viewers entry into visions of cosmologies and cosmos. But they are scant in their visual detail; they fail to live up to the vivid realism that is associated with the related genre of virtual reality, as noted in recent essays by Brenda Laurel and Alexander Provan.


    Matt Mullican, Five Into One (1991).

    This lack of information is crucial to the function of Mullican's virtual worlds. When projecting into the Piranesi print, he clearly introduced new, extraneous experiences, apparently drawn from his own life or perhaps his unconscious. ("I was 11 years old, no I was 14 years old…"). The image served as a starting point for a trance-like state that ultimately ranged far beyond the artwork’s frame; there is no technical apparatus that can replicate this experience, and emptiness allows for the user's own thoughts to fill the void.

    Along these lines, Mullican's virtual worlds are far less a simulation of his "solitary hallucinations" than a framework within which users might experience their own.


    Notes:

    [1] Michael Haggerty, “Exploring the World in the Art of Matt Mullican,” IEEE Computer Graphics and Applications 10, no. 3 (May 3–7, 1990).

    [2] Patrick Meagher and Yunhee Min, “Matt Mullican,” The Silvershed Reader, New York: Silvershed, 2008, 28.

    [3] Meagher and Min, 28.

    [4] Richard Wendort, “Piranesi’s Doube Ruin,” American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies 34:2 (Winter 2001), 163.

    [5] Wendort 162.

    [6] Ulrich Wilmes, Matt Mullican: Works 1972-1992, Koln: König, 1992, 72. Mullican identifies these dimensions as The World Framed (art), The World Unframed (functional objects), The Elemental World (nature), Language and Signs (information), and The Subjective (the personal, the spiritual).

    [7] The Museum of Modern Art, Projects: Matt Mullican, August 1989.

    [8] Friedrich Kittler, Optical Media, Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2010, 80.


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    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.

    Manuel Arturo Abreu: You created one of the most active Facebook selfie groups I’ve encountered, inb4. It quickly grew too large for you to moderate alone, if at all, so—now that you have some distance from the project—I wanted to ask how you feel about it, and how it fits into the context of your practice (if at all), which often deals with networked affect and the elusive nature of digital community. And a related questionTeachMeTeaseMe, archived on Tumblr here, was a bit before my time as a Facebook group (in that by the time I heard about it, it was gone), so I would love to hear a description of the project from you.

    Elizabeth Mputu: !! Thanks for the acknowledgement, it was definitely not intentional. /inb4/ started off as a DIY/Underground “virtual magazine, by U 4 U” in the form of a Facebook Group that was meant 2 b an antithesis to the culture praised in online spaces like Rookie Mag, Dazed, Vice, and the like...which seemed to mostly highlight niche cool yt young hot artists who didn’t really portray what it was like for me and people like me to be involved in a DIY scene. I was living in Chicago a few years back and at the time a lot of my energy was spent in queer nightlife where the looks of my friends and strangers who would frequent spaces like Berlin Nightclub, the Dustbowl, parties in Pilsen, at Parker Bright’s house, Smartbar, and elsewhere constantly inspired me. I remember hanging out with someone one day, picking up a FRUiTS book and thinking “damn, that’s my life, these are my friends. Let’s make a virtual version of this.”

    Sooner rather than later, a bunch of people were in the space (which at the time was managed largely by myself, Parker Bright, Seashell Coker, Isabelle Mcguire, Todd Diedrich, Maya Danika, and a few others) whose styles really touched me, like Laina Berry, Judas Melendes, Jimmy Hassett, Zaina Miuccia, Claire Van Eijk, Emily Alexander, Angelo Valerio, Zain Curtis and Olivia Hatfield. I personally believe that was a really exciting time for the group because there was a lot of love shown in the space, the art of finesse was celebrated without shame, and people could connect to each other internationally. The group’s downfall came when we implemented the “After Hours” portion where people could submit nudes. The addition started to take away from /inb4/’s aesthetic centered intentions and the group lost focus, everyone wanted to post nudes but people didn’t want to express their creativity through clothes as much. Although there’s nothing wrong with that at all, it simply was not the original purpose.

    I, among others, had wanted to shut down the group many times, and announced that would be the case but a lot of people didn’t want the community to be disbanded so it’s running to this day. Constantly evolving. That was a large reason why I never wanted to be too hands on with the project because it wasn’t meant to be about my curation of the space but about how people made it out for themselves. We got to see many different iterations of the group, for better and for worse-- from the rise of normcore to the death of healthgoth, but, ultimately I’m happy about the experience because I feel it gave all of us a look into how we could queer the platform of Facebook (many people created their own versions of the group thereafter) and through everyone’s participation, introduced me to the idea of Unapologetic Self-Love—self-love and self care being at the forefront of my practice now.

    /inb4/ the experience

    Elizabeth Mputu, /inb4/, 2014

    TeachMeTeaseMe came into fruition while I was in a mutually abusive relationship and dating someone who was very challenged by my sexuality whether it be how I identified or how I expressed it. I came out to someone in an anonymous chat group when I was in second grade and always appreciated how an online forum could comfort people when their IRL environment didn’t offer the same compassion. In this space people could bring up whatever topics they wanted related to sex, sexuality, the taboo, body positivity, gender identity, etc. and make dialogue with one another. Using the internet to help educate is something I think, to really live by, so my job as a moderator was to take nudes that people would submit (anonymously or not) and turn them into informative memes on whatever subject was requested. The group was deleted by Facebook a little after a year but you can still catch remnants of its activity archived through its very outdated tumblr lol.


    meme created by member of TeachMeTeaseMe


    Artist, curator and critic Kenya Johnson also did a write up about the project that divulges a bit more.

    MAA: Your older work featured your physical body more prominently, such as your piece selling soiled underwear, and digital media like photos and videos served as documentation of the work. This differs from your recent video work, beginning with your meditation mourning Sandra Bland; the new work focuses on digital embodiment, specifically on devising means of reducing the stress that, most days, seems inevitable as a black person (especially a black femme, I imagine) browsing the internet. This reframes the physical body, to me. Do you agree? Was this shift intentional? Which trains of thought, if any, connect these two practices? On that note, I’d be interested to hear about your online cyberserenity store, which sells a number of digital, spiritual, and immaterial items. What led to a monetization of some of your aesthetic and meditative gestures?

    EM: Absolutely, this was a survival/anti-erasure tactic. In my naivete I thot that making selfie based art work like many other of my peers would suffice in establishing myself as a respected artist because everyone at the time who was known for that work re: Molly Soda, Amalia Ulman, etc were white or white passing. I believed that being black was enough to separate what it was I was doing especially since creating virtual communities that made space not only for the visibility of people who look like me but others as well to explore these tropes, was such a huge part of my practice as well as the regular lives of most people I was acquainted with. I, and many in the group I’m sure, foresaw a renaissance where a dialogue that included people of all body types, races, and gender identities would take place, but instead the notoriety that came from this work just ended up labeling me as a cool, hot, token black person and I was reduced to a “thot” (which I wholeheartedly embrace), “classless May Waver” or my favorite “hoodrat with an iphone” who couldn’t keep a Facebook account.



    After a very humbling stay in New Orleans, I became agitated by my own complacency when it came to allowing myself to be consumed by an audience that was honoring aspects of me that solely appealed to a white patriarchal heteronormative society and diluted my overall mission to notions rooted in those ideologies.

    I had gotten very ill physically as well as mentally and had begun doing my own research into concepts like black consciousness, African spirituality, and holistic healing as I’m first generation Congolese American and was seeking insight into how my ancestors viewed illness, death, and wellbeing. This lead me to rework the foundation of not only my art but my way of life, causing the shift you and I’m sure others noticed—in fact, inspired by a conversation with Anais Duplan I ended up creating a document pairing a block of some of my Instagram posts with Keyiona Ritchey’s Black Identity Development essay and guidelines in order to better comprehend the thot processes that motivated this journey.

    And the store is a sham, it’s never been used lol. Last year, wanting to find a way to support myself financially using the internet as a medium that wasn’t always through seekingarrangement, millionairematch, other sugar baby websites, findom sites or craigslist-- I opted for creating this store because someone mentioned an artist had been selling chunks of her Facebook account as work. But, much like in my pleasure-based professional work it was difficult to ask people to pay me fairly or value something they felt entitled to. So yeah I never use that site and will probably delete it soon. I really don’t believe in making a profit in that way. Traditionally, indigenous healers treat their patients free of charge so all of my exercise and meditation videos are public/can be accessed on my most recently updated site here, and I don’t actually charge members to participate in any of the groups mentioned above. So yeh, cyberserenity the store is a giant troll page and you’ve been rickrolled lol.

    Elizabeth Mputu, screenshot from cyberserenity store. How 2 Dispose of Undesired Net-Energy: Package of 5, $13.00, 2015

    MAA: I love being rickrolled. What role do your ancestors play in your work, aesthetic, and/or life? How does this inform the way you relate to your peers?

    EM: My ancestors are the fire that cause my blood to boil when facing anything from casual microaggressions to blatant hijacking of my people’s culture. The first time they spoke to me I was living in NOLA with my then-girlfriend in a trailer behind the house of the self proclaimed “white voodoo priestess” who ran the healing center off St. Roch. One day I was outside and began to hear African drums, feet stomping, and people singing. While this normally triggers me to get up and twerk something, for some reason this particular show of it made me really angry, and if you know me that’s very counter to my laid back nature. I paid attention to where this emotion surfaced and allowed it to physically lead me to the space where the ceremony was taking place. I walked past a fence of stereotypical voodoo imagery (I’m refraining from referring to what they were practicing as “vodou” because as far as I’m concerned what they were doing spoke to powers outside of that) and landed in front of a home with the door open. Inside were a bunch of people dancing and worshiping but none were black/African and this really challenged me. It was not so much about white people connecting with this branch of spirituality, but the fact that the person who was the gatekeeper for this experience also had the audacity to hang demonizing paintings of black children shooting guns in a space that was meant to be safe for the community, despite said community’s inability to afford the services offered in the healing center, and despite the center’s exploitation of black faces in order to disguise the fact that it was in actuality ran by a white woman who heralded herself as the modern day Madame Marie Laveau (*side eye emoji*).


    I think I’ve faced some backlash for making my spirituality so apparent, like being labeled as hoetep or a “black racist.” But, I think if you really pay attention to the sort of dismantling that I and others of the POC Excellence Digital Resurgence movement are trying to get accomplished here then that aspect of the work comes off more nuanced and natural. I’m also not worried about people’s inability to resonate with the work. It reaches who it is meant to reach and we’re all welcome to do as we please on the world wide web. So long as I honor the legacies of nganga marindas (shamans) before me, like Vita Kimpa-- I’m content with my content.

    MAA: You were one of few women of color (the only black femme, in the NY version) to participate in Kate Durbin’s Hello Selfie performance. What was that experience like?

    EM: Challenging and inspiring. I really admire Kate Durbin and everything she has done for me as a mentor. Ultimately, I believe that when it comes to being an artist who is also black you need to align yourself with people and work that can handle the type of dialogue that comes with that. I feel a lot more rewarded when I surround myself with people who can acknowledge racism, colorism, sexism, ableism, classism, etc. without fragility and while centering active reformation in their lives. I don’t think anyone belonging to a marginalized group who desires change should settle for anything less.

    I’ve written a more detailed write-up on the experience in a survival guide doc meant for poc in creative fields to share tools and techniques for navigating their respective fields, however, another woc artist who participated, Jennifer Tamayo, had her write up on the experience published. I stand by her words and will share them with you in solidarity. //CLICK HERE 2 CHECK OUT JENNIFER TAMAYO’S WRITEUP DETAILING HER EXPERIENCE AS A BROWN PERSON PARTICIPATING IN THE HELLO, SELFIE PIECE//


    With that said, although I was the only black person in Hello! Selfie NY. I was one of four at the Miami Art Basel execution of the piece, so I salute Kate for her efforts there and especially shoutout those sisters (Lindsi Arrington, Shanette Cox and Julissa Douglas) as they navigate their own terrains as well. We are not props and we are not working alone.

    Elizabeth Mputu in Hello Selfie, 2015. Photo by Emily Raw

    MAA: Do you consider social media an aspect of, or platform for, your practice? If so, how do you deal with the constant racist policing that goes on, which has resulted in e.g. many of your Facebook accounts being forcibly shut down, erasing work or documentation of work that might not exist anywhere else and forcing you to ‘start from scratch’ with a brand new account? As you say, “black bodies can just vanish without anyone really knowing for certain how to put the idea of them to rest,” and I was wondering if you wanted to expand on this regarding the digital.

    EM: Social media is definitely a platform for my performance. People like Devin Kenny, you, and Winslow Laroche have really helped me to stay confident in that. I deal with constantly having my social media identities and works jailed, blocked, or banned by seeking the counsel and comforts of artists and dear friends like Sofia Moreno, Fannie Sosa, and Poussy Drama who deal with similar harassment, Mx Angel who meditates and casts spells of redemption onto the web with me, and Alfredo Salazar-Caro who helps me manifest new mediums and realities to get my work out.

    There’s a phrase that was widely used in the Zapatistas movement of the early 90s in Mexico that goes, “they buried us but they didn’t know we were seeds.” That’s how I like to think about marginalized bodies in this digital landscape. “They erased us, but they didn’t know we were seeding.” Even if it’s not my work that awakens someone to stand for everything they are, there are others out there like me doing the same work and these messages will get passed down to our beloveds who will take it upon themselves to make their identities known and demand the means necessary to not just survive in this world but to thrive and to be great by their own definition.


    Photo by Vanessa Andrade, artist and co-head of A Place Gallery in Orlando, FL, for Tabita Rezaire & co.’s forthcoming digital-based zine Malaxa, 2016

    Questionnaire

    Age: 22, ancient bb

    Location: orlando, online, the breeze

    How/when did you begin working creatively with technology?
    In highschool i did a lot of journaling, poetry writing and content curating on Tumblr like every other weirdo with a web connection lol. I was also rly into making lip sync videos on youtube, broadcasting on stickam, editing my myspace pics to make them more “scene”, and lookbook.nu

    Where did you go to school? What did you study?
    I dropped out of DePaul University and spent a semester at SAIC studying performance art where I met my then mentor Maria Gaspar <3

    What do you do for a living or what occupations have you held previously?
    Right now I’m freelancing as a Social Media Marketer (hit up my email if you’d like my services) and more recently blessed souls have been throwing some of that young mula my way for my artwork. In the past I’ve been a canvasser, a sugar baby, a dancer, a server, an erotic masseuse, retail, etc. but no matter the title or position however, we always end up compromising some aspect of ourselves for money, so to me I’ve only had one occupation and that’s of a hustler.

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

    I j cleaned my desktop so we all lucked out lol

    My workspace:

    Additional shoutouts 2 my fellow peers: Xena Ellison, La Porscha, Qutress Trevino, Nathalie Encarnacion, Adam Whyte, Tabita Rezaire, Mark Andreatta, A Alexandra Johnson, Brandon Drew Holmes, Paula Nacif, Jake Weeks (Mop Nog) of Hot Schmucks, Rain Love, Breeze Burds, Rafia Santana and Toi Scott of Queering Herbalism among others 4 making work that inspires and challenges the masses-- and of them who i am also blessed enuff to consider friends, a special shoutout 4 ur consistent presence in my life and 4 steady holding me down wen a bimpsch feelin some typa way. I acknowledge and honor you. Much love to the Mputu (Jon, Pat, Nelly & Tosh) /Mbu family as well! Aight that’s it !! Now I’m out! Black ppl do shoutouts!! I’m sorry (i aint sorry) !! Lol :P

     

    Top image: los pirámides de Teotihuacán, 2016. Taken by: Alfredo-Salazar Caro


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    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.


    Paul Soulellis: I’ve seen you use print-on-demand both in order to document your scripting sessions and as an active feedback loop to engage with and branch your process, but also as one way to materialize your work in its final form (i.e., Untitled (Feb_24_2015_Floral_LuluBook_Scan 1)). And in “set to someof, your recent solo exhibition at Galerie Andreas Huber in Vienna, more than fifty of your print-on-demand books are physically present in the gallery space on a special shelf. What do these books—material output from digital, network-based processes—mean to you? Can you describe your relationship with the printed page?

    Travess Smalley, Untitled (Feb_24_2015_Floral_LuluBook_Scan 1) (2015). UV coated digital pigment print mounted on aluminum frame, 81.5 × 59.5 × 1.5 in. Courtesy of Foxy Production. Photo: Mark Woods.

    Travess Smalley: I’ve been using Lulu to self-publish books for several years, documenting all of the projects I have going on in my studio. Until now, these books have just lived in the studio, or at home, except for two: Book 28, a five volume book of drawings distributed by Foxy Production, and Book 45, which I distributed through Tarek Issouai’s Rrose Editions earlier this year. I think about the books as the place where I show the groundwork and the range of ideas and images I’m interested in. They’re also an archive, a physical storage system for my digital images, whether they’re computer graphics, cellphone photos, scans of drawings, or text files of scripting I’ve written. The books are a place for me to organize, archive, and review thousands of digital images that are part of the process to get to the few images that are separated from the rest and made into larger-scale and/or independent works.

    In the exhibition at Andreas Huber, I was showing books labeled number 1 through 57, some of which were printed in multiple volumes (like 28.1, 28.2, 28.3 etc) because there were too many pages to bind together in one title.



    I started making the books as an archive, and as a cheap printing solution for the overflow of digital images I was generating. At the time, in 2013, I was working on a new series of overlaid transparency drawings that would eventually become the Vector Weave project. Among my various collage projects, the Vector Weaves, and my daily digital painting practice I was generating more images than I could possibly digest.

    I’d often sit down to Photoshop and just start drawing with the program's tools. I was saving the images whenever I liked them, and if an image started feeling too dense or overworked I’d create a new one. It was a very light practice compared to the other projects I was exhibiting at the time. I put very little energy in trying to figure out what it meant. I was more interested in seeing what would happen just based off consistently making digital paintings. I was looking for new moments or techniques that might be useful later, or never. But before I made the books, I’d lose track of what I’d done a day before, or a week before, and looking through folders of images felt clinical and somewhat disassociated from the act of making them and thinking about them. It was unmanageable to continue engaging with the digital files, I needed the physical book form to make sense of them.

    I think about the printed page as a sort of certificate of the digital image that came before it. It’s an image that doesn’t need electrical power to exist, and it exists in a different scale of time. It will corrode, lose its brilliance, get lost, and get scratched. It’s a material reflection of its digital origin, an origin which is untouchable and dependent on many outside resources (power, hardware, code) that I can’t fully control.

    Travess Smalley, excerpt from Book 13 - Studio Drawing - iOS_Scanner_Apps_August_2014 (2014)

    It’s funny because I collect artist's books, monographs, and exhibition catalogues. And with all these, I’m obsessive about their condition. I don’t want them dirty or dinged up. When the pages warp from moisture in the air I cringe. I’ve gotten better about this over the years but it still bugs me. But with the books I make I love these tangible qualities. I love the scratches, the spilt wine, the misprints, the dents and scuffs from bad packaging, the bookmarks, the cutouts. These are all symbols of life and activity, of energy. I think printing gives the images life.

    PS: The print works in “set to some of” make use of software scripts that you’ve written to automate certain kinds of decision-making. I’ve been thinking about this word, “script,” especially as it relates to code, as a form of writing. Do you think of yourself as a writer? How does your practice interrogate ideas of authorship?


    Travess Smalley, 2016-03-08_12-08-46 (2016). Dye sublimation print on aluminum, 11 x 8.5 in. Courtesy of Galerie Andreas Huber. Photo: Stefan Lux


    TS: I don’t consider myself a writer. In fact the opposite. I feel like I never have the right words. That’s why so much of what I generate is visual. I think my scripts are about automation, editing, and generative systems. I came to scripting by finding quicker and quicker ways to simulate studio situations on the computer. In my studio, I spend a lot of time making drawings, ink brush paintings, acrylic paintings on foam, and small sculptures made of quick-drying plaster and foam. These works are never pre-planned and the results are mostly cannibalized for new pieces or scanned into the computer to be worked on in Photoshop. I’m often more interested in the scraps, the negative space, that come out of the process than in the final works.

    As far as writing, the scripts I make are cobbled together from little units of code. Writing a script seems a lot more similar to making a drawing, where many of the elements are variable, than crafting words into sentences that are part of a narrative. Maybe if I knew the history of poetry more, or followed poetry, I would understand what I’m doing in that context; but as it is I relate everything ultimately to drawing and images. I write the scripts in AppleScript, which is closer to natural language than more common or full-featured scripting languages like Javascript. A line in AppleScript might read:

    (make new document with properties {color space:CMYK, width:2550, height:3300})

    This command is fairly easy to understand if you have a passing familiarity with image making programs. My scripting uses lots of small commands like this: “set newEllipse tomake new ellipse with properties …” or “set newRectangle tomake new rectangle with properties …” these are little units/blocks that I’m trying to structure together in generative and emergent ways. Lots of small shapes, short gestures, and marks that add up to something more complex than the bits of script. I try to use software to reflect my thoughts on things like diaristic gesture, chance, transference, image reproduction, automatic language, and automatic drawing, micro and macro perspectives of scale, productivity, and laziness.


    It’s true that I’m giving over a certain type of decision-making to the computer, like when I call on the computer’s version of a random number generator. But I think about the computer’s role as more about giving me a certain range of responses, or resources, that are still constrained by my control and judgment. My scripting doesn’t feel advanced or authorial, like, say, Pandora or Spotify’s radio station creator feature, or big data algorithms telling me which socks I’ll want to buy on Amazon.    

    PS: You work with quantities of information (archives of images, data) and chance operations. You’ve likened yourself to an orchid breeder, looking for mutations. Can you describe this process of weeding out and searching? How does faith come into play?   

    TS: Editing is central in my practice now. The books help me do this. My wife helps me do this. My friends help me do this. Studio visits help me do this. I make the images. I get the books and I start flipping through them. They sit in the living room. On the kitchen table. I put them on the beside table. They live on the sofa in my studio. Or on a shelf with the others. I forget about them.

    Travess Smalley, excerpt from Book 45 - September 13th 2015 - AppleScript Drawings (2015)

    I flip through them looking for the outliers. Seeing how the small gestures I’ve made combine together. I’m looking for the mutations the way an orchid breeder might experiment with cross-pollination. The ones that don’t quite sync with the others. Or the ones that just feel like the epitome of all the others. The ones that feel rare. Maybe it’s a texture I haven’t seen before or that the image reminds me of something. I don’t try and overthink it. Sometimes the editing process is much like a photographer’s contact sheet. There are two hundred images, so which are the most dynamic? The most dull? Which ones do I hate, but everyone else likes? (Always an interesting question!) I try not to trust too much in any of these criteria, though. Editing is the most essential, and hardest, part of the whole thing. I could code the computer to edit for me, but that is already an editing decision.

    PS: I’m intrigued by this page. Tell us about some of these references. 

    TS: I’m glad you mentioned the reading materials page from my website. I think it serves as a great introduction to a lot of the concepts and structures I’m interested in: repetition, reproduction, looping, digital image circulation, compression, history of computer graphics, cosmological scale, generative systems, and so on, particularly the subject of looping, reproduction. Brian Eno’s diagram on the back cover of his album Discreet Music and Alvin Lucier’s work I’m Sitting In A Room are these earlier technical examples of the looping process as a complete structure. I don’t think I’ve ever aimed for such a totality in a work, but both pieces resonate with me.

    I originally made the reading materials page for a guest lecture I was giving to photography students at NYU a couple of years ago. I wanted to give them a little bit of a primer on where my head was before we met. The more they knew about me before I presented, the easier time I’d have introducing them to my work. Also it provides some historical references for the subjects I’m interested in, or were at the time.

    Separately, I think it’s worth mentioning that I love artist lists. I remember as a teenager seeing the list of musicians that Nurse With Wound included in their first album—I don’t come from an art-oriented family, nor did I grow up in a city, so in high school I relied on the internet and the public library and the local record store to find out about art, music, and literature. I absolutely pored over that Nurse With Wound list and tried to learn everything I could about these hard-to-find musicians and bands. It guided me through a whole world I might otherwise have missed out on. I still love reading lists like that; I’m not anti-listicle when they’re listicles by artists.

    Travess Smalley, excerpt from Book 5 - Vector Weave_Dec 30 Actions_2013 (2014)


    Questionnaire

    Age: 30

    Location: New York, NY

    How/when did you begin working creatively with technology? Kid Pix and MS-Paint around five, SimCity 2000 Urban Renewal Kit at ten, Photoshop at twelve.

    Where did you go to school? What did you study? VCU from 2004–2006 studying painting and digital printmaking. Cooper Union from 2006–2010 studying Drawing and Sculpture.

    What do you do for a living or what occupations have you held previously? I’ve worked as an intern at Rhizome :) and at record stores in New York and Richmond, VA, and worked at the Genius Bar at Apple, lol.

    What does your desktop or workspace look like?

     

    Top image: Travess Smalley, excerpt from Book 29 - June 01 2015 Overlaid Photocopy Painting Photoshop Action Harpers Lulu (2015)


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  • 02/04/16--09:06: Binge Watching 3GTV
  • Alex Taylor's 3GTV is on the front page of rhizome.org through Monday, February 8.

    In a modern-day world dominated by iPhones and Androids, images of Paris Hilton flaunting a pink RAZR flip phone have long been filed in the digital pop culture archives. Despite Anna Wintour and Rihanna’s outlier attempts to bring back in style the outdated flip phone for a few paparazzi snaps in 2014, the cellular landscape has since shifted.   

    During the 3G era, camera phones allowed users to record and play back short videos in a file format called 3GP. With Apple’s introduction of ios9 software, iPhones lost the ability to play back this format, making these videos as obsolete as the phones they were recorded on.

    For his new project 3GTV, awarded a 2015 Rhizome micro-commission, Alex Taylor culls 3GP videos from YouTube, re-presenting them in a CGI interface that simulates the experience of a 3D smartphone. Users are able to view an endless loop of randomized 3GP video clips that were harvested from YouTube. If you’re lucky, you may run into a video of a boy dancing to Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean or Jersey Shore’s DJ Pauly D introducing Pitbull during an MTV Spring Break special from 2011. 3GTV harnesses the present day cultural phenomenon of binge watching, but in a format that reminds us of what used to be, allowing us to see the content and aesthetics these videos have in common.

    The project isn't only about a nostalgic aesthetic, though. The prevalence of what seem to be recent international videos suggests that while many users in the US have to set down their 4G smartphones and transition to our computers in order to visit this digital exhibition, less privileged users in West Africa, Southeast Asia, and even the United States are still using 3G mobile devices years after a style became outdated. Our digital past is still here, it's just unevenly distributed.

     


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    Despite its informal name, the living room has historically been something of a formal social space, used for entertaining and the ostentatious display of prized possessions. In her 2010 New York Times op-ed “Who Lives in This Room?” historian Joan Dejean traces this incongruity to the living room’s early nineteenth-century origins, arguing that it inherited many of the functions of the “grand salon” even as the home was reoriented around more everyday activities. She notes that this tension continues into the present, asking, “Why is it that the one room whose name honors everyday life is so often a place where we do as little living as possible?”

    The living room has been the focus of much hi-tech reimagining over the years, but it still retains its nebulous, all-purpose status: part social gathering space, part living space. This all-purposeness made it the ideal site for a series of events initiated last year by artists Liat Berdugo and Elia Vargas. The duo used the living rooms of Bay Area artists and cultural producers to host monthly public conversations on new media, digital art, creative works in progress, and artistic practices, which were open to the public and attended by friends and strangers. The aim was to produce a kind of meaningful conversation that was lacking in more formal spaces such as cultural institutions and art centers.

    Writer and artist Joe Veix presentation, Rose Linke's living room, Oakland, 11/17/15. Photo Credit: Liat Berdugo

    Writer and artist Joe Veix presentation, Rose Linke's living room, Oakland, 11/17/15. Photo Credit: Liat Berdugo.

    In addition to a deeper sense of engagement, the informality of the setting allows the Living Room Light Exchange to bring a wide range of practices into conversation with one another. Over the course of the year, the platform was dedicated to makers, writers, and thinkers working in physical and digital spaces as well as conducting experimental research. In addition to sharing  works in progress, the range of subjects cover everything from sound art, social media platforms as a medium, to performance pieces in their nascent stages. For example, artist and writer Nicholas O’Brien shared work on videogame design as a way of creating more conceptually driven and literary works. Other notable speakers have included artists Pamela Z and Chip Lord.

    Berdugo cites one past event as an example of the success of this wide-ranging approach, “We had a speaker [Parker Higgins] talk about his project that involved Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for every single deceased person who had an obituary in the New York Times. That same evening, we had another speaker [Sarabi Saraf] who was creating videos with dancers about pharmaceuticals and growing up in India and how to embody machines in factories through choreography. Both of these speakers have a place in Light Exchange and they both make total sense next to each other… and that is what is so special about the space we’ve created.”

    My first Light Exchange event took place in the living room of artists Morehshin Allahyari and Andrew Blanton. I looked around and saw a few familiar faces, but there were many unfamiliar ones as well. At first, it seemed a lot like a dinner party and niceties were exchanged. A single lamp gave enough light to set a relaxed tone, set off by a bright cerulean blue projector light bathing one wall. When the speakers began, a flow of questions ensued and the conversation flowed—a rarity in more institutional spaces.  

    Cultural historian Megan Prelinger presentation with Prelinger Library Artist in Residence Lindsey Dupler, Emily Eifler's living room, San Francisco, 10/20/15. Photo Credit: Liat Berdugo.

    Later, I participated in Light Exchange as a speaker, presenting my academic research on augmented reality and virtual reality as performance space and discussing the work of several artists. I made the unorthodox decision to intentionally omit slides or visuals, an idea which was welcomed by the founders. This forced me to engage with the guests, as well as my own language for describing highly visual work.

    I presented alongside Berdugo and John Herschend, and engaging in conversation with these disparate practices also gave me a new perspective on my work. Familiar with Herschend’s practice, I was pleased he screened Discussion Questions (2014), a Powerpoint style film commissioned for the 2014 Whitney Biennial that seems to begin as a serious conversation about a film screening but devolves into a discussion of the moderator’s own romantic fantasies. During the exchange, the conversation that ensued included questions on the creation of work based on our hometowns, our ideas on how language through these mediums takes away or enhances our understanding of the environments we work and live in, and what it means to purposely use humor and whimsy as a device as seen in Berdugo’s ongoing Zoom video series.

    Artist avatar LaTurbo Avedon presentation, Graham Plumb's living room, San Francisco, 12/15/15. Photo Credit: Liat Berdugo.

    Another noteworthy aspect of Light Exchange is the absence of documentation. There are remnants here and there on the internet, but deliberate documentation would change its overall tone. Moreover, lack of documentation has been intentional as events take place in private spaces. Berdugo and Vargas are nevertheless exploring this for future iterations and have already been asked to adapt an iteration of the Light Exchange for public spaces. Documentation of the talks might push Light Exchange audiences and visitors to engage presented material differently. In the living room of the future, Berdugo and Vargas have made certain that the living room isn’t just a room for decorative purposes and entertaining, but one filled with conversation free from the confines of a cultural institution.

    Recently, Berdugo and Vargas announced the release of a new book funded by Bay Area arts organization Southern Exposure’s grant program, Alternative Exposure. Vargas shared, “we’re writing a cookbook so we can offer the instructions on how anyone can start a Light Exchange... We’re putting a lot of emphasis on constructing the environment in collaboration with the location that it’s at, with the speakers we’re curating. We care a lot about how we think about generating conversation.”

    The first Living Room Light Exchange publication is on sale here.


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  • 07/20/16--08:20: Artist Profile: Lisa Radon
  • 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: The lines between poetry and visual art in your practice are blurred in such precise and pleasing ways. Thinking specifically to your recent exhibition at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle, your poem Exploit (Mundus Imaginalis) (2016) brings the language of coding (command prompts, if/then loops, etc.) both to the page and the gallery space through performance. How does coding (encoding?) play within poetics of space and language for you? (Perhaps tangential) Is there a resonance between technical programming and concrete poetry for you?


    Synthetic_quartz_crystal.jpg. By Warut Roonguthai (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.
    Lisa Radon: There is a general answer and a specific answer. Generally, I know everything to be one thing (all the work is one work — object, immaterial material, publication), and I think of it as a poem. Words call, activate, report. As they do in code when code is meant to mean that which traffics in zeros and ones. It is a good knot that I love the poetry of coding while acknowledging that I love the coding of poetry with all of its slippages, slipperiness, fluidity, and brain-crossings, all of which are pretty much diametrically opposed to the necessary specificity of word as employed in coding. I also love that words make things happen in coding, not by suggestion or persuasion, but directly the way that an incantation (in cantare: to sing upon) might be expected to do by she who speaks it to make things happen.

    The specific answer is that for my recent installation, Zero Day at Henry Art Gallery, I was thinking about security exploits and the elevation of user privileges, and what that might look like outside of the Grid, or say, in an interconnected space not dependent on silicon-based integrated circuits. Or I was thinking about technologies and methodologies both ancient and contemporary for reading the world and writing the world (from stone tools to the IBM Model M keyboard), about how we have forgotten, at times, the purposes and uses of various tools (e.g. forgetting for centuries that Stonehenge was an astronomical tool). And just wondering both about recuperation of some of these technologies and imagining future tools.

    To respond to your tangential inquiry, code is beautiful in the way equations and proofs are beautiful. Euclid is my favorite poet after NASA. And I’m still seduced by teleprinted FORTRAN. I don’t think that beyond the formal there is a relationship between this and concrete poetry, mainly because I rather think that concrete poetry historically has had a lot more interesting things to do than simply to be beautiful.

    EF: Your use of materiality in your practice extends far beyond minimalism and naturalism; I’d like to call it a poetics that visualizes a higher logic. Inorganic, technological objects (including online presences) and organics like oak, lemons, and minerals form constellations in exhibitions like Infinity Increaser (TBA:14), (2014). How do these materials come to you and hold weight(s) in your assembling of an exhibition? Do their other usages (such as rare earth metals used in computer processors or ritualistic usages in Druidic religions) impact your usages of them?

    Dragon Skin. By PEO Soldier [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

    LR: An imagined higher logic is a good way of thinking about it (although sometimes I wonder if a higher illogic is more accurate). Infinity Increaser came at a time of a dawning realization that my guess is as good as anyone’s about the way the universe works. That gave me leave to take the provisional position that a matrix of charged objects in a space (or in no-space) can do work (I think of these objects as tools or machines), and further that the materials from which they are made can power or amplify that work.

    So you are right in perceiving that material choices are critical; some are chosen for particular properties (physical and esoteric) and some because they are root materials, that is, specific to my home place. Selenite, for example, has light-holding properties, is warm to the touch, comes from and dissolves back into water, and has a wood-like grain. See also: “solar things” as recommended by Marsilio Ficino in his De triplici vita (1489) to include achillea millefolium and 24k gold.

    Material activations of the immaterial and vice versa are a core consideration.Related: Fritjof Capra’s conception of a kind of quantum mysticism.

    “Form of the Atrium” Giordano Bruno, De Imaginum Signorum et Idearum Compositione (1591).

    EF: You’ve said that knots fascinate you because they present a scenario where “the place where points in a line that would never touch one another, do touch.” This bending of linearity into a spatial, modular form could be invoked as a visualization of hypertext interactions in cyberspace. With their reoccurrence in your written and visual work, have you seen the form of the knot evolve in both mathematical and phenomenological senses for you?

    Knot table.svg. By Jkasd via Wikimedia Commons.

    LR: I think all of the time about webs and knots. An evolution might be the surging presence for me of the idea of being a tender of the web. “Here we are, the tender(s),” I heard in my head when I was writing a poem with my friend Morgan Ritter. Knots are so resonant because they are the binders, the nodes, the points on the line, the counters, the stops. I believe in knots practically, conceptually, mathematically.

    Visualization of the world wide web common crawl 2012 by Sebastian Schelter. CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0), via Wikimedia Commons.

    I think about the leaps, the utter romance of HyperCard and honestly of CD-ROM technology when it was introduced…allowing pieces of information and media to touch each other, to form a web of connections between them...things that could not have happened in a world of print. It is the equivalent of drilling holes through books...or imagine we draw digital lines from a page in this book to a page in that book throughout a library, then color code the lines; it would make a tangled rainbow web! And lo, it has come to be and more. A tangled rainbow worldwide web. Treasure.

    There is the logical, analytical web of connections, yes. But there is also weird touching, the connection of that which does not logically or historically connect, and this is the promise of poem, the promise of brain-crossing, errant hyperlinks, and what I call speculative frictions, this project I’m engaged in of making matrices of objects in spaces and in digital or no-spaces. What will happen?

    EF: The relationship of zero and one appears to be at the foundation of a lot of your thinking — and of course provides the foundation of everything from binary to Jewish mysticism. Your book Prototyping Eutopias (2013) brings together excerpts from and remnants of these highly disparate systems, at times gesturing towards this 0-1 dynamic, but also other spiritually resonant forms. In this highly interconnected worldview, do you find these theoretically disparate systems interweaving in the process of your research and making? Have they become one for you? (alternately, zero?)

    LR: The distance between one and zero gets at the bedrock of what I care about and neatly points to the interconnected tangle in my thinking between the rational (science/technology/geometry) and the non-rational or a kind of punk gnosis.

    An origin story in which One, a pre-existing Unity, is differentiated into all that is, is a very different conception of things than the origin story which has the universe originating from nothing, zero. An ongoing consideration of this core difference feeds the work.

    Although I fault binariness (or forgetting originary unity)  for uncountable destructive impacts on thinking and being, I truly love binary code for so many reasons and was delighted to find that before Gottfried Leibniz “invented” it (a system without application for him at the time, which I also love), it is in a Sanskrit work on prosody, the Chandaḥsūtra, that the author Pingala makes the first description of a binary system in a discussion of poetic meter! What a perfect knot that is for me: the poem, the spiritual, and the mathematical. Binary code is a way I can understand running my fingers through molecules, to touch what is at the level, nearly, of constituent elements, the way I can imagine new accesses and manipulations and agency.

    It is why a fascination with quantum physics continues to be crucial to my work, because quantum entanglement is real, and the idea that direction of spin of two particles that have once been connected in some way are forever related to one another supports an interconnectivity that humans have been supposing for thousands of years.

    EF: Your poetry, in both The Book of Knots (2013) and Prototyping Eutopias, brings together some beautiful bibliographies, including ancient Greek philosophy, Ernst Bloch, and Wikipedia articles. Do you consider collective knowledge creation and accumulation a part of your artistic praxis? Does your visual art hold a pedagogical influence similar to your written works?

    LR: I am an undisciplined, free-associative researcher as prone to follow whims and tangents as to be systematic and dive deep. I have relied heavily on bibliographies for my own explorations, following the trunk of a book or essay down into its roots in the endnotes or bibliography. Things I didn’t even know I wondered about were there for me. This is where I have found my dead teachers and thinking fellows. It is the reverse of a blossoming...a digging into the compost, turning it and burrowing...sometimes to bedrock. Access to ideas. We take it for granted now, but this platform which supports this site which hosts the doc in which we type [this conversation], has made the inaccessible accessible. I can now see scans of centuries-old manuscripts, Eleanor, from the Vatican Library.

    What manifests from the various researches can be simple breadcrumb trails, as in The Mine King (a website as my prosthetic memory, subset of the greater prosthetic memory: Google), or my Twitter, or a constellation of ideas around a particular project that informs the matrix of objects and often emerges as poem or publication. The objects and books and web projects feed out of and into the research always. The outputs I think of as invitations to fellow thinkers (hopeful!)

    I have a special feeling for the time before we segmented into discrete channels work in mathematics, the sciences, operational practice, and wonder about the world and our place in it. Natural philosophers, Pythagoreans, sutra writers, wise women: theirs are the ways I want to wonder about the world, in an expansive, wide-ranging yet interrelated way, in ways both practical and speculative.

    Questionnaire:

    Age: 50

    Location: Portland, Oregon

    How/when did you begin working creatively with technology? In 1984, I wrote a program in Basic on an Apple IIe to make it play tic-tac-toe with me.

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

    I am an autodidact, and my fields of inquiry range widely from poetics to physics for the layman to anthropology, cryptography, geometry, geology, and feminisms. I do have a Bachelor’s degree from a state college in California. Mostly I remember that I took every philosophy of religion class available although it was not my field and used my sister’s notes for astronomy which I regret. I learn a lot from birds and water.

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

    I work full-time at an art college where I write and edit as well as mentor and do independent studies with students, which I love. I have been a writer, editor, copywriter, web zine publisher, junior division lightweight coder, receptionist, conceptual designer for an online world, and consultant for a bad web portal (portals!). I’ve worked in retail, offices, print shops, and swimming pools.

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

     

    Top image: Lisa Radon. Wasp Beads, 2016. photo courtesy: Ditch Projects

     


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    screenshot from Rafia Santana's RAFiA'S WORLD, a previous microgrant project recipient
     

     

    This year, Rhizome will award net art microgrants ranging from $500 to $1500 to fund the creation of new artworks or online exhibitions. Special emphasis will be given to projects that fall in one or more of these categories:
    • experimental narrative
    • artists living in NY
    • new browser-based works or series of curated works for front page exhibition on Rhizome.org.
    Front page works ideally use the full browser viewport with no visible scrollbars, and allow for nudity warnings as necessary, for people visiting the site from their office. For past examples, see Olia Lialina's Best Effort Network, Lance Wakeling's Incantations for the Birth of a Network, and Juan Obando's Museum Mixtape: Dirty South Edition.
     
    This program is run as an open call. Submissions comprise a simple 150-word statement, a single sketch or image, and a brief statement of financial need. Upon the close of the open call, the proposals will be considered by a jury, with three to five Microgrants awarded. This year's jurors will be R. Luke Dubois,  Shawné Michaelain Holloway, and Rhizome's Program Coordinator Kaela Noel.
     
    Additionally, in the coming weeks, we will be announcing the recipients of our program commissions for the coming year—including a new series of GIF commissions, supported by GIPHY—and issuing a call for nominations for the Prix Net Art, which is copresented by Rhizome with Chronus Art Center and TASML.
     
    The microgrants application deadline is August 11, 2016. Click here for the application form.
     
    The Rhizome Commissions Program is supported by Jerome Foundation, GIPHY, American Chai Trust, the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, and the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.
     
     
    Jury
     
    shawné michaelain holloway / int'l blkk cybr butchfem _playgURL, dirty new media performance artist + sex educator. her work explores performativity within user experience and interface design. with a special focus on the gender politics and diverse sexualities of black women, she creates performances in #realtime to be documented and remixed for film and audio. holloway's work has been featured in art spaces online and #IRL internationally including store contemporary, dresden, germany; reFrag festival, paris, france; simultan festival, timisoara, romania; gli.tc/h 2112 ~ chicago, il.
     
    R. Luke DuBois is a composer, artist, and performer who explores the temporal, verbal, and visual structures of cultural and personal ephemera. He holds a doctorate in music composition from Columbia University, and has lectured and taught worldwide on interactive sound and video performance. Exhibitions of his work include: the Insitut Valencià d’Art Modern, Spain; Haus der elektronischen Künste, Switzerland; 2008 Democratic National Convention, Denver; Weisman Art Museum, Minneapolis; San Jose Museum of Art; National Constitution Center, Philadelphia; Cleveland Museum of Contemporary Art; Daelim Contemporary Art Museum, Seoul; 2007 Sundance Film Festival; the Smithsonian American Art Museum; and the Aspen Institute.
     
    An active visual and musical collaborator, DuBois is the co-author of Jitter, a software suite for the real-time manipulation of matrix data developed by San Francisco-based software company Cycling'74. He appears on nearly twenty-five albums both individually and as part of the avant-garde electronic group The Freight Elevator Quartet. He currently performs as part of Bioluminescence, a duo with vocalist Lesley Flanigan that explores the modality of the human voice, and in Fair Use, a trio with Zach Layton and Matthew Ostrowski, that looks at our accelerating culture through elecronic performance and remixing of cinema.

    DuBois has lived for the last twenty-two years in New York City. He is the director of the Brooklyn Experimental Media Center at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering, and is on the Board of Directors of the ISSUE Project Room. His records are available on Caipirinha/Sire, Liquid Sky, C74, and Cantaloupe Music. His artwork is represented by bitforms gallery in New York City.
     
    Kaela Noel is Rhizome's program coordinator. She also runs Ambient Works, a publishing project for poetry and art-related texts.

     

    Top image: Lena NW and Costcodreamgurl, Viral (2015), a previous microgrant project recipient

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    “Imagine if we could begin our little life all over again. Imagine if it was all nothing more than some electronic game. Imagine if I knew then what I know now.” —Deus Ex Machina, Automata, 1984

    If videogames can be said to possess an “official history,” it is predicated primarily on the advancement of technology, the shifting of markets, and the consolidation of multinational corporations. This is a history which prioritizes technological advancement, from computer gaming’s rise as the product of quiet dissent among the engineers of military computers at MIT (Spacewar!, created by MIT engineers in 1962, is often regarded as the first iconic computer game),1 to the clinking of arcade machines and the ensuing success of the home console, which allowed publishers to cut out the middleman and sell their products directly to consumers. The changes that followed—developments like Jerry Lawson’s brilliant removable cartridges, which allowed games to be sold separately and individually from the consoles that ran them (prior to this, games were hard-coded into consoles and cabinets), and the less-brilliant Bit Wars, marked by petty marketing and consumer battles over the relative processing power of competing consoles—are understood through the lens of tech-progressivism.

    All of this foregrounds the growth of multimillion dollar franchises and legacy IPs owned more or less exclusively by a corporate oligopoly with an iron grip on both the culture and the market. The videogame industry has eagerly adopted the narrative of building a better machine and of selling a better product. The very argument of “games vs. art,” which was for a brief period stoked by Roger Ebert’s claims that “games can never be art,” has always been a sham that was willed into existence and accepted as fact by critics, academics, industrialists, and gamers themselves. But we should call this what it is: it’s not a struggle between “art” and “games,” it’s a struggle between “art” and “commerce.”

    There is a lesser-known history of the games themselves. By this I mean a more intimate account composed of a long heritage of games deliberately concerned with the artistic, political and personal. For these, the term “artgame”2 comes in handy. This term refers to videogames intended to provoke artistic ideas but still be understood contextually as games. The “artgame” stands in important contrast to “game art,” which is usually produced by conceptual artists and aims to treat games not as a form unto themselves but as raw material for new works. The line between the two, however, can and does blur. It’s sometimes unclear whether or not a given piece of digital art is intended to be read as a “game” or as “game-based conceptual art,” and I would argue that as games and art converge to insist on an unassailable distinction between the two is to engage in futile pedantry.

    Videogames as a medium and culture have more or less grown up on the internet, which hindered the growth of the art form as much as it helped it. On the one hand, the internet did facilitate the proliferation of small, independent and personal gaming experiments by allowing people to make and share them for little to no money. On the other, the growth of the corporate web has meant that a great deal of gaming’s art history has been lost, hamfistedly revised, or put into the “weird” corner of the medium’s past mistakes.

    Still frame from Deus Ex Machina (Automata, 1984).

    The very early days of the Bulletin-Board System were teeming with independent game creations to be shared, downloaded, and played by in-the-know enthusiasts, and folkish online communities centered around small, experimental works persist to this day. The maturation of games as a medium via the internet has spelled a more palpable opportunity for the growth of democratic, global, interdisciplinary, multimedia movements and collectives. The dark side of all this is that as the internet has evolved it has become more deeply corporatized, and market segmentation benefits from the fact that the nerd identity—which, as Kom Kunyosying and Carter Soles point out in their piece, “Postmodern geekdom as simulated ethnicity,” was effectively invented by corporations—has been elevated to an almost political imperative.

    Decades prior to the advent of the internet, a great deal of 20th-century art was preoccupied with more “interactive,” participatory approaches, much of which feels spiritually connected to that aforementioned “weird corner” of games—game art, artgames, small folkish experiments, and the like. People have been making interactive diversions out of existing technology for ages, from Medieval, paper-based text generation machines called “volvelles” to Thomas T. Goldsmith Jr. and Estle Ray Mann’s Cathode-Ray Tube Amusement Device—technically the first “videogame” based on manipulating the light beams of an oscilloscope—in 1947. Surrealists indulged in their parlour game of words and images, Exquisite Corpse, in the 1920s, as a way to spur creativity and the subconscious; computer art has existed as far back as the 1950s. In 1982, Fluxus artist Joseph Beuys created 7000 Oaks, a “social sculpture” which encouraged citizens of Kassel, Germany to participate in the work by planting trees in place of where Beuys had left as many basalt stones.

    By the 1960s, artists belonging to the often participatory Fluxus movement desired to purge the world of the bourgeois “sickness” of “dead art,” which is to say the sort of art meant to hang in museums or homes and merely be admired. Dead art was to be replaced by the more participatory, dynamic, activist “living art,” which would help instill in people a worldly insight and empathy. Flash forward to 2000, and we find the Scratchware Manifesto, a resistance cry against the homogenizing practices of the games industry that takes much of its cue from the anti-corporate, tech-communitarian Cyberpunk Manifesto, echoing some of that anti-establishment and arguably populist art philosophy, proclaiming, “Death to the gaming industry! Long live games!”

    Still frame from Cosmology of Kyoto (SOFTEDGE, 1994).

    If we take the official history of games at its word, we have what appears to be only a recent golden age of artistic experimentation and emotional maturity in games. The overwhelming cultural narrative posits that certain independent games—Jonathan Blow’s Braid (2008), Fullbright’s Gone Home (2013), or Supergiant’s Bastion (2011), for example—have succeeded as both critical and commercial successes and therefore represent a milestone in the actual artistic development of the medium. This view is understandable, but it’s also wrong. A sophisticated artistic treatment of games has existed since almost the very beginning of game development. In fact, there was once a time, from the mid-’80s to the mid-’90s, where even games published by leading companies expressed more comfort and flexibility with the experimental and the avant-garde.

    This is by no means to say that it was easier for artists to deviate from the formula much more than it is now, or that artists now are doing so less often. Many tasted rejection, commercial failure, and resentment, with or without critical acclaim. Even those who did not, like Keita Takahashi (Katamary Damacy), often found their works stripped of context and uncomfortably commodified, and their own role in their creation marginalized. These games continue to suffer from a severe lack of recognition in industry, academia, and popular discourse, and games made today which, like their predecessors, aim for the personal, experimental, conceptual, and affective often languish in obscurity. It seems surprising to say that the idea of the “artgame” goes back to at least the early 2000s, and that such works were being exhibited in spaces like the MASS MoCA. It seems even more surprising, given the hardened assumptions of the culture, that, as developer G.P. Lackey put it, “Artgames are as old as games!

    That creative risks were taken with more financial backing during this period is perhaps partly owed to the newness of the industry, and perhaps partly to its extreme instability. Ted Trautman notes in his New Yorker piece, “Excavating the Video-Game Industry’s Past,” that within the span of a year the industry went from booming to crashing and very nearly disappearing altogether. In 1982, the American company Atari, known for iconic games like Space Invaders and Pong, controlled 85 percent of the global videogame market. By 1983, Atari had flooded the market with games and failed to attract consumers to its new console, which led to a major fall from grace that took down a great deal of the industry with it. That same year, truckloads of unsold copies of games (most famously, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial) were then infamously buried in the desert of Alamogordo, New Mexico. Nintendo is widely believed to have rescued the industry with its introduction of the Famicom (billed as the Nintendo Entertainment System) to North American markets in 1985, and European markets between 1986 and 1987. As a result, Japan became the epicenter of the games industry until the late ‘90s, when it began to migrate back to North America.

    Still frame from Cosmology of Kyoto (SOFTEDGE, 1994).

    Only a year after the Atari crash, an early attempt to deliberately treat a videogame like a work of art was released. In 1984, Automata, a little outfit from Portsmouth, UK, put out a game on cassette for the ZX Spectrum called Deus Ex Machina. Previous games from the company had been light-hearted and cheeky—such as 1982’s Pimania, in which the first person who was able to solve all the puzzles was awarded a £6,000 golden sundial. But Deus Ex Machina was different. The architect-turned-game designer, Mel Croucher, described to Polygon’s Colin Campbell how he had put his “heart and soul” into the game.

    Still frames from Deus Ex Machina (Automata, 1984).

    Deus Ex Machina cost a pricey £15 at launch and was played off of a cassette with an audio track to accompany it (you’ll have to use an mp3 and a ZX Spectrum emulator to simulate the effect on PC), and boasted some really impressive voice-over work from iconic British actors Frankie Howerd, Jon Pertwee, and Donna Bailey, as well as punk legend Ian Dury. It follows the story of a mutant, a “defective” life form made accidentally from a mouse dropping. The game recounts the Defect’s gestation inside of the “machine,” its growth, escape, accomplishments, failures, choices, and ultimately its death, all narrated by Pertwee and profoundly inspired by “The Seven Ages of Man” from Shakespeare’s As You Like It. The prose goes so far as to take direct cues from the play, often slipping into modified verse that blends Shakespeare’s words with the language of cybernetic dystopia implied by the title.

    Through the audio, we are told this story of birth, life, and death, delivered with sometimes too-earnest poetry-prose by Pertwee, with Bailey as the gestating Machine, Dury as the jaunty Fertilizing Agent, Croucher as the Defect, and Howerd as the corrupt police officer attempting by turns to destroy or control the Defect. It is through their observations and instructions that the user is taught how to play the game. Often, in broken Shakespeare or rock ‘n roll lyrics, the game audio contextualizes the geometrically abstract visuals with meditations about morality, choice, contradiction, duty, and individuality.

    What makes Deus Ex Machina so fascinating is how it engages with metatextuality well before the appearance of games like The Stanley Parable (2011) started to generate buzz. The life cycle of the Defect is “scored” by a percentage that sits in the top or bottom-right corner of the screen, and is apparently affected by how well the player follows the patterns in each successive stage, although the relationship between the two is not discernible. And it doesn’t matter, anyway. It’s a trap within the game that also chides the valuation of more “violent” videogame fare, and condemns the makers and promoters of it. It sets up and subverts an expectation that anything can be done to preserve or meaningfully quantify the life of the Defect. Only reflection can provide any meaning.

    Deus Ex Machina wasn’t a financial success, despite some critical acclaim. Automata had fallen from the foremost developer in the UK to its office being sold to a dentist for 15 pence. The cost and scope of the project, including the robust packaging, has been identified as a culprit in the company’s closure, as was the rampant piracy of the game at the time. But there’s another element here as well: Croucher lamented, and continues to lament, the industry’s general reluctance to invest in and support artistic experimentation in games, stating bluntly, “I can't believe it's still people shooting each other and jumping up and down. It's crap.”

    Deus Ex Machina may be seen as a cautionary tale about the prospects of artgames in the commercial videogame world. But perhaps there’s a silver lining to be found in the success of the Kickstarter campaign for the game’s sequel and the subsequent reopening of Automata. This game did eventually pay off, largely in the sense that it fomented a lasting admiration in the fans it had touched, and was arguably so ahead of the curve that it took a while before culture and technology could catch up with it. I discovered the game thanks to a tweet by independent developer Michael Brough (Corrypt, 868-HACK), who also found himself so enamoured of the game’s earnestness and beauty that it moved him to tears.

    Perhaps a less beloved, though no less iconic experiment in the digital arts can be found in Takeshi’s Challenge (1986). Conceived by Japanese comedian and actor Beat Takeshi and developed and published by the Taito Corporation, Takeshi’s Challenge comes off as a game made by somebody who hates games, and for good reason. Beat Takeshi has openly admitted his curmudgeonly disdain for digital entertainment and modern technology, and the intense degree of involvement he demanded during the development of this game ensures it bears the mark both of his impish, Andy Kaufman-esque humor and snarling social commentary.

    Still frames from Takeshi’s Challenge (Taito Corporation, 1986).

    Takeshi’s Challenge puts the player in the shoes of a Japanese salaryman working at a middling company. A new game begins with the salaryman getting berated by his boss for underperforming. One may be tempted at this point to speak to their boss and receive a holiday bonus, but I’ll let you in on a secret—this would be a terrible mistake. That bonus will come in handy, but only after the player has left the building, gone to the bank, and emptied out and closed their bank account. The player is then supposed to go to the learning center to learn how to play the shamisen (a Japanese guitar), get blind drunk, and divorce their wife (at which point she will take half the money). Only then do guides suggest speaking to the boss, collecting the bonus, resigning, and leaving the building forever, but not before crouching by a ficus tree next to the exit to retrieve a stash of hidden bills.

    Now, the adventure really begins: our salaryman gets into fistfights with Yakuza thugs at a pachinko hall (then robs them to buy his own shamisen), drunkenly sings at a karaoke bar (before once again getting into a brawl), receives a mysterious map from an old man as a reward for his toughness, flies to the South Pacific, and goes on a hidden treasure hunt. Upon finding the treasure, the player is greeted by Takeshi himself, who then playfully warns the player not to take playing the game (or presumably, any game) too seriously.

    Still frames from Takeshi’s Challenge (Taito Corporation, 1986).

    Without outside help, I would have thought that Takeshi’s Challenge was made up of no more than getting blackout drunk at bars until I had effectively blown all my money, lost my job, and left my family. This game takes the ideas of “adventure,” “exploration,” and “mastery,” and flips them on their heads, turning the experience into a slog, a mean-spirited joke. This is why I love it—or rather, the idea of it. This game is aggressively not fun and almost completely luck-based, which is intentional. Take, for instance, a segment in which the player receives the mysterious map, and has to soak it in water for an exact amount of time—without pressing anything!—to obtain its hidden information. There’s no hint provided in the game to help the player figure this out, and no way to discover the solution other than through trial and error or with a guide. As a matter of fact, the game is so unrelenting that players felt its original strategy guide was incomplete, and Taito released an updated version shortly after.

    The game, released exclusively in Japan for the Famicom, was therefore never translated. To play it in English, I had to rely on a ROM-hacked version (that is, a version modified to alter or introduce elements of the game which were not there originally) run off of an NES emulator called FCEUX. This isn’t terribly surprising, since the game was universally panned, but I would be surprised if this was something Beat Takeshi didn’t expect. Even today, gaming culture has a hard time acclimatizing to conceptual challenges and formal subversions, tending to assume that a game which does not play as expected is also not designed as intended. Many still view experiments like this as somehow incomplete, or in extreme (and increasingly rare) cases, perhaps not even games at all.

    But Takeshi’s Challenge, with the tools at its disposal, managed to accomplish a genre feat that many contemporary games struggle with. Only a few years ago, satire in games was a hot topic, and most interlocutors found themselves asking why it was that so much game satire seemed so flaccid, toothless, and self-defeating. I personally weighed in with the opinion that satirical context and framing—including of sensitive topics—was indeed possible, but that many games unfortunately expressed a degree of tone-deafness that rendered any claim to satire feel like a cowardly cop-out. But I now contend that the question of effective satire in videogames had already been answered twenty years earlier by a comedian who hates games. Takeshi’s Challenge mixes onscreen gags and dry, dark writing chock-full of misdirection and exaggeration with a fiendishly unfair approach to ludic design that points the finger back at the hubris and prejudice of the player. In its irreverence for the prevailing wisdom of gaming-as-entertainment of the era (and today), Takeshi’s Challenge may be viewed as an anti-game in the way that a Dadaist or a Fluxus artist would make anti-art. The joke was on us the whole time.

    Still frame from Takeshi’s Challenge (Taito Corporation, 1986).

    Deus Ex Machina demonstrated that games can be poetic, abstract, and tonally complex while telling an effective story, and Takeshi’s Challenge showed the capacity of the medium to make substantive, subversive social and formal critique. A game like J.J. Squawkers (1992), on the other hand, gave us a window into what’s possible for games in the realm of surrealist aesthetics and the evocative composition of digital architecture.

    The latter two experiments with videogame craft appeared on consoles, and others on home computers. But a handful managed to show up in arcades, which prefigured the contemporary mainstream gaming landscape in their tendency to avoid risk and rely on established formula. J.J. Squawkers is one of the rare exceptions to that rule. The game takes maybe a half hour to play through, and in that time it blossoms from a fairly one-note, if whimsical, little arcade shooter into a pastel-shaded fever dream that feels like a trip inside the mind of conceptual artist Barbara Kasten.

    J.J. Squawkers was distributed by Able and developed by Athena, a company specializing in shoot-em-ups. Most of the games designed for cabinet machines were designed with the intention of being profitable in sometimes-insidious ways. Having used the MAME emulator to run J.J. Squawkers, I was shielded from this reality thanks to automated credits and a pause button. Ostensibly, it’s a conventional arcade shooter: it hooks the player and takes them for all the quarters they have. The one review I managed to find about the game, at a site called Retro Collect, notes that the game lifts its ludic devices mainly from another strange arcade game, Ghosts and Goblins. Run, jump across platforms, shoot at patterned waves of enemies. Where the game really shines, though, is in its visuals, and so needs to be seen to be truly appreciated.

    Still frames from J.J. Squawkers (Athena, 1992).

    J.J. Squawkers can be played single or co-op, and puts the player in the sneakers of either a green raven named Ani, or a pink one named Ototo. With one or both of these birds, the player must restore balance to the pastoral land of Pistachioville by taking down flying squirrels, bellicose flowers, flying pegasi in space, cosmological symbols, ornery robots—and those are the creatures that don’t defy description. The looping chiptune muzak sets the tone for the absolute carnival that awaits even in the fairly easygoing, pastoral first stage.

    By stage two, the rug is pulled out completely. A woman’s bent head directs the eye toward a red chair and a herd of pink buffalo. Pink swans lift the player to the next area and husk-like orbs crumble beneath their feet. Mazes that look like graphic errors push me left as plate-eyed blocks threaten to crush me. Futuristic, psychedelic cityscapes made of bubblegum or cut glass almost blend into the patterned floor beneath me.

    Where this game excels, particularly with its 2D, side-scrolling plane, is in its ability to create depth and confuse the eye. Staggered layers and textures, from the smooth-faced polygons, meshes, and grids to staticky glitch art and pixelated or painterly figures give each stage weight and dimension. It’s cluttered and busy yet deliberate, and so makes for great virtual pastiche. At times it’s not clear what’s solid footing and what’s background, or what may be an enemy until it tries to kill you, but it all works to serve the dreamlike and utterly absurd nature of the game. Learning how the spaces work helps the player actually play, but the spaces also engender a deeper appreciation of the space and how it is put together. There’s a conceptual element in that this game wants us to feel its textures and find the logics in its compositions, without having us worry too much about the validity of what we are doing.

    Still frames from J.J. Squawkers (Athena, 1992).

    Evocative composition, aesthetics, tone, and storytelling in a ludic context continued to develop in published videogames well into the mid-’90s. SOFTEDGE’s 1994 release, Cosmology of Kyoto, arguably stands as one of the great early syntheses of all of those elements, as well as a fascinating mix of genres. The game mixes historical fiction with psychological and body horror in a way that’s rich, alive, and deeply discomforting. Notably, the late Ebert, who famously dismissed the entire medium as crass entertainment, wrote of the game for Wired in the year of its release:

    The richness is almost overwhelming; there is the sense that the resources of this game are limitless and that no two players would have the same experience. I have been exploring the ancient city in spare moments for two weeks now, and doubt that I have even begun to scratch the surface. This is the most beguiling computer game I have encountered, a seamless blend of information, adventure, humor, and imagination – the gruesome side-by-side with the divine.

    To run this game today, I installed an image file on my Windows 3.1 DOSBox virtual machine. To get the machine working in the first place—in order to play the Prince game, as a matter of fact—I enlisted the ever-patient critic and writer Jenn Frank. About two years prior to helping me, Frank had already written out a guide for those playing the game on Mac, much to the delight of Ebert himself.

     

    Still frames from Cosmology of Kyoto (SOFTEDGE, 1994).

    The game, presented in an unusual, cinematic widescreen, makes use of a mix of influences, from Buddhist and Shinto allegory to Yurei-zu painting to ero guro manga. It takes place in ancient Kyoto around year 900 and follows the explorations of a traveler through this dilapidated, miserable city where the poor beg and suffer and the rich hide in palaces and temples. I should also mention, the place is haunted by ghosts, terrorized by hell demons and partially razed by a meteor that knocks down yet another piece of barely-serviceable wall. I begin the game by customizing a character and am dropped naked into a field. I’m left to fend for myself, stealing clothes and money off a corpse and slowly making my way to the city walls.

    On my journey, I meet a legendary warrior with whom I trade a talisman for a sword, a procession of sick, disillusioned beggars and uncaring upperclassmen, a seductive maiden, the ghost of an ancient noble, a gang of murderous thieves, a Buddhist monk who tries to save my soul, indulgent and out-of-touch courtiers, and a horde of malicious, bloodthirsty demons. It doesn’t matter if I die, because I will always reincarnate into some new body—some random combination of features—and have the opportunity to retrieve my clothing and money sack from the last shrunken, gray corpse I accidentally walked into in the jaws of oblivion. For a brief instant I will see heaven or hell, depending on my hidden “karmic score,” and then come back to Kyoto.

    The tone, atmosphere, and imagery of scenes make for moving and memorable moments. Of the handful that really stood out for me in my last playthrough, there was one that brought together all the aesthetic and thematic elements of Cosmology of Kyoto in a beautiful, disturbing fashion.

    While passing through Kyoto’s ramshackle market, I come across a young woman held captive by two brute men. They’ve accused her of thievery and are threatening to kill her while she pleads her innocence. At that moment, I draw my sword, scaring off the men and earning the woman’s trust and admiration. The close-up on her face highlights her relief and gratitude. She offers to give me, a weary traveler, a place to stay for the night and asks me to follow her to the location. Of course, just about every household in this town is haunted or infested with demons, and this one is no different. From the shadows a demon rises, lurches into the foreground and grabs the young girl from behind. The scene fades out to the sound of her screams.

    The demon howls, commanding me to leave. On my way out of the home, feeling my way through the darkness, I find her body. It’s dessicated and bound. Her face is twisted with fear and sadness. The game’s widescreen resolution makes the space feel more narrow and claustrophobic. The morbid eroticism of her bound body evokes ero guro—a 1920s Japanese manga style focused on a combination of the sexual, surreal, and grotesque—and particularly the bondage- and demon-preoccupied works of artists like Toshio Saeki. The supernatural nature of her horrific death—and of the certainty of her suffering, trapped soul—contains strong notes of Yurei-zu, particularly as seen in the work of Sawaki Sushi or Yoshitoshi.

    Despite critical acclaim in the West, Cosmology of Kyoto was ultimately a failure in Japan, especially among residents of Kyoto who didn’t take too kindly to the grim depiction of their city. But it’s still worth considering for the standard it sets, both as a 3D adventure game with so many well-oiled moving parts and as a genre hybrid that manages to enchant, compel, and confront the player on multiple levels while letting them explore at their own pace.

    The games mentioned here only scratch the surface; there’s a wealth of artgames that existed well before 2008 that get excluded from the conversation despite their contributions. One could argue that the reason so many of these creative deviations remain consigned to the fringe of videogame history is because they were marginal accomplishments in their day, or enjoyed moderate success at best. This is only half true. While the games I described all have a relative lack of commercial success in common, many have achieved iconic status even among non-art-minded gaming enthusiasts. EarthBound, a satirical sci-fi role-playing game designed by actor and essayist Shigesato Itoi and released for the SNES in 1994 is considered a massively influential game. The multimedia artist Osamu Sato would go on to design LSD: Dream Emulator, a first-person 3D game for Playstation released in 1998 that is steeped in surreal imagery and symbolism, and is considered by many to be a tour de force regarding its use of space to imply a dreamscape. These works and more belong to an era of major published projects found on consoles, home computers, and in arcades, and for a brief time, it was something close to normal to be weird.

    To fully embrace and develop the experimental potential of games, and the artistic potential for technology in a way that’s socially beneficial, there is a need for broad material resistance to neoliberal effects on labor (e.g., universal income, unionization, and games-inclusive social funding for the arts). That in itself reflects a deeply complex, structurally broad set of problems that need to be resolved at the macro socioeconomic level, and are difficult to address in the videogame industry due to its structure and lack of a labor history. This is an industry which as a whole has demonstrated a repeated lack of concern for games as artistic or historical objects. This is an industry in which independent developers still have to rely on hit-making and windfall success or find something else to do. For that matter, this is a culture in which most people who play games are completely alienated from the labor involved in making them, from resource extraction to manufacturing to development.

    At least for starters, a cultural shift that begins with a historical understanding of games-as-art which doesn’t treat this reality as anomalous, “fringe” or somehow contradictory, will open up our contemporary understanding of the form, and let in scores of artists who’ve been excluded from consideration. There are some promising endeavours to these ends, including independently curated archives, critical journals, and some rather radical creative collectives.3 People doing this kind of work often do so as a labor of love, and operate under relative precarity, frequently at risk of having to shutter their platforms or disband their collectives. A cultural value shift can perhaps help to circulate more capital, both financial and social, in the direction of these initiatives and individuals. The more permanent shift, however, will be the one that embraces videogames not just as commodities but as part of a history of interactive and digital art. This understanding can help us situate games as an art form that can and should enrich our lives personally, communally, and even politically. It could drastically change our relationship to technology and to the arts.

    The idea that games can be expressive, thoughtful, and socially impactful is not new, and the longer we continue to believe it is, or that this is merely a byproduct of advanced technology, the more we will continue to sideline the experiments that make growth possible. We limit ourselves needlessly by ignoring this long history, and the creative work of those who sought to create meaning from this strange, newish form. We leave the terms of the discussion in the hands of those who see interactive digital art as good for no more than passive entertainment commodity or, at worst, corporate and state propaganda.4

    Another future is possible for the form and all the people working in its orbit. We excavated videogaming’s past to trace its failures once; we can do so in a more figurative sense to trace its most intriguing contributions and, hopefully, point to a better alternative reality.

    Footnotes:

    1. The first “electronic game” is technically Thomas T. Goldsmith Jr.’s and Estle Ray Mann’s 1947 invention, the Cathode Ray Tube Amusement Device. In 1958, William Higginbotham released Tennis for Two, which was played on oscilloscopes and analog computers, and some argue that this is in fact the first videogame. Spacewar!, while technically the third digital game in this timeline, is still arguably the most influential and iconic of the three.
    2. Although coinage of the term “artgame” is sometimes attributed to artgame designer Jason Rohrer, its usage goes back to at least 2003 when new media artist Tiffany Holmes referred to it in her paper, "Arcade Classics Span Art? Current Trends in the Art Game Genre." In John Sharp’s 2015 book, Works of Game, he distinguishes between “artgames”—games made with the intention of being art while still contextualized as games—and “game art,” which refers to the use of videogame iconography and technology as raw material by artists working in other domains.
    3. Archiving initiatives include the Internet Archive’s preservation of over 2400 DOS games to their collection, a few of which critic Cara Ellison sardonically dove into for The Guardian. Sites like My Abandonware and Abandonia work to preserve games which are no longer easily available or supported by their original publishers, and the existence of accessible, art-oriented books, journals (like The Arcade Review, for which I am a writer), development collectives, zines, and so on about or inclusive of games help to popularize some of this alternative history. More overtly political attempts to connect the form to the outside world, like Jacobin’s sponsorship of Subaltern Games for their project, No Pineapple Left Behind, also demonstrate the medium’s capacity for cultural, communal, and educational relevance, although a lot more can be done in this area.
    4. I refer to recruitment tools like America’s Army. I also refer to Simon Parkin’s investigative piece,“Shooters: How Video Games Fund Arms Manufacturers,” the industry’s general obfuscation of its relationship to conflict minerals, and much pettier situations like the “Dorito Pope” affair that point to the deeply commercialized facets of the medium.

     

    Top image: still frame from Deus Ex Machina (Automata, 1984).


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  • 08/04/16--08:27: Rhizome is Hiring
  • Rhizome is hiring for two positions within the organization: a full-time (part-time negotiable) Software Curator for Systems and Environments and a part-time Assistant Curator, Net Art. 

    Software Curator

    Rhizome seeks a Software Curator to conceptualize, create, test, and describe systems to re-enact digital artifacts in order to advance emulation as a preservation strategy. This position is part of a two-year grant awarded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), involving the University of Freiburg (Germany) and Yale University. The full project narrative is available at: IMLS.gov

    Assistant Curator, Net Art

    Rhizome seeks an entry-level Assistant Curator to support a new initiative launching in October 2016. The Assistant Curator position is a role for a talented and organized individual who plans to pursue a career as a curator with a net art focus. In this role, you will work with Rhizome's Artistic Director to curate the re-performance and narration of internet artworks. Candidates must be eligible to work in the United States. The position is part-time but includes benefits. This appointment is funded by a generous grant from the Carl & Marilynn Thoma Art Foundation.

    The application deadline for each position is August 30, 2016.

    **Rhizome is an Equal Opportunity Employer and candidates from groups generally underrepresented in technical fields are especially encouraged to apply.**

     

     

    Top image: Jan Robert Leegte's untitled[scrollbars] (2000), viewable in Rhizome's ArtBase


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    Rhizome is pleased to announce the first full release of Webrecorder, the free online tool that allows users to create their own high-fidelity archives of the dynamic web. All internet users are now invited to sign up for a free account with 5GB of archiving storage space at webrecorder.io.

    Current digital preservation solutions involve complex, automated processes that were designed for a web made up of relatively static documents. Webrecorder, in contrast, can capture social media and other dynamic content, such as embedded video and complex javascript, while putting the user at the center of the archiving process.

    This release offers a number of improvements to the fidelity, usability, and stability of the platform.

    Recording Sessions

    This release introduces the concept of recording sessions as the smallest unit of a web collection. When a user browses through Webrecorder, the recorded traffic is added to a new recording. Collections can contain multiple recordings, and users can rename recordings, move recordings to different collections and delete unwanted recordings as needed.

    Import Any Existing Web Archive

    Webrecorder now allows users to upload existing web archives created by a wide variety of web archive tools. Any standard WARC (or ARC) file, including those created by traditional web crawlers or older versions of Webrecorder can now be imported and added to users’ collections. This feature can be used to add high fidelity recordings to an existing low fidelity data collection or to move existing web archives into Webrecorder. Look forward to more extended interoperability features coming in future releases.

    Export Full Web Collections

    Webrecorder has always allowed users to download their web archives as WARC files. With this release, the full metadata, including all metadata about the collection, the list of recordings and bookmarks are part of the standards-compliant WARC file. This WARC file can then be imported into another Webrecorder instance to fully recreate the collection, or be used by third-party tools.

    Highest Fidelity Recording and Replay

    This release features numerous fidelity improvements to ensure that the pages using latest web technologies can be recorded and replayed better than ever before. Additional improvements will be coming in the future.

    Web Archiving for All and More Storage

    Finally, the registration process has been opened up to anybody with an email address. We are now offering all signed-up users 5GB of archiving storage space to get started creating your own high-fidelity web archive.

    Of course, you can continue to use Webrecorder anonymously and create temporary collections, but signing up will give your collections a permanent home on the web!

    Rhizome's Webrecorder project is led by Ilya Kreymer, Lead Developer, and Dragan Espenschied, Preservation Director. Major support for the Webrecorder project is provided by The Andrew W Mellon Foundation.


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    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.

    Gaby Cepeda: RAFiA’S WORLD is one of your recent projects, and it’s essentially a huge archive of both written works and drawings from your childhood and early years.  Can you elaborate more on how it came to be? Why is it important to you to preserve these digitally? And what’s the experience of going through them been like?

    Rafia Santana: Rafia’s World in its original form exists on my mother's website. It is a selection of memories written anecdotally that I illustrated at age six for the purpose of living on my mom’s website as an art piece (my first net art!). It remains there unchanged ten years later. The new RAFiA’s WORLD is a collection of illustrations I made for school assignments and leisure that spans the course of eight years, following my developing consciousness and growth as a kid and artist.

    My family is made up of creatives, so I was encouraged to make art at a young age. My mom specifically is an archivist and a collector, and she kept a large stack of composition notebooks full of my drawings and school assignments dating back to 1992. Poking around in my dining room one day last year, I rediscovered the notebooks in a closet. I hadn't seen them in over ten years. I flipped through them hungrily snapping photos of the images with my phone and uploading them to Instagram. My mother always told me to sign and date my work so much of the drawings have my name scribbled somewhere on them. It's a trait that remains in my work to this day. Friends that follow me on Instagram were really interested in seeing more of my kid drawings and I wanted to extend their longevity by digitizing the images. So I bought a $15 scanner from a thrift shop and got to work! Luckily, along the way, I received a microgrant to encourage me to finish it. In a way it is both an extension and a remix of the original piece. Although I am not narrating scenes, as I did in the original, I'm imitating the archival nature of preserving years old (in some cases, decades old) content of a child's creations. It is a privilege to still have these books.

    Looking at my young art has been fascinating! To see my childhood visions with adult eyes. Seeing that childlike fluidity, seeing how I learned to pair and mix colors. A teacher's note, stuck in one of the notebooks from 1992 stated, "Rafia has an obvious interest in circles." In a 1996 journal entry, I wrote:

    I Need a Friend.

    All by MySelf

    I can play, alone

    But. I need for

    Sharing.

    If nothing else, this project has shown me that I'm making the same art I've made all my life. Now I just have more experience and a steadier hand.

    Rafia Santana, RAFiA’s World: I Wish That I Wood Not Mes Up. And That I’m Not Bad. (1995) 

    GC: Your work takes on almost every digital medium available: photography, video, animated GIFs, illustration, music. Is there a reason behind this diversification? And is there a thread keeping everything coherent as a whole?

    RS: I have to switch up medium every once in awhile because I get sick of one and I can't limit myself. I will have a block on one medium and just need to express myself in another. I am lucky to be able to activate my process in different ways. Staring at Photoshop for days on end gets tiring so I switch to a music program, or I’ll make a video, or I’ll write, or draw. I express myself however I can; the mediums I use change with my moods and my energy level.

    All of my work comes from the same place and it tends to be hyperchromatic, even in sound. I love bright saturated colors, especially pink and yellow, and I douse myself and everything around me in them. They stand out and attract. This comes in handy when I want to bring attention to difficult topics like Black American genocide and sexist expectations. I made a pink and yellow animated GIF of a noose swinging back and forth in front of a ticket with the word FREE on it. It looks like an advertisement for a children’s toy, making the message more sinister. I made a chipper electronic track called KiLL in which I sampled audio from a witness video of LAPD officers killing a homeless black man. I love hiding messages and finding new ways to say things. It’s all play, and I love to play.

    Rafia Santana, Free (2015). Animated .GIF.

    My personal style is also my reclamation of Black Childhood. Black and brown kids are punished more severely than other races and are often seen as conniving and dangerous. As a black Girl, even as small as I am, I am seen as intimidating and inherently more masculine than women of other races, especially when I stand up for myself or don’t submit quietly. I have a deep booming voice and a spirit ten times larger than my body so I take on a hyper-childlike pink image as a disarming camouflage to appear less threatening and to make my navigation through a dangerous anti-black, misogynist world somewhat smoother. The more “fun” and “cute” I look (within and sometimes pushing the limits of Western beauty standards), the more access and opportunities I am afforded and the more people pay attention to what I have to say. Up to a point.

    I wear plastic pink daisy barrettes in my hair as tribute to the strength and creativity of little  black girls. As a child there were many times I felt frightened and powerless. As an adult I have reclaimed some of that power and when I put on my barrettes and my pink, I gather my strength for Her, the Little Black Girl who’s hurting. I power through obstacles and obligations to tell her, “Look, I got you, you’re not weak, you’re not alone, you’re valid, you’re good, you’re not too much.” In my pink, I am the image of my own savior, my own future. It’s self care, it’s healing.

    GC: You’re a very strong presence on social media, though it seems like you have a love/hate relationship with it. Your output is both very personal and outspokenly political. You regularly post about systemic racism, feminism, police violence, and denounce racist and delusional white feminist attitudes, a lot of times getting you banned by the unfair “blind-eye-towards-racism” Facebook user policies. Do these interactions on social media influence your work process in any way?

    RS: My love/hate for social media is more just my fluctuating energy level. Sometimes, my Facebook status messages are like my sketches; I’m writing about my work a lot when I talk about myself. One day I may be hyper and chatty, and another day I’m overwhelmed and moody. The words and images I post are likely to be incorporated into my work as song lyrics or visual inspiration. My online interactions are part of my work process as they are just as real and affecting as offline interactions. So real that I’ve gotten a few “Nigger Wake Up Calls” where people I’ve known or thought were chill turn out to be obstinate racists. The only political thing about me is my unwillingness to stay quiet about what’s happening around me. But a lot of people, especially white people and especially white men, have a problem with being told that their actions cause harm whether they meant it or not, especially if a black woman is the one doing the telling. And since these social media sites are run by white people it’s themselves who they cater to and protect. Black and brown people are regularly blocked from posting, or “Zucked,” simply for hurting white feelings with the truth and speaking out on their racialized experiences, whereas non-black people are often allowed to remain active even after being aggressively racist.

    Despite having to to duck under and obscure my message with misspellings and self-censorship (often having to scramble the phrase “white people” to avoid having my account frozen) I’m usually super excited to share when I’ve made something cool. I enjoy studying what people respond to and social media is a fast and simple way to reach others, especially when reaching out seems like a difficult task. I often get so anxious about life plans, black murder, and the knowledge that I’ll be fighting every day until I die for my right to thrive that it’s exhausting to try to participate in my day-to-day activities, so I’ll hole myself up, not talk to anybody, and create work until I’ve compartmentalized that energy.

    GC: You’re visibly present in a lot of your work, whether having your actual image in it, or your name or logo-selfie. How do you make this work with your references? Also, recently you announced a transition into picturing yourself less, how are you doing that, and why?

    RS: My straying away from including myself in my work is a combination of reclusive habits and experimenting with how I can turn colors and shapes into perceived objects. How can I show myself without showing my body or my face? It's me making my work more recognizable even if I'm not present. I'll never completely exit my work physically. I’ve embedded so much of myself into my aesthetic so I’ll always be present, even if not in recognizable human form. Pinks, patterns, and my name tiled throughout my images represent my personality: I’m bold, I’m bright, and I want you to know that I’m behind my own genius.

    Like a good millennial, I do a lot of spontaneous Googling. Sometimes I don’t consider references when creating work but I do keep an “inspiration folder” on my computer that’s full of images I find online. Some pictures I’ve saved are of racist American memorabilia from the Jim Crow era that I’ve referenced in two of my pieces: Hit Me Baby(2016), which uses a reworked sign for a carnival game Hit The Negro, and Worked(2015), a photograph in which I have three legs and I’m wearing an apron with a Mammy image on it and my butt is exposed. Black femmes are expected to be subservient to masculinity, or show ass, cook, coddle, like “tits or gtfo,” like how on 4chan’s /b/ room if you’re a “girl” you have to show your breasts just for your post to get a response.

    Rafia Santana, Hit Me Baby (2016). Animated .GIF. 

    Rafia Santana, WORKED (2015). Digital image.

    GC: You recently curated and edited a video compilation of young women/queer artists, called #POWERVHS. Considering your heavily networked practice, curating seems like a very natural evolution. Can you explain more about the project, how it came to be and what was important to you during the selection process?

    RS: #POWERVHS is a 9-artist visual mixtape that was born out of a need to see black and brown women and queer femme/non-binary artists as masters of their own image and overseers of their own practice in a hyper-masculine white world that overvalues itself. It features artists Hattie Ball, Michelle Marie Charles, Angelina Fernández, Reagan Holiday, María José, Nandi Loaf, Elizabeth Mputu, Sondra Perry, and me. The contributors are friends of mine or people that I’ve admired from the other side of the internet. The only requirements were to identify as a Woman (capitalized to title a performative role in society) or queer/nonbinary and make video. For me, the tape had to be predominantly black and brown as we are underrepresented across the board, especially in power positions. There’s one white artist in the compilation whose work is notably otherworldly whereas the surrounding pieces are highkey grounded in reality. It’s an interesting contrast; this is definitely a developing project and it was a thrill to put together. I know so many more people who do ridiculously good work than I was able to fit on this tape, I kept adding people and was like, wait I have to do all this editing myself, lemme stop hahaha.

    I thought of who I know that does video work and I chose the first eight people that popped into my head: Angelina, Michelle, and Reagan Holiday are all art school friends. I was introduced to the work and energy of Nandi Loaf, Elizabeth, and Sondra via Facebook and the net art circuit. Hattie Ball did a super neat VR music video for a friend of mine and musical artist Xhosa, and I met María at a party at Spectrum. She was getting her life dancing and I snapped a picture and asked where I could send it. She plugged her Instagram handle into my phone and I’ve been keeping up with her work since. She does beautiful portrait photography, but one day I noticed she posted a wacky video she made and I thought it was the perfect style for the compilation. I sent everyone an intro email asking them to participate in the project in any way that referenced POWER for them and they all said yes! Sondra’s piece relates systemic violence to a malfunctioning computer; Nandi’s is a boasting, surrealist Slipknot cover; and Michelle’s explores a woman’s religious devotion to Steve Harvey. It ranges from hilarious to heart-wrenching to grounded and focused. In Elizabeth Mputu’s 5 Elemental Breaths - Cyber Exercise she encourages Kolored Gurlz to take a break from the internet. It’s all really spectacular.

    It exists in the #POWERVHS installation, which opened Friday July 8th at Disclaimer Gallery on 603 Bushwick Ave, Brooklyn. It will be up for a month, I’m so so so excited and proud. It also exists online on Vimeo but it doesn’t contain the bonus footage in the installation and on the DVD.

    Age: 26

    Location: Brooklyn, NY

    How/when did you begin working creatively with technology? Too young to remember. There was always a computer in the house, I remember using ClarisWorks as a kid, and I started using Photoshop when I was nine or ten.

    Where did you go to school? What did you study? I went to Purchase College and studied photography.

    What do you do for a living or what occupations have you held previously? I freelance create: I currently have work on PSSTzine.tumblr.com and this summer I am working as an educating artist at MoMA assisting my brother, Ali Santana, in teaching NYC teens audio/visual improvisation.

    Since graduating college in 2013, I have provided Photoshop design/illustration and studio assistance during specific projects for artists Renée Cox, for her Soul Culture series, and Carla Gannis, for The Garden of Emoji Delights. I have done copyright assistance and digital archiving for my mother Marilyn Nance. One summer in college, I worked at the ice cream stand of a local gourmet shop.

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

     


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  • 08/16/16--12:10: Slime Intelligence
  • Many Heads, No Brain

    Physarum polycephalum is a single-celled organism invisible to the naked eye. However, in its ideal conditions—dark, wet, and bacterial—it multiplies into a visible bright yellow mass that spreads ostentatiously, fanning out in veins or erupting in polyp-like protrusions. The population of autonomous cells acts like a single being, moving and spreading with efficiency and coordination to find food and avoid light. Though it has no brain or nervous system, the group organism demonstrates advanced spatial intelligence.

    Polycephalum, meaning “many-headed,” is a species of slime mold. Long assumed to be a type of fungus, slime molds are now considered Protists, “a taxonomic group reserved for ‘everything we don't really understand.’”1 Slime molds are ancient: they arrived hundreds of millions, perhaps a billion years ago, and theoretically, they’re immortal. If the slime can’t find resources it goes into hibernation, turning into a scab or growing spores to await future conditions when it can regenerate. In other words, it’s one of the earthly creatures best suited to survive planetary extinction. Lynn Margulis, the evolutionary biologist, argued that “those great evolutionary survivors, the lowly slime molds, would inherit the earth.”2

    In the early 2000s a Japanese researcher named Toshiyuki Nakagaki placed a few cells of Physarum into a labyrinth with flakes of oatmeal at two ends. The slime quickly foraged the most efficient path between both food sources, finding the shortest route between two points—a job for which humans typically need equations or computational aids. Nakagaki then tried arranging the oats into an approximation of the geography of Tokyo and surrounding cities; the slime carefully extended itself across the oat-map into a shape remarkably similar to the existing railway network. In fact, unaffected by human bias and politics, Nakagaki says the slime actually may have improved upon the design of the railway system.

    Toshiyuki Nakagaki, Tokyo rail network experiment (2010). Image courtesy of Future University Hakodate and Seiji Takagi.

    In April 2016 the artist Jenna Sutela made a research trip to Japan to interview Nakagaki and other slime-scientists to document and learn from their work. Sutela is an artist whose practice has been following the trail of slime: the organism has become a collaborator/performer, growing inside recent sculptural works, while providing an ever-expanding rubric for material-based research into organizational intelligence and computation, both natural and unnatural. “The slime mold has served as a kind of a paranoiac-critical agent, helping me make connections where none previously existed. I trust its movement will take me where I need to go.”

    Sutela does artistic research; I research artistic research. We overlap, we leave traces, we circle back on one another. We write this essay back and forth, to articulate each other’s thoughts: two heads working laterally through movement, tracing slimelike intelligence by simulating its collaboration. As Donna Haraway says: “To be a one at all you must be a many, and that’s not a metaphor.”3 What can we learn from a primordial organism about decentralized cooperation, material problem-solving, and the limits of consciousness? How does the slime mold know what it knows? How do we know what we know?

    Beginning to Think

    Understanding the behavior of polycephalum requires a reconsideration of the meaning of intelligence. Contemporary theories of intelligence almost universally rely on the “information processing” metaphor, that is, the idea that the intelligent brain processes data through computational actions like storage, transfer, and retrieval—though this is probably nothing like what brains really do. Computational intelligence as a metaphor for all intelligence is a historically specific construction, just like theories of mind throughout history, which tend to mirror the most advanced technologies of the time—at various times the brain has been described as a hydraulic system, an electrical circuit, and a set of chemical reactions.Many, including Noam Chomsky, have argued that no technological comparison will be accurate until we understand how consciousness works first; even if it could be artificially replicated, the process can’t be initially grasped through stabs at modeling it.So what if instead of looking for the most advanced metaphor to account for consciousness, we were to look to a “primitive” organic being like the slime mold, not only to understand or imagine how one brain works inside the skull, but also the way many brains work in concert?

    Unlike a typical programmable agent that processes information through memory, slime mold decision-making can’t be predicted or replicated, since it coordinates itself entirely through sensory feedback with its environment. Exactly how this feedback happens is still unclear, but it has something to do with the extracellular slime traces that the cell leaves behind to tell itself where it’s already been. It does not make internal memories, but it does make choices based on past behavior. Its cognition is identical to movement; it knows exactly and only what it does. “Physarum’s spatial memory works,” writes Steven Shaviro, “not by internal representation, but rather by a physical marking of the very space that is being remembered. In this case, the map actually coincides with the territory.”6

    Shaviro likens this behavior to the theory of Extended Mind, a philosophical concept put forth in the late 1990s that the brain and its environment can be seen as an indistinguishable coupled system. Nakagaki, on the other hand, compares it simply to the human unconscious response to stimuli.Both theories are metaphorical attempts to move beyond the information processing metaphor, by relocating intelligence altogether from the brain itself to a type of distributed, physically situated (site-specific) system.

    If a seemingly simple organism can solve spatial problems through movement, artificial intelligence could conceivably do the same. Many scientists believe the future of robotics lies in such processes of decentralized movement, and the bodies of newly developed “soft robots” are designed to adapt and learn by moving through what are often called “genetic” or “evolutionary” algorithms. A research group led by Akio Ishiguro at Tohoku University, who Sutela visited, developed a soft-bodied amoeboid robot (its working title at one point was “Slimy”) inspired by the slime mold’s plasmodium. While traditional robotics focuses on controlling movement through motorized joints, soft robots adapt to their environments in real time, expressing ever-greater degrees of freedom than their rigid counterparts.

    Organization, Organism, Orgasm

    The slime mold is an organism but it is also an organization—not a train but a railway system. Like robotics, infrastructure design has begun to learn from the notion of decentralized, environmentally specific intelligence. Keller Easterling describes the evolution of massive worldwide infrastructure systems: “When the object of design is not an object form or master plan but a set of instructions for an interplay between variables, design acquires some of the power and currency of software. […] It is an ‘abstract machine’ generative of a ‘real that is yet to come.’”Sutela’s artworks involving Physarum become such abstract machines generating alternate realities. However, the design is not only a set of immaterial “instructions”—in this case better thought of as suggestions or provocations—but also the materials through which those instructions are enacted (or not). That the slime mold is incorporated into the work outsources some of the decision-making process to spatial, non-human intelligence, which is interpretable only through its movement. The abstract machine becomes a soft machine.

    Working with a living organism as an artistic material requires adapting along with it: besides the act of keeping it alive, there’s the fact that not every museum or gallery wants mold-eating spores spreading around the exhibition, and so the life-form must stay contained in its artwork. Building a host sculpture therefore becomes an infrastructural design challenge, a calibration of multiple parts to form a whole. “Creating the works is like creating a laboratory. The slime needs a habitat—not just an installation, but an architectural space.” The habitats she builds are interactive, often resembling mazes. The labyrinth as a generative form contains not only the formal history of computational problem solving and theories of mind, but also represents the collision of the natural and artificially constructed space.9

    Sutela’s works are grouped into an ongoing project called Orgs, which stands for Organization, Organism, and Orgasm. A circular motif recurs throughout the works: a feedback loop, a zero, an open mouth, a Petri dish. A living slime mold draws itself across a maze of three-dimensional Plexiglas forms derived from organizational charts and networking diagrams, the surfaces of which are coated with agar for moisture and dotted with oats for nutrition. In the most recent iteration, a series of three hanging, transparent, hand-sized spheres called Orbs (2016) were shown in an exhibition at Future Gallery in Berlin, the micro-climates also containing sticks of activated charcoal to purify the air within each orb. Housed in the dark gallery basement, the orbs are illuminated by infrared light; while Physarum is unique for a Protist in that its activity is visible to the naked eye, it paradoxically does not like to be seen, adding to the logistical and theoretical puzzle of putting it on display.

    Jenna Sutela, Orbs (2016). Physarum polycephalum, agar and oats on a silver 3D print of the Minakata Mandala, infrared light rod with engravings. Photo by Mikko Gaestel.
    One Orb contains an explanatory blockchain diagram; another contains a “Minakata Mandala,” or a shape drawn by the famous Japanese naturalist Minakata Kumagusu, who collected slime mold samples in the 1920s for Emperor Hirohito (also a biologist who had an affinity for the organism). In a letter to a Buddhist monk, Kumagusu represented his view of the world through this mandala drawing: “With humans placed at the center of the diagram, our ability to comprehend causal connections between things diminishes as they are located further outward from the center and our awareness of them becomes more tenuous.” The mandala also is a manifestation of the limits of anthropocentrism and the existence of systems beyond cause-and-effect chains of connection. The juxtaposition of shapes inside the Orbs connects systems of belief, exposing the iconographic power behind ostensibly functional, empirically produced systems.
     
    Minakata Kumagusu, Minakata Mandala (1903). From a letter to Horyu Toki. Image courtesy of Minakata Kumagusu Archives.

    The third sphere contains a “Holacratic” organizational chart. The term originates in an essay from 2007, in which the American software engineer Brian Robertson used the word “Holacracy” to describe a system of corporate self-organization by which a company is organized into overlapping “circles,” teams of employees who come together spontaneously around specific tasks.10 Contemporary management theory has generally come to treat social groups as organisms possessing their own form of intelligence. Circles and holons replace linear organizational charts; role definitions become fluid, relationships become transient. Holacracies may retain hierarchical forms, but they are “value-neutral” hierarchies.

    As a living model of non-linear action and lateral collaboration, the slime mold prompts the question of whether organizations could ever truly develop “naturally” as an organism, devoid of top-down controls, or whether imposed horizontality only advances the interests of external forces governing the body, instead of the interests of its constituent parts. The idea of a “conscious” organization is as disturbing as it is compelling. A decentralized, autonomous organism has no ideology, ethics, or accountability, whereas it might be preferable for a corporation to act according to a core logic beyond self-serving opportunism. In the case of Holacratic systems of corporate organization, it’s hard to imagine the “oatmeal” driving the participants as being anything other than capital. Mike Pepi describes the trouble with decentralized organizations in terms of “asynchrony,” or non-linearity:

    We have dreamed about the revolutionary potential of self-organization for generations, but the apparent harmony between asynchrony and anarcho-syndicalism, libertarianism, or horizontalism obscures the extent to which an engineer’s fantasy has become management’s best friend. The decentralization achieved by asynchrony is different from the political ideal of decentralization. From the perspective of the individual worker, asynchrony doesn’t remove authority as much as displace it. 11

    For humans to act as a decentralized system constantly oscillating between competition and collaboration to the point where the two can no longer be distinguished, moving in the most efficient ways according to self-serving opportunities—that’s already the condition of the free market.12 And yet, it’s also the condition of resistant, resilient, “polycephalous” political movements, those adaptable, semi-coordinated networks of individual cells who join together and multiply, only becoming visible when they arise en masse. The remarkable intelligence of polycephalum is not in its asynchronicity, but in its lack of any need for a manager governing that decentralized movement.

    Becoming Other

    For a performance at the Centre Pompidou in spring 2016, Sutela inhaled some “script-defining spores” of polycephalum before a performative reading. Near her was a physical work, a sandwich of Plexiglas plates. The bottom plate was colored red to distort the light to the slime mold’s preferred color, and had an interpretation of the Minakata Mandala drawn over it; the middle one had a “word maze” with agar, oats, and replicating cells of polycephalum, and the protective top layer had a circle of arrows creating a shadow on the slime, potentially affecting is movement as it has an affinity for darkness.

    Jenna Sutela, Orgs (2016). Reading with Physarum polycephalum; engraving, print and marker on a stack of Plexiglas. Photo by Mikko Gaestel. 

    The word maze consisted of lines leading in a starlike pattern to the letters of the words “organization,” “organism,” and “orgasm.” In her reading she gave clues to the connections between these words, at one point explaining: “Orgasms may induce a brief loss or weakening of consciousness, lapetite mort. According to Professor Nakagaki, by focusing on the level of unconsciousness, we may find clues to the similarities between the information processing of humans and other forms of organic and synthetic life. […] Artificial intelligence has been trapped on the level of consciousness for too long.” Imagining that the behavior of the polycephalum she’d ingested before the performance was “programming” her own, her speech act became itself a form of artificial intelligence. The reading was co-designed, moving towards the unconscious.

    Nakagaki once felt an irresistible urge to eat the organism he devoted his life to studying.13 From his description, it’s hard to identify a scientific goal in doing so; he’d veered into the territory of non-empirical experimentation at that point. There is, from the other side, a long history of artistic fascination with biological organisms that overlaps with scientific methodology, but that often winds up in the same not-quite-empirical territory too. John Cage, for one, became biologically inclined via his adoration for all types of mushrooms. His mycological obsession likewise led him to eat them (including poisonous ones) as if driven by a desire for understanding through symbiosis, a non-codified type of knowledge. Like the slime mold, mushrooms were particularly interesting to him because they are so difficult to taxonomize—in reading his accounts, it seems as if only by achieving physical oneness with the organism did he feel he could begin to understand the mysteries of mushroom intelligence.

    However, while Cage sought chance encounters without making conclusions, claiming that artists should ask questions rather than seek to provide answers (referring to a type of artistic “divination”), Sutela’s interest in slime mold’s intelligence is an interest in answers—there is a real element of experimentation in each of the physical works she creates. Will the slime mold react to the conditions of light and darkness she sets up each time? Will its presence affect her performance? What word(s) will it spell out as it grows across the maze? How does it communicate with the viewer? The behavior of her companion species enacts a type of knowledge beyond codified systems of representation. And likewise the artwork becomes a living, unpredictable, unknowable entity.

    Art constructs systems of knowledge and belief that can be as rigid as any other, and often does this by (over-)explaining what it knows. Sutela’s Orgs suggest the potential for other kinds of knowing that cannot necessarily be transmitted through existing channels of artistic or scientific research. She invents a new type of movement, a new language of forms—“form as action” as opposed to “form as object.”14 Artwork whose form is action is self-learning artwork—software rather than hardware. This could also be described as the distinction between “knowing that” and “knowing how.”15 To know that the slime mold moves in a certain way because of certain capabilities—that’s scientific research. To know how through the act of moving along with it—that’s the work of the artist.

    -

    1 Ferris Jabr, “How Brainless Slime Molds Redefine Intelligence,” Scientific American, November 2012. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/brainless-slime-molds/?print=true

    2 Steven Rose, “Lynn Margulis Obituary,” the Guardian, December 2011. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2011/dec/11/lynn-margulis-obituary

    3 Donna Haraway, Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Cthulucene, Lecture, University of California Santa Cruz, 2014. https://vimeo.com/97663518

    4 Robert Epstein, “The Empty Brain,” Aeon, May 2016. https://aeon.co/essays/your-brain-does-not-process-information-and-it-is-not-a-computer

    Noam Chomsky Lecture on Artificial Intelligence, Lecture at Navigating a Multispecies World: A Graduate Conference on the Species Turn (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University, 2013), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TAP0xk-c4mk.

    6 Steven Shaviro, Discognition (Repeater, 2016).

    7 Interview with Jenna Sutela, April 5, 2016.

    8 Keller Easterling, Extrastatecraft (Verso, 2014).

    9  “The questions of life and its control are central to the labyrinth and the garden. The growing and the made: just as nature is ordered in the garden, so subjects are "produced" in the labyrinth.” Olaf Nicolai, Jan Wenzel and Sadie Plant, Labyrinth (Spector Books 2012 / Rollo Press 2013).

    10 Brian Robertson, Organization at the Leading Edge: Introducing Holacracy™ Evolving Organization, Integral Leadership Review, 2007, http://integralleadershipreview.com/5328-feature-article-organization-at-the-leading-edge-introducing-holacracy-evolving-organization/. Robertson borrowed the term from Arthur Koestler’s 1967 philosophy/psychology book The Ghost in the Machine, in which Koestler invents the word “holon” to describe oneness of mind and body. Koestler argues that the brain is made up of holons that are autonomous and self-determining yet also fundamentally dependent on the brain as a whole.

    11 Mike Pepi, “Asynchronous! On the Sublime Administration of the Everyday,” e-flux journal #74, June 2016.

    12 An economist named Alan Kirman made this connection in 2015: “Economies are like slime molds, collections of single-celled organisms that move as a single body, constantly reorganizing themselves to slide in directions that are neither understood nor necessarily desired by their component parts.” From the Ernst Strüngmann Forum Complexity and Evolution: A New Synthesis for Economics, February 1–6, 2015.

    13  “One time I tried to eat a very small portion of a slime mold. It tasted like nothing. After half an hour, I felt some irritable feeling on the tongue. Something happened. I tried to remove it, gargling. One hour later, I felt nothing.” Interview with Jenna Sutela, April 5, 2016.

    14 Easterling, 81.

    15 Gilbert Ryle makes this distinction in The Concept of Mind (University of Chicago Press, 1949).

    -

    Top image: Jenna Sutela, Orgs (2015). Physarum polycephalum, agar, and oats inside a Holacratic organizational chart; fragment of a larger Plexiglas container. Photo by Mikko Gaestel.


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    This year, Rhizome received over 320 proposals for its annual net art microgrant program. The submissions were considered by a jury comprised of artists R. Luke DuBois and shawné michaelain holloway, as well Rhizome's program coordinator Kaela Noel. 

    We're pleased to share the winning proposals:

    N/A (or Lana Del Pepe?)

    By Georges Jacotey

    "A series of Lana Del Rey fan-art images, texts, screenshots, and poetry as well as a collection of rare aphroditus Lana Del Pepe drawings (see attached illustration) in the themes of radical feminism-"misandry", decolonization of art practices (or just pondering about it cause how the hell I'm going to do this with a rhizome microgrant-I'm bound to american culture-money: that could be a horny aphroditus with dollar signs in their eyes but sad), queer bodies and tranny militants. It's a bitter narrative and it'll just be scatterred online, not in one site (or perhaps in my tumblr, idk). >>> Read this again, it's worth it <<<"

     
     
    SGT STAR Redux
     



    Chloe and Sylvia are Color Blind


    By Chloe O'Neill and Sylvia Gutierrez 

    "Color theory is a key component of net aesthetics that implicates the formal aspects of broader image-based consumer culture. At the same time, the formal aspects of color in net aesthetics have also been incorporated into branding campaigns, fashion trends, and hashtags like #palegoth. While Pantone 2016’s rose quartz and serenity mined these aesthetics to describe the blending of gender, the mechanics of color in postinternet systems has yet 2be explored.

    For our project we will create a PDF report that develops new language to describe social trends and movements that parallel color, and show how net aesthetics and color are used in contemporary consumer trend forecasting, art systems, and technological interactions. As a proof of concept we will also organically code and design a 'Facebook Quiz generator' that will use our report’s language to mimic broader net aesthetics. The generator will be hosted on a website with our PDF-report."
     
     
    LVLZ Healing Center
     
    By Elizabeth Mputu
     
     
    "LVLZ HealingCenter: digital hub, 3 arenas -- mind,body,spirit.

    A) Waiting Room:
    1) 'Welcome' Sound Meditation into browser platform + interactive 360 video tour of virtual center (collab with artist Alfredo Caro)

    B) Center Levels:
    1) Mind:
    a)Queering Herbalism Class + Resource Page (Free online class with educator Toi Scott of the School of Liberatory Medicine: Internet & the QTPOC Ancestral Healing Movement) in Research Center
    b) Food 4 THOT Program: ppl trade digital work + writing on food & food justice for gift cards to local healthy food eateries (Garden)
    c) Serenity Network: directory of creatives + healers (Garden)

    2) Body:
    a) Farmacy: purchase Online Stress care packages + specialty art items (eye strain protective glasses)
    b) Clinic X SafetyCorp: webpage hosted artists collab with SafetyCorp -- Digital Forum based interactive help center/hotline

    3) Spirit:
    a) CyberSerenity: view CyberSerenity meditations + breathing exercises, similar works by others artists, get tarot read via Skype"
     

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  • 08/23/16--07:24: Review: A Mystical Staircase
  • When I open the link to "A Mystical Staircase" I already have countless tabs open in several browser windows. Each tab has been assigned a logo, letters or symbols and pictograms that reference the real world: envelopes (the paper kind only bills come in now), blue boxes, red play buttons, shopping bags, rectangles with the corner folded down. In "A Mystical Staircase," the digital references to physical objects—tarot cards—serves as a curatorial tool. You have a question on your mind? Choose a card and it will present you with a randomly selected artwork—video, image, or sound—by one of 24 international artists included in the show, the third in a trio of projects by curatorial duo Francesco Urbano Ragazzi, following "The III Internet Pavilion" at the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013 and "The Internet Saga," inaugurated on the occasion of the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015. "A Mystical Staircase" is also curated in collaboration with 63rd-77th STEPS

    In a common form of tarot reading, you talk through a question or problem. In "A Mystical Staircase," the idea is to ask a question and have an artwork answer it for you. Artists and writers have long been drawn to all things occult, but art is not often summoned to answer questions so directly. More often, it is used to ask them. The association between tarot cards and digital communication technologies is immediate—they are the same shape and size as phone screens. The design and layout of the page, I find out later, also mirrors online tarot card reading sites, with their bitty patterns and awkward combinations of colors and fonts. All the images and videos are in portrait format. But these tarot cards, like all tarot cards, are not like the internet at all really: no one asks search engines proper questions anymore.

    I choose my first card. Eva Papamargariti’s video Descending staircase with hands on it plays for a few seconds before it loops, a skinny screensaver. There are disembodied hands attached to a spiral staircase, also disembodied, detached from any other kind of structure. It’s a disturbing combination that (one hopes) could only be experienced in this computer-generated scenario. When I click my only option—“return to deck”—the cards have been reshuffled. I choose another. Artist Sarah Abu Abdallah’s voice begins to play, a kind of oracular speech that is rooted in the personal. In A Delivery Card, her voice is slightly unclear, she speaks over herself and becomes increasingly distorted by another recording. “Let’s discuss the problem. Let’s dissect it.” She offers questions and then answers them: “What is it that hurts you?” “You imagine hostility where there is none.”


    Eva Papamargariti, Descending Staircase with Hands on It (2016).

    Upon my return to the main page, the cards have been reshuffled again, and the potential endlessness of this experience starts to become apparent. In this sense, "A Mystical Staircase" offers a “one-card” reading, the simplest form of tarot reading because you think of a question and choose a single card to find your answer, and which the “soul-scrape” section of atworkandbored.com tells me is “so simple and yet so profound.” I get briefly distracted (I am indeed at work and bored) so I ask the tarot deck hosted on atworkandbored.com if I should leave my job. It replies: “STRENGTH—flex your muscles and test your limits. Pour some serious effort into your plans and watch them take off.” I imagine my plans actually flying away and feel even more deflated.

    I explore some other online divination sites. A free feminist tarot site reads my past, present, and future, which all involve a lot of swords for some reason. The swords in my past card symbolize overcoming despair. In my future there is a ritual killing, “as if the person were some symbolic sacrifice or maybe a scapegoat offered up by the patriarchy or to it in place of others.” This card—the 10 of swords—could signify the end of a delusion, or might mean I need to deal with death. I’m guessing it’s not the death of patriarchy, but there’s always hope.


    Karl Larsson, The Moon (2016)

    I return to "A Mystical Staircase" feeling more familiar with online divination. I am more focused on questions, but I’m not exactly “working through” the individual thoughts and questions in my head. It’s easy to get frustrated when the same video or image appears a couple of times in a row (it’s also easy to click the return button on your browser, whereupon all the works are arranged in the same place on the page), or when it occurs to me that I might not get to see some of them, even after spending around the same amount of time on the site as I would an offline exhibition. What would be the point in scrolling down to the bottom of the page, if the cards are random each time? Why not just choose the same card each time? "A Mystical Staircase" feels more like an online game with no real logic, which makes sense, seeing as up until the 18th century tarot cards were only used in card games. "A Mystical Staircase" is, like all the best games, kind of pointless.

    "A Mystical Staircase" does attempt to respond to the form and its hallmark trading on emotion and affect by way of storefront mysticism: performance artist Chiara Fumai’s Shut Up Actually Talk, in which she appears as if summoned by a cursed object, a magical mirror, which is part of a larger project in which she appears to dramatize feminist manifestos. In this mirror she communes in a psychic relation to the past, the voice of radical Italian feminism occupying and raging through her body, and resonating from it: “I discard ideology,” she says, “and no longer know anything.”

    The code for Brent Watanabe’s deer that wanders around a vast and hostile world already existed in the architecture of Grand Theft Auto V—Watanabe just had to modify play so the deer never dies, despite frequent attacks, and acts autonomously. The result is San Andreas Streaming Deer Cam, originally accessed via Twitch and extracted for "A Mystical Staircase." This deer doesn’t need to be reborn to start again—it never dies. We see its hind being shot, blood projecting out onto the floor, but a wound never shows. I experience a brief moment of pointless empathy toward the animal as it falls over and starts to struggle before I remember it a) doesn’t feel pain, b) is completely impervious, and c) isn’t real, and it gets back up unharmed. My next card is by Kareem Lotfy, who shows a video of jeans being distressed by a weird machine. Sections catch fire and glow, creating patterns that look random in a mechanized (controlled) way. Is this the power of heat or electricity? As I keep watching, the video looping, it looks more and more like magic.

    The notion of a vertical cinema—the standard ratio for video flipped on its side, which is how most people record and watch video on their phonesis at once annoying and increasingly essential. At times the aspect ratio offers a slice of the action, whether it was filmed on an iphone or cut from an existing clip or computer-generated image. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. San Andreas Streaming Deer Cam, for example, was produced through modified gameplay, so why is it now shown as a portrait image at the expense of the effective and atmospheric landscape the deer travels through?

    Screen shot from "A Mystical Staircase," showing Tabita Rezaire's Peaceful Warrior (2016)

    In Tabita Rezaire’s Peaceful Warrior card, the opposite is the case. Rezaire performs an alluring dance, calling to “decolonize self-care.” Using the tarot card format, she turns her body into a powerful symbol, a living tarot that really does provide an answer to a question: How do we decolonize, rather than “diversify,” the internet? How do we decolonize the art and life and language? And how do we decolonize the mind? Diversity is polite and hopeful: calls for diversity don’t acknowledge colonial oppression, in the way calls for decolonization do. Rezaire summons writer Sara Ahmed’s claim that “Equality and diversity can be used as masks to create the appearance of being transformed,”1 as well as Audre Lorde, who famously wrote, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare.”2 That’s the thing about tarot: the same cards can stimulate thousands of readings, even, arguably, an infinite amount, as it is specific to the person asking the question. I come away with the feeling that these cards are portals, through which diversified “others” are actually called upon to speak about the material realities of oppression.

    The curatorial format may initially seem too homogenizing, but for some artists, like Rezaire, the cards open up possibilities. For others, especially the works that originate in a different context, the tarot deck comes off as an arbitrary device for experiencing artwork online. Despite this, the work included is good, and that’s what stays with me. Initially, it felt as though the exhibition is inherently cynical both about the significance assigned to tarot and its ability to answer your most important questions, and toward the suggestion that art can, or should, perform an equally oracular function. Spending some time on the exhibition, though, it becomes clear that  despite the restrictions associated with borrowing from real-world phenomena, the specific choices made in "A Mystical Staircase" make space to experience art both visually and emotionally.

     

    --

    1 "Women of Colour as Diversity Workers," Posted on November 26, 2015 https://feministkilljoys.com/2015/11/26/women-of-colour-as-diversity-workers/)

    2 Audre Lorde, Burst of Light: Essays by Audre Lorde (Ithaca, NY: Firebrand Books, 1988)

    Header image: screen shot from Brent Watanabe's San Andreas Deer Cam (2016)


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  • 08/25/16--11:43: Artist Profile: Anna Zett
  • 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.

    Alongside this profile, DINOSAUR.GIF is presented on the front page of rhizome.org.

    Tess Edmonson: Your work is in conversation with media histories of the looped moving image, from the zoetropes that appear in This Unwieldy Object and Circuit Training to the screengrab .gifs that appear in DINOSAUR.GIF, compiled in an .rtf document that you’ve presented live in front of audiences by scrolling through in real time. What is your interest in these animation technologies?

    Anna Zett: The circular animation devices from the 19th century used optical and mechanical tricks to suggest that it is possible for human technology to make animals (like us) move whenever we want and as long as we wish, looping one movement ad infinitum. On an emotional level my interest in these animation technologies has a lot to do with the problem of mortality, with the repeated experience of losing somebody to the non-existing universe of eternal stillness and immobility. After one particular death, about ten years ago, I realized, intensely and very painfully, that I cannot produce any belief whatsoever in the idea of resurrection, in the idea that this person will ever move again. Pretty much all of a sudden I became interested in moving images and I wanted to learn how to make films. A few months later I found myself back at the hospital with a video camera, but this time in the ward for reproductive medicine, trying to film biologists as they try to join egg cells and sperm cells, making families, making life.

    Simultaneously, on a theoretical level, it was my desire to deconstruct the ideology of modernity, or the paradox of progress, that led me from contemporary bioscience back to the colonial spectacles & showman performances of the 19th century, and then via the CGI dinosaurs of Jurassic Park back to the now.


    Anna Zett, still from Dinosaur.gif (2014)

    TE: Your 2014 film This Unwieldy Object traces the material histories of dinosaur bones in the United States, including how modern geology and palaeontology both propelled and lent legitimacy to colonial expansion into the American west. Could you talk about how the bones and their extraction play into the rhetoric of the American colonial imaginary?

    AZ: Chemically, as well according to my sense of touch, fossils are stones and not bones, but it is interesting how in the US/American national rhetoric it's all about "bones": as in Jefferson’s "Bone Room" in the White House, as in the heroic myth of the "Bone Hunters" and their scandalous "Bone Wars.” A detail by W.J.T. Mitchell helped me to understand this rhetoric. He said, in the late 19th century, when trainloads of dinosaur fossils were sent from the Rocky Mountains  towards the East Coast, the giant landscape those trains went through was a veritable boneyard, defined by buffalo skeletons, bones of animals that died during the great cattle drives, the corpse-strewn battlefields of the Civil War—and maybe foremost of all, but missing in Mitchell’s list, the transcontinental mass grave of America’s indigenous peoples. On the East Coast, the extracted dinosaur fossils were supposed to serve as a spectacular proof that white America, compared to Europe, had in fact an even older history, much bigger and more ferocious extinct fauna, and more advanced knowledge in prehistoric monster science. The white conquest of the continent all the way to the West Coast had already been legitimized by imperialist delusions like "manifest destiny,” capitalist principles like private property, as well by plain racism. I think dinosaur bone science served more like a spectacular cover-up story, an alibi-mythology enabling the repression of something that today might be called a massive crime against humanity, most of which had already happened when, in the 1870s, those bone hunters went to the colonial war zone of the "Wild West" to dig up a new American past. The dinosaur past was both real, as in literally based on hard facts, and entirely fantastic, a perfect figure upon which to project your own aggression and violent behavior. I'm also drawn to the idea that, in the 19th century, the prehistoric spectacle—just like the performances of electrical inventions and moving-image devices—recalled ancient powers of sorcery while at the same time reducing everything to science and commerce. But this is a long and paradoxical story and as I left the academic world after this research project, I cannot really talk about this as a scholar anymore.

    Anna Zett, still from The Unwieldy Object (2014)

    TE:  There’s a really nice moment in the film where your voiceover, in the second person, narrates the process of making a narrative among the huge amount of research you’ve collected, including a parallel between the American frontier and the Berlin Wall, “symbolic edges of the former West,” while standing in front of a fragment of the Wall which is, as you point out, made in the GDR, where you are from. How do you weigh the didactic elements of this kind of filmmaking against (what I read as) a desire to represent ambiguity, hesitation, or subjectivity?

    AZ: One major motivation behind This Unwieldy Object was to meet Native American paleontologists, to tell a story about a resistant appropriation of this colonial science. The imperial perspective can be understood from analyzing movies and theoretical texts, but practices of resistance can't be grasped as easily, so I needed to go there in person. But then I was faced with questions like: who am I to make this film, who is this semi-ridiculous character travelling to some of the most remote places of the USA with a theory about dinosaur film, is she gonna be behind the camera? I decided against embodying the camera-eye, and finding out about the Berlin Wall Exhibit in Rapid City—where I already needed to go for many other reasons—helped me to figure out my role. In academic writing, narrator and protagonist are not distinguished, there is only one position, which they share: the position of the research subject, the self, which is separated from the world (historical or material). Making a film, a “research drama,” as I ended up calling it, gave me the possibility to split this subject position into narrator and character, making space for both comedy and drama in the gap between the two. The biggest challenge in this was to show a researcher losing her thread in personal associations without making this a matter of failure. Only the most virtuous comedians are able to fail in a generous, non-narcissistic way, and I was someone who had just started to let go of my rational safety belt. Told as a story of failure, this film would have been at risk of subordinating real historical and political issues under a pseudo-personal fictitious ego-journey. I spent two years with the edit trying to figure out how to avoid that, how to respect the real, the other, the dead, while at the same time also connecting to the forces that make me care about a particular topic in the first place, emotionally and historically. For me, filmmaking is about finding the right balance between being somebody and being nobody, between speaking and listening, seeing and being seen. With my more recent work for the radio and on stage it's similar. In the end it's all about the problem of dialogue, the promise of communication. I don't desire to represent ambiguity, or hesitation, not at all, but maybe it can look like that sometimes.

    Anna Zett, still from The Unwieldy Object (2014)

    TE: In a more recent video, Circuit Training (2016), a voiceover describes an impossible camera navigating the minute interiors of the brain between cells, while the frame depicts alternately screensaver-type animations and filmed scenes from from an amateur boxing fight, as well as staged boxing exercises. What is your interest in the intersection of repetitive physical training—like boxing—and neuroplasticity?

    AZ: If you look at the sea squirt—an animal that digests its own brain once it finds a place to settle—it seems that the main purpose of the brain, as it developed in evolution, isn't digestion, perception, or the control of input and output, but it's mobility. In humans the coordination of the most basic physical movement according to sensual information, inflicted by intention and emotion, is such an amazingly complex process that I came to dedicate a portion of my life and my art practice to its worship and understanding. One of the loved ones I lost suffered from a disease in a certain part of the brain, the cerebellum, slowly taking away her ability to coordinate movement, so my celebration of the brain also has to do with the terror of depending on the brain. I love boxing, because in relation to the brain it is such a paradoxical practice: through ongoing repetition you attempt to improve your neural skills—speeding up your hand-eye coordination, strengthening your physical intention and focus, learning how to make your whole body an unpredictably mobile target. But in the fight which all this circuit training is supposed to lead up to, you are being punched in the head in such a way that you risk irreversible brain damage! I only fight in non-brutal contexts, where no one will be knocked out, but this paradox stays present for me nevertheless. Unlock your brain in order to damage it! But boxing is not only a training, it is also a ritual, so it must be paradoxical. Just like dinosaurs, boxing was a popular attraction in the imperial centers of industrial modernity as well as a popular motive for early cinematic animation, and as it happens, both of these things had a comeback in the 1990s. The boxer and the dinosaur were updated to the age of simulation, information, digital animation—and the psyche was, too. Neuroscience now promises to reveal the networked content of our heads with the help of computer generated images, to give us a sense of control. But both visually and sensually the processes inside our nervous system remain fantastical. I think paleontology and neuroscience have a lot in common in that sense. They say that after the End of History, the monstrous borderline of the American Frontier moved into the nervous system of every one of us. Of course history hasn't ended, but I suspect I haven't really understood yet what happened in the 1990s, in the former East, the former West, technically and spiritually. But with new, potentially very destructive shifts expected in the near future, there is now a sense of running out of time for this analysis.
     

    Anna Zett, still from Circuit Training (2015)

    Questionnaire

    Age: 33

    Location: Berlin

    How/when did you begin working creatively with technology?

    The first time I recall using an electronic recording device artistically was in the third iteration of our DIY circus, when I was around 10 years old. Instead of playing our musical instruments live behind the curtain, we recorded them on tape, so all three of us had the hands free to do other stuff.

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

    I officially studied Gender Studies, Philosophy, and European Ethnology at Humboldt University Berlin, for 8 years. Tuition was free, hardly any course was mandatory, attendance wasn't registered, and Gender Studies was transdisciplinary anyway, so I got into the habit of checking out any class at any Berlin university or art school that sounded interesting. Eventually I joined Hito Steyerl’s class at the University of the Arts where I kept going also after my graduation from Humboldt, while editing This Unwieldy Object. At some point I also did an exchange at Middlesex University in London.

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

    I have been working as an A/V technician and video editor in the theater context and still do sometimes. Through that I once ended up co-hosting a dance karaoke show, together with performer and theatre producer Tina Pfurr. To our surprise this turned into a regular show and we were invited to travel. It's an amazing side job actually, teaching me a lot about being on stage and taking me to places I wouldn't go otherwise, like Côte d'Ivoire and Cameroon. It's also a way to reconnect with my childhood dream of becoming a circus artist, quite literally, as I can now make money from childishly failing to imitate very difficult choreographies and encouraging others to do the same. Another thing I have done and will hopefully continue to do for a living is making experimental radio dramas for the German public radio.


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



     

    Header image: still from Circuit Training (2015)


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