Articles on this Page
- 09/08/16--08:42: _Self-Made Supermodels
- 09/21/16--09:53: _Andrea Crespo - A d...
- 09/22/16--08:07: _Announcing: Aria De...
- 09/28/16--10:53: _Artist Profile: Lor...
- 09/29/16--13:45: _Contemporary GIF Ar...
- 05/12/16--12:14: _On the Gaze in the ...
- 10/04/16--09:56: _The Download: Techn...
- 10/11/16--09:53: _Rhizome is Hiring a...
- 10/12/16--10:45: _Announcing Rhizome'...
- 10/13/16--11:30: _Artist Profile: Ing...
- 10/19/16--07:44: _Now Accepting Nomin...
- 10/21/16--09:12: _Announcing the Seco...
- 10/25/16--08:37: _Released today: A m...
- 10/27/16--09:46: _Net Art Anthology L...
- 10/27/16--11:23: _Feminist Worldbuild...
- 11/01/16--08:41: _Artist Profile: Dam...
- 11/03/16--09:40: _When Net Art Outliv...
- 11/10/16--09:27: _Speaking in Net Lan...
- 11/14/16--08:57: _The Download: Denni...
- 11/17/16--10:11: _The File Room: An O...
- 09/08/16--08:42: Self-Made Supermodels
- 09/21/16--09:53: Andrea Crespo - A day in the lives of (2016)
- 09/28/16--10:53: Artist Profile: Lorna Mills
- 09/29/16--13:45: Contemporary GIF Art: Nicolas Sassoon and 'Loop Dreams'
- 05/12/16--12:14: On the Gaze in the Era of Visual Salamis
- 10/04/16--09:56: The Download: Technologies of Care
- 10/11/16--09:53: Rhizome is Hiring a Talented Developer Generalist
- 10/12/16--10:45: Announcing Rhizome's Net Art Anthology
- 10/13/16--11:30: Artist Profile: Ingrid Burrington
- 10/19/16--07:44: Now Accepting Nominations: 2016 Prix Net Art
- 10/21/16--09:12: Announcing the Second Edition of Open Score
- 10/25/16--08:37: Released today: A major Webrecorder update
- Chrome 53 for Linux, with Flash Support
- Firefox 49 for Linux, with Java and Flash Support
- The “autoscroll” button will begin auto-scrolling a remote page, similar to its functionality in native recording mode.
- The “snapshot” tool will take a static HTML snapshot of the current page as it is with all dynamic elements removed.
- The new “clipboard” tool allows users to seamlessly copy text from the remote browser. Selecting text in the remote browser and clicking “clipboard” will allow users to access to the remote browser’s clipboard. Text entered into this field will update the remote browser clipboard, allowing users to copy and paste (Ctrl+C, Ctrl+V) directly into the remote browser.
- 10/27/16--09:46: Net Art Anthology Launches Today
- 10/27/16--11:23: Feminist Worldbuilding in the Australian Cyberswamp
- 11/01/16--08:41: Artist Profile: Damon Zucconi
- 11/03/16--09:40: When Net Art Outlives the Net: Eduardo Kac's Poetry for Videotexto
- 11/10/16--09:27: Speaking in Net Language: My Boyfriend Came Back from the War
- 11/14/16--08:57: The Download: Dennis Cooper’s GIF Novels
- 11/17/16--10:11: The File Room: An Open-Source Library of Censorship
In early 2015, near the end of my MFA in Fine Arts at Parsons, I set out on a project to create a celebrity by 2020—entirely via the internet—as an art practice. The celebrity I began to create was a hyper sexy, cyber savvy, female rock star named Ona.
Without a large budget or industry connections, I knew that major social media growth would be an important factor. I started by employing some of the usual tactics I’d used in the past for other projects—a press release, an article in Thought Catalog, soliciting articles from journalists. Nothing much came of it.
So I tried a different tack, working with what I already had: two Instagram accounts, each with a couple hundred followers—one for my art practice as a whole (@leahschrager) and one specifically for selfies and modeling (@onaartist). It was immediately clear that the selfies I posted on @onaartist got more likes and the account grew more quickly. I sought out modeling accounts with big follower numbers and I started DMing them, asking the models if I could pay them to talk to me about how they grew. None of them got back to me. I then did some open submissions to @playboy, @arsenicmagazine, and a few others, but I didn't get picked.
Finally, I DMed a collection page—a page with a large follower count that features photos of various models—and it got back to me. The page was @the.buttblog, and I was told it would cost $200 for a permanent post. I paid its admin to post a photo of me and in 24 hours I gained around 5,000 real followers.
This marked the beginning of my transformation into an Instagram Model.
The Instagram Model
Instagram has emerged as a big player in the modeling world, with many different types of models on the platform. Models create IG pages to showcase their work, gain followers, and amass cultural and economic power. And while many “industry models” or “agency models” (models who are signed with modeling agencies) have large Instagrams (e.g. @angelcandices), the IG Model differs from these in that she builds her following on the platform without industry support.
For more than a year, I have immersed myself in the culture and economics of Instagram modeling. By paying careful attention to other users and applying their approaches myself, I came to understand that becoming an Instagram Model involved engaging in a host of specific practices on Instagram and off. By adopting these practices, I've been able to develop my own profile as an IG Model to over 380,000 real followers, and I’ve earned enough income to almost fully support the cost of my IG content creation by promoting through my IG page a pay site that I built using “all the pics I can't put on Instagram.” In the process, I’ve come to feel that being an IG Model represents a new, independent, digital form of feminized labor and performance.
Mainstream media favors agency models and celebrity users well over IG Models. Riffing off something I mentioned in BodyAnxiety.com, an online art show I co-curated in 2015, this could be seen as a further iteration of “man hands.” Because agency models have been “sanctioned” by the system, and because they are frequently photographed by acclaimed fashion photographers—because they have been crafted by “man hands” and do not need to craft themselves—they are seen as more respectable than their non-legitimized independent counterpart, the IG Model. The IG Model is in fact more entrepreneurial, in control of her image, and infused with free agency as she runs her art practice/tech start-up/brand marketing IG page like a business/performance amalgam (like so many artists today).
And, admittedly, because of her “need to try harder,” I personally find her presentation more compelling than what agency models and celebrity users do on IG. The IG Model is highly skilled at shaping her own image, and at monetizing the emotional labor of dealing with the expectations and attentions of (usually) male fans.
What is an IG model?
The labor and performance of being an IG Model is not the same as that of a social user. Any user can put up an IG account with lots of bikini pics, but if she uses her account mostly to socialize and does not do the required work to gain a high follower-to-following ratio, she is not an IG model. The IG Model is not out to chat with friends; she is out for other reasons: to make a name for herself, to make a living, to find fortune and/or fame, to perform, to spread her perspective and her presence.
An IG Model is also not a “product user.” She may promote products, but for an IG Model, the ultimate product is herself.
Finally, she is not a “celebrity user.” Celebrity users get most of their followers by being featured in the mainstream media, not by promoting themselves through the Instagram platform itself.
The distinction between a celebrity user and an IG Model is important. Many women the average viewer might consider IG Models are actually celebrity users, especially when they are industry models. The kind of user one is determines the kind of posts one creates because, for instance, a celebrity posting a photo of a beach view or herself in designer clothing adds value to herself qua celebrity. However, an IG Model is much more likely to post a view of her cleavage or herself in little clothing for the sake of showing her fans what they want to see—her body. Celebrity users get most of their followers by being featured in the mainstream media, not by engaging in tagging, interacting with users, and SFS. Further, celebrity users’ pages generally contain a high level of posts (at least compared to an IG Model) that feature something other than the celebrity herself (such as photos of family, vacation spots, sayings, nights at the club, other celebrities, various luxury goods, interior design, other lifestyle indications, etc.).
One way to suss out the difference between industry models (who are celebrity users) and IG Models is to compare @emrata, a celebrity agency model with 7.1 million followers, and @saraunderwood, an IG Model with 4.4 million followers. The two actually have a history together and show some similarities. They did a BBQ's Best Pair commercial together in 2013. @emrata is said to have broke through in Treats! Magazine (a highly respected fashion magazine known for having high end models to pose naked in “artistic” shoots), high fashion modeling, and acting in movies. @saraunderwood is known for being in the (at-the-time-nude) Playboy (as Playmate of the month and year) and for a bit of commercial modeling.
The current use of their Instagram pages nicely illustrates the difference between the IG profile of an agency model/celebrity and an IG Model. While the two are comparable in terms of follower numbers, a deeper look at their pages shows that @saraunderwood showcases her bikini-clad body in every photo, while @emrata sports a bikini in a third of her photos, fashionable wear in another third, and features landscapes, food, interiors, and family photos in the other third. If @saraunderwood posts a photo and she is not in it, it is probably an advertisement she has been paid to post. She also has a separate IG for her personal photos, which is not her “IG Model” page and is mostly landscapes. It has around 100k followers.
This indicates that @emrata makes her income outside of IG, through her modeling and acting agency—movies, fashion spreads, etc. While she might do a bit of brand sponsorship on her IG, it is rare and high level (i.e. @tiffanyandco), marked as an #ad or #sponsored, or it is the result of a modeling job or celebrity event, both of which are most likely booked through her modeling agency, which is the contact info in her bio. @saraunderwood, on the other hand, seems to make the majority of her income through direct brand ambassador activities or being paid to advertise on her IG (and there is no distinguishing between promotional and non-promotional content). In her recent “road trip through the northwest” posts, @saraunderwood actively promoted various brands by way of numerous photos on IG and on her Snapchat, including @yandy, @trendy_butler, @supeapp, and others. So, unlike @emrata, her income comes directly from having a large following on IG and goes directly to her—she has no modeling agency and it is her contact email in her bio.
Their relative status in the modeling industry may be partly determined by their different body types. @emrata has a typical fashion model body in that she is tall and skinny, and she has large "natural" breasts. @saraunderwood does not have a typical model body—she is shorter and more zaftig—and she has acknowledged having breast implants (something the fashion world does not seem to embrace).
Part of what makes the IG Model’s specific practices so interesting is that they are quite different from those used by industry models or celebrities. More important than being seen at the right party is being featured on the right collection page. More important than the skinny industry model look is the curvy Instagram look. More important than wearing the most in-style designer dress is, well, probably no dress at all. In this sense, IG Models are the “working girls” version of modeling. Taking on the low status of the “working girl” certainly can have a negative impact on one’s social reputation, as artist Amalia Ulman attests: “Suddenly I was this dumb b---- because I was showing my ass in pictures.”
Unlike industry models, being as explicit as one can be while still staying within Instagram’s Community Guidelines is part of the IG Model’s art form. For instance, it is extremely rare to hear of an IG Model supporting #freethenipple, since, in a sense, the censorship of the nipple is part of what gives the creative IG Model her power—how sexy can she be without getting naked? It also helps keep her work technically SFW and prevents society from throwing the word “erotic” or “porn” in front of “model” when describing her, which is good, since they are not known for getting lots of brand endorsements from mainstream products.
In the end, IG offers a platform for women who enjoy performing or modeling to work and thrive in a new space even though they do not possess the genetics of a standard fashion/industry model, and there are enough models on IG operating without industry support to warrant a discussion about a new form of modeling performance unique to Instagram.
What does an IG Model do?
The most visible aspect of an IG Model’s performance is her posting practice. As mentioned above, she exclusively (or almost exclusively) posts pictures of herself (as opposed to also posting pics of friends, family, food, landscapes, etc.), and most of her photos feature a relatively large amount of skin (i.e. her outfits are usually rather skimpy).
Because her body type is often not what modeling agencies look for (too short, too curvy, too big, too old, non-industry-standard facial features, etc), her posts may attempt to turn this into a positive by highlighting her unique physical feature (large tits, round ass, etc.). Further, her poses are often more sexual than models who are signed with modeling agencies or the average female IG user.
In addition to posting, the labor of being an IG Model also includes dealing with users and their feedback (moderation) and growing her presence on the platform (growth).
The IG Model has a high level of activity on her page (likes and comments) and she herself interacts with her followers. Unless she is a fit model, her fan base is often predominantly straight men, and she often presents herself as single. As far as I can tell, the high rate of male fans that IG models have is an important difference between them and celebrity users. A quick look at some of the top female celebrity users (@beyonce and @kimkardashian, etc.) shows that they have significantly more female “likers” than male “likers” on their posts—perhaps around a like ratio of around nine women to one man,—while IG Models generally have around the opposite ratio, and in fact some IG models have almost no female likes. This would seem to imply that being appealing to a female audience is a major precondition to being embraced by the mainstream media as a “celebrity” while those who mainly appeal to a male audience are largely ignored, probably because they are considered unacceptably “pornographic.”
The IG Model's follower-to-following ratio is very high (the IG Models I discuss here all have over 100k followers, as this high number indicates that one “has what it takes” and has put in the necessary labor to be an IG Model). She gains followers without the help of mainstream media, and her social media presence is often exclusively on Instagram. Generally, her Instagram page is her most important public exposure, and comes up at the top of a web search for her name (since she has very little mainstream press and rarely has a Wikipedia page).
To earn these followers, most IG Models engage in some level of SFS (spam-for-spam, which generally involves cross-promotion of some kind between two pages). She is frequently tagged on other people’s pages, collection pages, and photographer pages. She is often openly engaged in the promotion of either her own or others’ products/services. She often makes money off her own or others’ product promotions and/or off SFS (and thus, money goes directly to her as opposed to an modeling agency or a third party). She may also make money from camming or other kinds of paid arrangements with followers, though this is hard to assess as such arrangements are not public like endorsements.
Spam for spam, or SFS, is a blanket term used to cover a number of interactions that generate growth for users. The word “spam” is used loosely, since it sometimes involves advertising for another page on your page via an image or comment, but that’s not always the case. In fact, SFS in the context of Instagram modeling is an essential growth mechanism and lacks most of the annoying associations of the word.
On the smallest level, SFS can mean two IG Models just liking and commenting on each other’s posts; each one’s followers sees the other liking and commenting and perhaps then goes on to follow them. A more powerful form of SFS is when an IG Model cross-posts with a “collection page,” a page that features many different IG Models. When the SFS is initiated, the collection page will post a photo of the model, tag her, and @ (“mention”) her in the caption: e.g., “follow @onaartist for lots of sexy pics.” The IG Model then posts a photo of herself (or a photo of the page’s choosing) on her page, tags the collection page, and mentions the collection page in the caption: “follow @k_inizixoxo to see lots of hot girls.” While some leave these posts up permanently, the model and/or the collection page will at times delete these photos shortly thereafter. This is probably done for aesthetic reasons (some pages like to only have a fixed number of certain types of images as permanent posts) and because the vast majority of traffic trading/growth happens in the first 30 minutes to an hour after the post is made (since the more time that passes the further down in a feed a post will be). In the long run, having fewer posts concentrates the number of likes on those posts, which is valuable because it makes the page seem more popular and interactive. It’s too early to say how the new algorithm is going to affect these dynamics.
Two models can also SFS with one another in what is often referred to as #wcw (Women Crush Wednesday) or #wce (Women Crush Eternity or Women Crush Everyday). These posts are generally deleted within twelve hours, not only because the vast amount of growth happens right after a post is made, but also because each model has a unique performative style, and the longer term objective is that followers follow them because of their style and personality and prefer to see only their photos when they go to their page.
Tagging: Community, Fan Pages
Instagram community pages, collection pages, and fan pages are also central to an IG Model’s growth and environment. Instagram communities are single accounts made up of a recurring set of models with fairly matching aesthetics. @arsenicmagazine, @suicidegirls, @ganja.girls, and @tazangels are community pages, which often have some IRL physical connection, while @k_inizixoxo, @fameshouts, @the.buttblog are collection pages. Community and collection pages support their models by tagging/posting their photos and doing SFS mostly within their community. Collection pages are usually quite specific to a particular IG aesthetic, post IG models (they don't post celebrity content), and their look and posting patterns are quite different from mainstream publications (i.e. @voguemagazine).
Sometimes a collection page posts an IG Model’s photo and tags her but she doesn’t post and tag that collection page (so no SFS occurs). This is called “featuring” or, simply, for the collection page, a post. Many of the most popular and unique IG Models are regularly featured on collection pages without reciprocating. I notice direct changes in my profile growth based on the number and quality of collection pages that feature me. Often specific photos or IG models will suddenly become fashionable and be highly featured across many IG pages at once.
Many big IG Models have fan pages (a page devoted exclusively or almost exclusively to photos of a single model that the owner of the page did not take and is not in). Sometimes these fan pages are devoted to a particular model for some time and then switch to another model. Fan art is also a common gift to IG models.
The larger networks that build around a model are viewable in the “tagged” section of a model’s profile (“Photos of [model username]”). IG Models usually have a few of these a day, and they come from a diverse range of users whose posts can garner a wide numerical range of likes and comments.
Posts can be bought. For instance, an IG Model can pay to be featured/posted on a collection page or another model’s page for variable lengths of time (one hour, 24 hours, permanent, etc.). Assuming the collection page or other model has real followers, this will lead to an increase in the model’s followers. I have been quoted $50, $100, $200 for an hour post and $250 or more for permanent. The amount varies widely based on the page’s number and quality of followers.
A model can also pay for fake followers, but this results in a skewed likes-to-followers ratio that any knowledgeable IG user will notice, and this dampens opportunities for SFS with legit pages. For example, if a user has 1 million followers but 2k likes or four comments on a post, this user has bought followers. However, if someone buys fake followers they can also buy (or use apps that enable) fake likes. Overall, one wants to keep the likes-to-followers ratio looking “realistic” to facilitate trades.
I’m not very well informed on the practice of fake followers and fake likes, but I have seen pages with both (as indicated by their likes-to-followers ratio). At times IG will purge fake accounts. IG Models engaging in SFS or brands looking for sponsorship always have to suss out who has fake and who has real followers.
Sometimes an entire account is built and then sold for financial gain. For instance, I'll sometimes find a rather unusual photo in my feed and realize the account is new and that I never followed it—in this case the account I followed was likely sold and the new owner deleted all the past photos and added new ones to match the new page’s agenda. When a username changes, the “mentions” in captions of the posts do not change, but the tags on the posted photos do.
An IG Model’s following only grows if she’s active. She must post regularly (once or twice a day) to remind users that she exists. Once I took four days offline and grew a paltry 400 followers (whereas, if I had been active, I would have grown over 4k). Each time you post you also lose a few followers, but growth greatly outweighs loss and every post increases the chance a collection page will remember you and post one of your photos. Sometimes IG will feature your post in “top posts” through use of a hashtag, which boosts followers. However, the algorithms for this are quite mysterious and the top posts you see in your account are based on who you follow and like already.
IG Model accounts also grow when users “mention” other users in the comment of a post. For instance, @britneyg77 will type “@wrentopalert; in a comment on a post because she thinks @wrentopalert will want to see the post, and @wrentopalert will then possibly follow the account. While IG Models aren't actively involved in this mention-commenting and thus can't control it, the more “comments” a post gets, the more successful it is deemed, so IG Models work to make posts that are likely to get their followers to mention-comment other users. The most mention-comments often come on the most unique posts, such as those that show the body in a new creative angle, include a stunning setting, are extremely sexual, or involve a non-IG standard action. For example, a photo taken from below of me climbing a hill, which is an uncommon action to see from an IG Model, was very popular. Further, when I started posting “meta selfies” (photos of me taking a selfie), they were very rare on IG and were very popular. They are more common now and garner fewer likes.
Through their posts, IG Models engage in a particular performative self-presentation using a variety of features and signifiers. They’ll usually pick a performance style and stick with it to build their individual branding and establish a community of collection pages and potential communities to collaborate or SFS with. Each has different aesthetic parameters, characteristics, goals, and ways to grow traffic. Within IG there are a variety of looks, which I will describe below.
Face/Tits/Ass Girls (Showing Different Cheeks)
Part of deciding on a performance style involves choosing what “cheeks” to feature. In other words, models on IG can generally choose to position themselves as Face, Tits, or Ass Girls. These categories aren’t hard and fast, and they are bound up in questions about status and following as well as body type.
Face Girls are usually not IG Models, but are instead celebrity users or industry models. @lanadelrey is a good example of the former, and @lenaperminova of the latter. For Face Girls, most of their growth is due to external-to-IG growth mechanisms: magazines, major blogs, and so on.
Tit Girls choose to highlight tits (carefully obscuring the nipple) and face. Many of the highly popular IG Models seem to have breast implants. Some Tit Girls openly share and discuss on Snapchat or Instagram that their tits are “fake.” Women who have had breast implants are often very successful as IG Models and do a large number of brand endorsements (@crystalhefner). They may endorse supplements, teeth-whitening products, clothing stores, or any product for that matter.
In terms of social status, Ass Girls are the lowest: they don’t have agency representation like Face Girls and aren’t as prime for product endorsements as Tit Girls. Part of this is because Ass Girls like @tazsangel_ab show a lot of their behind from the side, back, or below, usually with (though sometimes without) panties, which means they feature the face less often. This makes their posts more frankly sexual, and less easy to pass off as wholesome and brand-friendly. Nevertheless, these models have a special niche on IG as there are collection pages that feature them and there is a particularly high level of skill involved in presenting the ass creatively.
The story of @crystalhefner shows how models create a particular focus for their account, which may change. It also illuminates how personal biographies and challenges can make their way into an IG model's performance. Over her current 164 posts and prior to a couple weeks ago, her photos exclusively featured her face and cleavage (minus three ass photos from the beginning of her page: Sept 2015, Nov 2015, Jan 2016). The rest of the ass on her page was that of her “friend”/SFS partner @slawada. On her own page, @slawada shows ass and tits (no face, just @crystalhefner's face). While these IG Models are unusual (@slawada shows no face, @crystalhefner shows no ass), they show how, given different assets, they have created a nice complementary SFS partnership by adding the missing cheeks to the other's page.
A few months ago, @crystalhefner began posting about being ill, saying that she was posting mostly photos she took a long time ago when she was feeling well. Finally, she announced that her breast implants had poisoned her and she was having them removed. Right around this time, she posted two ass photos (her own ass, not @slawada's). Without breast implants, she has adjusted her performance, showing resiliency and a capacity for reinvention.
In general, IG Models have more diverse body types than traditional agency models. The “thick” girl can be hugely popular in a way that she can’t be as a fashion model. Also, height doesn’t matter on IG, just proportions. In this way IG fosters more diverse body types than are seen in traditional modeling, but due to the urge for and competitiveness of growth, it also rewards extremes (as in bigger tits or ass). Since nudity is not allowed on IG, innovative ways to cover up and be nude without actually being nude are part of the IG game.
Photographer + Communities
Some models use multiple photographers (@miss_tina_louise) and some use a single identified or unidentified photographer (@haylienoire). Some are primarily selfie models (@yungelita). Most models who post photos from one or more photographers also post selfies.
There are many big photographer, model, collection, and community pages that feature a style/brand of modeling/production that is characterized by clean lighting, “fake” tits, perfect touch ups, and luxury locations. I call this the LA aesthetic, though it includes photos taken all over the world, from Miami to the Maldives. Many of the largest IG Model accounts are in this group and they and their collection pages do a great deal of trading with each other. Alternative photography aesthetics do exist, but they are much smaller in comparison to the power of the LA aesthetic in terms of moving traffic and growing accounts.
Many models work with a group of the same photographers so their style is dictated accordingly. For IG Models who want to grow, shooting with the right photographers is a big deal, because when they get posted on the photographer's page many of those following the photographer then go and follow the model. This cross-posting is considered as a more “legitimate” or non spammy version of SFS for growth. Popular IG photographer accounts include @ohrangutang, @2020photography3, and @ryanastamendiphotography.
Perhaps in recognition of the growing power of the IG Model within internet culture and marketing, fashion agencies have started adding an “influencer” or “social” division. Dedicated “social influencer” agencies are also popping up. The One1.K division of One Management is an example of the former, and Kitten Agency of the latter. Thus, the lines are starting to blur even more between industry models and IG Model, but I would propose that most of the users who are represented by modeling agencies still end up in the celebrity category. They receive mainstream coverage, their contact information is their modeling agency (money comes to them via the agency), their self-presentation and poses are not graphic or explicit, and their body types are the model industry standard in terms of age, weight, height, etc.
In terms of creative artistry, I'm most impressed by the independent IG Models because they tend to be more diverse, artistic, and unique. However, they are not the most popular. They often land under 1m. Or below 100k, but that's another essay.
Captions can create a particular attitude for the IG Model and add personality. Captions may be banal diary entries (“I’m so glad it’s Friday”), poetic messages or inspirational quotes (“Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words” —Robert Frost), ironic twists or joke-like memes, promotion (“Buy my clothing line by clicking the link in the bio”), or personal manifestos/tirades.
IG only allows one hyperlink on a profile, and this is commonly referred to in a caption as the “link in bio.” This is the link that you enter under profile settings → website. It is the quickest and easiest way for a follower to access a link external to IG. Links may exist outside of the “link in bio” but they do not hyperlink out, so they have to be copied and pasted by the user.
There are some highly identifiable themes on IG Model pages. There is the model who mostly models for different photographers and showcases their collaboration by showing a photo or two from each shoot. There is the fit model who shows off her body to the enjoyment of some and the inspiration of others, like @anacheri, @iamnayfit, @bundleofbrittany. Lifestyle models and fashion bloggers are usually not IG Models as their targeted audience is SFW and they often focus on a particular product subset (luxury goods, nutrition, style, clothing). There are IG Models who promote their art, e.g., actresses, musicians, visual artists, clothing designers, photographers, and so on. And there is the sex worker, most popular of which are various Suicide Girls and MyFreeCam accounts. Interestingly, traditional escorts do not have a significant presence on IG (perhaps because they rely on anonymity, and prefer not to show their face? Or they focus on IRL not URL performance?); porn star accounts range widely in size and range between a celebrity profile (@stoya, who heavily features her cat) and IG Models (@cjmiles8ig, who actively posts videos and advertises for her own products). Generally, I find that cam girls, escorts, and porn stars thrive more on Twitter, perhaps because IG is seen as less “adult” friendly.
While some might assume that most IG Models do sex work (offer the chance to sex cam with them or meet them in person), there is very little evidence for this assumption. Some IG Models promote their pay site or say that they are available to cam, but it's a small percentage. Actually, any IG user (including agency models) may use their IG accounts to attract people interested in paying them for sex or naked pics or cam sessions. My sense is that the assumption that IG Models are more likely to be engaged in sex work is due to their images looking more sexual than the average user, but barring some deeper consideration of which types of user actually engage in sex work, it seems incorrect to assume IG Models do so to a greater degree than other IG users.
In the wild wild west of IG Modeling economics, the more followers and likes you get, the more likely it is a model or collection page will SFS with you, a photographer will ask to shoot you, a magazine or website will feature you, and a brand will want to pay you to endorse its product. Once a model shows real numbers or growth potential, brands often approach her for product endorsements or to be a “brand ambassador” (i.e. @claudiaalende) The more followers, the more brands come knocking and the more she can charge to promote a product.
Sometimes brands send samples and/or clothing that they want the model to pose with and endorse, and the model may keep the product. If her following is larger, she can charge to endorse. It’s hard to say where this line is. While having lots of followers helps (at least several hundreds of thousands), the number of followers a model needs to gain endorsements can be less of a factor than brands thinking she has a lot of followers who would be interested in their product. As for specific arrangements, they vary—sometimes the model gets the item for free, sometimes she makes a percentage of a sale, sometimes she receives a payment, etc. Examples of brands who seem to be building their customer base in this way through Instagram are @skinnybunnytea, @lordtimepieces, @brighterwhite, @yandy, @proteinworld.
From my experience, the only way to find out how much models get paid to endorse is to pose as a company and see what they charge, since just asking them doesn’t work—they either “cook the books” or they refuse to tell. Most girls want to keep it a secret, perhaps so they can negotiate at higher levels with certain companies. This is because IG Model dreams are driven by the fact that real incomes and careers can be launched from IG.
I have received various brand endorsement requests, such as: 1) clothing from @bigheadedunderwear and a few other brands, which I have worn in photos and posted (for free, though I got to keep the clothing), 2) requests to start and engage on other social media platforms (paying by the word count of engagement), and 3) an offer to do three posts for $120 with a tea product. However, I am not actively engaged in pursuing brand endorsements for several reasons. First, I haven’t found the offers to be remunerative enough to expend the time and energy it takes to negotiate and make a post. Second, my IG is part of a celebrity-as-art-practice project so I keep it focused on promoting my music, pay site, and art, and I fear that excessive product promotion could alienate my followers via “promotion fatigue.” Finally, I am very exacting about the aesthetics of my images and am not interested in cluttering up my page with extraneous product placements.
While some IG models are happy with the income generated from their page thru SFSing, some are aggressively trying to crossover into “true” celebrity thru becoming photographers, starting fashion lines, acting, etc. This crossover is incredibly difficult since what made the IG Model successful is often exactly what the mainstream media and brands don’t want to be seen as endorsing. Sometimes models will cull and reinvent their pages (delete the more explicit photos, start adding landscapes, sayings, and other kinds of images that “true” celebs post). @niykeeheaton is an impressive success story of an IG Model launching a successful music career.
It’s common for a photographer to shoot a model and post a few pics of her on their IG, then if you look at her personal IG, you can tell that the photographer has drastically touched up her photos. Among IG Models, filters, touch ups, modifications, etc. are all part of the art form, and “body modification” criticism is relatively nonexistent compared to the mainstream press. It’s generally assumed and accepted by followers that photos (and bodies) are touched up from the start. Photoshop is generally seen as part of the art, and I can’t think of a single time that a follower has commented negatively because an image looked touched up.
IG Models not only spend a lot of time creating content for their page, but they also need to time manage, or moderate, their account. This involves dealing with inactivation, responding to user comments, and handling DMs.
IG Model accounts are regularly deleted for content seen as sexual (sheer nudity, sexual poses, clothes coming off, and so on). In order to have your account reinstated, you need to submit an appeal through an IG form you receive when the account is suspended. From what I’ve heard, accounts are often deleted automatically when a set number of complaints are issued against it, and then when you appeal, an actual person reinstates it as long as it does not flagrantly break the rules.
My account was deleted once from IG and the email said it was because my page was “sexually suggestive,” even though IG’s Community Guidelines do not use this phrase. Rather, they read:
We know that there are times when people might want to share nude images that are artistic or creative in nature, but for a variety of reasons, we don’t allow nudity on Instagram. This includes photos, videos, and some digitally-created content that show sexual intercourse, genitals, and close-ups of fully-nude buttocks. It also includes some photos of female nipples, but photos of post-mastectomy scarring and women actively breastfeeding are allowed. Nudity in photos of paintings and sculptures is OK, too.
Every IG Model I have ever seen get deleted has been back within a month’s time (though I’ve seen many collection pages disappear for good). There are only two exceptions to this that I have witnessed. IG Model @real_olindacastielle (137k) had her first account deleted at 2.1m and her second account deleted at 250k. She is still hoping to get them reinstated, but hasn’t yet and it’s been three months. Like Olinda’s current new page, her old deleted page did not break any Instagram rules. She showed creative, provocative, and extreme images featuring both tits and ass, but no bare buttocks and no uncensored nipples. Her captions were often personal manifestos on female sexuality and social puritanism, and they continue to be brashly honest and sexual. She often asks to be considered as an artist and a provocateur. As she said in an email to me, “I am too sexual, honest, and real so I inspire but also scare a lot of people.”
Then there is the case of IG Model @marisapapen, who was taken down at around 545k in late July 2016. When I first became aware of her, around June 2015, she would occasionally post photos in which she was fully nude and would show bare buttocks with barely occluded nipples. Over time, she started more frequently breaking Instagram's rules for putting up bare buttocks (one example July 2, 2016), uncensored nipples (most recently July 4, 2016), naked vagina from the front (around June 30, 2016), and full frontal nudity (on a fairly regular basis, most recently July 25, 2016). The full frontal nudity photos are removed by Instagram. When live, she grew at an impressive rate, perhaps because she seems to be the only user able to get away with nude photos. Did she escape the censors for so long because she also appeared in Treats! Magazine? Or because her aesthetic was one of nudism (not arousal) and her captions were “banal diaristic” (not challenging)? Hard to say, but an interesting puzzle. She did not respond to my email inquiry.
My sense is that collection pages that post Ass Girls are more commonly deleted. @onaartist is an Ass Girl (I lack mainstream celebrity, agency representation, and impressive cleavage) and Ass Girl pages that I have regularly SFSed with have gotten deleted and then reinstated. In each case they say either they don’t want to SFS with me anymore or they are happy to keep SFSing but they need to “play it safe.” This means no back (or below) ass photos, or, preferably, just tit photos or highly smoothed/photoshopped side or above ass. This ultimately means that tits can be posted from any angle, but ass (regardless of clothing) may only be posted from a conservative or “socially appropriate” angle.
Right prior to publication I noted that @real_olindacastielle has been deactivated and @marisapapen is back, enforcing the trend I mentioned prior. The fact that some pages remain while still repeatedly breaking the Community Guidelines and others can be deleted even if these rules have not been broken creates an air of mystery as to what IG allows and what it censors. Navigating this mystery to achieve optimal clickbait traffic-generating sexiness while not breaking ambiguous and inconsistent rules is a challenge. It's also a reminder that somewhere beyond are the rulers who built this platform and who determine who stays, who goes, who is featured, and ultimately what is allowed to exist.
Interacting with Users
IG Models spend a lot of time interacting with or deciding how to interact with their users in the comments section of each post: who to block, which comments to delete, which comments to reply to, and so on. For example, is the comment “I hope you have pussy insurance, cuz I’m gonna bang it to death” (which I’ve actually received on a photo) an expression of hate or desire? Some models would find it unacceptable and others would see it as a welcome expression of sexual urge. Another conundrum is the comment “fuck you.” It could be rude, or it could come from a non-English speaker who’s trying to say “I want to fuck you,” which would be understood by most IG Models as a sign of a successful post. Some models leave rude, hateful, or offensive comments up, others delete them.
Fan users also tend to fight with each other—for instance, if someone criticizes a model’s photo, other followers will come to her defense, and the exchange can get ugly fast. When this happens on my page, I have to decide whether or not to keep this argument up. My personal philosophy is that my IG account is a place of positivity, love, and expressions of desire and admiration, so comments that involve hate and nastiness are deleted and the user is blocked. Other models have other philosophies and delete expressions of sexual desire but keep up negative comments. It just depends on the kind of environment an IG Model tries to maintain.
Finally, models respond to commenters to varying degrees as they seek to grow an adoring fan base. This can be time consuming, so some large-follower-count IG Models hire someone else to do it for them. Emojis are really helpful here, since they are quick and offer a variety of ways to say “thank you.”
DMs, Dick Pics, Proposals, etc.
For every comment you see, models receive many more DMs. When you have hundreds of thousands to millions of followers, it can be very time consuming and complicated to wade through the DMs to see what’s legit. For instance, if a photographer asks if you’ll model for him, is he worth the time it will take to respond and negotiate? If someone asks if you’ll cam, i.e. accept money to spend some time two-way video chatting with them, how do you avoid getting dragged into a long logistical conversation before you even see a penny? Lots of DMers are just interested in conversation with a model and have no intention of paying for anything. Further, DMers are not always what they say they are.
From what I hear, and from my own experience, models receive many dick pics. Some have a policy against it and block the sender. Some are fine with it. I am fine with dick pics, though I do not respond to any DMs, whether dick pics or personal notes, unless there is an offer for SFS or pay.
My experience as an Instagram Model has always been within the context of my “celebrity as art practice” project. Prior to starting my IG account, I had become fascinated with the art world’s obsession with celebrity and thought it would be interesting to combine the two into a practice, i.e. to create a celebrity as an art practice. Part of my fascination was founded in my interest in questions of ownership and appropriation. In the age of Richard Prince taking pictures of girls off Instagram, calling them his art and selling them for lots of money, I saw it as a distinctly feminist and agential act to be a “girl on Instagram” who is also art and who owns and controls everything she does.
What I’ve learned over the last year is that mainstream celebrity is a very different animal than social media popularity. While a social media user might gain a large number of followers, acceptance into the mainstream (and the greater income potential that implies) is still limited by a number of barriers and qualifications e.g., staying SFW, being sanctioned by the right institutions, remaining within a prescribed performative bandwidth, etc. To put it another way, there’s a world of difference in terms of mainstream celebrity between @saraunderwood and @brittanya187, though they both have around 7 million IG followers.
Regardless, I have found it very valuable as an artist to explore the Instagram aesthetic as a creatively informative and inspiring social media space. I have also enjoyed operating within the dynamics of the micro celebrity that comes from a small subset of the population following your every move. Finally, I’ve discovered that the work of some IG Models constitutes an unrecognized hotbed of outsider art.
The impetuses to work hard and spend the money necessary to become a big IG Model are several. Some look to gain major social media followings and, with enough success, make a living solely from their IG pages. Some try to parlay Instagram celebrity into real-world celebrity, a very challenging crossover. However, others seem to treat their posts as what I referenced in the subtitle: a new form of DIY digital feminized performance. Some are trying to do two or all.
Ultimately, what some IG Models are doing deserves the name of “art” for several reasons. First, their work has at least two socio-critical components: 1) it proposes that engaging the male gaze can be as “female empowering” as resisting it, and 2) in self-making themselves as “supermodels” they are subverting the traditional power structure of the female image machine and ushering in a new era of “woman-made woman.” Second, like many artists before them, they strive to depict the beautiful aspects of nature. And like various artists online, they inspire discourse about the complicated discrepancies between digitality and reality, art and commerce, sociality and agency.
But perhaps the best reason for IG Models to be considered “art” is that, in a certain sense, they are not “models.” In the production of artworks, the model is something that inspires an artist to make art (for instance, a model sitting for Picasso) or that forms the physical basis of a piece of art but is not considered art itself (for instance, a model appearing in a photo by Helmut Newton). In other words, IG Models have freed themselves of “man hands.” They have agency over their performances and they themselves make up the art. They do the work, appear in the work, get recognized for the work, and often get paid for the work, so they are “the work.”
Whether or not the IG Model will find cultural respect outside of IG remains unclear; she is as much a challenge to the art world as she is to the commercial modeling world. The former is likely to consider her too commercial (sexual?) to be art, while the latter considers her too artistic (independent/explicit?) to be commercial. Walking this line—and causing cognitive dissonance in two separate and often opposed major cultural spheres—must be counted as one of the IG Model’s more remarkable achievements. And there are undoubtedly more to come.
Numbers and status of accounts accurate as of July 27, 2016.
Cynthia and Celinde are conjoined twins who live in the mind of their autistic host. You will be joining them today in their myriad adventures. You may have already gotten to know them a bit in the computational network community they usually hang out in, whether on DeviantArt or elsewhere. This is the first time they are out and about in the world, and boy do they have a lot to show and tell. You will learn lots about machinic death drive and changelings. Be wary of metaphorization. They don’t like it when you expect them to teach you about yourself through their body. Rather, they prefer to teach through being in the world. Buckle up and enjoy your trip!
Cynthia and Celinde are seen buckled into a single seat in an otherwise empty cockpit in the final frames of Andrea Crespo’s new video A day in the lives of (2016), surrounded by a clear blue sky splashed with clouds.
What was known about Cynthia and Celinde up until this journey? Certainly they had never been seen in such a vibrant setting. Crespo’s previous video sis : parabiosis (2015) visualizes their source material: shadowy outlines of manga-like girls, conjoined or in mirrored poses; medical charts (for instance, “Table 16.2: Four main types of autoscopic phenomena”); long lists of terms that grasp their condition—“born multiple,” “self-pluralism,” “neurodiversity,” “otherkin,” among them. These materials flash past us, swiped by the light of a scanner or an EMDR light bar (a treatment tool sometimes used in psychotherapy), compressed, encoded, mapped and remapped by the obsession of an unseen author—or host. In virocrypsis (2015), they have taken form (“We took this body and made it our own”) and appear amid sleek, watery planes of black and grey, a cold, amorphous environment that pulses with the brightness of a laboratory and the glow of a screen but is somehow warmed by the twins’ tenderness and palpable vulnerability.
“Hi. Hello again.” A day in the lives of opens with Cynthia and Celinde greeting the viewer, as they overlook a river lapping against an ashen skyline. “We have lots to show you, lots to tell you.” We trail Cynthia and Celinde as they drive a car (“I absolutely love driving,” they intone); upload a “very special payload,” which looks like the contents of a chat forum, to the cargo hold of a plane; walk through a laboratory where they “invite their subjects to play”; and find themselves, finally, in the cockpit. A day reverberates with sounds at a volume a tick higher than expected: the whirring of plane engines, cars passing on the highway, rain falling. These are “stimmy” sounds, ones that match the bodily feeling of perseveration, and they thrill and calm the twins.
In the cockpit, as they face forward, one hand delicately on the dash, their dialogue—elsewhere called a “soliloquy in plural”1—winks at the viewer:
We have plane
Roger that, sis.
I guess you could call that a metaphor too.
But, doesn’t that make you wonder,
Who, or what, we are?”
We may be changelings but, we’re no stand-ins.
This distinction—changelings, not stand-ins—is key for the twins. Cynthia and Celinde are not depicted as “stand-ins” for a specific disorder, dysfunction, or desired but unattainable real (“Be wary of metaphorization”). Rather, they are unpredictable and alive: an expansive, chimerical substitute for a body and mental state delimited by strictures of normativity. A day in the lives of sets them free, ready to teach by being in the world.
“Andrea Crespo: A day in the lives of” is commissioned by Rhizome and copresented with the New Museum as part of First Look: New Art Online.
1 Kari Rittenbach, “Andrea Crespo,” CURA. magazine, Spring 2016.
The Rhizome Commissions Program is supported by the 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 M. Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.
Major support for First Look is provided by the Neeson / Edlis Artist Commissions Fund. Additional support is provided by the Toby Devan Lewis Emerging Artists Exhibitions Fund and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.
Rhizome is pleased to announce that Los Angeles-based writer and artist Aria Dean will be joining the organization as assistant curator beginning October 1st. Dean will work with artistic director Michael Connor and preservation director Dragan Espenschied on Rhizome's efforts to preserve, present, and re-perform works of net art from the 1980s to the present day, as well as organizing events and publishing articles online. This appointment was funded by a generous grant from the Carl & Marilynn Thoma Art Foundation.
Dean graduated from Oberlin College in 2015. Her writing has been featured in Artforum, The New Inquiry, Real Life Magazine, Topical Cream Magazine, and X-TRA Contemporary Art Quarterly. She also co-directs gallery and project space As It Stands LA.
The appointment arrives at a moment of expansion for Rhizome's curatorial staff, which will also soon include a software curator and a net art Ph.D. student, a partnership position with Centre for the Study of the Networked Image, London South Bank University.
Photo: Emmanuel Olunkwa
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: Your recent work takes the form of animated GIF collages that convulse with explosions, weird animals and jerky gestures—scenes that are usually playful but often perverse. Most of it is presented in mad looping cut-out form, with jagged, silhouetted edges and sudden jump-cuts that have become your signature motifs. It’s easy to see how these GIFs harken back to early web vernacular, but I’m tempted to draw an even deeper trajectory. I see Stan Brakhage, Jack Smith, Maya Deren, and other experimental filmmakers in your use of the image as malleable, pleasure-seeking collage material.
Earlier works, like these compositions from 2010 and in particular this set focused on your mother’s jewelry, use sequences of tightly framed shots that construct almost conventional narratives. Presented as a stack or a linear progression, sometimes barely moving, the looping in these pieces is more “manual;” my gaze has to follow from frame to frame as I piece the story together.
Whether sequenced as a chain (narrative) or oscillating (disjunctive collage), your GIFs draw upon a distinct cinematic lineage. Do you seek to resolve these disparate ideas, or a synthesis between them, or something else?
Lorna Mills: It’s funny that you ask that because I had a steady diet of experimental film when was in art school during my late teens (at an age when I could watch anything). If you’ve ever read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, you’ll remember his detailed, deadpan descriptions of avant garde films. I found them howlingly funny but at the same time I thought, “yeah, that’s a good idea for a movie.” But animated GIFs hover in a confounding space between film and still image; they remind viewers that cinematic movement itself is an illusion; eg. that all is artifice.
I’ve always avoided any narrative with those short loops of visually banal events. I wanted them to be permanent digressions from a narrative, just looping in perpetuity and mimicking more urgent rhythms like breathing, heartbeats, copulations, and collisions.
The shorter answer to your question is that I am looking for something else. In the past I've described this something else as the particular and peculiar expanding to universals that, at an alarming rate, contract right back to the particular and peculiar—basically, constant oscillation punctuated by the odd abrupt rhythm.
Lorna Mills, Mt. Imagination (2015)
PS: In the description of an even earlier work, Willing Maid, Spoken Fur (2003), you write that your motivations are “from a pleasure in language that comes from my activities as a reader, not a writer.” I really see this position as a reader extending into all of your work, consuming (and re-presenting) visual material from the darker back channels of the web in an almost voyeuristic way. As the web has developed during the last twenty years, how have you changed as a reader of network culture?
LM: For years I have been thinking about traditional slow information systems (books!) in contrast with the speed of network culture. That said, I think that cognitive brain scientists have more interesting observations on that than I could ever make. As a child, I was a precocious reader, I read most text too fast and retained very little. Online I take on information in a fragmented, anxious, impatient, and frenzied manner and I suspect that I still retain very little.
And since you brought up the Racing Kiosk series I did years ago, I did do web versions of the text crawls of race horse names. (May I mention that those were the good old days when you could slap a marquee tag on something and you got INSTANT NET ART.)
The crawling text is gleefully absurd, mysterious and, ultimately, gregarious, running at the speed of casino culture, like a racing form attached to the end of Finnegan's Wake.
That’s the best line I have ever written about any of my works so I’m repeating it here.
Lorna Mills, Where Music Is (2015)
PS: You work with “poor images” that celebrate low resolution, low fidelity, and almost universal accessibility. Is circulating your work freely essential to your practice? How important are the platforms that frame and host these experiences (social media, Times Square billboards, commercial galleries, etc.) to an understanding of your practice?
Yes, Hito Steyerl's “poor images” thesis is very distinct from, and preferable to, any sort of nostalgic sensibility. (I also get irritated when the animated GIF is described as an obsolete format, it’s actually quite a successful format.)
Circulating my work online is essential, it's participating in the culture, and that's what artists get to do. I was an artist long before I started making art online, so I already had an exhibiting career, and reformatting and adapting web-based work for installations in galleries and museums is something I enjoy. I’m also very lucky to be with Transfer Gallery where this sort of problem is re-worked with every new artists’ show.
As for showing in Times Square, that was a delightful aberration. No one expects that to happen. Part of me was amused by the possibility of the work failing BIG TIME. The first night I saw it I was very Canadian and slightly embarrassed about the scale. On the second viewing, my monster ego kicked in and now whenever I see any images of Times Square I wonder why the hell my art isn’t up there anymore, because it really should be playing there forever.
PS: The web we see in your work is totally mad: masturbating bears, fires, orgy scenes, non-stop humping, car crashes, and dancing kangaroos. Why vulgarity?
I would argue that there isn’t any vulgarity in my work, just an exquisitely honed sense of the ridiculous. The web you see in my work is definitely lively and I feel great kinship with greedy barbarians. I was never interested in using digital tools to recreate late 20th century blue-chip art movements.
Lorna Mills, Sing the Tell (2011)
PS: In your Ways of Something (2014) you wrangle 114 artists into an epic assembling that functions as a contemporary re-make (and astounding critique) of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing (1972). Is this particular work and the community that it celebrates an outgrowth of surf clubs and earlier web scenes? What does collaboration means to you in your practice?
My approach is definitely not an outgrowth of surf clubs. As much as I enjoyed the work they produced, they were still clubs and clubs function by exclusion. That said, artists do much better when they are part of teams, plus critics, curators, and dealers love it when young hotties self-organize and/or self-package.
For all the issues that accompanied “The Wrong,” David Quiles Guilló’s sprawling online biennial of net art, he deserves way more credit for extending participation in the mediums we work with. Earlier, and more hermetically sealed web scenes couldn't accomplish that.
Doing large collaborative programs began in earnest for me when Rea McNamara invited me to organize GIF screenings for her brilliantly irreverent “Sheroes” series of monthly art parties. I thought it was a great chance to participate in fan culture. I think I invited five or six artists to make work in the first one for Yoko Ono, though I was a little worried that they'd be offended by the invitation. It turned out that everyone wanted to do more, so instead of selecting different artists every month I just kept on expanding the list of invited artists. It got to the point where our final Sheroes party had almost fifty artists creating new works for projection.
I learned that I could work with large groups of artists as long as the structures were clearly defined, so when I thought up Ways of Something, I wasn't daunted by the number of people I would have to work with to finish all four episodes. For Ways, I just set up the framework for the artists to work within. Their sixty seconds was their art.
Collaboration is a term that can be misused in a lot of contexts. It's rarely a mind-meld, it's more like a negotiation. Most of the time I don't want to negotiate, I want to expand and explore my turf and not have to justify it to a partner (probably because I can rarely come up with a good excuse for what I am about to do.) But of course there are the odd occasions where I can see the potential for making work with another artist that I would never have done on my own, and in a direction I would never have expected to take.
Though after writing all of the above, I admit that I once did a collaboration for the simple pleasure of being able to make someone else's art instead of my own. I worked with the artist Julie Voyce years ago, she made all the art and I just gave my approval to whatever she finished every day. It was relaxing to forget myself.
Age: Fuck off
How/when did you begin working creatively with technology?
1993 was when I went digital, prior to that I was analog with Super 8 film, video, painting, and photography.
Where did you go to school? What did you study?
I first went to artist run schools that no longer exist, then in 1993/94 I took some intensive courses in Turning on a Computer and then multimedia for CD-Rom delivery. Programming and video editing were self-taught later on.
What do you do for a living or what occupations have you held previously?
Waitress, children’s game programmer, currently video editing for IPTV and tablet delivery
What does your desktop or workspace look like?
Now exhibited on rhizome.org’s front page, Nicolas Sassoon’s INDEX is a large GIF depicting a Vancouver, BC project space, also called Index, that existed from 2012 to 2015. For this work, Sassoon made a drawing of the space as he remembered it on the night of an electronic music event called Rain Dance which he co-organized with music producers LNS and Scott W.
INDEX will be shown as a two-channel video in Loop Dreams: Contemporary GIF Art IRL, a one-day exhibition in New York City organized by GIPHY with additional curation from Rhizome on October 2. For this exhibition, Rhizome commissioned gifs and lenticulars by Sassoon and four other artists: Laura Brothers, Jacob Ciocci, Ann Hirsch, and Yung Jake. These newly commissioned works will be shown alongside more than twenty other artists from the GIPHY community. A panel discussion featuring Rhizome Artistic Director Michael Connor along with artist Laura Brothers, curator Jason Eppink, and GIPHY founder Alex Chung, will explore the GIF's usage as vernacular communication and artistic medium as parallel trajectories in the history of the file format.
Sassoon's GIF is larger than most browser viewports, inviting viewers to explore it by scrolling from section to section, inspecting the space’s kitchen, bathroom, tool shop, and DJ booth. The space is uninhabited, but there is evidence that people were recently present, setting up for the show--a tape measure, a utility knife, a roll of gaff tape. Even the houseplants are finely rendered in pixel-perfect black and white, with bitmapped textures that are constant, subtle motion, charging the scene with a pent-up psychic energy.
Nicolas Sassoon makes use of early computer imaging processes to render fantastical visions of architectures, landscapes and domestic environments. While most of his work is published online, Sassoon also materializes his web-based practice into a wide range of media, as well as through collaborations with artists, architects, music producers and fashion designers.Sassoon’s work often explores the contemplative dimensions of screen-based space and how this space can be inscribed within the physical realm. He has previously exhibited at Eyebeam (US), Vancouver Art Gallery (CA), MU Eindhoven (NL), and the Victoria & Albert Museum (UK). He is a founder of the collective W-A-L-L-P-A-P-E-R-S.
Looking at my .pdf library I recently came across Monte Burch's The Complete Guide to Sausage Making, a book that clearly—and perhaps morbidly—describes some key features of this ancient and mysterious practice. Throughout the reading of this document I somehow realized that I had been learning not only about sausage making as such, but also the mode of existence of some digital images, with whom I coexist.
How is such a leapfrog possible? In Burch’s guide, a sausage can be made by grinding and mixing “scraps and trimmings” and, interestingly enough, by also maintaining a prudent period of “seasoning and curing.” The meat’s encounter with a systematic process of recombination and extrusion, say, configures the sausages. Moreover, it is precisely their sausageness that allows us to access them according to polarized protocols: on the one hand, sausage production is analog and continuous—the more meat we add to the grinder, the larger the sausage is. Conversely, its access is developed according to a discrete, digital-like protocol: the slice.
Shaping images with our digital gaze
An image is no longer a singular thing, but rather it becomes dispersed, distributing its existence along paths, iterations, periplus, and versions provided by both humans and systems. In this sense, images are trajectories through media, devices…and places. Visual characteristics (namely; colors, sizes, textures, compositions, effects, texts, icons, and typographies) are subjected to a large number of recursive and combinatory operations; a memetic modality of some images that supersedes the very notion of internet meme.
The world s largest sausage in Kobasicijada Festival (Turija-Serbia) in 2012
This implies that in order to access an image’s narrative, we have to retrace some of its extruded, threadlike trajectories. Our attention is not focused on a singular image, but is distributed along the image’s path. Since the versioning of an image is the image, the increasing accumulation of similar images is nurturing distributed ways of seeing.
Slicing images’ sausageness
Sausage-like elongation describes the way that images accumulate, but this redundancy of content is not merely piled up, but follows an extruded trajectory that creates threads of dispersed versions.
Since any given sausage is not only a sausage, but also the expression of its formal mode of production, what is the shape of our engagement with it? If either sausage and image are being distributed across a potentially endless series of elongated versions, we can only access images by slicing them.
Slicing Gucci Mane
Capturing the environment with our digital devices creates a discrete, framed incision in our surrounding milieu. Hence, further captures within the digital realm (for instance, by copying, tagging or storing digital files) prefigure the apparition of what I would like to denominate image-slices.
These slices have also something that really interests me; an intriguing ability to create their own negative imprint in the form of memory. They remind us that their status as slices conceals the almost invisible process of how our digital gaze deprives images of their own visuality in favor of their memory. If the latter is defined here as a time-based measure of the image's shifting or fading along a trajectory, visuality presents the limits of an image; the contours and deformations produced by its elongation. The shape that a sausage acquires during its extrusion—being limited or arrested by its mold or configuration process—posits visuality as the imprint of energy. The visual cohesion of images is therefore based on modulations; the development of deformations through time.
As any salami knows, its own depletion measures its extinction, but its memory increases as the salami diminishes. By day seven in the fridge, the last extant sausage piece compresses a huge amount of time within a narrow meat scrap, which indicates, as if metadata were present, its very process of dwindling.
The accumulation of image-slices made by our digital gaze is not indiscriminate; it overlaps and compresses nuggets of visuality seeking an array of coagulated slices, relating images by means of mnemonic paths: spaces, affections, repetition, and desire. In doing so, digital images are increasingly becoming an ancillary verification of memory's circulation through systems and users.
Accelerated emblems: when memory eats image
The circulation of the digital image is propelled through versioning, elongation, and indexical techniques which optimize access to it by reducing the importance of its immediate visuality. After a certain point, memory’s circulation through systems and users becomes the image’s primary index, pointing to its internal coherence rather than an external frame of reference. Certain images can therefore intertwine themselves toward total memory, devoid of any content apart from their own possible trajectories.
Undermining visuality, from Egypt to my smartphone.
In an attempt to domesticate the Egyptian landscape during the Napoleonic campaign in the 18th Century, Nicolas Jacques Conté invented an engraving machine that by virtue of its accuracy brought engineers the possibility of describing the landscape in the most objective way. The free movement of the hand was replaced by up to forty-two possible sequences of lines that guaranteed not only a higher degree of precision, but a faster rendering speed. In the monumental Description de l'Égypte it is possible to find examples of these line patterns; rectangular images that visualize nothing but the expression of their mechanical production.
Back in the 21st century, this undermined type of image reappears in the screen of my smartphone. Whenever I swipe too fast over Google Images’ search results, the accelerated flux of images surpasses by far the device’s ability to display them all. I no longer see images, but an array of plain-colored rectangles.
How does this situation correlate with our subtractive digital gaze? My contention is that our digital gaze wants to subsume image within a larger structure of memory. If memory is based on delay—or hysteresis—then our digital gaze must decelerate the image's elongation in order to situate it within memory. In the era of visual salamis, we are no longer pursuing images, but image-slices that allow us to reconstruct their possible trajectories. This implies that the completion of memory is based on the limitation, almost the disappearance of image’s visuality.
From a computational standpoint, I imagine that this process erases the constructed distinction between software and hardware to the extent of making both indistinguishable.
An example of Core Rope Memory contained in an Olympia 15 digit calculator, circa 1971
The pursuit of memory not only undermines visuality but its interfaces as well. Perhaps digital memory artifacts will no longer need visual access interfaces such as screens…but in the meantime, let us take a look on a particular prehistory of this possibility from 1960s, where NASA's Apollo Program developed a form of ROM memory called Core Rope Memory. This was produced by literally weaving a wire skein along ferrite cores. The method of weaving wires—passing or bypassing the cores—configured the software. Therefore, memory was the outcome of an entangled, self-descriptive weaving motion: memory is what happens along the ferrite cores. Contrary to RAM memory, this Core Rope Memory was a non-volatile repository which keeps all its possible tasks in advance, indefinitely, even without energy supply. David A. Mindell's Digital Apollo: Human and Machine in Spaceflight recalls how the Apollo 12 computer easily rebooted itself after lightning struck the spacecraft. Without tapes or disk drives, Core Rope Memory visually exposes its limits and functions. We can imagine it as an artifact with the ability to keep and describe the totality of its existence, not by upgrading itself further, but through total access to its finite structure. This sheer visuality of its woven core—a kind of hardware—is the software, in absence of any other intermediate symbolic interface. The Core Rope's wire paths undermine images insofar as it constitutes its own memory. To put it simply, its finite woven code exists by itself. A distinct modality of software as the human-readable aspect of the machine is no longer necessary.
In the meantime, digital plein-air
I have to stress that, although sausage making is a pleasant and mouth-watering activity, is not precisely exempted of risk. Whenever a meat scrap falls off the cutting table, we are in peril of getting a contaminated, even a hairy sausage. As Burch’s guide reminds to us: “the one that eats the most sausage gets the most hair.” Nowadays we are witnessing the process of subsumption of memetic images within memory, but in the meantime, we are finding memetic images in the outdoors as well.
The temple of the Seven Dolls in Dzibilchaltun, Yuc. Mexico
Despite the fact that the Seven Dolls Temple in Dzibilchaltun (Mexico) perhaps was never conceived as a temporal landmark, during each vernal equinox a multitude of people congregate around the temple. When the Sun emerges, its beams traverse the temple's open door towards a plethora of smartphones, digital cameras, and tablets. The sunlight is not only framed by the door; it continues its trajectory by virtue of the devices’ capturing and the images’ further circulation.
After my first visit to this temple in 2012, I became increasingly interested in the particular elongated quality of this sort of memetic images. During the last three years I have been visiting several areas of Southern Mexico, finding along my way a variety of these images: digitally printed cylinders in the shore of Bacalar lagoon, fluorescent hoses in Palenque's jungle, gradient-like car reparations in Merida, polygonal paper dinosaurs in Chicxulub, to name a few. These memetic images incorporate an array of digital textures, patterns, gradients, and even moiré effects, but somehow their physicality produces an interesting disruption in its surrounding milieu. They popped out in our vision by highlighting their obvious digitalness in absence of devices, binary code, or even electricity. How is such a thing possible? If the traits of memetic images can be sustained in spite of devices —or their closeness—we must reconsider them as entities created uniquely by devices. Images linger at a certain distance of them; sometimes closer—even “within”— sometimes too far to be extant.
A memetic landscape in Bacalar, Quintana Roo, Mexico.
Constituted as trajectories by means of versioning, these memetic images could have existed before the advent of the internet itself. Acknowledging this fact places us in the striking situation whereby the prehistory of digital images comes after their “official” emergence as media; as if in the very moment that we relocate these images from their alleged habitat (digital devices,) devices no longer “create” images. The context of memetic images does not lie in their materiality—for example, their pre-filmic or pre-screening origin—nor in the materiality of the places they represent. Conversely, we find context in the very action of capturing and slicing images, as well as in the device's situational location.
The encounter with digital, memetic images in the outdoors and their incorporation within networks and memories denotes also the uneven degree of internet implementation over the Earth. Since bandwidth speed results are affected by geography (and geopolitics!), time is the subsidiary of space. The imbalances in a memetic image's speed of elongation describes real geographical distances between captured places and access to internet networks. This produces a particular phenomenon of historical remoteness, whereby 'antique' memetic images are still in the process of being incorporated, uploaded, elongated. As if the light of a distant sun were rising, we still are receiving and unearthing images pertaining to these memetic realms.
Javier Fresneda is a San Diego-based artist and researcher. His work can be found in www.javierfresneda.com among other places.
Burch, Monte. The Complete Guide to Sausage Making. New York: Skyhorse, 2011.
Mindell, David A. Digital Apollo: Human and Machine in Spaceflight. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008.
The Download is a series of Rhizome commissions that considers posted files, the act of downloading, and the user’s desktop as the space of exhibition. Elisa Giardina Papa's Technologies of Care, the latest in the series, is now on the front page.
“What are you up to?” asks Worker 7: bot? virtual boyfriend in a computer-generated voice. She replies that she’s busy. As the conversation unfolds, the artist and the online worker, who may or may not be a bot, struggle to understand and connect with each other.
Empathy, digital labor, and new ways to serve and care on the network are the subjects explored in Elisa Giardina Papa’s Technologies of Care, commissioned by Rhizome for the Download. Giardina Papa presents portraits of online workers in a 26MB ZIP file; six are identified as women, plus the possible bot. Each portrait is its own folder, activated by an HTML file marked “play_it.” Seven browser-based conversations are included in the Rhizome download, but Giardina Papa has produced a total of 25 for installation in “Cyphoria,” a section of the 16th Art Quadrennial in Rome curated by Domenico Quaranta.
In one of the dialogues, Giardina Papa describes to Worker 7 that her interest is in women who perform new types of network-based affective labor: “forms of work that are intended to produce emotional experiences in people.” As presented in Technologies of Care, the conversations sketch out distinct positions: the artist plays the role of the researcher, inquiring into the nature of this outsourced work; the workers reply. The sessions took place via Skype, chat, text messaging, and shared text docs, and traces of these platforms are evident throughout.
Giardina Papa hired the workers she interviews. In other words, the artist here is also a client, collaborating in the construction of her own work. “If you have more questions about me, you can ask, ok?!” (Worker 4.) At times, we’re keenly aware that the interview we’re listening to is itself a paid transaction: work negotiated with the artist, who will use the exchange as raw material. These workers are working. Using freelancer platforms like Fiverr and Upwork, the artist reached out to skilled employees and negotiated their conditions. Unlike marketplaces like Mechanical Turk, these platforms allow for direct contact with the service provider, which Giardina Papa used in order to explain her research in advance and confirm rates with the workers.
With Worker 7, the transaction teeters. The bot’s nagging demands (“I miss you!” “what are you up to? “are you mad at me?”) and Elisa’s replies (“I am at work now. actually I have to run into class, can I text you later?”) ask us to consider the emotional space of the artist as a digital worker herself, and the artist’s labor enters the scene explicitly. Evidence of these negotiations in Technologies of Care is scant, but they manage to cast authorship and control into precarious light. The exchange with Worker 7 is the only interview where Giardina Papa is asked questions in return. “I don’t understand, you think I’m getting paid to chat you up?” he/it asks. The bot reverses the game.
For each episode, a script takes over the user’s browser with flowing sound, text, and images, informed by details from the interviews. It’s a downloaded work, but Technologies of Care is not entirely local—digital 3D models of scanned shapes and silhouettes based on textures borrowed from the workers’ domestic environments, hosted on remote servers, are served up and animated on the spot. It's a real-time performance, an on- and offline collaboration in the browser. Outsourced work and service of another kind.
Giardina Papa visualizes—and gives voice to—invisible caregivers on the network: laborers who provide microservices, fetish work, and emotional support. We are introduced to an ASMR artist, an online dating coach, a fairytale author and video performer, a social media fan, a researcher and nail wraps designer, and a customer service operator. She finds these freelancers in Brazil, Greece, the Philippines, Venezuela, and the US, working anonymously through third-party companies that profit from these connections. Except for the virtual boyfriend, all of the interviews are performed as flat, female-sounding voices. Sometimes the interviewer and the interviewee are rendered as the same English-speaking voice. The need to modulate presentation through gender, voice, or language on the network is central here: how work is negotiated, how stories are managed. Worker 1 reveals that she and her daughter work together under a single “male” account on Fiverr—it’s an example of the way identity is performed under precarity.
The sessions read like ethnographic research but onscreen they play out like vibrant paintings. Within Technologies of Care’s even pace, distinct individuals and stories surface; details like Worker 1’s“slave-like” jobs and customers that “need to be nurtured” (Worker 3) suggest that these women are engaging with new modes of working, caring, and production that are complicated, at best. The domestic textures visualized by Giardina Papa are familiar; they humanize the anonymous caregivers, but maybe also echo the downloader’s own physical environment. Technologies of Care asks us to pay attention to these relationships, to the spaces between voices—to consider how close watching and listening to others on the network might link us together from all sides of the screen.
Click to download work:
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.
BACKEND DEVELOPER GENERALIST - RHIZOME
Full-time, salaried / Deadline: open until filled
Location: NYC preferable, working remotely is a possibility
WHO WE ARE LOOKING FOR:
Rhizome seeks a talented and personable backend developer generalist to join our core software development team. The backend developer will have a hand in maintaining and improving a variety of projects, including the Rhizome.org site, various software emulation deployments, Webrecorder, and additional projects as they come up.
This is a great opportunity for a strong, emerging generalist interested in having a hand in many different projects and making a significant impact on Rhizome’s online presence and cloud-based infrastructure. About half the time will be spent developing and maintaining other aspects of Rhizome.org, while the other half is spent contributing to the backend infrastructure of the Webrecorder project.
**Rhizome is an Equal Opportunity Employer and candidates from groups generally underrepresented in technical fields are especially encouraged to apply.**
- Managing all aspects of Rhizome’s website (rhizome.org)
- Working as part of the Webrecorder development team to implement and test new features, fix bugs and improve the Webrecorder platform
- Managing Rhizome's cloud-based infrastructure, including software emulation deployments
- Developing and assisting with special projects, online and off.
- Experience as a backend or full-stack developer on at least one medium-to-large scale web project
- Strong knowledge of Python, experience with JS, HTML, CSS
- Experience managing and deploying to at least one cloud-based service
- A passion for building great open-source software to make a positive difference
- Willingness to work with a small but geographically dispersed team
- Excellent communication skills
- Interest in pushing web technology to the limit for the greater good of the user
- Interest or experience in internet art
- Proven ability to find and share interesting links
- Previous experience in Web Archiving or digital preservation
- Experience with Amazon Web Services or Google Cloud
- Experience with Docker containers, locally or on a cloud-based service
- Familiarity with Django, or at least one other Python web framework
- Experience with search technologies (Solr, ElasticSearch)
- DevOps experience
- A deep engagement with digital culture and emerging technologies
These are general guidelines and not hard requirements; the more of these the better.
Celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2016, Rhizome is an organization based on the internet that commissions, presents, preserves, and critically addresses digital art. Founded in 1996 as an intimate email list connecting some of the first artists to work online and now—twenty years later—a thriving nonprofit with robust, multi-tiered programming, Rhizome has played an integral role in the history, definition, and growth of art engaged with technology and the internet
Since 2003, Rhizome has been an independent affiliate in residence at the New Museum in New York City. Although Rhizome has staff in California and Germany, its offices are housed in NYC at the New Museum's NEW INC - the first museum-led incubator for art, technology and design. In addition to working alongside New Museum staff, and with Rhizome's close-knit team, you'd work in a brand new office and shared workspace, among a group of members, and with access to intimate, internal-only talks, workshops and seminars by some of art and technology's leading figures.
To apply, send a resume, cover letter and links to code samples, projects and/or github account, to firstname.lastname@example.org
Please note this position is only available to those already eligible to work in the US.
Launch Event: Presentations + Artists Panel
Thursday, October 27, 7 PM
at the New Museum, 235 Bowery in NYC
TICKETS / Rhizome members receive a discount—email email@example.com
With a special event on October 27, Rhizome will premiere Net Art Anthology, a two-year online exhibition retelling the history of net art from the 1980s through the present day. Through one hundred works—restaged and contextualized on a weekly basis at a dedicated microsite—the series will take on the complex task of identifying, preserving, and presenting exemplary works in a field characterized by broad participation, diverse practices, promiscuous collaboration, and rapidly shifting formal and aesthetic standards, sketching a possible net art canon.
Devised in-concert with Rhizome's renowned digital preservation department, Net Art Anthology addresses a field in which even the most prominent artworks are often inaccessible. The Anthology is organized by Rhizome's artistic director, Michael Connor, with Aria Dean, assistant curator of net art, in consultation with external advisors. Dragan Espenschied, preservation director, will oversee all restorations.
The first phase of the Anthology will focus on works created through 1998, beginning with A Cyberfeminist Manifesto for the 21st Century (1991) by VNS Matrix. Each work will be given a bespoke restaging, which is linked from the microsite, designed by Lukas Eigler-Harding. One work will be presented each week, along with an essay published on Rhizome.org. The research and selection process is ongoing, and the full list will be revealed gradually throughout the project.
The launch event on October 27 will bring together a group of artists who championed distinct and even conflicting approaches to net art in the mid- to late 1990s: Olia Lialina (net artist and Geocities researcher/archivist), Martha Wilson (artist and founder of Franklin Furnace), Ricardo Dominguez (artist and founder of Electronic Disturbance Theater), and Mark Tribe (artist and founder of Rhizome). Each panelist will discuss their early online work as artists, curators, and organizers, reflecting on commonalities and contradictions in the field.
Additionally, the event will feature presentations by Connor, Dean, and Espenschied, who will give an overview of the Anthology program, discussing its aims, criteria, and curatorial and restoration processes.
Net Art Anthology is funded by the Carl & Marilynn Thoma Art Foundation. It arrives on the occasion of Rhizome's 20th anniversary year as a capstone project for the organization's first two decades, and a look ahead to what's next for net art and digital preservation.
Net Art Anthology is made possible by the generous support of
Top image: VNS Matrix, A Cyberfeminist Manifesto for the 21st Centry (1991). Billboard at Tin Sheds Gallery, Sydney, 1992. Photograph: VNS Matrix.
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.
Fiona Shipwright: In your current exhibition, Reconnaissance, you’ve made use of lenticular printing to create work that shows the “gap” that can exist between networked objects and our experiences of them, in this case the before and after satellite views of sites such as data centers and server farms, which for many years were obscured from view via deliberate Google Maps “glitches,” an approach present in much of work: making visible gaps that reveal certain glitches, which in turn reveal what is actually happening.
Seen straight on, the lenticular images almost look like glitches in themselves and remind me of a quote by the German dramatist, Heiner Muller: “…the only hope is in error because when all the technological systems work—we are lost.” Can you talk a little about working with and within that gap?
Ingrid Burrington: That’s a great quote. A lot of my work over the past couple of years has been looking at layers of physical infrastructure systems. A common phrase often applied to that kind of thing is that it’s stuff “you only notice when it breaks.” Once something stops working you start to better understand who it works for, or in certain situations what working even means. That’s a big part of how I think through making things in general.
Ingrid Burrington, Stennis Space Station (30.386088, -89.628402), 2015, lenticular print, 100 x 100 cm
FS: The Reconnaissance works employ the top down, bird’s eye or “god” view; once a much longed for “magical” perspective, now the mundane, standard view we use to plot our everydays. Over the past couple of years some of your work has explicitly referenced magic—such as the project you presented with Meredith Whittaker as part of Seven on Seven, The Realm of Rough Telepathy. What is its appeal as a tool?
IB: There's a long history of technology being rhetorically intertwined with magic—it shows up in technical jargon and product names, people lionize programmers as wizards and ninjas, that sort of thing. But everyone has their own points of reference for and their own definitions of magic, which means that when you start to talk to people about technology and magic in the same context, there's a bit of a personal stake put into it. It's done with a bit of ambivalence. Pushing technical jargon to a magic extreme (like in the Seven on Seven project) is a way of demonstrating how arcane and myopic communities around things like internet standards and core infrastructure can be, but it also is an attempt to translate what sounds like really dry, boring technical arguments into a language that gives it higher stakes. Magic becomes sort of a translation tool for conveying both the significance of seemingly mundane things and for poking fun at the self-importance that puffs up around some of those mundane things.
It’s also kind of interesting to see how magic becomes mundane? Understanding how things become quotidian is a good way to think about how future systems work. I saw Nick Foster, a designer with Near Future Laboratory, give a talk in which he was talking about the history of lighters and how when they were invented it was this insane idea: you literally have a button in your pocket that you press to make fire! It was this thing that human civilization had taken centuries to achieve but now you buy them for less than a dollar at a corner store. He was saying that a good way to think about the future of a technology is by trying to imagine what it will look like when it’s really cheap and no one cares about it. That’s also a good way to think about how that technology might come to betray you or how can it can be manipulated. When things become ubiquitous they become a lot more powerful.
This is something I’ve been thinking a lot in relation to history of technology. I went to the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California earlier this year and was really struck by the fact that they have almost nothing about manufacturing. There are a lot of individual examples like the first computer, a piece of the SAGE system… But the thing that makes the personal computer powerful isn’t just that being able pack a lot of things in a tiny box; it’s that you can make a million of them.
Ingrid Burrington and Meredith Whittaker, Realm of Rough Telepathy (2016)
FS: You often work with fragments as means of addressing what appears to be the insurmountable totality of networks, for example your project 1,033 Objects, an online tool that pulls up a random selection of 1033 items distributed through the Pentagon's controversial 1033 program, a pile of objects you once described as “the exhaust of the War on Terror”. Was this work a way of apprehending the potency of this program, which might otherwise be flattened by the totality of the whole catalogue?
IB: A lot of the things I work with are “hidden in plain sight.” Sometimes it’s a matter of taking those things and finding a new framing for them. The 1033 data had been mostly put in the service of public interest, as part of journalistic sort of project akin to “see what your police department got,” a browsing interface for identifying specific concerns you would have in your particular area—which is a totally worthy pursuit—but what I was interested in was trying to represent it in such a way that you could get your head around the scale of the thing.
The choice of 1033 as number is obviously cheeky and specific but it’s trying to show you something in such a way that you get just a glimpse of this really large thing, if you try to take on the whole totality of the thing you might actually miss the point. It reminds of the standard crime drama cliché of the “wall of evidence” for tracking down a serial killer—but no one ever looks at that and thinks, “I’ve got it! Now the puzzle is complete!” In reality it’s a process of working through all the bits and staring long enough at something until it makes sense. Which is maybe how I work through a lot of things.
I also think there’s something to be said for understanding the costs of warfare in terms of the really mundane stuff. Because some of it is really boring stuff, like…shirts. There are a lot of rifles and things you actually should be very worried about but then there’s a lot of this other kind of…stuff. That’s why the “exhaust” description seemed appropriate. I remember after Hurricane Sandy, in a lot of the donation centres there would be these huge piles of “stuff,” more stuff than anyone really needed; it was this weird fallout or remainder of a disaster or a catastrophe. The War on Terror was a different kind of catastrophe, but it similarly required a surplus of stuff.
Ingrid Burrington, 1,033 Objects (2014)
FS: Your work deals with both the manifestation and perception of infrastructure, typically the concern of geographers, engineers, and urbanists. Often art that address infrastructure is about documenting its effects,Edward Burtansky style, whereas your work seems to be more about process. Rather than just pointing out infrastructure, is it your intention that the viewer joins up the dots themselves?
IB: Putting things in a larger context is definitely part of it. One of my big reference points for thinking about artists looking at infrastructure is Robert Smithson’s Monuments of Passaic. I remember seeing it when I was an undergrad and realising, “oh okay, you can just do that.” Which, sure, you can just do that if you’re Robert Smithson and you’re a man and it’s the late 1960s, but more broadly it was realising the ways in which can see a system differently when you start to incorporate it into a language or a context that seems wholly inappropriate in a way. It’s a useful trick, something that Smithson did very well and that particular essay is like a standard for it: “I went to a weird place and I didn’t understand what I saw and then I wrote about it.” He nails it.
In terms of thinking about the shift from the “here’s a thing” framing, I think it’s the result of the increase in obscurity of the infrastructures that make everyday life possible in the Western world. Sometimes I think that one of the reasons that people were very interested in the Networks of New Yorkfield guide and the premise of being able to “see” the internet on the street wasn’t necessarily because they were all that interested in the street, but because of an anxiety that there is nothing to hold in relation to how we live with technology. This feeling of “I don’t know what Facebook’s doing, I don’t know what Google’s really doing, I don’t particularly feel that I can just trust these systems and there’s nothing tangible to connect back to or point at.” That’s something James Bridle has said a lot, that “we need to things to point at!” because the network isn’t some massive abstraction that can only be comprehended by wizards—these are objects, these are systems, and there are human beings who are responsible for these objects and systems.
Ingrid Burrington, pages from Networks of New York (Melville House, 2016)
FS: I understand you have a fascination with what you’ve termed the “Eye of Sauron” genre of clip art and the stock photo imageryof “computers in clouds” that tends to accompany reporting on those very objects and systems. What’s your interest in these “placeholders”?
IB: I really started paying attention to that particular aesthetic when a lot of the Snowden stories started dropping because not only were the news reports using the bad clip art but also these images of “guys staring at a screen” where it’s always dark and the lights are always green. The failure of a lot of that imagery is partly the fact that you’re dealing with a really large abstract thing. So asking the internet, “show me clip art of capitalism! Or globalization, as a whole!” isn’t going to work—it’s always going to over simplify. Pointing at a data center is also a bit of an over simplification. My bigger concern has less to do with the simplifying, and more with the ways in which such imagery can make things seem intimidating to the point of disinterest. There’s a danger of ending up with a monolithic placeholder that indicates either “this not for you to understand” or “this impossible to comprehend.” This sort of “infrastructural sublime” aesthetics ends up working in a similar way and, the satellite vantage point definitely lends itself to. I think it’s worth sitting in the tension of it.
FS: In a catalogue conversation with Charlie Loyd (a satellite imagery specialist and engineer working for Mapbox, an open source mapping company) you allude this notion of “collapsed histories” and the assumed causality of events that satellite imagery can engender now that we have decades’ worth of it. You’re talking about the documentation of physical landscapes but doesn’t this also apply to our lives as recorded in the digital landscape?
IB: When considering the causality of histories in a digital landscape I would be more inclined to think about interfaces and the historical occasions that relate to that. Facebook itself did not facilitate the Arab Spring and Facebook could not have foreseen the possibility that anyone would use its platform as a tool. This after all was something made by a white guy to judge women. The same can be said for a lot of other social media platforms—their intended uses have been subverted in many cases. There’s a relation between this and the assumption of a line of logical progression in technology history. The decision for the world to be increasingly glommed into Facebook is not a logical next step of evolution of the internet; it’s a thing that has happened as result of a lot of other contingencies but it’s not a landscape that is shaped according to a particular destiny.
Location: New York City
How/when did you begin working creatively with technology: I guess 2009? That’s when I finished undergrad, but I started working with technology more as a means to an end—I didn’t set out to do it. I’m not one of those artists who can say, “here’s a photo of me using Visual Basic when I was five!” I grew up in Silicon Valley but my parents didn’t work in tech. That didn’t mean that I wasn’t exposed to it from an early age, it’s just that I didn’t have a rapturous relationship with it. Around 2009 I had a project I wanted to do, which involved scripting a website. I didn’t know how to do it, so I had to figure out how to do it.
Where did you go to school and what did you study? I went to the Maryland Institute College of Art, which is a medium-sized art college in Baltimore and my undergrad degree is in printmaking.
What do you do for a living/what occupations have you held previously? The main thing I do to make money is writing. In terms of institutional support, I’m currently an artist in residence at a think tank called the Data and Society Research Institute, which is based in New York. Every couple of months the self-published version of my book will get a handful of orders and that’s a nice tiny way to pay the bills.
What does your desktop/worktop look like?
Header image: Ingrid Burrington, Submarine Cable Taps (2014)
Since 2014, Prix Net Art has celebrated the current moment of net art and its future. The prize was created by Rhizome and Chronus Art Center in response to a relative scarcity of support and recognition for the field, and to promote public conversation about the crucial but always changing role of the internet in contemporary culture and artistic practice. Awards of $10,000 and $5,000 will be given to two artists who are committed to working online and who represent important forward directions in contemporary net art practice.
For the 2016 edition of Prix Net Art, four judges—Lauren Cornell, Aria Dean, Zhang Ga, and Christiane Paul—will consider a rich field of candidates nominated by the general public. Nominations can be made here through October 31.
For more on Prix Net Art and information on past winners, visit the Prix Net Art site.
Prix Net Art is co-organized by Rhizome and Chronus Art Center.
Additional support for Rhizome and Prix Net Art is generously provided by the Robert D. Bielecki Foundation.
December 10, 2016
Buy tickets here
Convening luminary artists, writers, activists, and scholars to discuss how technology is transforming culture, Open Score will consider how, in light of our precarious and violent political moment, technology is called upon to assist us with tasks that range from the banal to the most urgent. This year’s program is co-organized with artist and curator Aria Dean, activist Grace Dunham, and writer Nora Khan, and will examine the relationship between blackness and meme culture, the transformative potential of activist platforms that combat social isolation, and the gendered and racial dimensions of artificial intelligence.
1:30 PM: Introduction by Lisa Phillips, Toby Devan Lewis Director, New Museum
Remarks by Lauren Cornell, Curator and Associate Director, Technology Initiatives, New Museum, and Michael Connor, Artistic Director, Rhizome
1:45 PM: Blackness in Circulation
What is the relationship between memes and blackness?
As the meme has migrated from the fringes of internet culture to—some might argue—its epicenter, so too has blackness taken center stage, often through the circulation of cultural and political events that travel virally. This panel sees discussing the meme as an opportunity to take stock of how blackness circulates in 2016, aiming to renew and build upon existing conversations around the increasing hypervisibility of blackness online, and the widespread appropriation that comes with it. Bringing together artists and thinkers whose work explores blackness, its representation, and its circulation historically and in the contemporary social media sphere, the panel will ask: what are new approaches or frameworks, in 2016 and into the future, through which we might escape the regime of visibility? Does something exist beyond the binary of representation, or the withdrawal from it that has dominated conversations in the past?
Speakers: Manuel Arturo Abreu, artist and writer; Hannah Black, artist and writer; Devin Kenny, artist; and Mendi and Keith Obadike, artists
Moderator: Aria Dean
3 PM: Break
3:15 PM: Together in Electric Dreams
How can artists open up new ways of relating to AI systems?
Machine intelligence is often figured in popular culture and software applications in the form of the virtual assistant, often female, performing automated emotional labor on behalf of a user. This anthropomorphized, gendered, subservient form of AI bears little resemblance to the diverse forms of machine intelligence that will one day organize many facets of our world. Computation already allows for the automation of crucial aspects of cognitive labor under capitalism, making the task of understanding new theories of mind, and their implications, all the more imperative. Speculating about and planning for the effects of new kinds of intelligence requires greater leaps of the imagination. The panel will ask: how might artists develop new images, new language, and new ways of relating to machine intelligence? What new forms of identity and intersubjectivity might emerge from this process?
Speakers: Katherine Cross, writer; Ian Cheng, artist; Sondra Perry, artist; and Patricia Reed, artist.
Moderator: Nora Khan
4:30 PM: Break
4:45 PM: Out of Isolation
What is the internet’s potential for creating new social infrastructures?
Amid the claim that society has never been more interconnected, many continue to be hidden or to hide—within the walls of prisons, through the apparatuses that sequester the sick and disabled, because public life is too dangerous and too hostile, because colonization and globalization have rendered communities diffuse and divided. Even those with relative access and security can understand themselves to be alone. Yet, against and out of the institutions and ideologies that structure isolation, artists and activists seek to connect people and communities. This panel will ask a group of artists, all of whom take social life as both their medium and subject: How might we use digital space to create networks of care and interdependence, as well as structural transformation and economic redistribution? What digitally-driven strategies do we have for reducing the harm of systemic physical and emotional isolation? Why is art (as it is inflected by technology) still a space for seeking liberatory possibilities, even as the state attempts to foreclose the possibility of liberation for so many?
Speakers: Christopher Glazek, activist and writer; Jamal T. Lewis, filmmaker and artist; Elizabeth Mputu, artist; and Christopher Kulendran Thomas, artist.
Moderator: Grace Dunham
Cover Image: Hannah Black, My Bodies (still), 2014. Single-channel video, sound, color; 3:30 min. Courtesy the artist
This week, Rhizome launches Net Art Anthology, a new program narrating the history of net art through the restoration and re-staging of 100 essential artworks. Webrecorder—our groundbreaking tool for dynamic web archiving, which saw a public release in August—will be essential to this endeavor.
Today, on the eve of this launch, the Webrecorder team—directed by Ilya Kreymer, lead developer—rolls out a significant update, one that radically expands the tool's utility. As ever, this functionality is free for all users; sign up for your account here.
Remote Browsers: archive and replay the web through emulated browsers
As of today, Webrecorder allows users to record and replay using a remote browser running in a fixed environment. Through a drop-down menu on the recording bar, one can now choose a remote browser environment optimally configured for specific recording and replay urgencies.
This work builds on remote browsing technology first introduced with the release of http://oldweb.today last year. With oldweb.today, anyone could browse old websites using old browsers running on remote machines. With this release, we've integrated this technology into Webrecorder to allow users to record and replay modern websites with the modern browsers, all still running on remote machines in fixed environments.
The newly available browsers are:
What does this mean? No Flash, no Java, no problem!
Screenshot of Webrecorder archive of Dragan Espenschied, Bridging the Digital Divide (2003). Website with Java Applet.
Many great sites were created with Flash and Java, and yet they are increasingly deprecated and few browsers still support what were once pillars of the web. With Webrecorder's remote browsers, one can now easily archive and replay websites created with these two tools, regardless of one's current system browser. Dragan Espenschied's Bridging The Digital Divide (2003) is a great example of a work which does not perform on the current Chrome browser, but is fully accessible once again through recording and replay on Firefox 49, with Java support.
Replay with Different Browsers
Recording on Chrome 53, but want to view on Firefox 49? Webrecorder will meet your need. On the collection page, users can now see which browser was used to record a particular bookmark, and view the page with the same browser or choose another of the available ones.
Recording Tools, Clipboard Support
We've also made a few updates to existing Webrecorder tools such as the “autoscroll” button. These too will work with remote browsers.
Higher Fidelity, Faster Recording
The most important aspect of this update is that, overall, it makes Webrecorder a more powerful tool for archiving the dynamic web. Using remote browsers allows even higher fidelity than ever before, as the page need not pass through a client side rewriting system. Page loading times should also be faster as the page is loaded directly on a remote server and streamed to the user.
Top image: Dragan Espenschied, detail of Bridging the Digital Divide (2003). Website with Java Applet.
Major support for the Webrecorder project is provided by The Andrew W Mellon Foundation.
Net Art Anthology, Rhizome's two-year online exhibition presenting 100 works of restored and re-performed net art, which is generously supported by the Carl and Marilynn Thoma Art Foundation, launches today.
The exhibition will play out over two years, with one new work added each week to a microsite designed by Lukas Eigler-Harding. The microsite serves as an index of hypertextual narratives that link out to artworks that are staged on a range of distributed sites, from Rhizome's archive servers to the New Museum store. In keeping with this, the visual identity of Net Art Anthology is a default HTML hyperlink, which changes from blue to purple when the exhibition has been visited.
VNS Matrix's A Cyberfeminist Manifesto for the 21st Century (1991) inaugurates the program. This work embodies key aspects of early networked culture production: it was collaborative, plagiaristic, possibly drug-fueled, pornographic, and circulated by any means possible, both online and off. As a billboard, a poster, and an online text, it gave form at a crucial moment to the emerging discourse of cyberfeminism, which aggressively reasserted the importance of sex and the body in cyberspace. The work is restaged for this exhibition as an online email form, which allows visitors to receive the manifesto in their inbox and a poster which may be downloaded for personal use or acquired at the New Museum store.
A Cyberfeminist Manifesto will be followed in weeks two and three by Eduardo Kac's Reabracadabra (1985) and Olia Lialina's My Boyfriend Came Back from the War (1996).
Net Art Anthology will be divided into five chapters: early network cultures and early web (through 1998); Flash and blogs (1999-2005); surf clubs, early postinternet art, and social media platforms (2006-2011); and mobile apps and social media saturation (2012-2018). The final chapter will reprise all time periods, addressing gaps that emerge over the course of the project.
Selections are taking place on an ongoing basis led by Rhizome's artistic director Michael Connor, supported by Rhizome's assistant curator of net art Aria Dean and Rhizome's preservation director Dragan Espenschied, as well as other Rhizome staff and a network of external advisors. Advisors for Chapters 1 and 2 of Net Art Anthology include Inke Arns, Josephine Bosma, Steve Dietz, Ricardo Dominguez, Auriea Harvey, Brian MacKern, Monica Narula, and Mendi + Keith Obadike. Feedback is welcome, and may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The anthology can only ever hope to present a partial, subjective view of its vast subject, but the aim is to represent net art as an expansive, rich, and hybrid set of artistic practices that overlap with many media and disciplines. The works presented exemplify the ways in which the net has made it possible to give form to emerging subjectivities and model new forms of collective cultural practice. It also seeks to represent particular aesthetic, subjective, political, and conceptual positions which have taken on special importance in networks of artists.
In conjunction with the beginning of the project, Rhizome will host an event at New Museum on Thursday, October 27, 2016. The Art Happens Here: Net Art Anthology Launch will feature a presentation of the online exhibition, followed by a panel discussion bringing together a group of artists (Ricardo Dominguez, Olia Lialina, Mark Tribe, and Martha Wilson) who championed distinct and often conflicting approaches to net art practice in the mid to late 1990s. The event will also livestream.
Net Art Anthology is made possible by the generous support of
This article accompanies the presentation of A Cyberfeminist Manifesto for the 21st Century as part of the online exhibition Net Art Anthology.
The history of computing can be read in manifestos. Outsized ambition and sudden breaks with the status quo have been enabled by computing’s many revolutions: freedom from longhand mental labor, from the mainframe, from the phone line, from the mainstream media, from the linear.
The ur-file is Ted Nelson’s 1974 Computer Lib/Dream Machines, a starry-eyed hypertext chapbook, which established the baseline politics of computer revolutionaries: corporate mainframe bad, personal computer good.
In his preface to Computer Lib, Stewart Brand articulates the bad using a female metaphor. “Big Nurse,” he calls it, after Ken Kesey’s Nurse Ratchet.1 Implying that while the mainframe infantilizes us as it abuses us, the personal computer sets us free. The theme continues ten years later, in The Conscience of a Hacker, the next-most seminal of the early computer manifestos. This one pits hacker against teacher:
I’ve listened to teachers explain for the fifteenth time how to reduce a fraction. I understand it. “No, Ms. Smith, I didn’t show my work. I did it in my head…”
Damn kid. Probably copied it. They’re all alike.
I made a discovery today. I found a computer.2
Nurse Ratchet, Ms. Smith: these dowagers of female bossiness are the authorities against which the hackers and techno-utopians of early internet culture rebel. What a weird reading, in a patriarchy. In a technology ecosystem so infrastructurally male, the Man is a man. VNS Matrix’s TheCyberfeminist Manifesto for the 21st Century couldn’t have come fast enough.
VNS Matrix was four women from Australia: Josephine Starrs, Julianne Pierce, Francesca da Rimini, and Virginia Barratt. The semiofficial genesis story is that "VNS Matrix emerged from the cyberswamp during a southern Australian summer circa 1991, on a mission to hijack the toys from technocowboys and remap cyberculture with a feminist bent.”3 Their work, which spans video, installation, game design, and texts, contains a lot of these portmanteau words—cyberswamp, technospace—and a suite of recurring characters, like a world.
There is no Big Nurse in the VNS Matrix manifesto, and no Ms. Smith. In A Cyberfeminist Manifesto for the 21st Century, us is a “modern cunt,” and them has a name: Big Daddy Mainframe. He is an Oedipal embodiment of the techno-industrial complex; cybersluts must slime his databanks to end the rule of phallic power. It is as much an exercise in worldbuilding as a manifesto. Later, in their computer game All New Gen , VNS Matrix would flesh out this world, depicting Big Daddy Mainframe as a Wall Street suit with a corporate logo where his head should be—a cyberpunk Magritte. His henchmen are “Circuit Boy, Streetfighter, and other total dicks.”
Still from All New Gen
VNS Matrix wrote their manifesto in 1991, two years before there was a decent browser with which to surf the web. It began as a printed A4 size flyer, with the short text mapped onto a sphere bordered by a vagina motif. “We went around the city and pasted it up, you know, with the flour paste,” da Rimini remembers. “Then we actually had to repaste over them a couple of days later, because we had a spelling mistake.”4
VNS Matrix, A Cyberfeminist Manifesto for the 21st Century (1991). Photograph of A3 photocopy, wheatpasted onto advertising light box, from Art + Text no. 42, May 1992.
They sent it by fax to Kathy Acker and Sandy Stone and Wired and Mondo, and later circulated it on LambdaMOO and IRC channels. They left piles of posters at art galleries, and created a billboard version, eighteen feet long, for exhibition. The text bulged from one spherical fragment of DNA, accompanied by images of a chimera unicorn in a shell. When the billboard was mounted on the side of the Tin Sheds gallery in Sydney, a student from Britain photographed, framed, and brought it back to her professor, the cultural theorist Sadie Plant, who was working on a curriculum around the same themes. In her 1997 book Zeroes + Ones, Plant draws the link between VNS Matrix and Donna Haraway and explains that when they write “the clitoris is a direct line to the matrix,” they mean both the womb—matrix is Latin—and “the abstract networks of communication…increasingly assembling themselves.”5
Sadie Plant and VNS Matrix are considered co-authors of the word “cyberfeminism.” Science fiction people call this Steam Engine Time: that moment in history when a technology, or an idea, is so bound to happen that it’s invented by several people at once. Like the steam engine, cyberfeminism was inevitable. Many of its early champions were feminist artists moving online, people like Faith Wilding and Lynn Hershman Leeson. In the late 1970s, consciousness-raising happened in living rooms, with groups of women sharing experiences, but it had global ambitions. The internet collapsed the difference, creating the global living room, where nurses and teachers could be hackers too.
Cyberfeminism took up the techno-utopian tone of of early internet culture and turned it on its head. It was a tone inherited from Ted Nelson, Stewart Brand, and the West Coast cyberhippies who believed computer-mediated communication would create a “civilization of the mind,” as another computer manifesto, John Perry Barlow’s 1996 “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” described it.6 But for VNS Matrix, cyberspace was never free of the body. “Lots of computer technophiles,” Starrs said in 1992, “jack into the machine and want to forget about the body, to reject the meat of the body. In our work we’re not finished with the body, the body is an important site for feminists.”7 Not a civilization of the mind—a world of slime.
The world sketched out in the manifesto was soon clamoring with voices. In 1997, a group organized by the Old Boys’ Network assembled in Kassel for the First Cyberfeminist International, piggybacking on Documenta X, to clarify and discuss the intent of the movement. It seems they couldn’t agree; they wrote cyberfeminism’s second manifesto, The100 Anti-Theses of Cyberfeminism. It listed everything cyberfeminism was not. This included not a media-hoax, not postmodern, keine praxis, and “not about boring toys for boring boys.”8
Cyberfeminism was nothing if not many different, often contradictory, movements at once. “Cyberfeminism only exists in the plural,” pronounced the Swiss art critic Yvonne Volkart at the second International two years later.9 It could never be trusted to mean any single, specific approach to feminism at the dawn of the internet. The internet tends to refute specificity, favoring instead the multiple, making cyberfeminism—in all its slipperiness—if nothing else, representative of the medium.
And such slipperiness is human, which VNS Matrix’s The Cyberfeminist Manifesto for the 21st Century establishes clearly. This might be the manifesto’s most lasting note. It is a bodily text: in seventeen lines, it covers cunts, the clitoris, tongues, slimes, orgasm, and a virus. Doing so, it articulates feminism on the internet as visceral—related to viscera, slime, wetware, and birth. It still feels that way: messy, howling, but very much alive.
1. Nick Montfort and Noah Wardrip-Fruin, The New Media Reader (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003), 301.
2. Manifestos for The Internet Age (greyscale press, 2015), 32.
4. Interview via Skype with Francesca da Rimini conducted by Aria Dean and Michael Connor, October 24, 2016.
5. Sadie Plant, Zeros + Ones: Digital Women + The New Technoculture (London: Fourth Estate, 1997), 59.
6. Manifestos for The Internet Age (greyscale press, 2015), 39.
7. Interview with VNS Matrix by Bernadette Flynn, 1992.
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.
Jason Huff: Custom software and scripts are common tools you use to create your work. In 2013 you open-sourced Corrasable, a web service you created that puts linguistic processing libraries together “to assist in analyzing text and converting it into alternate representations.” What does it mean for an artist to share their process? Why is it important for you to let other artists or programmers have access to Corrasable?
Damon Zucconi: I'm interested in forms of production where publishing is more of a side effect, rather than a terminal state, and that tends to necessitate working out in the open. But this interest stems less from the ethics of open source and the "bazaar" models of collaboration that are wrapped up in it, and more from how process at large becomes part of the public record.
With most tools, there is a boundary between states, consistently delineating the space between what is “complete” and process at large. This boundary also tends to be the line between what is public and what is private. When every aspect of one's process is online, a native connectivity simplifies the combination of what were previously separate elements. The distinctions between those states of resolution begin to break down.
In publishing an API, as in the case of Corrasable, I think of it more in the sense of building material primitives—works as small units of meaning that I can reassemble into new works— rather than exposing something for others to use. What I'm trying to do is to reveal new material possibilities to myself in a kind of self-centered platform-thinking: objects made not to further predefined goals, but to unlock possible futures.
The more of these systems I build, the more I see synergistic effects appear. Those effects aren't anything novel. Most companies think of their platforms in this way, and, similarly, most artists take the time to form a language of gestures, that, once developed, becomes a codified "approach" that reaps similar benefits.
For instance: Corrasable exposes an endpoint for doing phoneme segmentation, upon which I developed a tool for rudimentary speech synthesis, which then has become the object of some recent video work. So there's this interesting chain of production and dependencies that currently terminates in some videos, but this was never really a goal, just a consequence of opening successive doors. It's interesting for me to think of an art object as an operational assemblage of previous works.
I do pay attention to the use-value others uncover in the work, as this frequently alters meaning, or maybe guides my hand later on. Anything made with a kind of structural openness is going to have new uses found for it, but both the consequences, and the fact that there are consequences at all, is somewhat adjacent to my intent.
Damon Zucconi, dictionary.blue (2016)
JH: You had a prolific presence in the surf clubs (Nasty Nets and Supercentral) and related sites (Club Internet and Are.na) of the early 2000s, taking on the role of author, curator, and engineer. How do you see surf clubs influencing the wider net culture’s evolution, including your own?
DZ: At the time, surf clubs felt more like contributing motion to some disembodied entity—a type of collective wayfinding, or figuring out. "We can all agree on X, so how do we get to Y?" There's this group-decision making that goes on that's unspoken, and you never do get to Y.
The structure of a blog—that verticality of posts stacked on one another—helps in furthering this idea of a linear kind of progress. You can really see how the structure imposed by WordPress as a publishing tool plays out when taken up by artists, with "surf clubs" as a direct reflection of a closed-registration, multi-user, linear blog. The closed nature also foregrounds a kind of performativity that felt very present.
With Are.na, aspects of its structure were designed to combat some of those tendencies, while playing up others. By emphasizing the horizontality of connections, instead of a verticality, you favor multiple contexts and open yourself up to having a piece of information's meaning altered through proximity to others. And it tries to distil that notion of collective wayfinding—you visit and post to get a sense of what others are up to and to solidify what you are working toward.
The dominant publishing technologies tend to dictate the kinds of communities that evolve under them. But needs for specific communities also necessitate the creation of new publishing tools—Are.na was born, in part, to fill the hole that the death of del.icio.us left. By creating publishing technologies, you manifest the new, the public binds to it and makes it their own.
JH: Your work has been described as a “more structurally complicated picture of time” by the writer Gene McHugh. What do you think about time’s structure? How does it appear or disappear in your work?
DZ: The systems that govern the division of time, lending it a structure, always point outside of themselves. They aren't self-contained, logically consistent things. They embody distinct worldviews or cultural histories in modes that are political or memorial. Or they might be observational, describing motions of the moon or sun or both. And these systems alter the flows and rhythms of our life and give our temporal environment a particular kind of shape. I'm curious about the ways in which those things can be subtly reframed to reshape one's personal temporal environment.
I recently published a piece, Coordinated Mars Time, that overlays the mean solar times of both Earth and Mars, in corresponding blue and red. One watches as the seconds fall in and out of phase—the “coordination” is in number only, not in the absolute value of the units. You can feel the rhythm of the standard second slip out from under you as the colors mix to form composite figures. And so the differences in the size and length of a solar day on each planet takes on a form that can be felt.
Those kinds of manipulations are ways of decoupling you from your subconscious sense of a standard's value; this sense that's implicitly held but imprecise: "one Mississippi, two Mississippi." I understand some of the works as gestures that get in between you and how you measure the world in relation.
Damon Zucconi, Coordinated Mars Time (2016)
JH: In your last exhibition at JTT you included print-on-demand copies of six pre-existing novels re-published with every word misspelled. Experiencing those books first-hand was disarming and interesting. I’m always interested in the choice to take something offline, into the physical world. What lead you to print out copies of the books, instead of presenting them online?
DZ: I imagine that, ultimately, some of those books will circulate divorced from their original context. Forgotten, passed on, lost and found. Those prospective owners will have to deal with the objects on their own terms: some liminal state between an existing piece of recognizable "intellectual property" and something else entirely; something novel in the world.
It's easier to wash your hands of something when it’s offline. The operative word when publishing on the web is "host." You host the content on your server, and when someone requests it, your presence as a host is always implicit.
Maybe this points back to your question about time. In step with making an object, one gains the responsibility for it; that novelty, the something "extra." One has to consider how it will age, change owners, deteriorate, break, be replaced, stored, misremembered.
With the books, I was thinking of Borges' Tlön: "[…] the dominant notion is that everything is the work of one single author. Books are rarely signed. The concept of plagiarism does not exist: it has been established that all works are the creation of one author, who is atemporal and anonymous."
Those books are me making serious on this proposition and muddying my responsibility to being an object-maker: bringing a new object into the world without a commitment to novelty.
Damon Zucconi, On Bieng Bule (2016)
JH: You mentioned this idea of revealing “new material possibilities” to yourself in your work and the concept of “self-centered platform-thinking.” Can you speak more to those ideas and the potential to “unlock possible futures” for yourself?
DZ: Materials are a question of agency. It’s about gathering up some quantity in the world and instrumentalizing it so it can be of use to you. One could say something like "paint is an instrumentalization of color." You can look at any quantity in the world with this same frame of reference to create a new material.
That perspective allows one to look at something like a CRUD application or scraping a dataset with an eye towards materiality—as activities which are fundamentally about gaining agency. This is maybe why I never totally understood the arguments that assert the immateriality of digital practices.
This is also why I'm so interested in building different types of archival and content management systems for my work. Archives consolidate and in doing so they create a basis with which to approach the future. One's own work is made material in the aggregate in this sense.
In building platforms, you rely on an ambiguous position to the future. They exist to support activities which haven't yet been anticipated. And there's this tendency to think about digital platforms as these big things that depend on the unknowns that a public, specifically, brings to bear on them to function. But I'm more interested in the self and the studio. Of turning inward but taking with me that openness and stance in relation to the future that they enable.
screenshot from Most Common Nouns (2016), web application
Location: New York
How/when did you begin working creatively with technology?
I started making websites before I owned a computer, soon after discovering the Web at my public library. I needed something to put on them and so I began to make art, as content to fill them with.
Where did you go to school? What did you study?
I studied Interdisciplinary Sculpture at the Maryland Institute College of Art.
What do you do for a living or what occupations have you held previously?
I’ve previously worked as a web/print designer and currently as a software engineer.
What does your desktop or workspace look like?
Lately, as I work I usually just screen capture interesting parts of what I'm doing and post them here to keep tabs on myself: http://atlas.damonzucconi.com/studio
Header image: Damon Zucconi, Northern Gesture (2009)
This article accompanies the presentation of Eduardo Kac's Reabracadabra as a part of the online exhibition Net Art Anthology.
Few people remember, but many of the online activities associated with life in the twenty first century were already possible in the 1980s. Finding the cheapest flight and paying for it, checking the stock market, searching databases, chatting, reading the news, and self-publishing your work—all of this was possible with a new medium called videotex. You could use it with a remote control for your TV and a special set-top box, or with a terminal. It was a kind of protean version of the World Wide Web, and many politicians and business people were more than eager to fund and explore the new potential that videotex brought forth. Some of that funding went to artistic exploration, and a few artists experimented with this futuristic technology.
This played out differently in each country that rolled out the network. In France, a videotex network called Télétel was created and relied on a special terminal, Minitel. Eventually, Minitel also became the name of the network in popular speech. To speed public adoption of the network, French Minitel gave away terminals for free, aiming to finance the program through subscription and usage fees. Users could set up their own microservers that others could dial into directly, like a dial-up bulletin board system, which fostered a culture of user-generated Minitel content.
Videotex was more centralized in countries like Brazil and Canada, where users needed to go through an institution or company that had a Minitel microserver in order to publish videotex works. In Canada, this didn't stop artistic experimentation; the artist collective Toronto Community Videotex was quite active in videotex production, using a standard called Telidon.
In Brazil, where the French Minitel system was adopted, the situation was complicated by the lack of accessibility of private phone lines, at that time still a rare and valuable commodity. As a result, videotex was mostly used in public terminals in libraries and shopping malls. Despite these obstacles, a number of artists experimented with the new network, known as Videotexto in Brazil. Among them were Julio Plaza, an artist and poet who curated a selection of Brazilian Videotexto artists for the 1983 Bienal de São Paulo, shown on special terminals in the biennial building and on the public network.
Leonardo Crescenti Neto, from Catálogo Geral published on the occasion of the 17th Bienal de São Paulo
The Livraria Nobel bookstore set up a permanent videotex gallery in 1983, Arte On-Line, which was featured on terminals in the store itself. These exhibitions could be accessed from any public or home terminal by entering a special code, similar to today's URLs; these would have been advertised through traditional means such as newspaper articles or flyers.
Of the Brazilian artists who took up videotex, one who did it with great conceptual clarity was then 23-year-old artist and poet Eduardo Kac, who first showed on Arte On-Line in 1985. Kac had previously experimented with holographic poetry, and the new medium of videotex was a natural step, given its text-centric qualities.
Just like videotex’s sister technology, teletext, and some home computers at the time, graphics were based on text characters rather than pixels. Graphics had to be typed using punctuation marks and typographic signs like in ASCII art, but Minitel also offered semi-graphical characters such as▝ and ▙. So it was possible to work on a pixel-by-pixel level, but it was a painstaking production process, “closer to a medieval mosaic than some futuristic telematic system.”1 To further complicate matters, the Minitel terminals that were available for accessing the network were "dumb" (able to display information, but not perform any operations), so the actual production work had to be done on special editing stations that in Brazil were only available at a few large organisations such as telephone companies.
When users of Brazilian videotex accessed Reabracadabra, they would see diagonal lines appear on their screen, which were drawn to form triangular shapes that eventually grew into the letter A in 3D. The consonants of the poem's title, R, C and D, orbited around the A, just like particles around a nucleus or planets around the sun.
Reabracadabra built on Kac's previous work in holographic poetry, which drew inspiration from poets associated with the Neo-Concrete movement in Brazil. The Neo-Concrete poets argued that a poem should be understood as a set of elements within a larger environment, including the reader themselves. He was fascinated by figures like Ferreira Gullar and Hélio Oiticica. Oiticica’s Poema Enterrado (Buried Poem) (1959) involved the viewer in excavating a text entombed in the poet’s yard.
"You had to go inside this underground cube. There you would find another cube. You lifted that cube, and then found another cube, and then on the bottom of this last cube, in the ground, you would read the word REJUVENATE, rejuvenesça in Portuguese, which is just awesomely beautiful. And that captivated my imagination. How can you use a single word and, by involving the body, using space, color, and the action of the viewer, charge that single word with so much power, that it surpasses any dictionary definition that you can possibly think of, and in many cases, surpasses the whole experience of reading a 50-page poem?"2
With Reabracadabra, the Videotexto network offered a new kind of environment within which users might find his single word.
After exhibiting in Arte On-Line in 1985, Kac's interest in the possibilities of videotex continued, and in 1986 he co-curated another videotex exhibition with artist Flavio Ferraz, "Brazil High-Tech," which could be accessed on the network using the code "RJ*ARTE."
Eduardo Kac, Reabracadabra, 1985. Courtesy the artist.
Videotex gave Kac the opportunity to move beyond the work of the Xerox-focused conceptual artists of the 1970s. "The network enables us to create immaterial work that privileges interpersonal communication as an artistic strategy," he later told an interviewer. It was essential that the work did not have an original; that “the same pixels were shown to the artist and the audience.”3 He considered this as a step toward a new digital immaterial logic of production and reception that later flourished in other digital media. Minitel, however, faded away in Brazil, and was shut down in the 1990s. So there was no longer a home for Reabracadabra; no network for the net art.
The data for the characters that made up Reabracadabra was saved on an 8-inch floppy disk, but Kac lacked access to the proprietary Minitel editing platform necessary to run it. There were photographs of the work, though, and after many years of searching Kac found a research team (PAMAL, in Aix-en-Provence, France) that helped restore the piece based on the salvaged data and photographic documentation. The code for each text character—the videotex equivalent of its ASCII-code—was typed in by hand, frame by frame. This was converted into a datastream adapted for the Minitel, transmitted into a working Minitel unit using custom-made hardware that simulated the original Minitel signal, and capped to the data speed that the phone lines provided at the time. The work is now restaged on the same model of terminals as in 1985, to make it look identical to the old version.
Somewhat paradoxically, there is a lot of materiality to a piece in which immateriality was a key concept: platforms, interfaces, protocols, cables. But one key aspect of the materiality is not there: the network. What used to be publicly available in 1985 is now accessible only in Kac's specially retrofitted Minitel terminals.
This is a fundamental difference between the new and the old Reabracadabra, but how do we make sense of it? Is Reabracadabra now a resurrection or a simulation of the old version and if so, does that make the old version an original?
For Kac himself, there was never an original. And perhaps his immaterial framing of Reabracadabra, despite the material aspects brought forth by its resurrection, is even more relevant today. But for net art in general, Reabracadabra raises questions about networks, ownership, ontology, materiality, and preservation. What happens to net art when—not if—the network disappears?
Eduardo Kac, Reabracadabra (1985). This video, from 2016, is accompanied by Kac narrating the development of the work.
1. Kac, Eduardo, Phone conversation with the author, 10 October 2016.
2. Simone Osthoff, "Eduardo Kac - The Aesthetics of Dialogue," a 1994 interview published in Revista do Mestrado de Arte e Tecnologia da Imagem, N. 0, Institute de Arte, Departamento de Artes Visuais, Universidade de Brasilia, Brazil. Accessed via http://www.ekac.org/intervcomp94.html
3. Kac, 2016.
“If something is in the net, it should speak in net.language,” net artist Olia Lialina told critic Josephine Bosma during an interview at Ljudmila Media Lab in Ljubljana in May 1997.1 Eight months earlier, Lialina had created and published her first work of net art, My Boyfriend Came Back from the War (MBCBFTW). Through hypertext, black-and-white bitmap images and the frames of a web browser, the work tells the story of an awkward reunion between a young woman and her boyfriend. They sit together without making eye contact and their conversation is at cross-purposes: an affair is alluded to; the trauma of war looms over the encounter; a marriage proposal is made and deferred.
With its use of browser frames, hypertext and images (both animated and still) to share a personal story, My Boyfriend Came Back from the War quickly earned critical attention and today is one of the most widely cited examples of the artistic use of HTML on the early web. Despite the novelty of its approach and the euphoria surrounding its then-futuristic medium, it evokes a somber, melancholic mood. The medium of the web promised connection, but the story the work tells is one of estrangement, of the impossibility of relationships under conditions of geopolitical conflict. Nevertheless,the melancholic tone of My Boyfriend Came Back from the War reflects a core function of net.language, as articulated in Lialina's body of work as a whole: the elaboration of memory.
Bosma’s interview with Lialina took place against the backdrop of a conference, organized by the nettime mailing list, that convened a network of artists, thinkers and activists who shared an interest in the creative and political possibilities of the internet. They had escaped to a back room while “an American history lesson of the internet” went on in the front; the headlined topics included “What is net-art?” and “on/offline publishing,” “media activism,” and “The Beast – the East.” Some discussions focused on the role of the Soros Foundation in the region – “our dear Uncle from America,” as participants facetiously called its founder, in an attempt to “discuss his almost obscene power position in Eastern Europe.” 2
It was a time in which the web “was a novel and astonishing thing and its very existence seemed problematical,” to borrow from Christian Metz’s description of early cinema. 3 Everything needed to be theorized and the nettime conference was an important context for this.
During their conversation, Lialina told Bosma that her approach to My Boyfriend Came Back from the War reflected her interest in applying a cinematic language to the net. After making it, though, she became more interested in “net.language itself” and questioned whether it was specific enough to the context of the net. “This story can exist on cd-rom or you can make a video out of it,” she told Bosma. 4
The dot between net and language, presumably inserted by Bosma during transcription, mirrored the punctuation of “net.art,” the term coined by Pit Schultz for a 1995 exhibition and later popularized by Slovenian artist Vuk Cosic to describe artists who embraced the web as medium and context. In particular, the term has been associated with Cosic’s May 1996 conference “Net.Art Per Se,” an important meeting of artists associated with the early web. (Lialina was not involved; her first work of net art appeared several months later.) Net.art at that time often took the form of web pages or websites, but it also involved other internet-based applications such as email, as well as more tangible materials and practices such as chalk graffiti or live performance. (Cosic even told Bosma that the nettime conference itself, as a convening of a network, could be considered net.art.) 5 Thus, the term should be understood in a very broad sense. However, Lialina’s discussion of it with Bosma focuses in particular on the context of the web and My Boyfriend Came Back from the War was created specifically to be experienced in a web browser (given, for example, the use of frames.) Thus, the language at stake in her work can be understood as the language of the web specifically.
Lialina’s focus on language makes it hard not to think of the filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, who wrote (in 1934) of cinema’s emergence from theater:
In the early 1920s we all came to the Soviet cinema as something not yet existent. We came upon no ready-built city; there were no squares, no streets laid out; not even little crooked lanes and blind alleys, such as we may find in the cinemetropolis of our day. We came like bedouins or goldseekers to a place with unimaginably great possibilities, only a small section of which has even now been developed.6
What was at stake for Eisenstein in creating this new language begins to become clear later in the essay, when he describes film-language of the revolutionary period “as an expression of cinema thinking, when the cinema was called upon to embody the philosophy and ideology of the victorious proletariat.” “Film-language” was needed in order to express broader societal ideas that perhaps could not have been fully expressed by other means.
To understand what societal ideas are at stake in the net.language advanced by Lialina, it is necessary to begin with a consideration of formal aspects of her first artwork for the web.
“My boyfriend came back from the war. After dinner they left us alone.”
Underlined white text appears in the upper right-hand corner of a black browser window. No typeface is specified, so the text renders in the browser’s default font. The text remains white when clicked, and on return visits.
Today, few websites would leave typeface unspecified, but this practice was the standard in the very early days of the web, circa 1993. According to Lialina, this early style reflected:
the belief of the early 1990s that any visual design should be left at the discretion of the user. Page authors wouldn't define colors, fonts margins and line-lengths. In turn end users set their preferences for colors, fonts, links, graphics in their browsers, according to their needs or taste. Not a big deal, one can say, to decide if to see all the pages of the internet on a white or a gray background. But don't think about colors, think about the concept – each user was defining the look of the whole WWW for themselves. 7
The browser was also an editor and users were given latitude to display web pages in the way they preferred. This was a marked departure from print-based publishing, in which the typeface was determined at the time of publication, not reading, but it was common practice only for a short time. Lialina goes on to describe the transition, over the next several years, to a vernacular web in which the creators of pages began to play with decorative formatting, often by changing the color of text. By the time of My Boyfriend Came Back from the War, this more decorative approach to text styling would have been the norm.
The text in My Boyfriend Came Back from the War still allows plenty of latitude for style to be dictated by the user, but defines a specific color. It also assigns the same color to the text no matter what state of usage it is in—a departure from convention. The typical approach was to change the color of linked text when clicked by the user and to display previously followed links in a different color as well. Lialina chose to restrict her typeface (in any state) to white, rather than giving this kind of responsive feedback to the user. This color is clearly of great importance—it sets up a color scheme that continues on the next page.
Clicking on the linked text opens a page with bitmapped black-and-white images. On the upper right is a window looking out to some vegetation, and on the lower left a man and a woman sit awkwardly, looking away from one another. The sizes of these images are determined as a percentage of the browser window’s width, always taking up the same proportion of the screen. They are positioned with the aid of a third, invisible image that sits between them, acting as a spacer. At any scale, the seated couple is isolated within a much larger expanse of black. The window above them seems to admit no light and the foliage outside harbors secrets. It seems to be a negative image, with the whites and blacks reversed.
The stark contrast and jagged contours of the images gives them the appearance of high-contrast early film stock or newspaper photographs while keeping the file sizes very small: These are one-bit images in which each pixel can be only black or white. The binary color scheme thus reflects the underlying logic of the computer itself, while contributing to a sense of stark choices and engulfing darkness. Despite the small file sizes, these images would load somewhat slowly on a dial-up internet connection; Lialina has spoken about the importance of the pacing afforded by this characteristic of internet infrastructure in 1996—a unique material affordance of the web, mobilized in the creation of an emotional universe. 8
With the next click, a single vertical divider splits the page. The image of the man and the woman from the previous screen reappears at smaller scale in the frame on the left, where it will remain until the end of the work. Likewise, the image of the window reappears but now it has been transformed from a still to a four-frame animation, displayed as an animated GIF. The image has been reversed – white areas are now black, as if the prior image had been a camera negative for this one – and the image flickers as if being shown on an old film projector.
These very direct allusions to film stock and early cinema suggest that other possible parallels could also be drawn. The texts can be thought of as intertitles setting up narrative scenes; the images can be read cinematically as establishing shots, close-ups and so forth. These parallels bring special attention to those aspects of the work that are quite foreign to cinema. One point of departure, though, is the way in which the work adapts ideas of cinematic montage to the web.
Christian Metz placed special emphasis on the role of montage in defining early cinematic language in the landmark work Film Language: A Semiotics of the Cinema.
[M]ontage, through the enthusiastic and ingenious exploitation of all its combinations, through the pages and pages of panegyric in books and reviews, became practically synonymous with the cinema itself.
More direct than his fellows, Pudovkin was unwittingly close to the truth when he declared with aplomb that the notion of montage, above and beyond all the specific meanings it is sometimes given (end-to-end joining, accelerated montage, purely rhythmic principle, etc.), is in reality the sum of filmic creation: The isolated shot is not even a small fragment of cinema; it is only raw material, a photograph of the real world.9
For Pudovkin, cinema is created when one image (or intertitle) is joined to the next. In early cinema, this joining happened in space—with one frame of film attached along its edge, with splicing cement, to another—but it was experienced in time: An image appeared onscreen, followed by another. In cinema, this point where one image is sutured to the next is, perhaps incongruously, referred to as a cut, although it seems defined more by conjoinment than disjunction. In My Boyfriend Came Back from the War, separate frames are joined together by HTML code and the browser itself and experienced in both space and in time, employing what Lev Manovich has characterized as spatial and temporal montage.
The first transition in the piece resembles a cut in cinema quite directly. An intertitle appears and then is replaced by an image that fills the window; the only difference is that here, the user chooses when to make the “cut.” This is temporal montage.
Spatial montage is introduced in the second transition. The window is divided, with the initial image of the couple on the left, slightly transformed, and a close-up image of the young woman on the right. Instead of each image being replaced by the next onscreen, here the initial image remains as further frames appear alongside it.
As the user continues to explore the frame on the right-hand side, the page is divided into smaller and smaller sections in which sequences of image and text are interwoven. At no point is it necessary to scroll. This allows for images and texts to be “joined” to one another not only in time but also in the two-dimensional space of the browser window.
The strategy of subdividing the frame into smaller windows was present in cinema, too. Lev Manovich has discussed the use of this kind of “spatial montage” in cinema in his book The Language of New Media. Edward Porter’s The Life of an American Fireman (1903) used the technique to show a firefighter’s daydream above him as he sits in the firehouse; Abel Gance used the technique in his epic three-screen drama Napoleon (1927).
Lialina’s narrative use of spatial montage differs from these examples in the way it denotes the passage of time. In cinema, the split screen is often used to show two scenes progressing in lock step. When the screen splits in Lialina's work, it also divides the temporal flow of the story; the frame on the left remains the same while the one on the right continues to move forward. Different temporalities begin to coexist, all of them framed by the image of the young man and woman beneath the window, which is left unchanged. Time moves forward, but the larger scene remains unaffected, and various elements progress independently of one another.
The strategy of montage in Lialina’s work also differs materially from that in cinema. In cinema, temporal montage involves splicing distinct image sequences together at the boundary of a frame; spatial montage involves optically compositing distinct sequences within the frame. The montage in Lialina’s work is described in HTML code. While web pages are often generated with the aid of software, Lialina’s code appears to have been written by hand. For example, when the close-up image of the young woman appears, it is set to take up 70% of the width of the frame. The html code for this image includes the misspelled and therefore unused attribute “hight=’70%’”, which suggests that the HTML code was written by hand and serves as a reminder that the code is based on the English language.
While spatial montage in cinema takes place within a linear temporal structure, My Boyfriend Came Back from the War is what George Landow calls “multilinear.”10 Its
…multilinearity allows contradictions in the text to be foregrounded, instead of smoothed out and eliminated as is often the case within a paradigm that carves the world up into simple oppositions of male and female, black and white. 11
This description, drawn from a text about the feminist potential of hypertext as a narrative form, illuminates a key dimension of the departure from montage in the work. Montage was notably defined in terms of a dialectic opposition reaching a synthesis, a structure that Eisenstein argued was crucial to cinema’s status as a revolutionary form.12 One image plus a second, contrasting image would result in a synthesis, a new, third meaning. In the linear montage of early Soviet cinema, binaries were set up only to be subsumed into a larger coherent whole. In the case of My Boyfriend Came Back from the War, binary oppositions fracture into a prismatic composition that allows many possible points of connection between individual frames.
The multilinearity of Lialina’s use of multiple windows reflects the specific affordances of HTML frames, introduced by Netscape in 1995 as a feature of the Navigator 2.0 browser, which supported multiple documents loading in discrete areas of any given page. Thus they allowed the user to move dynamically through certain parts of a page, updating or interacting with individual elements while other parts remained static.
Up to this point, I have described only the first two frames of My Boyfriend Came Back from the War; there are seventy-six in total. From the second frame, a click on the close-up portrait on the right-hand side divides that frame in half. Now there are three frames arranged vertically across the screen. The portrait shifts to the right, reduced in scale, while the text “Where are you? I can’t see you” appears in the middle.
When clicked, the text cuts to an intertitle that reads: “FORGET IT.” Clicking again divides the frame into an upper and a lower section. The upper displays another negative image of soldiers under a helicopter, while the lower reads “you don’t trust me. i see.” Then:
But... it was only once...
And if you think...
Why I should explain?... Don't you see?
The intertitles relay a dialogue between the estranged lovers, although the speaker of any given line is not identified. There are further allusions to possible infidelity, discussions about an act of violence, and a marriage proposal, deferred.
The images serve a wider range of roles. At times, they seem to reflect the boyfriend’s memory – such as the helicopter, which is replaced with a negative version of the same image when clicked. At other times, the images seem to illustrate the dialogue – for example, “I keep your photo here” leads to an image of what seems to be a head-and-shoulders photograph of the boyfriend. Clicking again, though, reveals the same man in slightly different poses, as if each new frame is the frame of a kind of animation, showing the man turning to his left, toward his girlfriend, an opening for a possible connection.
There’s also an image of the logo for 20th Century Fox, the film studio. This appears in a sequence that plays out in the upper part of the section on the right side of the screen, following the close-up portrait. It is preceded by intertitles reading:
last time we met
And you promised.
Then the section divides into four small frames, which read, “LIKE / MY / NEW / DRESS?” In turn, these lead to “Who asks you? / TOGETHER FOREVER / We’ll start a new life.”
At this point, the logo appears.
It’s easy to read this image, forever associated with Hollywood moving image credits, as the intended endpoint of the work as a whole. However, because the user is given the option to advance through different frames at different rates, many users would not encounter it as the final frame of the work. Instead, it could be read as a kind of aside. If the adjacent frames suggest a kind of romantic, youthful optimism (“TOGETHER FOREVER”), then the inclusion of this logo could be taken as a sort of wink at the typical Hollywood ending.
The frame immediately below the image supports this reading:
will you marry me
Then, in a great rush
No, better next month after holidays and the weather must be better. Yes next month. I’m happy now.
In other words, no.
Through all of this, the couple in the left-hand frame sit unmoving. The window still flickers above them, on an endless loop. It is the opening image of the piece, and time has passed but it is uncertain as to whether the image is meant to refer back to the moment at the beginning of this conversation or if it is intended to convey the sense that time is passing and nothing has changed.
The use of frames in My Boyfriend Came Back from the War thus creates a spatial and temporal montage in which images and texts are juxtaposed in both time (by loading new frames in sequence) and space (by loading frames adjacent to one another in a split screen formation), partly under the user’s control.
In Austin, Texas, I saw the filmmaker Jean-Paul Gorin give a talk in which he said, "In France, we think of everything in terms of time. We have before and after heartbreak. In the US, you think of everything in terms of space. You have south and west of heartbreak." My Boyfriend Came Back from the War marries these two types of memory, the temporal and the spatial.
The problem of memory is at the origin of the development of hypertext: the fear of losing knowledge and the urge to organize the world.
After coming back from World War II, scientist Vannevar Bush articulated the sense of uncertainty and aimlessness that came along with the end of a campaign, in this case, the Manhattan Project:
This has not been a scientists’ war; it has been a war in which all have had a part. The scientists, burying their old professional competition in the demand of a common cause, have shared greatly and learned much. It has been exhilarating to work in effective partnership. What are the scientists to do next? 13
To be a part of the scientific wartime effort was to be a part of something meaningful, after which the ordinary contours of everyday life might understandably have been hard to accept. Luckily, Bush glimpsed the possibility of another great challenge on the horizon to lend meaning to existence: the mountains of information (generated, in part, by wartime research) that could no longer be easily grasped by the individual scholar. How could this knowledge be organized?
Bush’s article “As We May Think” famously described a filing system called the “Memex” that was to offer an analog technological solution to this conundrum. It argued that the typical system of classifying data is not suitable for human modes of thinking. “When data of any sort are placed in storage, they are filed alphabetically or numerically and information is found (when it is) by tracing it down from subclass to class.” Bush argued that a more linear or perhaps narrative mode of organizing information might offer the best results. Rather than trying to organize knowledge according to rigid hierarchies, researchers could create subjective, associative trails across a series of documents. “Any item may be caused at will to select another immediately and automatically… The process of tying two items together is the important thing.” This early articulation of a non-hierarchical means of indexing knowledge within computer culture laid the groundwork for the later development of hypertext. It privileged the cultural form of the narrative (loosely defined) over that of the database and it positioned knowledge and memory as subjective processes.
The concept of hypertext was brought to its most important realization in 1989 at another scientific nuclear facility. At CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, which now hosts the large hadron collider, Tim Berners-Lee wrote a proposal for an approach to the problem of institutional memory at a large scientific organization with high staff turnover. “Information is constantly being lost,” he warned. The solution he prescribed was the use of hypertext, or “Human-readable information linked together in an unconstrained way.” Here, again, hypertext is proposed as a solution to improve the computer’s ability to support human memory.
While Berners-Lee waited for news about his hypertext proposal, he attended a local performance of the play Goodbye, Charlie, in which a womanizing man is murdered by a jealous husband and is reincarnated as a beautiful blond, played by Nancy Carlson, an American programmer working for the World Health Organization in Switzerland. (Berners-Lee was also something of an actor; his favorite role was that of Nana, the nursemaid dog in Peter Pan, thus crossing boundaries of species as well as gender.) Carlson caught his eye, and they began dating; a marriage proposal soon followed. By the following year, both proposals had been accepted: The two were married, and Berners-Lee named his system the “World Wide Web.”
What’s fascinating about Berners-Lee’s hypertext proposal is that it departs markedly from Bush’s prior critique of the computer’s organization of knowledge. Where Bush argued that the typical organization of knowledge is incompatible with the structure of our brains, which use countless lateral connections to connect thoughts and memories with one another, Berners-Lee argued that the problem with “trees,” as he labeled hierarchical knowledge systems, is that they fail to “model the real world.” The example Berners-Lee gave of the “real world” is a discussion group that drifts from one topic to another. This is not Bush’s real world of the human mind but a real world of shared discourse, which suggests that the web was defined as a social medium from the beginning. Already, though, the phrase begins to hint at some of the truth claims that would later be made on behalf of Big Data:
Imagine making a large three-dimensional model, with people represented by little spheres, and strings between people who have something in common at work.
Now imagine picking up the structure and shaking it, until you make some sense of the tangle: perhaps, you see tightly knit groups in some places, and in some places weak areas of communication spanned by only a few people. Perhaps a linked information system will allow us to see the real structure of the organisation in which we work.
In other words, Berners-Lee grasped the web’s potential as a tool for surveillance. Hypertext’s compatibility with the associative, nonlinear structure of discourse made it a valuable tool for the empirical analysis of social behaviors, in this case allowing the relationships among employees to be mapped and organized.
Thus there were already two kinds of memory at stake in Berners-Lee’s proposal: the memory of the users of this hypertext system, who would use it to make lateral connections across a voluminous body of research, and the memory of the all-seeing analysts charged with organizing it.
The former kind of memory, the social memory facilitated by hypertext, was always central to Lialina’s understanding of the function of net.language. Only later, as the mechanisms of algorithmic control became more powerful, did this come into focus as an explicit position of resistance.
A VERNACULAR WEB
At the time of Berners-Lee’s proposal, there was already commercial software on the market to support hypertext authoring. HyperCard, developed by Apple and included with all new Macintosh computers in the late 1980s, made this kind of nonlinear writing accessible to wider audiences. Eastgate System’s Storyspace, designed by Jay David Bolter and Michael Joyce and released in 1987, found particular traction among artists and writers for its ability to map out complex multilinear pathways. A number of works authored with Storyspace were distributed on floppy disk or CD-ROM. Berners-Lee was well aware of the work being done in the field and his 1989 proposal made a specific reference to a hypertext conference at which Bolter and Joyce presented.
The author Shelley Jackson is among those who embraced Storyspace as a writing tool, using it to author the celebrated hypertext work Patchwork Girl, which was published on CD-ROM. In this work, drawings of parts of a girl’s body open out into complex, interwoven narratives. The story draws on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and in it, users can read journal entries describing the process of creating the monster:
I have had plenty of time to make the girl. Yet the task was not so easy as you may suppose. I found that I could not compose a female without devoting several months to profound study and laborious disquisition.
Another strand of the work begins with an account of the day the monster “parted for the last time with the author of my being, and set out to write my own destiny.” Thus the story of the creation of the monster can be understood as an allegory about the role of the hypertext reader, constructing meaning and identity from a fragmentary text.
Formally, Patchwork Girl is quite similar to a later work by Jackson titled my body – A Wunderkammer (1997), which was her first hypertext work made for the browser rather than CD-Rom. Clicking on a white-on-black woodcut drawing of a girl’s body brings the user to pages dedicated to specific parts, with written anecdotes and meditations accompanied by woodcut-style portraits. In place of the elaborate, carefully crafted fiction of Patchwork Girl, My Body offers a more directly autobiographical approach.
Thus Jackson’s most celebrated hypertext work for CD-ROM was a fiction that is readily understood as a work of literary theory, while her first work for the web used a very similar formal language to elaborate a personal memory much more directly. This difference in approach can be understood in relationship to the conditions of circulation and reception surrounding the offline and online hypertext work.
The CD-Rom presented itself as a highly finished object, discrete; it was to be consumed in the private space of the desktop, with the author separated from the reader by layers of packaging, a jewel case, a publisher, an envelope that arrived in the mail. Much was made of the way that hypertext changed the reader’s role, making it more active, but the format still created a division between the role of reader and that of author.
Visiting a web page, on the other hand, meant making a connection with someone’s server and accessing files from it. In the days of dial-up, when this connection might have been made via the home phone line, it perhaps felt even more like connecting with a person.
Perhaps more importantly, the web was a space where many readers were also authors. If hypertext allowed readers to take a more active role, the web continued this trend by fostering a sense of connection between reader and writer and giving readers the means to self-publish. When Jackson made work for the web as opposed to the desktop, she would have been aware that she was addressing a public made up of fellow writers, many of whom would have been relating autobiographical stories. Thus it shouldn’t be surprising that Jackson’s shift from the CD-ROM to the web occasioned a shift to the first person and to the author focusing on her own story, taking her place as a part of this hypertext-writing and reading public.
Lialina has written about the particular importance of personal memory on the early web:
I look through a lot of old… homepages every day, and see quite [a few] that are made to release stress, to share with cyberspace what the authors can't share with anybody else, sometimes it is noted that they were created after direct advice of a psychotherapist. Pages made by people with all kinds of different backgrounds, veterans among them. I don't have any statistics [as to whether] making a home page ever helped anybody to get rid of combat stress, but I can't stop thinking of drone operators coming back home in the evening, looking for peeman.gif in collections of free graphics, and making a homepage. 14
The web was always a space for memory and autobiography, and the net.language facilitated this.
A similar transition to a first-person, and seemingly autobiographical, mode of address can be found in Lialina’s own trajectory. Prior to her life as a net artist, Lialina had been a co-organizer of the Cine Fantom experimental film club in Moscow, which was founded in 1994 to expand the Parallel Cinema movement, a current in Soviet underground cinema that began in the 1980s. In 1995 the club received a gift of a computer from that dear Uncle from America, the Soros Foundation. “Windows, 3.11 if I remember it right... I immediately started to make posters for our program in Microsoft Word,” Lialina recalls. Alongside this promotional activity, though, Lialina soon began to explore the use of the web as a context in which to share Cine Fantom’s archive of Parallel Cinema, a form of lo-fi underground cinema that positioned itself as a radical, though not explicitly political, alternative to mainstream media. In September of 1996, the same month in which My Boyfriend Came Back to the War was published, Lialina made a presentation about her efforts with the Parallel Cinema archive at the new media organization V2 in the Netherlands. “Olia Lialina (Moscow): CINE FANTOM. New life on line… She will be talking about the opportunities and problems of putting time-based arts online.” Thus, Lialina was using the web as a site of memory even before her first artwork. By the time of the V2 meeting, Lialina had already transitioned from “putting time-based arts online” to making work for the web and from putting public archives online to creating personal narratives to share with other web users.
MEMORY AND THE INTERNET USER
In particular, the story related by Lialina in My Boyfriend Came Back from the War evokes the affective experience of being an early internet user and a young woman in Moscow in the mid-1990s. As such, it can be understood in a broader tradition (alongside Jackson) of feminist writing that connects individual experience with social history and the power of discourse with the crushing realities of material circumstance, as described by Laura Sullivan in a 1999 discussion of the hypertext memoir.
Women’s autobiographies can connect the feminist call to value women’s personal experience with both the postmodern belief that discourse produces our understandings of our “selves” and the materialist feminist recognition that our experiences are situated in history. 15
Lialina’s work speaks very powerfully from a particular moment in history.
Netscape was formed in 1994 and by the end of the year its Navigator web browser was by far the most popular with the 13.5 million internet users worldwide. In 1995, the company went public, closing its first day of trading with a valuation of $2.9 billion despite a total lack of any revenue. This marked the beginning of the dot com boom, in which investors poured money into questionable internet companies based on wildly optimistic visions of the earning potential of the early web.
The second battle of Grozny, in August of 1996, precipitated the end of Russia’s first disastrous war in Chechnya. Faced with an unexpectedly robust guerilla resistance, Russian soldiers waged war indiscriminately, killing and displacing hundreds of thousands of civilians. The war was deeply unpopular with a now-independent press, and public sentiment against it ran high. A ceasefire was signed on August 30.
While situating its narrator in history, My Boyfriend Came Back from the War also took care to consider the user's participation in its narrative. The work constructs the user's point-of-view by making a visual allusion to the window of a house. The user therefore takes on the role of a voyeur, looking in on this awkward but intimate encounter. At the same time, the use of frames is an absolutely recognizable element of the web of the late 1990s. Lialina has commented on their iconic quality: “Frames create a very recognizable visual pattern. In general when graphic design makes reference to web design the frame layout is commonly used.” Thus the use of frames constructed the audience as both voyeur and web user.
The voyeur is a role typically associated with cinema; the voyeur watches, while the computer user – the computer user acts. But by placing the user on the other side of a window, Lialina made it clear that they were not in fact effecting any change on the overall outcome of the narrative, a sense of stasis that was reinforced by the unchanging image of the estranged couple.
One specific possibility offered by hypertext fiction (or interactive narrative in general) is that there can be many pathways through a story, that the user is given some level of agency to model possible outcomes. In the case of MBCBFTW, this agency is moot; the events depicted in the work have already happened and are merely being uncovered by the user-voyeur.
It seems incongruous that a work so closely associated with the euphoric early days of the web would have such a melancholic air. But MBCBFTW is very much a work of the web, despite its tone. In fact, it is intimately bound up with one of the most important uses of hypertext, and of the web – narrating the past. Even if the user is unable to change the outcome of events, there remains the possibility to rewrite events of the past through remembering them – after all, the web page itself is a kind of mutable performance and one that can then be taken up and remade by other computer users on the web.
And it has been remade. Lialina’s website now hosts a list of links to remakes and remixes, some made by friends and others by strangers. One version by Ignacio Nieto, which Lialina describes as especially dear to her, pays tribute to 44 young Chilean soldiers who died tragically after being sent, ill-equipped and untrained, on a hike into a fierce mountain blizzard. Another cheekily translates the project to a wearable slogan: “My boyfriend came back from the war and all I got was this stupid t-shirt.” Thus Lialina’s project is re-performed and remembered in other contexts, while offering a format within which other users may narrate their own memories.
While this openness to re-interpretation may not have been explicitly stated in the work, it’s important that the last frame to appear in the very bottom right of the piece contains Lialina’s email address, making explicit the connection between writer and reader, artist and audience.
The Vernacular is Political
Today, the cause of free speech is very much at the forefront of public debate about the internet. The net is commonly used to wage symbolic violence and to plan real violence. At the same time, it is constantly monitored for evidence of a willing consumer or a bad citizen. These forces limit and structure the range of potential expressions that can be made on the web and they define limits of speech and expression. As such, they are hotly contested.
While extremely worthy, this struggle seems always to be defined by a focus on content, or on infrastructure. The net.language developed by Lialina and employed to poetic ends in My Boyfriend Came Back from the War is also under attack:
Web browsers developing in the direction of operating systems are leaving the idea of interlinked documents behind. Though hypertext is technically still there, it is not important any more, neither is surfing or linking. The web consists mainly of application interfaces where users activate functions.
These constraints also impose limits on net.language, hindering the web’s usefulness as a space for social memory, and they should be just as hotly contested. To advocate for these aspects of net.language is also a political struggle.
Walter Benjamin wrote that “Every expression of human mental life can be understood as a kind of language.” For Benjamin, this applied not only to speech, but also to artistic media and public institutions:
It is possible to talk about a language of music and of sculpture, about a language of justice that has nothing directly to do with those in which German or English legal judgments are couched, about a language of technology that is not the specialized language of technicians.
For Benjamin, these languages were not merely the media through which underlying ideas could be expressed. Rather, he argued, “the mental being of man is language itself.” All human thoughts are expressible in language, or perhaps no thought can form that cannot be expressed in language. If there is no thought outside of language, then the invention of new languages may expand the realm of thought itself, affecting all mental processes, memory included.
This was the opportunity opened up by the development of hypertext and its further elaboration on the web. This net.language, this lateral, associative writing practice, which facilitated the sharing of first-person autobiographical accounts in multilinear form, offered a glimpse of a new social imaginary based on an understanding of the fragmentary subjectivity of both writer and reader, in which memory is seen as an open-ended and collaborative process, facilitated by the non-hierarchical and expressive potential of hypertext.
This possibility is threatened by the Big Data business model that aims to limit all online expression to the algorithmically legible, claiming that this will reveal the real us, our unified essences, the workings of the social order, our place in it, our value to it. Under Big Data, memory is neutral and mechanistic, to be measured only in terabytes.
When Lialina speaks of net.language and employs this language in her artistic practice, something like this is what's at stake. Net.language is the language of the user, a figure of fragile and radical promise, constantly under threat.
Header image: Olia Lialina, My Boyfriend Came Back from the War, 1996. Photo: Franz Wamhof.
1. Josephine Bosma, “Olia Lialina interview Ljubljana,” <nettime>, 8/5/97, web. http://www.nettime.org/Lists-Archives/nettime-l-9708/msg00009.html
2. Marina Grzinic, “An Insider's Report from the Nettime Squad Meeting in Ljubljana, 22 & 23 June 1997,” Telepolis, 6/19/97, web. (The title is apparently an error, as the meeting took place in May). http://www.heise.de/tp/artikel/4/4071/1.html
3. Christian Metz, Film Language: A Semiotics of the Cinema (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 3.
5. Josephine Bosma, "Vuk Cosic interview: net.art per se," <nettime>, 9/27/97, Web. http://www.nettime.org/Lists-Archives/nettime-l-9709/msg00053.html
6. Sergei Eisenstein, Film Form: Essays in Film Theory, London: Harcourt, Inc., 1977, 3.
7. Olia Lialina, "Prof. Dr. Style:Top 10 Web Design Styles of 1993 (Vernacular Web 3)," 2010. http://contemporary-home-computing.org/prof-dr-style/
8. In 1994, Netscape Navigator became the first browser to display web pages as they loaded on the fly, with text and images appearing as they downloaded. With other browsers, a page would remain blank until all elements were loaded.
10. Landow 1992
11. Laura L. Sullivan, “Wired Women Writing,” Computers and Composition (16:1, 1999), p. 31.
12. Eisenstein, “A Dialectic Approach to Film Form,” from Film Form 1949.
13. Vannevar Bush, "As We May Think," The Atlantic, July 1945, Web. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1945/07/as-we-may-think/303881/
14. Olia Lialina, "Rich User Experience and the Desktopization of War," http://contemporary-home-computing.org/RUE/
15. Laura L. Sullivan, “Wired Women Writing,” Computers and Composition (16:1, 1999), p. 31.
The Download is a series of Rhizome commissions that considers posted files, the act of downloading, and the user’s desktop as the space of exhibition.
Zac’s Freight Elevator by Dennis Cooper is part of The Download, and the zip file is available here.
On Thursday, November 16, there will be a night of interpretative readings of Dennis Cooper’s GIF novels at New Museum. More information and tickets available here.
On June 27, 2016, Google deactivated the popular blog of writer and artist Dennis Cooper. Visitors to the site were shown this message:
Fourteen years of artistic output archived on the Google-owned Blogger site appeared to be gone, along with Cooper’s latest work, Zac’s Freight Elevator, a novel composed of hundreds of found GIFs. The epic work-in-progress was stored on private pages on the site.
At the time, Cooper had already published two other GIF works: a novel (Zac’s Haunted House, 2015) and a collection of stories and poetry (Zac’s Control Panel, 2015). These took the form of simple browser-based websites, experienced offline (available as ZIP downloads at Kiddiepunk). To create his image-based narratives, Cooper arranges the found GIFs into vertical sequences, two or three at a time, and then stacks them into tall columns, which are scrolled. Earlier versions of the GIF works originally appeared as long blog posts.
Cooper has a deep history with experimental publishing, having started the zine Little Caesar (“a literary journal with an anarchist, punk rock spirit”) in 1978, and he continues to maintain his own small press, Little House on the Bowery. He was an early blogger, and the online space that he nurtured functioned like a public extension of his artistic practice. Deep mixes of images, videos, music, excerpts from books, notes, and sampled correspondence were featured daily, sometimes around specific themes like male escorts, horror films, weird phenomena, film directors, or composers.
Google offered no explanation when it deactivated the site, and Cooper struggled to get information from the company for two months. He used Facebook to update friends and fans, posting links to the spectacular international coverage the situation was garnering (with headlines like “Dennis Cooper: Deleted by Google” and “The Blog that Disappeared”). And after an intense period of legal discussions and negotiations, Google finally explained that the act stemmed from a single complaint. An image, posted ten years prior, had been mistakenly identified as child pornography. On August 26 Cooper announced on Facebook that Google had returned his data and that he was relaunching his blog, which he now maintains on Wordpress.
Lost for two months but now complete, Zac’s Freight Elevator is presented here as a Rhizome Download (in collaboration with Kiddiepunk).
The urgency of the work as a rescued object is in sharp contrast with the immutability of its form. Organized into six chapters, each of the 608 found GIFs in the novel has a history of distributed authorship, continuing to exist simultaneously in any number of contexts, having been copied, stored, and served up on the web countless times. Each GIF contains its own trajectory; with a bit of sleuthing, other histories are glimpsed. An animation of a walking man that appears early on in Chapter 1 seems to have been featured on the site Lyst.org in 2004–05, but remains accessible in an archive. Further down the page in Chapter 1, a black-and-white anime-style animated GIF that could easily be seen as a quick one- or two-image sequence turns out to be, upon close examination, an elaborate 150-second animation. It’s a Gravity Falls fan fiction, an intense scene between the twins Mabel and Dipper Pines, originally posted on DeviantArt. By pairing it with a mysterious swarm of black dots moving in and out of focus, Cooper suggests something nameless, shapeless, and haunting. One pictures Cooper browsing, searching, and curating the GIFs from all corners of the web in the sculpting of Zac’s Freight Elevator. Assembled and neatly stacked into sequences, these re-authored GIFs are perfect examples of “poor media”—compressed forms that privilege accessibility, remixability, and circulation over quality. GIFs are meant to be shared. GIFs persist. And for artists who extend their practice to online platforms, dispersion of files may be more than making public — perhaps it’s also a kind of preservation.
At a recent film screening in NYC, Cooper said that he sees GIFs as language, as individual words or paragraphs. “I create fiction without writing,” he explained, though by stringing together hundreds of GIFs he performs another kind of writing. The sequences are uncanny; meaning accumulates in the browser window as the reader scrolls through stacked GIFs, shifting from clip to clip. Out-of-sync oscillations seem to sound out, giving the work a somewhat aural quality. Individual characters and plot lines are less resolute and appear more like semiotic gestures: the young boy, the older man, the screaming mouth, the suicidal blow. Pictured are bodies that flow in and out of sexuality and violence, play-acting roles. Imaginary scenes are sketched out for consideration.
Experienced as stacks of meaning, Zac’s Freight Elevator is a masterful work of montage. In early cinema, images piled up on top of each other to create accumulating layers of meaning, reverberating in the deep space between the viewer and the screen. Cooper’s GIF novels echo this pile-up, but in a vertical way—they resemble endlessly scrolling Tumblr pages (as well as his own blog), inviting us to decode the relationships between signs streaming by, a relentless production machine of emotion. Cooper’s GIF novels may look like Tumblr, but they recall older form of reading, like the emakimono (“paper scrolls”) of medieval Japan: long-form, continuous image-based sequences that are carefully controlled by the reader. Cooper “folds up” the narrative into chapters, reminding us that early scrolls were eventually folded up to form “pages,” and then bound (the codex).
Cooper preserves his GIF novels by spreading them. Files that replicate on the internet are safeguarded; copies persist, traceable both on and off the network. Given Cooper’s recent problems with Google, let’s see Zac’s Freight Elevator as a work of visual literature that sustains itself by staying in motion. Maybe it’s a radical notion, an act of resistance against the corporate Terms of Service paradigm that threatens entire archives with a single glance. The animated GIF reminds us, perhaps naively, that internet culture can be material for a deep archeology of shared authorship and meaning. Publishing a GIF novel in the form of a freely downloadable ZIP file preserves the work, protects the artist, and extends the generosity.
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.
This article accompanies the presentation of Antonio Muntadas's The File Room as a part of the online exhibition Net Art Anthology.
Before entering the The File Room’s online archive of censorship cases, a disclaimer warns visitors that the site “claims no scholarly, editorial or scientific authority…” Making such a disclaimer for an online reference work today seems superfluous, but in 1994, it was crucial for understanding a new kind of information database—one of open-submission and open-access.
An installation in the form of a database of censorship cases, Antoni Muntadas's TheFile Room was staged in 1994 in the galleries of the Chicago Cultural Center and on the then-nascent web. Visitors entered a small, ominous room lined with file cabinets; there, they could approach a computer terminal to browse archives or submit their own accounts of censorship.
Using a customized, kiosk-mode version of the NCSA Mosaic web browser, they could enter search terms, or sort by category and location. They might encounter stories like case #212, which outlines some of the attacks on artist David Wojnarowicz, whose 1990 exhibition at Illinois State University, "Tongues of Flame," was the subject of a lawsuit from a right wing organization. Or they might find come across case #199, which describes the attempted suppression of What is the Proper Way to Display a US Flag? by Dread Scott (1988). The question posed in the title of the work invites visitors to respond, but in order to reply in the notebook provided they must walk across an American flag draped on the floor. Although courts ruled definitively that the work was protected free speech, protests and bomb threats targeted its exhibiting venue, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. A teacher visiting the exhibition was arrested for stepping on the flag, and then-president George Bush described the work as “disgraceful.”1
Record of censorship of work by Dread Scott, included in Antoni Muntadas, The File Room (1994). Courtesy the artist.
They might also choose to write out their own entry, detailing a past incident of censorship. This open-endedness was a crucial aspect of the project. At the time of its launch, researchers with Chicago artist-run space Randolph Street Gallery had written and compiled four hundred documented cases from around the world, many of them submitted by phone, fax, or email. Visitors to the public building where it was staged could also contribute; even today, users on the web can still submit their own entries. “What can be stated and what cannot,” wrote Judith Russi Kirshner at the time, “is always debatable, open to redefinition and potentially infinite.”2 Cataloguing censorship is a project that can never be complete.
Open-submission systems today are often characterized as examples of the utopian, egalitarian ideals of the internet. Wikipedia, for example, as it grows in volume and apparent reliability, reflects a deep structural bias resulting from the sizable racial and gender gaps in their communities of contributors.
When it was created, The File Room faced its own problems of inclusion and access. The internet at that point had only been popularized at the government and university levels, and its access required maneuvering a high barrier of technological savviness.
Perhaps this is why, unlike many of the open-submission databases and encyclopedias that followed it, The File Room is particularly self-critical of its own role in the censorship of information and the limitations of its community of users. It eschewed the quirky coding characteristics that marked many other internet artworks from its era. For example, it differs markedly from the playful user-generated nonsense invited by Douglas Davis’s seminal work The World’s First Collaborative Sentence (1994), which asked users to input their own text in a massive collaborative writing project, open to all comers.
Screenshot from Douglas Davis, The World's First Collaborative Sentence (1994).
Instead, The File Room adopted the ominous aesthetics of bureaucracy, the neutral structure of a detailed database. This allowed for an impressively specific categorization by century, continent, grounds of censorship, and medium. Despite a format that conveys authority, though, the work is no less subjective than The World’s First Collaborative Sentence, or Wikipedia. It is a record of the ideas and concerns of its communities of contributors. "I see the site as a kind of digital artifact of its time," Muntadas notes. "In anthropology, you analyze an object by what elements of its time it accumulated. The File Room accumulated elements of Chicago in 1994 and the state of early web computer graphics."
Early entries in the database do often reflect the concerns of Chicago-based artists in the early 1990s, writing at the tail end of the US culture wars, in which conservatives made concerted efforts to target artists and institutions whose positions challenged their ideas and values. (Hence the inclusion of examples such as Dread Scott and “Tongues of Flame”.) The case files include typographical and factual errors, as in the Wojnarowicz entry, which samples freely from two distinct court cases and incorrectly lists the artist’s date of birth. In spite of the bureacratic language used, the anger felt by the researcher who compiled this—no doubt working with scant resources, under pressure of time—is palpable, in part because of this imprecision.
But if the vested interests of the researchers themselves can be glimpsed here and there in its contents, the same can not be said of The File Room as a whole. Its contents include cases of censorship perpetrated by artists or efforts to curtail hate speech, such as the example of Wojnarowicz suing to suppress a right wing pamphlet containing his work. Censorship itself is not portrayed as an absolute evil, but as a process that is central to the workings of art and power.
When Randolph Street Gallery closed in 1998, The File Room’s online database moved to MediaChannel.org, the National Coalition Against Censorship’s website, and eventually, to Rhizome’s own servers, where it will continue to be active and maintained.
In the following interviews, Antoni Muntadas reflects on the transformations of censorship from a physical to a more elusive, digital operation as well as his own relationship with early web culture. Former Randolph Street Gallery exhibitions director Peter Taub locates The File Room in the history of the internet in Chicago, and recalls the early stages of the project’s realization. Rhizome’s preservation director, Dragan Espenschied, explains the efforts required to preserve and re-stage The File Room for Rhizome’s Net Art Anthology. Espenschied also reflects on the difficulty of managing community values in open-submission platforms and on the historical significance of Muntadas’s voice in early web culture.
Antoni Muntadas, The File Room, courtesy the artist.
DP: I know that the project was in part inspired by a personal experience you had with censorship. Could you provide some more information about this case and about how your proposal for The File Room came about?
AM: Yes, I worked on a commissioned project for Spanish television for two years that was never broadcasted. I didn’t want to create a polemic there because I didn’t live there, so the first opportunity I found to address this issue was an invitation to propose a project for Randolph Street Gallery. I proposed The File Room as a way for people to document their own experience with censorship—a kind of exorcism—and my own experience became The File Room’s first case.
DP: The File Room communicates a tone of skepticism toward early utopian views of the internet. It’s both self-critical and full of modest disclaimers about the information contained in the database. Did you share this skepticism toward the early web while you were creating this project?
AM: I think the skepticism was for the expectations that people had for the future of the internet. People put these expectations on any new medium. They said that videotape would end television and that photography would retire painting. But new mediums simply add to a spectrum of mediums, complementing older mediums rather than eliminating them.
Something I found interesting in internet communication was electronic mail’s precedent of postal mail. This medium was utilized by those in places where communication was very restricted, and therein emerged networks of artists living under oppressive regimes.
DP: The File Room includes nine texts about the work. One of these texts was written by Elisabeth Subrin, who led the research team at Randolph Street Gallery. In the text, titled “An Alternative History: Notes on the Research Process” she mentions in regards to the database that, “objectivity is out of the question.” Do you agree that the database can in no way be objective?
AM: After many years working closely with and about television, I have arrived at the conclusion that there is no such thing as objectivity. Part of the importance of The File Room was that people were asked to talk in first person. It is sometimes very complex and ambiguous whether an experience qualifies as censorship or not, so documenting people’s critical subjectivity is important. An interesting example of this is when an event happened at the Art Institute of Chicago and the director of the school put the case on The File Room. Some students answered, and the project became a platform for discussion. In this case, it wasn’t just the person who was experiencing the censorship who contributed, but also the one conducting the censorship.
DP: I was intrigued by the installation’s translation of digital space into a physical room, filled with file cabinets and lit by a single, uncovered light bulb. Had you imagined this visual interpretation of the digital database all along?
AM: I proposed installing The File Room at the Chicago Cultural Center, which holds the memory of a public library. The physicality of the installation became important for two reasons: the first was the power it held as a metaphor for the intensity of censorship. The installation created a kind of Kafkaesque, repressive, bureaucratic, administrative, and dramatic room. It informed the viewer’s perception of the digital space. Secondly, the room’s terminals served as a crucial form of access to the site. At that time, the web still operated mostly on a military and university level—people did not have it at home or internet cafes.
Of course, now both of these points have changed—the site is both more accessible and less dramatic looking, instead appearing outdated and nostalgic. I never want to change this, because I see the site as a kind of digital artifact of its time. In anthropology, you analyze an object by what elements of its time it accumulated. The File Room accumulated elements of Chicago in 1994 and the state of early web computer graphics.
DP: How was censorship changing in 1994? Were a lot of people thinking about censorship in the world and in regard to the early internet?
AM: Censorship has always been a concern for me, but there were certainly changes in the nature of its brutality and violence at the time. Both political and economic censorship were beginning to transform from a physical state—cutting films or eliminating pages of books—to being less physical, more Machiavellian, and more complex. The File Room uses a digital platform to address these new forms of censorship. Still, since the internet was not very accessible at the time, cases were being faxed and phoned in as well as emailed and submitted through the site.
DP: Do you consider yourself a net artist?
AM: At the time, people started calling me a net artist, but I don’t believe in such categories. I think that, as an artist, you have to be aware of your use of each medium. When you work on a project, the medium is the last thing that you should choose. Come up with concept, process, context, and then figure out which medium would be best to realize this with.
DP: Could you give some background on Randolph Street Gallery?
PT: Randolph Street Gallery (RSG) was an artist-run space in Chicago, founded in 1979. I started working there in the mid-80s. It was run by artists, directed by artists, and served artists. Many people who worked there were fulfilling many functions: artists as organizers, artists as activists, and artists as curators as well. It was active in the visual arts as well as in installation, public art, and performance—one of the first performance art zines, P-form, was published out of RSG for over a decade.
DP: How were you introduced to The File Room?
PT: When we invited Muntadas to do an installation in our back-room installation space, he in turn suggested creating something in virtual space. There had always been an interest at Randolph Street Gallery in working with artists who were addressing the public sphere. What was particularly interesting about Muntadas was that he had a very sophisticated and longstanding commitment to addressing issues of power, but with The File Room, he created a project that was more of a platform than a sculptural installation.
From what I understand, it was a project he had been wanting to do for a while but hadn’t had the tools or the format to do so. In a sense, it was an ideal project for RSG because we wanted to serve in a catalytic capacity to help artists realize their work. It became a much larger project than we had initially anticipated due to the knowledge base that was required to develop the site, research the cases, and actualize submissions.
DP: Could you tell me about the research teams?
PT: In many of the projects we had been working on, artists were centrally involved in the labor of producing their own projects. Instead, what Muntadas proposed was creating a platform for other people to participate in. This approach was consistent with his notion of creating an open-submission archive with cases of censorship from around the world and across time. Paul Brenner, the gallery’s exhibitions director, managed both the censorship research team and what turned out to be a crucial relationship with a team of computer researchers, and Muntadas came to credit Paul as a co-creator. At that time, these computer researchers were at the very early stages of developing ways for HTML to not only communicate with different computer platforms around the world, but to also support images in addition to text. In fact, when we started on the project, the World Wide Web was not yet an open standard, and Mosaic had not been fully developed or released.
DP: What is Illinois’s significance in the history of the early internet?
PT: When the internet was established, it connected a number of nodal points housed at different universities across the United States. One of these key points was at the National Center for Supercomputer Applications (NCSA), a research institute at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. It’s interesting because Urbana is in the middle of farmland and their traditional strength is in agricultural sciences, but they were also a crucial node in the early internet. At the University of Illinois in Chicago, the Electronic Visualization Lab was a center for some very forward-thinking individuals with one hand in computer science and the other in the arts. A team of graduate students there helped us to visualize how The File Room could exist online, eventually partnering with NCSA students at Urbana to craft the site—which was, at that time, a huge task.
As the site was being built, RSG and Muntadas made contact with people who had experienced censorship, gathering and re-formatting their materials in a consistent way. The first installation of The File Room was at the Chicago Cultural Center, a downtown space with a very open democratic profile. The space was housed at what had previously been the main public library in Chicago, so it was nice having the history of the public library in the background of the project’s first installation.
The physical installation that was first at Chicago Cultural Center and subsequently moved to Randolph Street Gallery was composed of a darkened room with black file cabinets lined on all sides. Every so often, opening a file cabinet drawer would reveal a monitor and keyboard. There was also a table in the center of the room with a computer terminal. It was like being inside of a vault.
DP: Was the internet an interest of other Chicago cultural institutions at the time?
PT: This project felt precedent-setting. It was a perfectly ironic application of the web—to create this open-source online library of censorship.
PT: Yes, because The File Room was subverting the definition of censorship—whether artistic censorship, political censorship, or freedom of expression censorship—as depriving things of their form. The project made these things as accessible as possible. In this sense, it wasn’t just a technical project, but also a conceptual one that questioned and challenged authoritarian power.
DP: Muntadas mentioned how important the installation was in providing access to the website.This seems paradoxical now, but home computing was not popular at the time. Did people start contributing from around the world or was that slow to get started?
PT: Contributions were somewhat slow to get started and we were concerned about how to properly maintain the consistency of those contributions. As I recall, a decision was made to put in place a vetting process rather than letting anyone immediately access the database.
Additionally, online access was slow, especially if you were trying to access images and media clips. The File Room was something that people would utilize by both contributing to and drawing information from, and it felt in some ways that the concept was more powerful than the actual applicability of it.
DP: How was the decision made to move The File Room out of Randolph Street Gallery and into the hands of other cultural institutions in Chicago?
PT: A few years after The File Room was created, Randolph Street Gallery closed. Muntadas’s artwork was a public resource that was imagined to be neither owned nor controlled by RSG—or any single entity, for that matter. There was a sense that we had helped Muntadas to realize this project, and that we had the responsibility to help it continue into the future.
Q: Where does The File Room fall on the timeline of the early web? How accessible and usable would a site such as this one be in 1994?
A: In 1994, the web existed, but it was in its very early stages. As far as I know, the version of The File Room that exists in our archives was remade in 1998 because its earlier version wasn’t really automated—there was lots of handiwork involved. Apparently, you would submit something and then they would work to put the page up. But I’m not sure because nobody actually knows anymore, no one remembers.
Q: Could you tell me a bit about the conservation and re-staging process?
A: At first, I started making a static web archive. I think that this would have been a viable strategy, because of how participation is thought of in this project—it is very much bound to a certain time of the web and of web culture. For example, in 1994 not everybody had access to the web, and those who did usually got it through universities. These people were more educated, and less likely to swear or write nasty things on the web. Today, we have a different situation. So, while Antoni Muntadas appreciated the static archive approach, he stressed that The File Room is a project with participation at its core.
To preserve this dynamic aspect of the site is more challenging. You would need to constantly update a server so as to avoid it being captured by some worm—or whatever the latest threat is. It might even be the case that, in the future, unencrypted HTTP traffic is not accepted by any browser, or that everyone switches to IPv6, or that the web doesn’t exist at all. All of these kinds of problems would require extra maintenance in order to enable The File Room to accept submission, enter them into a database, and display them on the site.
Instead of dealing with the details of how the site is actually coded and fixing or migrating it every time it breaks, I put the whole server into an emulator. This encapsulation is an abstraction: the question that remains after is "can i make this emulator run again" and "how do I connect to it," instead of sweating over the things that go on inside of it.
This streamlines the problem of maintenance, as lots of other projects use the same emulator. A key goal in digital preservation is reducing the number of problems. The File Room was written in ColdFusion, a scripting language popular in the early 90’s and that I would strongly advice against using today. If I had taken on the project of fully learning that language, I wouldn’t have finished the conservation process by now. Of course, I did have to fool with the project's code a bit in the end—but the idea is that I will only ever have to do this once, and from now on will be maintaining the emulator.
DP: You hinted at how web-based open-submission platforms might have been different in the 90’s because there was limited access. Are there other differences as to how these platforms were viewed in early web culture versus how they are viewed today?
DE: It is interesting that this project utilizes the internet and is against censorship, because at the time it was made, the internet felt like a place where you could be free from all of those constraints. Everyone who was interested in fighting censorship would go on the internet, because it would be the most effective tool to connecting to your peers and making plans without the police watching. Now you could say it’s the other way around—today’s internet has a great deal of surveillance, which is a major part of censorship. In some parts of the world, the internet is very much under the control of the government.
That is also why I think this work is so historically important, because works from this time would often represent the net as a very utopian space. Utopians said that the internet would remain a totally free space for everyone, and dystopians said it would become totally controlled. In a way, they both were right—the web became more accessible, but access to an internet free of corporate and government control still requires a lot of technical savviness. However, I think it’s good to look at how far we have actually come with that utopian ideal, how silly it was, and what utopian ideals we are living with now.
Antoni Muntadas, The File Room, courtesy the artist.
DP: In The File Room’s introductory notes, Muntadas emphasized the subjectivity of the project’s own editing process. How necessary to this platform is the moderation process?
DE: I asked Muntadas, “How much spam does the project actually get—how many robots, fascists, misogynists…” He said that it didn’t get much, and I couldn’t believe that. This moderation process existed in many projects from the early 90’s. For instance, even a mailing list only scales to a certain number of participants before it calls for moderation. Thinking at an even larger scale, a search engine is all about moderation. Even more important than showing, what a search engine is really doing is hiding things from you—it could show you everything in the world, but its value is in how and what it hides.
DP: The project utilized teams of researchers at each location where it was housed. At first, I dismissed this practice as a solution to the lack of web access that existed at the time, but this organized research still exists today. For instance, Wikipedia edit-a-thons are organized to improve the site’s information on topics such as feminism and art, as well as to narrow gender and race gaps in the makeup of the site’s contributions.
DE: Yes, these researchers are exactly a form of maintenance. Wikipedia edit-a-thons are such a good example since, of course what these events are literally providing is access to the net, but more importantly, they are providing a framework for how and when to use it. So, if you don’t think about the web as a thing but as more of an activity, then it is easy to see the importance of these events.
DP: What are your thoughts on the viability of open-submission platforms? How might we imagine solutions to the problems of scalability and inclusiveness?
DE: I’m very much for the idea of open submission. It is just important to learn from successful or unsuccessful platforms in the past: what was the turning point for the system? When did it fall apart or when was it taken over by a certain group? There are lots of ideas about how to prevent this, but the solution is never a flag that you can implement technically—“Click here to agree that you will not act like a terrible person online”—that doesn’t work. There is also the proposal, “If all these anonymous internet trolls would have to show their drivers license before they could access the web, then they wouldn’t spew all this hatred.” This, for example, is the foundational idea behind Facebook. But you can see that this hasn’t solved anything; you can see that people post the most horrible stuff under their real name.
When you uploaded a video to Youtube in 2010 or so, they hit you with the line, “Hey, let’s keep this place fun and clean.” Unfortunately, that means different things to everyone. And at the moment, we are at this point with that platform where videos get randomly censored and deleted by some unpredictable network that’s supposed to be enforcing copyright law.
Setting a tone of inclusiveness on platforms is difficult to do by design. There have been many attempts to create community values in code, or to allow a user-base to design their own values with up-votes, stars, or likes. But you can’t design a system that involves this kind of democratic interaction that won’t privilege the voices of those who have the most time on their hands. This is the case with Wikipedia as well as open-source culture, free software culture, and so on—who can really afford to donate their talent for free? This is why I think that projects like The File Room and Wikipedia made use of events for research, to consciously build both the content and the culture of the platforms.
3. “Introductory Notes to The File Room” http://thefileroom.org/documents/Intro.html